Monday, July 6, 2009
Mark Jarman was born in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, and grew up in California and Scotland. He is a professor of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of nine books of poetry: North Sea (1978), The Rote Walker (1981), Far and Away (1985), The Black Riviera (1990), Iris (1992), Questions for Ecclesiastes (1997), Unholy Sonnets (2000), To the Green Man (2004), and Epistles (2007). Jarman’s awards include a Joseph Henry Jackson Award for his poetry in 1974; three NEA grants in poetry in 1977, 1983, and 1992; and a fellowship in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for 1991-1992. His book The Black Riviera won the 1991 Poet’s Prize. Questions for Ecclesiastes was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and won the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and The Nation magazine.
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen,
Going on sixteen, like a corny song?
I see myself so clearly then, and painfully--
Knees bleeding through my usher's uniform
Behind the candy counter in the theater
After a morning's surfing; paddling frantically
To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,
Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor's
Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.
Is that all I have to write about?
You write about the life that's vividest.
And if that is your own, that is your subject.
And if the years before and after sixteen
Are colorless as salt and taste like sand--
Return to those remembered chilly mornings,
The light spreading like a great skin on the water,
And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges,
And--what was it exactly?--that slow waiting
When, to invigorate yourself, you peed
Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth
Crawl all around your hips and thighs,
And the first set rolled in and the water level
Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck
The water surface like a brassy palm,
Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed.
Yes. But that was a summer so removed
In time, so specially peculiar to my life,
Why would I want to write about it again?
There was a day or two when, paddling out,
An older boy who had just graduated
And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus,
Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water,
And said my name. I was so much younger,
To be identified by one like him--
The easy deference of a kind of god
Who also went to church where I did--made me
Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed.
He soon was a small figure crossing waves,
The shawling crest surrounding him with spray,
Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name
Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise
To notice me among those trying the big waves
Of the morning break. His name is carved now
On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave
That grievers cross to find a name or names.
I knew him as I say I knew him, then,
Which wasn't very well. My father preached
His funeral. He came home in a bag
That may have mixed in pieces of his squad.
Yes, I can write about a lot of things
Besides the summer that I turned sixteen.
But that's my ground swell. I must start
Where things began to happen and I knew it.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem must have started sometime in the late 1980’s, because my records show that it was published in The Indiana Review in 1988. I think the poem was finished in 1987. But I have always believed the poem described its own process of composition. I was writing about Santa Monica Bay where I grew up, yet again, and started asking myself why I kept returning to that subject. The poem tries to answer that question.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wrote the poem at a time when I was not saving drafts (I do save them now), but most of the drafts would have been written in a notebook. That notebook is packed away somewhere. As I recall I began writing and stalled at the point I asked myself the question: “Why would I want to write about it again?” In this case “it” was growing up on Santa Monica Bay, in Redondo Beach, California, in the late 1960’s. I’m pretty sure I looked at the few lines I had several times over the next few days before the older boy appeared on his surfboard.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t believe in inspiration, but I honestly don’t wait for it. Once the older boy, who would die in Vietnam, appeared in my memory of surfing one morning, I was able to revise the opening of the poem, and move things through to the poem’s conclusion. That took a lot of work, but all of it was the best kind of toil. Sweat and tears? I had not forgotten the grief and sorrow that settled on the church my father served when this boy, the son of a prominent family, was killed. His death profoundly affected that little community and our own family. My father began to oppose the Vietnam War, for example, and even preach against it – but that’s another story.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I was listening for a blank verse line, but trying not to do so slavishly. And since I had discovered an answer for my own question, it was simply a matter of intuiting when the answer was sufficient. I realized, too, that I wanted to echo the end of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (“down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”) and the legendary Irish hero Finn McCool’s description of the most beautiful music in the world, “the music of what happens.” But I wanted this layered, highly literary allusion to seem anything but.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
As I said earlier, I think it was about a year before it appeared in a magazine. But it was ten years before it appeared as the first poem in my book Questions for Ecclesiastes.
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?
My practice varies from poem to poem. Usually once I think a poem’s finished, I let it sit for a few months before I send it anywhere.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem hews pretty closely to the facts as I remember them. I even verified them recently in conversation with my father. I did not know why I knew about the condition of the boy’s body, though. My father reminded me that the body was returned accompanied by a military officer who insisted that the remains not be viewed. But the boy in this poem was not the only older kid I knew who was killed in Vietnam. A boy I admired in my high school, who was a member of the writing club, died in Vietnam. The first time I visited the Vietnam Memorial I found their names.
Is this a narrative poem?
Sure, it’s a narrative poem. It follows a way of recollecting through anecdote and situates an event in history. But simply because it employs narrative in this way doesn’t mean that the poem is not also lyric.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I already mentioned Yeats, though I got to the quote from Finn McCool via Seamus Heaney. I was reading Robert Frost. And I was reading a lot of a contemporary master of narrative poetry, Larry Levis. Yeats, Heaney, Frost, Levis – all have been important and cherished influences.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Anyone who wants to read 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?
I show my wife my work in early stages, and I have a few friends – fellow poets – whom I trust to give me advice about new poems.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It deals with a subject about which I have written many poems, but its reflexivity, its self-consciousness about being a piece of writing, being a poem, is unusual for my work, I think.
What is American about this poem?
The composer and music critic Virgil Thompson was once asked to describe what distinguished American music. He answered, “It is written by Americans.” This poem is set in a distinctive landscape of the American West and it deals with an important moment in American history, albeit from a little known local perspective. I think these are what is American about the poem, besides the fact that an American wrote it.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Once I managed to write the ending of this poem, I knew it was finished.