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.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Judson Mitcham

Judson Mitcham's work has appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Georgia Review, Hudson Review, and Harper's. He has published three collections of poems: Somewhere in Ecclesiastes, which won the Devins Award; This April Day; and A Little Salvation: Poems Old and New. His novels, The Sweet Everlasting and Sabbath Creek, were both awarded the Townsend Prize for Fiction. Mitcham has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. He taught psychology at Fort Valley State University for many years, and he now teaches creative writing at Mercer University. Mitcham is the current poet laureate of the state of Georgia. He lives in Macon with his wife, Jean. They have two children and three grandchildren.


THE MULTITUDE

The woman in the airplane wanted
to talk about Christ. I did not.
I raised my magazine. She continued, saying Christ
promised heaven to the thief
who believed while nailed to the cross.
The clouds looked solid far beneath. She began
the story of her life, and I stopped her
as politely as I could, saying please, right now,
I’d simply like to read. And for a while,
she did keep quiet, then she asked
if I’d ever really given Christ a chance, so I tried
telling her a joke, chose the one
about the Pope and Richard Nixon in a rowboat.
She discovered nothing funny in the story.
Jesus fed the multitude, she said. 
I looked around to find an empty seat.
There wasn’t one. She asked me if I knew
about the sower and the seed; about Zaccheus;
Legion and the swine; Mary Magdalene;
Lazarus; the rich young ruler. And I did,
I knew about them all. I told her yes,
sweet Jesus; got the stewardess
to bring another bourbon; tried to buy
the missionary one, but she declined. 
And when the plane set down,
I’d escaped up the aisle, made the door,
and started walking fast toward the baggage claim,
when I saw them, all at once, on the concourse:
thousands I would never see again, who'd remain
nothing in my life, who would never have names;
and I realized I'd entertained—strangely,
and for no good reason I could see—
the hope of someone waiting there
who loved me.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?


The poem came together when I combined elements from two other attempts at poems, neither of which ever seemed right, so it began as a reworking of other material. It appears that I first put it into my computer in 2002.

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

I write poems in longhand, and they exist first as prose fragments. I don't concern myself with lines until I have some sense of what the language of the poem might be and where it might be going. I don't mean by this that I hack up the prose fragments into lines, but that I tend to think things through in prose and then think things through again, but this time trying to find the right music for a poem. When I start putting the poem into lines, I tend to rewrite over and over from the beginning, so it's hard to know exactly what constitutes a draft. By the time I come up with something that might be called a whole poem, I've usually gone through many versions. Then I'll type it up and revise it on the computer. In this case, from the first typed draft to the published version, there appear to be eleven revisions.

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

I've always liked Pasteur's "Chance favors the prepared mind." I'm not sure I know what inspiration is. The feeling of inspiration has proved notoriously unreliable for me, and has not given me my best results. It seems to me that if you work hard at writing, work hard at seeing what language can discover, you are in the habit of trying out connections to see if they might mean something on another level. Sometimes such a connection comes to you, and perhaps you feel inspired, but it's probably unlikely that you would have made that connection if you had not been in the habit of working and looking at things in a certain way.

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

I didn't employ any formal technique. I tend to write lines of three or four beats. James Dickey talked about his "thump-loving American ear," and I guess that’s what I have. This poem seemed to work best without stanzas. Most of the lines end on words of one syllable, and in this poem, as in most of my poems, the last word of the poem recalls an earlier sound somewhere in the last few lines.  

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

I finished it while putting together the manuscript of my second book, This April Day, which had been taken by Anhinga Press, and I decided to include it in that book, which came out a year later.

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?

Well, I stuck this one right into a book, and it seems to have worked out all right, but my experience is that my poems are almost always significantly improved by my taking a fresh look at them after some time has passed. I go through long stretches of sending out nothing, even when I have poems that I think are finished. I'm under no pressure to publish, and the world is not clamoring for more poems from me.

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

I grew up in the Baptist church, reading the Bible and listening to sermons. My family would discuss scripture at length. We loved the old hymns, which are still a source of comfort and strength for me, as is the King James Bible. I’ve never encountered a proselytizing woman on an airplane, but it is true that many, many times in my life I have been presented with the Good News in an aggressive, accusatory way, a sort of hectoring piety. I did draw on the experience of sitting next to a woman on a plane and listening to her and her companion exchange smug assertions about the true nature of God. And I do remain, as I've been all my life, strangely dismayed by the understanding that the inner lives of other people are bound to be as vast and complicated as my own. William James has a wonderful essay on this phenomenon, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." The mystery of otherness is greatly multiplied in crowds, and where better to see a crowd than the Atlanta airport? Many times, I've exited a plane, walked out into the multitude, and felt an acute aloneness.

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 don't recall. Too many influences to name.

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


I think of other poets whose work I care 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 found it helpful to have one good reader look at poems that I think are finished, but not at early drafts, when the poem is still trying to become something. When I've shared early drafts, I've tended to become defensive, but if I think the poem is finished, if I think I have done my best, then I'm able to listen. I may not agree, but I'll listen to that trusted reader, and if changes are needed, I'll probably make them.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don't think it differs in any significant way.

What is American about this poem?

That might be for someone who is not American to say. I'm not sure I can step back and look at it in that light.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dora Malech

Dora Malech is the author of two books of poems, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Letters& Commentary, Poetry London, and Best New Poets, among other publications. She has served as a Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at Saint Mary’s College of California, in addition to teaching at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in New Zealand, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards that include a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Writers’ Fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.  In addition to writing and teaching, she makes visual art and directs the Iowa Youth Writing Project, a language arts outreach organization.


MAKEUP

My mother does not trust
women without it.
What are they not hiding?
Renders the dead living

and the living more alive.
Everything I say sets
the clouds off blubbering
like they knew the pretty dead.

True, no mascara, no evidence.
Blue sky, blank face. Blank face,
a faithful liar, false bottom.
Sorrow, a rabbit harbored in the head.

The skin, a silly one-act, concurs.
At the carnival, each child's cheek becomes
a rainbow. God, grant me a brighter myself.
Each breath, a game called Live Forever.

I am small. Don't ask me to reconcile
one shadow with another. I admit—
paint the dead pink, it does not make
them sunrise. Paint the living blue,

it does not make them sky, or sea,
a berry, clapboard house, or dead.
God, leave us our costumes,
don't blow in our noses,

strip us to the underside of skin.
Even the earth claims color
once a year, dressed in red leaves
as the trees play Grieving.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote “Makeup” in Fall 2003. I went back to the notebook in which I was writing at that time, and the poem keeps company with other lines and drafts of poems that grapple with similar materials (mortality, a shifting season, artifice, expectations, family).

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

I’m glad I went back and looked at my notebook to verify my response to this question, since I completely misremembered. Most of my poems (especially at that time) are the result of a magpie’s process of collecting shiny bits of language and observation. I go back through my notebook and begin the process of revision by piecing together these fragments, puzzling them into form. That was how I misremembered “Makeup” happening, but in fact, I basically wrote the first draft of the poem from beginning to end. It was definitely a rough draft, but its motion was there in its entirety. I think it must have been a month or so before that first draft went through a few more drafts to reach an almost-final draft, and I always keep worrying at individual word choices and so forth long after that.

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, but not in the sense of the poem as a “gift” from elsewhere (though I won’t rule anything out; I just don’t want to flatter myself that whatever or whoever’s “elsewhere” would give me the time of day). I suppose I think of inspiration as an incredibly active kind of attention, a radical receptivity. So while certain poems, like “Makeup,” come to me in a rough form but whole, I think they still require revision and work to live up to whatever “inspiration” or impulse occasioned their beginnings. I also think that “Makeup” in particular was a poem that I had been “working” on in my mind for pretty much my whole life, in the sense that its concerns came directly from my life. While we think of the “first draft” as the first words written on the page, a poem often starts gestating in the life and the mind and the body long before a word makes it to the paper. 

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

I don’t know how consciously I was making formal decisions, but I was definitely concerned with questions of form in general at that point in my writing life, and I’m sure that those concerns shaped the poem. Actually, I was just about to transition into writing much more “formal” poems (in the sense of “received” form or “traditional” prosody) a few months later, and I feel like I was already starting to explore in that direction. In my notebook, I have some notes a few pages before “Makeup” about stichic poetry versus strophic poetry, and I think the move to a stanzaic form in revision was something that was important to the intentions of the poem, in terms of exploring art and artifice, and employing rhetorical moves to build an argument of sorts.

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

Four years. The poem first appeared in the May 2007 issue of Poetry.

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 often wait for poems to have company before I send them off into the world. I don’t necessarily need to write three or four more poems “like” each other, but I kind of like to send poems out together that, if by some stroke of luck, got published alongside each other, would resonate in some way. So one poem might sit for a year or two waiting for kindred poems, but I don’t have any strict rules, just practicality and instinct in this regard.

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

I see this poem as fact. I mean, there’s personification, metaphor, and so forth, but I don’t know what to say besides that there are the way in which I tell the truth.

Is this a narrative poem?

No, I feel like it’s more in the kind of lyric, conceit-driven tradition of the Metaphysical poets. That said, there are definitely “characters” with needs and wants and fears and desires, there are conflicts of sorts (between individuals, between individual and nature, between individual and society), and there’s some sense of “resolution”; many of the “traditional” elements of narrative are there.

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


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

Well, if this poem is “fact,” as I just claimed, I’m talking to God about cosmetics. So there’s that.
Really though, an ideal reader for me would be anyone open to the possibility of pleasure in language and attention and uncertainty.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s less “dense” in terms of language and imagery than some of my other poems. It risks certain sentimentalities (writing about my mother; talking to God) that I should probably risk more often.

What is American about this poem?

The questions of artifice, presentation, and cultural expectations feel American to me. Also, I think Americans (and yes, this is an overgeneralization), are squeamish about accepting death and decay as part of a life cycle. We hide death away like it’s shameful. We pretty it up if we have to look at it at all.  Of course, there’s a loss and an estrangement there. That said, I don’t think poetry’s strong suit is getting up on a soapbox and espousing a firm opinion like “artifice is bad.” I write poetry to complicate my point of view, or dignify the world’s inherent complications. This poem entertains the possibility of a kind of redemptive artifice. (I mean, I think perhaps poetry’s a kind of redemptive artifice?) I’ve had people read this poem or hear me read it and tell me stories about a loved one who insisted on red lipstick on her deathbed; there’s often an eye roll or a smile that accompanies the story, but there’s something there that’s worth noticing. Now that I think of it, those stories haven’t all been from Americans, so perhaps it’s generational? Or simply human? “American” is as complicated as “artifice,” or anything else worth thinking about, I suppose.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

A bit of both.