after Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Seven-Sided Poem”When I was dead, one of the whiter
sycamores who live on the river said,
Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?
To which the oak added, That’s not an accusation;
that’s a sympathetic question.
Little sumac said, Don’t step on me, even your spectral form!
The beech asked, Could we be cousins?
And the fig, Why did you never properly learn
to braid your hair?
When sequoia called to say,
You broke your vows, the birches said,
Take us with you; the birds went with her.
Magnolia, redbud, and cottonwood said,
Our hearts bleed, the way the rain.
But willow could say only, Garland, Tinsel.
As if I alone had been responsible for Christmas.
So I said, Listen, you trees
(though I could not speak),
I remember dying
to grow up. Standing
on tiptoe to pull my own baby
teeth. Crushing my pelvis
to kill any unborn hunched
in the warm center. I sometimes stayed
there myself. I sometimes left
for a long time and was late to return.
But I learned again, knees small and high, teeth
showing when I smiled,
clock after clock until quarter after clock,
sugar everywhere, loose and in cubes.
Açúcar it’s called, where I was conceived.
A man came round with his paint
roller to re-frost the scuffed bits.
(Men are whitewashing both sides of the equator.)
Someone brought his bird to the pool,
arranged a chaise for each of them.
Mothers with children in water wings.
I stepped into water as warm as my body was before I forgot it.
And the cold air after—
I had forgotten that, too.
Oh, but the meringue of the clouds was sweet
that second time. Copious
reasons for squinting, skin
wet or dry, one large hand untangling my hair.
You trees, I assure you, I was in full
possession of my body when I died,
all four of our blue eyes licked
and all the candles blown.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I’ve been lucky enough to tag along on a few international research trips with my husband, a physical chemist. I wrote the first draft of this poem in the office of a friend, a scientist-collaborator of my husband’s in fact, on a trip to Brazil in 2012. The building may have been standard issue suburban academic, circa mid-20th century, but outside the office window were several trees I could not immediately identify, filled with parrots—a pandemonium! I had also recently been to Miami—a greatly diverse and sophisticated city—which also happened to have been the location of my parents’ honeymoon many decades before. My parents were working-class people from New York City, my mom was first-generation American, and it was family legend I’d been conceived on this trip. The conflation of these circumstances got the poem going, but it was re-reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade (translated by Bishop, herself an ex-pat living in Brazil and learning Portuguese), specifically his “Seven-Sided Poem,” that gave it momentum.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Still writing in longhand, it’s hard to know exactly without some laborious digging into my files, but it’s typical for me to work a draft over at least a dozen times in longhand before keyboarding it in to Word, and then fairly typical to fool with another dozen or so drafts on screen before a poem is close to “done.”
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I’ve actually sweat and cried at various jobs I’ve had, but rarely has that happened when writing poems. Reading poems, but not writing them. Nor do I think of myself as “inspired” or plugged in to some larger creative construct. I’m old enough to know how my poems get made: I take lots of notes, some continue to seem interesting, some join together, musical/syntactical arrangements begin to work themselves out, an image/observation joins another image/observation, and then a full draft gets born, revisions happen, etc. That said, I used to believe in that old workshop saw: Write what you know. Now I write what I want to know. The photographer, Diane Arbus, said her mentor told her to take pictures of everything she’d never seen before. I think my impulse is similar. Freshness and surprise allow a poet to re-access and re-assess information—autobiography, history, art, politics—in extremely productive ways.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously apply any principles of technique?
After a few drafts, it occurred to me I was modeling the Drummond de Andrade poem. At that point I became conscious, not of his lineation so much, but of his stanza. I decided I wanted eleven “sides,” or stanzas, to homage Drummond de Andrade’s seven.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Well, aside from the de Andrade/Bishop influence, which was a one-off for me, though I admire both poets enormously, the most unusual thing about this poem is that I had a sense, a prescient sense really, that this poem of conception would become the final poem in the manuscript I was working on. I had most of the poems written for Sycamore, but not all, nor had I yet submitted it for publication. But suddenly I was allowing trees—many different kinds of trees—to address me directly, using my given name. I became willing—eager even—for a mythology of sorts to emerge between the trees and me, to become a character in my own book. I had long before crafted (I say crafted because to use the verb “write” doesn’t seem quite correct) the frontispiece to Sycamore, a “family tree,” chart or legend, “Platanaceae Family Tree,” and I felt a loose, intuitive connection to it as I worked on “Eleven-Sided....” I rarely write to a poetry project (though I have), nor do I trust much in happy accident (though I have), but in this case the results of both were generative enough to result in the opening and closing moments of the book.
How long after you finished this poem did it appear in print?
It appeared in Miramar, a small indie print journal from California, in 2014.
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 poem to poem, but because I’m not as conscientious a submitter as I wish I were—I often put off submitting poems or don’t simultaneously submit; I understand this is true of many women poets—it’s usually at least six months to a year before I attempt to make work public.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
That’s an interesting question because when I write poems I rarely consider notions of fact, fiction and negotiating the two. Re-reading the poem now, I see that quite obviously I was fictionalizing my own death. And of course, trees don’t talk—at least not in language we humans hear. There are few “facts” in this poem, but its emotional truths feel very direct to me, as direct as any in Sycamore.
Is this a narrative poem?
If one thinks that the strategies of lyrical memoir can also be narrative, then yes. It does tell a story.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
As I mentioned, I was reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade in translation. I was also reading what I could find in translation of the indigenous Guarani poet, Susy Delgado, in addition to prose by Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector. I’m logically drawn, when I travel, to writers of the region—and often it’s the tension between their point of view and some history of my own that merges to form the beginnings of a poem for me.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I think I must be my own ideal reader now. Yes, I can’t help but speak to poets before and, hopefully, to poets to come, and those poets who are my contemporaries. But I’m no longer ashamed to admit that I began writing poems to keep myself company—the same reason I read books as a child. I was reading a book of poems the other day, for professional reasons, in a crowded, noisy restaurant, and the lines were so completely lyrically enthralling that the outer world dropped away, leaving me with the words, the music, and the meaning of her lines only—the writer and I lived in some space between us and our experiences, bridging them, enhancing them. If I can write lines like that, lines that keep me and another reader company, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something like art.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Milkweed gave me a poetry editor, a poet-editor, for Sycamore. I haven’t had that level of attention on my work since I was in grad school, if ever. I wish I had people with whom to share work on a regular basis. As it is, I’m extremely grateful for one or two readers to whom I send work—one just to drop it in his inbox so it feels like I’ve taken a step from inside my head to someone else’s, another who is different enough from me that I feel I’m taking a risk sending the work to her. They’re terrific poets, both, and generous friends.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This poem feels a little more engaged in magical thinking than other poems of mine, and perhaps even more nakedly autobiographical than other poems in Sycamore.
What is American about this poem?
South American, strictly speaking. It’s also entirely self-mythologizing, which seems characteristically both North and South American.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Because it felt to me, as I mentioned earlier, somehow connected to the prefatory legend in the book, and because I knew the poem would complete the book, “Eleven-Sided…” is more finished than abandoned. Or more resolved. As if certain notes were hit that were inevitable. The homage aspect of the poem also helped allow the poem to be a discrete and finished thing.