Susan Tichy has published four books, including Gallowglass (Ahsahta Press, 2010), Bone Pagoda (Ahsahta Press, 2007), and A Smell of Burning Starts the Day (Wesleyan University Press, 1988). Her first book, The Hands in Exile (Random House, 1983) was selected for the National Poetry Series and also received the Eugene Kayden Award for Poetry. Her poems and mixed-genre works have appeared widely in the US and Britain, and have been recognized by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous other awards. Since 1988 she has taught in the Graduate Writing Program at George Mason University. When not teaching, she lives in a ghost town in the Colorado Rockies.
On the steps of the pagoda
a man was begging
A man with no eyes was begging
on the steps of the pagoda
It might be fire it looks like that
It might be Willy Peter
A smooth tight kind of burning
to the bone it might be that
Someone had drawn red circles
Maybe he had drawn them
Someone had drawn red circles
where his eyes would be
It might be lipstick it looks like that
It might be red lipstick
They make a place to look
When you are looking
A place to put your eyes
It might be that
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Most poems begin as scraps of lines in notebooks, sometimes mixed up with lines that wind up in other poems. I can find none for this poem, but know that it started in 2001 or 2002. It emerged from a haunting: a man I saw on the steps of Tay An Pagoda at Nui Sam, in the western Mekong Delta, in February of 2000. We had stopped there on the way back from Ba Chuc, on the Cambodian border, already emotionally drained from our long visit to the Bone Pagoda and its ossuary. The stop at Tay An was intended to be restful and consoling.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It was a wee bit longer in early drafts and had a different ending, and it probably looked different on the page. The commitment to couplets as a unifying form for Bone Pagoda emerged over time, so I may have been playing with different arrangements. I remember working on the poem in Scotland, which would have been May of 2002, but don’t recall if I started it there or was tinkering. The book manuscript was finished and accepted in 2004.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Why would inspiration visit a lazy artist? As the Sufis say of divine spirit: the guest comes to a well-laid table. For this poem, the table was laid by form and the labor was mostly patience. It couldn’t be bullied, and it couldn’t be expanded. I had to listen and stay out of the way, allow the poem to retain its simplicity. This process was not typical for my poems, which are mostly longer and full of all kinds of stuff, so they might require months, even years, of heavy lifting.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Traditional Scottish (and Anglo-American) ballads employ incremental repetition to simultaneously freeze the action and tell a story—sort of like cartoons, in which each frame is essentially like the previous frame, with one small difference that moves the action forward. I used variations on this technique throughout Bone Pagoda to explore the way statements or events can swerve from one version of truth to another. In this poem it was especially useful to slow things down, to gradually complete each image, so the poem would relive one shocked, slow-motion moment of seeing. Ballads juxtapose description or narration with dialogue, often without transition or attribution, as this poem does. It also shadows a ballad’s 4/3 meter, with the second line of each couplet shorter than the first. …But all of that analysis is after the fact. At the time I wrote the poem I was so steeped in ballad thinking that the poem arrived in and through that structure without hesitation. I was also working with high, low, and flat vowels, to sharpen images and deflect any tendency toward emotional badgering. The ending took longest to arrive—or, rather, to be accepted in its understatement.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I had perpetual doubts about this poem, so rarely sent it out. Its first appearance was in Bone Pagoda in 2007. It has since been reprinted several times.
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 have no rules, but generally wait several months. I recently had a poem accepted just weeks after I finished it, but that is rare. I sent it out just for the exercise and was surprised when it didn’t come back.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
There is no fiction in this poem, though of course there is speculation. Willy Peter was the soldiers’ nickname for White Phosphorous, a chemical flame weapon designed to burn underwater—which means, in a weapon, that it will continue to burn inside a human body after fire on the skin has been extinguished.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes. In addition to the encounter described, there’s the whole war as backdrop. This, too, parallels the world of ballad singing. There, a singer can count on her audience to know the story, so she doesn’t have to sing every possible verse. In my case, I could count on readers knowing the story of the war—or at least a story of our part of the war.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was listening to ballads, sung by Jeannie Robertson, Belle Stewart, Dick Gaughan, Joan Baez, and a dozen others. I was reading George Oppen, Emily Dickinson, Daniel Berrigan, John Donne, as well as histories and memoirs of Vietnam and its wars. In Scotland that summer I had a lucky immersion in the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Thomas A. Clark, and Hamish Fulton, all minimalists.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
As my friend and colleague Eric Pankey said: a reader who loves all the poets I love. For this book, I also hoped to lure readers who like political poetry but shy away from “difficult” verse—and vice versa.
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?
Friends read drafts of the book, but I don’t recall any particular feedback on this poem. My late husband read everything—or I read it to him. I have a circle of readers now, though (regrettably) our involvement with each other’s work waxes and wanes. Our styles and reading habits vary widely, so each poem we take up is illuminated from different angles—extremely useful.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
What is American about this poem?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?