Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Corrinne Clegg Hales

Corrinne Clegg Hales is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently To Make it Right, winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize for 2010 (Spring 2011, Autumn House Press). Her previous books are Seperate Escapes, winner of the Richard Snyder Poetry Prize (Ashland Poetry Press) and Underground (Ahsahta Press). She has also published two chapbooks: Out of This Place (March Street Press) and January Fire (Devil's Millhopper Press), and her poems have appeared in Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, Notre Dame Review and many other journals.  Awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Devil's Millhopper Chapbook Prize and the River Styx Poetry Prize. She currently teaches in the MFA Program at California State University, Fresno.


It is a matter of persuading them to pose,
which they fear doing
. . . .
—Pierre Trémaux, 1850s
Her bare feet flat
on stone pavement, she faces
the camera almost naked.
She must be very young,
no hips, no waist, breasts
barely budding on her chest.
This is probably Egypt,
the exhibit note says, and the girl
was brought here as a slave
from central Africa.
She is caught again
at this moment on salted paper
which will give her eternal life
in European galleries
and art books, and keep her
at this age—safe as she will ever be.
It’s a kind of seduction, really,
convincing the girl that she won’t be
hurt, that she might even like it,
and placing her body just how
he wants it, gently, even tenderly,
and then asking her to be
completely still. Don’t move.
This is how I want you
to stay forever. Please
don’t move a hair. I wonder
why she complies, what she’s
thinking, and I wonder what
the photographer wants me
to see in this girl. I think
of that other photo, a hundred years
later, of a girl about this age
running, screaming, her body
on fire, down a war-pitted road
halfway around the world,
and the four seconds of film
from another war, taken
of a young mother on Saipan
who looked at a camera mounted
on a rifle stock and believed
the photographer aimed to kill her,
or worse, and in fact, he catches her
running toward the cliff
and keeps filming as she throws
her two babies and then
her own panic-driven body
into the sea, and the camera
pans down to the corpse
of a child being battered
in the water and rocks
like dirty laundry. And my own
daughter’s slim body at eleven
or twelve, how we wanted
to believe her life
was on the verge of becoming
her own—but I’m looking now
at this African girl, dark hair
chopped into straight lines
framing her face. She stares
into the future, one hand splayed
against the ancient rock wall
behind her. She stiffens,
bracing herself for the long
exposure, and her shadow,
that deformed echo,
slides down the wall.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My husband and I went to the Getty Museum in 2001 to see an exhibit of early travel photography, and this poem began with a photograph I saw there. Pierre Trémaux was a French architect and early photographer who took many photographs, mostly of buildings, all over the world in the mid 19th century, but the pictures I found most compelling were those that he took of people--especially women. He took another more famous photograph of a kneeling woman also called "Young Nubian Woman," but the one I wrote about is a young girl standing against a wall. It’s also referred to as "Fille du Dar-four." At that time, of course, photography required an exposure of several minutes, during which the subject was obliged to remain completely motionless, and the exhibit note at the Getty contained a quote by Trémaux about his experience taking pictures of the people he encountered in his travels:

"Photographing [native] people represents great difficulties, because unlike
drawing, [photography] cannot be performed discretely. It is a matter of
persuading them to pose, which they fear doing . . . ."
I’d always been fascinated with the history of photography, and I’d recently been exploring the idea of the camera used as an implement of power--and this photograph, along with Trémaux’s comment, provoked some very complicated questions about class and cultural privilege and power.

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

Probably twenty or thirty revisions. I had trouble with it—and I tried to give up on it several times, but it just kept eating at me until I finished it. It probably took six months to write.

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

Well, I feel like "inspiration," at least for me, generally follows a lot of hard work. I wrote this poem during a period when I was obsessed with the uses of photography—reading a lot about it and looking at lots of examples. I was trying to write about what has become the art of photojournalism. I was particularly looking at war photography, and I was taking a lot of photos myself. I was trying to figure out in what ways the advent of photography might have altered our perception, might have expanded and/or limited our understanding of the world we live in. So you might say I was ready to encounter this photograph. I had done lots of pre-work. But the poem still took several months to write.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Well, I stayed too focused on the specific photo for a long time. I kept trying to make it all about that one girl. It wasn’t working, so I put it away and worked on other things for a while. One day, I was watching a documentary about the filmmakers who traveled with the troops during WWII. One of them told the story of watching women and children jump from the cliffs at Saipan while he was filming them, and the documentary included the actual clip. I knew instantly that belonged in this poem. And then the rest of it came pretty quickly—the strange connection with war photos seemed to be what it needed.

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

About a year. Arts & Letters published it in 2002.

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?

It varies. If I’m pretty sure about it, I will send it right out. But if I have qualms, I wait for a week or two. The older I get, the less interested I am in letting them "sit" for a while. They really don’t get better with age--and I just get older while I wait. So, I tend to do my best and trust it (which doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes revise after I’ve sent something out in the mail—or even after a poem’s been published).

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

Well, obviously I knew very little about the girl in the photo, so I imagine her situation. I really don’t worry too much about negotiating that line—in any poem. There actually is such a photo; I actually do have a daughter. I start with that, but I believe that the most complex and profound truths are usually arrived at when we allow our imaginations to interact with factual truths. I also believe that facts can lie. So—many of my poems are fictional at least in part. Poetry is not autobiography, not journalism, not textbook history. I understand poetry as an imaginative art, and at this point in my life, I value the power of the imagination as much--or more--than I value any set of facts.

Is this a narrative poem?

No. I’d say it’s more like a meditation or an observational poem.

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

I remember that I was reading a lot of Susan Sontag and Wright Morris and others on the art of photography, and I was immersing myself in depression era and WWII era photography. I don’t remember what poets I was reading at the time, but I’m sure Muriel Rukeyser was in my head.

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

No. I just hope for a curious reader who has an open mind and an open heart.

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?

Oh yes. I have a few trusted readers who usually read my drafts. One of my best readers is my husband John Hales who is a creative nonfiction writer and an excellent poetry reader. He will tell me when the thing isn’t ready yet—where the problems are.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I guess it’s less apparently personal than many of my poems. I do have a tendency to write a first-person situational poem that has the feel of memoir or personal disclosure. This one doesn’t really go there except for the brief mention of a daughter.

What is American about this poem?

I’m not sure, other than it was written by an American, but I do I believe that problems of cultural dominance and appropriation are questions that many American writers struggle with.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Oh I don’t know. I’d say it was finished, but even now I see little things I’d like to change.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

John Drury

John Drury is the author of The Refugee Camp, which Turning Point Books published in October 2011. His other poetry collections include The Disappearing Town and Burning the Aspern Papers, both from Miami University Press. He has also written Creating Poetry and The Poetry Dictionary, both from Writer’s Digest Books. His poems have appeared in Western Humanities Review, Antioch Review, Southern Review, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Paris Review, which awarded him the Bernard F. Conners Prize. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.


Each morning I trudge uphill
to the refugee camp where I work.
Aliens huddle by the vestibule
while officials brush past,
muttering a password
to the guard at a glassed-in booth
who buzzes them—and me—
through the heavy door.
Turned back, the refugees grumble and curse,
kick cinders in the parking lot.

Everyone says they carry knives,
hands jammed in pockets,
their faces half scraped, half stubble,
women left behind
in cramped flats or muddy villages.
They stare at our questionnaires
and leave too many blanks.
I learn Do you know nothing, sir?
and See you later, mister
in languages I will never begin to fathom.

In the graveyard where Dürer is buried,
the tombstones rise from the ground
like stone couches—positioned
so that boars couldn’t dig up the bodies.

Shuffling through dossiers, what
am I digging for? Border guards
mapping their barrackseasuring compounds
and barbed wire, naming each dog in the kennel?

Thinly disguised in mufti, I try
to act natural, always forgetting to air out
my herringbone suit. Our chief tells a courier
"He’s a good boy, but green."

I joined to learn German,
which I still haven’t mastered,
mumbling and sputtering
and smiling as I listen, as if I understood.

At the corner, an American tank clanks by,
jeeps blare and peel off
with a shriek of tires: an occupation
I’m part of, but don’t belong to.

One day we process
a Bulgarian. Another name
to enter in the green ledger:
"No knowledgability, not
a prospective source."
Later in the week, someone knifes him
to death in his dormitory bunk.
I walk through the high-ceilinged
hallway, almost choking
on a bucket’s disinfectant,
and pick up the dossier on his case.
It doesn’t touch me
in the least. I wonder
when I last cried, and remember:
when a bus I was on
didn’t stop, and I called out,
and two girls sitting by the exit
laughed at my accent,
and the cut of my jacket,
and the redness darkening my face.

On a holiday I walk uphill
toward the refugee camp, the Lager,
strolling by the garden plots alongside the path.
As I near the summit, three children
leap from their bikes
jeering lager! lager! lager! lager!
in machine gun bursts, dancing
around me in a circle
and chanting their insult:
I belong in the camp, among those who don’t belong.

I should tell them
there’s a music for the lost, a song
that cannot be stifled, celebrating those who are.
It sounds like jangling, scraping,
a hacksaw through metal. But still
it’s a song, and its dissonance is lovely.
It belies the second-hand clothing
and the stubbly beards and the stumbling.
Through the jeers, the noise of machinery, the silence,
an anthem makes itself heard.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

During my last semester in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in Spring 1980, I submitted a one-page poem called "Nuremberg" for discussion. It was heavy on culture, beginning with "I first saw Wagner’s opera / when I lived there" and ending with a reference to the sculptor Adam Kraft. I was a teaching fellow, and my office was located near the shelves where worksheets were placed for distribution. I remember hearing two of my fellow poets, whose voices I could recognize, picking up their copies and browsing through the drafts. One of them, Maria Flook, noticed the title of my poem and grumbled, "Just like him to write about something important!" Her companion, who apparently knew my office was around the corner, tried to shush her, but she was always forthright in expressing her opinions, and I’m glad she was, because it turned out to be especially useful criticism for me to hear. I realized that I wasn’t talking about why I was living in Nuremberg and that I needed to establish my credentials so I didn’t come off as a cultural tourist. I had spent a year and a half in Zirndorf, a suburb of Nuremberg, living in the attic of a rooming house and working undercover in an American liaison office of the West German Refugee Center, but at this point the poem had nothing to do with my personal life as a low-level spy for Military Intelligence. Thanks to Maria’s overheard comment, I realized that I had to write about the refugees and my relationship to them. But I still wanted to write about the city, where I spent a lot of my free time, as well as its medieval walls and towers, half-timbered houses, churches, museums, brothels, concert halls, shops, restaurants, and history. I didn’t want to dump the reference to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; I actually wanted to spend more time spinning out variations on that musical theme, which I took personally, since it was about a guild of poets. I needed more room beyond a single page, so gradually (since it takes time for me to absorb criticism) I started thinking about expanding the poem into a sequence. I put "Nuremberg" at the end of my MA thesis with the idea that it would suggest the direction in which I might be heading.

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

It would be hard to count the number of revisions, since I soon started adding sections and shuffling the order and didn’t finish the sequence until almost twenty-five years later. So I was generating and revising individual pieces and also moving them around, sort of like a film editor splicing snippets into a montage. I made lists of things I wanted to write about, but sections cropped up willy-nilly, not according to any plan other than a desire to include as much as I could, to be maximal rather than minimal.

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

Yes, I like being ambushed by memory and imagination, and I do what I can to be vulnerable to those surprise attacks. But I also did a good deal of research. I read several books about the history of Nuremberg, and those sources are listed in the book’s extensive section of notes. I kept a journal while I was living in Zirndorf from December 1971 through May 1973, but there were way too many gaps that I needed to fill. Some of the things I remembered most vividly I did not record in my journal. After graduation, I didn’t have a job, so in September I jumped at an opportunity to teach at University of Maryland campuses on military bases in Europe. On a weekend while I was teaching at Ramstein Air Force Base in Kaiserslautern, I made a trip to Nuremberg so I could take notes and revisit the refugee camp in Zirndorf. Several years later, after my first year of teaching at the University of Cincinnati, I received a Taft Travel Grant and returned to the city. I heard that one member of the selection committee was skeptical about my project, saying "It sounds like he wants a grant so he can stroll around!" And that’s exactly what I wanted—and what poetic research often entails—a chance to make observations and see what emerges. Of course, I also did some fact-checking, but some of my questions were admittedly peculiar. I remember going up to an "Information" desk and asking, in German, "Are there swans in the area?" In a draft of one section, I had used an image of swans gliding on a lake near the Nazi Party’s rally grounds, but I wasn’t sure they could be found there. The clerk gave me an astonished look and said, "Living?"

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

After my trip to Nuremberg in November 1980, I started adding sections, jotting down some on the pages of pocket notebooks, some on lined yellow paper, one on a napkin from Dunkin’ Donuts, and others in the margins of typed drafts, letting the material accumulate. My practice has always been to compose poems in longhand and then type them up. As for technique, I was "playing it by ear." I wanted to make the facts lyrical.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

My working method was like constructing a jigsaw puzzle the wrong way—cutting odd-shaped pieces and struggling to make them fit into a coherent whole—and then making new pieces that required an even bigger whole. It was also analogous to the method of sewing together a patchwork quilt, which involves selecting the right scraps, for variety’s sake and harmony, in the first place.

The excerpts here all concern refugees, and I’d like to talk about how I drafted and revised those passages in particular. Section 2 began as penned additions to a typed copy of "Nuremberg." I wrote a line establishing what I was doing there ("I worked in the refugee camp in a suburb") and added lines about how "Aliens huddled outside." I numbered each of the two sections I had in progress. At that point, I had written about ten lines of the new section, but it’s hard to tell exactly how many, because it was all messy, with slash marks inserted where breaks should go. Later I added the italicized translations of phrases I had learned in Hungarian and Polish. Section 37 began on a lined sheet where I was working on the bagpipe section (which became number 10). I skipped down a couple of lines and started writing about Albrecht Dürer’s tombstone. I don’t know if I meant it as a continuation or a jump, but the material that went into different sections often came up in adjacent bursts, fragments I had to sift through and separate. Originally, section 37 was simply an unbroken block of lines. I typed up the first nine and dropped the rest. Then I added new lines in pen, along with an arrow and a bracket to show where different parts should go. On the same sheet, there’s also an x-ed out passage that I deleted and a circled passage with the note, "New section?" Originally, section 40 began with a passage about cutting myself shaving: "Dabs of a styptic pencil on my chin / are all I can show / for grief." But after eight rhetorical, overblown lines, I came up with the simple, direct "One day a Bulgarian / was processed through our office." Section 48 combined two separate sections, one beginning "On a holiday, on a whim, / I trudged uphill to the center" and the other beginning "There’s a song / that cannot be smothered."

I should mention that I also jettisoned a number of possible sections, such as one about crumpling newspapers in a fireplace back in the States while thinking about Wagner’s opera, and I rejected a lot of passages that contained extraneous details or windy philosophizing. Before I figured out where new sections belonged, I labeled them "*" or "#." The construction was modular and the overall arrangement improvised, based on contrasts and a sense of the flow.

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

Carolyn Forché accepted a thirty-part version of the sequence for an American Writers Abroad issue of Open Places that she guest-edited in Winter 1986/87. The magazine is now defunct, but it came out of Stephens College in Missouri and was edited by Eleanor Bender. I should mention that Leslie Adrienne Miller was the reader who liked "The Refugee Camp" enough to send it on to the guest editor. As it turned out, the sequence wasn’t finished, and I went on to add eighteen more sections. My first impulse was to write a companion sequence of prose poems, called "The Golden Funnel," but eventually I realized that it would seem anticlimactic to give the reader another sequence on the same subject. I had to integrate all of the sections, both verse and prose. A merger was required. That actually upset the main formal principle of the free-verse: each section contained twenty lines that were arranged in couplets, quatrains, five-line stanzas, ten-line stanzas, or a twenty-line block. I’m obsessive-compulsive, so I made sure that the sequence contained an equal number of sections in the different stanzaic arrangements. Adding an equal number of prose poems didn’t really disrupt the numerological scheme. If anything, I figured that prose poems would emphasize the variety. In the finished sequence, I made sure that no adjacent sections were in the same "form." I did break up some of the original prose poems into verse, but I can no longer tell which ones, so I guess the transformations were successful. There is, in fact, a little bit of meter and rhyme in the sequence. One of the sections I count as "prose" actually mixes in some verse (as in several poems by Yehuda Amichai), and those stanzas are in song form, with each fourth line serving as a refrain. The section (number 6) was originally published as "Interrupted Song." A number of the other prose sections also appeared in periodicals under individual titles. The most recent section, number 36 (which begins "Note how a man walks carefully"), came to me originally as an entirely separate poem, but I saw how it fit in with the rest, so I cut it down to twenty lines and found a place for it. The sequence reached more or less its final form in about 2004, when Richard Howard chose it for the Paris Review Prize and it was supposed to be published, along with a long-lined coda called "Crossing the Border," by Zoo Press.

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 get so excited that I send new poems out almost immediately. I don’t like letting them sit. That’s obviously going to be premature in many cases, but I feel it’s also part of my long-term revision process. When poems come back, I take a hard look. Sometimes I’ll send them right back out again, but many times I put them back in the shop and pull them apart. Rejection might as well be helpful instead of merely hurtful.

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

The sequence is based on personal stories that are mostly true. The facts about the city of Nuremberg, the town of Zirndorf, the West German Refugee Center, and the music drama of Wagner are accurate, but I do give myself a lot of leeway and liberty. Some of the poems are dream sequences (sections 29, 31, and 36), many elaborate on Nuremberg history (such as section 10, which is about the story behind the statue of a bagpiper), one is an imagined interrogation in which a refugee does most of the talking (section 16), and some are out of proper time sequence. The episode in the last section, for example, actually happened when I returned to Zirndorf in 1980 to conduct some research. It seemed like the perfect way to end the sequence, so I felt justified in including it, even though the actual experience occurred beyond the time-frame of my work at the refugee camp. My journal notes, however, differ from what I finally used:

2 boys rode directly at me on their bikes, making machine gun noises &
taunting me "Lager! Lager! Lager!" as if I lived in the refugee camp.

The "2 boys" became "three children" because I wanted more of a gang circling me but also wanted to emphasize how young they were, how some might be boys and some girls. I originally had three "Lagers" but it sounded wrong, not enough like machine-gun fire, so on a later draft I penned in an extra "Lager." I was actually thinking of how, in "I Can See for Miles," the Who sing an extra "miles and" before the end, one more repetition than the listener would expect. I thought it would sound better for a song whose "dissonance is lovely."

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, it’s a fractured narrative.

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

At Iowa, in a seminar on long poems, we had read W.D. Snodgrass’s "Heart’s Needle" and I was thinking about how Snodgrass put personal matters in a historical context, his divorce against the backdrop of the Korean War. I admired how he gave each section its own stanzaic form, and although I didn’t emulate his use of meter and rhyme, I did make a point of varying the free-verse stanzas in the sections of my sequence. I was thinking of Robert Lowell’s sequences too, from "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "Life Studies" to History and The Dolphin. I was also conscious of Yehuda Amichai’s blending of the personal and the public. The first draft of section 40 (which then, in a much shorter sequence, was number 10) originally had an epigraph by Amichai: "When did I last weep?" from his poem "To Summon Witnesses." In the sequence itself, I mention Pound’s Cantos, and I was thinking of that mixed bag as well, partly as a cautionary tale so I didn’t strain to make it too "important."

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

Each poem feels like a message in a bottle that may, with luck, find a sympathetic reader. I’m curious about other people’s experiences myself, so I try to do what I can to make what I’m saying, observing, and recounting interesting and compelling.

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 the germ of the sequence appeared on the worksheet at Iowa, my classmates gave me some helpful suggestions. A couple of my fellow poets thought the poem should "start later," but they disagreed about where to begin. I deleted some of the opening material, moved some down, and put the thirteenth line at the top. But then I inserted two new lines above that as a kind of establishing shot, "In the ruined city / of toymakers and singing guilds," and continued, "they were so fanatical…" Some people wanted me to "compress this catalogue," but I went the other way and expanded the poem.

I have belonged to several poetry groups through the years, but it seemed like too much material to foist on my friends for one of our get-togethers, and I didn’t want to break up the developing sequence into fragments when I had other new drafts to share, so I worked pretty much in private. Later on, when I was writing a poem that eventually became the final piece of the proverbial puzzle and fit into place as section 36, my friend Pat Mora helped me cut it down to the 20-line standard.

As I look through a spiral notebook in which I kept a record of my submissions, I notice that soon after my graduation from Iowa I sent the one-page poem, "Nuremberg," to Richard Howard, who was then editing Shenandoah. He rejected it, although he did accept a poem called "Publication of the Bride Sheets" at the same time. Several years later, I sent him a twenty-page version for Shenandoah, and his rejection letter gave me the best advice I ever received about the sequence:

Of course it is not magazine verse at all, and can only be dealt with as a
whole, not pieced apart and published in fragments. And it gets better as it
goes on, much better—the first half, really, is too direct, too immediate, and
offers too little resistance (poetically, even prosodically) to the intensity of
your message. The second half seems more varied and "right" in its verbal cast, but the total effect is a little like the sound of one hand beating the shit out of the reader. Can’t you vary the pieces a little more, so that some might be
seen as lyrical and celebratory, thereby casting the others into an even
stronger mode? As it is, the achievement of each section is too much like that of each other section, in its intention, in its meaning. Perhaps the ironies are too heavily underlined, and perhaps, too, one needs a stronger sense of the
place—its geography, geology, some of which you brush by far too readily—it
seems to me there’s lots more in here than you have "extracted," but of course it is very impressive too: I should like to see what will become of it if you brood over it more…
I did brood over it more, and tried to vary the sections more, and allowed myself to be more celebratory. Richard Howard’s comments made me more dissatisfied with the poem and yet more encouraged too. When I finally started submitting the completed book manuscript to contests, he was the judge who chose it. But the press went out of business in a fiasco that was the subject of a Poets & Writers article, "The Collapse of Neil Azevedo’s Zoo," so I had to start submitting it all over again, and it took several years for it to get accepted a second time.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s much longer, of course, but the main difference is that I kept on adding to it even after it was published in a magazine.

What is American about this poem?

It’s the Henry James theme of the American ingénue in Europe. And I was reading James while I was living there, so the influence is conscious.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was released, like a motion picture. The sequence is now entirely on its own, but the material still has a claim on me, and I’m currently revising a memoir, The Bad Soldier, that explores those experiences in narrative prose that it is not so fractured.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Ka-Ching! (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.


When I was twenty, I kissed a man
much older than I was. My drunk hand found
a strange indent and lump of flesh
on the back of his waist, an extra little potbelly.
I quickly moved my fingers away and grabbed
onto his shoulder instead. After the kiss,
the man immediately told me he was married. For years
my memory had it that I slapped him and left the party,
a friend's cramped Beacon Hill apartment.
But now I think what happened
is that he began to cry, just slightly, so that at first
I thought his wet eyes had something to do with an allergy.
Then he said he really loved his wife and needed
air. We took baby steps, holding hands,
through the slippery cobblestone streets,
snow settling on my eyelashes, in his beard.
We slipped into a diner where our coats and scarves
dripped puddles onto the floor.
He told me a long story about married life--
her chemotherapy, how he'd just lost his job.
I sobered up and looked at my plate of pale scrambled eggs,
what I imagined cancer looked like,
what I imagined fat looked like under the skin.
I poked my fork around, curious
to see that spare tire, that love handle of his.
He kept blowing his nose, his cheeks fat and pink
like the soles of a newborn's feet.
The rest of him looked lean in his wooly sweater,
then he seemed to shrink even smaller
as he put back on his oversized overcoat to walk me home.
I felt rejected when he left me at my door
and disappeared into a flurry, thanking me for listening.
The story I told my friends who were at the party
was that OK, he was kind of cute, but I was
no home-wrecker. The story I told myself
was that I'd have never done anything like that--
his wife had cancer for god's sake.
Now that I look back, the man was probably only
in his late thirties, about the age I am now.
He had no money so I wound up covering our diner check,
emptying the last of my change on the table for too small a tip.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem in 1998 and, if I remember correctly, the genesis of it was started in free writing, something I’m very fond of doing.

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

I don’t save all my drafts, though I know I should. I remember at some point the poem was longer and more talky and embellished. At one point it may have even been a prose poem. Maybe this poem developed over a couple of months.

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 and the muse. But I also believe you have to meet her halfway, show up everyday whether she shows up or not. As a writer, you (I mean, I suppose, I) have to be there to receive her whims. I write a lot of pages that never wind up in poems. When I reread my free writing, often a draft of a poem is there proceeded and followed by gibberish or cliché or nonsense. Then I excavate the draft and begin revising. I don’t believe in sweat and tears associated with writing because I love writing so much. I think of it as high-octane play and fun.

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

The poem arrived with some line breaks—but with a lot of chat that had to go. I tried the poem in prose, but I thought the first line played well against the title, reversing the title if you will, so I settled on lines. Other than that I didn’t try anything too clever with the line breaks…I think at some point I had "We slipped" moved up to end line sixteen to get in sin and sex and innuendo, but then thought better of it. Instead I phrased the lines by breath and hesitation. I wasn’t writing very much formal poetry at the time, but there are internal rhymes throughout.

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

About two to three years. I just checked my notes and it was rejected four times before it was accepted to Harvard Review.

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 usually like to wait a couple of months between when I think a poem is finished before I send it out. Sometimes there is something glaringly wrong or embarrassing in a poem that I don’t catch in the flurry and joy of writing it.

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

This poem is about memory and faulty memory and the stories we tell ourselves until we can face our truths.

Is this a narrative poem?


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

In 1998 I was probably constantly reading Ai and Sharon Olds.

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

Yes, a friend of mine. We don’t share our poems anymore, but we did for years and I always think of her after I write a poem and imagine her reading 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?

Yes, I would have shown this poem to my friend at the time. We used to let each other read all our poems before sending them out in the world. We didn’t really even critique so much as to affirm to each other that we’d written what we’d written.

What is American about this poem?

The setting, the diner, the disclosure.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I say finished.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stuart Dischell

Stuart Dischell is the author of four books of poetry: Backwards Days (Penguin, 2007), Dig Safe (Penguin, 2003), Evenings & Avenues (Penguin, 1996), and Good Hope Road, a National Poetry Series Selection (Viking, 1993). His poems have appeared widely in periodicals, including The Atlantic, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Slate and in anthologies such as Hammer and Blaze, The Pushcart Prize: the Best of the Small Presses, Good Poems, and Essential Pleasures. He has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the North Carolina Arts Council. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro


When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me, friend
To waiters and bartenders, hearty
Laugher and name rememberer,
Proud me, handsome and hirsute
In soccer shoes and shorts
On the ball fields behind MIT,
Strong me in a weightbelt at the gym,
Mutual sweat dripper in and out
Of the sauna, furtive observer
Of the coeducated and scantily clad,
Speedy me, cyclist of rivers,
Goose and peregrine falcon
Counter, all season venturer,
Chatterer-up of corner cops,
Groundskeepers, mothers with strollers,
Outwitter of panhandlers and bill
Collectors, avoider of levies, excises,
Me in a taxi in the rain,
Pressing my luck all the way home.

That's me at the dice table, baby,
Betting come, little Joe, and yo,
Blowing the coals, laying thunder,
My foot on top a fifty dollar chip
Some drunk spilled on the floor,
Dishonest me, evener of scores,
Eager accepter of the extra change,
Hotel towel pilferer, coffee spoon
Lifter, fervent retailer of others'
Humor, blackhearted gossiper,
Poisoner at the well, dweller
In unsavory detail, delighted sayer
Of the vulgar, off course belier
Of the true me, empiric builder
Newly haircutted, stickerer-up
For pals, jam unpriser, medic
To the self-inflicted, attorney
To the self-indicted, petty accountant
And keeper of the double books,
Great divider of the universe
And all its forms of existence
Into its relationship to me,
Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

"Days of Me" was written in 1996. It was provoked by a telephone interchange with David Rivard several years, after I moved from Boston to Greensboro. David had said, "We miss you here" and I responded "I miss me too." Some months later, that banter came back to me, so I began a draft with it, and I was lucky and the poem just took off from there.

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

This one did not go through many revisions. When I wrote it, I wrote it all the way through to the ending. I remember encouraging myself not to stop. The revisions were minimal: punctuation, syntax.

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

You prepare yourself by "laboring" as Yeats remarked. When you labor well, you are in good shape for when a poem comes to you. If you are out of shape and have not done your laboring, you can easily lose the poem.

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

The poem is comprised of forty-eight lines. The first stanza is twenty-three and the second twenty-five. I stuck with the line length as I had originally composed it.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

I was still working on a typewriter and I remember having to use a second sheet of paper.

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

It appeared about a year later in Slate on November 6, 1997.

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?

It depends on the poem. Ideally, it sits until its characteristics become more evident. Sometimes, though, I just have to get the poem out of the house for awhile.

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

I might get in too much trouble in regard to this one.

Is this a narrative poem?

Nope. A lyric. Its movement in large part is incremental.

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

Nicanor Parra.

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

Sometimes it’s someone I am in love with. Other times it’s Donald Justice and Jon Anderson, my dead teachers.

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?

Steven Cramer, Stephen Dobyns, Marie Howe, Thomas Lux, Robert Pinsky, Tony Hoagland, David Rivard, Alan Shapiro, and Tom Sleigh have suffered through my drafts over the years. I’m not sure which ones saw "Days of Me" in manuscript.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it does.

What is American about this poem?

Its details and use of enumeration.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sarah Arvio

Sarah Arvio, a poet and translator, has lived in Mexico, Paris, Caracas, Rome and New York. Her first two books, Sono: cantos and Visits from the Seventh (Knopf 2002 and 2006), won her the Rome Prize of the American Academy of Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. A third book, Night Thoughts: 70 dream poems & notes from an analysis, is forthcoming from Knopf in January 2013. Poems have been published in The New York Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and many other journals; several have been set to music. New works include translations of poems by Antonella Anedda in Chicago Review’s special Italian issue and in the forthcoming FSG Book of 20th Century Italian Poetry. For many years a translator for the United Nations in New York and Switzerland, she has also recently taught poetry at Princeton.


I am very nervous in myself I
was always nervous as an animal
angling for its home and then homing in

toward a home but never finding it I
was that sort of lost animal although
animals are rarely lost we are lost

as they are not we are the burrowers
in our own dark mud when oh the light and
so on not to be dark or obtuse when

the light is wonderful this wonder that
we should be so dark and lost and the world
was designed to be a home for us or

were we merely its bad accident oh
this we came to its great beauty to mar
and obscure or this we came randomly

without meaning or message brought along
by hunger viciousness oh the beauty
that we never saw or that the vicious

never saw but speaking of myself I
tried to live in beauty but found it hard
even harrowing we are made to drive

at joy but not to strike and when we strike
we miss I am nervous as I said I
wanted all I struck at it and didn’t

hit or battered wildly and got a hit
only enough to make me hit again
lost hunter sad animal homing so

Author Statement:

I swear by inspiration, and my poems have often come to me in a breath. "Animal" was both "received" and the result of tears—but not sweat. I wrote it in a moment of pain and anger, suddenly, around midnight one night, in about ten minutes.

After the first sweep of writing, I wrote some notes in the margin and then changed the lines as follows:

tried to live beautifully but found it hard [change "beautifully" to "in beauty"]

hit or battered wildly and got a strike [change "strike" to "hit"]
only enough to make me strike again [change "strike" to "hit"]
lost hunter sad animal stricken soul [change "stricken to "homing"]

About two weeks later I typed the poem again, changing

was so designed to be a home for us or
were we merely its bad accident oh


was designed to be a home for us or
were we merely its bad accident oh

Then it was done.

I feel that I run a risk by confessing that I write poems this way: someone might answer: well, you should have tried harder. For years I worked on poems endlessly, the same ones over and over. The Lowell/Bishop mode was an ideal—sensible, classical. But my labored-over poems did not come to life. One day I heard some words and began writing fast as though I were taking dictation: there was a poem. Since then, I’ve worked this way, concentrated on not trying.

Sometimes I’ve been too rushed to pick up a pen when I’ve heard lines on their way, and regretted the loss endlessly afterward.

Sometimes months or even years go by and I’ve written nothing. Then I’ll have a splurge. Or sometimes I try and try anyway, and nothing comes of it.

Like most of my poems, "Animal" is written in ten-syllable lines. Long ago, I taught myself to hear lines of ten, avoiding the regular beat of pentameter—and my poems fall into that shape—a sound shape. I’ve noticed that the stress often falls on the first and last syllables of the line. And sometimes the stress seems to be caused by the line break, as in "its bad accident oh."

"Animal" was part of a splurge of poems I wrote in the winter of ‘08, among them "Small War," "Shrew," "Gosling," "Rat Idyll," "Neck" and "Sage."

I’ve shared my poems over the years with friends who are poets; these I showed only to editors. I sent them out right away, and two were taken for publication. Several months later, I saw a notice about the Boston Review annual poetry contest, which was offering $1500. I had never before entered such a contest but—short on cash—I decided to try it. I sent five poems; they were published later that year.

The judge, John Koethe, wrote a short introduction. In it, he said my poems are not autobiographical. This delighted and liberated me but isn’t true: every word I write is autobiographical, meaning that the feelings, images, stories and words come from my own experience—which includes what I know of the culture.

Writing "Animal," I was upset about the complicated destructiveness of people; I was wondering how we could be so different from the animals, so different from the marvelous natural world. But this is a sort of Rilkean myth: the real truth is that animals are as vicious and warlike and desperate as humans and we have no way of knowing how complex their thoughts are; we don’t know what they think or do not think as they run up a tree or lope across a field—despite scientific efforts to determine that.

But one thing is true: animals live in harmony with the environment, generally not destroying it, whereas most extant human cultures are wreaking havoc on the natural world, the habitat of animals. The poem is about longing for a home and wrecking our home.

I think I mean this both environmentally and psychologically: how many of us have self-destructive and life-destructive tendencies, wrecking the comforts of the home of the self and the comforts of the home. What drives us? Hunger, viciousness? I notice I didn’t say "desire": and yet, hunger is a kind of desire.

I’m baffled by the difficult complexity of the mind—or the soul—not sure what to call this—as a condition of life.

Evoking the beauty of the world, I lament that living here, in the world, and in beauty, has been hard. Then the poem turns away from beauty toward joy—which are equivalents, beauty in the seen world being what joy is in the world of the heart.

And then I return to that sense of myself as a lost sad animal searching for a home—though of course I have already negated that animals are lost. So that seems to be the circle or paradox of the poem.

I want people to read my poems—people who are readers, even people who are not necessarily readers of poetry— to read them and feel moved. Since I want to feel moved when I read a poem, this is what I hope for in my readers: a kind of inner shapeshifting.

Yes, American—this poem and "Wood" may be the most American poems I’ve written. American in that they make no allusions or references to other cultures—except that the language carries references—words carry their origins.

I came to live in Maryland not long before I wrote "Animal," after many years in New York and Europe. I’m near the creeks of the Chesapeake, and surrounded by woods and fields and animals: just yesterday I saw a red-tailed fox crossing a field.

The poem is not written in American plain speech. Despite the spoken-word spontaneity, there are many Latinate words—animal, nervous, design, obtuse, randomly, viciousness, beauty, message—suggesting that the poem is conceptual—as well as being concretely heartbroken.
Animal is from anima, meaning breath, soul. The poem is about that. It is about me—my breath—my presence as an animal on this earth.

It strikes me that the poem is breathless, barely giving you a pause to take a breath.
The poem might be called a lament—with lyrical and narrative elements. Music and talking or telling. Talking in a musical way? A lament is also a monologue.

The narrative is spare, a few remarks about my sense of my self in the world. I am nervous and looking for a home; I am a lost animal; animals are not lost, we are lost. The world is wonderful, why do we destroy it, what drives us to destroy it? I tried to live in beauty and joy but found it hard; I am a lost animal looking for a home.

Since it is so spare, the emphasis falls on the lyrical aspects.
I’m analyzing my poem as though I were a newcomer to it; these are not thoughts I have as I write.

How does this poem differ from others of mine?

It feels rougher and more abandoned—in the sense of uninhibited. I may be using this word because I glimpse the word "abandoned," with its other and wholly different meaning, in the next question.

I do abandon poems, but those are usually not the ones I publish. Every now and then I come across an abandoned poem in my files and rescue it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leslie Harrison

Leslie Harrison's first book, Displacement, won the Bakeless Prize in poetry in 2008 and was published in 2009 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a 2011 recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the Roth Resident in Poetry at Bucknell University in 2010. She has poems published recently or forthcoming from West Branch, Memorious, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, FIELD, Antioch Review and elsewhere. She lives in a tiny house in a tiny town in rural western Massachusetts.


Their friends looked shocked—said not
, said how sad. The trees carried on
with their treeish lives—stately except when
they shed their silly dandruff of birds. And
the ocean did what oceans mostly do—
suspended almost everything, dropped one
small ship, or two. The day beauty divorced
meaning, someone picked a flower, a fight,
a flight. Someone got on a boat.
A closet lost its suitcases. Someone
was snowed in, someone else on. The sun
went down and all it was, was night.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My notes say I started this poem in 2004. I began drafting it while living in Irvine, CA. Most of my poems seem to start in some strange matrix of interests and obsessions, and this one was no different.

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

Though poems often start with an idea or a few lines scrawled in a journal, I move them pretty quickly to the computer. I'm a much faster typist than I am when I'm writing by hand, and some poems come very quickly. Even on the keyboard I struggle to get it all down before it fades away. My pattern, once it is on the computer, is to write until I stall, then re-read, and then want to change something. I select all, copy, and paste above the (now) previous version, make the change and go on from there. This happens sometimes dozens of times in the space of a single working session.

I work on it like that until it feels like I have something. Then I'll let it sit, and come back to the document a number of times until the poem on the page comes as close as I can get it.

I workshopped this poem at Irvine, but it seemed mostly done at that point, with four revisions in the file. I remember one more round of revision before I sent it out for publication, so probably a year or so elapsed between the first "public" draft and the "finished" poem.

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. I have had the experience of sitting down at the computer and walking away some time later and not knowing how much time has elapsed or even where/when I was. And then I read what I wrote and it seems like it didn't even come from me, like I'm reading something someone else wrote, something I don't even understand. My friends and I have joked for years that when I write something in this kind of thrall, I usually have to flee the scene—literally leave the room (and sometimes the house) because this process, this happening, is both magical and frightening.

This poem began in that kind of moment—I looked back at the original file and the bones of the published poem are there from the very first draft on the computer.

But always both before and beyond the inspiration is the craft, the practice. And I did revise, as I do most of the poems I write.

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

During the revision process, I remember thinking that it seemed to want to be a sonnet, and trying to inch it in that direction. I also remember that there were a ton of slant and straight rhymes, and wanting to make them fall at the ends of lines and in regular (sort of) patterns. But in the end, I had the courage to let the poem be what it wanted to be—something not quite anything other than itself. When Eavan Boland wrote the preface to Displacement, I was shocked that she saw the old sonnet bones in the poem. Delighted, but weirdly discomfited, as if I'd been caught in revealing clothing in public.

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

This poem was part of a packet I sent to POOL. It is memorable because it was one of the very rare instances in which the first journal to get the poem accepted it. It appeared in 2006, so I would say at most a few months elapsed between when it was finished and when it was accepted.
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 no rules. Some poems I'm more sure of than others—more sure they've reached their final form, more sure that an editor might look kindly upon them, more sure they might survive on their own in the vasty world. These get sent out whenever I get a submission together. Other poems I've never sent out, or have waited years to send.

Which is not to say anything leaps from the laptop to the submission pile. I am, maybe, the world's worst submitter. On average, I manage one or two submissions a year, and some years, not a single poem goes out the door. When you understand that most submissions end in failure, in disappointment, you begin to develop an aversion reaction to actually doing submissions. And when you regularly work 2-5 jobs, the precious poetry time is more often taken up with writing itself rather than with the business of writing.

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

This poem seems to work the way a lot of my poems do—as a kind of fiction masquerading as fact. Fiction dressed up as fact for the costume ball with its sequined mask and slinky dress, so it can sneak in the door and dance with all the true things poems always wants to dance with. But isn't this what metaphor is, in a way, fiction masquerading as fact seducing truth?

Is this a narrative poem?

I guess if you mean does it tell a "real world" story in some kind of order then, umm, nope. I'm never sure what is meant by "narrative" though, and I think all my poems are narrative, and in this case, the book as a whole is also a narrative. It has always been my hope that one of the things poetry does well is find new ways of arriving at and traveling through narrative. I love poems that pretend they are not narratives and when you get to the end you realize you have, in fact, been told a story.

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

Oh, this is going to be a long answer. I think I said earlier that poems often form in a mash-up of whatever the current obsessions are. I know I was reading Heidegger, specifically his Poetry, Language, Thought, which talks a lot about beauty and truth. And I was also reading a copy of the journal Gulf Coast, in which, in an essay, someone linked the ideas of beauty and meaning. Usually we see beauty and truth together, courtesy of both Keats and Heidegger, but I remember thinking, "huh," about the pairing of beauty and meaning. That pairing interested me a lot.

This is what I loved best about grad school. People would constantly recommend reading, and I had the time and the access to a great library, so I would get and read pretty much whatever anyone suggested. I'd be reading several books at once, and so much swirls round in the foggy nebula when that happens. I think I was also reading some theory book about representation that Jim McMichael recommended, probably either The Nature of Representation, or maybe Rural Scenes and National Representation.

How those pieces accumulated or are present in the poem is a trickier question. I think I wanted to write some theoretical or at least thoughtful philosophical poem about beauty and meaning, and, well, this poem happened.

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

In the past I would have said I write for the absent beloved, and he was my ideal reader—generous and inclined to warmly receive, but with mad skills of his own, so able to point out flaws and areas of concern. But there is no longer any such person (that was another country/ and besides...). Now I think I write poems as little messages folded into boat-like shapes, tossed off sinking ships meant to come as treasure and comfort to distant shores. Now my poems are tiny ambassadors, love letters in the sense of Frost's lover's quarrel with the world. And it is into the world I send them, but not, I think, for the world I write them.

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 used to be a group of people with whom I shared work, and in this case, it was shared with my workshop at Irvine, as well as a couple of other trusted readers, but lately I do not share poems in that way. It seems that if, as I did, you go through a creative writing program, you are taught to write your first book. We have mentors, and classmates and friends and we are all learning and reading at a furious rate and we are all being taught because we don't know much. We learn a little bit about the tiny engines that are poems, and we begin to write poems. But after the first book, for me, it has felt like I had to start all over again and teach myself how to write, which is to say I had to teach myself how to write my poems. And that is something you can get a little help with, but mostly you're on your own.

I still count on friends and mentors to talk about poetry and recommend books, and when they do see a draft and have input, I find it useful, but that is more rare now, as it feels like I'm on my own path and most of my friends are on their own journeys too. My pattern for the last couple of years is to put a draft up on my blog, which is by invitation only, and leave it up for a day or so. I think that serves one of the key functions of trusted readers—it moves the poem somehow from its interior space of creation a little into the public and that adds just enough distance to let me see it a bit more clinically and clearly.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There is something gently tongue-in-cheek about this poem, which is highly unusual for me. By which I mean I was writing this poem after a real-world divorce, and the opening lines of the poem come directly from that experience. I've always found this poem hilarious because of that little private joke. I don't think I've done anything similar before or since.

What is American about this poem?

Well, everything I suppose. I've lived abroad a couple of times, but I have mostly lived here, and my education is/was here and the contemporary poetry I read is predominantly American, so it seems very American to me. But that is not to say it is only American. I hope.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Until it isn't.

I have this fantasy of someday taking a bunch of old poems from a bunch of previous books (that is my favorite part, the part where I have a bunch of previous books), and rewriting them all for a "new" book. I also have this fantasy of finding one poem and rewriting and including it in all subsequent books. I love the idea of poems evolving as the craft evolves, as I get better at it, as my preoccupations change—poems as mutable objects.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass's poetry includes The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press) which was named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002) which won the Lambda Literary Award. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973). Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Progressive, The Kenyon Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are a Pushcart Prize, the Elliston Book Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, the Larry Levis Prize from The Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. Her nonfiction books include Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies (HarperCollins, 1996), I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1983) and The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008). She teaches in the low-residency MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.

With heavy brains balanced
on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming
from the violent birth of the universe.

Deeply imperfect species, soaring
into the noon sky like a silver god, bursting
the four-chambered hearts, the humble intestines,
of people we've never shared a cup of tea with, breath
of steam rising between us.

Wondrous species riddled with greed,
steeped in cruelty, still stitching
one life to another with bone needle.
After all these voyages around the sun
we continue to lie down together, swim

in the small oceans of each other's irises,
mothers drunk on the fragrance
of one damp scalp. Strangers break down
the doors of fiery buildings for each other,
siphon blood from their own swollen veins.

Meanwhile, flounder genes have been slipped
into strawberries to keep them from freezing,
a bit of jellyfish glows in rabbits in the dark.
Now we are poised to alter our children.
First, to cure.

Then a fine glass needle to inject
a helix of intelligence. A purified sequence
of perfect pitch. Double-stranded necklace
of permanent beauty. Or maybe just
eliminate sadness.

You get the embryo out
where you can work on it,
make some copies,
tease apart the cells, flick a gene
on or off like a light switch,
pack it all up into an emptied-out egg case.

Life stretches back in a single
history for three and a half billion years,
and change has been glacial.
Hubris, an individual sin, a king's downfall.
Death wiped up the stage after each tragedy.

My heart breaks—can I say this?
Am I an archaic cliché to be broken
open with grief? Who will mourn
Homo sapiens? I can hardly
comprehend the loss of animals I've never seen—

silver trout, leopard frog, Pyrenean ibex—
each flame extinguished darkening the earth.
Now this terribly human species—did we ever imagine?
Can you bear it? Doesn't it
make you crazy? Doesn't it?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My partner, Janet, who is an entomologist, came home from work one day and said, "I have one for you." And she told me what she'd heard in the hall, which is the title of the poem.

I was about to go to Maui to teach a writing workshop and I decided to concentrate on the poem there. It was strange to be in such a beautiful place and holed up in my room researching genetic engineering, but I was obsessed.

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

Many revisions, but over a very short time. The bulk of the work was done intensely in that first week.

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 and am grateful for it whenever it comes. This poem was absolutely received. I never would have written it without that young woman making her bold comment and Janet bringing it home to me. But it was also a product of sweat and tears. In this case the sweat and tears were due to the subject, as well as the craft. I'd been concerned about these issues before, but delving into them and grappling with the implications in a poem was difficult.

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

The form is loose and I didn't consciously use any distinct techniques except for the title which is modeled on those long Chinese titles that Billy Collins writes about in "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sun Dynasty I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles."

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

Shortly after I wrote the poem, The Kenyon Review had a call for submissions on genetic engineering and I sent it to them and they published it.

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?

This varies very much from poem to poem. If I feel a poem's finished, I might send it off within weeks, but others take years before they go out. And many never get to see the world.

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

The science is all fact. The opinions and feelings are mine. There's no fiction in here.

Is this a narrative poem?

Not in the conventional sense. It's an outcry. But of course there is the narrative of human history.

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

I don't picture a particular audience or reader, but I want my poems to speak clearly to people. I admire poets who are able to write about complex things without being obscure or unintelligible.

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 shared this poem first with my students at the workshop. Then I sent it to my dear friend, Dorianne Laux, who has been my mentor and most trusted reader. I'm fortunate to also have a small group of poets with whom I can regularly share work.

And of course I showed the poem to Janet when I got home and we wound up having a big fight! She innocently wondered whether there might not also be good that came from genetic engineering and I was so overwrought I just cracked. Janet is, though, a sharp reader and helpfully tough on my poems.

What is American about this poem?

Well, I grew up in the 50's watching TV with DuPont's ads, "Better living through chemistry."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dan Beachy-Quick

Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poem, most recently Circle’s Apprentice (Tupelo Press, 2011). He also wrote a collection of inter-linked essays on Moby-Dick, A Whaler’s Dictionary. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Colorado State University.


The minute gears mutely whir. To put your ear
Against it is to put your ear inside it.
It does not tick. It isn’t a heart.
It has no pulse. It isn’t a clock or a wrist.
Scrutiny can coax no secret from it.
There is no hearse with one flat tire
In endless circuit, headlights dispersed
In fog like sunset behind a veil.
A paving stone extends a grave through iron
Gate to a door at home. To knock
Your hand against it puts your hand inside it,
As in a cloud at night the pale moon
Gathers itself outside itself its own light
And glows dimly behind the dust that outshines it.
It has no heat. It isn’t the sun.
It isn’t uncertain. It does not think
About the sun or the distant balls of dirt
And ice that circle closer to the star
With each circuit done. Comet tails
Darkly flowing back as the horse leaps
Forward, straining against the catafalque
All November, predict disaster as grammar
Predicts breath, the need to breathe, or the mind
Must rest. It is its own edgeless disaster.
It is there as if it were not there. Vague
Repetitions haunt the circumference.
To walk out the door is to place your foot
On a stone worn away by another’s foot.
Rumor has it that the sun sends heat in form
Of sight. Watch the ice as it melts
For proof: water pools, darkens on a stone,
Becomes as a shadow on a stone,
A horse’s hoof as it rises off a stone,
Except it rises forever, and the shadow is gone.
Such processes turn the minute gears.
It is not a note in the margin. The margin is
Covered with snow. When the winter fog
Disperses a black horse stands on ice
And cannot move. It is as if a breathless song
Hovered like a veil in the air. The black
Horse’s breath spirals upward like smoke.
Pyre-smoke like a thumbprint as a cloud.
Similes sing mutely in it, likening the unlike.
Mourners name the peace they find and walk
Away. To step into it is to find it missing.
The footprints are before you as you go.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote this poem a number of years ago, four or even five. It started—as is somewhat typical with me—while I was reading another book, thinking about it, trying to understand it. I was reading Levinas at the time, and though I could not find the passage now, found in his work the image of the footprints being ahead of one as one walks. The paradox of the image both fascinated me and in some ways terrified me. It seemed to speak to the difficulty of poetry—both the reading and writing of it, that it alters, even reverses, our normal order of things. We’ve been already where we’re going. Past and future seem to flip their relationship, and in the poem we walk forward into the past.

The poem also feels to me a place whose actuality is never wholly actual, exists by not wholly existing. To read is to enter into such difficulties. This poem is in many ways a poem about the nature of a poem, a sort of meditation that tries to resist that language of similarity, and through similarity, image. It is a poem that tries to take itself apart, part by part, even as it constructs itself to do so.

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

I don’t revise in any normal sense of the word—if there is a normal sense. I write line by line, day by day, often only two or three lines a day. I wait as patiently as I can to see how a next line might unfold inevitably from those previous—to let the poem in some sense dictate itself, and so escape from the easier limits of my own intentions. What revision occurs happens in these small ways, in the lines, a change of a word, often the smallest words, articles and such. The poem took a few months to write, as they tend to.

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

Yes. Wholly. I might, though, question the discrepancy between that which is "received" and "sweat and tears." They aren’t in my experience mutually exclusive. Far from it. Inspiration is exactly where work begins.

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

I had no formal mode in mind. The poem, because in part of its thinking "mechanically," thinking in terms of gears, mimics that motion with its own peculiar spiraling, and a type of image very obviously pulled from the teeth or cog of another image previously established. But I also wanted to press as hard as I could on the artifice of simile, of showing the imperfection in laying claim to similarity, and to show that in all such claims there lurks the dissimilar, threatening the very construction that makes it able to be apprehended. I suppose I felt very interested in the faultiness of figurative language . . . to find somehow greater necessity in imperfection than in its opposite.

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

I don’t recall. I don’t think all that long. It was first published in Zach Barocas’s wonderful online forum The Cultural Society. It’s only now appearing in a book, Circle’s Apprentice, published in May of 2011.

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 set rules, nor even a philosophy. If someone is kind enough to ask me for a poem, I try to give them what I can. Mostly that means waiting. I try to know that a poem is done, of course. That, I think, is easier said than done.

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

I suppose, with this poem in particular, it tries to open up any notion of fact and show in it certain inconsistencies. It is a poem that doubts certainty, that tries to show that arriving at certainty isn’t the best work a poem can do. But to undermine the fact in such a way isn’t to subscribe to fiction. It’s simply to suggest that the actuality of world and self cannot be defined by the facts that seem to make-up that existence. The fact is a form of certainty often reliant on forms of denial, and one of the things I love about poetry (or love about the poetry I love) is that it complicates the facts with the vagaries of experience and thought.

Is this a narrative poem?

I’d say yes. In many ways, I don’t see how a poem cannot be narrative. It adheres to some logic it discovers in itself, proceeds from one line to another, and that is a narrative, even if it ends up not being linear, or plotted, or significant of any of the ways we normally hear that word.

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

Yes. As I mentioned above, the whole poem arose out of reading Levinas. But reading it again, and thinking about it, I think Keats is there, too.

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

No. I find myself distrustful of imagining an audience. The only audience I know is the poem itself, and its relation to those writers who influenced it. That’s not an audience that receives the poem in any explicable, normal way. That anyone reads my poems at all still comes as a genuine surprise to me. A gift. But like any gift that is truly so, it’s not one I plan on.

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?

As I do with most poems, and I’m sure I did with this one, I show my wife, Kristy, and send it to my dear friends Sally Keith and Srikanth Reddy.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure it does, save that it is a different poem. I think my newest work is at some remove from this poem, but for a number of years, this poem has been part of a large thinking connecting all the poems together. Maybe one facet of what I hope is a multi-faceted effort.

What is American about this poem?

Perhaps only that it has been written by me, who is American, and who takes Thoreau’s sense that an American writer must test another’s ideas against his own pulse. This poem is for me just such a test, to see if I can think for myself as another has thought.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jeredith Merrin

Jeredith Merrin is the author of two collections of poems, Bat Ode (2001) and Shift (1996), both from The University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Poets Series, as well as a book of criticism, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and the Uses of Tradition (Rutgers, 1990). Her essays on and reviews of poets have appeared in The Southern Review and elsewhere, while her poems can be found in The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Ms. , The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and many other journals. Two books are in progress: a new poetry collection, Mon Age, and a collection of essays on poets and poetry, Of Two Minds.


The divorced mother and her divorcing
daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law
and the ex-husband's adopted son.
The divorcing daughter's child, who is

the step-nephew of the ex-husband's
adopted son. Everyone cordial:
the ex-husband's second wife
friendly to the first wife, warm

to the divorcing daughter's child's
great-grandmother, who was herself
long ago divorced. Everyone
grown used to the idea of divorce.

Almost everyone has separated
from the landscape of a childhood.
Collections of people in cities
are divorced from clean air and stars.

Toddlers in day care are parted
from working parents, schoolchildren
from the assumption of unbloodied
daylong safety. Old people die apart

from all they've gathered over time,
and in strange beds. Adults
grow estranged from a God
evidently divorced from History;

most are cut off from their own
histories, each of which waits
like a child left at day care.
What if you turned back for a moment

and put your arms around yours?
Yes, you might be late for work;
no, your history doesn't smell sweet
like a toddler's head. But look

at those small round wrists,
that short-legged, comical walk.
Caress your history--who else will?
Promise to come back later.

Pay attention when it asks you
simple questions: Where are we going?
Is it scary? What happened? Can
I have more now? Who is that?

Author Statement:

I am writing this in my stripped-bare office, having worked all afternoon in grubby jeans, preparing for retirement next month after twenty-four years of teaching English (writing and literature) at this institution. I have loved my students and will miss them dearly. Leontyne Price in the background, about to be buried alive (Aida). Thought I would set the scene for you!

Well, this poem was in fact written after a family reunion. It struck me that others might identify with the situation in which I found myself--the modern family. Just as I have a lousy sense of physical direction, I've always been at a loss to keep straight anything but the most immediate of family connections. It was therefore a kick to write something like "the step-nephew of the ex-husband's / adopted son."

Then what happened was that the idea of divorce, and all that repetition of the word "divorce," just carried me away to analogous situations. I did not know where I was going. If you know exactly where you are going you are bored, and probably also boring.

When I wrote the poem, my grandson (now heading for college and 6'5") was very small--not far from being a toddler. I'm sure that delicious relationship prompted the depiction of personal history as a small child whose head smells sweet. I have to say that one of the best things (I think) about the poem is the accurate physicality of the comparison when the poem gets to a toddler's "small round wrists"--and that phrase I owe to my partner, Diane Furtney (also a published poet, and my best critic).

My step-father was trained as a rabbi, and I have one or two other poems that end up (for better or worse) with a touch of what you might call the "self-sermon." You asked how this poem differs from others I've written, and that's one way: the majority don't possess this jauntily sermonic bent. I think it's more didactic, then, and in a way more socially effusive than my more meditative work. But the self-admonition to "pay attention" underlies everything I've done (prose and poems alike), as does, I think I'd have to say, interpersonal affection.

You asked about form. The lines in the four-line stanzas are roughly four-beat. The shorter line lent me some apt enjambments: "separated," "parted," "apart."

Oh. And the questions at the end were expressions stolen from my (now 6'5", then quite short) grandson. So I owe a lot of this item to Sam.