Thursday, December 31, 2009

Don Schofield on "Harmony, USA"

I started writing what would eventually become “Harmony, USA” twenty-five years ago, while leaning on the hood of my brother’s pickup. We had just left Atascadero State Prison where our nephew was serving time (still is) for rape (second offense). I wasn’t writing a poem then, simply putting down notes, wanting to capture his words as precisely as I could. I tried several times over the years to turn those notes into a poem. I was writing free verse then, and I guess I had too much freedom to do justice to his voice. Whatever I wrote seemed off. I didn’t want a poem simply apologizing for, explaining or condemning the actions of a man I barely knew and had seen maybe half a dozen times as an adult. Yet I found his gestures, the way he spoke, the way he wore his denim shirt buttoned tight at the neck and open at the waist, how he explained himself and his day to day life in prison fascinating, disturbing.

Two things happened that ultimately enabled me to get this poem out: first, I visited Robert again in the early ‘90s, this time with the woman I had been with for eight years and, as it turned out, soon would be breaking up with. Second, after putting the poem aside for over a decade, I came back to it when I was trying my hand at blank verse.

As Dick Hugo used to say in his workshops when talking about form: “A poet does one of two things: he either starts in jail and works his way out, or he starts with freedom and works himself into jail.” Those words, plus the post-structuralist term “prison-house of language,” kept crossing my mind as I worked and reworked the various sections that started appearing. By choosing to write the poem in blank verse, and thus measuring the lines more strictly, I was, as Hugo would say, putting myself in jail. In this case that was exactly where I needed to be.

Once I was in jail, Robert’s voice gained power. But so did the poet in me. In jail I could give myself the freedom to bring in other voices, and thus frame Robert’s presence, so to speak, in various other events, places and perspectives surrounding that visit. Moreover—and this was critical to the poem finding its larger theme—once in jail I could break the rules. I had to break the rules of narrative if the poem was to find its true subject, which of course isn’t Robert.

In the end “Harmony, USA,” at least to me, is about desire, how we fantasize and express it, what and who we violate sometimes to satisfy it, how narrative—and language itself—aids and abets it, and how ultimately desire in our minds spans the gamut of impulses that must be kept in harmony. Which is where poetry comes in.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mary Molinary: Thoughts concerning poems composed for/by the left hand

This sequence of poems began, and served as, a dispossession ritual for me.

Typically, I work projects in tandem: a longer piece worked for a year or more, punctuated by one or two interrupting or concurrent, smaller projects. With a background, and continued interest, in Linguistic Anthropology, I came to poetry purposefully and seeking to explore and develop further what I hoped would be my contributions to the Human Conversation, as I call it, and concerning in particular the play between the Diachronic and Synchronic; between (cultural) History and Memory; and those Discourses at play between them all. I chose, then, Poetry rather than Anthropology and Film and, more importantly perhaps, chose a return to the Delta South to pursue these poetics and this thing called poetry.

This sequence is a sequence. Not a series. The sequence was a dispossession ritual.

I envisioned the most recent long long piece (being made in the midst of a long long war) as a long long river without end; a river cutting through a landscape with all the teeth and force of a chorus, of history, feeding and being feed in synchronic bursts over time and time. Diachronia. Confluence and contingency. Confluence and correspondence. Delta South as metonymy for a Global South, as metonymy for the long long stories of oppression, cultural amnesia, and resistance.

A sequence, like a ritual, has a beginning and an end.

Over two years deep, and a few smaller projects, into the long long river piece, I realized I needed to envision a temporary stop, if not ending. My crisis wasn’t so much with “language” itself—language can never really be emptied of meaning and power regardless the attempts—but with the very act of writing. The act of writing: the body assaying meaning and sense was moving too quickly. Pen and ink, keyboards and illuminated screens. I needed to remember. I needed slowness. I needed lessness.

Enter one #2 Ticonderoga fat yellow pencil for beginners. Holding it with estranged familiarity.

Remembering the thrill of making. Letters and words. I decided to write a tribute of sorts to my left hand who never had the pleasure of that learning, and that would act as an allegory for a very real and illusory “South” in order to help me dispossess (so that I wouldn’t end up like Q. C. in Absalom! Absalom!). Quickly, I realized that for the dispossession and experiment to work, the Left Hand would need to write the poems. The “bastard in the woodshed” needed to compose this sequence. That would be my imposed limitation leading to lessness.

A sequence is a ritual. Experiments might be rituals. Liminal spaces inhabit all of them.

What I expected from this experiment was that my left hand would move slowly and make a few mistakes, but would quickly improve. I do not subscribe to theories of essentialism or to theories of genius, so I was quite certain that my left hand would have only minor and short-lived problems with articulation. What floored me is that my left hand did not know the first thing about poetry. Apparently, I had learned that (and what else!?) with only or mostly my right hand. My left had to learn to write a poem. Even after the right was eventually allowed to edit, the left hand poems remain mostly honest about that process. The difficulty in the process was determining what parts could be cut without losing the account of that process—and how many inconsistencies and errors could or should be left. I don’t know how they have the generosity and time, but Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald spent considerable time assisting and suggesting just the right sorts of changes. (As ever.) Moreover, what Lee and John and BPJ do especially well is the arrangement of poets and poems in each issue. I am always excited to see my work in a context of their choosing. The reverberations and hauntings created that way.

While the Dispossession Ritual Experiment, and seeing/hearing the poems, in the conversational context of the Winter BPJ taught me much, I haven’t yet had the time to process fully all the implications of it.

This sequence of poems began

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jeff Crandall on "The Glassblower"

“The Glassblower” was written during my first summer working as an administrative staff person at Pilchuck Glass School. As a poet thrust into this creative furnace of artistry, I was struck by two things: how the fragility, clarity/opacity, and malleability of glass serve in so many ways as metaphors for the human condition; and how extremely sexual the language of glassblowing is: gloryhole, lip wrap, bench blow, etc. I was told by artist Pike Powers that this vernacular arose from carnival terms, “gloryhole” being the peephole through which one could see erotic acts.

If you choose hot glass as an art form there are some facts you must accept: you will get burned; you will get cut; you will watch a thing of beauty that you have agonizingly crafted at great expense smash to the floor before it even gets to the annealer. As a gay child/teen/young adult I got to experience all these metaphorical pains on a deeply visceral, emotional level, but I didn’t have the luxury of choosing that path. Seeking love, acceptance, and a sense of self, I found sex in consistently shame-based scenarios. (My Catholic upbringing didn’t help matters!) So this is a poem of redemption—but one that does not require any divine intervention. The narrator, through the language and experience of glassblowing, has come to terms with his own past and can move forward in a beautiful and significant way.

I found the redemptive metaphor of glass even more powerful than that of the Ugly Duckling or the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Those events happen only once. The notion of cullet—all that smashed glass shoveled back into the furnace—means that you can fail over and over again, and—yes!—still arise beautiful and new. (How many drug addicts have needed that vital, 17th chance before finally getting their act together?)

“The Glassblower,” published late in 2009, is about 15 years old—a synchronicity that can’t be ignored since some of the events in the poem occurred for me at the same age. The first section of the poem was the germ that got my brain going. I wrote the next three sections over three or four months, as each experience struck me then resonated into language.

I sent this poem out to many, many places, and it was universally rejected without comment. (“What do you mean you don’t want to publish a four-page poem about emotionally devastating gay blowjobs?”) I have revisited it more times than I can count, and each time I have left it with the solid belief that it is Complete. There is nothing I can add, nothing I can take away. In putting together my most recent book-length manuscript, I balked at including it, but the encouragement of poet Kathleen Flenniken made me revisit the poem, and I began sending it out again. I am pleased and honored that it found a home at Beloit Poetry Journal.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

D. E. Steward on "Augustos"

History, birds, and bicycling are concerns in “Augustos,” one of twenty-three consecutive years of month-to-month poems that together form the larger work called Chroma. Dissatisfied with the conventions of fiction and the patterns of verse composition, developing the structure and method of writing these months has been gratifying for me.

The irregular line breaks, the fragments as verse, the missing full stops, the color motifs, and the month designations are present throughout Chroma, and many of its months segue in some manner from one to the next. In “Augustos” the exotic allusions to distant places and events are not forced but part of my experience, as matter-of-fact as bicycling or swinging a scythe.

“Augustos” began from an August bicycle ride below anvil-cumuli near an old battlefield in the Piedmont. It finished under “the awesome, ringing welkin” of more dramatic clouds. The wonder of feeling the continuity of nature while staring agape at short-lived cottontails and imagining that the asphalt on which the bicycle rolls may be only slightly less permanent than they is crucial to the poem. Its use of uncommon terms like “welkin,” “gryllidine,” “spurtles,” “fleams,” “snaths,” “cecropia,” and “rowen” enhances the mood of past-in-the-present. As people in linsey-woolsey mowed, as others tamed crows, as the same insects have been there for eons, the clouds build and swell and “go on and on . . . beyond the curve of earth.” The poem’s message is perhaps, worship anything, worship clouds.

“Augustos” ignores too many formalities and inflates associations too intensely to be read as randomly cohesive observations. The stanzas or fragments are pulses delivered from the debouchure of the keyboard, work like this probably being impossible before the scrolling technology of word processing. The organization of notes buttressed by the gabions of search engines, enhanced by the ability to accumulate massively and cut to the bone with the ease of block deletes, are the means of composition here. In a language domain of ranging complexity coherence is relative, but the imposition of a particular memory and experience upon what I write about channels its disemboguement. Poetic source is without limits, it is as all the world. The word brings this stupendous complexity to ground, anchors it to the particular. Some particulars in “Augustos” are abstract, some immediate, and enough are autobiography to make the poem nearly the enemy of the verity of knowing and remembering—which of course is what imaginative writing is.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A. E. Stallings on "Another Bedtime Story"

People sometimes ask me what I am reading, and I suppose as a writer and poet I should have something sufficiently obscure and intellectually challenging for an answer. But the truth is, as the mother of a just-turned-five year old, a lot of my reading is picture books. Even so, part of my brain can’t help analyzing them as I go—I’m sure I could write a paper on The Cat in the Hat. One of the things that started to amuse me was the number of children’s books that are themselves about going to bed, and about children’s resistance to it: The Sleep Book, Just Go to Bed, Froggy Goes to Bed, Bedtime for Frances, etc. But then it occurred to me this was part of a larger pattern and purpose of stories: the Iliad ends in a funeral; the destination of the Odyssey is a return to the marriage bed; these are the two narratives on which Western literature pivots. And it seems to me that the resistance children have to going to sleep is a natural and logical fear of missing out on something, and thus of unconsciousness itself: it is a metaphysical fear essential to our humanity. I do not think any of the other animals dread going to sleep.

I guess the poem itself says all that (or I hope it does!). As for its composition, this started with the refrain popping into my head (“All, all of the stories are about going to bed”). Indeed, it felt like a refrain, so a repetitive form such as the villanelle suggested itself. To be honest, a lot of villanelles bore me and I do try to resist them as a default form—they can be a little too facile, just a spinning of wheels.(Sometimes just seeing that distinctive 19-line pattern on the page makes me mentally skim to the obvious couplet at the end.) What kept me and the poem alert in this instance, I think, was partly the longer line (not a tidy iambic pentameter), and maybe the interplay of enveloping perfect masculine rhymes with their thudding, stopped-shut sounds, and the slightly off-kilter sandwiched feminine rhymes (even going so far as to rhyme “cover” and “cover”—a big no-no!) Which isn’t to say this was conscious or deliberate, but something I did start to realize was part of the pattern of the poem as I was revising it. The real work of the villanelle—the way it goes forward despite going in circles—tends to get done in those middle lines. And I think (or hope) the repetitiveness also works because the poem is itself about formulaic narrative. But, again, this is the sort of cerebral thing one thinks about after the poem is done. While it is happening, you just hope it can carry itself on its own music, that it will surprise you, if not in where it is going, in how it gets there.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Peter Munro on "Bleeding Cod"

I love working with fishermen. I’m part of a research team that charters their vessels and expertise. Together, we conduct surveys and experiments in the North Pacific and Bering Sea to estimate population parameters. Occasionally, we accompany a boat as it fishes commercially. This was the case last fall when the owners, officers, and crew of the F/V Alaska Mist welcomed me on a longline trip for cod in the Bering Sea.

When I board a boat, I look for ways to join the crew in their work. But the tasks of fishing can be dangerous for idiots, especially Government scientifical types. Most boats severely limit how I’m allowed to “help out.” A good job for me leaves the skipper unworried, even better if it’s work the crew hates. On the Alaska Mist, the bleeding trough looked like a grind. The bleeders happily let me take a few turns.

It changed me.

I felt myself growing callous toward dying cod. Disdainful.

Killing marks the darker side of stewardship. I’ve killed my share of fish for data. I’ve always had peace about that part of the job. Cod bleeding was different. Not parameter estimation anymore. Hydraulics and knifework eroded my sense of worship, like ritual repeated until meaningless. For my heart’s sake I had to stop cutting cod, or open myself to their deaths: my hands, my blade, their salt. Gunked in cod feces and several colors of red, I became still, looking more closely at dying than I ever had.

Gradually, I grasped that no two cod died quite alike, the uniqueness of each death being masked by the monotony of industrial fishing. They fought wildly against mortality, yet cod after cod perished easily in my hands, big, tough animals revealed as fragile. I think I’d been growing to hate them for mirroring my own powerlessness and fragility even as, god-like, I loosed them from their lives. Hypnotized by blood, I thought I could feel something in my body, as if I released my own self a little bit into death each time I knifed through gills. Peaceful. Sobering.

I sensed I was in a poem. I suppose we all are, all the time, but stress and fatigue had cracked me enough to notice. I could feel the beauty of the poem, despite its wreckages of flesh. I wrote some of it down.

Strict pattern usually marks my initial composition process. However, “Bleeding Cod” lived in free verse from the beginning, by far the hardest form and always scary. Actually, I didn’t even recognize the early drafts as drafts. Lacking the comfort of rhyme scheme or syllable count, I simply jotted details. While waiting to start, I tightened phrases, tended to nitty gritty word choice, fiddled with order. Finally, it dawned on me that this was composition. Cod bleeding demanded a verse form set in release, I guess, not sounded in harness. I opened myself to it and the poem spilled across the page, perhaps lumped with little clots of rhyme.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hadara Bar-Nadav on "Family of Strangers"

. . . the poem holds on at the edge of itself; so as to exist, it ceaselessly calls and hauls itself from its Now-no-more back into its Ever-yet.
      —Paul Celan

“Family of Strangers” documents my attempt to be receptive to ghosts even when this opening hurts, takes me down, grinds its boot heel into my back. Perhaps words themselves are ghosts that keep us company, little rafts in a sea of loss.

I considered the text as well as the white space of the page when writing “Family of Strangers,” which pays special attention to various presences and absences. For me, white space is never empty, a perspective informed by my work as a painter. The text of a poem has objectness, shape, and weight; the negative space of the page also has shape and weight—all of which inform the poem. Sparse couplets on a page have a different visual resonance than a prose poem or sestina. A poem’s shape sends a signal to the reader before a single word is read.

In early drafts of “Family of Strangers,” I inserted horizontal lines between the stanzas in an effort to compartmentalize the sections and physically contain the ghosts and grief, which seemed to want to fly off the page. Lee Sharkey, co-editor of the BPJ, suggested I take out the lines and I did, letting the stanzas (and the ghosts) hum across and among themselves.

I indented the text where the lines had been to suggest absences being created and filled. The unevenness and inherent tension of tercets created a strained asymmetry, as if the stanzas were limping through space. I alternated between tercets and couplets to embody the difficult navigation among speaker and ghosts, idea and language, and creation and destruction. Here lives a vital and visceral ugliness that recalls for me Picasso’s notion of painting as “a horde of destructions.” Loss gathers and ghosts gather whose absence is palpable and sharp.

Poetry teaches me to open my senses to dreams, impulses, currents of wind, light, color, and sound. Poetry is where the senses sing, cry, and take shape through language. Certainly, this kind of openness can be painful, particularly in a poem such as “Family of Strangers,” which virtually forced me to challenge my own resistance to writing and receiving it:

             Ghosts, I adore your absence.

      Ghosts, I cannot lie to you
      who are transparent, I
      who am also transparent.

Here my dead father knocks on a little paper door. Here my family murdered in the Holocaust knocks and waits. Poetry lets them in. And dreams let them in. If my poems seem surreal I suspect it is because dreams have taught me not to look away, but to look and look again, to become porous, permeable. Both poetry and dreams teach me to be receptive to the disorder of the world and to be generative in the midst of joy, destruction, and pain. Grief made into art.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Avery Slater on “Bullet Proof”

This poem began, as perhaps all poems do: as a problem. Rather, as several separate problems entangling themselves at saturation point. Sericulture was the first problem, a practice I’d long been fascinated and horrified by. I’d been haphazardly building a mental compendium of facts about sericulture for years, unsure whether it might produce a poem.

Immediately before writing this poem, two things collided. In my arbitrary attempts to understand various developments in the history of quantum physics. I encountered a description of vacuum energy, via the “Casimir effect,” named after its discoverer. Then, in a moment stemming from the sericulture interest—I discovered the first bulletproof vests were silk. One rather postmodern coherence sutured these two facts, in a coincidental confluence of unrelated readings: namely, that the first name of Revered Zeglen, the bulletproof vest’s inventor, was “Casimir.”

It is said one of the hardest English words to translate is “serendipity.” Apparently, only English expresses this notion in one word. This assertion of relative difficulty is patently unverifiable. Nonetheless, as an alleged fact it has stayed with me, as perhaps a more verifiable one mightn’t have. The idea’s indelibility could be rhetorical: ironic that “serendipity” is the word giving translators headaches. Yet “serendipity defies translation” might be more deeply tautological, a statement tantamount to “winter defies being summer.”

Writing this poem was a lesson for me in serendipity’s inscrutable nature—that which emerges from confluence, not correspondence. If translation makes sense of a thing by way of correspondence (worm = Wurm = verme), then serendipity is sense arising unexpectedly from convergence of the disparate. Thus, what I had in “Casimir” was not just a name, but a conspiracy theory—rather, a “happy conspiracy”: the synonym I will offer for the untranslatable “serendipity” (itself, serendipitously enough, a proper name, given long ago to Sri Lanka by Persian traders.)

Proper names are tacitly untranslatable words. Venezia,Venedig, Venice, yes, but only through error, or, more exactly, through inexactitude. Here I return to the so-called “problem” which is the ungainly clam shell of every poem’s hoped-for Aphrodite: how to make sense imprecisely. Not stupidly, not badly, not imperfectly, but . . . serendipitously? What the proto-poem presented me with was undoubtedly disparate. I first asked, how to treat facts not as facts, but as images?

Images are not identical to facts, nor yet are they supremely different. What difference? The conceptual divergence between particles of 20th century physics versus Democritus’s hypothetically indivisible atoms might demonstrate this difference. Images operate more as particles of modern physics in that they are not inert, exhibiting instead a kind of Brownian motion (seemingly patternless movement). To assert, metaphorically, a Brownian motion for the poetic image, I suggest something psychoanalysts and child-storytellers already know: the image is profoundly unsettled, anxious, hyperactive, mercurial, and never says “exactly” what it means. Better to let it scattershot about, it might lead somewhere—but whether to a poem, or to an island in the Indian Ocean is for the convergence of trade winds to decide.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mary Leader on "They Vibrate"

“They Vibrate” asks to exist in three ways. First impact: visual, thus “saying” that a poem can be beautiful and meaningful as grasped immediately. Second, development in time: aural. Ultimately: a fusion of both. That’s why it has been so much fun for me to interact with BPJ on this poem. Lee Sharkey had to futz with the thing as a typesetting problem, as did I on my computer in the first place. But in addition, she described how she and her co-editor John Rosenwald read the poem aloud at the board meeting, each taking one of the words from the pair on each line. One says red, the other says blue, no, red, I said, no, blue, red, blue, Lee John Lee John, with an element of humor, a he/she argument, among others. The waves, then, are the fusion, illustrating that arguments do not consist in there being a right answer, but rather in the perception of a vacillation pattern.

It’s interesting to see what happens at cusps of technology. One such cusp occurred in the seventeenth century when a poetic system—friends circulating manuscripts—yielded to the printing of poetry by movable type. Right then, George Herbert’s poems, all patterned to an extent, most noticeably “Easter-wings,” were left by him only in a fair copy by an unknown hand. After his death, his friend Nicholas Ferrar saw them into print, at which time the patterns were disrupted, were not “true” any longer to the product Herbert called his poems.

Today, the cusp is between printed books and internet texts. Again, in early days, there is a kind of denaturing. Observe this lesson from the Editorial Style Guide of

Layout 102: A heartfelt plea to poets fond of fussy indents: Please don’t. Poems with indented lines don’t work well on the Internet. . . I have heard poets read out loud poems with fussy indents, and guess what? You can’t hear the indents at all. No extra pauses are given where the fussy indents appear; the poet reads the text out loud as though it had a normal left margin. So why not print it that way? Please ask yourself honestly what these fussy indents are supposed to mean. What do they actually add to the poem? What is their rhythmic function? They certainly attract attention to the special ‘poetic’ nature of the text, to a slight extent, but do you need to do that? Shakespeare didn’t need them for his sonnets—do you?

Well, actually, yes, I do. The dispenser of advice there assumes that the sound level and the meaning level exhaust the potential of poetry. But for me, poetry is just as connected with silent weaving as it with voice. Line from linen; linen from linnet, a bird known not for its song but for its in-and-out, up-and-down flight pattern. They vibrate. I need every visual device I want to use. I am confident that the internet will catch up some day.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fady Joudah on Translating Ghassan Zaqtan

I have a dislike of discourse on translation that addresses the "cultural" or "philological" aspects of language as pretext or text that explains the inevitable: that which is "lost in translation" and the "limitation," the “difference,” of (or is it "in") "the other." When it comes to Arabic in particular there is much darkness that sheds a shady light on the space between spoken vs. written Arabic: the colloquial vs. the formal--which of course requires a lengthy discussion that cannot be summarized easily into a sentence, a paragraph, or even an essay, no matter what or who is doing the summary (often someone who speaks neither form of Arabic, or one and not the other). The discussions often break into analysis of “modernity” and other slippery slopes of representing the other.

For me, the tantalizing tale is elsewhere: at the simple level of word order in a sentence: subject, verb, object in English vs. verb, subject, object in Arabic, for example. Also, Arabic's naturally contortionist syntax, its diacritical marks, their effect on tone, prosody, and punctuation (or lack thereof) all guide the new poem in translation. Moreover, Arabic does not capitalize words. Thus the choice of when to add a period or a comma depends largely on the translator’s lyricism in English. Neither fidelity nor infidelity is the question per se; rather it is the “new” poem: the thing itself.

Ghassan Zaqtan is a lyricist with strong narrative impulse (he has also written a novel and a play). In his poems he sketches or carves psychological portraits that surpass the finalities and categories of consumed or consumerist analysis. The two translated poems here clearly exhibit Zaqtan's brilliant pithy narrative. “The Picture of the House at Beit Jala” is more grounded in a locale whereas “As If He Were She” is about a mysterious grief. But clarity in the latter is obviously secondary to the beauty of the telling: the patient build-up that begins the poem, the long lyrical lines filled with detail, like a crammed attic, the illusion of clues and cues. What remains is an ambiguity that demands the poem be reread. Maintaining the syntactical flow in those long lines, without excessive bend toward "straightening" the text into prosaic English, allows for the lyrical "spirit" to be transported, to echo Walter Benjamin here. The poem in Arabic is not necessarily easier to "figure out" than in English. Its detail (of Palestinian humanity, yes, but also of a universal one) is what captivates the mind in either language.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Garth Greenwell on "First Morning"

Almost three years ago, I left a PhD program and took a job teaching English at a high school in Ann Arbor. While all sorts of things—in both the outer and inner circumstances of my life—have changed because of that choice, least predictable have been the changes in how I write. During years of graduate school, my poems had become increasingly inward and cerebral: landscape entered them only as allegory; there was almost no place in them for other people. When I was able to write again, the summer after that first year, I found that having been thrust into intimate contact with the lives of seventy adolescents had shifted my imaginative priorities. For the first time in several years, my most intense experiences were taking place outside of books, outside of my own head. I needed my poems to help me process those experiences.

I found myself thinking back to the first events of the year. It’s a tradition in my school that in the first week of fall semester each grade takes a class trip, a bonding experience for the kids—and, I half suspect, a trial by fire for the new teachers. After a single day of class, then—still disoriented, only just having begun to learn kids’ names—I found myself in West Virginia for three days of camping and white water rafting. During the bus ride down, I had the first of what would be many conversations of a kind and intensity found only in adolescence, and I remember very clearly feeling that I had been caught by something, that there was no possibility of escaping care for these young people and their lives.

It’s difficult for me to talk about these poems. I’m not aware of any theoretical agenda or conscious formal conceit while writing them, other than the basic pattern of a stanza. From one perspective, “First Morning” feels more or less like a transcript of experience: there really was a boy dancing in the fog that morning; there really were cows watching bemusedly our camp. From another, everything feels altered, if not entirely made up, and there are fundamental things in the poem’s dynamic that I can’t articulate. The relationship between the poem’s two encounters, for instance—the boy in the fog and the cows by the fence—isn’t clear to me. I know that the existence of such a relationship is crucial, and that the extent to which it is charged determines the extent to which the poem “works.” But I can’t express even to myself precisely what that relationship is.

What is clear to me is that the relationship isn’t easily schematic—that the cows don’t simply “represent” one or the other (the speaker, the boy) of the poem’s human participants. This troubled some of the poem’s earliest readers, who wanted the animals to be more assignably allegorical, to be more obviously an image for the desire the speaker turns away from. I do think the image of the cows is bound up with that desire, but I hope in a way that doesn’t make of Eros a simple division of predator from prey. Instead, I want the image to be somewhat more true to the way in which desire is always (or has always been for me) an experience in which predation is inextricable from proneness.

What I want this poem—and all of the poems I’m trying to write about teaching—to convey is the dilemma I feel most intensely as an educator. On the one hand, I feel a sharp sense of protective love for my students, a desire to hold them back another moment from the world they long for so fiercely. But balanced with this desire is the knowledge that I serve as an agent of that larger world, that the very process of education is the process by which we learn to seek the world’s sweetnesses—sweetest among them Eros—which are at once so intoxicating and so quickly ground out.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Greg Wrenn on "Centaur"

“Centaur” is by far the longest poem that I’ve ever written, beginning as a five-page poem whose dimeter and trimeter lines were inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and Marianne Moore’s “Marriage.” But it wasn’t just the shortness and neatness of the lines that drew me to those poems. Although my speaker, Mark (“Marquoose”), in being surgically joined to the lower half of a horse, does not just simply cross paths with an animal as Bishop’s speaker does, I was still fascinated by what insights, joyful or dreadful, are precipitated by a highly charged encounter with an animal. For me, such an intersection is a wonderful chance to examine the less rational, more primal, self-destructive aspects of the self. And although he’s not interested in dissecting or satirizing heterosexual institutions like marriage, Mark is keen on feeling his way through (or around) the sort of ambivalence about union and companionship that Moore lays out for us:

"I should like to be alone;"
to which the visitor replies,
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"

Over time, I began to feel that the form of my draft was entirely too staid, that a formal restlessness was needed to amplify the sexual, spiritual, and intellectual restlessness that leads Mark to take such a drastic measure “[t]o reawaken waist to feet.” He suffers greatly from sexual addiction, particularly through the Internet, and he feels that he has exhausted all possibilities for healing, for even managing his acting-out so that he can live a productive life of integrity; the trip to Bishop’s Brazil for centaur-surgery is perhaps the product of a desperate imagination still unable to admit its powerlessness. Martha’s Collins’ book-length poem Blue Front, with its sonnets, historical documents, and unpunctuated free verse that alternate between narrative and more lyrical modes, inspired me to move toward greater formal fluidity—in other words, the agitation of a mind unable to solve a problem that threatens the body’s long-term health: “Once, only once, / I let him ride me / bareback.” Dante’s tercets, whose grandness is deflated by a prose poem in the first section, seem appropriate for a (pseudo-?)spiritual journey—elsewhere there’s a double sonnet, laterally oscillating stanzas haunted by the Dantean tercet, and prose poetry that compulsively reverts to lineation. Like Collins, I’m interested in reinventing the ways in which the lyric can be reconciled with storytelling, without being antagonistically post-modern.

I want to end with one of my favorite stanzas from “The Moose,” when the approaching creature triggers a burst of compassion:

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

I think what propels Mark on his journey, however misguided and ridiculous, is the deep sense that it is compassion, “this sweet / sensation of joy,” not the momentary bliss of orgasm, that ought to be valued and cultivated. What are your thoughts?