Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mark Turpin

Mark Turpin's first full-length collection, Hammer, published by Sarabande Books, won the Ploughshares' Zacharis First Book Award in 2004. In 1997 he received a Whiting award. His poems have appeared in the The Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Slate among others; they have been read on the PBS News Hour (for Labor Day) and by Garrison Keillor for The Writer's Almanac. His work appears in many anthologies, and is also embedded in a Berkeley sidewalk as part of the Addison Street Anthology, selected by Bob Hass. He is the son of a Presbyterian minister. He received a Masters in Poetry from Boston University at age forty seven, otherwise, he has spent thirty years working construction and building houses. He lives and works in Berkeley, California.


First realize he didn’t build it for himself,
and that changes a man, and the way he thinks
about building a house. There is joy but
it’s a colder type—he’d as easily joy in
tearing it down, as we have done, down
to the bare frame, loaded boxes of lath
and plaster, stirring a dust unstirred since
well, we know the date: Thursday, June 19, 1930.
Date on the newspaper stuffed between
the doorbell battery and the box it lodged in.
Not so long ago, seventy years, historical
only to a Californian. The headline: "Admiral Byrd
Given Welcome In N.Y." "Rear Admiral
Richard E. Byrd, conqueror of the South Pole."
Safe to say, the man who built this house
is gone or nearly gone by now-and we think
of the houses we have built, and the strangers
who will certainly, eventually come to change
or tear them down—that further event that
needs to happen. And there is a foulness
to this dust, dust locked in walls till
we arrived to release it to the world again.
So, maybe, all is as it should be. Still, the man
himself haunts me. I noticed it—especially
after my apprentice saw fit to criticize his work,
this neat but spindly frame of rough 2x4’s—
2x4’s for the walls, the rafters, even for the ceiling joists
(that he tied to the ridge to keep the ceiling from sagging)
that functioned adequately all these years
till we knocked it loose. And so, for reasons
my apprentice wouldn’t understand, I admit
a liking, yes, for him and for this sketch
of a house, the lightness of his eye, as if
there might be something else to think about:
a sister taken sick, or maybe just a book or
a newspaper with a coffee and a smoke, as if
to say to the world: This is all you take from me.
Of course, having lived here a month already,
I know better—accustomed now to the
hieroglyphs of his keel marks, his red crayon
with an arrow denoting the sole plate of a wall,
imaginary, invisible lines that he
unknowing, passes on to me, numbers and lines
radiating from the corners and the eaves
—where the bird nests hide inside the vents—
all lining up, falling plumb, coming square and true
for me, and all his offhand easiness just a guise
for a mind too quick ever to be satisfied
—just moving quickly through the motions.
And, now, what he has to show for it, hauled away
in boxes and bags, and me about to alter
what's left—not like Byrd’s Pole, fixed
forever. The pure radiating lines forever
flowing and unalterable—lines of mind only,
without a house attached. And yet, even a South Pole
doesn’t seem much of an accomplishment to us—
to have merely found another place on Earth.
There is a special pity that we reserve
for the dead, trapped in their newspapers’
images of time, wearing what they wore,
doing what they did. I feel as much for this man here,
and for the force it took to pull a chalked string
off the floor, let it snap, and, make a wall.
Something apart from something else,
not forever but for a little while.
He must have felt it too, a man like him,
else why leave the newspaper for us?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was one of the last poems to go into Hammer, published in 2003. Around that time, my work required me to demolish a very small, flimsy house. There was an offhand sketchiness to the workmanship as if the builder might have been a very good carpenter but very casual about this particular project. Anyway, he built the house, he was dead, and here I was, many years later, alive, tearing it down.

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

It was fast for me, about two months. Average is six months, one poem at a time, and hundreds, even thousands of changes, most small, some large. I print things out often, and it’s not uncommon for me to have a couple of reams of paper in a poem folder.

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

I expect sweat and tears, yes. False starts, yes. Changing horses midstream, yes. I expect the triumphant deletion of passages painstakingly erected over months like a card houses in wind tunnels, yes. I expect the regretted bad language in response to the opinions of those nearest and dearest to my heart. Recantings. Reversals. Yes, yes, yes.

I can’t write without some sense of mission, imagined or not. I never sit down just to see what happens under my pen. If I only have a subject, I prepare for a long struggle, although the moment my mind catches on something: a hook, a title, a rhythm, inspiration can begin to trickle. With a couple of solid stanzas, I’ll hang on for years.

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

The only question I have while writing is: does this sound right? If time goes by and it still doesn’t sound right, then I resort to conscious technique. My famous mentor was known for saying, "Consciousness is not a bad thing." And I want to believe it.

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

Two years.

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?

Although I understand its important function, I don’t often send poems into the world.

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

Would "Ode to a Nightingale" be a better poem if Keats had invented his encounter with the nightingale?

Is this a narrative poem?

I think it would be called a meditative-descriptive poem--but with narrative elements like 99% of the poems anyone reads more than once.

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

Jonson, Hardy, Whitman, Frost, Williams, Bishop.

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

I like the idea of a general audience. For reasons obscured by history, Shakespeare didn’t sneer at this audience.

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?

The fewer opinions and more time I have, the easier it is to know what I think myself.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It doesn’t.

What is American about this poem?

I once got drunk with Phil Levine.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Poems I abandon are most often not very good.


  1. Enjoyed this! Great Q&A. I particularly enjoy poems about work, so this was a pleasure to read and come to understand the process.

  2. The reliving of various projects with my late husband was vivid as a result of this very accurate reconstruction of destruction. I thoroughly enjoyed the poem.

  3. I enjoyed this interview and the poem. I will have to read more of Mr. Turpin's poetry. As a 50 year old working man (white collar) myself, I'm heartened to see someone turning to poetry in middle age. There might be hope for me!