Richard Jones is the author of several books of poetry, including Country of Air, The Blessing: New and Selected Poems, and Apropos of Nothing (all from Copper Canyon Press). A new collection, The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning is just out. He is also the editor of Poetry East and its many anthologies, such as The Last Believer in Words and Bliss. A professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, he lives north of the city with his wife and three children.
THE FIELD TRIP
visiting the Holocaust Museum
after reading Elie Wiesel’s Night
I enter the empty freight car,
a box that carried many away.
Three girls and two boys—
I’d seen them in another gallery,
walking past the mounds of shoes—
board beside me, the two boys
pushing the giggling girls
up the ramp. In the quiet dark,
the teenagers huddle and whisper.
Their plan of escape is simple.
Tonight, past curfew, the girls
will elude their chaperons,
steal down the hotel hallway
to the boy’s room, where, they say,
they’ll order pizza and watch MTV.
No one says a word about kissing,
though that’s all I thought about
when I was young. Even the boys
and girls herded onto the trains
flirted in the dark, or so I’ve read—
holding each other, gently rocking
as the wheels beneath them ground on.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The Holocaust has been a source of meditation for me for most of my life. But one hesitates to write about it. Yet when I visited the Holocaust Museum, I was touched in a very unsuspected way as I stood in the train car. The seed of the poem was planted in that moment, though I didn’t write the poem until years later, and then it took several more years to compose.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I revise endlessly; or rather I revise until I get to the end of the revision process. Most of my poems take between five and seven years to complete. There are uncounted drafts, but a poem may sit untouched on the desk for months while I work on other things. Time is a great ally.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don’t know exactly what “inspiration” is. But even were I an inspired poet, I’d still probably find inspiration to be a very small part of the artistic process, a divine instant followed by years of labor. I think of poetry more as working in a salt mine than standing atop mount Parnassus.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem takes place in a motionless freight car, but the narrator’s imagination is not at all static. So the concern (that I remember) was to solve problems of staging, narration, and choreography. Sometimes I think to cut out the stanzas like a film editor.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I published it in The Louisville Review in 2005. Then it appeared in Apropos of Nothing in 2006.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world?
Poems “sit” because I recognize that I need artistic distance, or some greater wisdom that will come with time, in order to serve the poem’s needs. But not every poem I write is published: some I keep for myself. But if by “send it off into the world” you simply mean sharing the poem with another, I sometimes do that before the ink is dry. When I draft a poem, I often will call my sister on the phone just after typing the last line and read it to her.
Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I’m not much on rules, I just like to work. If I make rules, it seems, I break them pretty quickly. But rules have their place. I like rules. I wish I had more discipline to honor rules, my own rules as well as the rules of others.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The incident in the poem—my visit to the Holocaust Museum and finding myself in the freight car with those kids—happened pretty much as I wrote it. So the poem is factual in that sense, but there is the greater, tragic fact of the camps. This personal, incidental poem is spoken, quite literally, on the stage of human history. As for fiction, I would say that I think the poet must see everything. I hesitate to call my musing about the lives of others—the kids in the museum, and the people who died—“fiction,” unless by fiction we mean the sort that engenders and commands empathy, solidarity, and forgiveness.
Is this a narrative poem?
That’s not a distinction I make or think about in my poetry.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I read all the time. I remember I was purposely rereading Elie Wiesel’s Night at the time I visited the Holocaust Museum, but who knows what I was reading later, while writing the poem? Could have been anything—Milton, Milosz, maybe a guide to stargazing, maybe Jane Austin. The important thing is that before the poem began I had already read Wiesel, Primo Levi, I knew about and understood Adorno’s position on poetry and the camps, I deeply admired Reznikoff, etc. “Influence,” for me at least, is rarely coincident with the writing; it precedes, often by years, the work at hand. Like the way ancient glaciers “influenced” the American landscape.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No audience—I just want to be clear and to avoid any possible writerly pretensions. My ideal reader could be anybody.
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?
As I said, sometimes when I’m starting a poem, I’ll call my sister and read her an early draft, just because she’s always so receptive and openhearted. Otherwise I keep my poems to myself until I am well into a book manuscript. Then I have one reader to whom I show my manuscripts, a friend I’ve worked with over the years, and whom I trust completely. My forthcoming book is dedicated to him. But no one else sees my poems, except maybe my wife, who is a tough, spot-on critic.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t think it does differ.
What is American about this poem?
I think that is a good follow-up question for anyone who reads the poem.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I hope not to ever publish an unfinished poem, which is what “abandoned” means to me (even though I grant that the term “abandoned” is understood and used differently by others). I’m also aware that the word “finished” can mean both “accomplished” or “dead.” I aim for the idea that if the poet is faithful, a poem attains its destined radiance. To me this belief, this discipline, is very important, especially when writing a poem like “The Field Trip,” but really when writing any poem, because every poem is important. So yes, I try to “finish” all my poems in the sense that I accomplish my task and the poem is complete, and I can stand by it forever, until the end of time.