Monday, June 14, 2010
Mark Cox teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at UNC-Wilmington and in the Vermont College MFA program. His books include Smoulder (David R. Godine, 1989), Thirty-seven Years from the Stone (Pitt Poetry Series, 1998), and Natural Causes, (Pitt Poetry Series, 2004).
LIKE A SIMILE
Fell into bed like a tree
slept like boiling water
got up from bed like a camel
and showered like a tin roof.
Went down stairs like a slinky
drove to work like a water skier
entered the trailer like a bad smell
where I changed clothes like a burn victim
drank my coffee like a mosquito
and waited like a bus stop.
A whistle blew.
Then I painted like I was in a knife fight for eight hours
drank like a burning building
drove home like a bank shot
unlocked the door like a jeweler
and entered the house like an argument next door.
The dog smiled like a chain saw.
The wife pretended to be asleep
I pretended to eat.
She laid on the bed like a mattress
I sat at the table like a chair.
Until I inched along the stair rail like a sprinkler
entered like smoke from a fire in the next room
and apologized like a toaster.
The covers did not open like I was an envelope
and she was a 24-hour teller
so I undressed like an apprentice matador
discovering bullshit on his shoes.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Well, to me, the poem has always seemed more exercise than poem. It has been many years—it was written in 1993—so I don’t remember, exactly, but I suspect it sprang from an exercise I gave my students, at the time.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t think this took very long to finish. I published it in early 1994. Sometimes poems like this appear about 90% complete, then it’s a matter of sharpening the voice and tone. It’s finding the closure that provides structural wholeness and resonance that takes patience.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Poems can surface in substantial, coherent form in a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean they are written quickly. I was thirty-seven years old when I wrote that poem, so it took thirty-seven years plus a few minutes to write it. I’m not being flippant. I believe everything I write stems from all the writing I’ve done prior to that point. It’s all part of the flow.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
All I can do with a poem like this is attempt to reflect the persona’s voice and tone on the page. So, I think about sentence structure and variation quite a bit. I try to lineate in ways that encourage the eye to perceive calculated units of meaning while the voice flows through as naturally as possible.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A few months. Jonathan Holden at Kansas Quarterly took it, I believe.
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 varies. It always helps me to live with poems at some length. I actually don’t submit very much anymore. I suppose I should, but I prefer focusing on books. So they sit a long time, now. A very long time.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem is true in that I was an industrial painter (bridges, tanks, towers and the like), until 1987. And this is what my job and relationship felt like at times during those years. That said, I never lived in a house with stairs during those years. And if there hadn’t been a dog, I would have invented him.
Is this a narrative poem?
No, not to my mind. Even though there are elements of story, it is really barely an anecdote— more of a vague setting staged from memory. Any success is really an issue of the dramatic voice and the vitality of figurative language.
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?
Successful poems seem to be systems of tension and conflict, whether on the surface level of language or at the level of content. I suppose those tensions are mainly reflections of human choices and possibilities, for better or worse. I don’t know that successful poetry is necessarily ethical, but I do think that the poems that mean most to me issue from sensibilities that confront complexity with an open attitude and struggle to be honest with themselves.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I haven’t a clue who I was reading at the time. But I’d spent almost a decade really focused on mental imagery’s function in the cognitive process. When I was younger, I liked the flashy, semi-intrusive authorial sensibilities that relied a lot on figurative language and highlighted the poems’ artifice. I don’t place Jack Myers in that flashy category, but he was my teacher and friend. My influences are eclectic and numerous. I was into the French Symbolists and Surrealists for a while. Hardy, Jeffers and Stevens were important. Robert Lowell and Frost. I found Sexton, Nazim Hikmet, Frank Stanford and Stephen Berg very inspiring
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No, I really don’t. I suppose I hope for readers who appreciate emotional, intellectual and stylistic range.
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 doubt anyone saw it before magazine publication, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find comments about it in letters from friends who saw the book manuscript later. I certainly run book manuscripts by friends, once they are pretty complete. Myers, Tony Hoagland, David Rivard, David Wojahn, Jill Rosser—I’ve trusted them all to keep me straight over the years.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Don’t get me wrong, I still have fondness for this poem, but it’s not the deepest or most architecturally challenging poem I’ve ever written. It is more of a performance piece. And it is the kind of poem that became too easy for me. I could do it with both hands tied behind my back and a pen in my mouth.
What is American about this poem?
Interesting question. It’s unabashedly self-involved! It insists that the quotidian is as inherently poetic as high brow eloquence. It relies on a familiar sense of the tragicomic. Its formal nature is based on speech rhythms and insists on being accessible. I’m not sure.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Well, I agree that poems are never finished. In fact, I consider my body of work to be one long poem that won’t be finished until I’m dead. Individual poems are really just sections in an ongoing sequence. Generally, I stick with them until my interest in something else outweighs my interest in them.