Monday, October 19, 2009
Todd Boss’s best-selling debut poetry collection, Yellowrocket (Norton, 2008) has enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. Todd’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, New England Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, which awarded him its annual Emily Clark Balch Prize in 2009. His work has been syndicated on public radio’s The Splendid Table and Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. His MFA is from the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Read (and hear) Todd’s poems at his website by clicking here.
TO BE ALONE AGAIN IN THE THICK SKIN
of this low-slung bungalow house,
August overcast and waning,
windows open to the breathings
of the distant interstate passing,
you and the kids on some errand,
no note on the kitchen counter,
the workday done, my computer
on and waiting, I feel so helpless
against a tide of emotion I can
only identify as a melancholy joy.
When I was a boy come home
from school to the farm alone,
my father working, my mom with
my sister to a lesson or something,
I would pass through all the rooms
in a daze, lingering, gazing in all
the mirrors, lying down on all
the beds, trying myself on for size
in every doorway, every hall. Or
I would wander the farm itself,
the lawns, the lanes, the fields.
There was no highway there to
trouble the sound of being alone.
The only noise was wind if there
was wind, or plane if overhead
a plane. I didn't know it then,
but we lived beneath the pattern
of flights from MSP International
to points northeast and pan-Atlantic,
and though they were so far up in
the air, their thin roar glimmered
in your ears if you strained hard
to hear. It never occurred to me
that one day I'd be tired of flying.
That the thrill of passing again over
my own hometown would finally
be lost on me. Looking back on
that clueless boy, I pity him
for who he became. For isn't there
something lonely about a life
that wasn't in the least foreseen?
I live in someone else's city, in
someone else's house, it seems.
It's as if one day I stumbled into a
giant jumble sale of dreams, and
left with my arms loaded, caring
only that I got some good bargains.
I'm not saying I don't love my life.
Your heart and this city and this house
are the only places I can imagine
belonging. But isn't that just it?
In, through the screens of our lives,
the song of the world outside comes
thronging in all its unexpected
discord. And we call that chaos
home, despite everything we love.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem came all in a rush, maybe four years ago, and ended with the line “I pity him for who he became,” which is a bitter ending, but not entirely earned, to that point. I thought it was done until I became aware of a nagging feeling, whenever I came back to it, that the ending was unsatisfying. It took a long time for me to figure out why.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
There were probably only two or three drafts of this poem, but they each took a long time in between, if memory serves.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
This poem wasn’t “received” in the way that many of my poems are. Instead, it came in a gush of frankness that felt refreshing to me at the outset, and I followed that impulse.
The trick was trusting that impulse again when I went to finish the poem, picking it up from where I’d left it and catching that same vibe, like a wave, and riding it out. That’s what took me so long.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In order to finish this poem in the way it wanted to be finished, I had to be even more honest about what I’d already been honest about, and then be even more honest about even that. This poem is really a little pile of unlaundered honesties, with a recollection in the middle like an outgrown jacket. It’s hard for me sometimes to look at an honest autobiographical poem and say, “I haven’t been entirely honest about this. What would entire honesty look like?” I think that’s probably more often a memoirist’s dilemma than a poet’s, at least where autobiography is concerned.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Nobody published it till it came out in book form. Then it appeared on Poetry Daily, I think, which was a surprise. And now you’re interested in it, which is interesting. I think it’s one of those poems that, if you connect with its sense of displacement, can really touch you. I’m always interested in a poem that can’t make the editorial cut at journals, but for some reason resonates with readers. I could point to a dozen of those in my book, and it’s not for lack of sending them out to likely journals. To me, it points to a populist hole in the periodical literature. Which makes sense, because so many journals are based in academies.
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?
It varies, of course. I know a poem is good when I want to share it immediately with someone. I want to stop people on the street and say, Hey, you. Listen to this! I like to think I’m getting to the point where I can distinguish that feeling from the mere sense of satisfaction that comes of finishing a poem, any poem; but they’re hard to tell apart. Both are flattering feelings, and I’m susceptible to flattering feelings.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact. Our autobiographies are just the stories we tell ourselves. You think you know who you are, in a nutshell, but in truth your stories represent about 2% of what you might call your “real autobiography.” I no longer worry much about “fact” … it’s overrated. Our stories are the pier from which we think we’ve seen the ocean.
I’m not writing about myself, even when I write autobiographically; if I’m writing well, I’m writing about something much bigger than that, and using myself merely as the fulcrum for that desire.
Is this a narrative poem?
Sure, it tells the story of someone who has changed … Then it ends in a lyric flourish beginning with “But isn’t that just it?”…
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I went through a wonderful Tony Hoagland phase, and this strikes me as a chatty perspective piece not unlike his.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I write for the displaced agrarian in all of us.
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?
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s chatty and disclosure-oriented. It’s not what Nate Klug who dismissed me handily in a Poetry review called a “Todd Boss” poem… which is to say it’s not clever, sound-driven, syntactically convoluted, or in any other way overtly inventive. It’s just straight-up. Which is what I love about it. Some poems want that.
What is American about this poem?
I give up. What do I win?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Yes. Aren’t we all?