Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Poet, essayist and translator Sherod Santos is the author of five books of poetry, Accidental Weather, The Southern Reaches, The City of Women, The Pilot Star Elegies (winner of the 2002 Theodore Roethke Memorial Award, a National Book Award Finalist and one of five nominees for The New Yorker Book Award), and The Perishing. In 2005 he published Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation. He is also the author of a book of literary essays, A Poetry of Two Minds, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. His awards include the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Discovery / The Nation Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize from Poetry magazine, and the 1984 appointment as Robert Frost Poet at the Frost house in Franconia, New Hampshire. Mr. Santos has received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999 he received an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Intricated Soul: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming in March of 2010.
He’d just switched off the overhead light and stretched out
For a nap before dinner, the quiet end of a travel day.
A plastic cup of orange peels, an empty half-bottle
Of some sweet wine he’d found in the hotel mini-bar,
And he remembers too a car horn sounding, then laughter
And voices spilling out into the parking lot below.
And then a fight broke out. Two men, he imagined,
Around whom others formed the cordon of a makeshift ring,
Their threats and goadings followed by the heavy thud
Of blows. He called the front desk and they said they’d go,
But for what still seems the longest time, it did not stop.
And then it did. And then there was a sound like
Hose-water splashing off asphalt, a car door closing,
And what he thought he recognized as the slurred, parenthetic
Phrasings of a boardwalk carousel winding down.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem began years ago with the raw sensation of that final auditory image. I suppose you could call it a premonition, for it seemed as though something very particular was suggested by the simultaneous sounds of hose water washing blood off asphalt and a boardwalk carousel winding down that.
All I knew at that point was that the nature of that “something” was fear.
Needless to say, this was a difficult place to start, and it has taken me years—through versions that have changed from journal publication to book publication to its next appearance in a new and selected poems—to find the end. And I can’t say for sure that I’ve found the end.
How many revisions did this poem undergo?
I couldn’t begin to count. Hundreds, I would imagine—and it’s hard to think of this tendency of mine as anything other than an affliction.
In terns of time, my best guess is that I’ve been struggling with it—or it has been struggling with me--for ten or so years.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I’m sure artists and writers of every sort have differing experiences they associate with the term “inspiration.” My own personal sense is that labor and inspiration are not so easily separated.
How often I’ve found that the sheer impossibility of the task becomes, in the struggle to overcome it, a source of enormous inspiration. It’s a state of mind or alertness or attention that derives (again, in my experience) from the ridiculously hard work required to say even the simplest thing.
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?
Though I’ve certainly tried, I’ve never been good at getting my poems to abide by any of my rules.
I’ve come to accept the frustrating fact that poems have minds of their own, and that they have a tendency to override, or even contradict, whatever sights I’ve set for them.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Here too I find it difficult to isolate the one from the other. Since poetry is a branch of imaginative literature, it is, by nature, fictional. And since it’s fictional, “facts” are less factual (that is, less “realistic”) than material—a 6-legged horse in one poem is just as much a “fact” as a 4-legged horse in another.
In my poem, I think it’s safe to say that every detail is “realistic,” but it’s impossible for a reader to know whether or not that “realism” derives from the facts of my own experience. That’s one of poetry’s more interesting illusions.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
My reading is, unfortunately, completely unsystematic and sporadic, so what I was reading then might not have been poetry at all, but a novel, travelogue, art history, biography, etc.
I like to think that everything, not just poetry, influences me as a writer. If not, I’m probably not taking it in deeply enough.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I’m always tripped up by this question because I feel like I ought to have an answer. But the truth is, I’ve never been aware of any particular audience. For that matter, I’ve never been aware of any general audience either.
Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
No, not regularly or irregularly.
What is American about this poem?
That’s an interesting question and one I hadn’t considered before. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I wonder if there’s some icy, hollow, senseless nature to violence in this country that distinguishes it from others.
Certainly, that feeling permeates this poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?