Monday, August 16, 2010
Dave Smith's recent books include Afield: Writers on Bird Dogs (Skyhorse, 2010), edited with Robert DeMott; The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000 (LSU, 2000); Little Boats, Unsalvaged (LSU, 2005); and Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (LSU, 2006). He is Chairman of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
NEAR THE DOCKS
There was a fire in the night.
Across the street I slept among the others
as the ashes snowed upon small pines.
I slept owning nothing, a child ignorant
of fortune’s blistering story, the playful
flash in the dark, the unseen smolder
that would leave us revealed, unchanged.
I said my prayers for luck
but the man trying to live in two houses
answers me now, losing
neither the old one whose windows burst
with weariness, nor the one half-built
whose roofless, green timbers
he would leave unfinished like a vision.
I had climbed there all summer to smoke.
Awake, I found him sitting at his stool
halfway between the houses
where I would go each morning. The story
of the sea would be upon his tongue,
his hands weaving the wire to a trap,
making the careful seams to catch
a scuttling crab. Beyond him, his wife
already had begun to stretch her wash,
indifferent in that early light, and a dog
lapped from the ruts of the fire truck.
I believed little had been changed by fire,
only his toolshed limp as a black sail
left in a heap, and a new hole
in the landscape. This was an old place
where no one came, luckless, desperate,
eternal as guilt. In silence
I greeted that old one. But now I remember
seeing also, as if for the first time,
the shocking gray face of the sea.
It loomed up human and beautiful
as far off the figures of boats crossed,
worked, and seemed to sink
while they burned in the sullen sun.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I don’t know exactly the date of composition, but it would have been between 1970 and 1973. I used an early draft of the poem in The Fisherman’s Whore, published in 1974, which dates the composition. The poem is based loosely on a childhood experience. My grandparents lived across the street from the home of a man who made his living as a “waterman,” one who fishes nets, tongs for oysters, runs strings of crab pots, all during appropriate season, and out of season repairs such equipment as boats, motors, nets, etc. To the uninformed it may appear the waterman loafs when he is not harvesting the actual product. This particular man had a dark, mysterious workshop for his repair work and it lay behind both the old weather-worn house he lived in and a second house he was building in his desultory fashion. I must have been about ten years old, spending a summer with my grandparents, and had befriended the waterman’s son, about the same age. Once or twice, maybe more, we climbed to the loft of the workshop and smoked his father’s cigarettes in secret comradeship. One dark night my grandmother woke me to watch as fire consumed that workshop so rapidly it was left in a heap by the next daylight, all of that in enormous contrast to the wailing sirens and flashing lights. Writing the poem years later, I was an enlisted man in the US Air Force, essentially owned by all who outranked me, and it happened I was stationed not many miles from the scene and the place of that fire.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Again, I am unsure of the answers. Probably the early drafts were not many because I wanted to describe events as exact as memory could make them. However, my writing process is inevitably a fumbling forward as if following bread crumbs in the forest, always with the conviction something big is waiting for my discovery. The first published draft is shorter and less ambitious than subsequent drafts. The poem was revised for reappearance in The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems, in 1985; then it was revised again for collection in The Wick of Memory: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000, in 2000. So it was revised multiply over more than sixteen years time. Each revision seeks to understand and express the juxtaposition of violation and cultural continuity; it does so by attending to three stories—the fire in the night, the ongoing work that defines the life of a people, and the relationship of the narrator to those experiences. None of the stories is fully told, only inscribed as they set up a moment of quasi-understanding that is something like what poetry critics refer to as an epiphany.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
These two questions reflect the antithetical ethos of Romantic and Modern thinking. Inspiration means, literally, in-breathing, but you mean the imagination’s unsought gifts. No poets actually experience “sweat and tears” but this is a metaphor for constant labor. Both, I think, are part of any composing process. But neither accounts wholly for the emergence of a poem.
What is on the page of my poem is largely accurate, even if only I am left to say so; however, some of it is entirely invented. No one ever argued the fire was caused by anyone’s cigarette; the woman of the house did not string a wash; there was no dog; I don’t recall ever seeing that waterman on a stool; most significant of all, from that place you could not see water or boats. To place such details into a narrative relationship is to seek meaning. That is what art does and what a news report does not do.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem arrived through the action of my genius, I would like to say. Silly to do that. But any poem, even the least sophisticated, employs myriad techniques, or it cannot be called a poem, only words lineated. My technique, alluded to in the three stories mentioned above, was to appear to tell a simple personal narrative which joins fragmentary details to make credible the final claim: that there is always much more meaning, or illumination, in representational moments than we readily admit. The corollary to that is that everything is mysterious and beyond explanation, though not beyond understanding. But your question really means decisions relating to line, stanza, sonic repetition, and the like. Yes, I did.
How long after you finished this poem did it appear in print?
I don’t know. I believe it must have been within a few months because in those days I sent poems to magazines as fast as I felt they were done (which they rarely were). I was lucky enough that someone wanted to publish my poems. Remember, though, that at any given time there have always been more than a thousand poetry-publishing small magazines, which is a voracious appetite, one that will snap up even the least finished fish around.
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 had no rule over the years. I sent the poems off too quickly in every case. Publication buoyed me; it made me imagine I was better than I was. The result was that I had to revise poems before collecting them into books, sometimes dump them altogether, a sloppy and self-deceptive way of being, which also has the ill effect of causing whatever learning goes on to be done publicly. William Logan once reviewed a friend of mine and said of his poems, “Maybe now he will cease to educate himself in public,” or words to that effect. It could have been said of me, I am afraid. The worst of this lesson is that once poems have appeared in books they are painfully and permanently on display with all of the ugly scars and wens and stigmata that one did not remove.
I still have no rule about letting the poems mature. But life has its way of enforcing better practices. If I was once in a position to be attractive to editors, hence to publish a lot, age has mitigated that. I no longer write as much, or as fast, as I once did; moreover, I send poems out only when asked for them, and requests now come seldom. Thus, I have little need for any rule of restraint.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I have already done so above. A fire in the night burned down a man’s workshop, altering his ability to work or build his life-house. That is factual, though I do not give the date or location or name. I do not ask the reader to feel pity or send a contribution. The lack of specificity makes it possible that this is actually a fiction. What is the difference, really? Things go bump in the night, we wake and adjust and try to understand. Surely that is the function of language in general, perhaps of poetry more than for any other expressive act. The fable of the Beauty and the Beast tells us that what we love may be ugly, what we should love may be ugly, but we forget. Poetry reminds us.
Is this a narrative poem?
All poems are narratives. Some more, some less. If that is controversial, I add this: the older I have come to be the more I understand that the quality of any poem lies almost entirely in the quality of its story, how compelling, how weighty, how memorable. The best poets tell the best stories. Simply that.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was a young man writing this poem, in my early thirties, and in love with any poetry I found to read. I was much drawn to Yeats, Hardy, Houseman, Dickey, but also to Frost, and maybe Auden. I responded to poets who felt the dark pressure of reality, what the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” laments because his friends are gone, his good years are over, the weather is bad, there’s no more plundering and killing and glory to be taken. And yet, life is beautiful. Sometimes, anyway.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Yes, me. Also the poets I have admired and with whose poems I am in competition. This is, as academic critics are now fond of saying, also a “conversation.” But one doesn’t converse to achieve superior results, one competes. James Wright said he wanted a reader who was informed and free of ulterior motive. I feel less competitive now and don’t really pay much attention to what others poets are doing. My standard is simply to tell the best story I can and reduce my reader to weeping joy. As I am that reader, I laugh at the abject futility of the one who speaks to me so.
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?
My wife may have seen it in drafts. I think I stopped showing her my poems some years later when her honesty became unbearable. Melville remarks in an essay about Hawthorne, his friend, that Hawthorne would have been a better writer if he had shown his fiction to Melville for comment. I am certain that is a good thing for every writer to do. I don’t do it. I am too thin-skinned.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It is older than many. Shorter than many. Shorter lines than many. More Romantic than many. Otherwise, not much different.
What is American about this poem?
Not much, really. However, its author is certifiably American.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
The poet to whom you allude with that dichotomy thought all poems were abandoned. If I think about the question, I am able to comfortably side with either answer, so I will say both.