Jean Monahan is the author of Hands, chosen by Donald Hall to win the 1991 Anhinga Press Prize, as well as Believe It or Not, published by Orchises Press in 1999, and Mauled Illusionist, Orchises Press, 2006. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts, with her daughter. She is not a witch.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT
For fifty years, the man ate eggs.
Not one a day, sunny-side-up, or ten,
but eighty each morning, raw.
This takes a discipline few have.
Elsewhere, an Irishman yodeled for ten hours straight,
a New Yorker with 31 million in the bank
owned one dress and ate her porridge cold.
He was 7 feet, she was 8.
They wed in the shade of a large oak.
Across the world, a man wrote
letter after letter, envelope after envelope,
until two letters shy of four thousand
his pen ran dry.
How does anyone have the courage to lie down at night?
While we sleep, somebody dreams
the world's longest recorded dream;
while we snore or lie awake,
underwater in breathless kisses,
a man cracks jokes
to himself, hour after
hour, plates spin
on the ends of sticks,
through the eye of a needle
thirteen thousand times.
No part of the world is not in the contest.
A bee hummingbird is smaller than the eye of an ostrich.
Deep in the Niger desert,
thirty miles from the nearest
tree, a recluse baobab
lived by its wits
until the day a jeep
accidentally backed into it.
Nothing, not even posterity,
will protect you from
your singular destiny.
The man struck by lightning seven times
in the end died
by his own hand.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I began work on this poem over a holiday break in 1996. I wanted to write about Ripley’s Believe It or Not but didn’t have a copy, so I went to the local library and inquired if they had anything in the Ripley line. The librarian indicated – with some indignation – that they had no such thing on their shelves, but offered me The Guinness World Book of Records instead. Both books mine the American love affair with contests and the extra-ordinary.
I started by typing some of my favorite Guinness records onto a page. I also inserted a story I had been told about a man with a penchant for eating raw eggs every morning….not one or two eggs, mind you, but scores of raw eggs. This visceral image deserved to start the poem off.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
The answer above outlines what I was reading for this particular poem, though it isn’t my usual source for inspiration! My deities in the poetry world, to name just a few, are Bishop, Moore, Stevens, and, although not usually considered a poet, the great Bruno Schulz.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I believe perhaps a week elapsed between the first and final version. The process of bringing it forth was not as excruciating as other poems! I do not recall how many versions existed but I do recall that the turning point in the writing of the poem was when I inserted a line about a person whose pen ran dry when he was two letters shy of his goal of writing four thousand letters (with the same pen, presumably). That opened up the dimensions of the poem to incorporate the longing and loneliness behind these aspirations, the emblematic act of writing letters, telling jokes to oneself, hour after hour, the solitary seamstress plying her thread….
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Inspiration is crucial for my writing. I need to follow a lure. Sometimes the lure is an opening line, sometime the last line, sometimes it is a feeling I want the poem to evoke, sometimes it is a singular image. Of course, received poems are very rare. Most of my poems are the result of turmoil, obsessive rewrite, and a lucky thought that finally arrives to grease the poem-wheel.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
At a certain point in the process a poem begins to feel genuine and that’s when I start to shape it. As I wrote out statements from the Guinness book, I noted the natural rhyming possibilities in the given text. So the word “cold” ended one sentence and when I wrote the next Guinness record, which involved the wedding of a couple who were seven feet and eight feet tall, I had them wed “in the shade of a large oak” in order to get a half rhyme (cold, oak), immediately following that image and sound with the tale of a man who wrote envelope after envelope, for more “o” rhymes. I have always favored half-rhymes and internal rhymes to end rhymes.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I think two or three years elapsed before the poem appeared in my book of the same name. I was puzzled as to why other poems were taken by journals but not that one, since I considered it one of the better poems I had written.
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 never wait long to send a poem out if I think it is finished.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
My Believe It or Not book is all about the evolving standards by which “facts” and “truth” are recognized in a society. Poems in the book were inspired by everything from the New York Times on through to Star Magazine, News of the Weird, Ripley’s and Guinness Book of Records. My poem “Believe It or Not” regards these world records with a straight face, but wraps a fictional detail or two around them when it is to the poem’s benefit.
Is this a narrative poem?
This poem resolves with a cautionary tale but it’s not exactly a narrative. I guess it’s a concatenation of mini narratives.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal reader loves to laugh, appreciates allusion, and probably tells a good story her or himself. When I am in the act of writing, however, I am not thinking of an ideal reader. I am mud wrestling with a pig.
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 used to send what I hoped were nearly finished drafts out to friends by email. As soon as I hit send I would start tinkering again. Sending out was a ritual I needed to do. More recently, I have not regularly shared unfinished work.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This poem differs in the extent to which it incorporates other texts.
What is American about this poem?
In the land of opportunity superlative adjectives reign supreme: most, best, greatest, tallest, richest, etc. As the poem says, however, no part of the world is not in the contest. So maybe it isn’t so American after all.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
I have abandoned many poems, but this one worked well from the get-go and so was not jettisoned.