Stefanie Wortman is the author of In the Permanent Collection, selected for the Vassar Miller Prize and published by the University of North Texas Press in 2014. Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Antioch Review, among other publications. In 2014, she was a Walter E. Dakin Fellow at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She currently lives in Rhode Island.
Again my mother makes me promise
never to have her cremated, as if I could
forget how different she and I are in our
senseless fears. I am so scared of burial,
that airless allotment of space the body
doesn’t need. But maybe she’s right
that grief should have a place to focus it.
You watch three pounds of ash dissolve
in water and suddenly, he’s everywhere,
the dead father, in the rivulet rain makes
on your windshield. Instead, allow
the stone’s symbolism, the highway
memorial cross’s ruthless precision,
even if implicating the faded grass
along the margin is almost, no is,
too much to bear. Who knows how
the dead feel about our solicitude.
Whether we fold them, gently, lovingly,
or not, into a coffin, into a box, they are
not folded, are not there, are not.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started the earliest version of this many years ago, not long after my father died. It began with an epigram that I long since discarded. It was a quote from a New York Times story about a crematorium in Georgia I think—I’ve forgotten the details now. For some reason, the people running it had not been cremating all the bodies they took on, and authorities found a large number of decomposing corpses in a shed. That story spurred the poem, but I decided it wasn’t necessary to keep a reminder of it, so I spared readers the gruesome details.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
It went through countless revisions over probably ten years. Of course, I was not actively working on it all that time. It went through some long dormant periods.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don’t necessarily believe in inspiration, but I do think that some poems arrive more whole than others. Most of the work this one required went into finding the right lines and balancing the rhetorical sense of the sentences with the rhythm of the lines.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I didn’t use any obvious formal constraints or techniques for this poem. I think it arrived at its final form when I was satisfied with the way the turns of mind fell. I needed to make the syntax of the poem convey its indecision—as in that long last sentence with its variations on not.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
I’m a fairly slow writer, but even for me, the length of its gestation is unusual. I think that has everything to do with the subject matter. My father’s death was something that I felt a need to write about early on, but also that I had to learn to write about over time.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I’m not sure. It appeared in Smartish Pace in 2010 as a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize, and it’s possible I didn’t know it was truly finished until they accepted it. Sometimes I send things out that feel provisionally finished, and after they have spent a few months working their way through the submissions pile at a journal, I can see them again more clearly and make more adjustments.
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 varies quite a lot. With some poems it’s easier to feel when they have reached their conclusion. Again, I think in this case, the long writing and thinking process has a lot to do with the very emotional subject matter.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, as I’ve already revealed, the dead father I refer to generically is my dead father. The opinions of the mother are those of my real mother, as best I understood them. Where the poem goes beyond those autobiographical facts, it travels less into fiction, I think, than into the territory of the essay.
Is this a narrative poem?
No, I think it’s an argument poem. It argues with itself about how much it matters what we do to memorialize the dead.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
The seeds of this poem are from a workshop I took on the ode. We were reading various kinds of odes, ancient and modern, and trying to write something public and grave, which felt somewhat foreign to the work of contemporary lyric poetry. I think that charge to write something that would feel important in a public sphere, not just in the one-to-one relationship of writer and reader, accounts for the move from my personal experience into these larger questions about proper mourning.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I write for a version of myself, I suppose. In some hypothetical scenario in which I didn’t write my own poems, I hope they would strike me as surprising and strange. When they’re at their best, they retain some strangeness for me, even though they are also familiar.
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 members of that initial workshop saw a nascent version, and because I was working on this poem relatively early in my writing life, it passed under the eyes of several teachers who were very influential on its and my development. These days, my first reader is usually my husband. He is a prose writer and an astute reader of poems.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
To me, it feels more earnest. Many of my poems have a bitter kind of humor or irony that is missing in this one.
What is American about this poem?
Maybe there’s something particularly American in the sense that customs are very fluid—that there’s no clear guide for how to send off the dead, but various ways we have to negotiate for ourselves. It would be interesting to write a poem that wasn’t American. I don’t think I can escape it.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Even after such a long process, I would still say abandoned. Maybe this is a poem that was never going to feel entirely adequate to its impulse, but it felt important to write, to revise, and eventually to include in the book.