Jennifer Habel is the author of Good Reason, winner of the 2011 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. Her poems have appeared in The Believer, Blackbird, The Common, Gulf Coast, LIT, and other journals. Her chapbook In the Little House won the 2008 Copperdome Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, she’s the coordinator of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
THE AGE OF TONE
I can’t stop talking about the moon,
for example. Tipping the stroller to watch
them smile at the sickle.
How she wants to find dead butterflies
beneath the nonindigenous flowers
as Mosaics and Cloudless Sulfurs
dodge our camera phones.
Or the dozen piglets nursing from
their enormous mother, tugging
and stomping as she snorts with pleasure.
Some grandparents don’t see well,
I read aloud in the doctor’s office.
Or hear. Or walk. Or breathe.
She knows her toys aren’t alive. She thinks
when our dog dies he will become a toy.
I wanted to watch the piglets
so I found the disk in the unlocked safe.
We filmed swarming chickens, insatiable goats,
a donkey with a dorsal cross.
No pigs, but a long afternoon
on our weedy lawn. Celestial
skin segmented by shade.
Wanting a memory, I booked
a room in the strange chalet.
Tell your husband to lift the painting
and throw the breaker, the old Frau said.
Mold, the rain never stopped. In the painting
a chaise supports a woman’s arms
which support her forehead.
I love Vermont! they screamed, jumping
on the bed. We ate cold fries,
held our books beneath the one lamp.
All night the heat clicked on. One woke,
woke the other, woke again.
No one in the whole invincible world knew
where we were.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Probably in 2009. The poem began unusually (for me) in that it began with an idea. Something to do with a way of characterizing a time of life—the time of being a parent to young children—and something to do with tone. I can’t remember more specifically. Tone felt like a problem to be solved in writing about motherhood.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
There were a lot of drafts. I probably wrote it over the course of a few weeks, but was tinkering with it at least a year later.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
The analogy of the writer to an in- or out-of-shape athlete works for me. When I’m writing regularly I have moments of what I think could be called inspiration. These are flashes or clearings that feel “received.” When I’m not working regularly those moments don’t occur.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I always felt the poem as a single stanza with lines of the length it has.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Nothing was unusual about the way I wrote it, but it did begin unusually (see what I said earlier about being prompted by some sort of an idea).
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It appeared in my book, which was published in 2012. 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?
It varies. I’ve settled into not thinking about submissions during periods when I have time to write. I used to send things out sooner than I do now.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Much of what is described in this poem actually happened, but I don’t think that matters. The poem doesn’t seem to be gaining any energy or charge from the fact that its contents may be “true.” On the issue of fact and fiction in general, I like Louise Glück’s essay “Against Sincerity” in which she distinguishes between “the actual” and “the true.” The artist, she writes, “surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of the truth.”
Is this a narrative poem?
Not primarily, though it’s one of the most narrative poems I’ve written. I’d say there’s a story inside the poem—the story of a night away—but that the poem itself holds still.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Years ago I consciously tried to learn how to use fewer connectives in my poems. I remember studying single stanza poems in Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And HerSoul Out of Nothing and Jorie Graham’s Erosion in this regard. I wasn’t reading those poems when I wrote this one, but I think they influenced it in terms of movement and form.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
This may sound weird, but my audience is myself. I’m trying to make the poem sound right to me, trying to make a poem that I can live with. When I’m done writing one, I’m also done being its audience. The poem recedes and eventually seems almost unrelated to me. I love that.
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?
My husband, Chris Bachelder, reads my poems. I needed, and got, help on my manuscript from poet friends, and I’ve learned certain things about my poems from certain people over the years. MariaHummel, for example, taught me about my openings, and Lisa Olstein taught me about my endings. Earlier versions of this poem had extraneous lines at both the beginning and the end. I credit Maria and Lisa with my knowing to lop those off.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s longer than many of them and, as I said before, more narrative. Those two qualities might not be unrelated.
What is American about this poem?
Looking at the poem now, I notice examples of commodified experiences in it. People paying to self-consciously experience something.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I’ve over-thought this one. I think the answer is “both.”