Born in Hartford, CT in 1975, Jason Tandon is the author of four books of poetry, including The Actual World, Quality of Life, and Give Over the Heckler and Everyone Gets Hurt, winner of the 2006 St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection from Black Lawrence Press. His poems have been featured on NPR, and have appeared in such journals and magazines as Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, North American Review, and Esquire. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Middlebury College, and his M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Since 2008, he has taught in the Arts & Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.
SUDDEN DEATH IN MIDDLE AGE
When I heard that he’d had a heart attack
on a flight from Boston to Detroit
I went out to water the pots of sage
that flourish with little attention
on our west-facing stoop.
Straining to hear the water
seep through the soil, I saw an ant colony
migrating in multiple files
across the sidewalk.
On my hands and knees
what had looked like an organized march
was a frenzied mob of thousands
trampling one another
as if trapped inside a stadium riot—
the way that painting by Seurat
looks like a sunny day in the park,
crowds of people lounging
on the banks of a blue river,
but stand too close
and the images divide
into distinct dots of color
that dizzy the head and nauseate.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I began the poem in May 2013. While I don’t have the earliest notes, my first typed draft shows lines about the purple sage. A couple years prior, my wife and I had bought our first house and I did the landscaping. I bought purple salvia plants for the front flower beds—I don’t know why these popped into my head when I began the poem, but I didn’t think salvia had the right sound. The first complete stanza was the description of the ant colony, which I had seen at some point in front of our house, and I did in fact get down on my hands and knees.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem underwent few revisions, which was rare for me at that time. It came together in about a week, but there were a couple of associations and connections my brain made without my conscious involvement.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Almost all of my poems are the result of sitting down and writing, often forcing myself to do so at an appointed time. I’ve now written nearly three hundred poems (for better or worse), and only a handful have come to me spontaneously, nearly fully formed, almost always when reading the poems of others.
The opening stanza about an acquaintance who has had a heart attack and the connection to Seurat were “received.” The connection to Seurat, for example, came to me while lying on the couch reading Robert L. Herbert’s Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society, though oddly Seurat had not yet been mentioned in the book. Now that I consider it, Seurat must have popped into my mind because “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” is probably the first painting I remember having a strong affinity for in my life since I was introduced to it (and to pointillism) in my seventh-grade French class.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
When I was writing this poem, I was still very much under the influence of Jane Kenyon’s work, so I was consciously trying to imitate her. In terms of technique, I was writing lyrical narratives with fairly consistent stanza lengths (in this poem it ended up 5-4-5-4-4), focusing closely on concrete, realistic details. Unlike Kenyon, who liked to remain faithful to a specific narrative or event throughout the whole poem, and close with a particular detail or image that would then resonate in the silence that followed, I wanted the poem to have a couple of turns—in this case, beginning with the news of a heart attack, moving to the ant colony, and ending with an examination of a Neo-Impressionist painting.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Nothing unusual. Even the “received” portions are common occurrences when I write poems, or at least I wait until they occur. No surprises or discoveries—no poetry.
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? How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I begin circulating “Sudden Death in Middle Age” for publication two months after it was finished—I don’t have any rules about this practice, though I have learned a bit better when not to send a poem out. When I began writing seriously, I wasted a lot of editors’ time sending out far too many poems that just weren’t ready.
“Sudden Death in Middle Age” was rejected twelve times, and accepted almost one year to the day when it was finished, by Richard Jones at Poetry East. In fact, this poem started a wonderful writer-editor relationship that has continued for the last six years, and Richard graciously wrote a blurb for The Actual World.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two? Is this a narrative poem?
I want to be careful here with this response, so as not to dispel any “truthiness” about the poem that readers might take as part of the pleasure of reading it. There are elements of the poem that are fact, that happened—the migrating ant colony, for example—but none of what appears as a linear narrative happened in this sequence in my life. The poem is collage. And, I hate to say, I had no one, no specific event, in mind regarding the poem’s first stanza. The problem with revealing this of course is that it can come across as exploitative, or offensive to those who might have actually experienced something like this.
I wanted something, though, before introducing the sage and the ants, a framing human context. Now that I think of it, I’m sure I had in mind Robert Bly’s dictum (who I was also reading a great deal at the time), that a poem must have images, ideas, and “some sort of troubled speaker.” I very much enjoy reading and writing lyrical narratives, but my approach to writing lyrical narratives was and still is to sacrifice all truth for the sake of poetry, for the art.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I remember falling under the spell of Wordsworth’s ideas in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads about writing in a common language for common people. I don’t take this idea as condescending, and I do recognize the complexities and nuances where Wordsworth elaborates. I understand also how his essay must be examined through our contemporary lenses. Essentially, though, I think of it as the difference between non-academic and academic poetry, the self-expressive Romantic lyric and, say, “The Waste Land.” Another way I think about this is in the contemporary sense: the aesthetic difference between the accessible poem and the experimental or elliptical, which “tri[es] to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves,” to use Stephanie Burt’s coinage and definition.
I also feel a kinship with Charles Simic’s poetic approach: in a Paris Review interview, he said he wanted to compose “something seemingly artless and pedestrian to surprise the reader by conveying so much more.” One of the best compliments I have received as a poet was years ago after a reading. A high school student came up to me to say that she really liked my poems—she didn’t know “what they were about,” but she got the sense when they ended that there was a “deeper meaning.” She said this enthusiastically, with no trace of frustration or annoyance. That is the line I wish to tow in my poems.
My ideal readers are those people who show up to a public library on a Sunday to hear the “featured reader,” especially the ones who listen with eyes closed, and then read a crumpled poem of their own during the open mic.
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?
I used to show drafts only to my wife, and I stopped that practice a few years ago. I don’t show them to anyone before I send them out. Unless an editor suggests a change with which I agree, I am the sole creator and primary reader of my poems (again, for better or worse).
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It’s different from the poems I am writing now in terms of its narrative and stanzaic approach. You can read this difference emerging in The Actual World by the end of Part I in poems such as “In the Country” and “At a Loss.” They become shorter and more imagistic; I liken this approach to Japanese brush painting, a minimalist, essentialist style.
What is American about this poem?
On a surface level, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for men and women in America, and I think the poem does deal with the idea of the typical American pace of life as stressful, chaotic. In terms of genre, I read it as an Americanized, self-expressivist Romantic lyric, the kind ushered in by Emerson, then Whitman. An individual’s daily experiences or observations, an individual life, has some intrinsic artistic worth. When it comes to poetry, I think that’s an American idea.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
This poem was finished. Imaginatively and creatively, it was as much as I could muster at the time. When I wrote the last line, I heard an audible click.