Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jenny Molberg

Jenny Molberg’s debut collection of poetry, Marvels of theInvisible, won the 2014 Berkshire Prize (Tupelo Press, 2017). Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Copper Nickel, Boulevard, Poetry International, Best New Poets, and other publications. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Missouri and Co-editor of Pleiades.



I want to see, somewhere,
the hot, cocooned unfolding
of metamorphosis. The caterpillars
are flown in from El Salvador,
or New Guinea, and inside
the dewed glass, shadows
of men in white coats cloak
the tic of emergent wings—
What of the future do you hold
inside yourself? See: if you take a scalpel
and puncture the chrysalis,
it will explode—yellow goo
of cells, burst cells, amino acids,
proteins, here a bit of gut,
here a bit of brain.

A thing builds a shell around itself,
dissolves, becomes another thing.
The way, when you are wrecked
with love, you take only what you need,
you, liquid version of yourself,
all heart cells and skin cells—
here a trough of heart,
here, gutter of liver, channel
of hearing or touch. What remains,
as with the caterpillar, is memory.
See, we melt entirely.

I have been a child, a lake, a glacier,
glacial pool, woman, river of woman,
another woman, an older one.
The oldest scientist asks, If we are all
creatures of transformation,
if we are never quite the same,
what are we
when we arrive at the moment of death?
It is easier to think in death
that I am me, but dying. See: 1668.
The Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam
dissects a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici.
And though we now think
everything ends,
turns to soup, to river, to ash
and what’s passed is past, he unfolds
the white sides of the insect and reveals
two wing-buds, tucked
tight inside the skin.

Now, as I watch the knife
pierce the chrysalis,
a river of cells swelling through
and out, I remember
what my father once said,
that what you see is only a fraction
of what you can believe,
and against the edge of the chrysalis,
embryonic half-wings twitch
without a body, waiting
for their slow decay, and then
for the next body
that opens itself
to the risk of flight.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was composed in 2013. I was writing a collection of poems that responded to scientific texts and letters from the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The anecdote about Cosimo de Medici visiting Jan Swammerdam’s curiosity cabinet is taken from Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe, edited by J.V. Field and Frank A.J.L. James. I also discovered a webcam from the Florida Museum of Natural History, where you could follow rain-forest butterflies during their process of metamorphosis.

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

This was not a poem that fell from the sky; I am sure I drafted the poem at least twenty times. I wrote the first draft in 2013 and the final draft sometime before it was first published in 2015.

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

I absolutely believe in inspiration. Actually, sometimes I have to learn to tame my inspiration urge, so as not to constantly write poems on subjects that are inherently “poetic.” I believe it is important to write to my cultural moment and my own personal experience, and I like to put pressure on myself to invent. One thing I love about the scientific texts I explore is their language. Centuries-old science that now may seem outdated to us was filled with moments of shock and wonder for scientists then. I love to mine these texts for diction that I may not have otherwise used, so I would say that I did “receive” the gift of their language and astonishment. I do feel I have “received” poems from the poetry gods before, but this is not one of them. Yes—sweat and tears galore, with this poem and so many others. But I live for that outpouring.

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

Often, I’ll give myself rules for a poem that refuses to be contained. With this one, I didn’t though—pardon the awful pun—I just let it fly.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Perhaps this is unusual: the lines in the poem that use a first-person pronoun came from dreams, the kind of dreams that are so powerful that they change the way you see yourself. As I was doing this research and watching the butterflies slowly emerging from their cocoons, I was dreaming of being a woman who had lived forever, who kept melting into different bodies of water and growing back into another woman again. This reminded me of something my father, who is a pathologist, said, that “what you see is only a fraction of what you can believe.” I am so struck by that word “can,” because it extends the ability of the imagination much further than the senses or any scientific fact. I think that poets and scientists share this quality, to be able to imagine possibilities so beyond logical proof that they allow for discovery.

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

The poem appeared in a feature at The Missouri Review in 2015, so about 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?

This is probably a fault of mine—I often get excited about new work and send it out too early when left to my own devices. I seek out workshops with friends to try to prevent this. I’d love to have the patience many poets have, to let the poems marinate awhile—with some I do, with others, I get impatient. It’s my hope that I have good judgement about this, but who knows.

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

“Fact” is an interesting word in the context of this poem, because facts often change. In many ways, this is what the poem is about—there was the belief that the caterpillar turned completely to goo in the chrysalis, then Swammerdam showed us that this is not entirely true, as the tracheal tubes stay put and these things called “imaginal discs” are there inside the caterpillar, waiting to become parts like wings and eyes and antennae. This idea, I think, could be applied to human experience: the “fact” of me as a person can evolve. In terms of fiction: I think some people get tripped up on adhering to the literal, factual truth in poems, and one of the greatest lessons I learned from my teachers was that I could tell little lies to get to truer versions of the truth. My students think it’s hilarious when I tell them to lie, but I mean it! In a way, metaphors are lies, because (to take an example from the poem) I am obviously not a river. But the truer version of the truth is that I am.

Is this a narrative poem?

Can I be a pest and say yes and no? I think many of my poems have a narrative arc, but that may not make them necessarily “narrative poems.” Moments of lyricism seem important, too—asides and questions and wordplay and music-making are the most fun part of poems. Most of my favorite poems straddle this line.

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

Absolutely! Charlotte Smith and John Donne were a couple of my fascinations during the time I wrote this poem, but also Brigit Pegeen Kelly (always), Bruce Bond, B.H. Fairchild, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Carl Phillips, and Aracelis Girmay were teaching me about poetry through their words. They all still teach me, and many more.

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

Honestly, no, not while I write my first drafts. As I start to think about final drafts and publishing, though, I’d say that Kathryn Nuernberger is my ideal reader. She’s the Moore to my Bishop, as we like to joke. If I can make her laugh or cry (preferably both), I think I’ve done my job.

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, I often share my work with my dear friend and amazing poet Caitlin Pryor, as well as my always-teacher and good friend David Keplinger. I’ve recently started sharing poems with the poet Caridad Moro-Gronlier, whose work I admire. Bruce Bond and a handful of North Texas-affiliated poets have an annual poetry thread, where we write poems in a dialogue for about a month, and that is always fascinating and productive.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Ha! I’m not sure that it does—I think you picked a pretty emblematic one.

What is American about this poem?

What an interesting question. Perhaps the speaker of the poem is what is most American about the poem, as she watches the metamorphosis through a webcam in Florida, instead of doing first-hand research. Seems pretty lazy to me, speaker. Is that American? Probably.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I’d say the poem was finished, or at least I think it is.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Kathy Fagan

Kathy Fagan’s latest collection is Sycamore (Milkweed Editions, 2017). She is also the author of the National Poetry Series selection The Raft (Dutton, 1985), the Vassar Miller Prize winner MOVING & ST RAGE (Univ. of North Texas, 1999), The Charm (Zoo, 2002), and Lip (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2009). Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, Slate, FIELD, Narrative, and The New Republic, among other literary magazines, and is widely anthologized. Fagan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from, among others, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, The Frost Place, and the Ohio Arts Council. This year, she was awarded Ohio Poet of the Year for Sycamore. Director of Creative Writing and the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, she is currently Professor of English, Poetry Editor of OSU Press, and Advisor to The Journal.

after Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Seven-Sided Poem”
When I was dead, one of the whiter
sycamores who live on the river said,
Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?

To which the oak added, That’s not an accusation;
that’s a sympathetic question.

Little sumac said, Don’t step on me, even your spectral form!
The beech asked, Could we be cousins?
And the fig, Why did you never properly learn
to braid your hair?

When sequoia called to say,
You broke your vows, the birches said,
Take us with you; the birds went with her.

Magnolia, redbud, and cottonwood said,
Our hearts bleed, the way the rain.
But willow could say only, Garland, Tinsel.
As if I alone had been responsible for Christmas.

So I said, Listen, you trees
(though I could not speak),
I remember dying
to grow up. Standing
on tiptoe to pull my own baby
teeth. Crushing my pelvis
to kill any unborn hunched
in the warm center. I sometimes stayed
there myself. I sometimes left
for a long time and was late to return.

But I learned again, knees small and high, teeth
showing when I smiled,
clock after clock until quarter after clock,
sugar everywhere, loose and in cubes.
Açúcar it’s called, where I was conceived.

A man came round with his paint
roller to re-frost the scuffed bits.
(Men are whitewashing both sides of the equator.)
Someone brought his bird to the pool,
arranged a chaise for each of them.
Mothers with children in water wings.

I stepped into water as warm as my body was before I forgot it.
And the cold air after—
I had forgotten that, too.

Oh, but the meringue of the clouds was sweet
that second time. Copious
reasons for squinting, skin
wet or dry, one large hand untangling my hair.

You trees, I assure you, I was in full
possession of my body when I died,
all four of our blue eyes licked
and all the candles blown.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I’ve been lucky enough to tag along on a few international research trips with my husband, a physical chemist. I wrote the first draft of this poem in the office of a friend, a scientist-collaborator of my husband’s in fact, on a trip to Brazil in 2012. The building may have been standard issue suburban academic, circa mid-20th century, but outside the office window were several trees I could not immediately identify, filled with parrots—a pandemonium! I had also recently been to Miami—a greatly diverse and sophisticated city—which also happened to have been the location of my parents’ honeymoon many decades before. My parents were working-class people from New York City, my mom was first-generation American, and it was family legend I’d been conceived on this trip. The conflation of these circumstances got the poem going, but it was re-reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade (translated by Bishop, herself an ex-pat living in Brazil and learning Portuguese), specifically his “Seven-Sided Poem,” that gave it momentum.

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

Still writing in longhand, it’s hard to know exactly without some laborious digging into my files, but it’s typical for me to work a draft over at least a dozen times in longhand before keyboarding it in to Word, and then fairly typical to fool with another dozen or so drafts on screen before a poem is close to “done.”

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

I’ve actually sweat and cried at various jobs I’ve had, but rarely has that happened when writing poems. Reading poems, but not writing them. Nor do I think of myself as “inspired” or plugged in to some larger creative construct. I’m old enough to know how my poems get made: I take lots of notes, some continue to seem interesting, some join together, musical/syntactical arrangements begin to work themselves out, an image/observation joins another image/observation, and then a full draft gets born, revisions happen, etc. That said, I used to believe in that old workshop saw: Write what you know. Now I write what I want to know. The photographer, Diane Arbus, said her mentor told her to take pictures of everything she’d never seen before. I think my impulse is similar. Freshness and surprise allow a poet to re-access and re-assess information—autobiography, history, art, politics—in extremely productive ways.

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

After a few drafts, it occurred to me I was modeling the Drummond de Andrade poem. At that point I became conscious, not of his lineation so much, but of his stanza. I decided I wanted eleven “sides,” or stanzas, to homage Drummond de Andrade’s seven.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Well, aside from the de Andrade/Bishop influence, which was a one-off for me, though I admire both poets enormously, the most unusual thing about this poem is that I had a sense, a prescient sense really, that this poem of conception would become the final poem in the manuscript I was working on. I had most of the poems written for Sycamore, but not all, nor had I yet submitted it for publication. But suddenly I was allowing trees—many different kinds of trees—to address me directly, using my given name. I became willing—eager even—for a mythology of sorts to emerge between the trees and me, to become a character in my own book. I had long before crafted (I say crafted because to use the verb “write” doesn’t seem quite correct) the frontispiece to Sycamore, a “family tree,” chart or legend, “Platanaceae Family Tree,” and I felt a loose, intuitive connection to it as I worked on “Eleven-Sided....” I rarely write to a poetry project (though I have), nor do I trust much in happy accident (though I have), but in this case the results of both were generative enough to result in the opening and closing moments of the book.

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

It appeared in Miramar, a small indie print journal from California, in 2014.

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 poem to poem, but because I’m not as conscientious a submitter as I wish I were—I often put off submitting poems or don’t simultaneously submit; I understand this is true of many women poets—it’s usually at least six months to a year before I attempt to make work public.

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

That’s an interesting question because when I write poems I rarely consider notions of fact, fiction and negotiating the two. Re-reading the poem now, I see that quite obviously I was fictionalizing my own death. And of course, trees don’t talk—at least not in language we humans hear. There are few “facts” in this poem, but its emotional truths feel very direct to me, as direct as any in Sycamore.

Is this a narrative poem?

If one thinks that the strategies of lyrical memoir can also be narrative, then yes. It does tell a story.

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

As I mentioned, I was reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade in translation. I was also reading what I could find in translation of the indigenous Guarani poet, Susy Delgado, in addition to prose by Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector. I’m logically drawn, when I travel, to writers of the region—and often it’s the tension between their point of view and some history of my own that merges to form the beginnings of a poem for me.

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

I think I must be my own ideal reader now. Yes, I can’t help but speak to poets before and, hopefully, to poets to come, and those poets who are my contemporaries. But I’m no longer ashamed to admit that I began writing poems to keep myself company—the same reason I read books as a child. I was reading a book of poems the other day, for professional reasons, in a crowded, noisy restaurant, and the lines were so completely lyrically enthralling that the outer world dropped away, leaving me with the words, the music, and the meaning of her lines only—the writer and I lived in some space between us and our experiences, bridging them, enhancing them. If I can write lines like that, lines that keep me and another reader company, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something like art.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Milkweed gave me a poetry editor, a poet-editor, for Sycamore. I haven’t had that level of attention on my work since I was in grad school, if ever. I wish I had people with whom to share work on a regular basis. As it is, I’m extremely grateful for one or two readers to whom I send work—one just to drop it in his inbox so it feels like I’ve taken a step from inside my head to someone else’s, another who is different enough from me that I feel I’m taking a risk sending the work to her. They’re terrific poets, both, and generous friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

This poem feels a little more engaged in magical thinking than other poems of mine, and perhaps even more nakedly autobiographical than other poems in Sycamore.

What is American about this poem?

South American, strictly speaking. It’s also entirely self-mythologizing, which seems characteristically both North and South American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Because it felt to me, as I mentioned earlier, somehow connected to the prefatory legend in the book, and because I knew the poem would complete the book, “Eleven-Sided…” is more finished than abandoned. Or more resolved. As if certain notes were hit that were inevitable. The homage aspect of the poem also helped allow the poem to be a discrete and finished thing.