At the end of my day, after huffing gasoline fumes
from sacks collected from the gas station trash,
I consider a board, fifth grade, a container of ice,
and rosary beads, in this order, unconnected
and glorious. There is more than one way into
the world, the school that's torn down
and condemned. Ingress is easy, but egress
(like that of the egrets) is elusive, the mathematics
of bird patterns as they streak South by Southwest
across the sky. I have to think a lot about
my sister the diver whose poor grasp of physics
led to head-crack and red spill—the beauty
leaking from the beauty in the water. Ice
is a ball or a bag on the side of my mouth
after fights or as the sign says, horseplay, as in
has never been allowed by the side of the pool.
Everything takes place on the side of a pool,
for instance: tanning, feeding, straying, divorce.
From the air, pools dot the backyards
of all the houses in your parents' subdivision—
elision between the lake country and the city,
as mediated by chlorine, water wings, and the rising
shrieks of children. Darren, my then-friend,
who would later succumb to the arc of meningitis,
dared me to duck into the girls' changing room,
to see what was there, and what was changed
or could be changing even as we thought
about it. The air would be totally different,
we knew—maybe its total lack like you see
on moons or other planets without the protective
sheaths of atmosphere. Or all starlit, perfumed,
like the inside of a dance you are not invited to.
So the story ends here, so it sucks.
So it's crappy, streaks of light moving on
your bedroom walls, like those glow stars
you ground up and covered your room with
when you were younger and dumber. They lost
their charge years ago. They won't hold you.
You'll never get them off or get their leftover light
off of me. I suspect there's nothing left anywhere in the world.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started this poem on August 20, 2005, and much of its bulk was composed in the first draft. I don’t remember where it came from, exactly. Most of my poems tend to start with the voice, and this character’s voice is the thing that powers the poem. That and his world.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It went through about five edits. Word processing has changed the way most writers think about “drafts,” I bet, in that we no longer have to retype the whole thing every time we do a new draft. Some poets do this still, probably, but I don’t. I compose onscreen 98% of the time, so it’s probably better to think of each of these “drafts” as “edits.” I finished the last edit of the poem in the last revision of the book The Available World last December. So it was composed over about four and a half years.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
The bulk of my writing work is in starting things, whether that comes from a formal constraint or a voice or a fragment of language. When I find a voice I like, usually a lot of the poem follows from that without a great deal of pushing. Then it needs to be hammered on and edited and tweaked. But much of my poems comes in that first rush. However, few of the pieces I start actually make it into a finished poem because many of these starting points or voices don’t pan out. Maybe they make it three lines. Maybe they make it thirty. But when I come back to it, I don’t see anything really working.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The first version was one stanza with longer lines than you see in this poem. It also had a bunch of weak sections which I excised and rewrote, though its shape was, as I mentioned, more or less there in the first version. The starting point and ending point are the same. But the route the poem takes to get there took some overhauling. Much of the revision on this was done trying to figure out the proper line length and line breaks, what the poem’s voice was asking for, how much breath it could hold in its lungs before needing an exhale. Then much of the revision was done on the syllable and line level, editing for rhythm and meter and sound, which sometimes come early on, but more typically they need a lot of work, which happened here.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
The poem was published in Dislocate in 2007. As I mentioned, though, after that I did edit and revise the poem before it appeared in The Available World in 2010.
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?
My submissions habits have been increasingly lax in the last several years. I don’t do very many unsolicited sends anymore, mainly because of the time involved. If I get a solicitation, I look through my files and see what is ready to go and what might work for a given journal. Sometimes I will send out a very fresh poem if the timing works out, but even then I sometimes find myself editing it later when I am older and hopefully smarter and have different preferences about my work.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
All of my poems are fictional, and all of them are built on fact. The facts that feature in this poem are:
- the signs about horseplay being not allowed by the pool are real signs, as you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever been in a Holiday Inn Holidome
- I knew a kid named Darren
- I knew another kid who died of meningitis
- though neither was my friend
- I had glow stars on my ceiling
- I have been invited to a dance only one time and did not go; my sense of dances is one of exclusion, often self-inflicted
- I have snuck into girls’ changing rooms and bathrooms before
- I have done a lot of vandalism, and know where that comes from (at least in my case; the poem comes from trying to understand where this character’s coming from
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s in the 78th percentile for narrativeness in terms of my poems. Not a lot actually happens in the poem in the present tense, but plenty is related. Mostly it’s a dramatic monologue.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t; sorry.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not really. It’s pretty standard to say, but I write for myself. If I like it, if I can live with it—can live in it—after it is no longer in me, and if it feels good to read aloud, then it’s a go. It’s also one of my poems that performs better live.
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?
No. I have a few friends with whom I’ll talk shop about manuscripts, but it’s much more rare that I’ll send them individual pieces.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It does the last line big statement thing that I’ve done in a couple other poems that also appear in The Available World, so in a sense it’s a companion piece to a poem like “Rich World.” But this poem’s interests are less in the lyric and the language than many of my other poems, particularly the sermon poems in the new book and the “Availability” poems, which were constructed partly with the aid of arbitrary processes. This poem is mostly interested in the doomed world of the character that it creates. And while it explores that world to some extent via list and via fact and image, it’s not pushing the list and the arbitrary like I do elsewhere. In that sense it’s actually more like some of the fiction I was writing in 2003-2005.
What is American about this poem?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?