Friday, July 24, 2009

Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin lives on a farm in central New Hampshire. She has published thirteen volumes of poetry, as well as novels, short stories, and essays on country living (including Women, Animals, and Vegetables). She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1973 and has been a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress and Poet Laureate of New Hampshire. She was awarded the Poets Prize in 1993 and received the Aiken/Taylor Award for Modern Poetry in 1995. She also received the Ruth E. Lily Prize in 1999. In 1995, Kumin became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets but resigned that post four years later, along with Carolyn Kizer, in protest over the board’s reluctance to admit poets of color. This act led to an entire restructuring of the institution’s bylaws. Kumin's most recent collection of poetry is Still to Mow (Norton, 2007).


How pleasant the yellow butter
melting on white kernels, the meniscus
of red wine that coats the insides of our goblets

where we sit with sturdy friends as old as we are
after shucking the garden's last Silver Queen
and setting husks and stalks aside for the horses

the last two of our lives, still noble to look upon:
our first foal, now a bossy mare of 28
which calibrates to 84 in people years

and my chestnut gelding, not exactly a youngster
at 22. Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it's 1980, winter buffets us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls. One of them,

a big-nosed roan gelding, calm as a president's portrait
lives in the rectangle that leads to the stalls. We call it
the motel lobby. Wise old campaigner, he dunks his

hay in the water bucket to soften it, then visits the others
who hang their heads over their dutch doors. Sometimes
he sprawls out flat to nap in his commodious quarters.

That spring, in the bustle of grooming
and riding and shoeing, I remember I let him go
to a neighbor I thought was a friend, and the following

fall she sold him down the river. I meant to
but never did go looking for him, to buy him back
and now my old guilt is flooding this twilit table

my guilt is ghosting the candles that pale us to skeletons
the ones we must all become in an as yet unspecified order.
Oh Jack, tethered in what rough stall alone

did you remember that one good winter?

When was this poem composed? How did it start? How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

“Jack” didn’t start with a description of the setting but in medias res with the remembrance & guilt. I can’t remember how many takes later it sort of fell into place beginning with the wine, old friends and corn shucking.

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 ultimately in inspiration; without it I would probably never write as I do not trust what George Starbuck used to call “thunk up” poems. I’d say it was mostly received but in stages that required a lot of trial and error and that is my usual experience.

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

Conscious principles? Not really. I have learned over a lifetime to employ what I call “poetic tact,” a seat-of-the-pants knowledge of what works, what isn’t too much, or minimalist. I dislike bare poems that leave almost everything to the reader but I also believe in leaving room for the reader to do some of the work, to enter into the poem.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Alas, I can’t remember how long after I wrote it that it was published (or even where).

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 tend to let a poem sit for several weeks or even months (in some cases years) before I submit it—in the first flush of completion I often think it is done when it isn’t and it takes time for a poem to come back down to room temperature to where I can see it a bit dispassionately.

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

Just about everything I write begins in, or is in some way anchored in fact, which gives me the freedom to fictionalize as needed.

Is this a narrative poem?

I am a narrative poet; in other poets’ work I want to see at least a narrative thread running thru, something to hold onto.

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

No particular audience in mind. It has to please me first but of course I am conscious of readership. I have never trusted the writer who says she/he only writes for her/himself. I’ve never met a musician who didn’t want the work to be performed. Ca va.

As for sharing drafts, I do so, occasionally, and I think most poets do as well. It shortcuts the process to be able to bounce a draft off a trusted adviser and can save me from heading wrong-way down a narrow alley.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours? What is American about this poem?

“Jack” doesn’t differ from the general body of my work. The older I grow the more elegiac my poems become. I write more about our lives here on the farm, probably too much about our dogs and horses, but these, along with vegetables, are what I know best. If that makes this an American poem, so be it.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I think this poem was finished.


  1. I love these questions - simple, and yet, they can reveal so much. Very moving - and lovely - the idea of "poetic tact" - which I suspect can be applied to writing in other genres as well. Kelly DuMar

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