LaWanda Walters earned her M.F.A. from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her first book of poems, Light Is the Odalisque, was published in 2016 by Press 53 in its Silver Concho Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Antioch Review, Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and several anthologies, including Obsession:Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century and Best American Poetry 2015. lives in Cincinnati with her husband, poet John Philip Drury.
HOW A POEM CAN STAUNCH A WOUND
Writing it, finding some music or metaphor
which, on its own, takes surprisingly off—
the concept distracting like a balsa-wood frame
that can lift from the earth for a while, glide through
insect territory, blue-green wings netted like tutus,
the tremulous fireflies’ lemony bulbs, wavering,
near-sighted in the arbitrary, tall, dangerous air
which also carries a radio-control tower’s terrifying
signals, the sand in the eye, the body preoccupied
by flight, the dark speed outside an oval window,
the passengers’ comfort, pillows for their necks
and the necessary, whistling air pressure—
I can feel, sometimes, elated.
But for a time the old master, Walt Whitman,
did the impossible, walked on the ground,
muddy, in Washington, let go, completely,
his tissue-paper poems. His mind got soaked
with the bright blood on the grass everywhere,
too many for the hospital so they set up tents,
a young soldier’s face turned away not to look
at the stump, the free-spirited poet with his sleeves
rolled up to swab out the “offensive” matter.
Those young men who’d fallen as oddly as Icarus—
they sometimes kissed his bearded lips
and called him, gratefully, “Mother.”
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote and typed up the first draft on November 2, 2008.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
The final draft is dated December 12, 2012, so it took a little over four years for the poem to settle into its ultimate form.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I definitely believe in inspiration. Inspiration is an idea, like a musical idea, like a physicist’s idea. There has to be some kind of context—noticing something and then making connections that seem fascinating, and wanting to express what that connection is. Inspiration has to come from involvement—from thinking or practicing or writing or being in the practice of writing.
I think that inspiration, in the case of this poem, was in thinking of the toy plane’s success in leaving the ground—how it was a device that could somehow “trick” gravity, and therefore fly for a while. I think I was feeling in some kind of emotional pain at the time, and playing with my children distracted me from my pain in the same way that the balsa wood could “distract” gravity—sneak on up into the air while the magnetic earth was looking elsewhere.
I knew I was writing a kind of “ars poetica,” but during that temporary flight of my imagining I knew, too, the emptiness of the device. It got me up in the air a bit, but then I wasn’t sure that it mattered. I had been tooling along on my little device that “distracted” me from gravity but I was running out of aero-dynamic time. I was up in the “high, dangerous” air and was about to crash.
But there were clues about where I was going even before I knew it. My husband, John Drury, is a great source of stories about poets as well as knowledge of poetry, and he had told me, at some point, about this time in Walt Whitman’s life when he was a nurse to wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. I had been struck by the man’s wholehearted generosity, how this poet who wrote in sweeping lines and might be thought of as simply a brilliant romantic could be so courageous and humane, able to handle the gory, “offensive matter” without being repulsed, in his desire to help another human being.
I don’t know if Whitman was in my conscious mind at the beginning of my writing. But my memory of the story John had told me about Whitman being able to hold men and care for them in such difficult circumstances—that his soaring voice and spirit included the fact of death as much as it did life—well, Whitman saved this poem from its own suicide.
I wasn’t sure if my poem mattered and didn’t know where it was going until I thought of Whitman, there on the bloody earth, swabbing the stumps of injured men and bandaging them, the young men who had fallen as “oddly as Icarus.” That idea reminded me of the sweet and shocking fact that more than one dying soldier kissed Whitman’s lips and called him “Mother.” The father, Daedalus, had built the dangerous design. The connection between a falling boy and Whitman as “mother” was like finding the form that made the poem work.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
In the first draft, the opening stanza ended with “and the necessary, whistling air pressure—” Then it simply jumped into the second stanza’s “but for a time the old master, Walt Whitman.” It wasn’t until nearly a year later, on October 31, 2009, that I inserted a line after that dash (“I can feel, sometimes, elated”) and made the opening stanza one complete sentence, with the flight of imagery and associations happening between the dashes, parenthetically, and then leveling out to a feeling of elation.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Maybe the dangerous volta, which almost breaks the poem in half but actually makes the poem work. First there’s the aria about suspending oneself from one’s disbelief, and then I find my real focus: air and earth, ego and truth, a necessary struggle.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Roughly seven and a half years. It never appeared in a magazine, so its first publication was in my book, Light Is the Odalisque.
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 any rules, except that I know that my first blush of happiness after I have written what I know is a poem can be misleading—that I cannot just send the poem out that raw. Fortunately, I have my in-house editor, John Drury, so he is usually the first person to touch the poem while it is a little too hot and euphoric. So I guess I do know that there must be a cooling-off period, and that I can be wiser about what works after a few hours or days.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
My poems are always rooted in an experience which includes both some immediate fact and my feeling about the fact. In this case, I was playing with one of those old toys—the kit that includes the pattern for a plane’s wings and body—with my kids, outside in the grass at dusk when there were fireflies around, and I was thinking how amazing it was that the toy plane worked, and worked, really, like the ones we fly in. The fiction in this poem is in the little aria of following the toy plane through the “leaves of grass” and the world of insects that sing at night or glow, as fireflies do, and in my linking this “flight” to the flights of planes, to all the things that are present in the air. I think it’s amazing that it’s all the same substance—the air through which a toy plane flies and the air through which a Boeing airplane travels. Toy planes traverse the territory of the adult world, and that playing is not separate from reality, since there’s danger everywhere.
Is this a narrative poem?
I’d call it a meditative poem that includes some narrative about Walt Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was thinking about “music or metaphor,” so I was certainly influenced by Bach, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, and what the painter Henri Matisse calls “essential lines.” Writing the poem revealed how much Whitman himself was influencing my imaginative flight.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I write for people who, like myself, find both order and honesty in poems in this chaotic world.
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?
As I mentioned, my husband John is my in-house editor. And I’m his first critic, as well.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’m not sure it does. It finds images and the ways they connect in order to explore the mystery of being in this reality we do not really know. I really like Yeats’s statement that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”
What is American about this poem?
I guess I get to say Walt Whitman here.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Thanks to Whitman as my muse, it found its ending.