Patrick Lawler has published three collections of poetry: A Drowning Man is Never Tall Enough (University of Georgia Press, 1990); reading a burning book (Basfal Books, 1994); and Feeding the Fear of the Earth, winner of the Many Mountains Moving poetry book competition (2006). In addition, he has received a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, two grants from the New York State Foundation for the Arts, and an award from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Lawler’s poetry and fiction have appeared in over one-hundred journals including American Letters & Commentary, American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ironwood, Shenandoah, and Hotel Amerika. He has written numerous plays and has been involved with experimental multimedia pieces, art installations, and performance art. An Associate Professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, he is the former director of the ESF Writing Program where he teaches environmental writing and nature literature courses. He is the ecopoetry and drama editor of the journal Many Mountains Moving.
HOW TO B A MAN (ASSEMBLY)
Fearful I will be led in
directions I never intended,
I think of my father
being lost in New Guinea.
It was during World War II.
He was on a mission--a patrol.
For a week he wandered in the jungle.
Only two of them came back.
My father said he could
not remember any of it.
Amnesia he said.
Sometimes, when my father wasn't drunk,
he'd wake up shaking and screaming.
And we knew New Guinea
was trying to get out.
Joseph Campbell tells of a New Guinea
ritual where six or so boys
in their initiation into manhood
make love to this woman dressed as a deity
under a roof of enormous logs.
I often wondered what happened
to my father for those seven days.
Suppose everything I ever was
came out of what was hidden
in my father's head.
He would show us pictures of aborigines.
He also had this one picture
of a man who just had his head
cut off. It lay in his lap
with two spurts of blood
shooting from his neck.
A decapitated Buddha.
He could never tell us much
about the picture. Who was the victim?
Who was the man who swung the axe?
We looked at the picture
the same way we looked at our father:
with disgust and awe--
with a kind of reverence.
According to Campbell, while the last
boy was making love to the woman,
the heavy log roof would collapse
killing the couple--a union of beginning
and end, of begetting and death.
My father always wanted me
to write a novel about his life.
But the only thing I ever cared about
was what had happened in New Guinea.
How many people died? How did they die?
What did my father do? What did he see?
My father's whole life collapsed
in those buried memories.
Later, according to Campbell,
the couple who had made love
and died are pulled out from
under the heavy logs and eaten.
That's what we do with the great
mysteries that surround us.
We devour them or they devour us;
we make them part
of us or we're lost inside them forever.
If I were to write that novel,
it would be about death and sex and time.
It would occur in the middle
of a rainforest--in a sacred spot
where death could occur at any moment.
And it would begin and end with these words:
"All my life I will be afraid I'm lost.
All my life I will be afraid I'm found."
And I am there
in my father's life, sitting crosslegged
with my head lying in my lap.
Maybe I am a man
who has just made love to a deity.
Maybe I am a man
whose head has fallen off.
The whole mystical green world
spins around me. Confused with fever,
my father arrives, dazed, jittery.
I want to offer him something to eat
and tell him it is ok to be afraid. I want
to warn him not to leave this place.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
First, I want to say blogs scare me.
Second, I want to thank Joe and Chenelle Milford for publishing this poem in Scythe. I also want to thank Jeffrey Ethan Lee for including it in a manuscript that will be published in the near future (Under Ground, Many Mountains Moving Press).
Here are some questions:
Did the poem start when the picture of the man being beheaded was taken?
Did it begin when my father showed the picture to my brother and me?
Did it begin after the picture and after the writing—when the poem was performed?
In a very real sense this poem did not begin until this very moment when I am writing about it as I am preparing for a trip to Boston where a hurricane with my father’s name is approaching. On the TV Al Roker is being blown around on the Outer Banks as he talks about Hurricane Earl.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
In some ways poems tumble around and then tumble out. This poem didn’t tumble around for long, but it didn’t tumble out till years later.
In many ways revision is the essence of this poem—mostly through a process of accretion—writing as palimpsest—where the butterfly drags around the caterpillar.
As I watch the Weather Channel, a woman named Stephanie is on Kill Devil Hills. Her hair is whipped under a windbreaker as she is being blasted by beach sand.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I am inspired to say I do not believe in inspiration. However, I do believe in Coleridge and I also believe in NPR’s I Believe series. I also believe in something I call out-spiration. I believe in kaleidoscopes and periscopes and telescopes, but I do not believe in microscopes.
The poem was 1/3 received (the gift from father to son), 1/3 sweat (hammering and tinkering, twisting and shrinking), 1/3 tears (the emotional connections that result in revealing deeper places).
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The principle of cutting and stitching. The principle of weaving. The principle of strapping a poem to your back and jumping.
As I write this I am in a car heading toward a hurricane with my father’s name. And I wonder why the Weather Channel has sent poor Al Roker out to stand on a beach in a hurricane.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
At least ten years. Probably closer to fifteen.
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 a poem crawl out of itself. I usually have to apologize to my poems for not releasing them earlier—but they don’t seem to mind. They seem to like hanging out together in unpublished manuscripts.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Facts are my favorite thing to lie about. One of my favorite web sites is the web site for The Museum of Jurassic Technology. I also love the web site for the Museum of Quackery. Both of these sites reveal weirdness and strange desires and imagination—but mostly they reveal our need for hope.
At one level, poems are polygraph machines recording several physiological, emotional, and psychological indices. The more the poem relies on the distances and similarities between deception and truth the more interesting are the patterns formed by the jagged lines on the graph paper.
Is this a narrative poem?
For me all poems are stories told with cracks. Insatiable, prismatic, they negotiate unfamiliar territory—crypto-manifestos, pantheistic love poems. They combine the Deleuzian principle of rhizome and the Bakhtinian sense of the carnivalesque with the Freudian battle between eros and thanatos.
“How to b a Man (Assembly)” is Oedipal and edible combining character and conflict. How could it not involve story?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I know I was reading Neruda, and I was also going through a stage when I was fascinated with Performance Art for its intensity and urgency, for its power to engage and its power to critique. I was also dabbling in Campbell and mythology from a variety of cultures—particularly the Mayan and the Australian Aborigines.
This poem was originally part of a series of poems “How to b a Man” which has since become part of a chapter in an unpublished poetry book—Exhalation Therapist. In collaboration with installation artist/sculptor Kim Waale, the whole “How to b a Man” section was performed in a variety of venues—using different techniques and approaches each time (slides, audience participation, music, singing, etc.).
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I imagine an individual, probably younger, who has no real interest in poetry—but who is willing to be amazed.
Sometimes I imagine someone sitting in an audience (maybe a bar) who says. “Come on, show me why I need to listen to you.”
Sometimes I think of a child entering a magic show.
Sometimes I need to think of a head listening intently in someone’s lap.
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 am blessed with a number of perceptive and critical readers, who give me feedback, criticism, and inspiration, including Linda Pennisi, David Lloyd, Jeffrey Ethan Lee, George Kalamaras, and Paul Roth. I owe these individuals far more than a suggestion about a line break. Each of them has become essential to my creative, personal, and emotional development.
After I arrive in Boston, Hurricane Earl is reduced to a category one. The Weather Channel is running a series of specials on hurricanes. In Galveston the houses are crying. In New Orleans the saxophones weep over the balconies.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’m not really sure. I know I like my poetry to be layered, and this poem seems to achieve that. I also like a poem to present unexpected connections through juxtaposition and dreamlike leaps. I want poems that allow the reader to go on a journey through contradictory emotions and tensions.
My father also appears quite frequently in my poems—but here I feel I am more honest with the emotions than I am in some other poems. This poem is slightly different because it deals rather specifically with his request to write his memoir of his WWII experiences. I know I disappointed him because I would not do it. Here, after many decades of saying no I cannot do it, I finally have written it.
What is American about this poem?
Though none of these themes is exclusively American, “How to b a Man (Assembly)” is an American poem because it considers war, patriarchy, and initiation. These subjects are prominent American themes in literature and movies from Red Badge of Courage to Catch 22, from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye.
Relating the experience of a WWII soldier fighting in a foreign country considered through the lens of Campbell’s Eurocentric views of myth and anthropology in some ways cannot help but capture at least some aspects of American consciousness.
Now that everything has calmed down, I wonder what Al Roker is doing. I hope the weather will be kind to him.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Probably neither. Somehow the poem continues its life even as I am not writing it. It evolves and alters as it is read. I think all poems do this. They transform at the cellular level as they are experienced by others.
I also need to share this: I have lost the picture the poem was based on. For many years I have looked for it, and at this point it is hard to even imagine it. I suspect if I ever do find it, the poem will somehow be altered again.
Did I say blogs scare me? What I really meant to say was that poems scare me. And it doesn’t matter whether you write them or read them or live them. They are like holes you fall down and you can find someone who looks like you waiting at the bottom.
When I first performed this poem in public, I wore a large mud mask created by installation artist/sculptor Kim Waale. Dwelling inside that mask for the time it took to read the poem I began to grasp where the poem came from. I think this poem and maybe all of my poems need to be read inside mud in order to understand the visceral, the unholy, and the sacred.