Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was published in 2014 as a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize with the University of Arkansas Press. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012, and he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume. He is Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, a freelance editor, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.
What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it? No spider webs
snagged in the bluestem, no horseflies at rest
in cones of henbit, no slug trails penned
to the cooled hoods of cars. We are creatures all,
stillborn to the language of split pine rails
standing in their pickets, ice glazed to bone
in every rut, the stealth tracks of jays a sleepless
ideography in the snow. But we are not
entirely alone between the mountain ranges,
in these hours condemned to darkness
before the sun gyres open the face of February
and the red flare of Mars grows dim.
Just outside my door, the burr oak is wintered
full of grackles— hundreds of coin-
eyed scuttles ornamenting its branches. Here,
my breath plumes gray. In the distance,
brush catches fire. The wind, if you watch,
is calligraphy; the stars in winter,
a weightlessness. The grackles are doors,
rasping their flight plans limb to limb.
The grackles are doors, some limned with light,
others black. Rising, my arms have long
been open. Stepping across these thresholds,
I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
"Singing" is one of the only "intentional" poems in Ghost Gear. By “intentional” I mean it's one of the few poems I wrote in the book with a specific goal in mind. It's also the last poem I wrote for Ghost Gear even though it's the book's opening poem.
I wrote "Singing" with the goal of announcing to the reader much of what Ghost Gear is about: that desire to know how the world functions while recognizing that this is probably impossible—thus this notion of only knowing God in the face of absence, thus the notion of stepping (as I step) from the human world to the animal world, from the world of the present to the world of the past, from the world in front of us to the world of the imagination, the world within.
"Singing" also does the job of letting the reader know from page one the sort of poet I am. I love music. I love the image. I love metaphor. I love tension. I call poems like this "thesis poems." Whenever I say this aloud (or even now in the student center over a McDouble sans pickles), I instinctively duck, fearing some poet across the room will have slung a piece of rotting fruit in my direction. "Thesis poem?" Oxymoron. Heresy. Sacrilege! But why not? Ghost Gear is a book of poems, not a collection. Like a thesis in an essay, I wanted the first poem to let the reader know what they were in for and what to expect.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I wrote "Singing" in fifty eight drafts over the winter of 2007/2008 when I was finishing up my first draft of Ghost Gear. After that, I revised it somewhere around fifty more times as I revised the book itself. The last significant edit to "Singing" looks to have been made in early 2012, right before the book was picked up by the University of Arkansas Press. And I of course made a few micro-edits to it before the book went to press.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Well, I certainly believe in inspiration, but I really don't care much about inspiration either. I was definitely inspired to write the poem, and I was certainly inspired by the poems I was reading around the time of its creation (Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk, in particular), and I was certainly inspired by the weather and those damned noisy grackles, but blood, sweat, tears, and lots of throwing shit at the wall is what made the poem. I think that when we receive a line (I have no idea, for example, where the first 1.5 lines came from), it's the result of the hard work that has come before. When we revise a poem, we're not rewriting it, we're practicing to write what eventually becomes the final version. You really can't "receive" practice; you have to actually go out there, put on your sleeve, and shoot three pointers until, in a game, you receive the made shot you've been working so tirelessly toward. I'd say inspiration is the byproduct of getting out there, of the blood, the sweat, and the tears. It's a tool just like all the others.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
"Singing" was always in these short, somewhat enjambed lines, and it was always one page. This is for two reasons: 1) I wanted a shortish poem of shortish lines to open the book, and 2) I absolutely loved the rhythm created by the break after "winter" and the repetition in the rhythm of "but that each winter / I thank him for it" somewhat indebted to that break. Once I had the first line set, it made perfect sense to work toward making each line similar in length. It's a quiet poem. It's a poem in which structure is crucial yet subtle. And it's a poem I wanted as many readers as possible to be drawn to, so I tried to keep its shape as simple and elegant as possible in order to attract as many eyes as possible.
If we were to dig deeper into the poem and the individual lines, we'd see that each line operates like a little form in and of itself. While the poem overall is definitely free verse, the lines themselves and the play from line to line pays much more attention to form. Sam Hamill recently informed me this is called "organic verse," verse that grows out of some sort of structure but isn't just plain ol’ "free." That's how much of Ghost Gear operates. In the book, there isn't a single poem written in received form (unless you want to call a fourteen-line poem with a volta near the end a sonnet), but the guts of the poems reside in the shadows of form.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Here's how I write a poem: I start with something about which I have very little understanding. Then I write, write, write, revise, revise, revise until I do know what the hell is going on. Then I'm done. This one, like all the others, worked just like that. The only unusual thing was that I knew what I wanted it to do, but how…that was as mysterious as every other damned poem I try to put together and, in this case, finished.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
Man, that took forever, and I remember being really baffled (and still am) by this. I was baffled because it seemed to do all the things people typically say a poem should do: It's short. It's simple. It's got beautiful language. It's clear. It's minimalistic. Yadda yadda yadda—it seemed to do everything everyone always told me good poems did but no one wanted it. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I agree with any of this, but there’s no doubt that these sorts of poems get published more often than longer, more immediately complex poems.
Anyway, it was picked up by Ascent in the Winter of 2012 after well over one-hundred submissions, which I'm very proud of. Good things often come to those who wait or, in my case, those who wait while they submit it over and over and over to endless frustration. But why some poems strike editors right away and others take however long they take is almost as mysterious to me as poetry itself. Luckily, I don’t worry about that so much anymore. I just try to write poems that do the things I think good poems do. Eventually, I/the poem fools someone into agreeing with me/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?
It totally depends on the poem. Poems often feel finished one day only to need tweaking or major revision a few days later. I really don’t consider a poem “done” until it’s published in a book. Once it’s in a book, that’s sacred, that’s the poem you put out in the world with your name on the cover. Everything else is a little more fluid and anything can happen to a poem before that time, so I only send out poems I would be proud to publish. If anything in me says, “This poem isn’t ready for human eyes,” I wait until that voice shuts up or, occasionally, says the opposite, “Yo, dumb poet, I’m ready.”
Just because a poem gets picked up by a journal doesn’t mean it’s finished or even that it’s any good. At the same time, I don’t think you have to think, “This poem is one-million percent done!” “This is the best poem I’ve ever written!” before you seek an audience for it either.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I’m not sure fact has much place in poetry. Facts are mostly bullshit anyway. For how many years did we publish textbooks that said Pluto is a planet? That was a fact; now it’s…something else.
Clinging to facts or trying to reproduce factual reality doesn’t make much sense to me, and I’m not sure facts speak nearly as well to human experience as fiction anyway. Much of my poetry is fictional. Sure, the whole idea, the whole story is based in fact (usually…) but the details….who knows? And honestly, who cares? I don’t read poetry for factual truth; I read poetry for emotional truth. Emotional truth is just as slippery and incalculable, but I think it has a little more humility. It recognizes and pays homage to its innate inaccuracy. And it’s certainly more interesting.
As for “Singing,” it’s actually pretty factual. There really was a burr oak full of grackles in my front yard, and I really do like winter and the silence it brings. And I really do wonder about God—this thing I don’t believe in literally but often find myself speaking to for reasons unknown. But are grackles really like “coin-eyed scuttles”? Emotionally, sure. Factually? I’m not sure there’s any way to determine that.
Is this a narrative poem?
Depends on what you mean by narrative. I consider this poem what I call a lyric-narrative, a poem that utilizes elements of narrative (the character of the speaker, setting, speech itself, etc…) as well as lyric (assonance, alliteration, imagination, etc…). Judy Jordan introduced me to this notion my first semester of graduate school, though I think I came up with the actual term. She learned it from Greg Orr’s essay, “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry,” which argues that all poets have a basic instinct (temperament) when it comes to the types of poems they write:
Different poets are born with different temperaments, and the nature of their temperament is shown in the work. Needless to say, since the sense of wholeness is perhaps the most essential defining quality of a poem, this form-giving gift is more important than any other a poet might possess. (269)
The notion of lyric-narratives is nothing new but placing a hyphen between the two terms (thus turning it into one term) and removing the s from “narratives” is a little different. It goes, more or less, like this: Sometimes, when we say “narrative poem,” we’re really saying “a poem that tells a story,” but narration doesn’t always tell a story. Narration is a mode of expression that uses narrative tools (characters, setting, conflict/resolution, other story-telling devices) and that tends to tell a story. In a lyric-narrative, a poet can deploy these tools to tell a story, but they can also use this stuff to meditate on, say, a blade of grass, without being purely lyrical. Adding narrative elements to a lyrical poem is a lot like writing a prose poem: most audiences recognize and are comfortable with prose. As a result, a prose poem is often more approachable. A lyric poem with zero narrative is, at least these days, pretty alien to most readers, even many poets. So adding narrative elements to a lyric poem can really open things up for the poet, the poem, and the reader.
Lyric-narrative works the other way as well, of course. A poet can take a straight narrative and utilize lyrical tools to make it resonate in a more visceral way, to get at that emotional truth we’ve been talking about in a way more similar to song, prayer. This is how many of the poems in Ghost Gear operate, and it’s what I think a large majority of really good poems do. They’re not 100% lyric or 100% narrative. They’re a cocktail of the two mixed just right.
This poem certainly doesn’t tell a story, but it uses narrative tools most readers recognize. Lyric-narrative, you could say, is a sort of little magic trick: the narrative tricks the reader into absorbing the lyric. This, above all else, I believe must be the primary mission of the poet: to get our lyrics down and to find a way for people to read them.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I always read while writing. I’m a bit of a method actor; if I can find some books to read that are in the mood/tone of what I’m writing, I’m all over it. In this case, I was reading Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk quite a bit. Both write about the natural world in lyric-narratives that are approachable yet mysterious and beautiful and meaningful at the same time. I was also reading Robert Wrigley, James Kimbrell, Judy Jordan, and Davis McCombs quite a bit, all poets who work a bit more in narrative like myself but are clearly in love with the short lyric as well.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
My ideal audience member is someone who thinks they hate poetry. I challenge every single poem I write to be clear and to be transformative. I want my poems to make basic, logical sense and to transport the reader from their subways, living rooms, classes. But I also challenge each poem to be, you know, an actual poem, not just a collection of easy-to-read lines that may or may not take the reader somewhere beyond themselves. It’s the complexity of the line and how each line works together that I think has the power to truly move and relocate the reader. But if the lines are too esoteric for the general reader to follow, I think you’ve lost the war before the battle’s even begun. What cracks me up about all of this is how often people say they don’t like poetry when they haven’t read a poem since sophomore year of high school. I’d hate poetry too if I stopped reading it at the age of sixteen. But it’s our job to thwart such beliefs. It’s our responsibility to, with our work, change minds. So it has to stand on its own, but it can’t just stand there. Am I doing that? Probably not. But I’d think myself a fraud if I didn’t try.
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 yeah, I workshopped this quite a bit with my peers and professors at Southern Illinois University Carbondale where I got my MFA. Judy Jordan was my primary mentor. Her fingerprints are all over Ghost Gear and “Singing,” but Rodney Jones and Allison Joseph and many of my peers (particularly Martin Call, Jenna Bazzell, Alexander Lumans, and Aaron Wheetley) helped me put this poem (and all the others in the book) together.
I really believe that poetry is a collaboration with the world. The notion that we create this stuff in a vacuum is ridiculous. Could this poem have been written without me? Is “Singing” “my” poem? Sure. In a way. Some fool has to actually write down the words and make them work and such. But a poem doesn’t exist without a reader, and this poem wouldn’t have come to exist without SIUC’s MFA program and all the amazing people who fostered and supported me. So I rarely say a poem is mine. I much prefer to say a poem is ours.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s pretty short compared to most of the poetry I write but, otherwise, I’d say it’s pretty indicative of the Ghost Gear poems. I just finished the thirteenth draft of my second manuscript last Friday. It’s the first draft I’d really say is “complete” though I imagine it has quite a long way to go. Hell, it’s in all likelihood a total mess, but this draft is the first I’ve not felt queasy about. “Singing” really wouldn’t fit in this book, so I guess it’s different now that I’m working on a different book with a different tone and set of modes.
What is American about this poem?
I couldn’t say. I’m an American writing in America about America, but I think this poem could take place anywhere. Sure, I imagine some of it is more American than, say, Lithuanian, but I’m no expert in either!
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Finished. I wouldn’t try to publish a poem I’d abandoned!