Monday, March 15, 2010
William Carpenter has published three books of poetry, including Rain, which won the 1985 Morse Prize, and two novels. He has taught at the University of Chicago and the College of the Atlantic, where he is currently on the faculty of literature and writing. For more information, please visit his website.
A man stood in the rain outside his house.
Pretty soon, the rain soaked through
his jacket and shirt. He might have
gone in, but he wanted to be wet, to be
really wet, so that it finally got through
his skin and began raining on the rooftops
of the small city that the man always carried
inside him, a city where it hadn’t rained
for thirty years, only now the sky darkened
and tremendous drops fell in the thick dust
of the streets. The man’s wife knocked
on the window, trying to call him in.
She twirled one finger around her ear
to sign that he was crazy, that he’d
get sick again, standing in street clothes
in a downpour. She put the finger in her mouth
like a thermometer. She formed the word idiot
with her lips, and, always, when she said that
he would give in. But now he stood there.
His whole life he’d wanted to give something,
to sacrifice. At times he’d felt like coming up
to people on the street, offering his blood.
Here, you look like you need blood. Take mine.
Now he could feel the people of his city
waking as if from a long drought. He could feel
them leaving their houses and jobs, standing
with their heads up and their mouths open,
and the little kids taking their clothes off
and lying on their bellies in the streams
and puddles formed by the new rain that the man
made himself, not by doing anything, but standing
there while the rain soaked through his clothes.
He could see his wife and his own kids
staring from the window, the younger kid
laughing at his crazy father, the older one
sad, almost in tears, and the dog, Ossian—
but the man wanted to drown the city in rain.
He wanted the small crowded apartments
and the sleazy taverns to empty their people
into the streets. He wanted a single man with
an umbrella to break out dancing the same way
Gene Kelly danced in Singing in the Rain,
then another man, and more, until the whole
city was doing turns and pirouettes with their
canes or umbrellas, first alone, then taking
each other by the arm and waist, forming a larger
and larger circle in the square, and not
to any music but to the percussion of the rain
on the roof of his own house. And if there were
a woman among the dancers, a woman in a flowery
print skirt, a woman wetter and happier and more
beautiful than the rest, may this man be
forgiven for falling in love on a spring
morning in the democracy of the rain, may
he be forgiven for letting his family think
that is just what to expect from someone who
is every day older and more eccentric, may he
be forgiven for evading his responsibilities,
for growing simple in the middle of his life, for
ruining his best pants and his one decent tie.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem more than twenty years ago, when I had recently separated from my family and was starting a new life in a new home. The new house (where I still live) has a large wrap-around roofed porch where I often go out and “immerse myself” in a rain or snow storm while still keeping my head dry. I was standing out there in a spring downpour when I got the original idea.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wrote the first draft at home, then took it unfinished to Yaddo, where I worked on drafts. Stephen Dunn was there at the time and we traded off poems we were revising. As I recall, it “came out” pretty much whole, then underwent numerous versions to get the line breaks right.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe that much of the work of any poem is unconscious, and what seems like inspiration is the result of long interior preparatory labor quite unknown to the writer. So the first draft seemed to arrive pretty much whole out of nowhere, but there was probably a lot of work in this poem that had been done without my knowledge. This was written at a difficult, transitional stage of life, and a lot of inner material that may have been blocked for some time was opening up. I don’t want to interpret the poem, but in some sense it now strikes me as a rain of tears, the character’s own and his family’s, in which the guy does his irresponsible but guilty song and dance. But it meant a lot to me to be able to transform that time’s unhappiness to art and humor, and at the same time to make it public, get it out into the open, which I guess is the performance aspect of the song and dance, and of the poem. As would be the case with any serious family disintegration, much was clandestine at the time, hence the desire to disclose the “inner city” to oneself and to the public.
Reading it now, I think of myself as reaching back from that dark time to a day which I have always considered the happiest of my life. It was the last day of school in the sixth grade, and I was walking home with a pal in the pouring rain (no buses at the time!). We had seen a matinee of “Singing in the Rain” with Gene Kelly the weekend before, and as we walked back the long way, via another pal’s house, we just allowed ourselves to get soaking wet, pretended to carry umbrellas, sang the theme song at the top of our lungs and danced our shoes off in the puddles of our little town. Perhaps I was thinking of that childhood afternoon, its total freedom and irresponsibility, as I dealt with the real guilt and sadness of breaking a family up. By the time I wrote the poem I had seen “Clockwork Orange” with Malcolm McDowell’s sinister appropriation of that theme, and I imagine both the light and dark sides of that song lay behind the poem. Some readers have thought the Gene Kelly reference too corny but for that personal reason I voted to keep it in.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
It’s a poem with longish lines and long sentences very run-on so the grammar tries to keep the reader moving through the poem, not getting stuck at line-breaks. I spent a lot of time, much of that Yaddo summer—when we weren’t at the horses or the mudbaths or the swimming pool—working on the counterpoint of line breaks and grammatical units. Who knows how many drafts I went through trying to get the rhythms right? Each change of a word or line required going through the whole thing again, everything being interdependent.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I believe I sent it right to APR after completing it and it was accepted. A few years ago, this poem was given a beautiful setting by the NY composer Tom Cipullo, and I was able to relax and hear it performed professionally in the Weill recital room of Carnegie Hall, so it had a second life. Tom was amazing in transforming and developing the rhythms and humor of the poem in his score and in finding ideas and layers I had never recognized in writing it.
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 certainly sat patiently while I was working on it that summer, but when I felt it was done I sent it right away. That made a kind of closure so I could go on to something else.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is way over on the fiction side (that decision is made in line one, choosing the 3rd person POV), though the emotional situation it originated from was certainly factual. I tried to transform some pretty difficult inner material at the time into a completely different form. I mean, in fact I was on a covered porch, and my family was in a distant place; but I transformed it to standing in the drenching rain, and placed them in my new house watching me. By the time the poem gets through, I think I’ve ventured into surreal or dream territory. As a poet I used a lot of the classical dream mechanisms, such as “displacement” and “condensation.” I put the old family in the new house. I gave us a dog, though I’ve never had one. Maybe the tipoff is that I named the dog “Ossian,” after the fake 18th century poet—though again that just sprang into mind and I certainly had no conscious reason for that name.
For me, poetry begins at the point where the facts of the world begin to transform into something else. Yet if the facts aren’t always in there, under the surface, the poem loses touch with reality. There were some fairly hard facts behind this piece which a reader might never know, but I hope the poem is able to convey that. Otherwise it would just be a moment of silliness.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, it tells a little story that takes place in linear time. My narrative poems got longer and longer till they outgrew anything that could be called poetry and I turned to fiction.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was very much under the spell of Pavese at the time. “Hard Labor” contained several such longer, narrative poems, based in earthly facts but full of provocative spaces and intimations.
Do you have any particular audience in mind, an ideal reader?
Now, as a fiction writer mainly, I write for my agent, taking her to be not only an expert reader but the representative of a wider public audience. At that time I thought of poetry more in terms of readings, and as I wrote I imagined the poem read aloud before an audience, perhaps including the man in the rain. I first read it in one of the informal after-supper readings at Yaddo.
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 don’t usually share work till the first draft is done, thinking of that as a somewhat womblike period. In this case, I did share it around at Yaddo when I was working it through its drafts. Now, with fiction, after the first draft is finished I show it to my trusted domestic partner, Donna, then to my agent Alison.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It is much the same in length and format as all the poems in that volume, of which “Rain” is the title poem. In that period I wrote a number of fantasy narratives like “Rain.”
What is American about this poem?
There is a tip of the hat to Hollywood, but, as I mentioned, I was reading Pavese at the time so I’m sure it has some European DNA. I probably imagined the wet dancers as being in a peasant village in central Europe, or under the umbrellas of Cherbourg, more than in the US. I think even when this was written poetry was pretty much globalized. Yet I would have wanted the speech rhythms to be regular American English. I was trying to keep a casual conversational rhythm even while the material got quite metaphoric and intense.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished. It got to that asymptotic point where any more work on it isn’t worth the effort, then I sent it off. As an interesting footnote on the poem, I just now see from Google that Stephen Dunn wrote an essay on it, which I hadn’t known. That takes me back to Yaddo and the days we were reading each other’s poems. I will have to go and read that.