Monday, October 26, 2009
Elton Glaser, a native of New Orleans, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Akron and the former editor of the Akron Series in Poetry. He has published six full-length collections of poetry: Relics (Wesleyan University Press, 1984), Tropical Depressions (University of Iowa Press, 1988), Color Photographs of the Ruins (University of Pittsburg Press, 1992), Winter Amnesties (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), Pelican Tracks (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), and Here and Hereafter (University of Arkansas Press, 2005). His poems have appeared in the 1995, 1997, and 2000 editions of The Best American Poetry. With William Greenway, he co-edited I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio (University of Akron Press, 2002).
I’m done with
The abundance of winter, so full of itself,
The air no more than snow
And the earth no less, nothing multiplied
Zero by zero, until
I can’t take it, I can’t
Keep my mind from skating away
Somewhere south, as the ice melts
To blue and green and a red-tailed hawk
Riding the air, broken summer
Of the sun’s division, where the world
Comes back again, piece by piece,
And I see my shadow
Split the shore, walking the dark
Tideline between the beaten sand
And a thousand white arousals of the sea.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote “Dead Reckoning” in February 2002. It’s not at all surprising that this winter poem was composed in that cold month, when I often think about escaping Akron for someplace sunnier and warmer. I’ve lived in Ohio for thirty-seven years now, but my native state is Louisiana, where snow is a very rare treat, not a constant wintry torment as it is here. I’m sure the poem began on one of those freezing days when my mind, as the poem says, kept “skating away / Somewhere south.”
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I think the poem was put together over several days, inching slowly forward as I tried to figure out what the next phrase would be. Once the first draft was complete, I probably just did some fiddling with the lines to get the rhythm and music right, no major revisions.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe in both luck and discipline. My habit is to use index cards as bookmarks, writing on them words and phrases and images as they show up and seem interesting. My poems tend to be built out of these chance juxtapositions of language; I flip through these stacks of cards, looking for some clue to where the poem might go next. With “Dead Reckoning,” for instance, I had the last image, “a thousand white arousals of the sea,” on one of the index cards, though I didn’t know it would go in this poem until I got close to what seemed like the conclusion. I loved the sound of that line and probably tried to use it in several earlier poems where it didn’t really fit. Here, I think, it found its rightful place.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
As someone said, a poem is finished when it uses up all its material. I had nothing more to say about this wintry wish. I was conscious of trying to get the restlessness that sparked the poem into the form itself; thus, the many enjambments that drive the poem forward, with few resting places. I’m always aware of the integrity of the line. In this instance, the first line, “I’m done with,” was isolated like that because of the “Dead” in the title. Maybe only a few readers will pick up on that--my point is, it’s there to be picked up on. Readers should be given immediate pleasures and also some delayed pleasures, little gifts for returning to the poem and looking at it carefully.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
“Dead Reckoning” was not published in a magazine. It went right into Pelican Tracks, which won the Crab Orchard Award and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2003, the year after the poem was written. Much of the book is concerned with the experiences of North and South, so the poem slipped easily into that collection.
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 don’t have any rules about how long before I send a new poem off to a magazine. Laziness is often a big factor. Or sometimes I think a poem ought to go to Magazine X, but that magazine is already considering some of my work, so I’ll hold on to the new poem until I hear from the editors about the poems they’re holding (always holding too long, of course).
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Since my poems tend to start from language or image, I rarely know what they’re going to be before I actually write them. The facts in “Dead Reckoning” are so simple they barely deserve the term. I believe, with Wallace Stevens, that “Poetry is the supreme fiction.” Or, to put it more crudely, you just make this stuff up as you go along.
Is this a narrative poem?
“Dead Reckoning” is less a narrative than a mental itinerary. I’ve written narrative poems before, but only because that’s how a particular poem had to unfold. Mostly, my poems are about states of being, conditions of experience. Or, at least, that’s how I like to think about them.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I can’t recall what poet I was reading when I wrote this poem. It may well have been Wallace Stevens, to whom I return again and again. Not to claim too much resemblance, but both Stevens and I often begin with seasons or weather and then let the poem unfold in unforeseen directions. In this case, the direction is south.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I used to have in mind when I wrote a poem an undergraduate teacher of mine, the late Raeburn Miller, whose high standards I always tried to live up to. These days, I just try to be as hard on myself as I can, testing the lines for any weakness, again and again. Given how few books I’ve sold in more than twenty years of publishing, it would be delusional to think about an “audience” for my work, only a few stubborn readers who still care about the well-made poem and who still love to go “adventuring in the language,” to borrow a phrase from William Stafford.
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 don’t remember if I showed this poem to anyone before I finished it. I might have, because at the time I belonged to an informal workshop of poets in Akron, some of them my former students. And two Ohio poets, William Greenway of Youngstown and Lynn Powell of Oberlin, good friends of mine, see almost everything I write and usually have some suggestions for improvement. They can see things I miss and often make me look like a better poet than I am.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
“Dead Reckoning” is certainly of a piece with the other poems in Pelcian Tracks. Stylistically, it’s in the lyrical realism mode that I often worked in earlier. Except for the attention to details of nature, it has little in common with the poems I’ve been writing the last year and a half, which are much more oblique in development. Over the years, my interests shift from mode to mode. Whatever I’m working on at the moment seems the right thing to do.
What is American about this poem?
Well, the scenery in “Dead Reckoning” is certainly American. I think the wish at the heart of the poem is universal. We all want to return to our personal paradise--that’s not solely an American desire.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I abandon few poems, and those I do abandon never get sent out for publication. This poem has been “finished,” polished to as high a gleam as I could get it. If a poem has that kind of hard-worked sheen, like a mirror, then maybe a reader can see himself or herself in it.