Alexandra Teague’s first book, Mortal Geography (Persea 2010), won the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and the 2011 California Book Award. Her poetry has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Best New Poets 2008, and many journals. She was a 2006-08 Stegner Fellow and the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. After years in the Bay Area, she will begin in the Fall as Assistant Professor of Poetry at The University of Idaho.
ADJECTIVES OF ORDER
That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when
Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering
streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard,
she wrote: The mother took warm homemade bread
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade
is essential to bread. He copied this down, but
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost before
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern
downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part
of Lovely big rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color.
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding
and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
A colleague at City College of San Francisco had told me this story about one of her students, and it really resonated with me; I was working on a series of grammar poems, and I hadn't yet written anything about this kind of situation (which is fairly common): a teacher and student trying to navigate difficult emotions and history, while simultaneously navigating the challenges of language acquisition itself. So I wanted to write about the story, but I waited about a year before I tried. I actually began with the current opening line, which was my entry into the story: the thing that I knew most clearly about it.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
The poem went through about three main drafts, though I also revise a lot line-by-line as I'm going. I wrote a draft, but the pieces weren't quite fitting, and I realized, after setting the poem aside overnight, that I didn't know enough about the fall of Saigon to really imagine the student's physical experience. So I did a little research and added some of the images in the first few lines, and also spent more time with a grammar book finding specific usage samples. Then I workshopped that draft in Eavan Boland's Stegner workshop a week or so later and got feedback--including some wonderful suggestions about cuts and ways to get more energy between the sentences and lines, and a few parts that I should invert or otherwise alter. I also received a few suggestions that I didn't take: such as cutting the teacher out of the poem entirely! I think I did the main revisions within a week or so of receiving feedback, which is pretty quick by my revision standards, but I was lucky that the critique had helped me to clearly re-see the poem.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I think my poems (or at least the ones that end up somewhere) are always a combination of "received" surprises, and sweat and tears. And also, as I said above, sometimes good advice from others. I think that people often think about inspiration occurring at the start of the poetic process—with some brilliant idea for a poem. But I feel as if the words and images and thoughts in the poem inspire me as I get into the poem: that they lead me places I wouldn't have expected. That's a lot of the joy of writing for me, really. And, of course, in order to have those moments that feel as if I'm being led, I have to try a lot of things and have them not work, and generally muck around in the language and emotions and ideas for a long time.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Based on the feedback in the Stegner workshop, I consciously jarred some of the pieces against one another more and made a few parts more elliptical. I can't remember what I originally wrote, but I know that "He wanted to know why the order could not be altered" was a streamlining.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
No, the drafting process I described above is fairly typical. Some poems arrive faster than others, or begin with a line that I have in mind or have read somewhere, but others, like "Adjectives" come from a story that has stayed on my mind and that I'm exploring by writing about it.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
The poem was accepted by "Slate" maybe about six months after I wrote it.
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?
Sometimes a poem feels ready enough to send out within a few days of finishing the final draft; sometimes I wait for a year or more. In this case, the poem felt ready pretty quickly.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, the basic story about the student is true. And the examples of teaching grammar are from real grammar books and my own experience as a grammar and composition teacher. But the exact conversation between those two parts is invented; I wasn't really there when my colleague was teaching this particular student, so I had to imagine and distill the interaction.
Is this a narrative poem?
Definitely, though it's also a poem about the slipperiness of language, which in some way works against straight narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I don't remember specifically; I was reading pretty voraciously throughout the Stegner workshop, but I'd be wary to point to a particular influence on this particular piece. It's definitely been shaped by Eavan Boland's critique, as I said above, so maybe I should list her.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don't have a specific audience in mind, but I do think (particularly in later drafting) about the voices of peers and teachers—what they would be likely to ask me, or not let me get away with (because it's good to have people stop us from getting away with things that we really suspect we shouldn't be getting away with—easy lines, weak descriptions or structure, etc.). And I really listen to my poems as I write them; I write a lot by ear in terms of rhythms and what sounds true to me. And I ideally try to write poems that I could read aloud to smart, emotionally-engaged listeners, and have them feel a connection.
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?
Yes, as I said, I workshopped it with the wonderful Stegner fellows; I still get together with some of the former fellows every few months to critique poems. And I show my work to my partner, the songwriter Dylan Champagne, who is also a wonderful critic.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This poem's biggest distinction is probably in the attention it's received. It's the poem I'm most often asked about, or asked to read—the one that the most people seem to connect with. This means a lot to me since it's a story that matters to me as a person, and as a teacher and writer who is really interested in language's capacities and limitations. In some ways, I'm still surprised that this poem speaks to the experience effectively—since it's not my personal experience, and I certainly worried about its accuracy and about representing a Vietnamese man who had gone through these experiences that are so far removed from my own (though emotionally resonate for me, both as someone who is concerned about war and violence, and as someone with several close friends who are Vietnamese and whose families went through the war).
What is American about this poem?
This poem seems very American to me in its story: a teacher who is a native speaker of English working with an immigrant student who is struggling with the language and with expressing really powerful experiences that the teacher only knows about through history books. The community college system in this country is fairly unique in the range of ages and backgrounds that its students have, which allows this sort of intersection of languages and cultures.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
This particular poem feels more finished; actually, most of my poems that I send out or otherwise show to people feel fairly finished, though there's a fine line. There's always another way the poem could have been written. And sometimes I think for years that a poem is finished, only to revise it later. Or I think it's "abandoned," only to later decide that it was really finished.