Robert Farnsworth’s poetry has appeared in magazines all over the U.S., in Canada and the UK. He has published three collections, two with Wesleyan University Press: Three or Four Hills and A Cloud (1982) and Honest Water (1989), and most recently, Rumored Islands (2010) with Harbor Mountain Press. For seven years he edited poetry for the national quarterly The American Scholar. His work has won him a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, and a P.E.N. Discovery citation, and for the summer of 2006 he was the poet-in-residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH. He has for twenty-two years taught writing and literature at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he lives with his wife and two sons.
From an American early autumn evening
flung back into tomorrow’s afternoon,
I sat a while in the car park, smoking
over a map, then for practice drove west
to a neglected town, where transatlantic
flying boats set down seventy years ago,
and on the silent pier beside their museum,
imagined back the long white scuds of their
landings. No one else otherwise like me
would have come here. So now that no one
could take my peculiar solitude from me,
I set out, drawn by the intuition that my
heart would feel welcome on the grounds
of some enduring verse I first read forty
years ago. Intimation, almost invitation —
I felt bound to honor, no, not answer, honor.
Even knowing the big house was a ruin.
Under steep September sky: sea-gray,
lavender, blue, and quartz, I shouldered
a bag, and set off into the Seven Woods
toward the lough, not expecting swans —
all flown, long flown, as that weary spell
of a poem supposed they would be.
But on those woodland paths I made a loop
of several miles, until I’d walked myself
quite out of the life I’d yesterday begun
to shed in the airport lounge. The pleasure
was guilty, but pleasure it was, piercing
as music I wished never to end, a real
dépaysement, an achieved disappearance,
a belonging more profound for its complete
fictitiousness, and I lay down in these
beneath a lime tree in Lady Gregory’s garden,
to sleep a just sleep, as in the cherished
crypt of a page. Invisible, anonymous —
who could I fail now? My sleep was not
my own; who was going to wake me?
Nobody I knew knew where I was, knew
that I was this contented tramp dozing
in September shade in a mildly famous garden.
His hour of sleep would change me,
just enough to make the next weeks happen
not exactly to me, but exactly. I woke
beneath the gaze of six red deer.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Like many of my poems, “Vagrancy” had a long gestation. It began as a few prose journal notes from a trip I made to Ireland in the autumn of 2000. I find more journal notes revisiting/ developing its concept from sometime in 2003. The poem was worked up into its final form across a week or two in the summer of 2006, tweaked from time to time until April of 2007, when I read it and published it on From The Fishouse.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
After the poem took its essential shape (in four to six stress lines) that summer of 2006, it went through maybe three substantial drafts. The crucial one I find is half typed, the second half hand-written. I suppose there was a handwritten first half (that’s how I usually work things up, by hand, then type, then more handwriting, retype, etc.), but I must have lost it.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
First, I guess I’d say that for me poems are essentially inquiries, into the nature and inner workings of experience and memory. Patience is my key (or is it my excuse for laziness?)… waiting for the notions (there need to be several) to relate and coalesce around an essential music and strategy, around some compelling image(s) and a definite tone or stance. That relation/coalescence constitutes inspiration for me. Once a draft catches fire this way, it usually happens fairly quickly (a few hours or days). Sweat work is then mostly a matter of adjustments, leaving a draft for a day or a week and returning to look for incipient or unsuspected circuits of energy, and for wasted motion. I keep leaving the “finished” poem, and returning to it for months (sometimes years) for another look, and another, which process seems to make the piece both more strange and more intimate to me. As described above, once begun, the actual drafts of “Vagrancy” as a poem arrived on the page pretty easily, but then I let it cure a while, and made some small adjustments.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique? Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Not really unusual, the process of this poem’s composition. I worry about how narrative-dependent (or to put it less charitably, how anecdotal) my imaginative impulses naturally are. That’s certainly not “what the age demands,” but I have started (late in life) to accept my instincts more graciously. Finding tension, pitch, and seductive detail to make an accessible but still lyrical meditative music preoccupies my compositional process. I knew this poem would measure itself as rough blank verse after I was about five or ten lines in. I always read aloud constantly as I compose, pushing the draft out into silence, readjusting some of what’s already down to better (I hope) propel the piece toward both desired and unsuspected connections, pacings, tones.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? 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?
“Vagrancy” appeared in the From The Fishouse on-line audio archive about eight months after it was finished. One other print editor who’d asked to see some poems had seen it, said he liked it, but hadn’t purchased it, so… Matt O’Donnell, founder/editor/curator of the archive, lets invited poets choose their own contributions, and since it was new, and I liked the piece, had taken encouragement from the positive reaction of audiences I had read it to, I included it. In general, though, I’d say almost a year or so will usually pass before I send a new poem anywhere. (That wasn’t the case when I was an anxious boy of thirty…)
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two? Is this a narrative poem? Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I suppose that nearly every poem I write derives in some significant measure from actual experience, if that is what is meant by “fact.” But I believe every poem is obligated to take responsive, imaginative possession of the fact, and involve the reader in that process memory and imagination and language work upon ordinary experience. “Vagrancy” does work with my own experience very closely— my cherishing of travel as refuge or escape into anonymity and what the poem calls dépaysement, in this case escape into a place that reading Yeats (especially “The Wild Swans at Coole”) had long ago seemed to have given me access/entrée to—Lady Gregory’s estate, now a national park. The thrill of disappearing into a poem I had loved since the age of fourteen, as if into an afterlife, was wonderfully, dissonantly chorded with a sort of grubby, jet-lagged, interloping homelessness, sleeping there under some venerable tree, having sought the swans I knew wouldn’t be there. Certainly Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” must have been a whisk for the mix of the poem’s fascination with the relation of cultural and private imagination, of image and visitation, possession and belonging.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Sure. Alert, curious people who want from their reading both the delight of recognition (imaginative collaboration, really), and of being a bit troubled. People who might be inclined to say to themselves I feel I know what this poem is involving me in, and to pursue (gently and fiercely) the implications of such an intuition. Isn’t that what every poet would wish for?
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?
Nobody else saw this poem in development. I do sometimes pine for trustworthy writer/readers with whom to exchange drafts I feel are solidly enough conceived, but these days I haven’t anyone like that, and I have grown probably too used to solitary work anyway…
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I actually feel this poem is very representative of what I have developed as an essential style, and of the nature of my current imaginative preoccupations.
What is American about this poem?
In the context of the poem’s “genre” (“travel poem…”)—that’s an interesting question! I suppose the poem is predicated on a sort of yearning to be from nowhere, to belong to an imaginary place, to a poem. “Vagrancy” has recently been translated into and published in Polish, so I’m thinking that either makes it symptomatically American, or conversely, sort of a-cultural in its resonance?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?