Thursday, May 27, 2010

James Allen Hall

James Allen Hall is the author of Now You're the Enemy, selected as a winner in the 2007 Arkansas Poetry Series and published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2008. Hall teaches at the State University of New York -- College at Potsdam.


After my mother won independence in 1836,
she dysfunctioned as her own nation, passed laws,
erected monuments to men who would never again
be slaves to order and pain.

Remember the Alamo? That was my mother.

Then in 1845 that always-pleasing church-mouse voted
for annexation. My mother had too many selves and the desire
to enslave them all. Pregnant, she was forced
to become the twenty-eighth child of the American family.
Lone star no longer.

She joined a lineage of jacked-to-jesus hair, developed insatiable
cravings for honey barbecue. Her uncles sauntered up, stroked
the thin lace of her, declared she looked mighty good.
She let them say mighty good while grinning at one another.

Nothing grew then on the prairies of my mother.

Then she learned dissent, demanded men recognize her
sovereignty. She organized an embassy in a silver trailer
shaped like a virgin bullet. My mother renamed herself
The Republic of Texas, unfurled her flag all the way

into the 1980's, when the Republic kidnapped her neighbors,
Joe and Margaret Rowe, to highlight abuses she'd suffered.
My mother was an American terrorist.

Don't mess with Texas.

She died in the standoff. My new mother was elected
by a landslide and moved to Cuero, a city whose largesse
depends on retirement pensions. My peaceful mother
holds weekly rallies: 'What do we want? When do we want it?'

Her lipstick stains the bullhorn mauve.

In her spare time, my mother receives foreign dignitaries
and does dry-wall. The Global Conglomerate of my Mother
opened her first staffed consulate in Barcelona.
She insists visitors speak American.

Currently, the Republic is facing lean times.
The former treasurer neglected May's utilities,
refuses to return the funds. Pledge your support today.
My motherland is standing by
the rotary phone, waiting for your call.

Love her or leave her.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Picture it: Summer 2005. A friend asked me to house-and-cat-sit for her while she was away with her family over the summer. I slept there, much to my boyfriend's chagrin.

I couldn't sleep one night. I turned on the lamp, and on the nightstand was an Atlantic Monthly or a Harper's. On its back page was an info sheet about the Republic of Texas, an actual existing organization. They have an 800 number and everything.

I called the 800 number the next morning. The absurd radical nature struck me as a metaphor (especially at the emotional, if not the intellectual level) for my mother. I was off and running.

One thing about metaphor I love is that it allows us distance to speak about difficult subject matter (i.e., my mother's experience with incest and violence) while approaching both the topic and the reader very closely.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I'm a tireless reviser. When I've got the bare bones of the poem down—the information, the narrative—I start reading the poem aloud. That allows me to revise for sonic texture and image system. Ultimately, the poem went through many wringers. 
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

There are poems that arrive, fully dressed, ready for battle, right out of the head: it makes you feel like Zeus, brain-birthing Athena. And then there are the majority of poems which arrive gradually, in fragments, or wrong-headed, or wrong-tailed, or wrong-bodied. I think that's what makes a poet a poet: the discipline and talent to hammer out the work until it isn't just fabric and mannequin: it's wearing haute couture and is the life of the party.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Like nearly all of my first drafts, it was composed in couplets, which was the skin of first publication as well (in the journal Rhino). In revision, strophes seemed to provide a kind of intelligence that tempered the ruptures in time and character. I used the monostanza, a monostitch, to layer the poem with ironic but direct statement, to push the metaphor into the reaches of Texan-mythos, and to create a conversational, nearly slogan-esque, minor tone.

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?

One sign that I'm entering the end stage of composing is that I break the poem out of its original form. I begin reading it out loud to see what changes that triggers. I send it to friends. I try to let a poem sit a few months, though I didn't with this poem: I "finished" it and sent it out. It was the first poem I ever sent out without workshopping first, which felt liberating then: I thought I'd finally figured out what made a poem.

Reading it online today, I'm a little embarrassed by it. I wish I had waited. It was taken rather quickly and appeared six months after I'd finished and sent it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The poem allows fact to provide the loom-large moments: history is what's unbelievable here: monuments to remember men, taking neighbors hostage, filing 800 numbers for an organization that refuses to acknowledge the course of history.

I believe in the cornerstone of contemporary feminism: the personal is political. But I believe also in the transitive properties of metaphor: the political is personal too. "Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas" attempts to make the political personal while making the personal political. All with a speaker whose finely drawn eyebrows remain arched.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, though I think it shows one of my preoccupations with narrative, which is the narrative gap, the synapse between stories where poetry happens and blooms. I try to frustrate a totalizing narrative of my mother—thus the mother dies "in the standoff" and "my new mother was elected by a landslide." I can't tell stories without pointing to and exploiting narrative as an unstable and multivocal thing.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading Louise Glück and trying to figure out how to end a poem by enlarging its terms. So many of her poems, particularly in Ararat, seem to end outside the poem, or at least away from where the poem began. I wasn't writing direct exercises based on this, but I was in love with her techniques.

Poetry has much to teach us, and so I feel influenced and informed, emotionally and intellectually, by many writers. A list of influences would include Mark Doty, Claudia Rankine, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, James Baldwin, John Ashbery, Mark Strand, Rebecca Brown, Carl Phillips, Cavafy, Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes—to name more than a few. There are incredible younger poets like Jericho Brown, Cate Marvin, Tracy K. Smith, Michael Dumanis, Richard Siken, and too many others to name, whose work also provides that necessary kind of driving inspiration.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

For me, the poem is always an interior voice talking to a more interior, ignorant voice.

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?

A few writers I had the lucky coincidence of meeting and befriending in graduate writing programs regularly read new drafts, and I couldn't be more thankful for them. I also show my work to my younger brother, whose memory is usually better than mine.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This is the only comic poem I've managed to write, though the poem's tinged with sadness, perhaps. That last line does graduate beyond deadpan into sincerity. And though the other poems in Now You're the Enemy sometimes utilize humor, none of them do it to the degree that "Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas" employs. There's a dialectic of "funny" in the poem: swerving from slapstick to arch irony to deadpan.

What is American about this poem?

Its subject matter, obviously. I mean beyond the story of Texas politics. I mean the story of my mother's generation of American women: how their demands have had to be radical, how ludicrous they've seemed to men, how separated they've had to be to survive. How it is the "you" that has to decide to love or to leave.

I hope that the intersection of history and sexual politics—and the ways in which I deploy irony in service of narrative epiphany—are American as well.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Abandoned on the roadside, the poem is sticking out its thumb, Austin-bound, pulling up the hood of its raincoat in the middle of a summer rainstorm out there in the Texas hill country, the shine on its belt buckle almost blinding you behind your windshield.   

Monday, May 24, 2010

Richard Jones

Richard Jones is the author of several books of poetry, including Country of Air, The Blessing: New and Selected Poems, and Apropos of Nothing (all from Copper Canyon Press). A new collection, The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning is just out. He is also the editor of Poetry East and its many anthologies, such as The Last Believer in Words and Bliss. A professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, he lives north of the city with his wife and three children.

visiting the Holocaust Museum
after reading Elie Wiesel’s

I enter the empty freight car,
a box that carried many away.
Three girls and two boys—

I’d seen them in another gallery,
walking past the mounds of shoes—
board beside me, the two boys

pushing the giggling girls
up the ramp. In the quiet dark,
the teenagers huddle and whisper.

Their plan of escape is simple.
Tonight, past curfew, the girls
will elude their chaperons,

steal down the hotel hallway
to the boy’s room, where, they say,
they’ll order pizza and watch MTV.

No one says a word about kissing,
though that’s all I thought about
when I was young. Even the boys

and girls herded onto the trains
flirted in the dark, or so I’ve read—
holding each other, gently rocking

as the wheels beneath them ground on.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The Holocaust has been a source of meditation for me for most of my life. But one hesitates to write about it. Yet when I visited the Holocaust Museum, I was touched in a very unsuspected way as I stood in the train car. The seed of the poem was planted in that moment, though I didn’t write the poem until years later, and then it took several more years to compose.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I revise endlessly; or rather I revise until I get to the end of the revision process. Most of my poems take between five and seven years to complete. There are uncounted drafts, but a poem may sit untouched on the desk for months while I work on other things. Time is a great ally.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I don’t know exactly what “inspiration” is. But even were I an inspired poet, I’d still probably find inspiration to be a very small part of the artistic process, a divine instant followed by years of labor. I think of poetry more as working in a salt mine than standing atop mount Parnassus.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

The poem takes place in a motionless freight car, but the narrator’s imagination is not at all static. So the concern (that I remember) was to solve problems of staging, narration, and choreography. Sometimes I think to cut out the stanzas like a film editor.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I published it in The Louisville Review in 2005. Then it appeared in Apropos of Nothing in 2006.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world?

Poems “sit” because I recognize that I need artistic distance, or some greater wisdom that will come with time, in order to serve the poem’s needs. But not every poem I write is published: some I keep for myself. But if by “send it off into the world” you simply mean sharing the poem with another, I sometimes do that before the ink is dry. When I draft a poem, I often will call my sister on the phone just after typing the last line and read it to her.

Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I’m not much on rules, I just like to work. If I make rules, it seems, I break them pretty quickly. But rules have their place. I like rules. I wish I had more discipline to honor rules, my own rules as well as the rules of others.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The incident in the poem—my visit to the Holocaust Museum and finding myself in the freight car with those kids—happened pretty much as I wrote it. So the poem is factual in that sense, but there is the greater, tragic fact of the camps. This personal, incidental poem is spoken, quite literally, on the stage of human history. As for fiction, I would say that I think the poet must see everything. I hesitate to call my musing about the lives of others—the kids in the museum, and the people who died—“fiction,” unless by fiction we mean the sort that engenders and commands empathy, solidarity, and forgiveness.

Is this a narrative poem?

That’s not a distinction I make or think about in my poetry.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I read all the time. I remember I was purposely rereading Elie Wiesel’s Night at the time I visited the Holocaust Museum, but who knows what I was reading later, while writing the poem? Could have been anything—Milton, Milosz, maybe a guide to stargazing, maybe Jane Austin. The important thing is that before the poem began I had already read Wiesel, Primo Levi, I knew about and understood Adorno’s position on poetry and the camps, I deeply admired Reznikoff, etc. “Influence,” for me at least, is rarely coincident with the writing; it precedes, often by years, the work at hand. Like the way ancient glaciers “influenced” the American landscape.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

No audience—I just want to be clear and to avoid any possible writerly pretensions. My ideal reader could be anybody.

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?

As I said, sometimes when I’m starting a poem, I’ll call my sister and read her an early draft, just because she’s always so receptive and openhearted. Otherwise I keep my poems to myself until I am well into a book manuscript. Then I have one reader to whom I show my manuscripts, a friend I’ve worked with over the years, and whom I trust completely. My forthcoming book is dedicated to him. But no one else sees my poems, except maybe my wife, who is a tough, spot-on critic.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t think it does differ.

What is American about this poem?

I think that is a good follow-up question for anyone who reads the poem.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I hope not to ever publish an unfinished poem, which is what “abandoned” means to me (even though I grant that the term “abandoned” is understood and used differently by others). I’m also aware that the word “finished” can mean both “accomplished” or “dead.” I aim for the idea that if the poet is faithful, a poem attains its destined radiance. To me this belief, this discipline, is very important, especially when writing a poem like “The Field Trip,” but really when writing any poem, because every poem is important. So yes, I try to “finish” all my poems in the sense that I accomplish my task and the poem is complete, and I can stand by it forever, until the end of time.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nickole Brown

Nickole Brown’s books include her debut, Sister, a novel-in-poems published by Red Hen Press, and the anthology, Air Fare, which she co-edited with Judith Taylor. She graduated from The Vermont College of Fine Arts and was the editorial assistant for the late Hunter S. Thompson. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She worked at the independent, literary press, Sarabande Books, for ten years. Currently, she is the Editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry at White Pine Press and works as the National Publicity Consultant for Arktoi Books. Brown lives in Louisville, KY, where she is Lecturer at the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University and teaches at the low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Murray State. For more information, please visit her website.


We have heard her tell the story
over and again, like this: an early spring
tornado, a still, yellow sky,
nuns who said must have felt better
going in than it does
coming out
as they gave her
a hot compress and dimmed the lights
for pain.

She was half my age now, sweet
sixteen and barely healed
when God smacked half the trees
flat and she curled down
under a mattress
in an empty bathtub
in an empty apartment,
a newborn suckling
the tips of her fingers. The porcelain,
cool white womb, had a drain

ready to carry anything
it could swallow to the swollen
brown Ohio, and though the tub
was dry, she used her heel
to flip the drain open, asking
the river to take it, all of it,
especially that moment the month before
when she didn't know better

but to sit up and grab the slippery blue
feet first, an impossible breech, a twist
with a snap that meant
leg braces, special shoes, a grown woman
who would never walk right
in red heels. Frightened in this storm,
she wanted the tender word

birth but knew better now. Birth
meant forceps, rips, umbilical cords
wrapped around the neck. Birth kneaded
the abdomen for more birth, recovered
with douche singed with a drop or two of Lysol,
boiled a set of glass baby bottles in the same
pot that made the pinto beans. Not much more
to hold and so she touched
the blue leg of her bruised baby, cooed
footling, thinking it sounded
more like the name of some imp
than a complication, footling, her shape-shifter
sleeping inside the cup of a trumpet vine,

footling, because she was so young
and who could blame her, dreaming
away and waiting while wind
tore the silk of clouds to shreds,
plucked off pieces of home,
peeled shingles back from rooftops
one by one.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

Try as I may, I can’t really say when this poem was composed. I went through my old notebooks, and the earliest threads of what became “Footling” appeared about seven years before the publication of the book. As it is now, it is essentially the first poem in the collection, but it has flipped through so many incarnations it’s tricky to track the origins of this piece.

What I can say is that Sister actually began as a two-page short story. It was a thick, tumbling piece, far too dense to be successful. One of my friends suggested that there was enough for a novel, and after I realized she wasn’t being sarcastic, I told her that was the most ridiculous idea ever. I was ready to charge home and scrap what I had written, but damn it if she wasn’t right. During the course of the next three years, I kept going back to those two pages again and again, plucking and breaking and kneading those first sentences into a shape that made sense. I was, in all honesty, obsessed. What I needed to say had such heat and intensity to it that I knew nothing else would suffice until those words were consummated, until that particular story was told.

Back then, the core that eventually gave “Footling” its spine was toward the end of that two-page story. Eventually, it showed up as the tenth poem in a series, and it began like this: “Thirty years between me / and that Catholic Hospital that stood / where a mall now is. She says: / an early spring tornado, a yellow sky / before rain. . .” and ended with a stanza that is now the poem “A Heartbeat Pillow Too” in the book. Later, after those two poems split apart and cell-divided into their own individual shapes, the poem began: “The hospital where I was born / was Catholic and then knocked down, / made into a mall. Mama's told me / over and again, like this: an early spring / tornado, a still, yellow sky. . .” That’s closer to where it needed to land, but thankfully, I still wasn’t satisfied.

The real moment I began to understand this poem was when I did some research and found that the birth I was trying to describe had a name: a footling is a midwife’s term for a breech birth that is feet first (instead of your typical breech, which is bottom first). It was then I had my title, but more importantly, I realized the birth needed to be first in the manuscript. I also realized the detail about the hospital was irrelevant; the mother’s story, or the telling of her story, needed to come first, before anything else.

The final thing that came to me was that the poem didn’t belong to the narrator, or to me, for that matter; it belonged to the sister that each poem addresses. That’s why it begins in the first person plural point of view, because the story belongs to both of them, to the sisters, together. Thus, the final version of the first lines: “We have heard her tell the story / over and again, like this. . .” It’s the birth of the narrator, but it’s their story and equally belongs to both of them.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Seven years, start to finish. I’ve gone through and counted twenty-eight versions on file, but that’s only the ones I can count on my computer. In between each typed version is a crumpled mess of pencil scribble, hand-written versions with tendrils of lines and notes cluttering the margins. Most of those have been thrown away or are now lost in one of the boxes of writing choking my basement.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration, but I also believe that inspiration only comes after the work is done. Think of it: to inspire means, literally, to inhale, to draw air into the lungs. Now, you can sit there in the chair and wait for inspiration to come, and sure enough, all those little mechanisms will move to involuntarily pull oxygen to your blood. But that passive mode of reception doesn’t generally work for me. I first need to get up and move around; I need to work, to make the lungs work harder, bringing in the great gulps of sky needed to get through a poem. So inspiration? The muse comes to me, but only after I’ve earned her.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Laure-Anne Bosselaar was the one that helped this poem find its shape. Simply said, she sat me down, slammed her hand on her desk, and sternly said, “Brown! Line breaks, line breaks, line breaks!”

You see, my earlier versions paid every attention to crisp, necessary language, but in terms of the shape the poem took, one part of me was half-lazy, fooling myself into believing the words I used would be enough, no matter how they were laid out on the page, and the other part of me was afraid if I reached beyond the typical line that broke the poem into easy grammatical phrases that it would somehow be “wrong.”

Bosselaar’s advice to look at the force of each individual line was imperative to “Footling” as well as the rest of the collection. I began to understand how to control the reader’s pace. The right lines can speed a reading up or slow it down; it can send a reader flying down a steep, overgrown trail, or conversely, force the reader’s gaze to slow down and stay in place. The right line breaks can shove a reader quickly to the next line where a surprise awaits; the right line break can knot a poem back to the beginning. It was a long, intuitive process, but learning how to find a poem’s visual shape was essential to me.

Grace Paley said it better though: “Form is the vessel / in which you give over / the story[.]”

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It appeared in Florida Review right before the book came out with Red Hen Press, in 2007.

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 let it sit and sit and sit and sit and sit. No child of mine is leaving the house until they’re grown and ready to go out into the world and defend for themselves.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Fact: I was born feet-first in an old, Catholic hospital that didn’t care much for a sixteen-year-old girl in labor. Fact: a tornado hit one month later. The storm practically wiped out Louisville; 315 people died, 5,000 were injured, and our forests and parks are still recovering today. Other facts? The glass baby bottles, the Lysol (an old trick of my great-grandmother’s), the leg braces that I never did wear. I’m still a little pigeon toed.

Fiction: I’m the one that found the word footling, and I was the one that cooed it over and again. I rolled that word around in my mouth for months, saying “footling” to the trumpet vine I planted in my garden, “footling” to the deep purple bruise that welled up after I ran into the corner of a table.

And how did I negotiate the two? Well, this was the crux of the problem, always, when writing every one of these poems. I was telling my truth, my own hard, slippery, fragmented truth, but I wanted, at all costs, to avoid standard-issue confessionalism. I wanted no villains, no victims, and most of all, I needed to scrub all the lies out, whatever they were, even the ones I told myself.

Is this a narrative poem?

Sure enough, yes.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Let me think back. The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom was important for its unapologetic Southern grit. I was also interested in how far I could scatter language and play with sound, and I’m glad I carried a copy of Shattering Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis to VCCA with me when I went to hide in the woods to finish my book. And I also needed permission to tell my own story. Nick Flynn’s Some Ether was essential for that.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

For these poems, I really was writing to my younger sister. But the truth is that my readers emerged after the book was published, and from their correspondences I’ve gotten to know who my ideal reader is. Generally speaking, she’s a woman, but not always. She’s pretty in her way but perpetually unkempt, and she likes it that way. After a long struggle, she’s found a bit of the world she can hide in long enough to read poetry, but she’s been through some shit. She remembers, and she doesn’t plan to forget.

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?

Yes, but not too many people, really. A lot of well-intentioned readers give bad advice, and I’ve been knocked off track more than once by a wily workshop. When it’s seriously finished and I don’t know where to go, I ask my friend Ray McDaniel to take a look at my work.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

All poems, with a heartbeat of their own, differ from the others. But this poem? I feel like it’s more narrative than some of my other work. It’s also safe in other ways: it has that clean left-hand justification with stanzas approximately the same length. This poem reads well on the stage though, and I’ve opened many of my readings from Sister with it.

What is American about this poem?

You mean beside the storm, the pinto beans, and the bad medical care? Well, I suppose I am thoroughly grounded in an American poetic tradition, and I’m Southern to boot, so there’s not much getting around that. This poem also tells about a specific time and place: Kentucky in the 1970’s, all mixed up with black lights and disco and a grueling sort of poverty that sends you to the Piggly Wiggly to figure out how far you can stretch five dollars.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Oh, mercy. Finished. There wasn’t anything else I could have done with it. Stick a fork in it; it’s done.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Michael Collier

Michael Collier is the author of five books of poems: The Clasp and Other Poems; The Folded Heart; The Neighbor; The Ledge, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and most recently, Dark Wild Realm. He is also co-editor, along with Charles Baxter and Edward Hirsch, of A William Maxwell Portrait. His translation of Euripides’s Medea appeared in 2006 and a collection of essays, Make Us Wave Back, in 2007. Collier has received Guggenheim and Thomas Watson fellowships, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a "Discovery"/The Nation Award, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Pushcart Prize, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Poet Laureate of Maryland from 2001–2004, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland and is the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He lives in Catonsville, Maryland.


Cars could reach the mountain’s saddle,
a notch between two peaks, and there
survey the grid of lighted streets,
a bursting net of beads and sequins,
a straining movement cruising for release.

“As far as the eye could see,” though
few cared to look, was across the valley
to the other mountain, whose ridge
stood gaffed with broadcast towers, bright
harpoons quivering out our songs.

“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” the Beach boys
harmonized. And it was. Sometimes I saw
the Milky Way invade the grid, Andromeda,
Draco, and great Betelgeuse bridging
the avenues and lanes, filling up acres

of empty parking lots. Sometimes I stared
powerfully into space where glowworms
of matter spun in pinwheels of gas.
What did it mean to be alive?
a voice asked. What did it mean

to have a voice speaking from inside?
Once I found a cockpit canopy from
a fighter jet in my neighbor’s yard,
where it had fallen from the sky.
No one ever claimed it, such a large,

specific, useless thing, like the shoe
a giant leaves behind, like a mountain
from childhood—missing or pulverized—
it leaves a shape that once you see it
overwhelms the mind or makes a cloud

that is the shape of what the mountain was,
the sea floor covered with the sea.
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” I used to sing
and the mountains all around me answered
but not the question I had asked.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started writing “The Missing Mountain” on June 14, 2002 and, at least according to the last draft of it I have, I finished it July 10, 2003. I had made earlier but unsatisfactory attempts to write about a place I used to hang out on weekend nights with high school friends in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was born. The place was a saddle formed between two hills in the shadow of what was then called Squaw Peak, just off 12th Street, north of Northern Avenue. If you had a jeep, like one of my friends had, you could drive right up to the saddle and park. What you saw from it were the lights of the so-called Valley of the Sun running out to the south, east, and west—a huge twinkling, sparkling spectacle of lights. Overhead the sky was hammered full of stars, and if you turned north, away from the city, you reckoned with the tinny, jewel-like, spillage of the Milky Way. Sometimes we would go up there and drink beer and smoke dope, but often enough we just went for the vista and stood around scuffing the ground and spitting. The good thing, looking back, about being a teenage guy, especially in a place like Phoenix, Arizona, was that silence was a mode of comprehension, and for some of us it was the only evidence of intelligence.

And speaking about intelligence, it had always been my perception that the saddle was inside the boundary of municipal Phoenix North Mountain Park and therefore protected from development, and so, in 1979, when I was visiting Phoenix to attend a retirement party for my father, which happened to be in the vicinity of the saddle, I decided to swing by for a nostalgic view and was stunned to find that it no longer existed. The saddle, and the two hills that contributed to its formation, had been dynamited, leveled, and graded by developers who wanted to take advantage of the view. When you grow up in a place like Phoenix, where you can graduate from Arizona State with a B.S. in Residential Construction, and where development is the State’s most significant industry, not much surprises you when it comes to the destruction of the natural landscape, even so the erasure of this spot, which had been for my friends and me a kind of fulcrum between the virally-spreading but sublime electric lights of the city and the dark, oceanic, star-strewn vastness that lay behind us, was shocking.

This has been a long winded way to talk about how the poem started, and its’ only half of the story. The other half of the poem’s impetus is tied to another childhood event—the mysterious, and still unexplained, appearance in the front yard of 2209 W. Mulberry Drive, my address for the first eighteen years of my life, of a fighter jet cockpit canopy. I was about eight years old, and I remember walking around the huge, upturned, clear, but very thick, plexi-glass object that lay between two mulberry trees that grew in the yard. I tried to move it by myself but it was too heavy and so I divulged the discovery to a pair of brothers, Timmy and Tommy Thompson, a few years older than me, who lived behind my house, across the alley. Like me, they walked around it only a little less puzzled than I, before suggesting we drag it to their house, which we did, and where they immediately claimed ownership, although they said I could come see it any time I wanted.

We tried to invent uses for the sky-fallen gift, but the only one that was practical and fun was filling it up with water and then sitting in it as Timmy and Tommy rocked the ends with their feet or spun you around. I remember trying to break it by hammering with increasingly larger hammers, which the Thompson brothers seemed to have a good supply of, but no hammer of any size ever cracked, dented or chipped it. Mainly it was an exercise in avoiding the hammer as it rebounded off the glass in the vicinity of your forehead. It only took a few months to exhaust our interest in the canopy, after which it became a decade-long feature of the Thompson’s backyard. The strange gratuity of that object, like an icon jettisoned from a cargo cult, has never left me. I still ponder it, and now, in the mist of more than fifty years that shrouds its appearance, I wonder if it really existed. But it did.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

There are fourteen drafts of “The Missing Mountain.” I put a lot of initial work into the poem, using a staggered, three-line stanza initially, before settling on a five-line stanza made up of eight syllables, more or less, per line. I did not count the syllables so much as I followed my ear. The initial three drafts don’t mention the cockpit canopy, but when I came back to the poem after three months, in October, it makes an appearance in draft number four, which allowed the poem to gain some much needed lift and energy, and, I hope, strangeness. I must have been happy or even thrilled when it showed up, but I don’t remember.

In the poem, I say the canopy fell in my neighbor’s yard, which isn’t exactly true, but where the thing actually fell, give or take thirty feet, doesn’t have much to do with where the poem goes or how I use the detail. When I returned to the poem in October, I incorporated a bunch of lines I’d written in the margins of the last draft as well as lines I’d written on a blank sheet of paper. I do a lot of this kind of scribbling around and behind the drafts. I like drawing lines, arrows, insert carets, strike outs, etc., because it’s a form of working the surface of the poem; it’s a physical activity that helps me think through the problems the poem is posing. It also makes the poem malleable and elastic.

The October draft, with the first appearance of the cockpit canopy, was composed, like all of my early drafts, on a manual, portable typewriter, an Olympia, which I’ve worked on for more than thirty years. (Thanks to e-bay, I now have three back ups of the same model.) I don’t transfer a poem to the computer until I feel confident that it’s almost finished. But oddly, the next draft, December 5, 2002, was done on the computer, which makes me think there is a draft or two missing or that I did some work in my head, which is something that occasionally happens, and it was directly transferred to the computer text. At the bottom of this draft, I’ve penned in the date, December 24, 2002, and made a very small change in the final line.

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 must have felt the poem was finished, and so I sent it to Tom Sleigh, who is someone I’ve been sending my poems to for more than thirty years. When he returned it, he appended a one-word comment after the last line: “and.” There’s no question mark, no ellipses, or any other mark that might help to decipher his response, but I know he means, and go on or and isn’t there more? I hate it when I get that kind of comment because it means I’ve turned away from the poem too soon and that the problem isn’t necessarily with the ending, although this time it turned out to be. I’m not sure how much time lapsed before I started working in response to Sleigh’s cryptic suggestion, but on April 5, I filled a sheet of paper with new lines, one of which repeats the Beach Boys refrain, “Oh wouldn’t it be nice,” which becomes the beginning of the 3rd line of an additional stanza. I make a couple of very small changes after the new stanza is written but otherwise the poem is finished.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I didn’t send it out for publication until sometime in 2005, at least two years after completing the last draft, and then it was published in the Kenyon Review, Spring 2006. Four years from writing to publication is not unusual for one of my poems. I don’t have any rules about this, but such a languorous turnover rate is in keeping with the slow and deliberate approach I’ve developed over the years. I want the sentences to be as interesting, complicated and lucid as possible, and, for me, this takes time. Some writers think of composition as taxidermy, but, generally, I find it a strain to read poems that drown in their own watery facility. I prefer poems that find their transcendence and sublimity in the details of the natural world and in the sloppy mess of social interactions. In the end, there’s not one right way of producing poems. What matters is that we write the poems we are capable of writing. Some of us will write poems that have dark glass eyes and long snouts and hang on walls, and some of us will write poems that spread through neighborhoods like a thin sheet of irrigation water.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

If there’s an influence lurking behind “The Missing Mountain” it’s likely to be the “huge and mighty forms” of Wordsworth’s boat stealing scene, Book I of The Prelude.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was abandoned many times until it was finished. I’ve tried to write poems that get at the experience of living in Phoenix, a city named after a mythical bird that rose from the ashes of the flames that consumed it, but I’ve found it difficult. I was never in love with my hometown or with the romance of origins, at least I don’t think I was. Phoenix was named after the mythological bird because an ancient civilization--the Anazazi—had once occupied the same area and, in fact, canals and ditches they had engineered had been revived and so a modern city was established on the site of an old one. When I return to Phoenix to visit my family, I can still surprise people at the airport car rental desks by the fact that I’m a native Phoenician. Almost sixty years after I was born, the idea of an indigenous population in Phoenix strikes even people who live there as odd, so great is its character as a place for transients and transfer.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

The only audience I have in mind when I write is that part of myself that is the reader of my poems, which is oddly outside the part of me that writes the poems. I feel them as distinctive entities. The part of me that writes the poem can push back from the desk with immense satisfaction at produced something, but the part of me that reads it, silently or out loud, usually out loud, can tell fairly quickly if it’s plausible.

[Note: “The Missing Mountain” is from Dark Wild Realm, Houghton Mifflin, 2006.]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Cate Marvin

Cate Marvin's first book, World's Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande Books in 2001. In 2002, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New England Review, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Fence, The Paris Review, and other journals. She is co-editor with poet Michael Dumanis of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006). Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, was published by Sarabande in August 2007. A recipient of the Whiting Award, she teaches poetry writing in Lesley University's Low-Residency M.F.A. Program and is an associate professor in creative writing at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She is co-founder and co-director with poet Erin Belieu of WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts). For more information, please visit Cate's website.


I suppose must have been orbiting all the time
I've spent bent at this desk, unaware of its presence
as those victims of alien abductions, who claim
they were taken on board, experimented upon,

and gently replaced to their beds. Or the readership
may be hovering, held in a flight pattern, endlessly
repeating figure eights, everyone on board desperate
for the captain's reassuring announcement

they'll make their connecting flights. Or perhaps
it's like one of those massive sea vessels that looks
so grand from the shore, same as that ferry I saw
cutting its shape on the Mediterranean's edge,

when I was young and traveled with a notebook.
When to follow a map was to learn a finger's width
could mark the hours it'd take for us to get there.
Fellow passenger, companion, perhaps when

you were sitting beside me, your mind was really
on the readership. Maybe that could explain your
sudden disappearance: Mysterious as those lights
in late night skies no one can explain or identify.

Perhaps the readership prepares to land, and you
are among its passengers, presently ripping
at a bag of peanuts the flight attendants provide.
If this is so, I offer a goodly signal, words radiating

redness, radio towered. Much like a lighthouse
casts its warning to the morass of sea, I simply ask
that you heed me. Gentle barge, it does not matter
if you listen; it does not concern me. It's too late

for you to put the book down, cancel the flight,
concede you were always terrible at planning.
When you arrive, hold fast to your belongings.
The purse slashers in my poems have more

than your money on their unsubtle minds. I'll speak
for my life when I say I'm glad you have arrived.
I've waited like a starving country, arms heaped
with hand-worked goods I'll sell you at a native's price.

And if the readership does not exist? Perhaps
it's only intriguing as a conspiracy theory--
how I want to believe in it, as if it will provide
the answer for everything that's gone awry.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem ages ago: in the summer of 1997, right after I completed my MFA in poetry at the University of Houston. My mother and I had just returned from a trip to Mexico City, a journey undertaken in celebration of my graduation and in honor of my grandmother who had passed away that year (the money she’d left us funded our travel). This sort of vacation was not the norm for my family: we Marvins are frugal and don’t travel abroad with any regularity. I didn’t prepare for the trip until the night before we left. Only then did I read the Lonely Planet guide and it scared the crap out of me, as it warned of the many dangers one faces in Mexico City, such as purse slashers. The idea of purse slashing was fascinating to me—what bizarre stealth! Thus, it enters into this poem very much in the way a purse slasher might happen upon a traveler like myself.

I recall that when I wrote the poem my manual typewriter was in the shop. Back then, I tended to have it cleaned and oiled every few years. I never wrote drafts on a computer back then: just didn’t, wouldn’t. And I can recall feeling very propelled to write this particular poem, despite my lack of typewriter. Sitting in the living room of my tiny apartment reading (I believe it was Susan Minot’s Lust—I was reading quite a bit of fiction then, as I was about to head to the fiction program at Iowa and desperate not to reveal how under-read I was in the genre)—yes, I was sitting there reading on my red velvet couch when I rose with the urge to write this poem. Then I pounded it out on my computer. It seemed very significant at the time that I wrote the poem despite the fact I didn’t have my manual typewriter. By this I mean that the poem came to me whole. I sat down at my desk and wrote the whole thing out in one sitting.

The title was the catalyst. When I realized in a moment that the word “readership” could actually be understood as a ship, I sought to explore through the poem what kind of ship that would be.

At the time I was also friends with an individual who was obsessed with UFO’s and alien abductions, and he’d always read books about this type of stuff before he went to sleep, and then report back to me the many nightmares he’d had about being abducted. So I really ought to thank him for the metaphor.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

This poem was done pretty much as soon as it was written. The arc of thought that incited the poem and the movement of thought that followed was essentially complete. I think I fiddled with parts of it, but if memory serves, the poem was rare in that it arrived entire.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

This poem was very much received, but it was also the result of “sweat and tears” as it came out of the great many poems I’d been writing over the years preceding its composition. I believe all poems grow out of the poems that have preceded them, that one’s work grows and builds on all of the poems one has written, whether the final outcome of such poems be poor or successful. This poem was inspired: some of the best poems are. I say this as a poet who is accustomed to hammering out individual poems over a span of years. This poem was a kind of apparition, a realization, that arrived: a gift. A gift that came at the cost of the hard work I’d been engaged in prior to its appearance. It came to me like a lesson, a culmination of many concerns I’d been addressing through poetry for about five years prior to writing it.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I recall it was initially written in strict quatrains, a form that was very helpful to me at the time for its restraint. The creation of the poem was intuitive, and not very conscious at all. It was one of those poems you look back on and say, “Did I write that?”

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

This poem was never published in a literary magazine, though I sent out it to many venues, time and time again. In this way it represents something I learned about submissions to magazines: some of your best poems may never appear in a journal, and you have to trust your own knowledge that the poem is good despite the fact no one has “picked it up” (a phrase I hate). I knew this poem addressed a central motif in the manuscript I was working on, which would eventually take the form of my first book. The poem first appeared in print when my first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, came out in 2001.

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 probably took me a while to send it out as I was moving at the time. I was finished at University of Houston and moving to Iowa. The first instance I really showed the poem to a group of readers was at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in the summer of 2008. I may have sent it out before that; I can’t remember. I was pretty good back then at keeping my poems in a consistent submission rotation.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This poem is a fiction, naturally, as it addresses the “idea” of the readership. It questioned whether anyone was reading my poems at all. It questioned who I was writing my poems for, and why I was writing toward the “you” of the poem in first place. I’d been writing a great many poems that addressed a couple of figures— in “The Readership” these figures merge into one. The poem concerns the disappearance of the beloved, who is the most desired reader. The poem questions whether this reader has been paying attention at all to the entire body of work preceding it. There were two very real people in my life who are considered in this poem. They are, neither of them, readers of my work or of me. I had hoped, way back then, that I might attain their attention with a supreme poem. The poem arrives at the realization that this is a false hope. So, the poem is very much a “fact” for the speaker of my poems and, as such, very much a fiction (for me, who is not the speaker of the poem) in the final form it takes.

The poem is also a statement of poetics, in that it addresses the threat it wishes to lord over the reader, as it basically states that it is arriving, whether the reader wishes it to or not. In this way, the poem addresses commitment. In other words, “You asked for it, and now it’s too late to turn back. You wanted it, and now it wants you.” So, there’s a lot of doom and portent in this poem, which is ultimately a desire on behalf of the speaker, which is both sad and ridiculous, to mean something to someone, despite the fact the reader no longer wishes to engage.

Is this a narrative poem?

No. It’s a poem that accumulates pieces of narratives that combine to make a sort of mosaic. There’s no real narrative progression, at least not in my opinion. Despite the fact it’s about an imagined journey, there’s very little story. Or, if there is a story, it has no plot. The progression is one of realization, as opposed to being composed of events. The encounter with the presumed reader of the poem, which is a fantasy, is a means by which the speaker comes to face the fact she has no audience at all, other than herself.

At the center 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 think that compass is probably present in most good poems, and that it’s situated in ways particular to individual poems. I am uncomfortable with the idea that poetry has to be “ethical or just” to be aesthetically pleasing; I believe the strength of a poem is inherent in the language that comprises it. Any interesting work of literature has inherent in it a central conflict: what that conflict might be is individual to the piece itself. I do not think all good poetry must be just, far from it.

This is something I think about a lot, though. Because I like to think that poems strive to be good, even when they address our failings as individuals. But who knows what’s “good” and “bad”? The point is that the poem be moving, empathetic, energetic. That it give the reader a sense of experience or being. That it address some depth of human experience.

I resist the idea that a poem has to be “good” in a moral and ethical sense; a poem is aesthetically convincing when it communicates its intention through clarity of language, and when its own peculiar beauty is declared via its own rules, shape, meaning, etc.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Other than Susan Minot’s short story “Lust,” which has no bearing on this poem, I was reading travel guides to Mexico City, in addition to heaps of fiction. It’s a bit of blur to me now.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I write for those whose work I respect. I write toward long dead authors whose work I love.

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?

Back then, in 1997, I had readers I trusted. I don’t remember if I showed them this poem. Since, I have had very few readers I trust enough to discuss my early drafts. It’s a bit of a handicap, one I hope to correct.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This is a poem about resignation: giving up. My poems more often close with a challenge or dismissal. In that way, the realization it arrives at is more honest than other poems I’ve written.

What is American about this poem?

Its writer.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Happily so.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

William Greenway

William Greenway’s ninth full-length collection, Everywhere at Once (nominated for the 2008 Ohioana Poetry Book of the Year Award), is from the University of Akron Press Poetry Series, which also published his seventh collection, Ascending Order (2003), winner of the 2004 Ohioana Poetry Book of the Year Award, and I Have My Own Song For It: Modern Poems of Ohio (2002), which he co-edited with Elton Glaser. His eighth full-length collection, Fishing at the End of the World, is from Word Press (2005). He has published over six hundred poems in periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner. He has won the Helen and Laura Krout Memorial Poetry Award, the Larry Levis Editors' Prize from Missouri Review, the Open Voice Poetry Award from The Writer's Voice, the State Street Press Chapbook Competition, an Ohio Arts Council Grant, and was 1994 Georgia Author of the Year. He’s Professor of English at Youngstown State University, where he has been awarded a Distinguished Professorship in Teaching and three in Scholarship.


There are only a few left, he says,
kept by old Welsh miners, souvenirs, like
gallstones or gold teeth, torn
from this "pit," so cold and wet
my breath comes out a soul up
into my helmet's lantern beam,
anthracite walls running,
gleaming, and the floors iron-rutted
with tram tracks, the almost pure
rust that grows and waves like
orange moss in the gutters of water
that used to rise and drown.
He makes us turn all lights off, almost
a mile down. While children scream
I try to see anything, my hand touching
my nose, my wife beside me—darkness palpable,
velvet sack over our heads, even the glow
of watches left behind. This is where
they were born, into this nothing, felt
first with their cold noses for the shaggy
side and warm bag of black
milk, pulled their trams for twenty
years through pitch, past birds
that didn't sing, through doors
opened by five-year-olds who sat
in the cheap, complete blackness listening
for steps, a knock. And they
died down here, generation after
generation. The last one, when it
dies in the hills, not quite blind, the mines
closed forever, will it die strangely? Will it
wonder dimly why it was exiled from the rest
of its race, from the dark flanks of the soft
mother, what these timbers are that hold up
nothing but blue? If this is the beginning
of death, this wind, these stars?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

When I was in Wales one summer, I decided to go down into the “pit” that was probably the same one my grandfather had to work in as a small boy. It was now a museum, and I expected a typical touristy mock up of a real coal mine. Not so. And after the cage dropped us only a few feet, and the temp dropped, and the dampness rose around us, it rose in our hearts, too. This was not going to be a picnic: try walking stooped over like Groucho Marx for miles. I thought the experience would yield a powerful poem, probably centered around my grandfather, working twelve hours a day opening the fire-doors to let the ponies pull the trams full of coal to the pithead. When our guide, a former miner, made us turn off all light—well, if you think you’ve been in the dark before, you were wrong. I paraphrase Milton’s description of hell: “darkness visible.”

So when I got back to the states, I planned to let the experience simmer into a poem. But when I felt I had finally assimilated the experience, the plight of the young boys dissipated and left me with only one vivid memory—seeing the stables carved out of the rock so deep underground where the ponies were born, worked, and died. It was something I couldn’t get out of my head, especially when we were told that when the mines closed, those ponies that had never seen the world above ground were brought up.

What did they see? And how did they feel about it? (One student perceptively discovered in it a version of Plato’s “Myth of the Cave.”) The Welsh poet Meic Stephens writes about how the ponies, after being initially stunned, begin to run and gambol in the sunshine in a kind of pony heaven. And I think my poem started that way. But as it proceeded, the poem swerved into a sadder version of the afterlife, as others of my poems have, perhaps recalling those discussions I had with my stern Southern Baptist preacher father, whose descriptions of heaven seemed unbearably boring and sad. A loneliness and longing for his dark world was all the pony could feel. Later I heard a Welsh proverb that said, “A chicken that is reared in hell, there it wants to stay.” So maybe my sensibility is a Welsh inheritance.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

It seemed to go pretty fast and sure-footedly, probably because it had marinated so long.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Most of my poems are received, though I suspect I’m writing all the time at the subconscious level, which the Greeks used to call the Muses.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

No, free verse from the get-go, probably because so many of my poems are narratives, which, I think, need a little more elbow room than would be allowed by, say, couplets, or rhyming quatrains.

Is this a narrative poem?

Big time. Many of my poems are stories—I like stories in poems, and perhaps because my Southern family had a lot of stories to tell, I’ve always liked to record as much of it as I can.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I wrote it as my second book with Breitenbush was going to press, but when the editor, Jim Anderson, saw it, he determined to squeeze it in.

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 work on a poem pretty hard for about three days, and then I get sick of it, probably because I’ve lost touch with the original urgency, and feel that that’s when you can screw up something that’s probably as good as it’s going to get.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I usually stay pretty close to fact since I have no imagination. If it hasn’t really happened, I can’t fabricate what hasn’t.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

James Wright for style, but James Dickey gave me permission early on to write about my little life in Georgia, and that perhaps somebody else might be interested in it.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

No. I’ve got enough distractions as it is; somebody looking over my shoulder would spook me. I’m Staffordian: for those of you who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

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?

Now everything gets vetted by my former editor and terrific poet and critic Elton Glaser. If something sucks, he tells you right out, but if he likes something, you can take it to the bank. He’s made me a better poet, and doesn’t let me get away with anything.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It is actually quite similar to a number of others. It wants to be empathic, and would like to be more consoling, but a certain lugubriousness in my nature won’t let it. I’m an Eyore, and get my poetic juice from the sad, bitter, or angry. As Larkin says, “Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” Here’s another poem about an animal heaven that turned lonely and sad:


Two we gave away, two
live fairly happily in our backyard,
but the other eats fish with oyster-
pearly flesh, and licks spring
water from a tap on the pier
where, in the early azure morning,
old men in black berets, smoking
briar pipes, clean their catch,
the dark wet boards flecked
with blue scales.

They stroke her with crusty hands
when they leave for their homes
in the inland mountains of a soft pink haze.

Alone, she stretches in the sun all day
and watches the white gulls flying.

What is American about this poem?

It takes a naïve, almost Jamesianly innocent perspective on events or situations that are commonplaces abroad.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Mine are usually abandoned after a few days. I’m ready to move on.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Matthew Dickman

Matthew Dickman is author of the chapbooks, Amigos (Q Ave Press, 2007) and Something About a Black Scarf (Azul Press, 2008). His first full-length collection, All-American Poem, won the 2008 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry. He has had work in Tin House, Clackamas Literary Review, Agni Online, and The New Yorker, among others.


The skinny girl walking arm-in-arm
with her little sister
is wearing a shirt that says
and I want to,
I want to put my bag of groceries down
beside the fire hydrant
and whisper something in her ear about long division.
I want to stand behind her and run
a single finger down her spine
while she tells me about all her correlatives.
Maybe she’ll moan a little
when I tell her that x equals negative-b
plus or minus the square root
of b-squared minus 4(a)(c) all over
2a. I have my hopes.
I could show her my comic books
and Play Station. We could pull out
my old D&D cards
and sit in the basement with a candle lit.
I know enough about Dr. Who
and the Star Fleet Enterprise
to get her shirt off, to unbutton her jeans.
We could work out String Theory
all over her bedroom.
We could bend space together.
But maybe that’s not what she’s asking.
The world’s been talking dirty
ever since she’s had the ears to listen.
It’s been talking sleazy to all of us
and there’s nothing about the hydrogen bomb
that makes me want to wear a cock ring
or do it in the kitchen while a pot of water boils.
Maybe, with her shoulders slouched
the way they are and her long hair
covering so much of her face,
she’s asking, simply, to be considered
something more than a wild night, a tight
curl of pubic hair, the pink,
complicated, structures of nipples.
Maybe she wants to be measured beyond
the teaspoon shadow of the anus
and the sweet mollusk of the tongue,
beyond the equation of limbs and seen
as a complete absolute.
And maybe this is not a giant leap
into the science of compassion, but it’s something.
So when I pass her
I do exactly what she has asked of me,
I raise my right hand and make a V
the way Vulcans do when they wish someone well,
hoping she gets what she wants, even
if it has to be in a galaxy far away.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem “V” was written during the summer of 2003. I was living in Austin, Texas. I was walking down South Congress and passed a young woman wearing a shirt that said “talk nerdy to me.”

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

The poem has been revised around twenty-four times. The final version was written two years after the first draft.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration. Inspiration and meaning-making. Often they are bed partners. Human beings are meaning-making creatures. We cannot help it. We cannot stop doing it. So that meaning was made for me from seeing this person wearing a particular shirt is no great gift from the gods but it is still wildly moving to me and an important part of inspiration.

I believe the whole poem was “received” only some of that reception came through pulling my hair out and chewing the end of a pen to death. Every poem is “received.” Though, if by “received” you mean “came easy” or “came quickly” then no. I believe each poem one writes takes a lifetime to arrive. Up to the point of writing “V” I had been writing toward it since August 20th, 1975.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

As with other poems, “V” came into it’s final form only through intuition and a sense of “ending” as much as is possible. I have no “techniques” that blueprint a beginning and end to any poem I write.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

“V” was published in All-American Poem three years after it was written and appeared on its own in Tin House Magazine a few months after that.

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 am very random when it comes to sending work out. I have no rules that delineate when a poem should be submitted or how long it should “sit.” In fact, poems should never sit. If it’s nice outside and you feel like it, you should send the thing out into the world. The world is where it belongs anyway.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The factual DNA of “V” only exists in the first thought of writing the poem. That experience of being moved by the woman in the funny t-shirt is the only autobiography. Once the poem begins to be written it is spiritual fiction from then on out.

Is this a narrative poem?

“V” is not a narrative poem though it has narrative taste buds.

Can you address the difficult balance this poem achieves between humor and poignancy?

In “V” humor and poignancy are almost twins. But isn’t this the way, almost always, in our lives? When someone says something funny and also meaningful it is not through skill but, as they say, it’s funny because it’s true.

Was this always a funny poem?

When I was first writing “V” I didn’t know I was writing a funny poem. I was very serious about what I was writing and was actually surprised to hear my first readers laugh.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

My influences don’t always pair up with my poems. I remember reading a lot of Milosz and Jean Valentine when I wrote “V.” I think they both probably influenced “V” through their great abilities of statement.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

My ideal reader is always myself. I am so at sea when writing a poem that there is no room in my capsizing boat but for one person.

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?

The second draft of “V” was seen by many people. I was a student at The Michener Center for Writers when I wrote the poem and brought it to workshop. Outside of school, which has been most of my writing life, I have a small group of three to six people I share work with regularly. I am very lucky for that.

What is American about this poem?

If anything is “American” about this poem it might be that it doesn’t employ any formal rules.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

“V” was finished in that I felt it came to an end, that is my experience writing it, and though as a writer I have abandoned my working on it, it has been lucky enough to live another life in a magazine, a book, and perhaps within the imagination and experience of a few readers. Those few readers include me. When I look at “V” sitting next to me on the desk it is hard to understand that I was the person who wrote it.