Friday, February 24, 2017

Ellery Akers

Ellery Akers’s collection, Practicing the Truth, won the 2014 Autumn House Poetry Prize, the 2015 IPPY Silver Medal Award for Poetry, and the 2015 San Francisco Book Festival Award. Her previous collection, Knocking on the Earth, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News. She is also the author of a children’s novel, Sarah’s Waterfall. She has taught writing at Cabrillo College and at conferences and currently teaches private poetry workshops in Marin County, California. An award-winning visual artist as well, Akers exhibits her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums nationally.



HOOK

One year a general
packs the dead arithmetic in a drawer—
all the subtractions, divisions.
The next year, vines cover the bunkers.
The brain resumes its starbursts of rehearsal.
The heart leaps under the defibrillator.
The bone eases into its socket.
Skin grows back. Scars fade. Eyes clear.
Look at the trees at the burn, six years later.
Look at the sprout on a hay bale
on a truck. Look at the woman who was raped,
had her hands cut off in a creek:
She’s getting married.
The choir sings. The bride smiles.
The groom slips a ring on her hook.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This was a 9/11 poem. I wrote it in September of 2001, after hiking in an area in the Marin hills that had been burnt in a fire. I’d been thinking about war, and noticed that the hills, which had been scorched and black, had turned green again, and that made me feel more hopeful about healing, regeneration, and the possibility of peace. Other elements entered into the poem; I noticed a green shoot growing out of a hay bale. I read several magazine articles, one about 9/11 medical crews, and one about the wedding of Mary Vincent, the woman I refer to in the poem.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

About eight revisions. I brought it to my writing group four times, and after six months, I felt it was finished. This version was called “ Healing” and had two lines that mentioned healing. I sent it out, but no one accepted it, and I put it a drawer for ten years. In 2011, I took it out again, realized that explicitness was not serving the poem, cut the lines about healing, and sent it to Poetry, who took it. Christian Wiman, the editor at the time, wisely suggested changing the title to Hook, and I agreed. I’d been attached to the idea of healing—that some things can be healed, while others can never be healed and can only be mourned—but the word itself was not serving the poem.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

If inspiration means taking dictation from the muse, and ending up with a perfect draft, then I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in quantity. This poem was a result of forty two pages of free-writes. I looked them over and circled the good lines and stuck them together. I usually get about 1 out of forty pages of junky free-writes that has energy, or sometimes, just a couple of lines. I feel my job is to fail, and to enjoy failing, and pile up masses of material. I see it all as play. I like to trick myself with the same exercises I give my students; I find the concept of “exercises” is a freeing one for me that liberates me from trying to write well. I often “mistranslate” from the Swedish, or put ten strong verbs on the top of my page and try to include them in the poem. In this case the verbs  “pack” and “slip” made it into the final draft. 

However, I did I experience inspiration once: I wrote a long poem that was “given” and had a hard time writing fast enough to keep up with the outpouring. But again, that was after writing thirty pages of junk: the gift happened on page thirty one. I’m also a visual artist, and have the same low average in painting. My hunch is this is fairly normal. I love what Eavan Boland says: “ I always think of myself as working on a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal…. Unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.”

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I tried to get the creek, truck and hook slant rhymes close together in the poem. And I had a hard time with the beginning. Nothing worked until I leafed through my old notebooks—I never throw anything away—and found an old free-write on healing that had never coalesced into a poem, but had some good lines. I inserted them into "Hook" and was able to make the beginning work.

Was there anything unusual about how you wrote this poem?

I don’t often use old material in a new poem.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About five months.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem.

It varies, though I never send anything out without my writing group looking at it. Sometimes a poem, like this one, will sit in a drawer for years before I’m able to look at it with a cold eye. Sometimes I’ll send it out within a few months.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates between the two?

Except for the first four lines, almost everything else is factual, though I imagined myself into the wedding scene and added a few fictional details.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading a lot of classical Chinese poems about war, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s “ I lived in the first century of world wars,” Blas de Otero’s poem, "Fidelity," and magazine articles about 9/11 and Mary Vincent.

William Stafford had a big influence on me—I was lucky enough to work with him briefly—especially when he said, “Inspiration doesn’t lead to writing, writing leads to inspiration” and “lower your standards.” I love his books about writing, Writing the Australian Crawl, and Getting the Knack.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don’t write with anyone in mind. However, I like to feel my poems are accessible enough that anyone could understand them. I’d be pleased if someone who didn’t ordinarily read poetry chanced on a poem of mine and enjoyed it.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Yes, my writing group of forty years. I’m grateful to these wonderful writers, and if they tell me to cut something, I take it out. Sometimes, though, I have to add something to make a poem work and then I read Stafford again, who says, “You have to learn to say welcome.” He made me realize that well of creativity never runs dry; one can always get more.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I write a lot of poems about war or climate change, subjects I care passionately about, but often they’re too high-pitched to work as poems. 

What is American about this poem?

It was inspired by 9/11, by an American wildfire, and by Mary Vincent, an American hero of mine.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Brian Patrick Heston

Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, the Lanier Library Association, and River Styx. His first book, If You Find Yourself, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. He is also the author of the chapbook Latchkey Kids, which is available from Finishing Line Press. His poetry and fiction has appeared in such publications as West Branch, North American Review, Harpur Palate, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.

OVERTIME

Gulls circle the Delaware, a fractured
creeping glacier since February.
Last week, beneath this illusion of land,
that boy was found lodged in water weeds,
the one who disappeared from his cold
crowded schoolyard pen in West Philly.
A cataract moon shimmered him just enough
to be glimpsed by some dock worker
drunk with exhaustion after a double shift.
The worker called 911 to report what
he thought it was, but couldn’t be sure
of what he saw. The dispatcher asked him
to look again and describe it, but he said, “no.”
A car was promised anyway, and the worker
waited a ways off, shoving his chin
into his coat collar to protect against the chill.
But there was nothing to protect against
that silence where the dark place beckoned:
You must see what you think you saw.
So he returned to the river’s edge
where his boot-prints led down a steep slope
towards the shore. He stumbled carefully,
aiming his heels for the luminous places.
Then he stopped, and after trying not to see,
prepared to open his shut eyes and be sure.]


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was composed in 2014. It began as a scene that came to me in two lines “The gulls circle the Delaware’s dull mirror of ice. / Across that deadly illusion of land…” Both lines obviously went through some revision. Also part of the making of this poem has to do with my grandfather, who was a longshoreman along the Delaware for many years. He was retired by the time I became cognizant of what a longshoreman actually was. For this reason, I think I’ve always in some way mythologized that fact about him, especially since it’s become mostly a dying profession. I also once heard him at a barbecue talking about the bodies he would sometimes come across in the water. At the time, I thought he was just kidding everyone, which he often did when drinking. When I got older, though, I realized he probably was being serious. He worked on the Delaware River for over fifty years, so the odds of running into a body once or twice are probably very good.  

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Not many, which surprises me. I think three at the most. It started out with a different title and a more open form, which is the case with most of my poems. However, it seemed to take its true form very quickly, and the title became fairly obvious to me after someone telling me the original title was confusing. The biggest bit of revision came with the final line. At the time when it was being written, I was taking a workshop at Georgia State with Leon Stokesbury. He basically suggested some tweaking of the poem, especially the last line, which helped it arrive at its final form.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I only believe in inspired ideas. The actual writing down of an idea into a poem is something else entirely. Most of my poems and stories come through sweat and tears. I work, many times, for months and months on things. This poem is very much an outlier in that regard. It came out mostly fully formed in the first draft and became what it is now by a second. The third draft, which was mostly tweaking, became the final draft. So I guess you can say it was inspired. However, I think what is more the case is that I was trying for a long time to write about my grandfather working on the Delaware River. Words and lines had been percolating in my mind for a long time, and 2014 just happened to be the year that it came together.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

As I said, it began in a more open form, which is the way with most of my poems. What is also true of most of my poems, is that I always seem to gravitate toward a more consistent and uniform line. Many times I like a longer line closer to a prose sentence, which sounds much clearer to my ear. However, more open forms don’t tend to suit me. Seeing lines of varying lengths and breadths running down a page messes with my inner-obsessive compulsive too much. In this poem, meter is a little more pronounced, I think, and the line tends to remain closer to five beats. None of this, though, was consciously attempted. All I was really thinking about while writing it is making the situation dramatic and giving the language some music.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Nothing unusual, I don’t think. I usually write first drafts in a notebook, and then I type that draft on a computer. I then print the draft out and mark it up on paper. This process will be repeated until I feel the poem is ready. 

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It ended up in print faster, I think, than any poem I ever wrote. I started submitting it in April 2014 and it ended up finishing second for the River Styx International Poetry Prize. It appears in the January 2015 issue. 

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I don’t have any hard and fast rules on this, though I should. It all depends on the poem and its progress. If I really like something, I may send it off earlier than I should. Usually, though, I go through a bunch of revisions, which keeps the poem sitting for a few months before I feel ready to release into the wild.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I have very strong feelings about the notion of “fact” in poetry. I feel the beauty of poetry, or any art for that matter, is the ability to invent dramatic situations of either language or narrative. Now, the facts, if there are any, would be that my grandfather was a longshoreman and that he talked once about seeing dead bodies in the river. However, the poem itself is pure invention. I am not, obviously, a longshoreman, and I was very young when my grandfather actually worked on the river. I have visited the Delaware waterfront many times, but never the industrialized waterfront that my grandfather would have known. The poem is a fiction, and I proudly own that designation because I believe it allowed me to get much closer to emotional truth than if I had tried to stick to only real-life personages and events that actually happened.  

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, without a doubt. It has a main character. It has a dramatic situation in which a character wants something. The character takes action to achieve this want, which then changes him psychologically.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I am always reading something. Though, I can’t recall who I was specifically reading when I wrote the poem. Philip Levine and Elizabeth Bishop are always at work somewhere in my subconscious that’s for sure, as are Etheridge Knight, Jack Gilbert, and Raymond Carver.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I think people like those who I grew up with and people in my family. People who would be considered blue-collar workers. I know it’s probably a little idealistic to think people who don’t normally read poetry would be interested in my poetry, but those are the voices that inhabit me and probably will inhabit me until the poetry gods decide that I've said enough.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

My workshop at Georgia State saw this poem and were helpful as was Leon Stokesbury, the teacher of the workshop. My best reader, though, is Brian Brodeur, who I have shared drafts with for years. He’s pretty good with poetry but not with much else. Oh, he’s also good with beards. He’s a master of the beard. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t think it does differ. It tells a very definite story, which most of my poems do. It also has a certain formalism, which is also usually true of most of my poems.

What is American about this poem?

The rhythms of the language, the dramatic situation, and the landscape depicted. I think only an American working-class culture could produce such a poem.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished, I would say. So many others, though, are hopelessly abandoned.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Daniel Groves


DanielGroves is the author of The Lost Boys (University of Georgia Press/VQR Poetry Series, 2010). His poems have appeared in Paris Review, Yale Review, Poetry, and elsewhere.





A DOG’S LIFE

A stay of execution: one last day,
your day, old Everydog, then, as they say,
or as we say (a new trick to avoid
finalities implicit in destroyed),
you have to be put down, or put to sleep—
the very dog who, once, would fight to keep
from putting down, despite our shouts, a shoe
until he gnawed it to the sole, and who
would sit up, through our sleepless nights, to bark
away some menace looming in the dark.

Can you pick up the sense of all this talk?
Or do you still just listen for a walk,
or else, the ultimate reward, a car?—
My God, tomorrow's ride . . . Well, here we are,
right now. You stare at me and wag your tail.
I stare back, dog-like, big and dumb. Words fail.
No more commands, ignore my monologue,
go wander off. Good dog. You're a good dog.
And you could never master, anyway,
the execution, as it were, of Stay


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

The first draft was composed in the spring of 2001 for a graduate school workshop. It started from my seeing or hearing the phrase "stay of execution" somewhere, and inverting it in the manner of James Merrill—his Collected Poems had just been published and I was reading it at the time (the line "Change of clothes? The very clothes of change!," for example, appears in Merrill's poem "Dreams about Clothes").

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

It underwent two minor revisions—the first was a few months after it was drafted, and preceded its appearing in a journal; the second was a few years after that, and preceded its appearing in a book.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration, insofar as I doubt my own capacity for originality (let alone my capacity for sweat and tears). I suspect this poem was almost entirely "received."

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Its final form is the same as that of the first draft, save for the break between stanzas. I don't remember choosing to write it in pentameter couplets for any special reason, but my being used to writing in them probably helped me to finish the first draft rather quickly. I consciously employed the chiasmus that occurs in the first and last lines; I started from the notion of placing "stay of execution" in the first line and "execution of stay" in the last line, and the first draft was an attempt at imagining a plausible context for those lines.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

The first draft of it was written unusually quickly.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Just over two years.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

The practice varies, but I prefer to let a draft sit for a month or two before revisiting it with an eye toward sending it off.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

When I wrote the first draft our family dog whom I had grown up with was getting close to the end of his life, and that may have suggested to me the scene in the poem, once I had the phrase “execution of stay” in my head. But he wouldn’t be put to sleep for another year and a half ,and I wouldn’t be there when he was. Besides that, there is nothing about the dog described in the poem that particularly resembles our dog, even though I’m sure I must have imagined him while writing it.

Is this a narrative poem?

Slightly narrative—it might be called a dramatic monologue.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading Merrill’s Collected Poems, as mentioned. Also, I think the chiasmic structure of the poem owes something to my having read Howard Nemerov’s essay “Bottom’s Dreams: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes.”

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I think of a former teacher of mine, Greg Williamson, as an ideal reader. But most often I imagine that I am my own—only?—audience.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

The members of the workshop that it was written for saw the first draft of this poem. I may share work with a former teacher or classmate of mine once in a while, but not regularly.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It differs in being a version of dramatic monologue; few if any of my other poems feature a speaker addressing another character within them. It also, in my experience, elicits a more sympathetic response than my other poems, though I think that in its procedures—in how it proceeds by wordplay—it is more like my other poems than unlike them.

What is American about this poem?

The speaker’s attitude to his dog, and the dog-related idioms played with, seem American, maybe, if not exclusively so.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Euthanized?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Sheryl St. Germain


Sheryl St. Germain's essays and poems have received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay. Her poetry books include Going Home, The Mask of Medusa, Making Breadat Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and SelectedPoems. A native of New Orleans, she has also published one memoir and a collection of essays about growing up in Louisiana, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, and Navigating Disaster:  Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair, as well as a chapbook of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux, Je Suis Cadien. She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford BetweenSong and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, and most recently, with Sarah Shotland, Words WithoutWalls: Writers on Addiction, Violenceand Incarceration (Trinity University Press, April 2015). She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University.


ADDICTION
—In memory of my brother, Jay St. Germain, 1958-1981
The truth is I loved it,
the whole ritual of it,
the way he would fist up his arm, then
hold it out so trusting and bare,
the vein pushed up all blue and throbbing
and wanting to be pierced,
his opposite hand gripped tight as death
around the upper arm,

the way I would try to enter the vein,
almost parallel to the arm,
push lightly but firmly, not
too deep,
you don't want to go through
the vein, just in,
then pull back until you see
blood, then

hold the needle very still, slowly
shoot him with it.
Like that I would enter him,
slowly, slowly, very still,
don't move,
then he would let the fist out,
loosen his grip on the upper arm—

and oh, the movement of his lips
when he asked that I open my arms.
How careful,
how good he was, sliding
the needle silver and slender
so easily into me, as though
my skin and veins were made for it,
and when he had finished, pulled
it out, I would be coming
in my fingers, hands, my ear lobes
were coming, heart, thighs,
tongue, eyes and brain were coming,
thick and brilliant as the last thin match
against a homeless bitter cold.

I even loved the pin-sized bruises,
I would finger them alone in my room
like marks of passion;
by the time they turned yellow,
my dreams were full of needles.

We both took lovers who loved
this entering and being entered,
but when he brought over the
pale-faced girl so full of needle holes
he had to lay her on her back
like a corpse and stick the needle
over and over in her ankle veins
to find one that wasn't weary
of all that joy, I became sick
with it, but

you know, it still stalks my dreams,
and deaths make no difference:
there is only the body's huge wanting.

When I think of my brother
all spilled out on the floor
I say nothing to anyone.
I know what it's like to want joy
at any cost.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem was composed around 1987. I was in GalwayKinnell’s workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and I had asked him a needlessly complex question about craft, the kind of question a young writer asks a famous writer to show how smart she is. He listened patiently to my question, then said, “Just say what the truth is, Sheryl.” I began the poem that night with “The truth is I loved it.” I had been struggling to write about my brother’s overdose and my own use of drugs at the time, and Galway’s comments gave me a way into the poem.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts? 

I made a few minor revisions to this poem in the first months after writing the first draft, mostly tweaking line breaks and stanza breaks. I think I eliminated a few lines from the beginning as well. It’s extremely rare—in my writing practice—for a poem to come out almost fully formed. But this one did. I think that’s because I had been thinking about the issues for so long.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration, and in this case the poem felt like a gift. I did not labor over the actual writing of it as I have with other poems, although the subject matter of the poem troubles me, and still does.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I wanted the reader to move, almost without stopping, through the poem to its end, so I crafted line breaks and stanza breaks that supported that movement.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I wrote it, almost as if in a fever, during the space of a few hours.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

The poem first appeared in 1990 in The Taos Review.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

It does vary, but if the poem comes out of some kind of personal crisis—as “Addiction” did—I usually let it sit longer, as I don’t trust myself to judge whether the poem is good or not. One almost always feels a just-finished poem is better than it actually is, so I like to wait until the initial glow has worn off before sending it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

My younger brother and I did shoot up drugs—cocaine—while in the same room. My lover at the time had actually sold him the drugs. He did actually bring a young woman with him who lay on my bed and whose (workable) veins he had horrific trouble finding. So that part is true. We never shot each other up, though. Some have interpreted the poem to mean that we did so because of the dedication. There was, however, a closeness I had with my brother, a darkness that we shared, that I wanted the poem to suggest.

It’s not true—in the sense of “fact”—that I “say nothing to anyone” about my brother’s death—the poem itself clearly articulates much about the situation, and I am never afraid to speak of it. 

The poem is as true as I could make it in the sense of what I think Galway meant when he said “just say what the truth is.”

Is this a narrative poem?

I would call it a narrative lyric. 

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading Galway, Sharon Olds, Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman. I was inspired by their bravery and unflinching explorations of the human condition. 

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

At the time I wrote this particular poem I was thinking of readers who had never experienced the high that comes from shooting up drugs. I was thinking of readers who might believe we can “just say no” to drugs. I didn’t want to glorify drug use, but I wanted to empathize, to say “I understand.” Not to demonize addicts, who are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. I also wrote for readers in recovery, who might find solace in a poem that traces that descent.

In a more general sense, however, I think I write mostly for readers who are like me, readers who like the kind of poetry I like, who don’t shy away from subjects that might make some uncomfortable.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I shared a draft with the poets in my workshop at Squaw Valley. I do not, now, regularly share drafts with a specific group of people, although I sometimes will share a draft with poet friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I have to work very hard on most poems, revising over months and sometimes years. There are maybe four or five poems I’ve written over the course of my life that came to me almost in a rush, as this one did. Other than that, the craft and the darker themes it explores are very much in tune with the rest of my work.

What is American about this poem?

Its frankness definitely tags it as American, as well as the subject matter, the concrete details, the involvement of the “I” (as opposed to the kind of distanced narrator, abstract or free-wheeling surrealism one might find in non-American poems).

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Definitely.

Friday, November 20, 2015

George David Clark

George David Clark was born in Savannah and raised in Chattanooga and Little Rock. The author of Reveille (winner of the Miller Williams Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press), his recent poems can be found in the The Believer, Blackbird, Cincinnati Review, Measure, Southwest Review and elsewhere and his work appears reprinted at Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and in a variety of anthologies and special series. The editor of 32 Poems, he is an Assistant Professor at Washington & Jefferson College and lives in Washington, PA with his wife and their three young children.



CIGARETTES

It’s August, hot, and a newly-married
couple in Mobile have left the window
partly open to the night and road noise
while they make love on a futon in the dark.
After, as he breathes heavy on the pillow
beside her and a thin clear line of perspiration
seems to quiver on the white guitar
that is her belly, she sighs and says,
Oh, now I wish I had a cigarette.

He’s been thinking he should pull the sheet
from where it’s bunched along the floor
and it takes him a moment to understand
that cigarettes—which both of them detest
and she has never tried—are not her point.
She phrases it that way because pleasure
is complicated, more so perhaps than suffering.
It will augment and diminish, both,
not unlike the ancient priests who’d purge
the humid entrails of the pharaohs
and then bathe the bodies’ cavities
with myrrh and frankincense and palm wine,
freights of fragrance in the hollows after.
She means that monuments to rapture
should be light to carry and combustible,
toxic in small quantities even secondhand,
and with an odor that darkens one’s clothes.

Somehow he comprehends this vaguely.
It reminds him of a concert he attended
in high school, the massive outdoor stage
where the band played one encore, a second,
then mangled their guitars across the amps
and footlights: sparks, debris, electric howling.
Stoned and riding home with his ears fuzzing
in the back of a friend’s Topaz, he felt
invincible and fantasized a car crash.
He’d passed out then, and later, coming to
sore-throated and coughing on his parent’s porch
where the guys had left him, it was as though
some breakneck song—all glass and metal
in his mind—had wrecked around him.
He rose there slowly and limped out of it
the way a man emerges from a shattered
windshield, the live adrenaline already
funneling off, but with a few stray echoes
still looping through his chest like feedback.

Tonight on the far side of the room
the infinite lungs of the wall clock exhale
long gray minutes. Eyes shut, motionless,
his wife leans toward sleep. Her teeth
are tingling faintly, white but crooked
on the bottom row. She has clenched
and ground them during sex again
and now she guesses at the likelihood
of braces in her future when there’s money.
It is her habit to sweep the tender downside
of her tongue across the misalignments
where the frets of wire might someday run,
and for a moment her mouth becomes
the smoky back room in a downtown bar
where a struggling band from out-of-state
is just about to plug in their Les Pauls.
Nascent music crackles in the outlets,
jittering, almost perceptibly, the ashtrays.

A breeze sleepwalks the curtains back
into the room and out again. Back and out.
Her husband slides his heel along her calf
and starts to tell her they should set his legs
on fire (she could inhale while they kiss),
but no, she’s gone unconscious. Instead,
he pulls the sheet to their shoulders
and thinks, as he dissolves beside her, how
from a distance they would look like two
thin cylinders wrapped in white, their minds
these grainy filters in their heads. Asleep
before he gets to who might smoke them
and why, his breathing slows and deepens.
The room cools slightly. The traffic
lulls outside and the sex aroma dissipates
till only the air that cycles through their chests
is warmed and sonorous and redolent.



When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I must have started working on this poem in the fall of 2011 while my family and I were living in Upstate New York. I can remember pretty clearly wrestling with this one in my little office on the 3rd floor of Colgate’s Lawrence Hall—an incredible place to spend a year writing. My window looked out on one of the loveliest campuses I’ve encountered, complete with swans sailing back and forth on a little lake.

The seed of the poem was the line that I give the wife at the end of the first stanza. My own wife had said this (“I wish I had a cigarette”) a couple of times, though she too has never smoked, and I wanted to try to think through some of what that comment expressed.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I save and number my drafts, so I can see that “Cigarettes” went through twenty-six significant revisions over the course of about eight months before I first submitted it to a journal. The first draft of a poem is fairly excruciating for me, but I love revision, so I sometimes get stuck chewing my own cud. Even after “Cigarettes” was published, I continued to fiddle with the poem. Finally, with the help of Enid Shomer, my editor at Arkansas, I made a couple more important changes as I prepared the poem for publication in Reveille. In total, that makes about three years between the first draft and the final version, though there were seasons where it sat untouched.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Is it Auden who wrote that by “inspired” we mean simply that a work of art is better than we could reasonably expect it to be? I like that gesture toward demystification, but when I say I believe in inspiration I want to avoid suggesting that I mean simply a writer getting lucky. The workings of the mind are just such a mystery. I wonder if inspiration isn’t like some calculus we can’t fathom because in addition to the author’s preparation, its variables include the subconscious, the language itself, and even a spiritual element. Before I begin writing I like to spend a little time reading something that excites me. I also pray. I tell my students that in my experience the muse is most likely to respond when I court her with good writing and reading habits.

This poem certainly wasn’t “received”, but its “labor” involved more play than sweat and tears. You know how when you’re shooting “HORSE” with a friend on a driveway goal, you try all these ridiculous tricks (behind the back, off the windshield, nothing but net)? Every once in a while something implausibly goes in. Particularly with lyrics, poems have the advantages of highlight reels—all one’s best shots edited together with none of the air balls. Under such conditions a seemingly inspired performance really isn’t so impossible. The pleasure of revision is cutting away all of the uninspired mistakes, or at least as many as one can.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I’m trying to dramatize parallel thought processes in time, so one of the poem’s “formal” challenges was moving back and forth between consciousnesses. Perhaps the more difficult technical work in this poem however, was rhythmic. I wrote the first draft in blank verse, but eventually I wanted a bit more rhythmic flexibility. I think this poem wants to hide its blank verse roots without forfeiting the potency of that cadence altogether. A great deal of my energy in revision was spent trying to hear and hone that balance.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

This poem appeared in TheYale Review in January 2013, so almost a year after I first submitted it. It wasn’t truly “finished” though (in the form it takes above) for another good year and a half.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I’ll revise a poem every day until I can’t see the flaws anymore, but then I tend to fire it off pretty quickly. I don’t recommend this bad habit though, and it’s meant that I sometimes have to ask editors if I can make changes after things are accepted. These days I’m trying to wait longer. If I’m satisfied with a poem after I’ve left it completely untouched for six months, I can let it go without qualms. It’s just hard for me to set something I like aside for that long. On the other hand, I know that if I keep fiddling too long I can do real damage.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

There’s not a lot of fact in this poem, but, as I mentioned above, at least one line of dialogue is borrowed from my wife. I drove a Topaz in high school like this character’s friend, and I suppose the details concerning how the pharaohs bodies were prepared for mummification are factual. The rest is a fantasy.

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s narrative in the sense that time progresses (albeit slightly) and there is a sequence of events related by causation, but those “events” are really only thoughts and memories, and the poem actually seems more driven by the lyric impulse to depart from time and meditate on experience, rather than a thrust toward climax and conclusion.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

This poem owes its most direct debts to Robert Hass. As I struggled with the shape or “plot” of this poem, I remember studying the way Hass will leap away from his triggering subject for lyric texture and perspective. I think there’s also a rhythmic debt to Hass here, but I wasn’t as conscious of that influence while I was composing.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I would love it if a fan of Stevens, Eliot, and Moore enjoyed what I wrote. My ideal reader is probably pretty sensitive to a poem’s sound and has an affinity for the surreal.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

No. In the last couple years my first readers have been the editors to whom I submit my work for publication.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This is among the more narrative poems in Reveille, but I’ve written several others in this style recently. I try not to repeat myself any more than I have to, but the metaphysical subject matter here really represents an abiding interest.

What is American about this poem?

It certainly references American places and culture (though not exclusively), but I suspect the most American thing about this poem is its idiom. English speakers outside the States, and even Americans outside the Southeast wouldn’t write quite like this. Or I don’t think they would. Maybe another way of saying this is that I hope there is something of my place’s color in my words. I’ve lived outside the region for some time now, but I think of Georgia and Arkansas as home. I want a versatile tongue with many tones, but I also don’t want to completely lose my drawl, in my speech or on the page.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It’s finished. I think.