Monday, February 16, 2009

Ron Slate

Ron Slate was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1950. He earned his Masters degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973 and did his doctoral work in American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He started a poetry magazine, The Chowder Review, in 1973 which was published through 1988. In 1978, he left academia and was hired as a corporate speechwriter, beginning his business career in communications and marketing. From 1994-2001 he was vice president of global communications for EMC Corporation. More recently he was chief operating officer of a biotech/life sciences start-up and co-founded a social network for family caregivers. Slate is the author of two collections of poetry: The Great Wave (Houghton Mifflin, 2009) and The Incentive of the Maggot (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.


Invented by the British to annoy
the French, so said De Gaulle.
The Belgians are rude but live to please,

live by pleasing. Speaking languages.
Renting their houses.
They’re not rude, they just drive that way.

We dress for dinner
but the ambassador dresses down.
The western nations don’t understand each other.

Never to go to war with one another again.
Invented by the western nations
to annoy the Chinese.

Our ambassador dresses down.
It’s his wife’s birthday.
Staff of eight lives to please.

Herbert Hoover saved Belgium in 1915
with seven million tons for eleven million.
Saved Belgium from Germany and England

who misunderstood each other.
Hoover believed in uncommon men.
The ambassador is an uncommon man.

He and others come to Brussels
for reassurance, each voice will be heard,
each nation will achieve the goal

of living off all the other nations.
A relation of men dominating men.
Now it’s your turn, now mine.

The guards take a look under the limo
and wipe for traces of ill intent.
The European conscience is as clean as Antarctica.

Tiny pyramids of chocolate,
a dollop of chocolate inside.
We undress for bed, the ambassador

puts on his tuxedo pants, for fit.
I sign the guest book in the morning:
First it was your time to please.

Next time it’s mine.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote no poetry for almost 20 years until July 2001. “Belgium” was the first poem after that long silence. My wife, my mother-in-law and I took a trip to Europe after I quit my corporate job that June. In Belgium we were the houseguests of the American ambassador to the EU and his wife – friends of our family. He was a Clinton appointee waiting to be replaced. When we returned home, I started writing. The poem is typical of what I produced that summer – glib, jumpy, filled with miscellanea. Animated by the amazement of being able to write at all. Freed somehow to fix on its material in a nervous, insistent way. I started with the De Gaulle bon mot – and then annoyance became the subject and voice of the poem, how global politics is about people annoying and misunderstanding each other.

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

It took almost three years for this poem to settle and tighten up. Generally my work requires much revision, but this poem didn’t see much reconstruction. Mainly tweaking and deletions.

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

Passivity and intentionality, receptivity and broadcast – they seem to happen simultaneously when the going is good. There are lines in the poem that quote others without attribution, so that material is “received” in a way. “They’re not rude, they just drive that way” is the ambassador’s wife’s line (she drove us to Bruges). “Never to go to war with one another again” is the infamous appeasement line by Neville Chamberlain. Poems are slowly contrived, but they ought to seem sudden and even abrupt. Deliberation and delay at the same time. What Elizabeth Bishop called “a perfectly useless concentration.” Because the poet doesn’t know how things will end, his or her ability feels passive before that unpredictable conclusion.

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

I chose to write this poem in tercets in order to heighten the terseness – hoping that the tercets would suggest a straining for order, units of meaning – but also, an experience separated into event and reaction. Many of the threesomes are complete speeches, others resolve soon after. The tone of the poem more or less came naturally – that of a small man judging a very big contentious world. Candid and preposterous.

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?

This poem first appeared in The Incentive of the Maggot. I don’t send much poetry to magazines because I revise a lot and sometimes it takes a long while for the poem’s true agenda to clarify. Or for me to give up on cheap effects or offhand comment and attempt the more difficult thing.

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

Poems are selfish. Concerned only about themselves. They use information and myth, data and fabulism, for their own purposes. Poetry is a murmuring among and despite the facts. Wittgenstein: “Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.” “Belgium” is a catalog of facts, ephemeral and historical – not to convey information, but to suggest what a person sounds like when he tries to confront an entire world through an outburst, of language, memory and trivia.

Is this a narrative poem?

Insofar as the poem portrays an event (birthday dinner) and time passes to the following morning, yes, it’s a narrative, or better still, it contains a narrative element.

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

I was then reading Milosz, Kundera and Borges. Probably not influential per se.

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

When I gave my first reading of poems in The Incentive of the Maggot, one of my business colleagues approached me afterwards and said with self-satisfaction, “So that’s what poetry is like.” He got it. So I’d like the poems to work for someone like him. The new work for The Great Wave was written as if spoken to my teacher-friend.

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?

Louise Glück has worked with me since 2003, first on The Incentive of the Maggot, and then on the successive drafts of The Great Wave. Working with her has changed things in profound ways for me. Michael Collier, my editor at Houghton, is an incisive critic and has supported The Great Wave through completion. Floyd Skloot, an old friend and a wonderful poet and essayist, critiques my first drafts.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Its immersion in phenomena and history, the glibness of tone, the scope of its judgments, the peculiar transparency of the speaker – these are features of the first poems I wrote in 2001. Over the past few years the work has become somewhat more reflective in tone, more intentional in selection of its materials, perhaps more spoken.

What is American about this poem?

The American looks out at the world and feels at a certain oceanic remove, just like this speaker. The old histories between France, England and Germany are a nuisance, continually drawing in the Americans. “Belgium” is the American disparaging the power structures of Europe, now based in Brussels (the EU, NATO, etc). George Bush II had never been to Europe before his presidency, and then he went to Brussels. Herbert Hoover, uncommon and misunderstood, is a quintessential American man regarded as a hero by the Belgians.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. When completed, I sent a copy to the then ex-ambassador telling him I had dedicated the poem to him and that it would appear in my first book. He declined the dedication on professional not personal grounds, or so he said.


  1. Disparage the E.U all you want. The U.S was a European experiment that went well for a time. But we're richer than you now; and, judging by this, we have the better poets too.

  2. I like the interplay of the repetition in this poem. The conversational-ish style reminds me of how we might think out loud, how we might speak to one another when we're not even thinking, because it's the truth.

  3. Fascinating! I truly love the idea that animals are as we are or that we cannot know any difference for sure except for our side-effect destruction of the environment. The poem rushes to every emotion and there is a feeling of trying to catch one's breath in the excitement of the passion.