THE OLD BRICKYARD ROAD QUARRY
The world begins with a gaze, impromptu,
The first light endlessly divisible,
Starless, submerged in vapor, unscored, loosed,
So that one does not think of proportion,
Abrupt edges, magnetic poles, remnants,
Or, for instance, the quality of mercy,
Or the maker. To dispense with narrative,
To let go of the ledger, the inventory,
The ten-thousand stains where blood redeemed,
Is to believe in the dream's irrational
Counter-history, the limestone scree,
The said and to-be-said held in solution,
The weight a body takes on, inch by inch,
As it's pulled from the quarry's clouded water,
A body bloated, radiant. Jade-tinged. Pearl.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I believe I started this poem in the late 1990s—1998-1999. This poem started as most of my poems start with words, images, and half lines jotted in notebooks:
Poles, equinox, sallow
Jade axe, jade coffin
The world begins as a gaze
Things like that and I look and see if I can find a way to start speaking, to bring these unlikely things into a whole.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I am not sure how to count revisions. Much of the language in this poem had many different shapes before it ended up in this iteration—eight or nine, at least. And then there is the fiddling—changing a word here and there, reconsidering the lines as interval of sounds, as units of meaning. I remember there were some versions in couplets, but those seemed clunky and heavy-handed.
Three or four years elapsed between the notebook entries and the poem showing up in the book Oracle Figures (Ausable, 2003).
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do not believe in inspiration.
I think that there are times when things do open up before one, as if a gift from some unknown source, but those times are usually because one has prepared oneself for writing—reading, thinking, note-taking, conversation, meditation, brooding, daydreaming, fretting.
One gets to a time and space where one has the chance to write (for me that is usually the summer months when I am not teaching) and all that preparation makes the poem that ends up getting made possible.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
From the start a four or five beat line seemed the normative length of the lines. When I am writing quickly, which is often what early drafting is for me, I tend to write lines between seven and eleven syllables. The tercets felt like the right stanza almost from the start, creating a nice counterpoint between the two headlong main sentences in the poem and the cataloging habits of the lines.
When I begin almost any poem, I find myself counting something—syllables, beats, words—because I want the lines to be a space I can work within. This initial count is often adjust or abandoned as suits the poem that begins to take shape.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 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 do not have any rules about when to send poems out. I tend to send them out when I have finished working on them. Sometimes that is within days, sometimes many months. This poem I think waited a couple of months and saw a little tinkering here and there before I sent it out. J. D. McClatchy at the Yale Review was kind enough to give it a home and let it find its first readers.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I have written about the old brickyard quarry in several poems over the years—an old abandoned brickworks near where I grew up. The quarry had filled with water and we used it as a swimming hole. When McClatchy accepted the poem, he commented on its “abstract nature,” and it is the most hermetic poem I have written on this subject, and yet it is direct as well—the image at the end is not just a figure, but a story I remember as if it were yesterday. A teenager diving from the quarry’s sheer edge missed the water’s edge and broke his neck and the body sunk into the water and had to be retrieved. He must have been swimming there alone in the evening and it was only the following day he was discovered.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
At this time I was reading Stevens, Milosz, Ondaatje, Brigit Kelly, and others. I am not sure about influences, but I do think each of these poets has a meditative habit that I hope is in evidence in this poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I imagine a reader who loves all the poets I love, but even more so.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem when it was still in process? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
At this time a group of poet friends read all my poems: Steve Schreiner, Allison Funk, Jeff Hamilton, Jason Sommer, and Jennifer Atkinson. An eclectic group and as a result I received great commentary from readers who might not love all the poets I love.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This is question probably best answered by someone else.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I hope it is finished, and then abandoned, given up and over to reader. The act of making the poem is the most intimate relationship I have with a poem. In re-reading this poem to answer your questions, I find myself curious about what formal, philosophical, and aesthetical concerns were haunting me back in the late 1990s. For all the assertions in the poems, I sense that much that gets said is really in the form of a question.