Thursday, April 5, 2018

Erica Dawson

Erica Dawson is the author of two award-winning collections of poetry: The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014) and Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007). Her new book, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in Fall 2018. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Bennington Review, Harvard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She’s an associate professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa. She serves as director of UT’s low-residency MFA program.


LANGSTON HUGHES'S GRANDMA MARY WRITES A LOVE LETTER TO LEWIS LEARY YEARS AFTER HE DIES FIGHTING AT HARPER'S FERRY 

My dearest, sweetest Lew—

It’s like there’s permanence in West

Virginia, not the state, the sound—the rest

After the gin fools you

And the uh goes on like “Lee

And autumn 1859.

I’ve lost all semblance of “I’m fine.”

So I say damn the free

Water beneath the thick

Ice spots on the Cuyahoga and Lake

Erie. Damn rifles. Damn the ache

Of numbness. Snowflakes prick

Your tall Oberlin grave.

I try to scrape it clean with my

Frostbitten index finger. I

Marvel at how the cold can save

A tear, at how I sit

Under my chestnut tree and wait

For nuts, plate Charles’s dinner late,

Allow Louise’s fit

To last another hour.

Damn both my abolitionist

Husbands, their spot–on aim, fist–

in–the–air. Why don’t they glower

Like I do when I yell

Louder than any choir could,

Or, out back, take an ax to wood

And wonder if you fell

Like broken logs, without

Movement, your body dead already,

All solid like a Cleveland eddy

The young ones skate about.

They’re in love with being lovers.

The world’s all to themselves. No sword

Can pierce them when they huddle and hoard

Their weapons under covers.

I wish them ill; no right

To do so, yes, I know. I’m so

Tired of when thin white sheets glow

Dusk red in autumn light.

Damn all Octobers, sin,

Forgiveness. Dam the streams until

Oceans of buried brothers spill

Like grief beneath the skin

Of rivers. Best intentions

And kind regards, Lew, take this letter

As proof I am not getting better.

I am its two dimensions:

Two praying hands, my skirt

Pressed to my thighs pressed closed. Damn brass

Reverie and all the leaves of grass

So green the small blades hurt.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started the poem in mid to late 2010, I believe. I was very interested in American History when writing Blades; I became a little obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and then Walt Whitman, and then Langston Hughes. Researching Hughes lead me to the story of his grandmother. I was so struck by this woman who endured so much grief. I wanted to somehow connect with that kind of sadness. So I began writing.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I’ll revise until I’m blue in the face, if I let myself. It probably went through a solid ten drafts, which is actually a small number for me. The poem was always in the rhyming quatrains; but, at first, it wasn’t a persona poem. And, it wasn’t an epistle, either. I knew to connect with this amazing woman, I was going to have to try to live in her moments. And it seemed like a good idea to make the poem a kind of active moment where she addressed the love she lost.

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. I was certainly inspired by the life of this woman. I think this poem, though, was mostly a result of sweat and tears, trying different things out, breaking it apart and putting it together again.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Again, a lot of sweat and tears. As I said, the quatrains happened immediately. Sometimes my ideas for form and structure come first, after the initial idea for the poem; then, the content starts to become clearer. For me, form can be extremely generative. It took me a very long time to get to the ending of the poem, though. I wanted a strong monosyllabic rhyme for the first and fourth lines of the last stanza. I wanted a hard consonant: a K or a T. Something with punch. But, I had no idea how to bring it to a close, how to say something about this woman while saying something about our country and its history.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

It was pretty standard procedure for me. Sometimes, though, the form comes to me after the content.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Not long at all. I was thrilled when Blackbird gave it a home.

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. If I were to wait until I felt a poem was “ready” or “done,” I’d never send anything out. So I usually aim for some kind of moderate satisfaction with the poem before sending it out. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes only a few months, sometimes even just weeks.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The basic facts are true: Hughes’ grandmother lost two abolitionist husbands, the first in the battle at Harper’s Ferry. His grave is located in Ohio. And, it’s true that her second husband’s name was Charles and their daughter’s name was Louise. The rest is a product of my imagination—my ideas of what she’d say if she had the chance to communicate with her deceased husband.

Is this a narrative poem?

I’d say yes. I think it tells a kind of story. Not a complete story, of course: but, I think that place, scene, and a particular chain of events make the poem narrative, in some ways.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Whitman and Hughes were obviously the biggest influences. Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” was definitely an inspiration once I decided the poem needed to be a kind of epistle.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

Not really. I’m pretty unaware of audience when I’m writing. In those early stages, my opinions and preferences are the only ones that matter. I’d get lost in anxiety if I thought too much about who would read my work or want to read my work. I do hope that my readers are interested in the ways traditional form and contemporary/timely content can work together without seeming old or stodgy.

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?

NO (caps necessary). I’m super protective of my work when I’m actively working on it. If I get seriously stuck, I may ask a really close writer friend for suggestions. But, usually, I keep things to myself.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

At the time, it was the only true persona poem I’d ever really written. That was new territory for me. And it really changed me as a writer: much of my new book involves taking on various voices that aren’t my own.

What is American about this poem?

I hope the whole thing is American. I wanted to tap into something that spoke to the connections between our collective histories and personal histories, and how we negotiate national and personal trauma and tragedy.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I was moderately satisfied. That’s as close to finished as I ever get.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Morri Creech

Morri Creech is the author of three collections of poetry, Paper Cathedrals (Kent State U P, 2001), Field Knowledge (Waywiser, 2006), which received the Anthony Hecht Poetry prize and was nominated for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Poet’s Prize, and The Sleep of Reason (Waywiser, March 2013), a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. His fourth collection, Blue Rooms, will be published by Waywiser in Fall of 2018. A recipient of NEA and Ruth Lilly Fellowships, as well as grants from the North Carolina and Louisiana Arts councils, he is the Writer in Residence at Queens University of Charlotte, where he teaches courses in both the undergraduate creative writing program and in the low-residency M.F.A. program. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with the novelist Sarah Creech and their two children.



AGE OF WONDERS
     January 2011       
          Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
        —Dante
Old decade done, the morning throws off its shawl
of frost and the hedges drip with thaw water.
Like some postmodern Narcissus I stare at the pool
in my bathroom sink and pat my cheeks with lather
to scrape the aging face brisk, smooth, and pale;
beyond my window a persistent clamor
of horns and engines—as early commuters rush
toward the shrines of commerce—drowns out Hardy’s thrush

with the hope of goods and fortunes. Past forty now,
I lace my shoes and hit the Nordic track,
munch spoonfuls of bran and diced fruit, watch the Dow
streak past a flat screen rich with bric-a-brac
and sleek, tanned prophets who proclaim the Tao
of global markets, who’s in, who’s out, who’s back
from jail, rehab or chemo, while the snows
recede on Everest and the deficit grows.

What good is my pessimism? The soul completes
its journey in the dark and out of sight
or sulks the days in its tent of sinew, greets
the last hour happier than the first; but night
finds poor body cold on the chartered streets—
no point refusing him some warmth and light.
In T-shirt and shorts I sniff the heated air;
my Reeboks shuffle down a winding stair.

Still, something in me bristles. Is it age
merely, a dunderheaded sense the past
was better somehow—that glimmering mirage
glimpsed from a rearview mirror as the mist
ahead parts to reveal the yawning ledge
where the road should be, all distance closing fast?
Is it like that grumble before the gray
dandruff of history smothered out Pompeii?

Behind the bleach white sepulchers and smiles,
the lifted tits, twelve second abs, celebs
and pop stars tricked out in outlandish styles,
it flashes like a model’s picket ribs
showing beneath her nightie where the aisles
crowd toward the check out and the bounty ebbs:
the sublime is out of joint, the ship has wrecked,
huge mounds of kitsch bury the intellect.

Not that one has much time to notice it,
fixed in some grimace of acceleration
(texting, say, on a highway late at night)
or savoring the popular elation
of Living in the Now—while skill and wit
go the old way of income, jobs, vacation,
savings accounts or the environment;
and nobody thinks to wonder where they went.

The shower steams up while the kettle shrieks.
When did the promise sour? I think of all
that didn’t happen: the poems, books, and bucks,
freedom from the tyranny of dull
offices, projects, and bosses, and whole weeks
in cerebrotonic thought of the Ideal.
The present’s proof (as has been said already)
that the future isn’t what it used to be.

Mid-journey, though one of history’s darlings still,
I pour my tea dregs down the drain and tie
the silk around my neck, mustering the will
to head for work. Trawling the squares of sky
trapped in my window frame, inevitable
for all their seeming randomness, clouds go by
like traffic, brushed and freaked with pewter flaws,
obeying—as all things do—time’s hidden laws.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started it in the middle of January, 2011, as the epigraph suggests. I have always wanted to write an “occasional” poem, and this one was inspired in many ways by Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” a New Year’s poem and a pessimistic meditation on the turn of the previous century. I was closing in on the end of my third book, The Sleep of Reason, and the last several poems of that collection came to me more or less in a white heat—I wrote two other, shorter poems and began this one all in the same week. As soon as I sat down, the first stanza tumbled out.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Like most of my poems, the first draft came rather quickly—I wrote all but the final stanza in a single sitting. But the final stanza was exceptionally difficult for some reason. It took me over a week to get that right. Once I got the final stanza nailed down, the poem probably went through twenty or thirty drafts—mostly small changes in phrasing. Generally speaking, my drafts appear pretty close to final form, and the revision process is more a tinkering with words and rhythms than a series of major overhauls.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration, definitely. For me, poems are a complicated pas de deux between surrender and will. Poems generally arise out of surrender—I stare off into space and try not to “think” too hard, until an image or a phrase surfaces—and then I consciously push it forward in an effort to contextualize it, to discover its narrative or meditative trajectory. But then at some point I get stuck, and I have to surrender to the poem again, submit to what it wants to do: so I just stare off into space until something reveals itself. I refer to those moments when I get stuck as the “seams” of the poem; when I re-read this piece, I can spot the junctures or seams where I hesitated and had to surrender my will in order to advance to the next line. Hopefully the seams are invisible to other readers, though.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I am a formal poet, and in this piece I employ ottava rima, an Italian stanza used by Byron in the nineteenth century as a vehicle for narration and wit, and then used by Yeats in the twentieth for the purposes of “serious” meditation. Though I have usually explored the form in the Yeatsian sense—I’ve been playing with ottava rima since my first book—here I’m decidedly more Byronic. The stanza is composed of eight lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc. I don’t know how I decided to use it for this poem—it just sort of happened that way. It’s a go-to stanza form, one that I enjoy due to both the difficulty of the triple-rhyming and the delight of the resolving couplet. It seemed to suit the witty pessimism I was striving for.    

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

When I completed the penultimate stanza, the poem just stalled. For several days I entertained the possibility that the poem didn’t need an additional stanza at all, but for some reason I just didn’t feel satisfied. I tried tacking on another eight lines, but when I shared it with a friend it became clear that the lines were terrible. I was pretty perplexed, but nothing spurs me on like discouragement and adversity. I rewrote and rewrote until things clicked into place. Now, the final stanza may be my favorite part of the poem.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

It was published later in 2011, by The Southwest Review. So it was a matter of several months.

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 tend to jump the gun on submitting. Though I should definitely be more principled about things, I have a childish need for instant gratification. Sometimes it leads to embarrassment, of course, but in this case things turned out all right. I think I let the poem sit around for about three weeks before sending it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

For me, poetry is a fictive art, and there’s definitely a distance between the speaker and the poet here: for example, I don’t have a Nordic track and I don’t wear neckties. Having said that, the poem explores the difficulties and disappointments of middle age, and the spirit of that is true despite the questionable veracity of the details. 

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s a meditative poem framed around a narrative, but there is definitely an element of story. It begins with breakfast and exercise and ends with the speaker leaving for work. It covers narrative ground.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was reading Lord Byron, James Merrill, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, and Claude McKay at the time. They’re all in there somewhere, quarreling with each other and calling me out, at times, on my comparative incompetence.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I try to please a handful of dead writers I admire, who cannot read my poems and would likely disapprove if they could. For this reason, my poetry career is a kind of ongoing existential disappointment.

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 wife, the novelist Sarah Creech, looks at everything I do, usually at the precise moment I am finished with the first draft. A smile or a wrinkle of the lip tells me most of what I need to know initially. I have two additional readers who are unsparing in their appraisals, but also generous in telling me when things are working. One is a former student, a friend, and a fellow poet; he looks at all my early drafts. Sometimes he tells me to put things away, and other times he encourages me to keep going, offering thoughtful suggestions and tactful objections. The other friend—also a fellow poet—reads things once they’re more polished and “finished.” If I didn’t have these three critics, my poems would be much worse.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There’s a grim, even bitter, sense of humor to it that I think sets it apart.

What is American about this poem?

Everything. It’s a critique of contemporary American culture—its obsession with appearance and material success, its pop-culture narcissism, its nihilism and decadence. There’s nothing more American than complaining bitterly in the midst of staggering abundance.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Old poems always strike me as alien and unfamiliar when I reread them. I finished this one years ago, but it has since abandoned me.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chloe Honum

Chloe Honum grew up in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is the author of The Tulip-Flame (2014), which was selected by Tracy K. Smith for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize, named a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and won Foreword Reviews Poetry Book of the Year Award, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a Texas Institute of Letters Award. She is also the author of a chapbook, Then Winter (Bull City Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in The Paris ReviewOrionThe Southern Review, and elsewhere, and her awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Baylor University.


SNOW WHITE

Queen, you were starlight
obsessing over an empty cradle,
then over the door to the cradle room,
then over the hallway to the door.

I too feel my life is moving backward.
I spend hours recalling
how I reeled, as if from dream
to dream, when you knocked,

how crows swooped and dived
like black fire behind you.
The prince tells me I moan
for you in my sleep—

good star, bad mother, lone tree
in a vast field on which the seasons hang
their sheets, wet and colored
with all the illnesses of beauty.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I think I wrote this poem in 2008, maybe early 2009. As with many of my poems from that time, it likely started as a line or an image that came to me as I walked to or from campus at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where I was an MFA student. I had lots of time to think while walking up and down the steep hills in Fayetteville.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I’m not sure of the number of revisions, but it was written during a period in which I was working hard on a single poem at a time. My MFA was a four-year program, and by the second year I’d developed a steady rhythm of finishing one poem a month. I started other poems, too, and brought them as drafts to workshop, but I concentrated on and finished one at a time. It seemed like a slow pace compared to some writers, but I was happy with it. I’d work on my one poem every day, often first thing in the morning and last thing at night, often for hours at a time, and by the end of the month it would be finished.

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 both inspiration and sweat. I remember that much of this poem was written in intense concentration and toil. But the ending came almost fully formed, in a burst.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Several of the poems in my first book, The Tulip-Flame, share this poem’s form. Four quatrains of fairly short and uniform lines. Four little boxes. There was a wildness in those poems that craved something orderly and sturdy to lean on. A bit like ballet, which is a theme in the book, the form allowed me to be meticulous and precise while remaining present with my most untamable subject matter.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

During the phase in which I wrote this, I’d draft poems in mechanical pencil, on enormous sketch pads. There was a satisfaction in striking things out, penciling in alternatives, drawing big swooping arrows to switch things around. I felt the construction of the lines differently than I did when drafting on a keyboard and screen. I was also in the habit of working on poems in the middle of the night. I’d wake at three or so in the morning, go downstairs in my drafty house in Fayetteville, and work on my poem-in-progress for a while before going back to sleep. Again, these were my MFA days, when I had lots of time completely to myself. In the later stages, after I’d typed up the poem, I’d print it out, attach it to a clipboard, and carry it around the house with me as I got ready for class, prepared food, or did housework! It was a strange and beautiful time.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

About five years. I first sent it out in 2010. It was rejected from quite a few journals. It has a strange opening that I liked and refused to change, but that several people said they didn’t “get.” Anna Leahy accepted it for publication in the February 2014 issue of Tab and later nominated it for a Pushcart. It was republished in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology, which then led to my being a guest poetry editor for the 2017 anthology, a thrilling honor. I owe this poem—and Anna—a lot, and I’m grateful for its slower path toward publication.

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 have no rules about that. My practice has varied a lot.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

My mother died from suicide when I was seventeen. We were physically far away from one another at the time. She was at home in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where I was raised, and I was in California, where I’d recently moved to live with my paternal grandmother. It was mid-winter in New Zealand, mid-summer in the U.S. It’s a disorienting grief I carry, and I long for her in my every breath. That is the fact beneath the poem. The fiction is obvious in that it’s written in the voice of Snow White, speaking from her life after the known story has ended. I’d like to be clear, though, that I don’t mean to conflate my mother with the queen in the poem. Not at all. It’s just that the persona offered a different way in. Through that voice—and the big fiction of it—I was able to say something about early trauma and the constant nature of my own longing.

Is this a narrative poem?

Not really, though it does lean on the narrative of the fairytale.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

In stepping into the fairytale character persona, I was guided by “Gretel, from a Sudden Clearing,” by Marie Howe, my first poetry teacher. As with so much of her work, that poem stayed with me from the moment I read it.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?


In the midst of writing a poem, I often have a longing to reach someone. There’s often a “you” involved, whether or not that person is addressed on the page. And the “you” often brings up a kind of desire and distance; some have died, some are unreachable for other reasons. After about the first draft, I imagine a wider audience—strangers, friends, past teachers, or whoever else. So the idea of audience changes as I push on. I don’t think about this as I’m writing, and it doesn’t happen in neat stages, but I can feel the pattern. Often, there’s an intensely personal and urgent “you” for whom the poem begins to live. And then there’s a necessary widening out from that original desire, and a giving over to craft to make the actual thing.

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 share my drafts with my partner, who is also a poet, and sometimes with a very close friend who is a sister-poet to me.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

In terms of style, it shares important elements with other poems in my first book. It differs quite a bit from my newer work, though. Looking at this poem now is like glimpsing my younger self, seeing her fierce precision and stubbornness. I chiseled the poems in my first book with a kind of obsessiveness that, though I’m grateful to have experienced, I can’t quite imagine repeating. My newer poems breathe differently and move differently. They’re a bit less lonely, thank goodness. They’re not constantly standing on a cliff’s edge. They can walk through the world a bit, put their hands to the ground.

What is American about this poem?


I’m not entirely sure. I wrote it in Arkansas, using a persona from a German fairytale, while deeply homesick for Aotearoa/New Zealand. In terms of programs and degrees, my study of poetry has been in America. But learning to read and write in Aotearoa—land of the long white cloud, land of my heart—will always be as important to my aesthetic awareness, and in many ways more so, as anything I learned in college.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


Finished.

Friday, January 5, 2018

David Baker

David Baker is author of twelve books of poetry, including Swift: New and Selected Poems (forthcoming 2019), Scavenger Loop (2015), and Never-Ending Birds (2009), which was awarded the Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011. His six books of prose include Seek After: On Seven Modern Lyric Poets (2018), Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (2014) and, with Ann Townsend, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2007). Among his awards are prizes and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, and Society of Midland Authors. He holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.




SWIFT

1.
into flight, the name as velocity,
a swift is one of two or three hundred
swirling over the post office smokestack.
First they rise come dusk to the high sky,

flying from the ivy walls of the bank
a few at a time, up from graveyard oaks
and back yards, then more, tightening to orbit
in a block-wide whirl above the village.


2.
Now they are a flock. Now we’re holding hands.
We’re talking in whispers to our kind, who
stroll in couples from the ice cream shop
or bike here in small groups to see the birds.

A voice in awe turns inward; as looking
down into a canyon, the self grows small.
The smaller swifts are larger for their singing,
the spatter and high cheeep, the shrill of it.


3.
And their quick bat-like alternating wings.
And the soft pewter sky sets off the black
checkmark bodies of the birds as they skitter
like water toward a drain. Now one veers,

dives, as if wing-shot or worse out of the sky
over the maw of the chimney. Flailing—
but then pulling out, as another dips
and the flock reverses its circling.


4.
They seem like leaves spinning in a storm,
blown wild around us, and we their witnesses.
Witness the way they finish. The first one
simply drops into the flue. Then four,

five, in as many seconds, pulling out of
the swirl, sweep down. So swiftly, we’re alone.
The sky is clear of everything but night.
We are standing, at a loss, within it.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I remember, in this case, specifically. I started this poem in the late summer of 2009. I revised it through early summer 2010, and it appeared in Lisa Russ Spaar’s column in Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2010. I’m still pleased with this poem; it serves as the opening poem to my volume, Scavenger Loop, and it provides the title for my forthcoming book, Swift: New and Selected Poems.

The birds—the chimney swifts—are real and local. Every summer for decades they assemble in my village in Ohio, and especially in August and September they perform this dusk flight, gathering from all over the village into a loose cloud, then slowly into a tighter funnel circling and dipping lower over the big chimney of our old post office. At sundown, in twenty-thirty minutes, they swoop down one at a time, in increasing numbers, and disappear into the flue and spend the night, dozens, hundreds, packed in the three-story big brick stack. The poem started by watching, evening after evening. Often still I stand there on the corner across the street, alone, and then sometimes people join me. We are quiet. We watch them. We wish we could fly. The swifts, like bats, fly with alternating wingbeats, one wing up when the other’s down.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I am pretty slow and obsessive. I don’t count revisions, but I imagine this poem took a dozen large-scale revisions and maybe three dozen more with tweaks. The early poem was in unmeasured lines in eight-line stanzas, with no sections. Then it was in couplets. I kept sharpening, pressing it into syllabics. There were two or three spots where the phrasing evaded me. About a year elapsed between first partial draft and final version. There is no hurry in poetry, right?

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe inspiration comes to us when we are working. In + spirare = to breathe in, to be breathed-in-to. Much of the detailing of this poem was observed. It was not given. It was received. The tone of “Swift” is part of a larger tone I try and try to achieve—something like a quiet and very precise attention. Something about presence and the proximity of something other than myself, that other breathing thing. I don’t have words for what I mean; I don’t want them. I want the poem to go in search of that tone, as an achievement of syntax, phrasing, all the musical possibilities of the language, an achievement of discovery and that odd ancient newness of a real poem.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?


I cannot really separate principles of technique from aspects of subject. One enables the other. Of course I employ technique. The fundamentals of syntax, word choice, lineation are all technique.  I have been trying to work in syllabics for many years, more than twenty. I like the rhythmic fluctuation alongside (or within) the regular mathematics of syllabics. That is, I don’t want a bouncy recurrence of rhythm, but instead a dynamic tension set up between the regularity of syllabics and the variable rhythm of my own sense of music. A tension between the math and the music of the thing. That’s it. 

What else was I thinking about, regarding technique? Pattern of image; line and stanza and (in this case) section; music music music in the form of harmony, repetition, counterpoint, modulation, key change. I wanted this poem to sound like a viola on the two lower strings. That’s the quiet pitch of the swifts in flight.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I take notes by hand. I write drafts on the keyboard. I print drafts out and revise by hand and in my head, and then revise on the keyboard. I walk around with multiple drafts in my folder and in my head. I take my time. That is not unusual in my practice. 

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I think there were just a few months, maybe three or four.  This particular venue—Lisa’s column in the Chronicle—had a pretty quick turnaround. The more usual wait is a year or two between a poem’s being finished and its journal appearance, and sometimes longer. As I said, there is no hurry in poetry.

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 am slow. I will not send a poem off for some time, months. I have been too hasty at times, and usually regretted my haste. I don’t have rules about this. I write fewer poems these days and try to respond as I can when editors may be so kind as to invite me to submit. I’m holding a couple of poems right now, waiting, checking to see if they are really ready to be seen. One is about a month old, and one—which I keep fiddling with, tiny changes, back and forth—has been “finished” for about six months. You know, you make a tiny change somewhere and that effect may ripple far off.

Some of my caution, or patience, derives from being a poetry editor. I read thousands upon thousands of poems a year at The Kenyon Review. People are writing too many poems; or, I mean, are sending too many out to journals. Instead of writing five new poems, I wish they’d write one new poem and revise it five times or give it five times as much time to settle. 

We are too busy making products and not poems, not poetry. So many of the poems I read are just not quite finished, at least to my sense of it all. One more draft, I think over and again. There is no hurry in poetry. There is, to be sure, hurry in our hearts, hurry in our professional identities (with all those resumes and professional reviews and applications). Hurry in our need for validation and attention. But the art of poetry is far more patient and far more demanding than the profession of poetry.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I don’t know. Some of my poems are close to actual, close to being autobiographical experience or memory. Are they fact? Some of my poems are made-up, mostly. 

But really, these are not a useful binary, in my way of thinking. The putting of a word onto paper makes it an artful, and fictional, gesture. And a word on a page is, of course, a real thing, a materiality, an art-in-fact, artifact. A work of art, a poem, is more interested in being an authenticity than a fact; more interested in being artful than make-believe. They are always both.

Is this a narrative poem?

All poems are narrative poems. Yes, “Swift” is narrative. It is also lyric. 
   
I intend to write more about this distinction sometime soon. I think the dichotomy set up between narrative poetry and lyric poetry is, alas, a false one, another false and misleading binary, though I understand its history and its use. To the Greeks a narrative poem was an epic; a dramatic poem was a choral play; and lyric poem was a relatively shorter poem to be sung with a lyre or lute. Now, of course, we have the novel instead of the epic, and the play instead of choral drama. And our poetry has the potential to maintain and employ all of these attributes—of story, of song, of performance, of communal memory, of intimate personal insight. 
   
But back to that binary and my dispute. What I think is this: To be a poem a thing must have vivid lyrical qualities. These may be sonorous qualities, they may be discordant, they may be coherent, they may be wildly jagged. But a poem is a lyrical form of language. Poems are lyric. 
   
Poems are also narrative. All language is narrative. The fundamental relationship between subject and predicate is narrative. A narrative doesn’t necessarily require a long, sustained storyline or chronology. But time passes in the interstices between word and word, thing and act, and this temporal passage—whether it is almost instantaneous or epochal—contains story. Pound’s little verb-free “In a Station of the Metro” is a narrative poem and a lyric poem.
   
“Swift” has other narrative aspects, of course, too. It uses those things we tend to assign to fiction, like characters and setting and action. But I hope its lyric qualities are as vivid and rich as its narrative ones, in balance, in this case, two wings alternating into flight.
 
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I do remember some of what I was reading when I wrote “Swift.” I read all the time, both for my daily pleasure and for the professional pleasure and task at The Kenyon Review. I was reading Stanley Plumly at the time, whom I read often. I’ve learned more about syllabics—and the dynamic rhythmic possibilities of syllabics—from Stan and from Marianne Moore than from any other poets. I was reading, I believe, Carl Phillips’ Speak Low; it had just come out, I believe, in 2009 when I started “Swift.” I was reading Dickinson poems, her bird poems, of which there are scads. I was also reading those weird little Cesar Aira novels during those couple of years. Go figure.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I write for myself and strangers. That’s Gertrude Stein. I’m with her. I write to attend to the music in my heart and my head, and I write—or aspire to write—in such a way that someone I don’t know may read and find purposeful music in my poems. I write for Dickinson and Keats, too. Relentless readers with endless patience and infinite soulful wisdom.

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 wait a while. I don’t show early drafts to anyone. I know what to do. I know where I tend to mess up or get hasty. I know from all the Kenyon Review poems what most of the day’s clichés are.

Then my first and best reader is Page Starzinger, my partner now of more than ten years. She is relentless and understanding. She knows those habits of mine, too, and her aesthetic and critical senses are sufficiently different from mine that she pushes me out of my comfort or my go-to stances.  My background is music and hers is visual art. That’s a good difference.

And yes, I have a small group of dear trusted other readers, whom I turn to at different times for different things: Stan Plumly again, Carl Phillips, Jill Bialosky (my blessing-of-an-editor), Linda Gregerson, Ann Townsend, Terry Hummer, sometimes other folks. But these particular friends have helped me for years, decades, and each brings a different set of questions to the page. Poetry, such a private individual art, depends on others. I love that.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t know. I’m not the right person to make that assessment. It’s different because it’s about swifts rather than deer or cornfields or my neighbors or ecological degradation? 

What is American about this poem?

I can either ignore this question or write a book. 

I am American, my idiom is American, and it is specific to my Midwestern life, my village life, all those other aspects of identity that make up a self or selves. The aesthetic is probably a version of latter-day Romanticism, wishful semi-post-Capitalism, devout naturalism—spooky action-at-a-distance—and some other isms. I write a lot about American poetry and poets. I guess I’m one. 

There’s a lot more to say, about hopefulness, or community, or privilege, or awe, or music. But the more I explain the poem the farther it seems to me.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

The version of “Swifts” I read in public these days is slightly different, revised since it appeared in Scavenger Loop. There’s one rascal phrase I keep adjusting. I read it different ways, depending.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Yes.