Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Chard deNiord is the author of three books of poetry, Night Mowing (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). A new collection, The Double Truth, is forthcoming from The University of Pittsburgh Press in late 2010. His poems and essays have appeared recently in the following journals: New England Review, Literary Imagination, Salmagundi, American Poetry Review and The Hudson Review. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College and cofounder of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry. He lives in Putney, Vermont.
AN INCIDENT AT THE CATHOLIC WORKER
Sitting in peace in the dining room
of the country community house one Sunday morning,
reading the paper about the latest truce
in Israel, I heard a disturbance in the living room.
People were scurrying and yelling, "Watch out,
he's got a knife!" and "Put her down!"
Then Kenny, the epileptic from Hudson Valley,
appeared at the door with a little dog in one hand
and a cleaver in the other. He said he was going
to take the dog up the hill and throw her in the well.
He said he was tired of how the people in the "community"
were treating him, and he was going to kill the dog
in order to change their attitude. He had
a crazed look in his eye while the dog hung limp,
Mrs. Smith's terrier. I followed him up the hill
while the others prayed below. I said, "Kenny,
what good do you think this will do? They'll only take
you back to the hospital." Then it was there interposed
a fit and he dropped the dog beside the well and fell
to the ground and cut himself with the flailing blade.
I stepped on the hand that held the knife and watched
him twist like a snake with its neck pinned down.
He frothed at the mouth and swallowed his tongue.
I tried to stick my fingers in and pull it out
but he clenched his teeth in a human vise.
I thought in retrospect I could have cut a hole
in his throat with the knife but he was writhing
to the end, turning blue. I watched his ghost
shut down his skin, then disappear inside the well.
I held his body as a souvenir of the fallen world
and thought no less of him. The little dog began to bark
from the edge of the woods. "Shut up!" I yelled,
"Shut up!" and almost felt what Kenny felt as he held
the dog above the well and dangled it like the angry god
who'd crossed a wire inside he head. It was his hatred
for the little dog that had set him off, just its yapping
every night in Mrs. Smith's adjacent room. He had been
treated kindly by everyone, according to the wishes
of our saintly mother, Dorothy Day, who had always said,
"Treat every stranger as if he were the Christ."
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in 1990, seventeen years after I lived for four (May-August) months at the Catholic Worker in Tivoli, New York, but didn’t publish until 1997 in the The Gettysburg Review, and then again in my last book, Night Mowing, in 2005. It started as a memory of an actual event, which I recount accurately in the first three quarters of the poem.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem went through approximately twenty revisions over the course of a few months.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration, although I feel much of inspiration’s initial electricity provides more impetus for delving into the poem than the ensuing writing and revising. I feel this poem was received as a near death experience that needed both crafting into engaging narrative lines and a fictive shift at its conclusion.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Through many revisions and my eventual decision to conclude with a fictional account of Kenny’s death rather than simply recounting what happened. Kenny did terrorize his fellow community members at the Catholic Worker, but he did not die of his epileptic fit. He agreed to return to the main house, a converted resort, where a policeman was waiting to arrest him. Rather than arrest him, however, the policeman agreed to take him to Hudson Valley Hospital. Since the poem recounts a violent event, I decided to employ a randomly alternating meter of iambic tetrameter, pentameter and hexameter lines that capture the chaos and velocity of the event, as well as an intense lyrical music I felt was inherent in this narrative.
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?
I have no set rule about this. I generally keep my new poems in the “aging” drawer for several months before sending them out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is mostly true, except for the end, where I decide to heighten the drama by imagining Kenny swallowing his tongue and dying. Even though this didn’t actually happen, I feel it tells a truth that is truer than what occurred. Tim O’Brien in his story “How To Tell A True War Story” describes this paradox well in a colorful commentary within the story.
Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
That’s a true story that never happened.
Although what happened to Kenny is the opposite of what happened to “the jumper” in Tim O’Brien’s story, it transcends what O’Brien so aptly call “happeningness” with a greater truth, namely the doomed quality of Kenny’s life. Kenny was hospitalized in a mental hospital shortly after the incident recounted in the poem, and died, I heard, shortly afterwards. The poem ends up being more about what the speaker of the poem perceives about death, his own mortality and the agapaic principles of Dorothy Day than Kenny’s violent act. I realized that I had to find a fictional truth that was “truer than the truth” to turn this otherwise journal entry into a poem with a mythic conceit.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
In addition to Tim O’Brien, I was also reading Elizabeth Bishop and C.K. Williams.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I was actually thinking of the police officer, who is not in the poem but a participant in the “happeningness” of the actual story, as my ideal reader. Also Dorothy Day.
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 showed this poem to my friend and fellow poet Bruce Smith, who gave me a few very helpful suggestions.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This is one of the few narrative poems in which I have fictionalized the ending so dramatically. I wait for such opportunities to transcend “happeningness” with a more memorable and true alternative that divines a “grounding reality” in an imaginative leap that both suspends the disbelief of my reader and enlightens him or her as well with an original, truth-telling lie.
What is American about this poem?
While it’s set in an uniquely American institution, the Catholic Worker, I hope it performs the American two-step of dancing originally on its own on a particular, local floor, while also making a universal leap.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?