Friday, December 18, 2009
Philip Pardi is the author of Meditations on Rising and Falling (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), which won the Bittingham Prize in Poetry. has published poems in Gettysburg Review, Seneca Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere, and his work has been reprinted in Best New Poets 2006 and Is This Forever or What? Poems and Paintings from Texas. A former Michener Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, he now lives in the Catskill Mountains in New York and teaches at Bard College.
DRINKING WITH MY FATHER IN LONDON
With his mate, Wilfred, who was dying,
I discussed ornithology as best I could
given the circumstances, my father flushed
and silent, a second pint before me,
my fish and chips not yet in sight.
Condensation covered the windows
and in the corner a couple played
tic-tac-toe with their fingers.
Behind it all, convincingly, the rain fell.
The mystery, Wilfred was saying, isn’t flight.
Flight is easy, he says, lifting his cap, but
landing – he tosses it at the coat rack –
landing is the miracle. Would you believe
thirty feet away the cap hits
and softly takes in the lone bare peg?
Would you believe no one but me notices?
I’d like to come back as a bird
Wilfred says, both hands on the glass
before him, and here my father
comes to life. You already
were a bird once,
Wilfred, he says, next time,
next time you get to be
the whole damn flock.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem back in 2000 or so. For a long time now, I’ve been writing every morning, as early in the day as my life allows. And this poem emerged one day. It was the first two lines that got me started. They seemed to hold an entire poem, and the task of writing became figuring out how to unfold the rest of it.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It underwent numerous revisions. The bulk of the poem was there quite early, but I fiddled with it for a long while.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do, and I don’t. When it comes to questions like this, or any question of spirit and matter, I’m terribly and sometimes painfully uncertain. Some days I kill the slugs I find in my vegetable garden, other days I carry them across the yard and set them down carefully. When it comes to “receiving” a poem, I can’t really believe I’m worthy of any such thing. The only thing I know how to do is to be quiet. To get as quiet as I can and follow each thread and then listen. And there are times when it feels like I’m taking dictation from somewhere, and those are the best mornings, the ones when I suddenly realize hours have passed and my tea is cold. Somehow I never forget my tea when I’m doing other things, or even writing other things. I suppose I prefer a steady, sweaty practice over faith, but it depends when you ask.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
At one point, this poem looked almost like a sonnet, and I thought, Hey, maybe it needs to be a sonnet. It was a short and failed experiment, but in that process I cut some things I had been holding on to. Once they were cut, I realized I didn’t need them, even when I let go of the metrical reasons for cutting them in the first place. I think the main technique I used was reading the poem aloud.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It appeared in Gettysburg Review four or five years later.
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 let things sit. Even in the writing process, I like to set things aside and come back to them with fresh eyes. A few years ago I wrote a sequence grounded very much in the landscape and weather around me, and I started putting poems away for a year. I would come back the following January to look at the January poems, etc. It had a wonderful effect. With so much time between drafts, I could see them much more clearly. I don’t always wait a year, but letting them sit and simmer is important to me. I might send a new poem to a friend, but I always wait before sending it anywhere else.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Much of what interests me about poetry these days is the way the line between fact and fiction is necessarily and happily blurred. In poetry we can place what might have happened alongside what did happen. We can elevate past events into myth. We can excavate moments and bring to light what would have happened, if only – well, on that “if” hangs everything, a whole world, a world we create that includes but isn’t limited to the world around us. We do seem, as readers, to want to know where fact leaves off and where fiction begins. If you read the early books on Lorca’s Poet in New York, many of his friends try to explain the literal scenes that underlie the wild imagery. “He says ‘three blind horses’ because there really was a blind horse on the farm he visited,” and so on. Or take Philip Levine’s poem about the meeting of Lorca and Hart Crane: everyone wants to know, Is it true? Did they meet? Was Levine’s cousin really there? I think it’s a tribute to poetry that the world we create casts such real shadows in the world around us. I guess I’m not answering the question, but it’s because one of the things I love about poetry is the way that question is so carefully given life.
Is this a narrative poem?
Yes, compared to most of my other poems, but the arc it completes is very small.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I remember I was reading a lot of Charles Wright at that time, but I don’t see a lot of his influence here. Wright and Merwin and Louise Glück were probably on my bedside table back then.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
There was a time when all I cared about was getting the poem so that it sounded right in my own ear. I suppose that felt safe. But later, when I started doing readings, I began to consider how the poem would read to an audience. For a long time now, that’s the reader I imagine: an interested, unusually generous, and well-caffeinated listener. In the end, I’m not sure there is much difference between getting it right for my ear and getting it ready for a listener. Either way, it needs to feel precise, worth its weight in silence. I’ll often cut a line in the middle of reading a poem if the line feels unneeded – better silence than an extra few words. There are some poems – long ones, for instance, but also poems that somehow feel more nailed to the page – that I might never read at a reading, but the same sense of “does this sound right?” kicks in. I suppose it’s rather Platonic, as if each poem aspires to a form that is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered but probably out of reach. But I keep listening for it.
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?
When my book came out, a friend reminded me (I’d quite forgotten) that when I first drafted this poem, I called her and said, “I’ve just written a strange poem about my father.” I’m not sure now what felt so strange. Nowadays, I have a small group of friends scattered here and there with whom I share poems. I often read drafts of new poems at readings, too, not for the audience reaction but just to see how I feel about it. What lines make me cringe, etc.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Like several of the poems in my first book, it feels bolder, more confident in its reckoning with the world, and more interesting in wrapping up the story its begun than later work. I felt more certain about certain things back then.
What is American about this poem?
As soon as you say you’re "drinking in London," you sound like a tourist. Not doing it, mind you, but saying it. It feels like the acts of naming in this poem are the acts of an outsider. Beyond that I’m not sure I have a good answer. I’m not sure what “American” means anymore, especially if by “American” we mean “of the Americas,” if we include Neruda and Elsa Cross and Jaime Sabines and Ruben Darío, etc. Perhaps the overlay of Eastern and Western imagery, Christian rising alongside Eastern reincarnation – perhaps that is more likely to emerge in the Americas? Perhaps. But I can already think of exceptions.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
There comes a time when I just can’t change a poem any more. The moment of living that helped create it fades, and the poem is left, like a fossil of the encounter. It might take years to happen, but eventually it feels as finished as I can make it. A lot of these poems live the rest of their days in a folder somewhere – they are finished and abandoned. Others I like, or like enough to share, and these are finished and invited to stick around for a bit. But even as you befriend a poem, you see what it didn’t achieve. But the next poem – the next poem will really get there. So it goes.