Beth Bachmann's first book, Temper, was selected by Lynn Emanuel as winner of the AWP Award Series 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry and won the 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems appear in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares and Tin House, among other journals. She holds graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and Concordia University in Montreal and teaches at Vanderbilt University. Beth’s new poems recently won the Poetry Society of America’s 2011 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award for a manuscript-in-progress.
Some would call this heaven – a teenage girl half-naked
in the grass. For all I know, they might be right.
The lighting is soft, mid-morning, hazy enough to blur
the details, so we can fill them in any way we like.
Say, a brunette, barely legal, hidden.
From here, it looks like she’s speechless.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It must have been composed in 2005. It started with the first line.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
"Heaven" underwent one revision; about a year later, I changed the final word from "sleeping" to "speechless." It’s a small sonic leap but "speechless" is more untranslatable and more dangerous.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I like Siegfried Sassoon’s advice to Wilfred Owen, "Sweat your guts out." In any good sweat, face your door to the fire.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The couplets here are imposed. I like the order of the couplet, the tension. Also, here, they’re close-cropped like photographs, a way of controlling the gaze. And, end-stopped, gesturing toward the silence of the last word. There’s also a doubling of hyphens, a doubling of vision, an open-ended dash.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It appeared in American Poetry Review Mar/Apr 2008, so about three years.
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 tend to let things sit a long time, a year or more.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I’d say this one’s mostly fact. It begins with a premise and then explores that premise. Then again, it’s about heaven – is there a greater imaginative space?
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I am my own ideal reader. Use the enemy.
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?
Currently, I have one friend, a poet whose work and sensitivities I admire. We swap. I’m very private.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This poem seems more alike my others than different. About the same amount of nudity, light, violence and turning over. Same eye, ear and throat. Different body.
What is American about this poem?
Its references to Christianity and violent crime.