Wednesday, May 18, 2011

W. Perry Epes

W. Perry Epes was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and graduated from the Episcopal High School. He received degrees in English from the universities of Virginia and Chicago and an MFA in Poetry from George Mason University. He has taught in boarding schools for many years and coordinates the Jacklyn Potter Young Poets Competition for The Word Works. His poems have appeared in Phoebe, Negative Capability, GW Forum, and Innisfree. His first book of poems, Nothing Happened, was published in 2010 by The Word Works, Washington, DC, in the Hilary Tham Capital Collection.

(in loco parentis, on the Greek isle of Hydra)

This was the day I finally told the Stanley twins apart.
We filed off the cruise boat, fanned out through town,
fending off vendors and guide books, aiming straight as possible
for beaches beyond the basin of the harbor.
Two days of old rock piles in Athens and Mycenae,
and now it’s all isles and sun; no more need for awe
at spears and shields and helmets
hammered out upon a time, or buckled on
with no thought that we would travel in coaches
to jog through the museums in shorts and Nikes.
Time now for stripping down to bathing suits,
being ourselves and looking each other over,
filling the lungs with open air, and shouting them empty—
our own music at outdoor dancing on the sand.
No such beach—where a sign in pidgin
said “This is the place swimming,” only a moderate cliff
and piles of surf-lashed rocks. A dip in the sea
meant backing gingerly down one ladder
till one of the Stanleys climbed the cliff unnoticed, and jumped.
We gasped at the plunge and splash, held breaths till the head bobbed,
and cheered. The other Stanley matches the feat exactly,
then all the boys, and even one of the girls. Stakes mounting—
Stanleys add twists and gainers, others jump in tandem.
A crowd of tourists gathers, the real draw being
the chance to see a body brained on the rocks.
I ask one Stanley to cool it. He asks for just one more.
I leap on this concession. “All right, but nothing fancy.
Just jump, and wrap it up.” But why one more?
As they climb again, I chew me out, rehearsing
the orders I should have given. Their every step
is a station of the cross I have to bear.
You could say they never were meant to live—
conception “complete surprise”; three pounds each at birth;
incubated brawn, motherlove hovering for years.
And I, in loco, know nothing of hatching youth
but cracking shells on rocks, like gulls with oysters.

They’re up, radiant in height. What’s left but prayer?
the last resort of Dads. They jump,
arms locked and all for one, with nothing fancy—
John on the left, and Wade on the right. My burden
melts to a thick joy you could cut with a knife
for sharing round. Even before the double splash
I believe in their last jump: one more just for me
so I can learn to bears these pangs
for the length of each plunge in the wine-dark sea.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

“Americans Hit the Beaches” was composed in the summer of 1981, about two weeks after the incident which it depicts. My wife and I were helping chaperone a student trip to Europe. After working our way across Greece and Italy from mid-June, we arrived in southern France by early July and were faced next with a fourteen-hour drive one day to the Loire Valley in three vans on the autoroute. My wife drove one of the vans and was terrified of having such immediate responsibility for the lives of seven of the students; I followed her in another van and used my turn signals to make space for her in the passing lanes, keeping an eye out in my rear view mirror for those charging overtakers at 160 kph in Citroens and Mercedes who loom up before you know it and flash by like an impatient wind. During one of those passings I flashed back to my own in loco parentis anxiety over the boys’ cliff jumping on the Greek isle of Hydra, and the first line about telling the Stanley twins apart came to me unbidden.

I worked on the poem the next couple of nights, and then finished it on the road to Chartres (a bit like Wordsworth composing “Tintern Abbey” while he walked back to Bristol). That night, in the shadow of the cathedral, I showed the first draft to my wife, who sobbed with gratitude—my naming the fear imposed by our responsibilities served to brace her for the next day’s ordeal in Paris traffic (she later wrote a powerful prose memoir of the trip called “Fear Itself”).

Just last fall, I read the poem aloud to my eleventh-grade class after one of the students had asked about the photograph in my classroom of a Stanley twin doing a gainer from the cliff (I was fortunate to get permission to use the picture for the cover of my book, Nothing Happened). It turned out that not just one, but two of the girls in the class have aunts who were students on that very same trip!

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

Not many. Other poems of mine have required infinite revision, but this one moved from first to final draft in three days of intense work around sightseeing and driving. In the years since, I have made a few minor revisions—tightening of phrase, clarification of metaphor.

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

I believe in inspiration succeeded by perspiration, just as Julian of Norwich spent thirty years interpreting her visions. My first line arrived like a vision, but then the rest of the lines needed to be hammered out to embody it. The composition process involved saying the lines over and over as I was driving or walking to and from great tourist sites. While repeating my internal recitation I would back and fill until the cadence sounded right, and then write it all down at night. That required some sweat but not too many tears or agonies of the blank page (which I’ve certainly experienced with other poems). I think again of Wordsworth, walking it out after re-experiencing the landscape around Tintern Abbey. By the end, the lines were virtually fixed in memory.

Finishing the poem was a great relief after sustained effort, not so much in triumph as in gratitude for a great gift of inspiration to which I had responded with due diligence instead of ignoring it as we so often do in the aftermath of intense experiences, or letting it lie around in our imaginations while we procrastinate over our good intentions of writing it all down to preserve it.

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

Once I had received the first line—“This was the day I finally told the Stanley twins apart”— I scanned its metrics as loosely iambic after an initial trochaic foot. I then tried to maintain the conversational movement, similar to that of blank verse but with one or two extra feet per line. At times it felt almost like the old “fourteeners” in which broadside ballads used to be printed—compressing the four-line stanzas of 4-beat/3-beat, 4-beat/3-beat lines into long couplets with 7-beat lines that sprawled almost to the margin—though only a few of my lines are as long as fourteen syllables (after the first one). As the speaker’s relation of the events rolls on, lines that are end-stopped tend to feel like a teacher’s or dad’s pronouncements, but the extra length of the lines seems to add a little reflection, as if we had to venture, from this experience, beyond mere certainty into radical questioning of our custodial skills.

But the greatest opportunity for energy and discovery comes with enjambement, when the sense spilling over the line end creates a propulsive movement in tension with a slight pause of suspense. Wordsworth is absolutely brilliant at this sort of thing; in “There Was a Boy,” after the owls have momentarily ceased their “jocund din” in response to his “mimic hootings,” the Boy of Winander feels a gentle shock of mild surprise “in that silence, while he hung/ Listening,” and the voice of mountain torrents and all the solemn imagery of nature would enter unawares into his mind and heart. There is nothing so remarkable in “Americans Hit the Beaches,” but the most frequently quoted lines do balance on suspended moments of possible double meaning created by enjambement: “My burden/ melts to a thick joy you could cut with a knife/ for sharing ‘round.”

This interplay of suspense and relief that nothing bad actually happened undergirds one of the implied themes of my book. So often, when kids are asked what happened, they’ll shrug and say, “Oh, nothing.” It’s as if they are under an imperative not to look back on those formative experiences that might well have killed them, but forward to the next adventure. As we live on, we go on blithely through more such experiences and then, when we come to shepherd others, we discover with a shock of surprise that becoming a “grown-up” seems mostly to be a lucky survival of this gauntlet, gaining strength (we hope) from what hasn’t succeeded yet in breaking us. Sooner or later something will happen to break us, and then we will look back and see how much already has happened in those moments of suspension.

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

About three months after I finished writing the poem, it appeared in the school newspaper at Woodberry Forest, on a full page like a broadside or poster with the text embedded in an extraordinary photograph by Steven White, another student on the trip, of Wade Stanley leaping from the cliff, in the mid-flip of a gainer, his outstretched fingers touching the sun. The picture provided an allusion to Icarus without the poem’s having to say a word, which might have sounded too admonitory. Steven very kindly gave me an enlarged color copy, which I have hung in my classroom ever since, and even more kindly granted me permission to use the picture on the cover of Nothing Happened.

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?

My practice varies with every poem; with some it has been longer than the proverbial nine years. Some I have tinkered with after they were published, so in general letting a poem “sit” for awhile is the better policy for me.

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

This is a fascinating question which really gets to the heart of what I’m trying to do in poetry. Virtually all of my poems draw from experienced fact, and they strike some readers as surprisingly, indeed vulnerably autobiographical. And yet what fiction makes of the facts is what the poems are really about. None of the students were particularly aware at the time of my indecision and self-critique as a chaperone. At dinner that night in Athens, Wade told me that his hand brushed the cliff face as he was coming down out of his last gainer. But his telling me that nothing happened was not just bravado; it was said in a tone of bemusement, a kind of awed realization of how fortunate all the students had been. And that was the better part of a wisdom he would carry into his next adventures. When I gave copies of the poem to him and his brother (and to his parents), the boys could learn something about caring for themselves with due regard for the way others cared about them. That was not something we ever had or even could have had a direct conversation about. Such are the lessons that fiction and poetry can teach—always telling them slant, of course.

Is this a narrative poem?

Another essential question. This poem is not exactly a completed narrative, but more a “spot of time” in the sense of Wordsworth’s term for those moments of experience (mostly in nature, but also in the midst of social interaction) when the movement of the universe is suspended, like the “stationary blast of waterfalls” in Simplon Pass, and we see into the heart of things. I have written a few truly narrative poems which seek to resolve a conflict between different characters’ points of view, but this one is more lyrical in the sense of raising and ultimately cherishing the questions that a single point of view may be left with.

Perhaps lyrical essentially means bemused. Of course great narrative can and must be richly ambiguous; I’m not suggesting a didactic view of narrative, simply conclusive or even complacent in its lessons, as a straw man to shed light on poetry by contrast. But a lyric poem is something like a soliloquy in the midst of the action, a still point in the turning world.

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

Certainly Wordsworth—I’d been teaching him regularly for ten years. But my manner of writing at that time was also part of a larger movement away from tight formal concerns (the result of an early infatuation with Yeats) toward a more direct response to immediate experience, with looser, unrhymed lines and a more realistic, even frank conversational tone. It was almost like moving from something liturgical to something more secular, though I retained a sort of liturgical concern for rhythm.

During this time Galway Kinnell’s Fergus poems hit me hard, and I really admired William Matthews’ nuanced accessibility. Baron Wormser’s blunt, precise eloquence conveyed a clear assurance I aspired toward, Sharon Olds’ honesty was breathtaking—oh, and Seamus Heaney, and a hundred others. And Henry Taylor’s reminders of form beautifully wrought with frankness.

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

I’ll answer this one in an oblique way. My mind is habitually allusive, and one friend joked that a reader has to know as much as I do in order to understand one of my poems. It would be a genuine bind if the audience I aimed for could only be just like me! I was attempting to escape this difficulty with the more accessible style of “Americans Hit the Beaches.”

So I’ve concluded that my ideal reader is someone a lot smarter than I am, someone able to use allusive detail, not getting bogged down in it but seeing through and beyond it. In this matter, Peter Klappert, my mentor at George Mason University, taught me a lot about what to leave out.

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?

This poem was mostly finished even before being written down, so it was close to a final draft that I first showed to my wife. And it has escaped major restructuring in subsequent workshop sessions.

But usually I will show earlier drafts and make substantive revisions in response to trusted readers’ suggestions. For many years I have benefited from the support and inspiration of fellow George Mason MFA alumni Naomi Thiers, Jane Schapiro, Jonathan Vaile, Romola D, and Elisabeth Murawski. More recently, local poets Judith Freeman and Katherine Smith of the Potomac Review have joined our writing group.

Also my editors at Word Works—Karren Alenier, Miles David Moore, and Nancy White—gave the manuscript of Nothing Happened the sort of close, informed, supportive scrutiny I had received from Peter Klappert and Susan Tichy at George Mason.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This poem is perhaps my most direct response to and rendering of experience. It rings true immediately, I think, as well as upon further reflection, and that is why it is a favorite with my readers.

What is American about this poem?

This poem captures a boisterous aspect of American innocence and its impact, both positive and negative, on the outside world. The energy and optimism are appealing, yet violence—the threat of seeing a body brained on the rocks, and the morbid draw of that danger—is never quite out of sight. It is as if we Americans, acting as though we were eternally young, are constantly having to learn about consequence.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Though this poem arrived in a more finished state than most of mine, it was abandoned in the sense that I did not seek to answer all the questions raised. The poem knew better than to try.


  1. Inspiration succeeding perspiration. Amen.

  2. I love how events can be charged for certain participants and not others (depending on perspective and identity and everything else). It was fascinating to read about how the poet and his wife both were inspired by events surrounding this (and by fear/responsibility). The poem indeed feels urgent--it is so clear that it has something to say.

    Excellent Q and A!

  3. The great goal of universality is in this wonderful slice of life. Every parent, especially who has been a teacher of adolescents will instantly recognize the precision of Epes' narrative. Besides that, it is quintessentially sensual, and therefore superbly poetic. The double meanings enrich an already marvelous poem. If only everyone trying to write poetry had access to a group including writers like Epes to provide guidance and feedback!

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