Leon Stokesbury was born in 1945 in Oklahoma City. He received his MA and MFA at the University of Arkansas and his Ph.D. from Florida State University. His first book, Often in Different Landscapes, was a co-winner of the first AWP Poetry Competition in 1975. His Autumn Rhythm: New & Selected Poems, was awarded The Poets’ Prize in 1968. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
UNSENT MESSAGE TO MY BROTHER IN HIS PAIN
Please do not die now. Listen.
Yesterday, storm clouds rolled
out of the west like thick muscles.
Lightning bloomed. Such a sideshow
of colors. You should have seen it.
A woman watched with me, then we slept.
Then, when I woke first, I saw
in her face that rest is possible.
The sky, it suddenly seems
important to tell you, the sky
was pink as a shell. Listen
to me. People orbit the moon now.
They must look like flies around
Fatty Arbuckle's head, that new
and that strange. My fellow American,
I bought a French cookbook. In it
are hundreds and hundreds of recipes.
If you come to see me, I shit you not,
we will cook with wine. Listen
to me. Listen to me, my brother,
please don’t go. Take a later flight,
a later train. Another look around.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in the spring of 1978. As the poem suggests, it was written in response to a considerable number of problems that my brother was experiencing at the time. Problems that led to his spending five years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, and which eventually led to his death some years later.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Although it was some time ago, I recall that this poem found its final shape fairly quickly. Perhaps it went through three or four revisions over a period of a week.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
This poem was mostly received. There are a few of my early poems that I can say that about and they are among my best. Today there seems to be more sweat and tears than there was thirty years ago. I do not know if that is normal or not, but it is the way it is with me. I do most certainly believe in inspiration, and that still happens for me. But I rarely have a poem just pop out ready to go anymore. The first draft is an inspiration, I suppose, but then I go through months, and occasionally even years, of process. But I do remember those distant days when such as this poem would burst miraculously upon the scene fully formed, like Gargantua being birthed, exploding from his mother’s left ear shouting, “Some drink! Some drink!”
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The only thing I can recall is that I (and I may be the only person that can see this) was trying to write a free verse sonnet. As tight as a sonnet, but finding its own form too. I am not sure whether or not I was successful, but I do feel that the tightness in the poem is a reflection of that attempt.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Oh, I think I sent it off to The Mississippi Quarterly a month or two after I wrote it. And they printed it in less than a year.
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?
Lord, I should have rules. Because it takes so long for me to finish a poem now, I have repeatedly gotten myself into a pickle over writing something that I thought was quite good, and that I thought was finished, and so excitedly decided to fire it off to some great journal who I was sure would feel the same way. And, repeatedly, a month or so later I would see some clear flaw or clear way to make the poem measurably better. Which means the poem was not finished at all. Then, I would either have to wait for the poem to come back, as it almost always would, or write the journal and ask for the poem back because by then it was in such a different form. This problem has not gone away with experience but for some reason increased. All I can say is that at least the “final product” does, finally, get finished and is, finally, the way I want it to be. But it ends up being published in a journal quite different from the one I first wanted it to appear in.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is based on fact but is mostly fiction. My brother’s problems were real and large. However, I did not have a French cookbook, but I wanted one. I had seen storm clouds some time like the ones I describe, but not any time during or around the writing of the poem. And I, at that time, was seeing a young woman who one afternoon was asleep in her bed and did look peaceful. When I showed her the poem, she said that she never felt like that. She felt bad and sad almost all the time. Loomings. So I guess I was using my fictive imagination. She really did look so peaceful though. And pretty too.
Is this a narrative poem?
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 do have one or two friends that I am in an e-mail mode with as I write my poems. And I also show my work to my wife, although I think she tries to offer mostly positive and constructive opinions. I am a bit loath to send work out into the naked world without someone beside myself having given me an opinion on it.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
This poem was finished. I will work on the short ones, most of the time, until they seem so. Longer ones, I occasionally work until I do not think they would embarrass me or hope they are finished.