Donna Masini is the author of two collections of poems -- Turning to Fiction ( W.W. Norton and Co. 2004), and That Kind of Danger (Beacon Press, 1994), which was selected by Mona Van Duyn for the Barnard Women Poet's Prize -- and a novel, About Yvonne, (WW Norton and Co. 1998.) Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Poetry 180, Open City, TriQuarterly, Paris Review, KGB BAR Book of Poems, and Parnassus, among others. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Grant, and a Pushcart Prize, she is an Associate Professor of English at Hunter College where she teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program. She lives in New York City and is currently at work on a novel, The Good Enough Mother.
I watched a snake once, swallow a rabbit.
Fourth grade, the reptile zoo
the rabbit stiff, nose in, bits of litter stuck to its fur,
its head clenched in the wide
jaws of the snake, the snake
sucking it down its long throat.
All throat that snake—I couldn't tell
where the throat ended, the body
began. I remember the glass
case, the way that snake
took its time (all the girls, groaning, shrieking
but weren't we amazed, fascinated,
saying we couldn't look, but looking, weren't we
held there, weren't we
imagining—what were we imagining?)
Mrs. Peterson urged us to move on girls,
but we couldn't move. It was like
watching a fern unfurl, a minute
hand move across a clock. I didn't know why
the snake didn't choke, the rabbit never
moved, how the jaws kept opening
wider, sucking it down, just so
I am taking this in, slowly,
taking it into my body:
this grief. How slow
the body is to realize.
You are never coming back.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I found a typed draft of this poem dated 4/23/99 and titled “Snake.” Out of curiosity I went back through my old notebooks and journals, and found the first version of the poem (same date) breaking into lines in the middle of an entry. I see that I went back into this handwritten version and crossed out a word, a sound here or there, added a line. What I found startling, surprising really, was that as I looked at the surrounding entries, dreams, images, events I recorded, I see how much of all this is in the poem, not literally, but in the images and actions, correspondences. Things I never think of as part of the fabric of this poem.
The image of the snake and rabbit is one of those childhood images—something I saw on a class trip—that I carry around. It comes to me from time to time and feels sort of loaded. Feelings and thoughts collecting around it, kind of thickening, without being specific or definite.
I notice that, in going from the handwritten version to the first typed draft, most of the changes I made (I usually like to type out the written version exactly) were toward compression, precision, music, adding a detail to open it up. Sometimes following a question or interrogating an image that popped up in the middle of the handwritten draft. The trajectory is essentially the same in all the versions. In each early version the language, rhythm, get more diffuse toward the second half. Unlike other poems, I didn’t have to do as much to this one—except follow it, press into it, cut. To find the places where it went down a wrong road, something I think happens when I feel a poem starting and try to “will” it—or know too soon what it’s about.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Usually I keep all the drafts of a poem clipped together and dated—especially because I often need to go back to the early versions when something isn’t working. I know they are somewhere—but can’t find them. I imagine there were at least fifteen to twenty drafts, and, as often happens with a poem that sort of comes the way this did, that many of the changes in the later drafts were smaller – a word, shift in syntax – not a major reorganization, or “breaking into.”
The first draft was April 23, 1999. I imagine the “semi-final” draft maybe happened in a matter of months then stayed that way until I was revising this poem for my book. At that point I deleted a stanza – or several lines – toward the end of the poem –lines that felt too explicit, too reductive, that, I realized, shut the poem down. I had loved the sound of those lines. Loved the way saying the words kept the mouth and throat open. And I am so glad I got rid of them! So the final version was in my book, which came out in 2004. (I think the version that came out in 2003 in a magazine might still have the explicit and deleted stanza. But I can’t find the magazine.)
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
This poem felt received. I can see it just by looking at the way it breaks into a journal entry and comes out “fairly” intact. I do believe in inspiration. That said, it never happens that a poem “comes to me” when I’m not in some way paying attention. If I am not writing each day, or paying attention each day – I am probably not going to be hit with a poem walking down a street. The work on this poem was less sweat and tears, was slow and gentle. And I think, especially when I look back into my journal, was mostly about getting out of the poem’s way—
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
At one point I realized I wanted to keep the sentences going longer, and I made the entire poem one sentence – sort of like the snake’s continual act of swallowing, digesting. Then I worked back to where the syntax is now. Perhaps the biggest structural change is that I pulled it into stanzas. Which probably then made me go back again to seeing how the sentences moved across or against the white spaces. In Turning to Fiction – I was exploring “the stanza” in ways I hadn’t in my first book. Sometimes moving into stanzas helps me to tighten, to explore the relationship of line to sentence, to feel my way into the poem’s best syntax. But that decision – the “stanza decision” – is usually an instinct. What feels right.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A few years.
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 don’t send poems out much. If someone “asks” for a poem – I’ll try to write it. If anything comes of it I will send it. I don’t think I’ve ever “whipped out a poem” and sent it off. I work really really really slowly. (No pun intended.)
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This question was an interesting one for me as I wrote the poems in Turning to Fiction. I was interested in stories, making up stories, “confessions,” in the way a story changes when you tell it – or the “meaning” of the story (to the teller) changes over time. The essential image in this poem—the snake swallowing the rabbit—is something I saw. At the Staten Island Reptile Zoo, which was the first class trip I was ever on—it was fourth grade, my family had just moved to Staten Island—I was in public school for the first time. Everything was strange to me. Probably I imagined the girls, but what I remember is that I was “taken” – or went into a kind of spacey trance kind of state. A dissociated state I now realize characterized a lot of my childhood. And the “watching” in the poem is really as important as the image.
So the image is actual, but an image isn’t a story. What sets it in motion is imagination pressing into it.
Is this a narrative poem?
I would say that this is a narrative poem with a “secret” or inner narrative. And that the work of this poem was to take the image and feel my way into it. Not tell a story. More like: why was this important? What had arrested me? And what is happening now that makes me want to write about then?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was writing poems and fiction. I look through my journal from the time, see I was reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. I was reading (and still do read) a lot of Bishop. I had just really “discovered” or cracked into Brenda Hillman (I see this in my journal). Anne Carson probably. I see lots of movies listed: “The 400 Blows.” But I don’t think you’ll see any of these poets in this poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No. Well, I don’t think about anyone usually, especially once I am revising, but I want “normal” people as an audience. I don’t want to write poems (who does really?) that only other writers will read.
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 have a few friends – poets mostly—who see early drafts. This helps me enormously. Each person in their own way. And I always like to have a non-writer read the poem. One of my friends told me that all she has to do is stand next to one of her readers as he reads the poem and, without him saying a word, she knows.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I like that it’s short. And direct. The language simple. Perhaps most important, I think I learned a lot working on this poem. How to wait, to cut back. To stop myself from “making myself” understand what the poem was, from willing or imposing.
What is American about this poem?
Well the poem feels American to me for strange reasons. A class trip. A new place. I had moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island and in one day went from Catholic school to public– which meant boys and science, and class trips. And, having nothing to do with this poem, in going from reading about Constantinople to the Dutch settlers in New York. And the fact that if I remember correctly this class trip happened the fall Kennedy was assassinated.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It kind of reached it’s natural stopping point. If you look at my copy of my book, many poems are “revised” or “cut” after the book comes out. But I don’t have any crossouts in this poem.