Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her work has been published in AGNI, Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Santa FeArts Institute, Candito is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville and a co-curator of the Monsters of Poetry Reading Series in Madison, WI.
FAMILY ELEGY IN A LATE STYLE OF FIRE
After Larry Levis
In the story no one tells, my Great Uncle Salvatore
is an errand boy for the mafiosi and ends up on the dance floor
of Cocoanut Grove in Boston, November, 1942, an hour
before the club ignites; this is one version of justice.
Now Levis would say that fire is so American. We know
he drank until all that remained of his world was a match
trembling down a cheap motel hall—the flame
finite and manageable—while behind the bolted doors
of every room on the floor little Neros played embossed
harps muttering E tu, ignis, e tu? And it’s true, I’d rather drown
than burn, but the best death is undoubtedly getting lost
in a blizzard. Frost spends whole books stumbling through
snowy woods, though he never mentions how he ends up
in them, or how he gets out alive. Deer have been known
to swim out to sea without reason, and though the dumbest
end up as road-kill, I’ll put my faith in the long distance swimmers,
the Aeneases that wash up on strange shores and found
profane cities. Like fire and water, facts are tireless.
His last few months Salvatore bought jewels no one in Reggio
could imagine, and never wore them. One is a saint’s knuckle
cast in 18-carat gold. My grandfather keeps it in a backlit shadowbox.
In my drawer, there’s a blood-coral cornuto because the dead
will play the same dirge in the dark for years. And what
is more haunted than the feathery music of fire?
This November, I’ll get it right. I won’t imagine Salvatore
and the revolving door jammed with bodies, or the flashover’s
chemical boom, like the trapdoor of an ancient tomb stunned open.
I’ll go back to Calabria and find myself at fourteen, reading
a mystery novel under a bergamot tree. I might miss T.V.
I might be extravagantly bored. I might talk about churches
where no one is lighting candles for dead relatives.
Whose stage are you on? Whose pyre are you in? I’ll ask myself
knowing I have to become someone else to answer this.
If, in the end, we get what we pay for, then I would like a receipt,
please. If, in the end, the band is playing Bell Bottom Trousers,
let that be his favorite song. Let him wade onto the dance floor,
into the slack-tide of a forgotten life; let him think of nothing—
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started writing “Family Elegy in a Late Style of Fire” during the summer of 2009, when I was living in Tallahassee, FL and finishing a Ph.D. at Florida State University. The impetus was a found note in an old journal about an account of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston (in which 492 people were suffocated, trampled or burned to death in a nightclub). One of my relatives died in the fire, and I found the act of imagining his history both frustrating and fascinating. So, I guess this poem began with the impulse to explore the messy intersections between public and private history, myth, story, and imagination.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I’m not sure exactly, but the poem has been through more than twenty drafts. Initially, it was a page or two longer, and there were more associative and temporal leaps. I spent about two months generating a first draft, and I’ve returned to the poem periodically since the summer of 2009. In fact, I made a few cosmetic revisions last weekend, so “Family Elegy” has taken more than three years to write.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in inspiration as that which brings me to poetry, and work and artifice as the forces that make me sit down and actually write something I’d want to read. It’s difficult for me to write when I don’t feel moved or provoked. On the other hand, I have a hard time constructing and revising poems when I’m not reading poetry and consciously thinking about how to construct poems.
On the level of artifice, Larry Levis’ “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” and Dean Young’s “One Story” were essential models for “Family Elegy...” Levis’ poem inspired me to think of the past (both real and imagined) in terms of charged and unresolved images that evolve emotionally and associatively against different backdrops. Since I first heard the story of my relative who died in the Cocoanut Grove fire, I’ve been compelled to imagine the terrible sublimity of his death. Yet, being trampled to death in a fire or identifying the body of a loved one who has been trampled to death in a fire are experiences that I can’t fully access. When I try, I become a frantic spectator.
Dean Young’s “One Story,” which is a swerving, sweeping plural, even “postmodern” poem, gave me a framework for a quest that recognizes its own impossibility. Young’s precedent inspired me to turn Levis into an actual character in the poem. His life and early death provided a corollary for exploring how both private and public historical discourse mythologize the dead. In the course of this exploration, I started to see this myth-making as essential to the function of history because it tames the unknowable and imbues it with a purpose or a lesson.
Finally, I liked to swim late at night in the pool of the apartment complex where I lived in Florida, so I guess there’s some aquatic, nocturnal quality to the poem’s rhythms and images, despite the fact that it’s ostensibly about fire.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In “Family Elegy…” I wanted to make the false starts and frames that are often edited out as part of the revision process essential parts of the whole. Early on, I decided that I needed a fairly mannered container (long-lined couplets) to give shape to all of the chaos. After this, it became a matter of deciding which shifts were more effective and necessary. Originally, the cause of the fire was mentioned, and the scene of the fire was imagined in more detail. Gradually, I realized that the poem was less about these specifics, and more about interpreting the afterimages.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I made a conscious effort to defer and distract the narrative focus from what felt like the poem’s emotional center until it was absolutely necessary.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
A draft of this poem was published in The Rumpus in the winter of 2010, about six months after I began writing 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?
I don’t have rules, although I’ve learned that poetry and instant gratification seldom go hand and hand for me.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I think the poem deals with the impossibility of distinguishing the two. Facts are cold and tireless. When we care about them, they lead us to imagination. The result is a duet between the known and our strategies of filling in or explaining the unknown.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don’t have a particular audience in mind, although I’ve come to realize that I’d rather be accused of writing poems that feel too much, rather than too little. So maybe I’m writing for all of the big, reckless feelers out there.
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?
At the time, I had a bi-weekly workshop with a few friends from graduate school, and I was actively sharing work with my mentor, Erin Belieu. I like to share my work with insightful, brutal readers whom I trust, and the structure and deadlines of a small workshop suit me. Since I moved from Florida to Wisconsin in the summer of 2010, I’ve kept in touch with the same readers via phone and email.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I think it’s more expansive.
What is American about this poem?
“Family Elegy” deals with displacement, violence, and myth. In many ways, it’s about immigrant experience, which foregrounds the idea of the past as another country or language that is somehow larger and more important than the present. It’s also one of my poetry love letters to Larry Levis, who is the quintessential post 1960’s American poet for me. I think I structured the intuitive forces of “Family Elegy…” around the final lines of his poem, “My Story in a Late Style of Fire”: “It is so American, fire. So like us./Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.”
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
“Family Elegy” has been doted on, neglected, and abandoned, but I don’t think it will ever feel completely finished.