Monday, February 8, 2010
Vince Gotera has published two poetry collections with Pecan Grove Press: Fighting Kite (2007) and Dragonfly (1994). Ghost Wars, from Final Thursday Press, won the 2004 Global Filipino Literary Award in Poetry. The University of Georgia Press published his book of criticism titled Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans (1994). His writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Asian Pacific American Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Zone 3, and other literary magazines, as well as in such anthologies as Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing, and Under the Rock Umbrella: Contemporary Poets from 1951 to 1977. He serves as Editor at the North American Review and is Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. Vince is a bassist and lead guitarist whose favorite color is blue: aquamarine, royal, robin’s-egg, cerulean, sky. No surprise then that his blog is called The Man with the Blue Guitar. Check it out.
NEWLY RELEASED, PAPA TELLS ME WHAT IT’S LIKE INSIDE
Vin, that psych ward is Dante’s Inferno—circles
within circles, you climb and climb. The sons
of bitches in white, they’re monsters and devils.
You see, son, you’re paying for your sins
while you’re there. Each circle a privilege
you purchase with blood and bile. It starts with seclusion,
the innermost circle. Almost a jail, but your bed’s
made up with wet sheets and you become Satan
on ice—the teeth chattering inside your head,
stones rattling round and round in a can.
Then once a week, they take you down for shock,
the mouse killed again with an elephant gun.
First time was ’46: the bed just like
an electric chair—electrodes, colored wires—
That’s all I can remember. Except for that shock,
vibration, a lightning flash dead in the eyes.
And on your tongue a taste like bitter almonds
or wet pennies. A buzz in your ears like flies.
Closest to outside is the circle called grounds
privileges, they let you walk all the way out
to the high, black, wrought-iron fence surrounding
the whole hospital. Air, trees, grass, flowers,
the sky. Only the fence, your blue pajamas,
saying you’re different from real people. But how
do you get there? Between is a tortured drama:
wide, sloping stairs of kowtow and kiss-ass
—mixing with real lunatics, the gamut
running from rapists to certified pigstickers,
manic depressives to schizos. And always the devils
in white, those sadists and macho bitches. But, Vin, it’s
always the walk I’ll remember. The Thorazine shuffle.
We’re all diviners doomed to Dante’s Eighth
Circle: our heads on backwards for time eternal.
We shuffle like mules rounding a millstone, wish
it would end ... we shuffle in line for lunch, we shuffle
in line for meds, in line to piss, we shuffle
in line ... our slippers whispering shh, shh, shh.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It’s been quite a long while since this poem was written. I’m guessing two decades, at least. So probably late 1989.
My poem “A Visitor on Ash Wednesday” was published in 1989, which is partly how I place the time of this poem’s writing; “Newly Released ...” was written as a companion piece to “A Visitor ...” after it appeared in Caliban.
My father Martin Gotera was a schizophrenic. Because of this condition, in the Philippines he was considered a seer, a visionary, and that’s what I portray in “A Visitor ...”; in the US, he was just plain crazy and spent a lot of time in psych wards, hence this poem.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
That’s not how I work. I don’t really have discrete versions. I write (or type, actually), tweaking all the way, until I have what I think might be the whole poem. Then I dip into it and change a word here, an image there, alter a line break, change it back, move stuff around, and so on.
I wish I were as disciplined as Jessica Garratt, who talks in your recent interview of her about Word documents and their dates. I’m jealous. Without such records, I can’t tell you how much time separates the starting and finishing of this poem, or any poem. I do remember (vaguely) that the drafting was pretty quick. That this was one of those painless poems.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Yes, I do believe in inspiration, thank you. In fact, I should say thank you to the muses, floating up there like invisible tethered balloons above all our furrowed brows. A thankless gig, that whole muse thing.
As I suggested earlier, “Newly Released ...” was in all the best ways “received.” Though there’s always some sweat and tears involved. Wouldn’t be any fun otherwise. Nah, I’m being glib. Poems are almost always made better by hard work, if not sweat and tears.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Yes, I did. I always do.
This poem is in slant-rhymed terza rima, sometimes really slant. Probably the most distantly rhymed words here are “kiss-ass” / “pigstickers” / “Vin, it’s” ... assonance with short i in the penultimate syllable, falling rhythm, plus the consonance of the closing s in all three. Tough for some readers to get, who may insist these are not rhymed at all. And I’m fine with that.
I also use here what I call “roughed-up pentameter.” I don’t worry about iambs and trochees and all that shmanzy shtuff—I just get five stressed syllables into each line. Actually, the stress patterns are pretty roughed up too. Some lines could probably be scanned, traditionally, as having four or six stresses. For rationale, I often fall back on Hopkins’s notion of sprung rhythm, which pretty much says you can stress whenever you damn well want to. I know some folks will argue with that characterization, but it sure opened and freed up metrics for me.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Pretty quickly. It appeared in Kenyon Review in 1991. So maybe a year and a half.
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?
You know, Brian, it’s different with every poem.
I have one poem I sat on for sixteen years. I wrote it in 1993 (I think) and finally sent it out last week. That poem was about an old friend with whom I’d lost touch, and I worried about exposing confidences. But then I found out a couple of years ago that she had died. So then I worried about not having gotten her permission. Finally last week I got over all of that.
I generally wait quite a while before sending out a poem. We’re talking months to a couple of years. I don’t think I’ve ever sent a poem out on the same day I finished it, as people say Bill Stafford would sometimes do with his poem-a-day practice.
It’s a bit like letting chili simmer. Gets better and better the longer you simmer. And if you leave it in the fridge overnight, it’s even tastier the next day. So, the poem simmers, stews in the old Frigidaire, and at some point I remember it’s there and send it out.
Mostly what happens nowadays, though, is that editors will solicit poems from me, perhaps on a particular theme, and that will remind me to peek in the fridge.
In the case of “Newly Released ...” I sent it off rather quickly to Kenyon Review because Marilyn Hacker was editing an issue (I think this was before she became the editor of Kenyon) and I knew she would catch on to my shenanigans with meter and rhyme.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Fact: My father was a schizophrenic.
Fact: He was in and out of psych wards ... the stuff of daily life in my childhood.
Fact: In terms of psychiatric treatments, he indeed had electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy ... which, by the way, is still used today, a fact that surprises many people. And he also was given the wet-sheet treatment. And a plethora of psychotropic medications.
Fact: My father loved Dante and The Divine Comedy. He frequently read religious thinkers from widely divergent periods: St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Ávila, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Fulton J. Sheen.
Fiction: Pretty much everything in the poem except those facts already mentioned. What I know about psych wards I learned when I was in the Army. As a military pay clerk, I worked at Letterman Army Medical Center and on many occasions observed psych patients when they would come to see me about pay problems or, when they didn’t have grounds privileges, I would go see them. That’s how I learned about the psych ward’s levels of privilege, like the Inferno’s concentric rings of punishment. And also the Thorazine shuffle, how meds would make patients catatonic and they would walk with a characteristic gait. Knowing all that stuff helped me create the fictional stuff in this poem, and make it sound authentic in my father’s voice. You can learn more about life in a psych ward in any number of movies and books, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes. No. It is narrative when the speaker says “First time was ’46.” It’s somewhat in the realm of narrative when the speaker lays out a patient’s potential movement from “seclusion” to “grounds privileges”—one hopes that patient is getting better and progressing from one level to another to another with some deliberateness, though of course in reality that movement for anyone is hardly ever in one direction, as in the traditional narrative arc, but more like a shaky pendulum.
I suppose if we insist on categories “Newly Released ...” is a dramatic poem. More precisely, a dramatic monologue. Though at no time in real life did my father ever sit down and tell me this. He was pretty mum about what went on in the psych ward.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I don’t know about right and wrong, or good and evil. I just know my father felt wronged. Wronged by the country he’d fought for. (He served in the US Army during WWII, where he was part of the Bataan Death March.) Wronged by both American and Philippine society. (He was raised in the Philippines, where the schools instilled American ideals, but in the US he never felt those ideals realized.) Wronged by the arts. (He was a fiction writer who took correspondence courses—with the Famous Writers School, I think—but was never published, at least in fiction.) So in some way this poem speaks to those wrongs and gives my father a voice he never felt he had in life.
But I’m dodging the question, aren’t I?
I believe good poetry somehow speaks from the heart. I know that can sound maudlin or mystical, and I don’t mean it to be so. I’m talking here about honesty, integrity, passion. In turn, good poetry speaks to the heart. I would like to think such heart-to-heart poetry would be ethical and just, that good poetry would champion people to have dignity and justice and the feeling that things are all right, that ultimately they are not being wronged.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Marge Piercy, Molly Peacock, Marilyn Hacker. At Humboldt State University in 1989, I was teaching Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time as well as Peacock’s Raw Heaven and Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Piercy inspired content while Peacock and Hacker influenced craft.
Marge Piercy’s Chicana character Connie made me think a lot more about my father’s illness and hospitalizations. This was quite a bit on my mind in those days because my father had died earlier in 1989. Connie’s rebelliousness and anti-authority jones as a psych patient jived quite a bit with what I knew of my father, who was probably not a model patient. In fact, he was quite likely a very difficult patient, and I wanted to get that liveliness and spunk into the speaker of this poem.
Molly Peacock and Marilyn Hacker, you will remember if you know po-biz in the late ’80s, were two of the strongest proponents of New Formalism. When I was an MFA student at Indiana University, I was much attracted to meter and rhyme, but had to live among classmates who were predominantly free-verse writers. Remember how acrimonious that debate was? How free-verse writers (who couldn’t acknowledge they were now “the establishment”) called the New Formalist poets Reaganites? Seems silly now, but that debate was a fact of life for poets at that time. What this controversy meant for me personally and artistically was that I developed a kind of craft that employed rhyme and meter but in highly disguised fashion, so that free-verse enthusiasts could read my poems as free verse while those who appreciated rhyme and meter could decipher my encoded formalisms. “Newly Released ...” is in that vein.
Another influence—an unusual one, very specific to this poem—was my professor David Wojahn at Indiana. During an MFA workshop, he introduced us to Craig Raine’s poem “In the Kalahari Desert,” and pointed out the genius of its last line: “Shhh, shhh, the shovel said. Shhh.” Some time later, when he gave a reading, David performed a poem that also had, as its last word, “shh.” He may have even talked about competing with Raine and writing a poem ending in “shh.” Whether or not David actually voiced that competition, I picked up on it and, not long after leaving Indiana, wrote my own poem ending in “shh.” And there you have it. All sorts of reasons, both profound and petty, why a poem is what it is.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don’t think so. Way in the back of my mind, there’s this large amorphous mass the color of “flesh” from the Crayola box. This blob is my audience, gathered and glimpsed from far away. I know they’re back there. I know they’re listening. I know they’re going to read the poems. But I don’t write for them. Though I gotta admit that sometimes my poems are didactic, that I have designs on teaching the blob something. But generally I don’t worry about audience too awful much.
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, not really. The impression I have with this poem is that there was only me and the computer screen. Tug o’ war between me and me, carving out meter and rhyme. “Brachiating with a hoot from rhyme to rhyme,” as John Gardner wrote in Grendel. The more I think about it here, I’m realizing I don’t usually let anyone see a poem in progress.
To the second question, again “no, not really.” I do share new work with classes if I’m writing poems along with them, in response to my own assignments. The person with whom I share my poems more than anyone else is my wife Mary Ann, who is a damn good editor and tells me when I’m faking it, when swagger is displacing truth.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t know that it does. Readers will have to answer this.
I suppose I could say it’s a lot like my other poems: close attention to lineation and rhythm and euphony and inherited forms, with improvisation and mixing of registers in diction, as well as an eye and ear toward issues of social justice and peace. I don’t know if those qualities are what readers sense when they read my work, but those are what I try to keep in the forefront when I’m writing.
What is American about this poem?
When I read your interviews, Brian, I’m always intrigued by this question and how various poets answer it. I found Galway Kinnell’s reply about wild animals popping up just hilarious. Well ...
Thinking of Kinnell leads me to think of Walt Whitman, for whom listing and cataloguing, particularly via robust and muscular word choice, was a distinctly American mode. While I am not worthy to touch a pinky to Whitman’s cloak, I wonder if this language from the poem may qualify as distinctly American and Whitman-like: “kowtow and kiss-ass ... real lunatics, the gamut / running from rapists to certified pigstickers, / manic depressives to schizos.” Howzat?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
When I sent off “Newly Released ...” to Marilyn Hacker at Kenyon Review, it was finished. I had buffed it to a nice sheen, though I also left in those intentional rough edges (the distant rhyme and the dodgy meter).
The poem has never been abandoned as such, because sixteen years later it showed up in my book Fighting Kite. And I featured it about a year ago in my blog The Man with the Blue Guitar.
And I quite often perform “Newly Released ...” at readings. This poem continues to be very much alive for me: immediate, present, powerful, moving.