Monday, April 13, 2009

Al Maginnes

Al Maginnes is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Film History (Word Tech Editions, 2005) a chapbook, Dry Glass Blues (Pudding House Publications, 2007) and Ghost Alphabet (2008), which won the 2007 White Pine Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely and he is the former recipient of a North Carolina Artist’s Grant. He lives with his family in Raleigh, NC and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.


In a strange town, maps become liars.
Landmarks get left out or lie more distant
than illustrations show. Roads sprout
and bend off the memorized route
and by the time you arrive, the courthouse
is dark and locked for the night.
A woman I know gives directions
in terms of what used to be there—Turn
right on the road where Jones had the store
that burned down
—assuming no distance
between her history and our own,
the way those who survive an event
are bound by it and a bit incredulous
the same mold has not shaped us all.
The lawyer stacking papers, the bailiff
locking each door he walks through,
the judge, his robe removed, pouring
the single drink he permits himself,
all remember the man awaiting sentencing
who seized an officer’s gun and swung
the barrel in a wide arc before pushing it
under his chin and pulling the trigger.
Seventeen years since then, and they never
speak of it, but if their eyes meet
in court or they pass in the hall,
they nod the casual greeting of those
who have known each other too long
for rank or ceremony. Last week,
the judge saw a man who had paid
to have the image of each internal organ
tattooed across his torso—heart, lungs,
liver. A car accident shattered him
and he lost a lung, a kidney, several yards
of intestine. His chest, road-mapped
by a maze of stitches, healed
into a scarred map of what was there
no longer. His crime was entering
the homes of women he thought he loved
and stealing small, unnecessary items.
When his sentence was given, he said nothing,
only limped from court. A woman
whose coffeepot he'd stolen studied
his movements, his silence, hoping
for some map to explain his actions.
If she sat in the judge’s chamber
to share his single shot of bourbon
or if the judge had come with her for coffee
she paid for and could not drink,
they would agree the sentence meant nothing.
It did not touch him, so it would not touch them.
The judge wouldn't tell her
that sometimes law and justice seem like towns
miles distant and sparsely populated,
invisible on most maps. That morning
he had hung up on a reporter who wanted
to write another story about the suicide
in the courtroom. The single time
she spoke to the man, he showed her
the inked outlines of his insides and smiled
with pride so bashful, she could not keep
her fingers from touching the broken skin
to feel what fluttered underneath, the muscle
of a heart working and untouched.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I believe this started in the late fall or early winter of 2004. I had the first line and the image of the man with his internal organs tattooed on his body. For me, a lot of poems come from the juxtaposition of two or three seemingly unrelated lines or images and trying to make them fit together.

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

This went through a lot of drafts, some in which I made only minor changes, others where I really moved things around. At one point the poem was a good deal longer than it finally appeared. I probably worked on this poem for a couple of months off and on—I’m always working on several poems at a time, so I don’t want to imply that this poem was my sole focus at the time.

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

I believe that inspiration happens, for me anyway, in getting poems started. Then comes the work of getting words on paper and changing them around. For me, writing poems is mostly fun, so “sweat and tears” might not be the right phrase, but certainly the bulk of any poem I write is the result of a lot of writing and rewriting.

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

Not really. The poem began and ended as a single long stanza. One of my quirks is that I like each line to be more or less the length of the one in front of it.

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 was published a year and a half to two years after it was written. Generally, once I think a poem is done, I’ll send it out. This particular poem bounced off of several journals before ending up in The Comstock Review.

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

This poem is almost entirely fictional. The woman who gives directions “in terms of what used to be there” is someone I know, but other than that, the poem’s events are made up. As far as fact and fiction in poetry, I have never had any compunction about inserting fiction into even an autobiographical poem. As one of my professors said once, “We lie our way to the truth.”

Is this a narrative poem?

I believe it is although I hope the narrative in the poem serves a larger purpose.

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

I read widely and unsystematically. I think I was reading a good deal of Richard Hugo, a poet I return to again and again, at the time, as well as George Looney and Christopher Buckley (the poet from California, not the novelist), whose work I was reviewing at the time. As far as influences, there are a lot of poets I love and return to over and over, but if I start naming them I’ll leave some out and feel bad about that later.

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

Not really. The idea of any audience is a bit novel to me. I’m still surprised when people tell me they’ve read poems of mine, even ones that have appeared in journals with a wide circulation or on a web site that gets a lot of visitors. That said, I’m really pleased when friends who are also poets I admire tell me they’ve liked something I’ve done.

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 have a few friends who look at my poems once I have a batch I think they might like to see. I don’t show anyone a poem until I’m pretty confident that it’s finished or close to finished. Suzanne Cleary, Philip Terman and Walter Butts are three people who have been helpful with my poems in recent years.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

After a lot of thought, I have to say I’m not sure.

What is American about this poem?

I imagine an American setting for all my poems. The line “law and justice seem like towns/ miles distant and sparsely populated” conjures for me the small abandoned towns of the west that Hugo wrote so well about.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I think it was finished, as much as any poem is ever finished. Of course I could spend time tweaking it now if I wanted to, but I think there comes a time when it’s best to look forward to the next poem.


  1. Found you by way of a list serve this blog was mentioned on. What a lucky break for me, plays right in with some recent questions of new poet at a forum I visit. I have fallen over myself to try and explain my process. I will pass on your blog’s interviews and insight to my fellow poets. And I look forward to spending more time here in hopes of improving my work as well.

  2. Thanks for writing, and for the plug!