Friday, January 9, 2009

Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey's most recent collection is The Pear as One Example: New & Selected Poems 1984-2008 (Ausable Press, 2008). Born in Kansas City in 1959, Eric Pankey directed the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis for many years. His work has been awarded numerous honors, including grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For the last decade he has taught in the MFA program at George Mason University, where he is Professor of English and the Heritage Chair in Writing. He lives in Fairfax, VA with his wife and daughter.


The world begins with a gaze, impromptu,
The first light endlessly divisible,
Starless, submerged in vapor, unscored, loosed,

So that one does not think of proportion,
Abrupt edges, magnetic poles, remnants,
Or, for instance, the quality of mercy,

Or the maker. To dispense with narrative,
To let go of the ledger, the inventory,
The ten-thousand stains where blood redeemed,

Is to believe in the dream's irrational
Counter-history, the limestone scree,
The said and to-be-said held in solution,

The weight a body takes on, inch by inch,
As it's pulled from the quarry's clouded water,
A body bloated, radiant. Jade-tinged. Pearl.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I believe I started this poem in the late 1990s—1998-1999. This poem started as most of my poems start with words, images, and half lines jotted in notebooks:

In solution
Poles, equinox, sallow
Jade axe, jade coffin
The world begins as a gaze

Things like that and I look and see if I can find a way to start speaking, to bring these unlikely things into a whole.

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

I am not sure how to count revisions. Much of the language in this poem had many different shapes before it ended up in this iteration—eight or nine, at least. And then there is the fiddling—changing a word here and there, reconsidering the lines as interval of sounds, as units of meaning. I remember there were some versions in couplets, but those seemed clunky and heavy-handed.

Three or four years elapsed between the notebook entries and the poem showing up in the book Oracle Figures (Ausable, 2003).

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

I do not believe in inspiration.

I think that there are times when things do open up before one, as if a gift from some unknown source, but those times are usually because one has prepared oneself for writing—reading, thinking, note-taking, conversation, meditation, brooding, daydreaming, fretting.

One gets to a time and space where one has the chance to write (for me that is usually the summer months when I am not teaching) and all that preparation makes the poem that ends up getting made possible.

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

From the start a four or five beat line seemed the normative length of the lines. When I am writing quickly, which is often what early drafting is for me, I tend to write lines between seven and eleven syllables. The tercets felt like the right stanza almost from the start, creating a nice counterpoint between the two headlong main sentences in the poem and the cataloging habits of the lines.

When I begin almost any poem, I find myself counting something—syllables, beats, words—because I want the lines to be a space I can work within. This initial count is often adjust or abandoned as suits the poem that begins to take shape.

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?

I do not have any rules about when to send poems out. I tend to send them out when I have finished working on them. Sometimes that is within days, sometimes many months. This poem I think waited a couple of months and saw a little tinkering here and there before I sent it out. J. D. McClatchy at the Yale Review was kind enough to give it a home and let it find its first readers.

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

I have written about the old brickyard quarry in several poems over the years—an old abandoned brickworks near where I grew up. The quarry had filled with water and we used it as a swimming hole. When McClatchy accepted the poem, he commented on its “abstract nature,” and it is the most hermetic poem I have written on this subject, and yet it is direct as well—the image at the end is not just a figure, but a story I remember as if it were yesterday. A teenager diving from the quarry’s sheer edge missed the water’s edge and broke his neck and the body sunk into the water and had to be retrieved. He must have been swimming there alone in the evening and it was only the following day he was discovered.

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

At this time I was reading Stevens, Milosz, Ondaatje, Brigit Kelly, and others. I am not sure about influences, but I do think each of these poets has a meditative habit that I hope is in evidence in this poem.

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

I imagine a reader who loves all the poets I love, but even more so.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem when it was still in process? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

At this time a group of poet friends read all my poems: Steve Schreiner, Allison Funk, Jeff Hamilton, Jason Sommer, and Jennifer Atkinson. An eclectic group and as a result I received great commentary from readers who might not love all the poets I love.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This is question probably best answered by someone else.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I hope it is finished, and then abandoned, given up and over to reader. The act of making the poem is the most intimate relationship I have with a poem. In re-reading this poem to answer your questions, I find myself curious about what formal, philosophical, and aesthetical concerns were haunting me back in the late 1990s. For all the assertions in the poems, I sense that much that gets said is really in the form of a question.


  1. A poet for every reader and for every poet is what I come away with after reading this man's interview. He is far more famous than I shall ever be as a poet. The truth is, however, that I do not especially enjoy his poetry. Inspiration does exist. Without it poetry cannot happen. Naturally it is the starting point. I am as much put off by the notion that a poem could be complete in a first draft as having only notes on a page. To me poetry must have its roots in an event. The poem may or may not be about that event, but it is not fiction. Perhaps what I call inspiration he calls observation, such as in his poem “The Plum on the Sill”

    The cold at its poles and blush
    Of blue at its equator
    Do not equal a planet.
    Composed as an example,

    As object, this inspired shadow,
    This timorous flourishing,
    This dimpled orb, does not move.
    Violet and gold, the whole

    Spectrum of a grackle’s wing,
    A static arpeggio,
    The plum in its plumness sits.
    The linear and mythic

    In its presence veer and curve.
    Put anywhere it stays put.

    When I read a poem by Mr. Pankey I am at a loss. He seems to have a habit
    of pulling back from his subject in a way that is disengaging. When for example he opens this poem we are lulled into the analogy of a the plum as not equaling a planet. He is in point of fact playing a game that is almost insulting to the reader.
    Again in the next stanza we have him stacking images only to dismiss them as unimportant. They fail to move the poet, even though he is writing about the plum on the sill.
    And in the third and final stanza he overshadows the reader with what seems like the danger of a mysterious black bird, only to shrink it back into a simple form of the fruit.
    The couplet seems to finish off what strikes me as a poet that is playing with the idea of illusion, but at the expectation and patience of the reader. In some ways that seems dishonest. So I believe he is writing for himself first, maybe some friends, but when I showed this to my class they thought it was too far reaching, until I revealed it had been published in a book.
    So what is my point? For me, and I concede this is a matter of taste, poetry is about language and the experience of the reader. I am not suggesting Pankey fails, but he certainly seems to be poking around for reasons that are more about language and less about the reader.
    I enjoyed the interview, however.