Gibbons Ruark has published his poems widely for over forty years. Among his eight collections are Keeping Company (1983), Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (1999) and Staying Blue, a 2008 chapbook. The recipient of many awards, including three NEA Poetry Fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, and the 1984 Saxifrage Prize for Keeping Company, he was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and grew up in various Methodist parsonages in the eastern part of the state. Educated at the Universities of North Carolina and Massachusetts, he taught English largely at the University of Delaware until his retirement in 2005. He lives with his wife Kay in Raleigh.
SESSION BEGINNING IN SUNLIGHT
The day’s too warm for the tart smoke of a turf fire,
Though dust motes in the sunlight are a kind of smoke,
The brass is polished, the stained-glass panels make
A gossipy row of snugs along the bar.
A shadowy hand. The fluent stick on the taut
Rim of the bodhran summons a ramrod dancer.
Suddenly deft fingers flying on the slender
Whistle. Tin. The tenor banjo’s picking out of thought,
The gaiety of flutes evaporates our cares.
One fiddle. Two. Something come apart is mending.
Heat lightning. Night coming on. Soon there will be stars
And strangely in the dark the lark ascending.
Here’s a health to these harmonious Irregulars:
Let this reel unwind the music’s only ending.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The truth is that this poem has been quietly germinating since the fall of 1981, when I heard my first session of traditional Irish music in Galway City. I’ve alluded briefly to such sessions in several poems over the years, but didn’t get around to facing one head-on until the summer of 2006, after I’d been listening in on Sunday sessions in The Hibernian in downtown Raleigh for about a year. But it was that great session in Cullen’s bar in Galway that got the inner clock ticking.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Oddly enough, this poem started for me as an effort to use the “haiku” stanza that Richard Wilbur has used so beautifully in a number of poems, beginning I believe with “Thyme Flowering Among the Rocks,” but after several false starts at that I gave up and fell back on the pentameter and eventually the sonnet. One of my musician friends said that he loves the way the poem “becomes” a sonnet. I hope he’s right. In any case, I believe that I have learned that anything shorter than the tetrameter line doesn’t lend itself happily to my voice. There were three or four days between the first version and the first “final” version, after which I moved from the notebook to the keyboard. But I always make a few more changes after that, and evidence of those last revisions dissolves into ether. For example, I don’t find the line “The gaiety of flutes evaporates our cares” anywhere but in the final typed text.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
There was some sweat but no tears. Luck is the main kind of inspiration I believe in, but I always have to qualify that with a remark by Jack Nicklaus: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The answer to the first question: By means of work and luck. To the second: Yes.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I suppose I finished it a good bit faster than is normal for me. Maybe that’s because it had been lying in wait so many years, and maybe I just absorbed something of the tempo of those Irish sessions.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Thanks to Rod Smith at Shenandoah, a little less than a year.
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 usually send poems out not long after I feel they are finished. It can take various lengths of time for that feeling to take hold.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I have frequently objected to the fairly common view that fiction writers are inventive, whereas poets simply tell the truth. In fact, I objected so often in the hearing of my older daughter that she gave me a T-shirt emblazoned with the words I MAKE STUFF UP. I believe that shaping one’s materials into something like a sonnet is itself a form of invention, so a “made thing,” as Leon Stokesbury calls his fine anthology, is a kind of fiction even if every word of it is fact. When X. J. Kennedy saw this poem in print, he said “Do Irish larks indeed fly by night? Bejaysus, what’s got into them?” I replied that I guessed the larks were an auditory hallucination induced by the music. But given the magical and painful distinction Shakespeare draws between the lark and the nightingale in Romeo and Juliet, my nocturnal larks might be a little hard to credit.
Is this a narrative poem?
Since the sun goes down between the beginning and the end, there is a narrative element, but I’d have to say it’s mainly a lyric poem.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I never read other poets while working on a poem, and in fact have often found prose to be more influential on me than poetry. Though Pound is not one of my touchstones, I love his remark that poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
The vast majority of my poems are addressed to specific people, but this one is an exception to that rule, so I might say it is addressed to anyone who wants to listen to the music with me, and it is of course for harmonious Irregulars everywhere.
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 don’t show unfinished work to anyone, and I show finished work only to my wife before sending it off. On one or two occasions I haven’t even done that if the poem was one for her which I wanted to be a surprise.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’ll leave that for others to say.
What is American about this poem?
Strictly speaking, the poem is set in America, but it invokes Ireland, so one could call it Irish-American.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?