Friday, January 5, 2018

David Baker

David Baker is author of twelve books of poetry, including Swift: New and Selected Poems (forthcoming 2019), Scavenger Loop (2015), and Never-Ending Birds (2009), which was awarded the Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011. His six books of prose include Seek After: On Seven Modern Lyric Poets (2018), Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (2014) and, with Ann Townsend, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (2007). Among his awards are prizes and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, and Society of Midland Authors. He holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.




SWIFT

1.
into flight, the name as velocity,
a swift is one of two or three hundred
swirling over the post office smokestack.
First they rise come dusk to the high sky,

flying from the ivy walls of the bank
a few at a time, up from graveyard oaks
and back yards, then more, tightening to orbit
in a block-wide whirl above the village.


2.
Now they are a flock. Now we’re holding hands.
We’re talking in whispers to our kind, who
stroll in couples from the ice cream shop
or bike here in small groups to see the birds.

A voice in awe turns inward; as looking
down into a canyon, the self grows small.
The smaller swifts are larger for their singing,
the spatter and high cheeep, the shrill of it.


3.
And their quick bat-like alternating wings.
And the soft pewter sky sets off the black
checkmark bodies of the birds as they skitter
like water toward a drain. Now one veers,

dives, as if wing-shot or worse out of the sky
over the maw of the chimney. Flailing—
but then pulling out, as another dips
and the flock reverses its circling.


4.
They seem like leaves spinning in a storm,
blown wild around us, and we their witnesses.
Witness the way they finish. The first one
simply drops into the flue. Then four,

five, in as many seconds, pulling out of
the swirl, sweep down. So swiftly, we’re alone.
The sky is clear of everything but night.
We are standing, at a loss, within it.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I remember, in this case, specifically. I started this poem in the late summer of 2009. I revised it through early summer 2010, and it appeared in Lisa Russ Spaar’s column in Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2010. I’m still pleased with this poem; it serves as the opening poem to my volume, Scavenger Loop, and it provides the title for my forthcoming book, Swift: New and Selected Poems.

The birds—the chimney swifts—are real and local. Every summer for decades they assemble in my village in Ohio, and especially in August and September they perform this dusk flight, gathering from all over the village into a loose cloud, then slowly into a tighter funnel circling and dipping lower over the big chimney of our old post office. At sundown, in twenty-thirty minutes, they swoop down one at a time, in increasing numbers, and disappear into the flue and spend the night, dozens, hundreds, packed in the three-story big brick stack. The poem started by watching, evening after evening. Often still I stand there on the corner across the street, alone, and then sometimes people join me. We are quiet. We watch them. We wish we could fly. The swifts, like bats, fly with alternating wingbeats, one wing up when the other’s down.

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

I am pretty slow and obsessive. I don’t count revisions, but I imagine this poem took a dozen large-scale revisions and maybe three dozen more with tweaks. The early poem was in unmeasured lines in eight-line stanzas, with no sections. Then it was in couplets. I kept sharpening, pressing it into syllabics. There were two or three spots where the phrasing evaded me. About a year elapsed between first partial draft and final version. There is no hurry in poetry, right?

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

I believe inspiration comes to us when we are working. In + spirare = to breathe in, to be breathed-in-to. Much of the detailing of this poem was observed. It was not given. It was received. The tone of “Swift” is part of a larger tone I try and try to achieve—something like a quiet and very precise attention. Something about presence and the proximity of something other than myself, that other breathing thing. I don’t have words for what I mean; I don’t want them. I want the poem to go in search of that tone, as an achievement of syntax, phrasing, all the musical possibilities of the language, an achievement of discovery and that odd ancient newness of a real poem.

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


I cannot really separate principles of technique from aspects of subject. One enables the other. Of course I employ technique. The fundamentals of syntax, word choice, lineation are all technique.  I have been trying to work in syllabics for many years, more than twenty. I like the rhythmic fluctuation alongside (or within) the regular mathematics of syllabics. That is, I don’t want a bouncy recurrence of rhythm, but instead a dynamic tension set up between the regularity of syllabics and the variable rhythm of my own sense of music. A tension between the math and the music of the thing. That’s it. 

What else was I thinking about, regarding technique? Pattern of image; line and stanza and (in this case) section; music music music in the form of harmony, repetition, counterpoint, modulation, key change. I wanted this poem to sound like a viola on the two lower strings. That’s the quiet pitch of the swifts in flight.

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

I take notes by hand. I write drafts on the keyboard. I print drafts out and revise by hand and in my head, and then revise on the keyboard. I walk around with multiple drafts in my folder and in my head. I take my time. That is not unusual in my practice. 

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

I think there were just a few months, maybe three or four.  This particular venue—Lisa’s column in the Chronicle—had a pretty quick turnaround. The more usual wait is a year or two between a poem’s being finished and its journal appearance, and sometimes longer. As I said, there is no hurry in 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?

I am slow. I will not send a poem off for some time, months. I have been too hasty at times, and usually regretted my haste. I don’t have rules about this. I write fewer poems these days and try to respond as I can when editors may be so kind as to invite me to submit. I’m holding a couple of poems right now, waiting, checking to see if they are really ready to be seen. One is about a month old, and one—which I keep fiddling with, tiny changes, back and forth—has been “finished” for about six months. You know, you make a tiny change somewhere and that effect may ripple far off.

Some of my caution, or patience, derives from being a poetry editor. I read thousands upon thousands of poems a year at The Kenyon Review. People are writing too many poems; or, I mean, are sending too many out to journals. Instead of writing five new poems, I wish they’d write one new poem and revise it five times or give it five times as much time to settle. 

We are too busy making products and not poems, not poetry. So many of the poems I read are just not quite finished, at least to my sense of it all. One more draft, I think over and again. There is no hurry in poetry. There is, to be sure, hurry in our hearts, hurry in our professional identities (with all those resumes and professional reviews and applications). Hurry in our need for validation and attention. But the art of poetry is far more patient and far more demanding than the profession of poetry.

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

I don’t know. Some of my poems are close to actual, close to being autobiographical experience or memory. Are they fact? Some of my poems are made-up, mostly. 

But really, these are not a useful binary, in my way of thinking. The putting of a word onto paper makes it an artful, and fictional, gesture. And a word on a page is, of course, a real thing, a materiality, an art-in-fact, artifact. A work of art, a poem, is more interested in being an authenticity than a fact; more interested in being artful than make-believe. They are always both.

Is this a narrative poem?

All poems are narrative poems. Yes, “Swift” is narrative. It is also lyric. 
   
I intend to write more about this distinction sometime soon. I think the dichotomy set up between narrative poetry and lyric poetry is, alas, a false one, another false and misleading binary, though I understand its history and its use. To the Greeks a narrative poem was an epic; a dramatic poem was a choral play; and lyric poem was a relatively shorter poem to be sung with a lyre or lute. Now, of course, we have the novel instead of the epic, and the play instead of choral drama. And our poetry has the potential to maintain and employ all of these attributes—of story, of song, of performance, of communal memory, of intimate personal insight. 
   
But back to that binary and my dispute. What I think is this: To be a poem a thing must have vivid lyrical qualities. These may be sonorous qualities, they may be discordant, they may be coherent, they may be wildly jagged. But a poem is a lyrical form of language. Poems are lyric. 
   
Poems are also narrative. All language is narrative. The fundamental relationship between subject and predicate is narrative. A narrative doesn’t necessarily require a long, sustained storyline or chronology. But time passes in the interstices between word and word, thing and act, and this temporal passage—whether it is almost instantaneous or epochal—contains story. Pound’s little verb-free “In a Station of the Metro” is a narrative poem and a lyric poem.
   
“Swift” has other narrative aspects, of course, too. It uses those things we tend to assign to fiction, like characters and setting and action. But I hope its lyric qualities are as vivid and rich as its narrative ones, in balance, in this case, two wings alternating into flight.
 
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I do remember some of what I was reading when I wrote “Swift.” I read all the time, both for my daily pleasure and for the professional pleasure and task at The Kenyon Review. I was reading Stanley Plumly at the time, whom I read often. I’ve learned more about syllabics—and the dynamic rhythmic possibilities of syllabics—from Stan and from Marianne Moore than from any other poets. I was reading, I believe, Carl Phillips’ Speak Low; it had just come out, I believe, in 2009 when I started “Swift.” I was reading Dickinson poems, her bird poems, of which there are scads. I was also reading those weird little Cesar Aira novels during those couple of years. Go figure.

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

I write for myself and strangers. That’s Gertrude Stein. I’m with her. I write to attend to the music in my heart and my head, and I write—or aspire to write—in such a way that someone I don’t know may read and find purposeful music in my poems. I write for Dickinson and Keats, too. Relentless readers with endless patience and infinite soulful wisdom.

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 wait a while. I don’t show early drafts to anyone. I know what to do. I know where I tend to mess up or get hasty. I know from all the Kenyon Review poems what most of the day’s clichés are.

Then my first and best reader is Page Starzinger, my partner now of more than ten years. She is relentless and understanding. She knows those habits of mine, too, and her aesthetic and critical senses are sufficiently different from mine that she pushes me out of my comfort or my go-to stances.  My background is music and hers is visual art. That’s a good difference.

And yes, I have a small group of dear trusted other readers, whom I turn to at different times for different things: Stan Plumly again, Carl Phillips, Jill Bialosky (my blessing-of-an-editor), Linda Gregerson, Ann Townsend, Terry Hummer, sometimes other folks. But these particular friends have helped me for years, decades, and each brings a different set of questions to the page. Poetry, such a private individual art, depends on others. I love that.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I don’t know. I’m not the right person to make that assessment. It’s different because it’s about swifts rather than deer or cornfields or my neighbors or ecological degradation? 

What is American about this poem?

I can either ignore this question or write a book. 

I am American, my idiom is American, and it is specific to my Midwestern life, my village life, all those other aspects of identity that make up a self or selves. The aesthetic is probably a version of latter-day Romanticism, wishful semi-post-Capitalism, devout naturalism—spooky action-at-a-distance—and some other isms. I write a lot about American poetry and poets. I guess I’m one. 

There’s a lot more to say, about hopefulness, or community, or privilege, or awe, or music. But the more I explain the poem the farther it seems to me.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

The version of “Swifts” I read in public these days is slightly different, revised since it appeared in Scavenger Loop. There’s one rascal phrase I keep adjusting. I read it different ways, depending.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Yes.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Sasha Pimentel

Born in Manila, Philippines and raised in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Sasha Pimentel is the author of For Want of Water (Beacon Press, 2017), selected by Gregory Pardlo as winner of the 2016 National Poetry Series. She’s also the author of Insides She Swallowed (West End Press, 2010), winner of the 2011 American Book Award. Selected as a finalist for the 2015 Rome Fellowship in Literature (American Academy of Arts and Letters), her work has recently appeared in such journals as New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, LitHub, Guernica and the Academy of American Poets website, among others. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, on the border of Ciudad Juárez, México, to students from all over the Americas in their bilingual (Spanish-English) MFA Program.



THAI MASSAGE

In the dark room he asks me
to change where we have to
bow below the ceiling, coughing
while he draws the sheet hung
to save my modesty, though
I have none to save. I peel off
my wet dress for pants thin
as the pillowcases I slept on
as a girl in Georgia, the purple
tie-dye ballooning my pelvis,
and I knot the remaining cloth
at my navel, fold the sheathing
I arrived inside, seams filled
with smoke, city, into a sharp
black square at the corner
of the single mattress. I can see
his body moving quickly, quietly
lighting candles behind the cot
-ton: divided, we both know not
to speak. This is the last trip
I’ll take with the one I still call
my husband, this man and this
room now a bought hour
of silence from the silence of
my body walking behind another
in Bangkok, and I pleat myself
into the center of the bed, my
calves under my thighs, palms
sweating the lap, the way Asian
women know to wait. He senses
my pinned posture and pulls
the twin sheet back, and for
the first time I see him beyond
instruction, or introduction, how
the small hoods of his eyes drip
into his smooth high cheeks,
his tendonous neck and clavicles
rooting to a person more furtive
than my own. He asks me where
I hurt, everywhere. But more
at my neck and lower back,
because I won’t ask this stranger
to cup the cone of my caged
heart. The springs depress
where he has sunk in to hold
me, his chest at the hump
of my spine, my hands in
his, our fingers entrenched.
He says of our shared, colored
skin same, same, and I say sawat
dee ka
because I do not know
how to use the language past
gratitude—my accent broken,
tiger balm spiriting his pores,
and his breath at my neck, the two
candles hunkering blue light
in the corner, and somewhere
below, banned from this dark
room and in the laboring street
is the one who’s forgotten
to touch me, a man framing
in telephoto the smoky arms
of women frying chicken over gel
gas, and the foreheads of girls
hacking durian, their temples
shining, bent to the million
spines at each green shell, their
steel knives unstringing such
soft yellow fruit. Still to come
is a grief so large it will shape into
an estranged and swollen face
cursing me at the next party, our
future folding into our past, wine
staining our hands, our lips.
The sun drops, conspires
to further the darkness of this
blued room, where candles are
shivering in secret. The fan
whirs. The man embracing me
squeezes our four hands, and I
understand the gesture to trust
him. He swings me, cracks my back.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I first sat down to write this poem in December 2012. It started with a memory, and a feeling that I had about that memory.

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

Getting the rhythm of the poem’s language took some time. It was hard for me to get this poem’s rhythm, its voice and sense of line, and that took sustained days of writing over several weeks. The revising its nooks and crannies after the poem had taken its main shape took about a year. So some drafts. But I’m a really slow writer compared to other, better writers.

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

The scene of this poem came to me very quickly in the writing process, partly because I’d thought about the scene already, even if not yet in the terms of a poem. I guess you could say that was “received.”

But everything else was sweat, no tears. I tell my students that exactly where something is hardest to write is exactly where we should double down, and write it out. That difficult subject or emotion may be something about which we may want to cry. But I don’t believe that I should be so into my own work that I can be moved to tears by something I’ve written, or am writing, myself. I save my tears for symphonies; that scene in It’s Kind of a Fumny Story when they’re singing “Under Pressure”—singing it hard—and as the song softens, their faces become bathed in blue light; and other people’s poetry.

I believe in inspiration, but limitedly: that inspiration alone can’t make a poem. The rest is work.

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

I knew that I felt touched by this encounter, that I had witnessed in this person—a stranger—both an intimacy and an elegance that moved me. That cracked something open in me then, in my autobiographical time, something I could not name.

So in writing time, I sat down to try to get as close as I could to naming it. I sat down at first just to write a portrait of him, to try to find a language that could capture some of his dignity, and the intimacy that I’d felt. But in writing the portrait, I discovered that such intimacy of encounter necessitated a first person point-of-view, an exchange between two people that was sharpened by a single, personal “I.” I discovered, as I wrote the poem, that I couldn’t separate the “I” as character too far from the “I” that was me, Sasha writing it, because as I questioned from where that intimacy came, I realized it had originated from my own autobiographical hurt.

Likely for this masseuse, it was just another paid job, I another tourist. He wasn't the one who was changed by the experience, it was me. I think it was the gentlest that a man had touched me in years at that point in my life, maybe ever, without wanting something in return. I suppose that’s because what I had to give, the baht, was already given. I knew from my own childhood and almost all my experiences with men until my second husband, Michael, the touch of a man as only applied in desire, or violence. That men touched women’s bodies in order to receive, or to reflect themselves, back. To be touched physically, with hands that didn’t ask for my skin to swell—to meet those hands not by welt nor sexual surrender—it shocked me, stirred in me that maybe my body could live a different existence, as it does now. So while I first tried to write the poem in longer lines (a longer line can accommodate more possibilities in language), I learned while writing it that such a moment needed more breath, more hesitancy, more space for the speaker to breathe as she learned to realize in that moment what she was experiencing. In real life, it took me over a year to realize what I had experienced. But the poem needed that pained and mending understanding to happen in its own unfolding present.

In his essay “My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry,” Billy Collins writes: “[e]ven a poem based on a past event can give off a feeling of immediacy if it manages to convey an awareness that it exists in the present tense of its own unfolding—an awareness, ultimately, of its own language.” Meaning, if we are to leap in a poem beyond the first stirrings, or scene, into something larger than the first perception, it has to be through a concrete present that leaps by sonic and imagistic intuition into a new territory. Sometimes that new territory is a new knowledge, or a music, or an awareness that something will come from this—which is why in this poem there’s a hint to the future, a future the speaker can almost sight, but not quite. Why that future seems to wobble in the corners of the room, or in the fan, because though the speaker is moving into an awareness that something is happening, that she is experiencing something that will forever change her, she doesn’t know yet how those changes will happen. Only that she is being changed, will change.

Once I found the line length (the hardest thing for me to find), I could listen to the rhythm of the poem’s language, guided by the line telling me when to speak and when to pause. Then I followed that rhythm, and wrote the poem to be as long as it needed to be to tell its story. Which was longer than I’d initially conceived.

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

I think after I had typed several drafts and I still couldn’t find a line length that felt right, I had to hand-write the poem multiple times in different ways to slough off the visual habits I’d developed with my computer screen and word processor.

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

Four 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?

I always let a poem sit for months, more often a year or two. I’m old enough to know that if it turns out, after time, a poem I’ve written is shitty, that I can always write another one. I can out-wait the shittiness of my own writing. But not so old enough that I can come to a poem’s final form so quickly, as more seasoned poets can do, they live with the song in their ears so.

I let a poem wait inside my computer, or if I really like it, I print it out and lay it on a corner of my desk, so I if glance at it between reading and studying later, I might remember it’s there. I need for time to efface the superficial layers between what’s real in a poem—if there’s a real emotion there that needs words—really needs it, something plain and true—versus the want to have written.

I don’t trust myself because I’m a nerd. Michael says he often wakes to me swiping on the square blue glow of my ipad, and I’m reading poems or essays on craft then. I tell my students, why waste a minute not in poetry? Even the busiest of people can keep poetry books near the toilet—there’s always time to read the most incredible thing to read, even if what your body is doing is ordinary. But I fall in love with other poets’ poems so much, so easily, sometimes I just want to write because that poet has opened something in me. Natasha Tretheway’s “Repentance,” for example. Great art makes you want to make great art. But it doesn’t mean that what you make will also be great.

I’ve developed an aesthetic that doesn’t believe in poetry as experiment, nor poetry as play. I think loss is the necessary bitter half to the poems that end up compassionate, or generous—that the capaciousness of a poem comes from its own understanding of what we risk, how great it is what can be lost. And because a poem’s form is part language, part space or silence, I think if we dare to speak against that whitespace, it ought to have as its engine, necessity. “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,” Philip Levine titles a poem, and while I fail to achieve that standard, I take the advice to heart with each poem I’m writing now.

If I let a poem sit, with time I can see if there’s something real there, or if it was just desire, or sheen.

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


I think I’ve been talking about this already. But in short: the events themselves all happened, even down to how I folded my street dress in exchange for a soft t-shirt and fisherman’s pants, and how I sat. The fiction lies in the narrative drama that comes from the adjectives and verbs I gave to those facts.

Oh, and the sun dropping. I think the actual massage was earlier in the day. But in the poem I needed the sun to drop to signal transition, change.

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s narrative in that time moves the telling of the story forward, versus a lyrical poem centered around an emotion, or a question.

But Federico García Lorca says that “[l]a verdadera lucha es con el duende.” And one of the ways that a poem can access that struggle with “black sounds” is through an awareness of its own wrestling of language. I like to interpret that wrestling of language as between a poem’s narrative momentum versus its lyrical intensity. This isn’t just in poems. In the writing I admire, which transcends genre, there’s always that visceral push and pull between the telling of a story and a euphoric celebration of language, as with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Narrative momentum is what pushes the writing ahead, how things unfold, or a character’s desire. There’s a forward propulsion of narrative time, which is not the same as “real time.” But lyrical intensity is what I call those parts of constructed language that are so musical, so sensual, yet also so unadorned, they seem to linger outside of time. Those moments when stubborn language finally gets past itself as a medium, and arrives perhaps at what William Carlos Williams calls “not in ideas, only in things,” what Richard Hugo calls the real subject beneath the subject, the “treasure,” what Honorée Fanonne Jeffers calls “not the necessary self awareness […] but rather, the necessary questions,” and what Major Jackson calls “to be inside a poem and to be vulnerable.”

So time moves forward as the story is told in these poems. But I hope too that maybe, for a bit, it feels like it can stop, too.

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

Without a doubt, Philip Levine. I’ve read, studied and taught his corpus, and I continue to return to his poetry every few days, but most especially when I’m trying to write something that feels hard to get out. I’m always thinking of how his poems stretch and arc. How his poems extend what is specific into what is large, so that the specific becomes saturated with the large.

I know I was reading Jorge Luis Borges’s lectures from This Craft of Verse and his poems selected by Alexander Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen, Cyrus Cassell’s The Crossed Out Swastika, Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightning, Louise Glück’s Wild Iris, Corrinne Clegg Hales’s To Make It Right, Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border, Edward Hirsch’s illuminating aesthetics in The Demon and the Angel, Langston Hughes’s Collected edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, June Jordan’s Directed By Desire, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Pleasure Dome and The Chameleon Couch, Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon, Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights and his memoir The Winged Seed, Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers, and many others. 

I know that because I just looked back into my syllabi from that period of time, and those were the books I was teaching.

I know too that during that time I was actively studying, if not formally teaching their books right then: Rosa Alcalá, Maram Al-Masri, Denise Duhamel, Rita Dove, Beth Ann Fennelly, Jorie Graham, Marilyn Hacker, Shirley Lim, Federico García Lorca, Dunya Mikhail, Anna Moschovakis, Octavio Paz, Paisley Rekdal, Adrienne Rich, Stanley Kunitz, Brian Turner, Gerald Stern, Leon Stokesbury, William Carlos Williams, C.D. Wright, and prose writers Mikhail Bulgakov, Italo Calvino, Steven Church, Julio Cortázar, Truman Capote, Amy Hempel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Alice Munro.

I know this because sometimes when I’m trying to learn what a writer’s doing, technically, in a literary text, I type up that text into a Word document so I can understand it through my hands and eyes—so I can read it through my body, rather than through my intellect. And these were some of the documents I can find that I’d typed up during that time.

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


To anyone who is willing to take the time to read any of my poems, I’m grateful.

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?

Just my husband, Michael. He knows what I care about most in poems—partly because I’ve spent too many nights or mornings not letting him sleep because I’m babbling to him before bed, or as he’s waking, about poetry. But he’s the person I trust in all things valuable to me, poetry being very high on that list.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?


While this poem takes up some of the same concerns as its brothers and sisters in For Want of Water, what is body, what is family, and what we can’t say, because it’s not dealing with larger issues like the border, immigration, drugs or war as the other poems are, it’s more narratively direct.

What is American about this poem?

The poem’s insistence and centering of “self,” and its belief that intimacy is immediately possible between strangers—that’s very un-Filipina of me. I understand the word “American” to define not just North America or the United States’ part of North America, but the entire Spanish- and English-speaking Americas. So too then that the “laboring street” is still part of the personal experience; it informs the dark, private room.

Also: the what have I done of it. The what will I do of it. That the speaker feels, in that space, a foreigner. That it ends with its history sopping its present.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Both. It’s as abandoned and as finished as the moment in my life from which this poem was dug.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Michael Shewmaker

Michael Shewmaker is the recent winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize and author of Penumbra (Ohio UP, 2017). His poems recently appear in Yale Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry Daily, Parnassus, Oxford American, Narrative, and elsewhere. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.




THE ILLUSIONIST

Without the usual work of wands,
she dazzles solely with her hands.

The coin behind your ear is gone.
Her turtledoves have turned to stone.

She plucks the rose from her corsage,
your ring tucked in its petaled cage.

She knows your card. She levitates.
The coin appears in duplicates.

And though she makes a show of it—
the scripted struggle, the long wait—

no locks or chains are sound enough
to bind her to this stage. And though

you know the limits of the eye,
her sleight of hand, the hidden lie,

you choose to see as through a sieve.
You still applaud. You still believe.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was mostly written in 2011, while I was living in Lubbock, Texas. It started with me watching a late-night documentary on sleight of hand magic.

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

I don’t keep a system that numbers drafts, but I feel pretty confident that it went through at least fifty or so. I spent roughly a year-and-a-half with it before sending it to editors.

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

Yes. I definitely believe in inspiration. I’m certain the poem wouldn’t exist if I didn’t watch that documentary. The sweat and tears came after, when trying to realize the poem’s shape. For me, that’s almost always the bulk of the work—making the form and content inseparable, making the form the content and vice versa.

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

The eye rhymes are what finally allowed the poem to take its shape. I wanted the couplets to feel like little tricks, leading up to a finale. So, I hope, when the reader encounters the only full rhyme in the poem (eye and lie) it startles them, especially since it doesn’t look like it rhymes at all. I hope the poem itself, through its form and content, pulls off its own sort of sleight of hand.

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

Not much, beyond what I just mentioned above. Just a lot of time at the desk, which isn’t unusual at all.

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


It first appeared in print in September 2013. So, what, a little over a year or so? Even after that, though, the version above, which was recently published in my book, Penumbra, is still slightly different.

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?

I have some hard and fast rules about this that are probably silly, but they help me to sleep at night. I don’t send anything out until I’ve spent at least six months with it.

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


Well, I hope it’s a fiction that’s a fact. I’ve been to plenty of magic shows, but the poem isn’t reportage. It’s an imagined experience that confronts our human need to believe in something.

Is this a narrative poem?

That depends on how you define narrative. I find that we often talk about poems as if they’re some sort of binary system: lyric or narrative—as if they’re one or the other. It’s been my experience that they usually exist on a scale, or a gradient. Compared to my other work, though, “The Illusionist” seems to me tipped more toward lyric than narrative.

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

I do. Among other things, I was reading Derek Mahon and thinking about his rhymes.

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

This question is always difficult for me. I’m often trying to write the poems that I want to read, that I don’t see already in the world. (That is, I’m trying to write the poems only I can write, audience be damned.) At the same time, though, it’s important to me that people who I am close to, who may not have a college education, can pick up one of my poems and get something valuable out of it. I’m usually living in that tension when I’m writing.

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’m fortunate enough to have a handful of readers that I trust with almost everything I write.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Many of my poems obsess about faith and doubt, specifically related to the different brands of Christianity I was raised in. I like that this poem entertains some of those same obsessions, but more obliquely. 

What is American about this poem?

Well, I’m an American and I wrote it.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Abandoned. Only and always. Though I’m not sure that abandoned and finished have to be mutually exclusive: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... It is finished.

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.



 

CHRYSALIS

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.


ELEVEN-SIDED POEM
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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Richie Hofmann

Richie Hofmann is the author of a poetry collection, Second Empire (2015), winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is the recipient of a 2017 Pushcart Prize and a 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and his poems appear in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, The New Criterion, New England Review, and Poetry. Co-founder of Lightbox Poetry, an online educational resource for creative writing, and a book reviews editor for Kenyon Review, he is currently a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.


MIRROR

You’d expect a certain view from such a mirror—
clearer
than one that hangs in the entry and decays.
I gaze
past my reflection toward other things:
bat wings,
burnt gold upon blue, which decorate the wall
and all
those objects collected from travels, now seen
between
its great, gold frame, diminished with age:
a stage
where, still, the supernatural corps de ballet
displays
its masquerade in the reflected light.
At night,
I thought I’d see the faces of the dead.
Instead,
the faces of the ghosted silver sea
saw me.


When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I wrote “Mirror” on August 6, 2010. I had just spent time at The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, and that gorgeous, ghostly apartment inspired the poem. The gold-framed mirror—too ornate, too large for the parlor—is a focal point of the residence. You catch yourself in it every time you cross the room to the study. I was twenty-three years old and obsessed with James Merrill; he had been the subject of my undergraduate thesis. The mirror features prominently in Merrill’s poetry and serves as a portal, in a sense, to the spirit world of The Changing Light at Sandover. The ghosts, I imagined, were watching us through the mirror, and I wanted to write about that. I felt so much energy after that stay in Stonington, I wrote three poems that same week: “First Night in Stonington,” “Illustration from Parsifal,” and “Mirror.” These poems are the earliest poems I wrote that appear in my first collection, Second Empire.

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

Unlike so many poems, this poem’s first draft was, essentially, also its final draft. I did switch back and forth between having the poem appear as a singular block of text and to separate the rhyming units into couplets. I struck “much” from the second line. And I replaced “I imagined seeing faces of the dead” with “I thought I’d see the faces of the dead” for a more elegant meter.

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

I absolutely do. I feel like we’re in constant collaboration with the world around us (literary, artistic, and otherwise)—and that our poems have minds of their own and co-write themselves. I think, in a sense, it’s what “Mirror” is about. I would have to say the entirety of the poem was received.

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


I’d read Randall Mann’s poem, “Straight Razor,” a few months before writing this poem (in Poetry Magazine). It’s a sexy, scary poem, and so brilliant and original in its deployment of rhyming couplets with these uneven meters (alternating tetrameter/pentameter lines with lines with a single beat). The proximity of those rhymes is so tantalizing in the poem. I’d had the form of the poem in my head since I read it (I don’t remember, but he might have read it, too, on the Poetry podcast, which I listened to every month in those days…) and I knew I wanted to try my hand at that form. I love rhymes, and these quick, deceptive, surprising rhymes felt so much to me like the experience of catching oneself in the mirror of another life.

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

Only the speed with which it emerged. I would struggle to write this poem today, because I don’t have the same energy. I also trust myself less than I did when I was young and just starting to write poems.

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


It was published in January 2013 in The New Criterion.

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?

I sent this poem out fairly quickly, because it had been finished quickly and had no significant revisions. According to my records, I sent it to twenty-two magazines before David Yezzi accepted it for TNC. My practice varies with each poem, in terms of when it’s ready to send out—you just know, I think. And I’m fairly liberal with publishing in magazines, knowing that (for me) many more poems will be published in magazines than will be collected in a current book project.

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

The poem is about imagination and performance and how real-world objects (fact?) reflect and create connections with other worlds (fiction?).

Is this a narrative poem?

I would say “Mirror” is not a narrative poem, but I know that’s a difficult and slippery term with many meanings and associations. I wouldn’t say many of my poems are narrative poems. Often, I feel like I’m striving in poems to achieve a transformation within a stillness or a silence. To enact the sensuousness of nothing happening.

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

Merrill and Mann, of course, as I stated already. Rachel Hadas, too, and Jorie Graham and Henri Cole and Eavan Boland and J. D. McClatchy and Natasha Trethewey. I hadn’t yet read Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poems. That summer, I was discovering Cavafy, who has a poem called, “Mirror in the Front Hall,” which I love and which I think of as a great grandfather to this poem.

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

My teachers, living and dead. I would love to write a poem someday that the poets I love might admire or enjoy.

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’m certain I showed the poem to Emily Leithauser, one of my closest friends and a favorite writer and reader of poems.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It’s much more guided by its structure and by the meaning of its structure than other poems of mine. I love to rhyme, and I often find rhyming is a way of collaborating with the English language when I write a poem, relinquishing some responsibility for writing the poem to the poem itself. But I don’t think I’ll write a poem in this specific form, with alternating rhythms line to line, ever again.

What is American about this poem?

I struggle with this question. I am American and the locale the poem describes is American. Maybe the way the poem struggles with one’s place in history, with one’s relationship with the self and with the past reflects an American problem of identity and tradition? I don’t know.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished.