Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Charles Harper Webb

Charles Harper Webb has published eight books of poetry, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms & Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, and Amplified Dog. Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems was published in 2009 by the University of Pittsburgh press. Webb's awards in poetry include the Morse Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Felix Pollock Prize, and the Benjamin Saltman Prize. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poets of the New Century, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. A former professional rock musician and psychotherapist, he is the editor of Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology, and recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award, a fellowship from the Guggenheim foundation, and the CSULB Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award. He directs the MFA Program at California State University, Long Beach.


Sharecroppers’ child, she was more schooled
In slaughtering pigs and coaxing corn out of
The ground than in the laws of Math, the rules
Of Grammar. Seventeen, she fell in love
With the senior quarterback, and nearly
Married him, but—the wedding just a week
Away—drove her trousseau back to Penney’s,
Then drove on past sagging fences, flooding creeks,
And country bars to huge Washington State,
Where, feeling like a hick, she studied French to compensate.

She graduated middle-of-her-class,
Managed a Senior Center while she flailed
Away at an M.A., from the morass
Of which a poet/rock-singer from Yale
Plucked her. He loved her practicality;
She adored his brilliance. Sex was great.
They married in a civil ceremony.
He played around, for which she berated
Herself, telling friends things were “hunky-dory.”
Resentment grew... oh, you said "life"? That’s another story.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

A few years back, I challenged myself to write twenty good sonnets. I thought—rightly—that the discipline would improve my general technique, and give me more tools to work with. I must have read or heard the phrase “life of the mind,” rolled it around in my head, and hit on the title, which sparked the poem. The form, and the story, emerged as I went along.

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

My poems all go through a lot of revisions while I try to make them seem, in Yeats' words, “a moment’s thought.” I don’t know how many this one went through, but since it uses rhyme and meter, I’m sure there were a lot.

I‘m guessing there was at least a year between the first and final draft. Most likely more.

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

If inspiration means that a good idea seems to leap out of nowhere into my mind, it happens. But I don’t depend on it. “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” as the saying goes. I work hard at writing poems. When I do that, inspiration may drop in.

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

I knew right away that I was going to try this one in rhyme and meter. I trusted the serendipity of rhyme to help flesh out the story, and hammered away until I got it done.

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

About a year, I think.

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 have an elaborate system of folders and drafts which every poem must negotiate before I send it out. I keep this process very mechanical, to try to make my editing as impersonal / surgical as possible. I intersperse this kind of editing with intuitive, generative writing, if I need more material. I work with every poem until I either get it right, or see that it is essentially wrong, and I will never get it right.

Sending out poems is also part of this process. Acceptance doesn’t mean the poem is perfect, but it’s evidence I’m doing something right. Acceptance often motivates me to revise more.

I take the sense of narcissistic injury that comes with rejection—the anger-and- outrage-tinged-with-dismay—and try to channel it into a drive to make the poem so good that it will never face such an insult again. I may do this with the same poem many times. It’s a combative process; but, given the realities of American poetry, aspiring toward riches and eternal renown just doesn’t give the push I need.

By the way, I don’t blame or hold grudges against editors. I’ve sat in the Big E chair myself, and taken flak accordingly. Poetry editors—many of whom found and fund their own magazines—do our art a huge service. I’m grateful to them all.

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

Like all of my poems, this is a mix: things that happened to me, things that happened to people I know, things that sort of happened to me or people I know, things I’ve read about, or read about and changed, and things I just make up. I’m concerned with sound, drama, reader-interest, and psychological truth, never with what “really happened,” except if it is useful to the poem.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, but the story that it tells is not the one that the unseen addressee expects, if he/she expects a story at all. The speaker’s need to tell this particular story sheds (I hope) an interesting light on the speaker, and the “facts” as told by him. That’s the real story.

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

I can’t say for sure what I was reading or influenced by, beyond the fact that I was interested in sonnets, and that Kim Addonizio impressed me with her ability to sound contemporary in that form.

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

My ideal reader is someone much like me, but without my particular history—by which I mean, I don’t assume the reader has the exact knowledge-base that I do. I accept the responsibility of starting from factual scratch.

I want to write poems that I’d like even if I hadn’t written them. I hope to delight, entertain, and enlighten readers as other poets have delighted, entertained, and enlightened me. I hope my poems will appeal to other poets, but also that they’ll speak to the wider audience of people who like to read, but don’t read much poetry—i.e., most readers in the U.S.A.

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 often show my wife early drafts of my poems. She reads voraciously, has taken a few poetry-writing classes, and written some good poems, but doesn’t consider herself a poet. All of this makes her a first-rate sounding board. I also have a few trusted fellow poets to whom I regularly turn for insight and aid. Thanks to all of these readers. And thanks again.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t usually write in strict rhyme and meter. Also, I don’t usually hit upon the title first, as I did with this poem.

What is American about this poem?

I’m so thoroughly American, I assume everything about the poem must be. (Or do I, being so American, lack perspective?) Certainly the diction, imagery, and subject matter in the poem are American. The issues of class (including its role in sexual attraction) in a supposedly class-less society, the difficulties of maintaining a marriage in a country where the ideal of equality-in-all-things so often clashes with the facts—all of this seems very American. The ironic ending also strikes me as American—not that America discovered irony. Leif Ericson did that, right?

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

All of my “finished” poems are abandoned when they reach the point where I’m pleased with them, and don’t see how I can help them any more. I admit, I love some more than others; but they’re all my kids. I want them all to do well in the world. If they need more help, and I think I can give it, I’ll gladly let them move back in with me for a while. Always, as with “The Wife of the Mind,” I’m glad to see them again.


  1. I caught a poem by Charles Harper Webb in River Styx, way back in grad school, and I've loved his work ever since.

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