Friday, February 24, 2017

Ellery Akers

Ellery Akers’s collection, Practicing the Truth, won the 2014 Autumn House Poetry Prize, the 2015 IPPY Silver Medal Award for Poetry, and the 2015 San Francisco Book Festival Award. Her previous collection, Knocking on the Earth, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News. She is also the author of a children’s novel, Sarah’s Waterfall. She has taught writing at Cabrillo College and at conferences and currently teaches private poetry workshops in Marin County, California. An award-winning visual artist as well, Akers exhibits her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums nationally.


One year a general
packs the dead arithmetic in a drawer—
all the subtractions, divisions.
The next year, vines cover the bunkers.
The brain resumes its starbursts of rehearsal.
The heart leaps under the defibrillator.
The bone eases into its socket.
Skin grows back. Scars fade. Eyes clear.
Look at the trees at the burn, six years later.
Look at the sprout on a hay bale
on a truck. Look at the woman who was raped,
had her hands cut off in a creek:
She’s getting married.
The choir sings. The bride smiles.
The groom slips a ring on her hook.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This was a 9/11 poem. I wrote it in September of 2001, after hiking in an area in the Marin hills that had been burnt in a fire. I’d been thinking about war, and noticed that the hills, which had been scorched and black, had turned green again, and that made me feel more hopeful about healing, regeneration, and the possibility of peace. Other elements entered into the poem; I noticed a green shoot growing out of a hay bale. I read several magazine articles, one about 9/11 medical crews, and one about the wedding of Mary Vincent, the woman I refer to in the poem.

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

About eight revisions. I brought it to my writing group four times, and after six months, I felt it was finished. This version was called “ Healing” and had two lines that mentioned healing. I sent it out, but no one accepted it, and I put it a drawer for ten years. In 2011, I took it out again, realized that explicitness was not serving the poem, cut the lines about healing, and sent it to Poetry, who took it. Christian Wiman, the editor at the time, wisely suggested changing the title to Hook, and I agreed. I’d been attached to the idea of healing—that some things can be healed, while others can never be healed and can only be mourned—but the word itself was not serving the poem.

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

If inspiration means taking dictation from the muse, and ending up with a perfect draft, then I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in quantity. This poem was a result of forty two pages of free-writes. I looked them over and circled the good lines and stuck them together. I usually get about 1 out of forty pages of junky free-writes that has energy, or sometimes, just a couple of lines. I feel my job is to fail, and to enjoy failing, and pile up masses of material. I see it all as play. I like to trick myself with the same exercises I give my students; I find the concept of “exercises” is a freeing one for me that liberates me from trying to write well. I often “mistranslate” from the Swedish, or put ten strong verbs on the top of my page and try to include them in the poem. In this case the verbs  “pack” and “slip” made it into the final draft. 

However, I did I experience inspiration once: I wrote a long poem that was “given” and had a hard time writing fast enough to keep up with the outpouring. But again, that was after writing thirty pages of junk: the gift happened on page thirty one. I’m also a visual artist, and have the same low average in painting. My hunch is this is fairly normal. I love what Eavan Boland says: “ I always think of myself as working on a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal…. Unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.”

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

I tried to get the creek, truck and hook slant rhymes close together in the poem. And I had a hard time with the beginning. Nothing worked until I leafed through my old notebooks—I never throw anything away—and found an old free-write on healing that had never coalesced into a poem, but had some good lines. I inserted them into "Hook" and was able to make the beginning work.

Was there anything unusual about how you wrote this poem?

I don’t often use old material in a new poem.

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

About five months.

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, though I never send anything out without my writing group looking at it. Sometimes a poem, like this one, will sit in a drawer for years before I’m able to look at it with a cold eye. Sometimes I’ll send it out within a few months.

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

Except for the first four lines, almost everything else is factual, though I imagined myself into the wedding scene and added a few fictional details.

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 was reading a lot of classical Chinese poems about war, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s “ I lived in the first century of world wars,” Blas de Otero’s poem, "Fidelity," and magazine articles about 9/11 and Mary Vincent.

William Stafford had a big influence on me—I was lucky enough to work with him briefly—especially when he said, “Inspiration doesn’t lead to writing, writing leads to inspiration” and “lower your standards.” I love his books about writing, Writing the Australian Crawl, and Getting the Knack.

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

I don’t write with anyone in mind. However, I like to feel my poems are accessible enough that anyone could understand them. I’d be pleased if someone who didn’t ordinarily read poetry chanced on a poem of mine and enjoyed it.

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?

Yes, my writing group of forty years. I’m grateful to these wonderful writers, and if they tell me to cut something, I take it out. Sometimes, though, I have to add something to make a poem work and then I read Stafford again, who says, “You have to learn to say welcome.” He made me realize that well of creativity never runs dry; one can always get more.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I write a lot of poems about war or climate change, subjects I care passionately about, but often they’re too high-pitched to work as poems. 

What is American about this poem?

It was inspired by 9/11, by an American wildfire, and by Mary Vincent, an American hero of mine.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?