Monday, June 1, 2009

Baron Wormser

Baron Wormser was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1948. In 1970 he moved to Maine with his wife Janet. From 1975 to 1998 he lived with his family in Mercer, Maine, in an off-the-grid house on forty-eight acres. His memoir, The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir of Living Off the Grid (University Press of New England, 2006), concerns that experience. In 2000 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine. Since 2002 he has taught in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Wormser has received the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize along with fellowships from Bread Loaf, the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2000 he was writer in residence at the University of South Dakota. For eight years he led the Frost Place Seminar at the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire. Wormser is the author of eight collections of poetry, mostly recently Scattered Chapters: New and Selected Poems (Sarabande, 2008), and a book of short stories, The Poetry Life: Ten Stories (Sarabande, 2008). He currently teaches in the MFA program at Fairfield University.


Dave Mitchell doesn’t see the picture in the newspaper
Of Abdul Munim Ali Hamood who is gesturing in a grimace
Of grief toward the corpse of his twenty-two-year-old son
Who was blown up by a lunatic in a car full of explosives.

It’s not on the front page of the local paper, which has
A picture of a moose because the moose lottery was that day
And the right to legally shoot a moose is a big deal in Maine
Though who knows how many are poached for meat
Or shot for the evil hell of shooting something.

Dave doesn’t read the paper anyway.
Words give him a headache and he’s got enough
To think about what with driving his truck around
Delivering ductwork to contractors who are installing
Ventilation and heating systems in—you name it—
Restaurants, Laundromats, stores, garages, offices.

Probably when you’re sitting and eating pork fried rice
You don’t think about the ductwork and how the fans
Are blowing those hot oil fumes out into the night
But it’s got to be there and Dave is good at it
Because it’s steady work and he’s married with a little girl
Though things have turned frosty between his wife and him.

They make love rarely and when they do it’s over
Fast: two busy cogs, a narrow duty.
When Dave watches the women on the street
He craves them with a longing that goes beyond wishing.
He needs their bodies, needs to touch their nipples
And cup their breasts and break loose inside of them.

It’s a bad feeling because he loved his wife
And doesn’t know where that love went. Sure as shit
It’s not in the daily with its headline moose story.
Dave used to hunt deer but doesn’t do more now
Than keep his rifle clean and come winter sit
In an ice-fishing shack with some buddies, gab about
What happened to so-and-so and drink Jim Beam.

There are worse things, like pulling your back out the way
Rick Davis did at work last week or being a father
In Baghdad who has no twenty-two-year-old son anymore,
Who has nothing but the air to move his hands around in.

We can’t live without air, Dave knows that, and some days
When he’s idling at a light and surrounded by spewing
Exhaust pipes he can imagine we’ll ruin that. We’ll get up
One morning, start gasping and turn blue. Right now, though,
It’s lunchtime on the road, which means pulling the truck
Into Burger King and eyeing a woman in another line
And wondering what he’ll do tonight when he gets home.
Maybe he’ll finger the remote and see what’s on.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was composed in 2004. The name of the Iraqi father is the name of an actual man who lost his son in a car bombing. I saw a picture of him on the front page of the New York Times. You see what seem like an endless number of photos of grief but that one went right through me and I started writing. Immediately, though, the character of the guy driving the truck in Maine came to me as part of the poem.

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

It went through a fair number, twenty at least, possibly thirty. I was still revising it when Scattered Chapters was about to come out in 2008.

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

Certainly I believe in inspiration. One never knows what is going to set off a poem. And some have stronger inspirations than others have. Getting the details to be what I wanted them to be took a certain amount of sweat if not tears.

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

I knew it was going to be in relatively long lines and I knew it was going to take a certain number of lines to go where I wanted to go, to draw the comparisons I wanted to draw and make Dave a credible human being.

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?

It first appeared in print in the book Scattered Chapters. In terms of sending poems out into the world, I don’t send that many poems to journals anymore. I can hold onto a poem for a long time and even after poems have appeared in books I often keep revising them. A number of poems in Scattered Chapters have been revised. Some were in anthologies. If I feel that I have more to bring to the table, then I’m going to bring it.

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

The poem is based on some facts—the father who lost his son and the moose lottery. The character of Dave is made up but is a composite of many guys I knew in Maine. I wanted to present two different realities—Iraq and Dave—but have them in the same poem.

Was this poem always in the third person? Would you care to address any general advantages of using the third-person point of view in a poem?

I wouldn’t do this poem in first because I wanted Dave to be a character with a limited point of view. And of course the father is in Iraq, far away from Maine. So third-person was natural for this poem. Third lets you create a socialized world in which your characters can move independently of one another.

Is this a narrative poem?

It isn’t to me. It’s more like a few vignettes, scenes from lives.

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

I read a lot of books. No influences in particular come to mind.

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

I write for myself and for strangers.

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 sometimes show poems to my wife who is very astute about my weaknesses. Other than that I don’t show poems much to other people. I’ve never been in a group.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t think it does differ. It’s the political/historical hoodoo I’ve been writing about for decades.

What is American about this poem?

The character Dave is an American—moose hunting, ice fishing, TV watching, Jim Beam drinking. Then there is the American quality of know-nothingism.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

As I noted, I tend to keep revising. At the moment this one feels done but I could wake up tomorrow with a word or line that somehow bugs me.


  1. I enjoyed this poem and Mr. Wormser's approach to writing immensely.It mirrors my own approach exactly--I also write for myself and strangers, don't send my work out much, (although I am not nearly as awarded or published as he is) I still hang on to my stuff for a long time and do revisions of things over a period of years. It is heartening to know that someone else has this same value system. And of course, the qaulity of the work really sang to me.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and approach; both give me hope and inspiration to continue writing verse.

    2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and approach; both give me hope and inspiration to continue writing verse.

    3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and approach; both give me hope and inspiration to continue writing verse.

    4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and approach; both give me hope and inspiration to continue writing verse.

  2. Great poem and interview. A good example of how to speak towards the issues in the Middle East and in the U.S. without forming a rut in either place/mindset. A nice balance.

    I also like the idea of writing for oneself and for strangers. I have found myself beginning new poems while thinking, "I hope so-and-so-publication will like this" the last few months. It isn't that this isn't a good approach to have now and again for some time, but I think I can see how, in all honesty, I really *do* write for myself. Because I *want* so-and-so-publication to run one of my poems, of course. ;-)

    I find it interesting that Wormser has never been in a writing group and that he has lived off the grid. Proof that reading and a keen sense of what you want your poem to do can create a fine spread of verse to enjoy and return to again.

    The honesty, too, is a precious commodity. "What's American about this poem?" and one of the answers is American know-nothingism. In poems (and fiction) a character like Dave can step forth and exhibit criticism in a variety of manners. I appreciate Dave's numb sorrow. And that moose lottery and the moose photo will stay in my mind's eye as long as the photo of the father in Iraq.

    Thanks for producing this blog! Love it.