Saturday, September 20, 2014

Jon Davis

Jon Davis, Director of the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). Two chapbooks, Thelonious Sphere (Q Ave. Press) and With (a collaborative poem) (Firewheel Editions) were released in 2013. He is also co-translator of Iraqi poet Naseer Hassan's book Dayplaces, which is forthcoming from Tebot Bach. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Lannan Literary Award, a G.E. Younger Writers Award, and a Lavan Prize. He is currently the City of Santa Fe’s fourth Poet Laureate.



GIRAFFE


When the midnight phone rang,
my friend’s voice kept trying
to say the word hysterectomy, that
one-word melody with ancestors
stalking the madhouses of nineteenth-
century England. I was, of course,
moved, more by the simple
failure of elocution than the illness —
which was a factoid in a slick
magazine. Like learning that a giraffe
has seven neck bones, that a bat
will eat a ton of mosquitoes
in an average year. Hysterectomy.
Abstract as a memo from the President
of Nocturnal Congestion. The dishes
shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator
hummed its cryogenic folksongs.
The budgerigar honked and chittered
in its night-shrouded cage. I wrapped
the phone cord around my finger
like a man wrapping a phone cord
around his finger. The voice
in the telephone. The voice in
the telephone. I kept hearing
appendectomy, lobotomy, laparoscopy.
The sadness soaking into the words
like hand cream. The words thick with it,
bloated. Seven neck bones. Imagine.
Like you. Like me. But the miraculous reach.


When was this poem composed? How did it start? 

This poem was composed around 1997. I don't remember too much about the actual composition, except that it began as a parody of a certain kind of poem of which I disapproved and thought too formulaic, too clever, too superficial. I had actually invented a persona, Chuck Calabreze, to compose such poems. (Though "invented" is too strong a word; Chuck shambled up the walkway one afternoon and offered his services.) "Giraffe" was composed, along with four similar poems, in one morning, in about an hour. I allotted myself (as Chuck) fifteen minutes for each poem. The poem started with the impulse to demonstrate how easy it is to write such poems, the formula for which is to enter into an associational state, indulge a kind of "household surrealism," and move quickly to an ending that seems both beside the point and to the point. 

To my surprise, two of the poems I wrote in that hour eventually appeared in Preliminary Report. (For those keeping score, "Black Spaniel & Drunk Parents" is the other.) I kept coming back to "Giraffe" because of the surprise of the ending and the sounds of the lines, "The dishes/ shifted in their dishwater nest. The refrigerator/ hummed its cryogenic folksongs./ The budgerigar honked and chittered/ in its night-shrouded cage."

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

I changed nothing. This is the first draft. I allowed myself fifteen minutes from typing the first line, to finishing it, to affixing the title.

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

Although I'm typically a reviser, I'm mainly a tweaker and a tightener, a line-breaker and a refiner -- not an overhauler. I believe absolutely in inspiration. I suppose if I thought there was a problem with American poetry it's that beginning poets believe too much in inspiration and experienced poets believe too little in it.  This poem was entirely received. No sweat. No tears. No loss of bodily fluids at all. I think of Andre Breton speaking of surrealism: "The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him." And: "The ease of everything is priceless."

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

The technique was all in the twenty years of practice prior to the poem's arrival. For me, craft is learned on the practice court. The poem is the game. You catch the ball on the wing and you know you can hit the jumper, drive left or right, hit the runner or take it to the rack, or make the quick pass to the cutter. If you've been practicing, all the options are there, the skills sharp. Of course, no matter how well prepared you are, you make bad decisions, bad passes, or--you're open, your form is solid, but you still clang the rack rim. In those cases, luckily, in the slow-moving game of poetry, you can revise--and I typically do. The small adjustments usually continue for two or three years.

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

The fact that it began as parody and turned out to be a real poem was unusual, though it happens occasionally. The fact that I did not revise a word is highly unusual.

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

I think about four years. It appeared in the Iowa Review in 2001. For the longest time, I didn't know whether it was a "real" poem or not, so it just floated from stack of papers to stack of papers. I'd install it in a book manuscript, then remove it, then reinstall it. At some point, when I got enough distance from what I thought I'd done, I began to see what I'd actually done and accepted its poem-ness. 

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 a rule. I wait until the the poem is ready, and that varies from poem to poem. I don't feel a strong impulse to publish until I get close to having a finished book manuscript. I always have Donald Hall's curmudgeonly admonitions from Horace in the back of my head: "Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years." The opposite of Breton's permissiveness. And also necessary.

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

Giraffes indeed do have seven neck bones. Bats do, indeed, eat a ton of mosquitoes in an average year. Everything else is a fiction, though the fictions do have emotional correspondences in the real world. I've gotten all sorts of terrifying telephone calls, late night and otherwise, over the years.

Is this a narrative poem?

I suppose there is a deflected narrative at the center of it. My friend Dana Levin says I engage a "Poetics of Avoidance." I keep telling her it's a "Poetics of the Cautious Approach." I think Dana is correct. Dana is usually correct.

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

A group of poets who shall remain nameless, since the poem began in parody. The lesson I wound up relearning was to trust inspiration. To accept the gifts. To trust the associative imagination. To trust Breton's "incredible ease"--at least sometimes. My concern about the "incredible ease" became an embrace of the "incredible ease." Or at least a recognition of how often the poems I love best are the ones that occurred despite my intentions, not because of them. (It's interesting now to note that the line about the phone cord is a much diminished version of a famous Pablo Neruda line.)

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

An intelligent reader who finds 90% of what passes for "culture" to be too blustery and extroverted? That might be the reader I think of. Someone on a crowded bus staring into the pages of a book as if the real world could be found, could be somehow reignited, there. 

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 tend to work over my poems mostly in isolation. When I'm close to finishing a book manuscript, I usually run the whole manuscript past Arthur Sze, Greg Glazner, Dana Levin, and Santee Frazier

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? 

My poems are, to my ear and eye anyway, so various that there's no central style or form or voice to differ from. Some of my poems let the dog off the leash, let it romp a while, then clip the leash back on and head home. This is one of those poems. Not all of my poems are so permissive. Not all of them end up at the dog park. Not all of them romp in the wet grass.

What is American about this poem? 

The obsession with fact. The telephone call. The focus on individual, local tragedies, because we've been largely exempted from many of the concerns that other populations face everyday--trying to find enough food and clean water, trying not to be killed by another group of angry or hungry or fanatically religious people, etc.

Was this poem finished or abandoned? 

Chuck Calabreze left it on the doorstep. I discovered it. Gave it a good home. An education. A snappy outift. 


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rebecca Hazelton

Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and winner of the “Discovery” / Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2011, and Best American Poetry 2013.


Book Of Memory

In my seeing there was a blank and he filled that blank
with words, there were words for darkness which made it lift,
there were words for cover which ripped them off,
there were legs that crossed and hearts that crossed,
promises red and read, and the pluck of banjo had a name
for that twang, and the way he called the world into notice,
that had a word, too. Once I saw I couldn't unsee
and the worst was that the light glaring from the letters
left blue haze under my eyelids. There are no photographs
of this time and I can only go by what others
tell me: I was blurred and erratic, I drew a circle
of white chalk around me and called myself inviolate,
I watched for horses on the horizon, my walls
were under siege from smaller men who called themselves
heroes. They say I reached over the balustrade and picked
up the tiny ships and threw them over the edge of the world.
I tore my hair, cut one breast from my body and plattered it
as around my fortifications one man pulled another man
behind his chariot. If they say that's how I was,
that's how I was. I have no words for the one in the mirror
who apes me every morning. She's not the one I remember
imagining as a young girl. There must be a way to unsee
how I tap the glass and she taps back, and which wall,
which Cassandra weeping—everything I saw I spoke to his ear,
and the wall crashed into place between us, the horse
had a bellyful of it, the blank was full of small soldiers,
and he turned from my beauty and said my name.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was composed during my fellowship year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when I was the Jay C. and Ruth Halls poetry fellow. I was overdue for a gathering and was trying to rush out the door when I got the idea. So half the poem was written standing over my desk.

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

This poem is a little unusual for me in that it didn't go through many drafts at all. The few changes it had were mostly in terms of punctuation, and a bit of compression here and there. Between the first draft and the final was a year, but you wouldn't see substantial changes between those drafts.

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

I don't believe in "inspiration" but I have had the experience, as with this poem, of having a poem arrive almost fully formed. But what looks like inspiration is entirely the result of sweat and tears—if I hadn't spent my time tearing apart other poems, revising, scrapping, recasting, then I wouldn't have the skills necessarily to write a successful poem in a go. Besides, that sort of occurrence is a rarity—if I sat around waiting for it to happen again, I wouldn't have much to show for myself.

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

It wasn't conscious at first, but eventually I knew I wanted the poem to function as a kind of avalanche, to overwhelm the reader with history and image. That's why the poem is long-lined, and one thick column—it's monolithic.

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

Not really—I spoke it aloud as I wrote, which is typical for me if the poem is sonically driven, as this one is.

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

I'm not certain—sixth months? It was picked up by AGNI fairly quickly after I sent it out, which was very happy for me, as I admire AGNI a great deal.

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 wouldn't say I have rules about this. When I write something I'm proud of, I'm very full of myself immediately afterwards, and I have on occasion let that feeling get the better of me, and sent out work that wasn't fully formed. But editors are smart—they reject that work. As I've gotten older, I do that sort of impulsive submissions less—both because I have a little less energy to throw at submitting, but also because I've come to recognize the value of polish and thought. Poems might sit several months, get a revision, and then get sent out, or, poems might sit for a year. Some poems don't go out, of course, because I never feel they are up to snuff.

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

It's a poem that is interested in myth, which are fictions we find useful in illuminating and explaining ourselves. The actions of the Trojan War have always fascinated me, but I've always wanted to know more about the women caught up in it—Helen, Cassandra, Briseis. Their untold stories could make the stories of "heroes" look small in comparison.

Is this a narrative poem?

Apparently not. I once met up with a poet I admire a great deal, and who tends to write along narrative lines, and this poem made the poet … uncomfortable? I'm not sure what the reaction was, exactly, because she was far too classy to let it really show, but this was not a poem that made her happy, nor did she really know how to respond to it. To me, it's narrative, but it's a very associative narrative, one that flits across memory and legend. A lot of the book is concerned with there not being a true story, and this poem hints at those concerns.

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

I was reading Richard Siken, Inger Christensen, D.A. Powell,  and Julianna Spahr, among others.

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

Sometimes I'm writing a poem to a particular person—especially if it's an intimate or emotional poem. But most of the time, I'm not thinking of anyone in particular. The poems in the latter camp typically turn out better.

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've been fortunate to have a number of generous readers—Matthew Guenette took at look at this, as did Nancy Reddy, Jacques Rancourt, and Brittany Cavallaro once it was in manuscript form.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

 It's designed to be a bit of a deluge—images stacking and stacking until it all breaks over or down. That's not my typical tactic with a poem, but something I do on occasion, especially when I'm interested in conveying a certain kind of simultaneity.

What is American about this poem?


An American wrote it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Jennifer Habel


Jennifer Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Blackbird, The Common, Gulf Coast, LIT, and other journals. Her chapbook In the Little House won the 2008 Copperdome Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, she’s the coordinator of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.




THE AGE OF TONE

I can’t stop talking about the moon,
for example. Tipping the stroller to watch
them smile at the sickle.
How she wants to find dead butterflies
beneath the nonindigenous flowers
as Mosaics and Cloudless Sulfurs
dodge our camera phones.
Or the dozen piglets nursing from                 
their enormous mother, tugging                                 
and stomping as she snorts with pleasure.      
Some grandparents don’t see well,
I read aloud in the doctor’s office.
Or hear. Or walk. Or breathe.
She knows her toys aren’t alive. She thinks
when our dog dies he will become a toy.
I wanted to watch the piglets
so I found the disk in the unlocked safe. 
We filmed swarming chickens, insatiable goats,
a donkey with a dorsal cross.
No pigs, but a long afternoon
on our weedy lawn. Celestial
skin segmented by shade. 
Wanting a memory, I booked
a room in the strange chalet.
Tell your husband to lift the painting
and throw the breaker, the old Frau said.
Mold, the rain never stopped. In the painting
a chaise supports a woman’s arms
which support her forehead.     
I love Vermont! they screamed, jumping
on the bed. We ate cold fries,
held our books beneath the one lamp.
All night the heat clicked on. One woke,
woke the other, woke again.
No one in the whole invincible world knew
where we were.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Probably in 2009. The poem began unusually (for me) in that it began with an idea. Something to do with a way of characterizing a time of life—the time of being a parent to young children—and something to do with tone. I can’t remember more specifically. Tone felt like a problem to be solved in writing about motherhood.

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

There were a lot of drafts. I probably wrote it over the course of a few weeks, but was tinkering with it at least a year later.

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

The analogy of the writer to an in- or out-of-shape athlete works for me. When I’m writing regularly I have moments of what I think could be called inspiration. These are flashes or clearings that feel “received.” When I’m not working regularly those moments don’t occur.

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

I always felt the poem as a single stanza with lines of the length it has.

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

Nothing was unusual about the way I wrote it, but it did begin unusually (see what I said earlier about being prompted by some sort of an idea).

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

It appeared in my book, which was published in 2012. So about three 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?

It varies. I’ve settled into not thinking about submissions during periods when I have time to write. I used to send things out sooner than I do now.

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

Much of what is described in this poem actually happened, but I don’t think that matters. The poem doesn’t seem to be gaining any energy or charge from the fact that its contents may be “true.” On the issue of fact and fiction in general, I like Louise Glück’s essay “Against Sincerity” in which she distinguishes between “the actual” and “the true.” The artist, she writes, “surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of the truth.”

Is this a narrative poem?

Not primarily, though it’s one of the most narrative poems I’ve written. I’d say there’s a story inside the poem—the story of a night away—but that the poem itself holds still.

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

Years ago I consciously tried to learn how to use fewer connectives in my poems. I remember studying single stanza poems in Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And HerSoul Out of Nothing and Jorie Graham’s Erosion in this regard. I wasn’t reading those poems when I wrote this one, but I think they influenced it in terms of movement and form.

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

This may sound weird, but my audience is myself. I’m trying to make the poem sound right to me, trying to make a poem that I can live with. When I’m done writing one, I’m also done being its audience. The poem recedes and eventually seems almost unrelated to me. I love that.

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 husband, Chris Bachelder, reads my poems. I needed, and got, help on my manuscript from poet friends, and I’ve learned certain things about my poems from certain people over the years. MariaHummel, for example, taught me about my openings, and Lisa Olstein taught me about my endings. Earlier versions of this poem had extraneous lines at both the beginning and the end. I credit Maria and Lisa with my knowing to lop those off.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s longer than many of them and, as I said before, more narrative. Those two qualities might not be unrelated.

What is American about this poem?

Looking at the poem now, I notice examples of commodified experiences in it. People paying to self-consciously experience something.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I’ve over-thought this one. I think the answer is “both.”

Saturday, January 4, 2014

John Poch

John Poch is Professor of English in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. His collections of poems are: Dolls, (Orhises Press 2009; Two Men Fighting with a Knife (Story Line Press 2008), which won the Donald Justice Award; and Poems (Orchises Press 2004), a finalist for the PEN/Osterweil prize. The Essential Hockey Haiku (a poetry/fiction collaboration with Chad Davidson) was published by St. Martin’s Press in Fall 2006. He is a co-editor of the poetry anthology Old Flame: From the First Ten Years of 32 Poems Magazine.


TWO ROOMS

On the high tin ceiling in the temporary room,
if you are patient, you can see where the panels
come together and, at the curved fleur-de-lis border,
the overlapping edges strained by weather and time,
the arbitrary network of cracks in the layers
of paint just like the patterns of minuscule cracks
up close in an old Flemish painting in a museum
once you look past the still-life at the very medium.
Above the ceiling, you know there are wooden beams
to which the tin is nailed. If you could see them,
the pine would be crude, but you accept the purpose
holding it all together and up, as a soul holds the body.

This morning, in the next room, the two porn actors
are not acting. They are making love the best they know.
For a while she cries out a rhythm quietly
while he is silent. Before they woke I heard
five distinct birds outside in the eucalyptus understory,
a garbage truck, a stirring, and then this flesh.
I hate and love them and think I know the dark house
they are headed for, the numb odor of old ink,
the room of needles and no thread and no one
finally watching, late understanding, but they don’t
want my worry. They want to feel the black of space
and sharp stars and answer to no one with a visceral art
never done exactly this way, an art that you, the viewer,
become lost in and take for an interim heaven, and look
and look, art that is, in this counterfeit way, a kind of beauty.     


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem at Headlands Center for the Arts while I was an artist in residence there in May-June 2007. It began one morning when the couple in the room next door were having sexual relations at a very audible level. 

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

I probably revised various phrases and lines for a year or two, off and on, like most of my poems, but this poem found its way into its finished form in a fairly short amount of time. Maybe a month. I had written most of it by the end of that morning.

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 as the act of breathing in, preferably clean air with a good amount of oxygen; I don’t recommend it as an act for making poetry. It seems silly to me to think that if you take in air in any special way (deep breaths, eyes closed, legs crossed, etc) that poetry will come to you. Poetry comes in through the ear rather than the nose. This poem certainly came in through the ear via the sound of flesh and strange non-linguistic utterances. Under the door and into my ear. And I didn’t specifically desire to hear these noises. I wasn’t wanting them at all. I wanted silence, actually, so I could hear the muse. I don’t sweat much when I write, though I do ache from sitting in a chair because I have something wrong with my back. Nevertheless, I still sit myself down in a chair or sprawl out on the floor to get the work done. It is work to write a poem, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasure. I don’t cry tears over very much that I write, but I do sometimes tear up over other work I wish I had written, poems that move me.

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


By form, I suppose you mean these two rooms, these two stanzas and the length of the line. I usually write in a slightly shorter line. Iambic pentameter is a natural phrase length for me. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe I was writing about the room itself, the beautiful high ceilings and the space I was in, and the space beyond my walls, outside. Those birds and the garbage truck.

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

Not especially. But I’ll say I didn’t want to write about it. I’m certainly not eager to write about pornographers or sex because I feel like that would be something “intriguing” or “titillating” and I’m not out for those cheap thrills. I care about the art of poetry, and not the subject matter. But I bore witness to the event, and some phrases that I liked came to me, and these seemed like poetry, so I wrote them down to begin. 

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

It appeared in the Cincinnati Review in 2012.

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 try not to send anything off until a good first draft has set for at least three months. But there are exceptions. I have poems that I finish in one sitting (rare) and poems that I have been working on for fifteen years (rarer).

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

I used to write poems with a lot of fiction in them. I wanted to spice up the problems and the events because my life seemed dull. But I have found that I have plenty to write about now, and creating a fictional world or event for my poem usually isn’t necessary. And I write short fiction, as well, so I’d rather try and keep these two genres separate, though both still veer over into the other territory. The truth is imagined certainly, and the imagined is true in its own way. No?

Is this a narrative poem?

No. This is a lyric poem. My definition of narrative is movement through time and space from one point to another. This poem, I believe, operates in the lyric moment. It isn’t exclusively about the music (I don’t strum the lyre, ever), but I do highly value the sonic repetitions and variations.

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

I can’t remember, but looking at this now, I see hints of the descriptive nature of both Elizabeth Bishop (subtle) and Charlie Smith (outlandish). And maybe even some Yeatsian grandiloquence mixed with the flat matter-of-fact.

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

Like Auden claimed, my friends and the poets I admire are my audience. More importantly, God. By this, I mean that I want it to be true and beautiful, but not a sacrifice. God doesn’t demand a sacrifice but praise.

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. I have two or three other poets to whom I show my work. They are gracious and tough. I prefer tough, though it’s nice to hear a compliment. I have learned to wait until it is fairly well-formed, though. I used to bother people with very new and awfully flawed work. 

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s oddly abstract at the end. I’m not sure I’ve earned it. And it is very judgmental.

What is American about this poem?

Whitman and Dickinson. And Poe, the voyeur.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I believe every poem I’ve ever written could be better, but at some point I run out of ideas, and I need to move on to something else, or I will end up hating the poem and poetry. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lynne Knight

Lynne Knight’s fourth collection, Again, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2009. Her previous collections are Dissolving Borders (Quarterly Review of Literature), The Book of Common Betrayals (Bear Star Press), and Night in the Shape of a Mirror (David Robert Books), plus three award-winning chapbooks. A cycle of poems on Impressionist winter paintings, Snow Effects (Small Poetry Press), has been translated into French by Nicole Courtet. Knight’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2000, and her awards include a Theodore Roethke Award from Poetry Northwest, a Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, an NEA grant, and the 2009 RATTLE Poetry Prize. She lives in Berkeley, California.


TO THE YOUNG MAN WHO CRIED OUT "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" WHEN I BACKED INTO HIS CAR

I was thinking No. No, oh no. Not one more thing.
I was thinking my mother, who sat rigid
in the passenger seat crying, How terrible!
as if we had hit a child not your front bumper,
would drive me mad, and then there would be
two of us mad, mother and daughter, and things
would be easier, they said things would be easier
once she went to the other side, into complete total
madness. I was thinking how young you looked,
how impossibly young, and trying to remember
myself young, my body, my voice, almost another
person, and I wanted to weep for all I had let
come and go so casually, lovers, cities, flowers,
and then I was thinking You little shit for the way
you stood outside my window with your superior air
as if I were a stupid old woman with a stupid old woman
beside her, stood shouting What were you thinking?
as if I were incapable of thought, as I nearly was,
exhausted as I’d become tending my mother,
whom I had just taken to the third doctor in so many
days, and you shouting your rhetorical question
then asking to see my license, your li-cense, slowly,
as if I would not understand the word, and the lover
who made me feel as if I never knew anything
appeared then, stepped right into your body saying
What were you thinking? after I had told him, sobbed
to him, that I thought he was, I thought he was,
I thought we would—and then my mother began
to cry, as if she had stepped into my body, only years
before, or was it after, and suddenly I saw the whole
human drama writ plain, a phrase I felt I had never
understood until then, an October afternoon in Berkeley,
California, warm, warm, two vehicles stopped in
heavy traffic on campus, a woman deciding to make way
for a car trying to cross Gayley, act of random kindness
she thought might bring her luck then immediately—
right before impact—knew would be bad luck,
if it came, being so impure in its motive,
and then the unraveling of the beautiful afternoon
into anger and distress that would pass unnoticed
by most of the world, would soon be forgotten by those
witnessing the event, and eventually those experiencing it
while the sun went on lowering itself toward the bay
and gingko trees shook their gold leaves loose
until a coed on the way home from class, unaware
a car had backed into another car, unaware of traffic,
stopped to watch the shower of gingko, thought of Zeus
descending on the sleeping Danaë in a shower of gold,
and smiled over all her own lover would do
in the bright timeless stasis before traffic resumed.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in 2009, long after the event, almost thirteen years after the event. It was triggered by my hearing Camille Dungy read a poem (not her own) about a pickup, I think an accident with a pickup, but I remember neither the poet nor the poem’s title. I didn’t feel anything particular when I heard Camille read the poem, beyond liking it; I mean, I didn’t feel any spark going off in me as sometimes happens when something triggers a poem. But the next morning, when I sat down at my desk as usual, this poem poured out.

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

I revised the ending a bit a month or so after writing it. I know Virginia Woolf said that writing is revision, and it’s something I always told my students, but I think different writers have different ways of revising. My “revision” usually takes the form of writing a bunch of bad poems before I get to the actual poem. There’s no formula; sometimes it takes five bad poems—they’re not poems, at all; I call them exercises—and sometimes it takes fifty or more. But I generally know if something is or isn’t a poem by the time I’ve finished writing it, and then my revision process usually consists of changing a word here or there, or cutting extraneous lines. With this poem, I changed some words toward the end.

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, but I don’t think we should sit around waiting for it. If it happens, it’s a gift. But it can be a gift we’re not ready to accept if we haven’t been practicing to use it. I always resort to sports metaphors when I think about this subject. I think Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, just to take two of my all-time favorites, are both inspired athletes. But think what would happen if they just waited, without practicing at all, to feel “up” for a game or a meet. We wouldn’t even know their names. And the ones whose names few of us know, the lesser athletes—even they can’t play the game or swim the race without practicing.

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

I write in form quite often, so I always know when I set out—after the first line—whether I’m heading into a formal structure or free verse. When I’m working in free verse, I listen to the rhythm and the music—or listen for them, I guess is more accurate.

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

I wrote it as fast as I can type. But I’d written countless poems about my mother and her dementia by then (in fact, a whole book of them, and then more), so I think it’s fair to say that I wrote this poem in “real” time in twenty minutes or so, but in fact it took me thirteen years to write it.

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

I wrote the poem sometime in the spring, March, I think. I sent it out in June, and it was published in December. It won the 2009 RATTLE prize.

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 try to observe the rule I made up after having embarrassed myself by sending poems out that I’d written the day before or, gasp, the same day. I call it the Fast Track to Shame Rule. 

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

I don’t feel bound by fact when I write a poem. I believe all poets and fiction writers sometimes have to lie in order to tell the truth. But as it happens, this particular poem happened pretty much the way it says things happened.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. I know narrative poems have fallen into disfavor is some circles, but I happen to love narrative. I think it’s at the heart of all art—painting, music, fiction, poetry. I love story. I want to know where I am when I’m reading. That doesn’t mean it has to be someplace familiar. But I don’t want to feel as if I’m just adrift in words. I once heard a poet say, by way of introducing the poems about to be read (I’m avoiding telltale pronouns here), that we shouldn’t struggle for meaning; we should let the words wash over us like a warm bath. And I thought, I can take my own warm baths, thank you very much. I want to know what you think, what you see, what you dream. Not just the list of words that happened to drift by. I’m exaggerating to make a point.

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

I don’t remember whose poems I’d read at the time of writing this poem, apart from the poem Camille Dungy read, the one I can’t really remember. But in general, I can name my influences: Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Frost when I was in high school; Rilke when I was in college. Stevens, but not all of Stevens. I concede his genius, but sometimes I find his poems so abstruse I might as well be reading a code I can’t crack. Sylvia Plath. Any woman my age was influenced by Plath, and after her, Sexton. But the two that really insinuated their voices and music into my mind and body were Eliot and Rilke.

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

My sister’s a great reader, as were our parents. In fact, my mother wrote poems when she was young, and when we were young, she sang poems to us, poems she’d memorized and created her own melodies for, or poems she just made up as she went along. So, to get back to the question: I consider my sister my ideal reader. First of all, she actually does read my work. If she doesn’t understand it (and this happens more than I like), then I regard the failure as my own. I don’t want to write poems that an intelligent, well-read woman who happens to be a lawyer not another poet or writer doesn’t get, at all. I don’t want the response to my work to be, Huh? What the hell is she talking about?

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’ve been in the same poetry group for over twenty years. Our numbers have dwindled, but we meet once a month. It happened that I didn’t show them this poem, but I do regularly rely on them for criticism, which I trust, which is always useful.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, I think it’s more successful than many of them.

What is American about this poem?

I hope nothing. I really hope nothing. And it’s not because I don’t want to be identified as American. I just happen to think that good poetry transcends its country of origin. Even if a poem’s particulars identify it as being of a certain country, I think those borders dissolve when the poem does what it should do, or at least what I think it should do and what I work every day to make mine do—speak directly to the human heart.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I think Valéry was right: they’re all abandoned. Even a villanelle as seemingly perfect as Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” was, I’m sure, abandoned. That’s what I love about writing: I always feel there’s more I could do, a higher level I could reach, even as I know I’ll never reach it. No matter how many villanelles I write, I’ll never get close to the perfection of “One Art.”

But it’s self-sabotaging to look at it that way. It’s silencing. The dreams I had of fame and fortune when I was eighteen are obviously not going to come true. They were foolish, anyway (fortune? poetry??!). What really matters is the writing. I feel really, really lucky to be able to get up every day, walk my dog, sweep the decks, and write. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

David Bottoms

David Bottoms' first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump, was chosen by Robert Penn Warren as winner of the 1979 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. His poems have appeared widely in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper's, Poetry, and The Paris Review, as well as in sixty anthologies and textbooks. He is the author of seven other books of poetry, two novels, and a book of essays and interviews. His most recent book of poems is We Almost Disappear. Among his other awards are both the Frederick Bock Prize and the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, an Ingram Merrill Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has served as the Richard Hugo Poet-in-Residence at the University of Montana, the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer at Mercer University, and the Chaffee Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Atlanta, where he holds the Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at Georgia State University. A book of essays on his work, David Bottoms: Critical Essays and Interviews edited by William Walsh, was published in 2010. He is the recipient of a 2011 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, and for twelve years he served as Poet Laureate of Georgia.


ON CANTRELL'S POND


1.
When I was a boy there was a pond behind our house,

a muddy pond of stunted catfish
that eventually filled up with construction runoff --
a mosquito hole, fetid,
wallow and paradise for copperheads, rats, moccasins, frogs,                           
and no few turtles that could take off your finger
with one surgical snap,                                                                      

and at night, year round, the stench rose thick
and seeped in waves
through the cracks in my window
where I’d curl like a snail at the foot of my bed, drifting
on deep breaths, far back.

I’m always dreaming my way back to water:

to a washed-out logging road
plunging to a river                                                                                         
where high buzzards recon the kudzued pines,
to a cove on a lake of monster gar, a tumbling creek
of killer rocks, a sky-black swamp choked with cypress
where I wade out knee-deep with my rod and rattle-bug
and never, in my exhaustion, out run
the cottonmouth

that blesses my heel with its flower.                           


2.
Why all of this middle-aged noise about getting back?

Though, for sure, in the mornings the leafy banks rustled
with birds –

blue jays and cardinals, a towhee or two,
robins, thrashers, and dozens of barn sparrows

mobbing the dam where our neighbor, Mr. Cantrell,
crumbled biscuits for his fish,

and in the summer the forest of sunflowers
nodding in the wind at the edge
of his garden,
and the rose bushes crawling the bank
from the brush dam to his tool shed
all the way up to the chicken house collapsed
in a thicket of briars.                                                          


3.
But out here, in middle-age, or a mile or two beyond,
why all this hubbub about beginnings? 
And why only one brief dream
of that pond
when now there’s no other way back?

Or only a way back to kudzu and concrete,
to a Kentucky Fried Chicken where our house once stood,                      
a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut,
an oily gas station, and across the highway
a Kmart strip mall, a Waffle House
where my grandpa once grazed horses.

In my dream the sky was a loose tumble of charcoal,
the silky trees bare and trembling.
Tall grass bit my ankles.  I lifted my feet,
I had some place to go.  Then brush stalks shivered
as I stepped off the bank
and began to walk, carefully,
not on water, but on the parched bed
of an empty pond
cobbled entirely with turtles.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I think this poem was written in 2009, and it came out in a issue of Tri-Quarterly guest-edited by Ed Hirsch. It was during a time when my father was very ill, and I was thinking a lot about my childhood in Canton, Georgia.

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

Several revisions, I imagine, though I don’t really recall. I usually tinker for a good while on a poem, working on it here and there for several months. 

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

I’m a strong believer in inspiration. That is I believe the idea comes from somewhere beyond the writer or so far inside the writer that it seems to come from an altogether different source. I don’t recall exactly what sparked this poem, but I had been thinking for some time about the lost landscape of my childhood – my grandfather’s country store, his barn and pasture, our house a hundred yards down the road, all of which has been paved over and replaced by a Kmart strip mall and various fast food joints. Very frequently when I try to get to sleep at night my mind wanders back across that landscape, and it seems very strange to me that those places exist now only in my memory and perhaps in the memories of a few other people. 

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

No conscious principles except an effort to make the poem very readable.

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

About a year, I think. I was trying to finish my book We Almost Disappear and this was the first poem of three in the final section. I sort of kept them all back as a unit, then Ed Hirsch asked for something for an issue of Tri-Quarterly he was guest editing, so I sent them all along.

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?

Years ago, when I was just starting to publish, I’d get them out almost immediately. I was in a real hurry, and that resulted in a lot of rejections, of course. These days I’m in no hurry. A poem might sit around for six months or so.

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

This is an odd poem for me because it’s one of the very few poems I’ve written in which I incorporate elements from actual dreams. I think two dreams came into play here. The image of the pond cobbled with turtle shells is from a dream I had maybe twenty years ago. It was a dream about our neighbor’s pond, which was much the way I describe it in the poem. Also about the time I left home to go to college, the pond started filling up with construction runoff and eventually dried up. The other dream was about fishing out in a swamp and being bitten on the heel by a snake. I had that dream several times some years ago.

Is this a narrative poem?

It certainly has narrative elements.

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

This I don’t recall.

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

Not really. Just a careful, intelligent reader.

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, I don’t think anyone saw this poem before I sent it to Ed Hirsch. 

What is American about this poem?

Most everything, I suppose. It has an American landscape, and it was written by an American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I’d call it finished. Though it has a somewhat softer ending than most of my poems.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Alex Dimitrov

Alex Dimitrov is the author of Begging for It, published by Four Way Books. He is also the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City. Dimitrov’s poems have been published in The Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Slate, Poetry Daily, Tin House, Boston Review, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize in 2011. He is also the author of American Boys, an e-chapbook published by Floating Wolf Quarterly in 2012. Dimitrov is the Content Editor at the Academy of American Poets, teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, and frequently writes for Poets & Writers.


THIS IS NOT A PERSONAL POEM

This is not a personal poem.
I don’t write about my life.
I don’t have a life.
I don’t have sex.
I have not experienced death.
Don’t take this personally but
I don’t have any feelings either.
The feelings I don’t have don’t run my life.
I have an imagination. I’m imagining it now.
This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
This poem stole that line from John Ashbery.
This poem wants you to like it,
please click “like.”
This poem was written during a recession.
I’m so politically conscious
the word “politics” is in my poem.
This is not a New York poem.
There’s not enough room for all the wars in this poem.
Gay marriage is now in this poem.
Have you liked this poem yet?
It was written in 2011 in New York and posted 11 minutes ago.
Would you sleep with the poet who wrote this poem?
Would you buy his book? Click here.
This poem loves language.
This poem has slept with other poems
written by poets who love language.
All poets love language.
Let’s talk about language while people die.
This poem cares a lot but wants you
to think that it doesn’t really care.
The speaker of this poem may have been
born in a former Communist country.
It may or may not matter.
I had an orgasm before writing this poem.
I have my sunglasses on while reading this poem.
Everyone is going to die
please don’t take it personally.
The world. The world.
The world is blood-hot and personal.
I stole that line from Sylvia Plath.
Put your money on this poem.
I love the money shot.
This is not a personal poem.
This poem is only about Alex Dimitrov.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This is my favorite poem I’ve written. The first draft happened on August 12, 2011 before a Wilde Boys salon with CA Conrad and Dorothea Lasky. Conrad had asked me to record a poem for his Jupiter 88 video journal and I wanted to write something new. I was at this store in the Lower East Side, waiting to try on a shirt, and the cashier said, “please don’t take it personally,” to the guy in front of me, who had been rung up for the wrong amount. That exchange between them triggered something and I thought, “well yeah, everyone is going to die, don’t take it personally.” And that phrase more or less became what sparked the poem and it also found its way in it. So I started writing all this down in the Notes section of my iPhone, and I was in the dressing room, it was very hot, my friend Rachel was waiting for me and there I was, practically standing with my mouth open like I’d been drugged or something, typing out lines that were coming to me when I was supposed to be trying on this shirt. And you know, I was thinking about what it means to try on anything—a personality, a life, a boyfriend. And what does it even mean to write a personal poem? What does it mean to be a person at all? In any case, I didn’t try on the shirt. I typed out all of those questions and then came out and just bought it (I like that shirt a lot actually, it has these nice white sleeves but the body of the shirt is black. It has an 80s little boy charm). Then I went home and drafted the poem in two hours. Half an hour after I finished writing I recorded it for Conrad. And you can watch that video of me reading it here.

The poem is dedicated to CA Conrad because he’s a witch and his invitation to record something for Jupiter 88 is one of the things that inspired what I wrote. It’s a radical act of magic any time a poem happens. With this one that felt especially true.

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

I changed maybe four or five lines after the first draft. This poem came to me almost entirely as itself. Which rarely happens. And when it does, you know something is…working.

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

Sometimes you struggle with a poem for weeks and weeks and the poem never happens. And you abandon it. And as a result of having struggled—what I mean to say is, that struggle isn’t for nothing—something unlocks, a blockage clears, which allows you to write into something else entirely. Not the poem you were trying to write. But a different one. That’s what happened with “This Is Not A Personal Poem.” I had been trying to write a love poem, and I wrote something new, in a different voice, something that surprised me.

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

I don’t know, but thank god for my iPhone right? And thank god for the internet. I had to google those Ashbery and Plath lines on my phone, in that dressing room, to make sure I was remembering them correctly. And then I was led to a different line of Plath’s than the one I had originally intended to use. A better line. So, the internet helped me write this poem. I would like to thank the internet.

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

Well I don’t really expect to make art while I’m shopping. But this is America. Anything’s possible.

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

Craig Teicher accepted it for publication in The Literary Review in the summer of 2012 and it was published in early 2013. I’m grateful to him. Like I said, this is my favorite poem I’ve written.

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 depends on the poem. The last six months I’ve been writing what I feel are different poems for me and it’s taken a while to figure out that voice. It’s taken a while to even come up with titles for those poems. So I’ve been letting them sit and then I read them over once in a while and add something here or take away something there and then let them sit some more. But I’m very impatient. So I’m surprised that I’ve been able to do this.

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


There’s so much more than fact and fiction. Everything in between the two is more interesting. And fact and fiction don’t really exist as pure entities. So who cares.

Is this a narrative poem?


No, it’s a personal poem. Everything in it is true. It came from my real life.

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

I was listening to Elvis Presley and collecting jpgs of Paul Thek paintings.

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

Well sure, I’d like Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber to read my poems.

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 one saw drafts of this poem. Sometimes I send drafts to Jameson Fitzpatrick and Soren Stockman. They’re both studying poetry in NYU’s Graduate Creative Writing program right now and I think they’re fantastic poets. But it’s more for the purpose of sharing. We share poems with each other. It’s not a workshop or anything. I can’t wait for both of their first books whenever they come out.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?


It’s like when Warhol started painting the electric chairs, you know? Something different happened.

What is American about this poem?

Everything I hope.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I don’t know but it was a party and it didn’t really care who came. Ashbery came and Sylvia Plath and Alex Dimitrov. That’s what I love about this poem.