Wesley McNair’s latest book is Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems. He has held grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations, two Rockefeller Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship in literature, and two NEA fellowships. In 2006 he was selected for a United States Artists Fellowship of $50,000 as one of "America’s finest living artists." Other honors include the Devins Award for Poetry, the Jane Kenyon Award, the Robert Frost Award, the Theodore Roethke Prize, the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine, an Emmy Award, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal. A guest editor in poetry for the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology, his work has appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition and The Writer’s Almanac, with Garrison Keillor; two editions of The Best American Poetry; and over fifty anthologies. He has authored or edited eighteen books, including poetry, nonfiction, and anthologies.
Why he must cover every counter top, table
and chair with his things, she no longer asks,
knowing he will only answer as if speaking
to someone in his head who’s keeping track
of all the ways she misunderstands him
and wants to hear over and over that he’s sick
and tired, though that’s just what he is,
and how can she resent him for that? – so sick
he has pills for his bad circulation, bad heart,
and nerve disorder scattered around
the kitchen sink, so tired after staying up
all night at his computer feeding medication
to the stinging in his legs, he crashes
for one whole day into the next. "Thurman?"
she asks, coming home from work to find him
lying on their bed in his underpants, still
as the dead, his radio on to tape the talk shows
he’s missing, and then the old thought
that he really is dead comes into her mind
all over again, so strong this time she can’t
get rid of it, even after she sees him with her
own eyes just above the partition in the kitchen
making coffee in the way he’s invented,
boiling grounds, then putting in more grounds
and a raw egg, his bald head going back
and forth under the fluorescent light like
the image of his continuous obsession,
which she can’t escape and can never enter,
though now it’s her own obsession
that troubles her. Stupid is her word for it,
the same word he always uses for the crazy
things she gets into her head, and it was
stupid, still thinking Thurman was dead
though he was right there in front of her,
and then, when she tries to make herself
stop, her heart starts pounding until
she can hardly breathe. "It is nothing more
than simple anger," the pastor tells her
after the Sunday service she attends
with the other women who live nearby,
and he recalls with disappointment
the anger he discovered in her heart
during their talk a year ago. How,
she wonders, could she have forgotten
that after she wiped away her tears
in that conversation about Thurman
leaving things he wouldn’t let her touch
on every surface of the house, even
the couch and chairs, the pastor made her see
the malice she had carried so deep inside
not even she understood that all this time
she had been gradually filling the spare room
and the closed-in porch with her own
discards, broken figurines, old mops
and mop pails and Christmas decorations,
out of a secret revenge, and now,
the pastor shook his head, this thought
about her husband, whom she had pledged
to honor, lying in his underpants, dead,
the day before her fortieth anniversary.
When she returned home at last and opened
the door to find the two pairs of sneakers
next to the recliner with the ankle brace in it,
and old videos on top of the half-read
magazines and newspapers by the TV,
and the bathrobe and shirts and pants folded
over the backs of chairs, she did not feel,
as she sometimes did, that she might suffocate,
but instead, a relief that Thurman hadn’t
risen yet. He wouldn’t mind that she used one
of his sticky notes when he read the words
she wrote on it, I still love you, meaning
how sorry she was for blaming him behind
his back to the pastor, and for the secret
anger she had kept so long in her heart, yet
because, unlike most things in that house,
it was hers alone, she continued to ponder
the anger and keep it, even after Thurman took
the note from the screen of his computer
with a smile, and got his camera out
to take the anniversary photo he always took
for his emails of her holding plastic flowers,
mocking her because she never could
pose right, then sitting down among the wires
and the stacks of cd’s and computer paper
to Photoshop it, going over and over her teeth
and eyes to whiten them and taking all
the wrinkles out of her face until she looked
like an old baby. "Oh, I like what you did
to it, Thurman," she said when he brought
the picture to her, sitting on her rocker in the only
clean corner of the house, and she almost meant it,
she had become so calm in her pondering, calmer
than she could ever remember as she looked
out the window and through the other window
of the closed-in porch, where a flock
of the migrating birds she loved lingered
for a time under the roof of her feeder,
and in an unaccountable moment, lifted
their wings all together and flew away.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem in 2009, after pondering a couple of old marriages I knew in which couples had somehow settled for the relationships they had, despite the limitations of those relationships and the conflicts that festered. In one case, the wife seemed to have reached a point of desperation about life with her husband. She became the protagonist of my poem.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
My poems always require dozens of sessions, and this one was no different. I began, as I always do, with pages of free-listing -- images, thoughts and feelings, phrases, whatever comes to mind about the poem I’m trying to write. Then I go back to the fragments and see where the hot spots are, and they often become the source of my poem. The trick then is how to start it. My notebook for this poem shows I tried different ways, and looking back, I see that I wanted to give my reader the sense of entering the wife's process of thought, which is disorganized and a bit frantic. Though she doesn't know it, she's in an emotional crisis, overwhelmed by all the stuff that her husband, a hoarder, has filled their house with, leaving no place for her, literally or figuratively. She’s being smothered both by the layers of clutter and by his narcissism and need for control.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
My poems always begin with a feeling I want to explore. They don't begin from "out there," which is what I think of when I hear your words inspiration and received, but from inside myself, as I follow the implications of that feeling in my own emotional experience. My allies in this exploration are wonder and curiosity, the why and the how of my story. In this case, for instance, I asked myself why the wife might be having such a crisis having stayed in her marriage for forty years, and exactly how she might deal with the crisis. There were tears, yes, tears for this woman. What drove me was my compassion for her, the need I felt to give her a voice.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I wanted long sentences that jumped across stanza divisions as if disregarding the form of the poem itself – a wildness that suggested the wife’s state of mind as well as her process of thought. The poem has twenty stanzas but only six sentences, each with a range of twists and turns. Another thing the long sentences do is to gather up the detail of the poem as it goes, throwing meaning ahead of themselves, to paraphrase Frost, so you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when the sentences end. This preserves the immediacy of the poem despite its length, or so I hope, as if it were spoken or thought in one intensified moment.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Not every editor likes long narrative poems like this one, which devote their space to how people in the third person feel and think and behave. Editors today respond better to poems that are shorter and autobiographical – or not explicitly narrative. But I was in a hurry because I wanted to put "Her Secret" in Lovers of the Lost, my new and selected, which was then scheduled with Godine, and I wanted to publish the poem first in a magazine. So I sent it to Robert Nazarene at Margie, knowing he liked narrative work, and sure enough, he accepted it. The whole process, from completing the poem to publishing it in Margie, took about a year.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The original version of the wife, so to speak, lived with a hoarder who was also a bullying narcissist and was troubled by these things. She also attended a church led by what I imagined was a patriarchal minister with a male-centered view of the bible and its teachings – a man not so different in his assumptions from her husband. What I invented were the details of her observation and the rising action of her desperation. I took from life the outlines of her situation and the sense that my story could actually happen. As always, the connection between life and art were vitally important to me.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I’m not really the sort of poet who gets ideas for a poem directly from reading. Writers are often asked who their influences are among other writers, but I think they’re influenced most of all by their own work. If you’re reasonably ambitious with your poems, choosing subjects that make you stretch and grow, you’re teaching yourself how to be a poet every time you set out. The reading of other poets is not irrelevant to your development, but it’s more at the edges of it. I became interested in how long sentences and unfolding syntax could serve a poem way back in my second book, The Town of No, and the work of that book led to the even longer sentences of my extended narrative, "My Brother Running." I suppose my interest in syntax came initially from Dickinson and Frost, who made a strategic use of the delayed verb. But the syntax of W.C. Williams and other modernists is also interesting. If there’s a weakness in contemporary poetry, I think it’s dull and predictable syntax.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
One reader I don’t write for is the literary specialist. I write for a general audience, I guess you could say, including those who don’t think they like poetry. Never mind that these readers may never look at my poems or go to my readings. My feeling is that if I don’t write to them and for them, choosing to speak only to literary types who are clued in, my vision as a poet will shrink. My readers, I tell myself, may not know who T. S. Eliot is or even the poetry of John Keats. But they have done their homework by living a life. My task is to speak to that life.
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 show a poem first to my wife Diane. One reason I married her is that she likes poetry and understands it. I knew even then how rare it was to find this quality in a mate, and I must also have known, even though I hadn’t published a thing yet, that I’d need her one day as a reader. She goes with her gut – either likes a poem or doesn’t. If I can get the poem by her, I know it has possibilities, even if it isn’t ready yet. Don Hall has been enormously helpful to me in the details of my poems. He reads line by line, literally and by a poem’s language, and he is seldom wrong. I’ve used other poet friends as readers, too, reserving the final judgment for myself. Lately after I’ve shown a poem around, I’ve been putting it away for a couple of months or more, then getting it out for final revisions – which in the end may prove not to be final after all. For me, revision is nearly endless. If you’re a poet, you’re driven by the need to create something perfect in an imperfect world. Lord knows, we seldom do that, but I want to give my poem a decent chance.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’ve written lots of poems about older and elderly people, but I’ve never given this glimpse of a home and the old, habituated marriage that takes place inside it. I’d guess there are many thousands of relationships like this in rural locations or cities, though they are largely invisible. The coercion and abuse the wife of my poem suffers over years in her own home are not dramatic. They’ve happened by a slow accrual until she’s reached the breaking point. Yet because she’s come this far into her marriage and her husband’s view of who she is, she doesn’t know what to do about her situation. This outcome wouldn’t make a very successful TV episode, but I’ll bet it’s closer to the truth of actual experience.
What is American about this poem?
There is the America of Britney Spears and CNN and the so-called mainstream culture, and there’s the America of those who live around us in what we call the margins of our society, though there are far more of them than the term implies. These are people whose lives don’t conform to the American before-and-after story of personal transformation. Yet they are much more American than we think. Whitman once advised us to "stand up for the stupid and the crazy," but to this day, the underprivileged or unacculturated haven’t found their way into our poetry. Forgive the sermon, but I think that when they do, and when we find ways to speak to them in our work, we will have the kind of poetry Whitman wanted.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. I think.