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.


  1. Jeff,

    After several readings, the last lines are what stick with me the most.

    "Into that searing light I touch
 metal to glass, purge 
the unbreathable scum from the surface 
and turn from the fire clean."

    The juxtaposition of the human condition and the characteristics of glass have been made clear and brilliant throughout, but what confuses me is the idea of "redemption". It would seem by these lines that redemption comes in the form of forgetting, or a "clean"ing. Just as the cullet of the same essence is recycled and formed anew, is that redemption or just a cosmetic for the mistakes we make? Being a recovering narcotics addict, I can relate to your reference of try, try, trying. But to be reshaped, or to ultimately go back to a point before our compulsions take hold of us, is there no reminder of that left once we have been melted down and made into a beautiful ornament that serves more as a mask of our past and possibly continuing difficulties? Would imperfections in the glass speak for the form or against it, or is it necessary for the glasswork to be immaculate to conceal its rigorous gestation?

    -- I'm thrilled that "The Glassblower" is out of its 15 year hibernation and has found its place in BPJ.

  2. Hello Nate,

    “Forgetting” and “cleaning” are certainly ways to be redeemed from the past, and they don’t necessarily guarantee repeat behavior, especially if one’s circumstances have radically changed. This is not my intent for the narrator of the poem, however. I view the entire poem as a struggle toward coming to terms with a less-than-healthy past, a continuing redemptive process rather than an ultimate achievement, the ending being merely one more step toward a better life and self-perception rather than a quick-fix or instantaneous salvation.

    In “Cullet” it’s the mistakes that are being melted down and re-formed, not the glassblower himself. The glassblower is learning from the ugly errors, learning new skills, and learning to let go of the past as he builds toward a present/future that is “utterly, undeniably beautiful.” In writing those words, I was not thinking of an ornament or bauble, but rather I was trying to reference the beauty of the human soul/spirit in its higher state, and also an artwork that, once seen, causes that gasp, that involuntary shiver up the spine that signals to me I am in the presence of real art.

    Unless you are working in fine lead crystal (which most artists don’t) small bubbles, inclusions, and cording are natural componants of the material of glass and are to be expected in any blown or cast work. Imperfect as any of us, I’d say! In my own glass artwork, I have often made the flaw a focal point of the piece, showcasing a small bubble in the glass rather than pretending it’s not there. I’m always impressed with artists who traditionally throw in a mistake in an otherwise perfect piece, so as not to offend the gods. (A lovely blog on this is at

  3. Jeff, this is stunning, beautiful, wrenching and heartbreaking and, I think, fully-realized. Bravo for your persistence in sending it out. It is -- without doubt -- some of your best work.

  4. Compliments will get you everywhere, T. Thank you.

  5. Hello Jeff,

    I find it interesting that the two settings/actions are joined, I think, through the idea of labor or creative work.

    My question, though , is this: in completing this poem, with its ability to consistently forward its conceits and to speak to two scenes at once -- hello metaphor! -- has this creation of this kind of extended metaphor become part of your regular poetry practice, or was this poem's completion, craft-wise, something you passed through on the way to other work?

  6. Hello Paul,

    I wish these kinds of poems would appear more often than they do in my writing. They are welcome into my repertoire whenever they show up! I'd have to say they are more the result of a conscious event triggering subconscious connections/associations, rather than Jeff just sitting down to write a poem about a certain subject using a specific conceit. When the Muse is in, great things occur which I certainly can't always explain. When she is out, I plod along still writing and honing my technical skills so that when she returns I'll be ready for her.

  7. "I anneal myself with hugs."

    I felt a sharp pang when I encountered this line. And again each time I’ve reread it. In each encounter I feel very sad but also hopeful. I see a boy hugging himself. What a lonely place. At least, that’s how I experience the poem, it takes me to my own lonely places. But not just lonely, also powerful: to anneal yourself. Who has not been alone with her or his wound? Who has not had to confront the choice of whether or not to enter the assay? It’s a terrifying prospect. Despite its hours of comfortable grumble, that furnace comes off as dangerous, scary. It makes filaments that cut the life of a glassblower in half.

    I wonder if some of the power of metaphor is in its breaking down. There is the metaphor and there is the thing under the metaphor and they are not exactly the same. Perhaps as in the old Hebrew poems of repeating lines, the second line being slightly different from the first, the difference being the kernel of the experience.

    Your poem uses procedures of glassblowing to evoke the assays of redemption. Aching, poignant. But in this extended metaphor it is glass that is redeemed, at the hands of an entity external to the glass, the glassblower. But who redeems the glassblower? What agent shovels the cullet of him into the furnace then draws the radiance of him from the glory hole on punty rod or blow pipe? I don’t see the man in the grey-green suit as the broker of redemption. Catalyst of healing in simultaneously feeling empty yet needing to vomit? No. He anneals himself with hugs. He is his own cullet shoveler. He sears himself at the furnace door and suffers his own light and touches metal to his own glass. The metaphor of glass handled by glassblower breaks as the speaker in the poem becomes both. He anneals himself.

    I find this breaking of metaphor miraculous and very beautiful.

    You wrote, “As a gay child/teen/young adult I got to experience all these metaphorical pains on a deeply visceral, emotional level, . . .” Appropriately, the language and actions of your poem are loaded with a deeply visceral physicality. I really appreciate that. It’s what gives the poem authority with me.

    Like Nate Fisher, I too am struck by the lines that finish the poem, in particular the words “purge,” “scum,” “surface,” “clean.” To be assayed and found “undeniably beautiful,” as extolled earlier in the poem. “turn from the fire clean” Such a sweet yet strong final note.

    Thank you, Jeff, for making the poem and then keeping faith with it. Thank you to BPJ for sending the poem out into the world.

    Peter Munro

  8. Maybe it was rejected because the paper wasn't scented?