Christopher Buckley’s seventeenth collection of poetry, Rolling The Bones, won the 2009 Tampa Review Poetry Prize and will be published by the Univ. of Tampa Press in April 2010. Other recent books include Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 (Tupelo Press, 2008); Flying Backbone: The Georgia O’Keefe Poems (Blue Light Press, 2008); and And the Sea (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2006). Buckley was a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry for 2007-2008, and has been awarded the James Dickey Prize for 2008 from Five Points Magazine. He has received a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing to the former Yugoslavia, four Pushcart Prizes, two awards from the Poetry Society of America, and is the recipient of NEA grants in poetry for 2001 and 1984.
la colera de pobre
tiene dos rios contra muchos mares.
— César Vallejo
Vallejo wrote that with God we are all orphans.
I send $22 a month to a kid in Ecuador
so starvation keeps moving on its bony burro
past his door—no cars, computers,
basketball shoes—not a bottle cap
of hope for the life ahead . . . just enough
to keep hunger shuffling by in a low cloud
of flies. It’s the least I can do, and so I do it.
I have followed the dry length
of Mission Creek to the sea and forgotten to pray
for the creosote, the blue salvia, let alone
for pork bellies, soy bean futures. Listen.
There are 900 thousand Avon Ladies in Brazil.
Billions are spent each year on beauty products
world-wide—28 billion on hair care, 14 on skin
conditioners, despite children digging on the dumps,
selling their kidneys, anything that is briefly theirs.
9 billion a month for war in Iraq, a chicken bone
for foreign aid. I am the prince of small potatoes,
I deny them nothing who come to me beseeching
the crusts I have to give. I have no grounds for complaint,
though deep down, where it’s anyone’s guess,
I covet everything that goes along with the illustrious—
creased pants as I stroll down the glittering boulevard,
a little aperitif beneath Italian pines. But who cares
what I wear, or drink? The rain? No, the rain is something
we share—it devours the beginning and the end.
The old stars tumble out of their bleak rooms like dice—
Box Cars, Snake Eyes, And-The-Horse-You-Rode-In-On . . .
not one metaphorical bread crumb in tow.
Not a single Saludo! from the patronizers
of the working class—Pharaoh Oil, Congress,
or The Commissioner of Baseball—all who will eventually
take the same trolley car to hell, or a slag heap
on the outskirts of Cleveland. I have an ATM card,
AAA Plus card. I can get cash from machines, be towed
20 miles to a service station. Where do I get off penciling in
disillusionment? My bones are as worthless as the next guy’s
against the stars, against the time it takes light to expend
its currency across the cosmic vault. I have what everyone has—
the over-drawn statement of the air, my blood newly rich
with oxygen before the inescapable proscenium of the dark,
my breath going out equally with any atom of weariness
or joy, each one of which is closer to God than I.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I cannot now truly remember when exactly I wrote this. I would guess it began six years ago, though it is the lead off poem in my new book, Rolling The Bones. Eastern Washington University Press accepted the book well over three years ago and missed at least three publication dates before the director was fired and the press collapsed. After the third time the book did not appear, I started sending it around again and got lucky with the Tampa contest. So it’s been sitting in there over three years and I think I had it finished about three years before that? I remember sending it around to contests as I believed in it strongly when it was finally done. One magazine in Missouri that advertises a great deal and runs a yearly contest called to ask if they could publish it cutting all of the poem except the first eight lines. The editor, a poet whose work I have never seen, offered a little homily about accepting constructive criticism from people as experienced as himself. I politely declined. A couple other contests, as they do, offered to publish it as some kind of a runner-up poem, but I again declined and kept sending it out. A journal I’ve admired for years, Five Points, accepted it and two other poems as the James Dickey Prize winner in 2008, and so I was glad that I had held onto it for so long and kept faith.
The poem started as one of my semi-pastoral meditations on the environs of Santa Barbara, CA where I grew up, as many of my poems do. It was two and a half or three pages long, and initially I was struggling for focus, for a theme—I really wanted to move beyond the tangential loss of Eden subtext of earlier work.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
My best guess is between forty and fifty revisions—90% of my poems receive this much revision. But this poem took more work than most. I think well over a year went by between first and final drafts, and that excludes tweaks a few years later; I am an inveterate reviser.
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?
This poem, gratefully, is the work—as they say in art history—of “later hands.” I have always relied on a couple long time poet friends for criticism and suggestions. I would never think of sending out anything that did not have their eyes on it first, a lesson I learned very early on from my first teacher Glover Davis, who was a rigorous critic. Every writer needs a friend with a shit-detector, is a statement often attributed to Hemingway. Amen. I have friends who write more quickly than I, Gary Soto for instance, who works quickly in two or three drafts. Still Soto always comes to me or Jon Veinberg for critical input before anything goes in a book. And I remember Bill Matthews telling me that if he didn’t have it in a few drafts, he tossed it and went on, but none of us should judge ourselves against Bill, who was brilliant and a major talent. So “Poverty” saw eight or ten revisions—which for me equals a first draft—and then was sent to my main reader, Gary Young, and also to Veinberg who graciously responds to my poems. It came back and was cut down to about two pages. Usually then I hit it a dozen or more times after my friends have worked it over. But I was still not satisfied with the poem. Besides the obvious objective help you receive from friends re what is working and what is not, what to cut, and perhaps a gift now and then about what you might add, you also benefit from time, just staying away from the poem for a while. So when I revised some more and looked at it again, I could see that there were two voices at odds in the poem, and look, I’d done all this work, troubled my friends to give up their time to help me out; where to go with it now? But at least I was on to myself and went through the poem with a yellow highlighter marking about half of it, the portions that I suspected were more usual, softer, throat-clearing poeticisms before I got down the meat of the project. I knew who would tell me with no reservation to cut those parts, or not, Philip Levine. Phil has helped me with three or four poems in thirty years. I am careful not to bother him too much as so many do and I was never really ever a student of his. He once went through an entire book ms. for me, but that was at Bread Loaf and I was a Fellow that year and it was the job of senior staff to respond to so many mss. from Fellows. But otherwise, I tried to save up my requests re specific poems, as Phil was generous to me and so many in many other ways. But I knew this one needed his no-nonsense take. And sure enough he got right back to me and crossed out almost all the lines I had highlighted, but said I needed to keep a couple at the end I was marking for the wreckers ball. And, he gave me a new last line, which I cannot remember now, but it was an improvement. We had cut the pastoral voice, and were sticking with the direct and angry voice, the more political texture, something I realized I was picking up from reading so much Vallejo. That is where the poems turned in the road and made its way. I discovered, looking over recent work, that this angrier voice was popping up in a few poems and that those poems had more grit, engagement and honesty. I found I was writing more political poems in my 50s than I had in my 20s and 30s. I went with it. I revised and sent that revision back to Phil. He approved, added a few bits of house-keeping about the edges, and then re-wrote the final line again—a 2nd new finishing line, and I cannot now remember if it was a take-off on the earlier one he had offered and if either of them had any substantive connection to my original ending line, but I knew enough to appreciate a gift when I was given one, and so the poem owes a huge debt to him. He said that any time I have a poem this good, feel free to send it to him for help. Hmmm . . . how was I going to judge that? Wouldn’t that be arrogant? All I knew was that that particular poem needed rigorous cutting and help if it was going to make it and I knew no one better than Phil to help, and he did. I have not sent him a poem since. I send everything, absolutely everything, through Gary Young who is a marvelous editor as well as poet.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
One quote I always repeat to my workshops is the old Thomas Edison quote about inventing—it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The only time I get poems quickly, what you might call via inspiration, is in dreams. Once every two or three years, I will wake up in the middle of the night with a poem rising through the mudflats of my subconscious. I make myself get up and go to the study, turn a light on and write it down, experience teaching me that I will never remember the idea or the lines by morning. When this happens, all too rarely, I get the poem in ten to fifteen drafts.
I think the inspiration and echo of Vallejo’s poems helped me “receive” perhaps four or five lines in the poem and those lines dictated the rest via what to cut, what to reinforce. One gift came to me driving in the car, listening to the news station. At the end of the half hour, this station often tries to come up with some interesting but often useless bits of news, what have been labeled “factoids,” often some silly or humorous items occurring around the country. That day, they had some statistics on the use and sale of beauty products in Brazil and world-wide; they were so amazing that I pulled over and wrote them down, almost immediately realizing that that kind of thing was what the poem—then still in drafts—needed to kick it hard into a serious direction.
The sweat and tears aspect I’ve already addressed above.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
No, there was no conscious employment of technique, prosody, inherited forms or their elements. Sometimes it is profitable to set yourself such an assignment, or decide upon a particular discipline that might reign in an unruly poem. For many years in my 20s I was a tennis pro. I never made it to Wimbledon; I was a teaching pro but I played a number of tournaments. What you rely on after years of practice is muscle memory and after thirty years of writing, or more, I rely on a poetic muscle memory and each poem most often discovers its form from the long echoes of all the other poetry I have read and written. This poem arrived in its final form just as I have said, but cutting and cutting and revising and revising toward that controlling voice and vision I absorbed from Vallejo—and from the gracious help of friends as I have noted.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Years, as I have said. I held onto it. The fact that Phil believed in it gave me great support and helped me turn down lesser offers at publication until Five Points selected it. Probably there was a three year gap.
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 rules regarding this. I do not let a poem sit, though that is probably a very good idea for us all. But by the time I have written a dozen drafts, my friends have gone over it with a ruthless slash and burn, and I write another twenty or so drafts, a lot of time goes by, and that is one kind of “sitting.” What I know is never to congratulate myself about a poem, especially when it comes, as one rarely does, quickly. The one or two times I have sent a poem out without first passing it by Gary Young and/or Veinberg I have looked like a fool, so I do not do it.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well of course, as I have mentioned, there are facts in the poem re Brazil and beauty care products, the money I send monthly to a children’s organization for South America; I have a AAA card. And it is a poem of self examination as much as anything else. But as political and angry as it is, it is a work of the imagination, it is orchestrated from fact and memory, it has, forgive me, some kind of a vision. I love what Picasso said to a critic of his abstract paintings, something to the effect—We all know art is not the truth; art is a lie that helps us realize the truth. I’ll go with that.
Is this a narrative poem?
No, this is not a narrative poem, that seems pretty obvious to me. A lyric, meditative rant maybe, but there is no story being told.
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?
Well Yes and No. I do not think you can say all anything is such and such. That never works for me. Take James Tate for example, a poet whose work I have never felt much affinity for—we’re on different ends of the poetic spectrum, not that my views would ever be of interest to him. But what do you say then about his poem “Good Time Jesus”? It’s glib, irreverent, and yet and yet it has a great imaginative moment and has something to say. It’s not about right or wrong, and doesn’t engage the ethics or the idea of justice. But it’s a good poem.
Still, I have found that most poetry of some humanity and meaning, does engage the ideas you mention. Go back to the ancient Aztecs—one of the main things that makes their poetry (good contemporary translations by Peter Everwine and Stephen Berg) memorable and viable still to day is their confrontation of mortality and the human condition addressing and questioning God/the gods. I have a line in a poem that sounds a bit like a tautology, “If it’s going to mean something / it had better mean something.” It’s a bit Yogi Berra now I come to think of it . . . but the point is meaning, the attempt to understand our lives vis-à-vis an afterlife or the absence of same. The arbitrary orchestration of language and sounds is of little use as I see it. I think truth and beauty still obtain despite theorists running around saying there is no meaning and writers do not know what they are doing. As Vallejo wrote:
A cripple walks by arm in arm with a child.
After that I’m going to read André Breton?
Vallejo knew a life of poverty, grinding physical poverty. This poem hopes to point out on a larger scale the spiritual poverty in the U.S. and in the world, in individuals, as well as the more obvious ills of physical poverty. It hopes to point toward the responsibility we all must bear.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading a lot of César Vallejo; I was in fact working on editing an anthology, Homage to Vallejo, for Greenhouse Review Press, a book that collected poems by poets writing in English who had written poems directly influenced by Vallejo and his poems.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Nothing ideal. I hope to write clearly enough to be understood and perhaps appreciated by people who are interested in reading poetry.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
“Poverty” has more of an edge. It is more direct, declarative, political. It is not as lyric as it is conscious. A number of new poems take up this voice and view and mix in with the more meditative texture of the other work.
What is American about this poem?
Let’s say greed, that is pretty American. The reaction to the political conservative view that you can substitute money for ethics and morality, for your responsibility to the planet and to society at large.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
With a lot of work and a great deal of help this poem was finished.