Saturday, May 24, 2008

Erin Malone on "Suspect" and "Story"

I’m up writing this at 2 a.m. on a full-moon night while my husband and son are sleeping soundly in other rooms. And since this is how my poem “Suspect” begins, I guess it’s fitting that I start my discussion here. Also, because it was the hardest poem of the three to write, I’ll admit now to that childhood trick of eating the spinach first so that I can enjoy the rest of what’s on my plate.

I’m both repelled and attracted to risk in poems. Balancing what to reveal, when, and how much is the high-wire act of poetry. Too little on the line and the audience gets distracted, goes to look for snacks; too much and it’s an accident from which they can’t look away. For me, motherhood in the beginning was a wreck. Recalling it, writing about it—a potential pile-up. But without the risk, what’s there? The more I talk or write about something I can’t explain, the more I understand my response to it. I control very little, but I can control what I put on the page, and there’s some satisfaction and sanity to be found in that.

“Suspect” started when I was looking at Paul Celan’s poem “Assisi.” His poem uses blocks of repetition, starting with the phrase “Umbrische Nacht,” or “Umbrian night.” I was experimenting with the sound of the German; I flipped the phrase to say Nacht Umbrische out loud to myself, and to me my mumblings (I don’t speak German) sounded something like “Night at my house.” (My German friend has since pronounced Celan’s line for me and it sounds nothing at all like what I thought. Shoot.)

My earliest draft begins with the repetition of this phrase:

Night at my house.
Night at my house with the curtains open,
Night with my house docked.

A few months went by and I returned to it with some new notes. The tentativeness of my subject shows, I think, in its short, broken lines making their way in the dark. Where to next? The first image of the curtains floating was the thread I pulled, and I let myself be led by the sounds of the words: "float," "docks," "clocks," "poker." Then came this idea of woman as a line drawing, and with it more anxiety in the poem’s repetitions and insistence. For me the line drawing is a turning point in the poem because I was also thinking of a chalk outline, a missing body. And that missing body troubled me most, since it represents complete disassociation, from the husband, the boy, and the self. The risk is disappearance.

“Story,” on the other hand, is much more straightforward, and instead of threat or disappearance it’s all affirmative, a genesis. An accumulation of images of life with my son, including some from time we spent in Italy—pigeons, scooters, God—I felt a lot of joy in writing this poem. My own mother’s voice is revealed in the line “too big for its britches, it takes that tone,” which made me happy in some way I can’t explain. In the end I was surprised to find that the poem also serves me well as an ars poetica.


  1. I have a question for you about your use of ampersands in "Story." Ted Kooser gives his anti-ampersand position in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, acknowledging that many poets use it. One of the first poets I was aware of, Philip Schultz, uses a lot of ampersands. (Kurt Vonnegut apparently referred to semi-colons as "transvestite hermaphrodites," but that's beside the point.) What makes you choose an ampersand rather than the word "and"? Do you sometimes use one and sometimes another? Why? I almost never use them in my poems but maybe I should start.

  2. I thought it interesting the German language unlocked some creativity for you. Do you do other exercises or work with other languages?

  3. Reading your comments sharpens the impressions that reading the poem made. The insight into the creative process is invaluable ... the discussion of the wire/chalk/disappearing body was especially illuminating.

  4. I'm hearing echoes of Plath in the insistent punch of consonants at the beginning of "Suspect"--compare "Curtains float / & the house // docks, all its clocks // poker-faced, blank" with "Love set you going like a fat gold watch." The poem's conclusion, as well, evokes the moon in "Edge." How conscious a model has she been for unsentimental writing about motherhood and children?

  5. What's glorious about these poems is that they're 100% cliche-free--every metaphor is unexpected, risky, new. And apt. I mean . . . who would think to name a fetus "a sunspot . . . a floating dart," the mom smiling "like a melon"? You could have said "I was shaped like a melon" and it would be ho-hum, but to smile like a melon; that's a whole different image cuz then we have to think about the melon as a fruit, cut from the vine (as the child will be--umbilically speaking). All this surprise ("the house/docks," "Boy sleeps/on this shelf," "the night / let in, listens /like a guilty twin") and all this beautiful attention to each syllable, each vowel, and the rhymes (both full and slant, as in in/twin/wandering).

    I know you shared a bit about your process, but I'd like to know a little more about how you break out of cliche/expected images and into the fresh terrain of the never-before-written. Are your early drafts full of cliches (then weeded out over subsequent drafts) or do you eliminate those from your mind before you put words to the page--or some of each? And what's guiding you--your ear, your internal editor, your muse--or some of each?
    Do you have any advice for beginning poets, to get them to push past the easy language of motherhood?

  6. Anti-ampersand! I had no idea people were taking sides on this issue. Thanks for enlightening me. I haven't read Kooser's book, but now I'll hunt it down. To answer your question: my use of the ampersand in "Story" is in keeping with my use of it throughout the collection I've been working on. Many of these poems are filled with dashes, interruptions; they're filled with haste and anxiety. Abbreviations, ampersands--for me they signal the compressed time and shorthandedness of motherhood.

    As for the question about languages, I wish I had a deep enough understanding of another language to be able to translate. I admire people who do. The only translation I do is this kind of eye/sound/sense thing. For example, I saw a sign at a gas station in Italy that said "Senza Pb." I know "senza" means "without," but since it looks like "sense" in English that sign immediately became in my mind "without sense." My friend saw it as advertising "without peanut butter," which I like a lot better. Anyway, sometimes I do create exercises for myself, and I belong to a great writing group that concentrates on generating new work through the use of made up prompts.

    Thanks, Lee, for the question about Plath. I started writing the poems about my experience as a new mother about four years ago. At the time I was motivated only by my need to make sense of my unexpected feelings of loss and desperation. Though I'd read and loved Plath's poems, they were not a conscious influence. But as I was making my way, I re-read Plath and was stirred again by their immediacy, their grip. "Morning Song" is one of my favorite poems, not least because of the balance of tenderness ("your moth-breath") and straight talk (she's "cow-heavy"; his is a "bald cry").

    For every poem I write that manages to avoid the sugar and greeting-card aspects of motherhood, there are two I have to throw away for exactly those reasons.

    The cliches get weeded out, I hope, by my "internal editor" before the poems are seen by anyone else. If that editor is on vacation, I'm lucky because I have a few very trusted readers who will tell me when I've gone over the top. I'm learning to be more patient with my writing, and I find that when I slow down the poems are better for it. I'm wary about giving any sort of advice, knowing that I'm a back-and-forth kind of person and that what works today might not work tomorrow. But I'm fairly sure about taking the time to slow down--it might not be possible in life, but it is in writing.

  7. Lovely poems. I particularly liked "Suspect."

    Cool concept, BPJ. Found out about this on Martha's blog...

  8. I'm a relatively new member of the BPJ editorial board, and Lee and I spent some time yesterday discussing your ear for metaphor--which is remarkable precisely because your choices seem so natural: they evoke an "of course" response in me--not surprise so much as complete acceptance of the comparison. This relates, I think, to the Plath elements in these poems: the knife-edge precision of the figurative language. Like you, I've spent a good deal of time wrestling aesthetically with the wretchedness of new motherhood, so I appreciate very much the risks you take in loving and hating--and, once again, the precision of those sentiments . . . your struggle against formlessness in your poems. I think that tension between chaos and the exact is a crux of their artistry.

  9. Erin, your answer makes complete sense to me. Thank you. Dawn, wretched is the word.

  10. Erin,

    Great post. I love learning how poems are born.

    thanks for this.

  11. Hi Erin and everyone, thanks for all this back and forth. I admit to being so dopy (and so non-primed for the subject of motherhood) that at first I thought the sunspot image in "Story" was from the point of view of the young child--something to do with how he happens to see the world in fabulous non-cliche ways. I didn't worry about whether that connected to the rest of the poem. But, duh, on second read it's clearly the zygote-fetus-baby-child story in a new and marvellous way--what a wonderful--and new--poem.

    To me the ampersand does sound hurried and distracted, just as Erin says. And so does the absence of the serial comma--blending and blurring and rushing. Ironically, though, it takes me a longer time to type an "&," since I never do it, than it does to type an "and."

    Anyhow, great poems. Thanks to Erin and to Beloit

  12. One thing about an ampersand: it's one of our most beautiful non-word characters (though I have to say that the font on this blog does not include a particularly beautiful version). In a way it's distracting because it physically calls attention to itself as most punctuation marks do not. I think it's easier to ignore a character such as a dollar sign--to just think "dollar" when we see $. It's harder to ignore & and just think "and." To me, anyway, an ampersand is more than shorthand. I think of Berryman's Dream Songs, so visually and emotionally contorted around those symbols. I have trouble using ampersands in my poems, mostly because they seem so visually weighted. (And I agree with Molly: "and" is faster to type.) So I wonder if the sense of speed many people seem to associate with ampersands is an illusion--at least to some of us.

    It is a comfort, however, to listen to a few other people fretting over them. . . .

  13. Well . . . ampersands. I've used them, tried to be consistent in using them, then read Kooser's book and took them all out of my current ms. I like your rationale for using them very much though, Erin--I mean, they're sorta kin to something you'd see in a grocery list, though they are kinda fancy and require hitting the shift key. When I'm working with very short lines, I find myself going for the "&" because the "and" sometimes makes a line stick out a little too far. Question: is the & like the use of the "i" for I? I don't think so, but maybe risking going down that path?

    I like what you said about hesitating to give advice b/c what you suggest today might be not what you'd advise tomorrow. I wish I had the wisdom to stop thinking I know how to fix a poem, esp for someone else.

    And I appreciate your comments about waiting. It is such a smart way to write poems. Rush, rush, rush to the market, the bank, the post office, but take a few months, maybe a year, to finish a poem: it works as a lovely counterpoint to all the busy-ness.

  14. Thanks to all of you for your comments. I'm grateful.

    It's true about the ampersands!-- they do take longer to type--what a funny juxtaposition. I agree with Dawn about Berryman's use of them, and they seem to fit the structure of a lyric poem.

    I don't want to get stuck, though. I wouldn't use symbols or abbreviations if I didn't think they were serving some purpose. Recently I read a first collection by a poet and a couple of the poems in the book used, for example, w/ for with (something I've also done), but I couldn't figure out why. I read the poems several times, but I couldn't unlock the reason.

    Now I've said this and I'm going to turn right around and contradict myself: should we have to justify? Why should we say (as I find myself saying to students while inwardly cringing)--don't DO that. Don't do THAT. The rules! When I was a student I read somewhere that a famous poet (I can't remember who--if you do, please say so) said semi-colons should never be used because they're "ugly" (sounds like Vonnegut was on this bandwagon as well) and I haven't used one since. That internal editor kicks in and says, "So-and-so said those were ugly." It's funny what sticks with us.

    Are there things you avoid because someone planted a "don't go there" sign in your field?

  15. P.S.
    Thinking about "rules" I mentioned and also Martha's question about I being changed out often now for the lowercase i. I like the way Olena Kalytiak Davis uses it in her second book, shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities. I/i (we) love this book.

  16. Rules, by Jorie Graham:

    (1) the ellipsis and the dash are your chief marks of punctuation;

    (2) take out all the editorializing and stick w the images (letting them speak for themselves);

    (3) forget about your audience, unless your audience is God.

    I mean, I met with Jorie Graham for one hour, and I lived by these rules for a good 5 years. They helped me tremendously in figuring out how to write the kind of poem I wanted to be writing. But then, over time, I figured out I could use semi-colons.

    I think in the early stages in our development as poets we need to be told there are rules. I agree with Frost: who wants to play tennis with the net down? I'm not saying every poem has to be in a fixed form, but I'm saying there needs to be three strikes, three outs, and if you want to score on a sacrifice fly you better tag up before you run home.

    Once you've got the rules down, go ahead and bend them as far as you can get away with.

    But I think you have to start somewhere, and it helps to know, from as many fine poets as possible, what they consider the rules to be.

  17. I think it was Richard Hugo who made the semicolon comment, and I have to say I got scared when I read the essay where he proffered that instruction. I make a living as an academic copyeditor, so I've perforce gotten very, very comfortable with the semicolon as a kind of supercomma. It has a real purpose, and I use it often in my poems, which often tend to be long and Victorian and narrative. In my opinion, it adds a subtle pause that a dash does not. So when Richard Hugo told me that it was an ugly excresence, I felt instantly very, very wrong.

    I don't think that his blanket dismissal helped me out at all. Some of us get too used to the rules. And then people come up with new ones, and we don't know which ones to follow.

    The writer who helped me best was novelist Iris Murdoch. She uses comma splices and extraneous exclamation points with impunity. Yet her novels aren't avant-garde language play in any way. She just uses those marks because she likes them. So there.

    I'm not like her, but I admire her indifference to the rules of punctuation. Once in a while I even use a comma splice and feel really brave.

  18. Martha, I enjoyed hearing about your experience with Graham and how it helped. I think that our development as writers is helped along by different mentors at different times. Often when I feel stalled out, I'll read an essay or talk to someone that has the key to get me going again. Anyway, your comment here is very well-put.

    Dawn: about the rules and "we don't know which ones to follow"--thanks for that. It made me laugh. Anne Carson is another of my favorite rule breakers, as long as we're on the topic.

  19. as someone who has been reading erin's poetry for a long time, i'm fascinated by all this talk of ampersands. erin, i remember when you started using them more--it seems to me that it coincided with a transformation in your voice in general, and a sense of urgency in your language specifically. the way that erin uses ampersands turns them into something between language and breath, which very effectively helps to control the music and the pace of the poem.

    p.s. the semicolon is my very favorite punctuation mark--to know that vonnegut called it a transvestite hermaphrodite made my day!

  20. The discussion of the use of the ampersand (vs. the coordinating conjunction "and") almost seems trivial, yet Larry Levis used ampersands to great effect, especially in poems in which he also alluded to infinity. Might you speak on this point?

  21. Dear Readers,
    I live in Seattle where it's raining. I don't mean our normal cloudy, gray, mist-covered spring and summer mornings that give way to partly sunny afternoons, either. I mean the kind of rain that keeps people in their winter clothes and becomes snow in the mountain passes. Darkness, vitamin D deficiency and 50 degree temperatures all day, every day.

    More on this in a second.

    First I'd like to address the last comment posted. I'm glad to see Levis brought up in our discussion; his work affects me in that it's both lovely and disquieting. One such poem I admire of his is "The Widening Spell of the Leaves." Here are a few lines:

    I could hear time cease, the field quietly widen.
    I could feel the spreading stillness of the place
    Moving like something I'd witnessed as a child, . . .

    These particular lines have no use for "and", but tonally they capture what I love about his work. The poem itself is long, with long lines; it's a complete story fully realized in its images.

    I've said why I use the ampersand in the poems I've been writing lately: for me they signal a compression of time and the rush of anxiety. As for Levis, who can guess why he made the decisions he did in his work? His poems seem to me expansive, almost luxurious; I read them and my eye skips over that ampersand symbol because it wants to get to the comparative texture and nuance of the next words. I think that in either case--economy or Levis' widening-- the idea of containment is the struggle.

    Anonymous, I'd like to know what you think.

    Returning to the weather report, it's the only thing people here are talking about. It gives us something to say to our neighbors; we're all in the same boat. And here on this blog, the ampersand has become our weather. I've got so much gratitude for you coming out to join me, but now I'd like to spend the rest of June contemplating other facets of writing with you.

    In the spirit of that, here's a question: how does community affect your writing?

  22. Hi Erin! First I want to apologize for the ampersand stuff, I didn't mean for it to be the main topic of discussion! Though I've really enjoyed everybody weighing in on that.

    Community and writing. I remember my writing prof in college saying that it was a good idea to be friends with other writers, because you'd be goaded to keep going -- you'd think, well, SHE'S writing a lot, and HE just published a poem, I better get going! And I agree with that. For years I felt frustrated because I wasn't part of a poetry community where I lived -- I didn't like the groups that existed, you know? But these days I feel like the internet has allowed for the creation of multiple poetry communities that I actually enjoy being part of. And here we are making another one!!

  23. Jessy--Please don't apologize--your question sparked a lot of discussion, and I liked seeing people weigh in with their opinions. And you directed me to Kooser's book, which I'm now reading. I like it; it offers up good reminders, and though I don't agree with all of what he says, I find myself marking certain pages I'll return to. Also, Kooser's style is easy to read and I keep thinking this book would be a good resource to use in class.

    As for community, the blog marks new territory for me (which may be obvious to you reading this). I'm adept at skating by other people's blogs, but I rarely leave comments. Now I'm on the other side, and I can say it takes a strong personality to yip to the great open space of the internet and not be riddled with doubt. Is anybody out there? I suppose this is just like writing poems, only more immediate. Those of you who leave comments are the ones who offer hope. I aim to follow your example in the future when I stop by to visit. So, Jessy, all this is to say that I see what you mean about finding online communities to enrich your experience. I've appreciated this opportunity from Beloit.

    I'm going through a weird not-writing time right now, which is frustrating. I told another poet-friend of mine about this, and she reminded me how this is just part of it. I finished a project recently and am waiting for the next thing. While I'm waiting, I'm reading; I reread Louise Gluck's book of essays, Proofs and Theories, in which she addresses the same problem. She calls it a "natural silence." This helped: "natural." This little phrase brings with it a sense of peace. So in the span of a few days I found these answers from both personal and literary sources. My friend even gave me an assignment, telling me to go to an art exhibit happening in our city now. A good push in the right direction, I think.