Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collection Rough Honey, winner of the 2010 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Best New Poets 2009, New England Review, North American Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She has received residency fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and her work has won several awards. She is a freelance editor and writer in San Francisco.
kayak flipped us and the current
dragged us through its rocks, arms sealed
at our sides, it was a blast, meeting it all cranium-first,
like academics, frothfoamgrit and the taste,
what was it, asphyxiation, psychedelic Escher
in blackwhite cubes, tableau enormous, picnic
tablecloth but undulating, spiked into color—crimson, canary—
until that last blow, ledge flat against
my mouth-hole, my whole body
condensed to one blinding exclamation point,
white protrusion of bone—white petals and light,
pearl-solid, luminous, all fourth-of-July and scattered,
pipe bombs bottle rockets Christmas crackers, oh,
what a party, annihilation, till the blue blue blue
palm sweeping my forehead, the hair from my forehead
and the ache of return, to the tenderness
of paint sable-brushed against silk, powdered
throat of the foxglove, flushed curve spiraling
into a conch, velvet crowning the doe’s nose,
arms embracing the cello’s hips, shoulders,
and what shudders from them, coaxed
or forced, distracted out of, with that bloodwhite flap
blinking at me from your cheek
and something in the eyes, maybe trout or bass or salmon
thrashing upstream, yellowglimmer and sickened,
we’re not going to make it, we’ll make it, we’re stranded,
washed up on this hurricane shore, held together
by blood sticks and mud, oh paper, oh desks, oh treatises,
we weren’t immune, on those banks, sky flat as anything,
a willowlike spider tree bending over us,
I focused on its branches, on the branches
of the branches, how comical that word twig,
surrounded by thousands of jokes as blood darkened
the silt like a cave painting
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Though I can’t say this for all of my poems, I know exactly when and how: it began on 9/11/2004 in the first days of a residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois. At residencies I usually set myself the task of writing something every day as soon as I wake up—often a freewrite and a poem of some sort, which might be based on an exercise. Sometimes a “real” poem comes of this, sometimes not.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
“Whitewater” was couched in a freewrite of single-spaced prose. Along the way, I found myself inserting slash marks that indicated line breaks. I did this for only a few lines so I wouldn’t lose momentum, but it told me something. Later I chopped off the opening and closing parts of the freewrite, and there was the poem. I thought of leaving it as a prose poem, but also experimented with line breaks. I have a file marked 11/14/2004 in which the poem is broken into lines and is close to final form. It also had its title by then. I tinkered with it for a while longer then started submitting it to journals the following April.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I would say that this particular poem was mostly received. Besides adding the line breaks, which I did fairly intuitively, I changed surprisingly little from the initial draft—it was one of those rare poems that is just sort of given to you. I cut and changed and added a few words here and there, but didn’t move anything around. One of the biggest decisions was whether to cut the very last line of the poem, which eventually I did.
As for inspiration… over the years enough lines and poems have been given to me out of seemingly nowhere—and writing them down has felt in a way like channeling—that I’d have to say yes, I do believe in inspiration. But I believe that inspiration is a result of the mind and imagination humming along subliminally, and it involves a certain kind of preparation, readiness, and receptivity. Including reading. And time and space. (When I’m overworked and overcommitted, I’m not often visited by brilliant lines I feel I have to set down before they’re irrevocably lost.)
It’s wonderful when inspiration takes care of itself, but so often it’s the hard work of revision that really makes a poem sing.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I suppose the only conscious technique I used was introducing the line breaks. I really liked the idea of “Whitewater” as a prose poem but ultimately decided it felt impenetrable that way, couldn’t breathe. The breaks allowed tension to build and release and build again.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
The poem was accepted by Nimrod in June 2006, about a year after I began sending it out. It appeared in the Spring 2007 issue.
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 varies. If I feel certain that a poem is strong, I’ll send it off to journals as soon as it’s finished. But often I’ll wait several months, or longer, to get perspective. Because I frequently get behind on submissions, even finished poems sometimes wait a while to be sent out.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Much of my work is fictional, so it was interesting that you asked me to write about this poem in particular because it does have a story behind it, an incredibly sad one.
I’m a freelance book editor, and in 2001–2002 I worked with a rather extraordinary woman named Barbara Cushman Rowell on her first book, a memoir called Flying South (Ten Speed Press). The book told of how learning to fly and the attendant adventures (including flying her single-engine plane to Patagonia) empowered Rowell to emerge from the shadow of her husband, the renowned nature photographer Galen Rowell. This was one of those luxurious editing projects of the sort there is rarely time or budget for these days: we worked together closely for a year and a half, and I got to watch Rowell grow exponentially as a writer. She saw writing the book as another way to come into her own.
One chapter of Flying South describes a whitewater rafting accident while crossing a Class V rapid on the Bio Bio River in Chile. Rowell and her husband (and others) were seriously injured, and Rowell’s depiction is vivid and grisly. I can’t remember how long it was since I had last read that chapter—most likely the two years since it was published, as until now I haven’t been able to bring myself to open the book—but clearly the story stuck with me, as the poem is told from her perspective. Many of the elements of the poem’s action—the head-first plunge, the ledge, the froth and foam, the blow to the mouth, the protrusion of bone from her arm, the bloodwhite flap—are directly from her story, though rearranged a bit. The rest is imagined.
Rowell and her husband recovered from the accident; both needed many stitches and Rowell, extensive oral surgery. The tragic part of the story is that both died in a charter plane crash very close to home a couple months before Flying South’s release date. In order to become a pilot, Rowell had to cope with her persistent fear of flying and accept the possibility that she might die in the air. I wonder if it ever occurred to her that she might die at the hands of another pilot. It’s hard to think of a more horrible irony than the fate of these two chronically adventurous people, who risked their lives time and time again in remote corners of the world. I’ve never really gotten over the fact that Rowell never got to hold in her hands the book that she felt was going to change her life.
Years later, I do still feel some discomfort surrounding this poem—something akin to viewing a beautiful photograph of a disaster. I wonder what Barbara Rowell would have thought of it, and whether I would have had the same impulse to write it had she and her husband made it home safely from that final flight.
Is this a narrative poem?
It does relate an event that unfolds in time. It’s more narrative than much of my work, but also has strong lyric elements. I’ve always been interested in weaving together lyric and narrative threads.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don’t remember… Some perennial influences are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Linda Bierds, early Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mark Doty, Robert Hass, and Gerald Stern.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Can’t say I do. Anyone who enjoys my work and gets something out of it is ideal!
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 meet with a local poetry group every month to share work—an invaluable resource for providing both feedback and a sense of community. If I remember correctly, the group advised me to dispense with the last line of “Whitewater” (thank goodness).
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
As I mentioned above, not much of my work correlates so closely to real events. Also, the poem consists more or less of just one sentence. I do write lots of persona poems, though.
What is American about this poem?
Well, I could probably come up with an explanation involving the long literary and historical tradition of human vs. wilderness, but truthfully, I’m not sure I see anything particularly American about it besides its writer.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. I don’t think many of my abandoned poems make it into print.