Mary Biddinger is the author of Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007) and the chapbook Saint Monica (forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press). Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, The Collagist, Copper Nickel, diode, Gulf Coast, The Laurel Review, North American Review, Passages North, Third Coast, and many other journals. She is the editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, co-editor-in-chief of Barn Owl Review, and co-editor, with John Gallaher, of the new Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. She directs the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and teaches literature and creative writing at The University of Akron. For more information please visit her website or blog.
His name wasn’t even a word.
You could never ask him to make the tea.
Glass broke in his hands, and storms
kicked out their best hail when he stood
beneath a willow. I’d exhale his name
instead of counting down the days.
The last time I pressed my body
against the length of his screen door
I hoped the sunset would burn through.
He was always running a fever.
The doctors said he turned cold instead
of hot. That’s not what his mouth
told me. There were hundreds of bats
in the attic, but none of them listened.
I felt we were never alone. He said:
what is this sliver of wood for, if not
the hull of a miniature ship, shattered
on the rocks, some woman who lured it
there, and a sailor who would spend
the rest of his life trying to carve her
out of Ivory soap. His wife walking in
on him, the thing in his hand, a knife,
a word the woman could never say
but couldn’t stop saying. His wife
adjusting the shower curtain, asking
how he had cut his knee. The woman
on a bus five minutes down the road.
He knew exactly which alley they’d
exit to, which of his hands would move
up her back first, the direction her skirt
would fall. The frozen lake that did not
regard any of this with much interest.
The temperament of the sky above.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem at the end of the Fall semester of 2008, so it’s about a year old. I usually begin a poem with one line that I mutter under my breath for days, until I can’t hold it in any longer. That’s what happened with this one. It’s funny, thinking back, how many potential poems could have followed the line “His name wasn’t even a word,” but this is the one that developed.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
My very primitive and unsophisticated records indicate that I sent this poem to Gulf Coast on December 1st 2008, so apparently I didn’t allow it to mellow for long before submitting. Most of my revision takes place during the composition process. By the time I am finished writing, often I have read the poem aloud twenty times or more at the computer. I write a little, go back to the beginning, read it all, write a little, and so on.
I did, however, play with the final lines quite a bit, with the guidance of my friends Susan Grimm and Amy Bracken Sparks, who were instrumental in nailing the landing.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration, but this poem was less received than intercepted. I wore that first line around my wrist like one of those braided bracelets you make in summer camp. After a while it got dirty, so I (clumsily) cut it off with some scissors. Then I examined it. At that point I had to let it go and move on, catching thoughts as they came to me.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
This poem came out whole, but I was very conscious of where I was going with it, because I wanted a distinct point of view departure in the middle, a sort of story within a story. Most of my awkward fumbling took place as I wrote it. There’s often a five to ten minute period in the writing of any poem where I look over it and wonder why on earth I am writing it, or who it could possibly interest and satisfy. Thankfully, I’m usually able to shake that off.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It took a little less than a year from when I sent it to Gulf Coast and when it appeared. I did not send it to any other journals. I’m not a simultaneous submitter, and I take great care in choosing which journals to send certain poems. It’s always a delight when poems are picked up their first time out in the world.
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 let poems sit long enough, I fear. Sometimes I even get a journal in mind and keep it in mind when writing, and the day after writing the poem (and after at least one set of eyes views it) I send it out. I guess I would rather the poems didn’t stagnate for too long, but sometimes I scare myself.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
When I was in sixth grade French class I was assigned the task of carving an Arc de Triomphe out of Ivory soap. Mine came out looking more like a misshapen albatross. But the idea of carving a likeness stuck with me. It is so physical, but also so imprecise, and once you cut there’s no going back. I have never tried my hand at whittling since then, but I have been haunted by an image intensely enough that I wanted to draw it on everything I saw. This is a common experience, right? Taking extra trips to the carnival so that you can pretend the cotton candy is the voluminous hair of your beloved? Tracing the imagined outline of your lover’s face onto a brick wall? Yes?
At any rate, the poem has a relatively complicated dramatis personae for being so brief. I filtered the second half of the poem through the consciousness of the “he,” the man who relates the story of a sailor who spends the rest of his life trying to carve the likeness of a lost beloved out of soap. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the creative process in general, and how we try to recreate, or reclaim, lost people with poems. The hardest part was transitioning into the second perspective without making the reader especially aware of it.
This poem is 100% emotionally autobiographical, but I have never known a man whose name wasn’t even a word. I have never intentionally lured a literal ship to destruction. I do not hold myself responsible for any metaphorical truths that may have inspired this poem, however.
Is this a narrative poem?
It is a narrative poem if the reader allows it to be. I would say that story is the most important feature of the poem. All of my narratives are fragmentary in construction, but to me, reality seems similarly fragmented. Imagine standing in line at Target while eavesdropping on people in front of you and at the next register over, while also sending a text message and subliminally absorbing the Lionel Richie song in the background. Nothing interesting happens in a purely linear timeline, at least to my sensibility.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
Poetry is my number one source for truth. I’m not sure what that says about my morality, or about my poem’s morality. My poem certainly isn’t a cautionary tale.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Shortly after Elton Glaser passed along the Akron Series in Poetry editorship to me, I began working with Heather Derr-Smith’s book, The Bride Minaret. It changed me forever. I had never considered the power of the end-stopped line with any great seriousness up until that point, and it made me reconsider the line in every aspect possible. I can see my Derr-Smith-induced line revelation here in this poem.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal reader is a thirtysomething woman who wears very cute shoes. She probably loves black cats, and may drink a bit too much diet soda. She gets approximately six hours of sleep per night. She might secretly prefer reading fiction over poetry, but she doesn’t advertise this. However, I am thankful when my work connects with people who don’t like black cats or diet soda. I may write poems to please and delight certain people in my life, but I try not to aim my work toward a particular literary demographic.
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?
There’s one person who reads all of my poems the second I finish writing them. I have also been blessed with a spectacular writers’ group that gives the best advice I’ve ever had. In theory it seems like it would be best to have readers with differing sensibilities, but my writers’ group contains a number of women poets who are risk-takers like me. I find their commentary to be incredibly energizing. My college workshop experiences often left me wondering why I ever chose poetry, and often persuaded me to undo a lot of the work in my poems. Eventually I gained enough confidence to mute the refrain of this is too strange, can you please explain, I just don’t get it, what on earth is this.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This was the last poem I wrote in my now-nixed manuscript of poems about bad marriages. I finished that manuscript, and then realized that I was incredibly happy. I could not envision doing a book tour in 2011, a very happy woman, reading poems about misery. This poem is therefore quite different from all of the new work I’ve produced in the past year, which culminated with a new manuscript that will soon land in a couple of presses’ mailboxes. The new manuscript is a book of love poems, often hyperbolic, that share some craft sensibilities with “Shipwreck” without all of the sublimated desire. It was both challenging and exhilarating to write with such a different tone.
What is American about this poem?
Well, in my travels I’ve noticed that screen doors are not always as popular abroad as they are in America. When my family lived in England there were no screens on the doors or windows. Cats and magpies could just stop on by whenever they pleased. So I suppose the third stanza might reveal an American setting. I also imagine that the sailor is suffering from an American sense of moral obligation or shame over his desire. If he were from another country, he might do his whittling at the kitchen table instead of on the sly in the bathroom.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I will confess to having abandoned a few poems along the road, but this one was finished, and I did not feel the immediate desire to take a vigorous bath with Ivory soap upon completion, thankfully.