George Bilgere is the author of five books of poetry. The White Museum was chosen by Alicia Ostriker for the Autumn House Poetry Series in 2010. His 2006 collection, Haywire, won the May Swenson Poetry Award in 2006. U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins chose Bilgere’s The Good Kiss to win the University of Akron Poetry Award in 2002. Bilgere received a Pushcart Prize in 2009. His other honors include a Witter Bynner Fellowship through the Library of Congress, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Ohioana Award, the Midland Authors Prize, and a Fulbright Fellowship. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. Radio host Garrison Keillor frequently reads Bilgere’s poem on his daily National Public Radio program, The Writer’s Almanac. Bilgere teaches literature at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Perhaps, in a distant café,
four or five people are talking
with the four or five people
who are chatting on their cell phones this morning
in my favorite café.
And perhaps someone there,
someone like me, is watching them as they frown,
or smile, or shrug
to their invisible friends or lovers,
jabbing the air for emphasis.
And like me, he misses the old days,
when talking to yourself
meant you were crazy,
back when being crazy was a big deal,
not just an acronym
or something you could take a pill for.
I liked it
when people who were talking to themselves
might actually have been talking to God
or an angel.
You respected people like that.
You didn’t want to kill them,
as I want to kill the woman at the next table
with the little blue light on her ear
who has been telling the emptiness in front of her
about her daughter’s bridal shower
in astonishing detail
for the past thirty minutes.
O person like me,
phoneless in your distant café,
I wish we could meet to discuss this,
and perhaps you would help me
strangle this woman on her cell phone,
after which we could have a cup of coffee,
maybe a bagel, and talk to each other,
face to face.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
One day after class (I work at a sleepy Midwestern college, teaching sleepy Midwestern students) I was walking across the quad and realized that the first ten—-ten!-—people I saw, students and faculty alike, were on their cell phones. At that moment I realized we were moving toward a time when all humans at all times will be permanently on their cell phones. The next morning I was sitting at my local café. Of the six people there, four were on their phones. This called for a poem!
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This was one of those rare poems that came out pretty much in its final state. I tweaked it, fiddled around with a few words and phrases, but mostly it arrived fully formed.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I think “inspiration” is what happens, if you’re lucky, during the rather dull and arduous process of writing a poem. You’re plugging away, nothing of much interest is going on, you’re thinking this one’s going to be a dud—-then, bingo! Something nice and surprising happens, the poem suddenly comes alive, sits up on the table, and demands something to eat. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s great when it does.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I wouldn’t say anything unusual happened. But I do think that my best poems have some “attitude” in them. Something bugs me, something irritates or angers me, and that becomes the impetus behind the poem. By the way, in the early version of “Bridal Shower” I said I wanted to “murder” the woman on the phone. I changed that later to “strangle,” which seems more vivid and also makes me seem a little less crazy.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Funny thing. A couple of months after I finished it I sent it off to New Ohio Review. They liked it, and published it a few months later. Then Garrison Keillor saw it and decided to read the poem on his daily radio show, The Writer’s Almanac. His assistant wrote to tell me it had struck some kind of universal chord of non-cell-phone-user resentment. They received a huge number of responses. Keillor ended up including the poem in his new anthology, Good Poems, American Places. So it’s had a good run.
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.
Well, of course, Horace famously suggests you let a poem sit for nine years. I wish people would do that nowadays. Then I’d have the whole field to myself. As it is, I usually keep it for a couple of months and if I feel it’s ready I send it off into the world with strict instructions not to return until it finds a job.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I try to keep fiction out of my poems. I want the poem to be as close to what actually happened as possible. That’s why you won’t see me writing something like The Faerie Queene. I’m looking for the poetry in the ordinary world. When you find that, when a good poem shows it to you, you realize it’s not the world that is ordinary but the way you see it. The poem should strive to recover some original wonder or freshness in the daily reality that surrounds you. I think Wordsworth said something about this.
Is this a narrative poem?
I guess I’d say it is. Like most of my poems it tells a little story.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
As a matter of fact I was reading a collection of Szymborska’s poetry. Of course, I have no idea what she sounds like in Polish, but even in translation there’s something about her stance, her curious, cool distance from the subject matter, her way of seeming bemused, detached, and deeply involved all at the same time, which has probably affected my own work. Please don’t tell her this.
>Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
To tell the truth, I think of the people who listen to NPR as my ideal audience. And yes, I realize this means I will never be called “edgy.” Darn.
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 my work to my wife. It’s funny—she doesn’t really have all that much interest in poetry. But she’s a good reader with an infallible instinct for falsehood and pretension, two of my specialties. She’s very hard on me but I love her anyway.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I don’t think this one strays too far from the standard Bilgere oeuvre.
What is American about this poem?
I could spend the rest of my life thinking about this one. Probably it’s the central preoccupation of all my work. The poem is American in that the language reflects the flat, plain, Midwestern speech I inherited. It’s a poem that’s suspicious of technology. It resists the fact that we’re spending more time with our gizmos than with each other. Like most of my work it’s a poem that pretty much any literate person can understand. No tricks, no hidden costs. This is a poem you could sit down and have coffee with. And I hope you will.