Born in Kobe, Japan and raised in California, Guam, and Japan, Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length collection The Darkened Temple was awarded the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection Begin Here was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. L'Esperance's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Many Mountains Moving, Poetry Kanto, Salamander, and elsewhere and have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, former New York Times Company Foundation Creative Writing Fellow, and recipient of residency fellowships from Hedgebrook and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, please visit her website.
HAPPINESS AND HAPPENSTANCE SHARE THE SAME ROOT
Trees know the meaning of happenstance.
So does the sea and all that lives in her.
As a girl swimming in a pond buzzing
with horseflies, I felt a cool current
slide over me, then pass on. This
was the lesson, though I did not know it then.
The harbor is not our permanent home.
Think of love and its stages: rapture,
the wound, then the final parting.
Knowing from the start how it will end.
We breathe into our cupped hands, hoping
to keep it alive as long as we can.
Among shouts of laughter the carousel
slows its tune, then falls still, and a child
returns from that world to this.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I believe this poem was written in late 2005, but the seed of the poem had been planted many years earlier (not uncommon for me with poems). I’d come across a newspaper article about the myth of romantic love that is perpetuated in Western culture – you know, the clichéd ideal of finding one’s “soul mate” with whom one then lives “happily ever after,” etc. The writer suggested that such unrealistic expectations inevitably create disappointment and that happiness, rather than being predictable and permanent, is something more ephemeral that arrives and departs in waves, often without warning. When I sat down to write the poem years later, I was ruminating on the transitory nature of experience and about my own encounters with disappointment and those small, unexpected moments of joy, and then I remembered the article, which in turn called up particular images from memory and from my imagination and my internal responses to those images, the confluence of which then initiated the making of the poem itself.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
The first draft was written in one sitting. The short lyric, to me, is a single breath, a moment captured in language and image, so I want to stay with the energy of the poem as it emerges in that first raw incarnation, or else risk losing it altogether. After that I can step away from it for a time and then return to it more objectively for revisions, of which I often do several. It’s been a while (and I generally don’t save drafts), but I believe this poem underwent about 5-7 versions between the initial draft and the final version over the span of a few days.
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 that rarefied and somewhat altered state can only sustain itself for so long; it must be corralled, brought down to earth, and channeled into language. I’m a slow and undisciplined writer and often allow long periods of time to pass between poems, so perhaps I rely too much on inspiration and not enough on “pot scrubbing,” as my friend Sage Cohen has called the largely messy, unglamorous, and plain old hard work of writing. This poem was about 50% received, 50% the result of “pot scrubbing”. But I didn’t wrestle with it much; it mostly seemed to have its legs out of the gate and I let it find its way, following it closely and guiding it as needed, and lightly.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
No conscious employment of techniques, really. My whole person – heart, intuition, intellect, body – is engaged in the writing of any poem, if one wants to call that a “technique”. Ear and eye are critical allies: for this poem (and for all of my poems) I read each draft aloud to myself to ensure that I was satisfied with phrasing, line lengths, line breaks, word choice, syntax, etc. This is an important step, and a reminder for me that poetry is ultimately a spoken art.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It was published about two years later in Poetry Kanto, a wonderful Tokyo-based literary journal co-edited by Alan Botsford and Nishihara Katsumasa that features poems by poets writing in English as well as by contemporary Japanese poets (the latter featured in bi-lingual versions).
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 can’t say that I have any “rules” about this, but I do have some feelings about the practice of sending poems out for publication when they’re very new. Would we send our children out into the world to fend for themselves before they’re sufficiently developed? And why this rush to publish? Does doing so serve the poem, or does it serve the need of the poet to be acknowledged and affirmed by a reading public? To my mind, the needs of the poem must always come first. I personally like my poems to “season” for a while before I send them out, in case I decide to make further revisions, but also to give them the opportunity to fully inhabit themselves.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Most of my poems include elements of both. I’m often reluctant to explain too much about a poem because my wish is to recede behind the poem so that the reader can then project her/his own experience onto it without the perceived “me” interfering. In this particular poem, the “facts” (as in “this happened to me”) are minimal: as a girl I swam in a pond buzzing with horseflies. Period. I then make a series of subjective declarations that aren’t tied to any particular event in my life, but are related, nonetheless. There’s a carousel, but it’s a composite of the carousels in Berkeley’s Tilden Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and likely other carousels that I’ve encountered in life, books, and films.
Is this a narrative poem?
If I have to call it anything, I’d say it’s more a lyric than a narrative poem. Although the syntax is fairly linear in its sense making, the poem doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more a sequence of observations, an articulated rumination. I suppose some might call it a narrative poem. But I’m not much into labels.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
At the time, possibly Jack Gilbert (which is pretty evident here) and Stanley Kunitz, whose poems are never far from me. Otherwise, I can’t recall. As for influences: the world. Memory and its digressions. Dreams. And the work of poets too numerous to mention. One creates on the shoulders of many.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not consciously, although my hope is that my readers approach a poem – any poem – in order to be transformed in some way. Not dramatically, but to feel by the end of the poem as though something has shifted for them internally so that they then perceive themselves and the world a bit differently. That’s what I want as a reader: to be changed by a poem.
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?
At the time I was in a poetry group with 3-4 other poets, which lasted for about year – it was a good group while it lasted and helped me to return to poem making with a seriousness of focus following a long silence. I’m currently not in a group, but am talking with a couple of people about starting one. It’s very difficult for me to write regularly without the structure and contact that a group provides.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Not sure that I can say, so I’ll let my readers determine this for themselves!
What is American about this poem?
If the relentless pursuit of happiness is thought to be an inalienable American right, then this is a pretty un-American poem! I suppose the diction, the declarative “plain speech” of the poem, might be called “American”. But I’m also half Japanese and that culture’s traditional sensibility (quiet, understated, accepting, reflective, feeling, and holding a balance between inner and outer) is inevitably a part of any poem I write. And I think it is present in this poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
This poem is finished in that it is included in the The Darkened Temple. But its life continues to evolve beyond my involvement with it, in the way that it is received, experienced, and integrated (or not) by its readers.
NOTE: Poem reprinted from The Darkened Temple by Mari L'Esperance by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2008 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800.755.1105 and on the web at nebraskapress.unl.edu. Please do not duplicate elsewhere without permission.