Lana K. W. Austin’s poems, short stories, and reviews have recently been featured in Mid-AmericanReview, Sou’wester, Columbia Journal, Zone 3, AppalachianHeritage, The Colorado Review, The Pinch, and others. Winner of the 2018 Words & Music Poetry Award, Austin has been a finalist and semi-finalist in multiple other competitions, including the James Wright Poetry Award, the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award, the Zone 3 Book Award, the American Short Fiction Award, the Still: The Journal Fiction Award, and the Machigonne Fiction Award. Born and raised in rural Kentucky, Austin studied creative writing at both Hollins University and the University of Mary Washington as an undergraduate and has an MFA from George Mason University (2008). Her full-length poetry collection, Blood Harmony, is from Iris Press (2018) and her chapbook, InSearch of the Wild Dulcimer, is from Finishing Line Press (2016). Austin has lived in England, Italy, and Washington, DC, but currently resides in Alabama, where she is an adjunct instructor in the English department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Don’t worry if you bruise the fruit,
my mother said, when you’re cutting off
the tops and chopping the rest up--the brown
fleshy parts make the sweetest preserves.
Move your fingers quickly, like your father’s
combine, separating and harvesting
the crop—make your fingers the machine
and after a while they’ll do it on their own—
like the muscle memory the organist
at church says lets her fingers play
“How Great Thou Art” without thinking.
And while I’d never been able to do two things
at once before, I’d waited long enough
to learn this trick of turning bitter fruit
into jeweled jars of sugar-thickened jam,
a process that left a smell in the house so rich
you felt the air around you might drop
to the ground, heavy. I’d also waited to learn
what the special ingredient was—the secret
all my grandmothers, aunts and older sisters
had kept like monogrammed handkerchiefs
saved a whole generation for a new bride.
Now everything was joining, an arc
of constant movement between my two hands,
the knife, the fruit, the bowl— the rhythm
I’d anticipated for so long, a song whose cadence
meant I was a woman now, old enough
to preserve things using knives and hot paraffin
to seal it all in. It took half an hour to notice
I’d cut myself, but when I told my mother,
as I started to throw out the ruined fruit,
she laid one juice-slickened hand on mine
to stop me, holding my finger up. That’s deep
enough, she said, without going down
to the bone, to make this year’s batch the best yet.
She told me to keep on working
as the bubbling water, ready to melt the wax,
was the only sound.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem is years old, but I’m so glad that you picked it, because it brings me deep joy to remember beloved Claudia Emerson, who helped bring it, like so much of Blood Harmony, to life. It was composed as one of the last pieces for my Honors Thesis, which Claudia directed. It most definitely started with her because she was the catalyst for my turning back to Kentucky, my home, as the central focus of much of my writing. Before that I’d been, sorry to be blunt, chickenshit when it came to writing about my life in Kentucky. I could politely say I had “immense trepidations.” No. I’d been chickenshit.
She, ever so forthrightly, made me believe that I didn’t have to be afraid anymore to be as agrarian as I wanted, which, to be perfectly honest, had always deterred me before. I was the foster care/orphan girl finally adopted as an older kid from a no-stoplight town in Kentucky. I didn’t want to play into the stereotype, to perpetuate something negative, though. Maybe, too, I, always wanting to choose joy as much as possible, just didn’t want to remember the hard times. But, that’s ridiculous. Life can be hard, no matter how positive we are. So at her urging, I realized I was missing many opportunities to mine rich ore and I course-corrected. She wanted me to write the poems that I wanted and needed to write, and if they were about Kentucky, they were about Kentucky. And this, a true story, came out.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This went through several drafts as I recall. Certainly numerous small tweaks because, to this day, I can’t seem to strip my language down to where it’s lean enough, certainly not in the early drafts. I always start too big and have to refine everything. Claudia took me through at least two edits with it, too, that I remember, and I believe there were about four months between the very first draft and the final version I turned in for publication.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Oh, I believe one hundred percent in both inspiration, a gorgeous muse that comes and kisses you hard on the mouth when you least expect it, and also sweat and tears pig-headed stubborn tenacity to birth a poem. Both are integral. Much of the original part of the poem was “received,” just this gift of language, of the narrative percolating up and out of me intuitively, but there were oodles of stray bits that needed to be trimmed, too, and that took time and dogged resolve. Maybe not literal sweat and tears, but certainly massively humbling moments when I’d think, “How can I ever get this right?”
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
This poem arrived at its final form through the aforementioned convergence of Claudia’s urging me to write what I wanted to write without fear, that gift of original inspiration, and the pigheaded stubbornness that allowed me to keep at it as I made dozens of edits. As far as technique, I tried very much so to be sensitive to sound even though this is, in essence, a micro story that’s lineated. This is a narrative poem, but pays some homage to lyricism, too, which is indebted to those sonic moments that I purposefully embedded. I love a good yarn, but I love beauty, too, oral and aural splendor. Not that I’m saying that there’s splendor here in what I wrote, but I tried to hear this poem like a reader would, to be sensitive to that, to hope for a moment or two that would caress someone’s ear.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Only that it was one of the first pieces where I started to let go of my profound self-consciousness and insecurity about being the foster care/orphan girl from Kentucky. Claudia truly did help me realize it was okay to be exactly who I was, on the page, and in life. There was a wild freedom in that, a gift I’m still trying to repay.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
This is really anomalous, but as a poet this was my first non-student publication in print and the easiest by far. And please note that after this I waited over TEN YEARS to begin submitting my poems again on my own because I needed to finish my MFA, and I had babies, and I worked multiple jobs, had multiple surgeries, and moved back and forth overseas, too. It sounds crazy and surreal, but I didn’t even have to submit this poem. Claudia was guest editing a small, but lovely literary journal called Visions International, and she asked to include this piece specifically. Yes, how remarkably generous of her. I think I might have to go cry now after typing that last sentence, remembering her shining benevolence.
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?
Oh, this varies with every poem for me. Since I finally started pretty regularly (well, it still ebbs and flows since I’m writing so much fiction and teaching at UAH, too) submitting poems for publication four years ago, there’s been a diversity in terms of how long I let a poem sit. One poem, “For Emmylou,” I wrote and started submitting just a few weeks later after having edited/revised it only a few times and it got picked up only a few months later by The Pinch, I believe. Some I wait much longer in terms of gestating time. Honestly, I go by gut instinct or sometimes ADD tendencies with what’s humming along right in front of me at the moment.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I’d like to say that this poem is totally fact, or compressed fact because I condensed some elements from different parts of my family. But memory is a prism, through which the truth/history/our past is poured and refracted, which means that our truth, even when we can pass a lie detector test and say that we’re absolutely conveying the story as accurately as we remember it, is somewhat malleable or tenuous and it splinters into facets. I think there have to be fragments of fiction in this, even though my heart believes I’ve told the honest-to-goodness truth. I believe this poem is a dance, yes a dance, of fact and fiction, like so many things are.
Is this a narrative poem?
Most certainly this is narrative, but with tiny bursts of what I hope to be lyrical light because I was a musician for a long time and the sonorous aesthetics of language move me. Beautiful sounds folding over and into themselves make love to my ears and I try to incorporate them into every poem a tiny bit--even when I have a specific story I need to convey. At least that’s my hope, even if I can’t always bring it to fruition.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Oh my heavens, there isn’t enough time to list everyone I was reading. I’ve long been an insomniac and thus a voracious reader, but these were my touchstones then and still are. I know specifically because I discussed these writers at length with Claudia (and she’s the one who first got me gobsmacked about Betty Adcock!) as I proceeded with my Honors Thesis, what would grow to be my MFA Thesis, and finally into Blood Harmony: Robert Penn Warren, Natasha Trethewey, Steve Scafidi, Betty Adcock, Dave Smith, James Wright, Ted Kooser, Muriel Rukeyser, and though they are prose writers, they nonetheless influenced my poetry beyond description and I was flitting between them, too, at the time: Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, Jill McCorkle, and William Faulkner.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I am greedy and want a dichotomy, please, when it comes to this question; I envision two readers! I long for the poet who will desire the spondees that I’m madly in love with as well as the references to Eugenio Montale, or anyone with knowledge of prosody and who has read and loved widely in poetry, but I’d concurrently love to have a reader who doesn’t know a thing about poetry technically. It’d be my dream, my honor, to write a poem, the same poem, that would engage both kinds of readers deeply, to make them think and feel and dream, to sense all that a poem can be, and maybe even a little offering of mine could do that one day, or at least I aspire to write something that could do 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?
Only Claudia and maybe one or two in our small Senior Seminar workshop saw this poem. For more recent poems, however, over the years I’ve been grateful to have had the finest creative writing professors (not only Claudia, but Jen Atkinson, Eric Pankey, Jeanne Larsen, Peter Klappert, etc.) and fellow workshop poets in my undergrad and MFA programs. And recently I’ve also worked with not only some gifted UAH professor-poets, but some amazingly talented and inspiring poets in a group lovingly brought together by Jeff Hardin, whom he calls the Fellowship. I’m intensely grateful to this summer/fall’s Fellowship group, as I believe they have helped me grow tremendously. I send them the roughest of rough drafts all the time and they still speak to me afterwards! Additionally, there have been some powerhouse poets, people who are leaps and bounds beyond me, who have generously helped me and encouraged me with individual poems even though they have never formally been my professors, people like Steve Scafidi, Dave Smith, and R. T. Smith. Their advice has been gold, pure gold, I tell you.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s more literal. Many of my other poems “go someplace else” as I like to describe it…some kind of otherworldly breaking through, with a moment of magic or mystery or just some tiny bit of the “other” touching the mundane. This one is exactly what it says it is, though.
What is American about this poem?
The bleeding of the women as they have to just keep on working. Wait, that’s not American, that’s everywhere. Sad, but true. Maybe the combine, the organist playing the church hymn, those feel as if they are classic Southern/Americana images.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
As much as I could possibly endeavor to do so, I humbly proffer that this poem was finished.