Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Adrian Blevins

Adrian Blevins is the author of the poetry collections Live from the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan, 2010) and The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2003) which won the 2004 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Blevins is also the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award, a Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award for The Man Who Went out for Cigarettes, and the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction. Blevins teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.


For a long time I was absolutely idiotic,
by which I mean I lashed and pulsed
like the cosmos of tissue at present on fire
inside the bodies of my students—
it being springtime, it being the season
of being naked under the cherry trees.
I'm not saying dig a hole and fall in it;

I'm not saying buy a cabin and a nanny goat
and walk around re-naming the forget-me-nots
after the lovers who said they'd slay you
and, well, did—for who ever heard
of a plant named Greg? Nevertheless,
sex is laughable; it's ultimately ridiculous;
it's what God invented since he couldn't have

Comedy Central. And still the young people
who aren't pushing their tongues
against the tongues of others
are weeping like babies
being prodded with thermometers
for the lack of good tongues
to lean their own tongues against.

I hear them complaining
about their would-be boyfriends and girlfriends,
and it's like they are all about to die,
like their hearts have spontaneously combusted
and little cell splinters are poking their lungs
and they're losing their balance,
falling like hail

or like meteors with pretty faces,
which is why when I say up, they look down.
And though I'm all for biology,
for the divine plan of multiplication
that calls for the pink of bodies
being bodies with other bodies
in beds and in bushes,

I'm sorry for all the time I wasted
being dramatic over the boys and their mustaches.
Maybe the heart, it gets colder.
But maybe the heart,
it learns a little self-preservation
and pulls the shades down
one window at a time. And it's not dark

in here. Really, there's a kind of light
between the marrow and the bone,
and sweet patches of grass to lie down on,
and muskrats and pied pipers
if that's the way you like to see the world,
if to get your kicks you choose to be delirious.
I mean, if you happen to be romantic

and don't mind splitting apart with longing
like a child in a toy store
with everywhere these primary colors
seeming to want to open what could be mouths
and seeming to want to sing what could be songs
if only you could catch your breath—
if only your heart would just stop seizing.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

“Case against April” was written at least six years ago, when I was teaching at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia and finishing up the manuscript that would become The Brass Girl Brouhaha. I remember overhearing a student say something I promised myself I would never forget. I’ve forgotten it, of course, but the gist was something about how this person whose gender I can’t even remember was going to die if whatever AWOL lover didn’t quit being AWOL. I remember thinking, first, that the sentiment was odd, and, second, that it wasn’t odd, but perfectly natural. That made me question my sanity. Was the student’s suffering odd or not? I think this is the question that generated the poem. Now, people ask me if I was thinking about “The Waste Land.” I really wasn’t—at least not consciously. At least not at first.

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

I can’t remember the number of revisions, but I do have this story to tell to illustrate what I’ll bet happened. I studied poetry writing with the poet Rodney Jones for a tiny bit as an undergraduate, but, for reasons I’ll never understand, switched my allegiances to fiction writing as a sophomore, even going on to graduate school at Hollins University after a baby-having break or two. I wrote a series of horrible stories at Hollins, producing a horrible collection. Then I graduated, and immediately started writing poems again. I called Rodney at some point to tell him of my renewed love of poetry. I remember telling him in an overconfident voice no doubt that I was rewriting my poems over and over again. Sometimes thirty times, I said. Have you ever done that? He took a deep breath and said in that accent of his that makes even hard lessons sound sweet, “I don’t stop before sixty.” I learned a lot in that one sentence, I’ve got to tell you. So, sure, yes: I’m sure I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote “Case Against April.” Revision is so ingrained in me now that I can hardly get through a day without having to revise something—grocery lists, hair, furniture, cars, whole kitchens!

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

I remember feeling how stupid it was to think you could die of love. But of course that’s wrong. We do die a little bit every day of our feelings. I guess this poem taught me that—a lot of my poems seem intent on telling me that my first thoughts are wrong. Or simple-minded—not complex enough to be true. That is, the poem itself is always on its own path, and, at least for me, a lot of the process of writing it has to do with getting out of the way. Is getting out of the way of your own will somehow what inspiration is?

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

One of my insights as a poet and person is the idea that, as Charles Simic says, “poetry is best when it finds itself at the heart of human comedy.” Charles O. Hartman puts it another way somewhere, saying that a great accomplishment of American poetry is the discovery of counterpoint, or tones and /or rhythms that work independently in the same space. Tony Hoagland has a great essay about it—Tony’s always talking about the dialectical. And Twain, Twain—Mark Twain said somewhere: “To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of American art.” Well, these are my main principles. To find a structure to hold things together that don’t fit together—that’s what I want to do.

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

As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to trust myself more and more—to trust my own taste sometimes. During these times I send poems out (after all those revisions, of course) without what you might call a rest period. But then come those times when I realize that I don’t know jack shit. Of course! How could I? I’m only forty-five! And human. This is when I begin to revise poems I’ve already sent out. It’s when I want to shoot myself for being so horribly narcissistic as to think anybody would ever want to read anything I could ever write. And I do revise those poems. And sometimes they get better. Anyway, I live back and forth like this. I suppose it accounts for my dizziness.

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

Do you know the story of William Maxwell saying he would “be happy to stick to the facts, if there were any”? That’s what I think of facts. I don’t think they exist. Or, if they exist, that they are irrelevant to the task(s) at hand. I think the neurologists are proving this somehow with brain scans: what person A thinks she sees is not what person B thinks she sees, nor what person C thinks. The only thing that matters is the imagination. It might be true that I have three children and gave birth to all three of them. And willingly conceived them and wanted them out of my body when the time came. And loved them absolutely. But it’s also true that I gave birth against my will, as I say in a poem somewhere. The only thing that matters is the imagination. In fact, what things are can only be what they feel like.

Is this a narrative poem?

I think it’s more of an argument—an argument with an understory.

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

I would be lost without the narrative poets, speaking of narratives. I remember hearing a poet say that narrative was dead—I guess I was at Warren Wilson at the time?—and just wanting to scream fucking bloody murder. Jesus Christ! That’s like saying the sun is dead or trees bursting with buds or rivers full of fish. Humans think by and learn by and operate by narrative (and metaphor). Thus: C.K. Williams, Robert Hass, Steve Orlen, Rodney Jones, Tony Hoagland, Sharon Olds, Betsy Sholl, Gerald Stern, David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Lisa Lewis, Susan Wood, Steve Scafidi, Lucia Perillo—the list goes on and on. But the part of the question here where you’re being polite and giving me permission not to disclose my influences? That worries me because it reminds me of how political the poetry world can be. How patrician and divided. There are certain poets you are not supposed to say you like in certain circles. But that’s just stupid. Isn’t that stupid? It’s ridiculous.

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

I’d just like a nice, open-hearted reader—someone not too busy to be able to listen.

What is American about this poem?

Are the comic aspects especially American? The mixed diction?

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 Nate Rudy read the poem, I’m sure—he reads everything I write and usually looks at me after he’s done in some sort of sideways manner as if to say, are you crazy? What do you think you’re doing? Which takes me back to my study, of course. And my friend the poet Patrick Donnelly probably read it—he reads a lot of my first drafts. I think I was finishing up my Warren Wilson MFA when I wrote “Case Against,” so my teachers must have read it. But it’s funny: I remember thinking for years that a good poem was just a good poem, period, and everyone would recognize it as such, like a good mountain or sea. But how silly. Taste does vary. So I would write a poem Exceptional Poet A would adore that Exceptional Poet B would hate. How weird that was. In the end you really do have to trust your own judgment and cross your fingers and pray even though you are an atheist.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I think this poem’s probably par for the Brouhaha course, so to speak, running along that narrative-meditative-slash-rhetorical-lyric hybrid line, with certain confessional motivations. But this term “confessional”: it gets on my nerves. The current zeitgeist dividing the autobiographical and “confessional” from the inventive and imaginative is false because, you know, of course poetry must be inventive. Of course it must be imaginative. It must awaken and reawaken and all of that. It must surprise. Otherwise it wouldn’t be poetry. But who said technique alone is just an embroidered potholder? Eliot’s “objective correlative” is Eliot’s way of saying that thought and feeling can’t be articulated unless they're bound to the more sensual cinnamon world, so to speak. And that’s right, of course. But what if this more sensual world is unknotted from an actual psyche? And is just plucked out of the dictionary? Well, the answer is clear. If you try to make a poem out of such a thing as that, you’re going to get kitchen equipment.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Like all poems, it was abandoned.


  1. I wonder if you can overdo revision.

    I had a friend who spent 17 years working on a poem. When she started it was a fine 13-line poem; when she finished it was a fine 12-line poem. 90% of the poem -- more or less -- was the same. While she was working on it, she didn't work on anything else. To me this seemed obsessive (not to say a little crazy).

    I find that sometimes for me revision becomes a comfortable way to avoid writing. I tinker with a line and tinker with an image, and suddenly I'm not writing or thinking -- just tinkering. I have to force myself then to just give up the revision and move on.

  2. There's also that famous story about Elizabeth Bishop revising "The Moose" for one-hundred and eight-five years (I think it was more like seventeen). Somehow, though, she must've gotten around to working on other poems during that period.

    Oh, John, by the way: Ron Slate agreed to address his poem "Belgium." I'm sending him the questions this evening. Thanks again for the recommendation! It's a fine poem, I think.

  3. I'm posting this by proxy for Adrian. She wanted to quote Paul Valery, who wrote:

    "A work is never necessarily finished, for he who made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it, and so on. He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things. And he ends by considering as satisfactory only those works which have taught him something more."

  4. Hey, Adrian, thanks for the Valery quotation. It reminds me of something the shrink R D Laing (not related to K D) said about the self. It's never complete or understandable, and it's never defineable. When you say you've understood it, you're just kidding yourself and doing violence to the self (whether it's your own or somebody else's).

    So where does this leave us with revision?

    Let me tell you a story: I was writing a poem about 35 years ago, and suddenly realized that I had spent about 3 hours every night for a month revising it (this was before I got married). Revising was a lot of fun--there were an infinite number of possibilities and I was going to think about every one of them!

    What finally shook me loose from that poem and my revising it was my realization that I wasn't doing anything else.

    I would come home and revise. I realized then that I was free to do it but choosing revision over everything else was a way of locking myself up with a ball and chain, chaining myself to a corpse. I was worrying that poem like there was nothing but that poem. It was nuts.

    To free myself I had to break off that revision and move on. It wasn't easy, but I did.

    The poem? I never finished it. Never went back to it. So I guess Valery is right.

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