Monday, August 24, 2009

Charles Rafferty

Charles Rafferty is the recipient of a 2009 NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing and is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: The Man on the Tower, which won the Arkansas Poetry Award (University of Arkansas Press, 1995); Where the Glories of April Lead (Mitki/Mitki Press, 2001); During the Beauty Shortage (M2 Press, 2005); and most recently A Less Fabulous Infinity (Louisiana Literature Press, 2006). He has placed poems in hundreds of journals — among them The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Massachusetts Review, DoubleTake, Poetry East, and Connecticut Review. His work has also appeared in a number of anthologies, including American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon University Press); Rhyming Poems: A Contemporary Anthology (University of Evansville Press); and Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets (University of Evansville Press ). He currently teach at Albertus Magnus College and in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. By day, he works as an editor for a technology consulting firm. He lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with his wife and two daughters.


If you stare at it long enough
the mountain becomes unclimbable.
Tally it up. How much time have you spent
waiting for the soup to cool?
Icicles hang from January gutters
only as long as they can. Fingers pause
above piano keys for the chord
that will not form. Slam them down
I say. Make music of what you can.
Some people stop at the wrong corner
and waste a dozen years hoping
for directions. I can’t be them.
Tell every girl I’ve ever known
I’m coming to break her door down,
that my teeth will clench
the simple flower I only knew
not to give . . . Ah, how long did I stand
beneath the eaves believing the storm
would stop? It never did.
And there is lightning in me still.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I must have written it sometime before 2006, which is when A Less Fabulous Infinity, the book in which it appears, came out. I confess I’m not sure. In fact, when you initially e-mailed me and said you wanted to talk about this poem, I wasn’t sure which poem you meant! Once I’ve published a poem in a book, I find that I almost never return to it—unless I’m giving a public reading of my work, which I don’t often do.

After rereading this poem, though, I do recall some of the circumstances of its composition. The lines “Some people stop at the wrong corner / and waste a dozen years hoping / for directions” come from a poem that I had wrestled with for a couple of years. The poem was a failure, and I’m sure I saved these lines as my favorites, intending to work them into another poem when the time was right.

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

If I discount the years when the above-mentioned lines floated in and out of drafts, I would say it underwent about a dozen revisions over a period of a couple of weeks. My habit is to revise a hot poem (one that’s in danger of getting completed) every day. The revisions aren’t drastic—just what I can get done during my train commute. Then I take it home, print out a clean copy, and stick it in my briefcase for the next day’s commute. My poems arrive in increments this way. When I get stuck and can’t think of anything else to change, I either publish them or stick them in a drawer and wait for the mistakes to rise.

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

Yes, though not in the sense of divine inspiration. There are moments, though, when we’ve had just the right amount of coffee or quiet or whatever and we become, momentarily, the perfect medium for the poem. By “perfect,” I don’t mean that the poem comes out fully formed on the first try, but rather that enough of the poem comes out that I can see what I have to work with. It’s like the story of the sculptor who goes to the quarry to see what the jumble of marble at the bottom will suggest.

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

I used the same techniques I’ve always used—a daily working over of the poem, purging it of what seems unnecessary, and trying to find ways to surprise myself.

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

That I’m not sure of. I remember scrambling to put A Less Fabulous Infinity together, because I’d just published a book the previous year, so with this poem, it was probably less than a year between completion and publication in book form.

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 send out poems as soon as I can’t think of anything to change. This is probably a bad practice. If I had the patience to let things sit for six months, I’d embarrass myself less often. Unfortunately, I always think what I’ve just finished is the best poem I ever wrote. So off I send it.

I don’t want this to imply that I’m permanently satisfied with a completed poem. I almost always change a poem between the time it’s published in a journal and the time it appears in a book. And there are a number of poems in my books that I’d like one more crack at.

Is "Against Hesitation" one of those poems you’d like another crack at?

No, "Against Hesitation" is not a poem I have regrets about, at least not yet.

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

In poetry, I don’t find it useful to distinguish between the two states. I’ll put into the poem whatever will make it a better poem. Whether this element was actually experienced by me is beside the point.

In this poem, there is a moment that I remember. I was at a wedding, and I was standing under the eaves with the smokers while it rained. My own cigarette was done, and I remember wanting to go back into the bar for a drink. But I thought, “Not yet. It’s going to let up. Give it time.” I wasted a good five minutes of my life that day.

Is this a narrative poem?


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


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

Yes, it’s a reader so deft he won’t miss anything I try to slip in. He hears the faintest of assonance; he’s aware of every layer of meaning.

In this case, I think I did have an audience in mind: “Tell every girl I’ve ever known …” This is a poem about regretting inaction. Part of me must have been feeling sorry for myself that day and wishing to right the unrightable. It’s a pretty common feeling, I suppose. Anyone who says they don’t have regrets isn’t aware they had options. Either that or they’re liars.

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?

Well, before a book comes out, I show the poems to my wife. And to my friend, the poet BJ Ward. They’re both good critics, and help me to see how certain poems are flawed or boring. I wish I took their advice more often.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I think it’s fairly typical of a certain kind of poem I tend to write. At the moment, I’m composing mostly fables and monologues, and this poem strikes me more as a lyric.

Do you have another book in the works? If so, would you care to share any information about it?

I do have a new book in the works. In fact, I recently finished it. It's called American Catena. It consists of fifty-one poems–one for each state and the District of Columbia. It's kind of an odd book for me–the poems detailing my relationship with each state, which is sometimes quite tenuous. But this sometimes sketchy relationship proved to be a pleasing obstacle in completing the poems. I'm bankrupting myself now by sending it out to contests.

What is American about this poem?

Well, there’s a frustration underlying the poem that strikes me as an American sentiment – how we’re always wishing for something better or grander. But maybe everyone in the world thinks in those terms. I confess I’ve never considered the poem through the lens of nationalism.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I don’t like my choices here. “Finished” makes it sound like it was published in a perfect state, which is too good ever to be true. “Abandoned” makes it sound like I didn’t bother to fix some obvious mistakes. Let’s say that it was as good as I could make it at the time, but if I looked really closely, I’m sure I could find something to rearrange. This is what a Selected Poems is for.


  1. Keep doing what you do, Charles. It gives me a silent dose of pride to know that I have a friend who writes poems....good ones worth printing and reading. Bryan McGrath

  2. Loved the poem - it has an honesty not often found in writing, or elswhere. Wonderful interview as well, very instructive!

  3. I had Charles as a Poetry professor at Central CT State University, and he was an both an amazing professor and person in general. I am truly honored to have written poetry with his guidance and critiques, and I enjoyed reading this poem of his very much, keep up the good work!

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