Elyse Fenton's first book, Clamor, was selected by DA Powell as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book award, and was recently long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Winner of the Pablo Neruda Award, she received her MFA from the University of Oregon and has published poetry and nonfiction in The New York Times, Best New Poets, and The Massachusetts Review. She’s worked in the woods, on farms and in schools in New Hampshire, Mongolia, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, and currently lives in Philadelphia with her husband and infant daughter.
Wreckage was still smoldering on the airport road
when they delivered the soldier—beyond recognition,
seeing god's hands in the medevac's spun rotors—
to the station's gravel landing pad. By the time you arrived
there were already hands fluttering white flags of gauze
against the ruptured scaffolding of ribs, the glistening skull, and no skin
left untended, so you were the one to sink the rubber catheter tube.
When you tell me this over the phone hours later I can hear rotors
scalping the tarmac-gray sky, the burdenless lift of your voice.
And I love you more for holding the last good flesh
of that soldier's cock in your hands, for startling his warm blood
back to life. Listen. I know the way the struck chord begins
to shudder, fierce heat rising into the skin of my own
sensate palms. That moment just before we think
the end will never come and then
the moment when it does.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote “Gratitude” during my husband’s deployment, sometime in 2006. I was in grad school in Oregon, he was in Baghdad, and I walked around perpetually stymied by the distance between our experiences and the difference between our daily existences. Before we realized how much it was costing us, we talked on the phone on a regular basis, usually as I was just getting up to write in the morning, and after he was done with his day. Many of the poems in Clamor were borne of these fragments of communication—shards, really, because of the way they refracted experience, the way they stuck beneath the nail beds and refused to be dislodged. After talking with him, writing was like threading glass splinters from my palms.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t really write disparate drafts—a poem stays in a single Word document as I muck around in it—so I can’t really say how many revisions I wrote. I’d guess this poem didn’t take more than a month.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Sweat, tears: yes.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I think the poem was in shorter, more uniform couplets from the beginning, but then it breathed a little, maybe when I was able to breathe a little. It didn’t emerge into the distending-then-retracting final form for a few months.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About six months, I think. It first appeared in Natural Bridge with a handful of others that would eventually become Clamor.
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?
Often, I’m reckless about these things. If a poem sits too long in a Word document, there’s a good chance it’ll get waterlogged.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This is definitely a negotiation that’s arisen in particular with the poems in Clamor, and has led, on occasion, to mild domestic discord. On a fundamental level, these poems do originate with my experience as the wife of an army medic deployed in Baghdad. Absolutely. There’s the figure of the war-bride, the soldier, some shred of recognizable experience that I don’t mean to disavow. And because these figures are so present and because he doesn’t want to be anywhere near a spotlight, I think my husband would like a disclaimer on “Gratitude” and other poems that reads: this is not my experience. And of course he’s right. It’s not his experience at all; it could never be, and not just because he’s not a poet. But it’s not exactly my experience, either, because it’s a poem, it’s a construction. Hopefully it’s happening right there on the page.
I’m often asked by audience members in variously forthright ways whether these poems come from my direct experience. Often, I tell them, yes, yes they do, but in the back of my head, I’m thinking, well, what poem doesn’t come from some experience of the world? Even— or, arguably, especially— an attention to sonic quality comes from an attention to the world. But again, they’re poems, not reportage, and I’m much more invested in the ways that they move on or against the page, the way images and sounds catalyze each other, the potential for creating and subverting expectations or rhetoric or lyric or perceptions, or really, in just plain making something like music, than I am with recounting the experience of the modern war bride. That’s why I write poetry and not journalism.
It seems to me that the audience member’s question is calculated to gauge the level of the speaker’s ‘authenticity,’ and this is where it gets problematic for me. What I guess I want to ask is: does it improve on your experience of the poem to know that it did, in fact, spring from a conversation I had with my husband, who did, in fact, catheterize an Iraqi soldier? That there is, indeed, an insider in the action somewhere within the vicinity of the poem? I have trouble with this line of inquiry in part because of its implications, its potential to privilege first-hand witness as the only possible ‘authentic’ voice.
But then, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t an opportunist of grief. I’m thankful for the real, lived, factual experience I had, waiting for my husband to return home from war, because it made me feel human and it made me write poems that hurt, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done that without being rooted in the cold, hard facts.
Is this a narrative poem?
No. Or yes. Or no: no.
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?
I initially misread this question as “the specter of mortality,” to which I’d respond, yeah, this poem’s got it in spades. But the “specter of morality” is something else. I guess I hope there isn’t the idea of right and wrong, because I don’t think that kind of dialectic—with its propensity for didacticism--really has a place in my work.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I spent a lot of time on Dante’s Inferno over the course of that year. Also Anna Akhmatova, Czeslaw Milosz, and to a lesser degree, Lorca. Then I discovered Michael Longley.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Poetry requires that I lose—or at least, loosen—myself a little, and keeping an audience in mind really gets in the way of that process. It’s kind of like cutting a blow-down with an ax (and I know I have some friends who have heard way too many of my trail-crew analogies rolling their eyes right now). It can be sweaty, exacting, perilous work, but you can’t over-think it. At some point you’ve got to let muscle memory take over, you’ve got to let the blade fly. Imagining an audience, some hapless reader, the next hiker through the woods, really throws me off my game.
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 remember when I showed my husband this one. He was running an aid station, and he used to print out copies of some of my work and tape it to the door to the bathroom where he lived (yes, the bathroom), so it would be visible to other medics. I get the feeling this one wasn’t on that door, though, as he wasn’t particularly comfortable being cast as such a central figure.
But yeah, I have some good poet friends who infrequently get mailed drafts of my work. Note the use of the passive tense there. I’m not always consistent about this process.
What is American about this poem?
What is American about a poem that takes as its backdrop the current Iraq war? I guess it depends on which population of America you’re talking about...
Was this poem finished or abandoned?