Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kirun Kapur on "Light" and "Melon Cleaver"

“Light” and “Melon Cleaver” (and the other poems in this sequence) are based on stories I’ve known my whole life, stories central to my family’s history and identity. So, when I began writing them, I knew (more or less) the narrative I’d follow. This had never happened to me before. Usually, I write like a character from Grimm’s: I fumble in the forest, intent on a path that’s been eaten by birds. For once, my path should have been clear brick, not bread crumbs—but I felt even more lost than usual.

For one thing, I had a commitment to the literal truth—never a good situation for poets. I don’t believe a poet is any more obligated to tell the literal truth than a novelist. The lyric “I” is a work of fiction; if bread crumbs lead away from facts, she must follow. However, these stories didn’t belong wholly to me. They’d been lived and retold by my father, uncles and aunts. I wanted to tell them the way I’d heard them.

Context posed another problem. The poems revolve around the dissolution of British India. Many Westerners are unaware that India and Pakistan were once one country, let alone that their 1947 partition induced an enormous migration (the largest in modern history), notable not only for its size, but for its brutal communal clashes. I felt the need to provide background information, a sure way to strangle the life of a poem.

I also had in mind an admonition: a poet I admire once advised me to avoid direct depictions of violence in poems; he found them manipulative, an assault on the sensibilities of the reader. He admired (as I do) poems where a single bird in the town square can evoke the horrors of 20th Century European history. In the stories I wanted to tell, a direct experience of violence within a close community was the single most crucial issue. Could I address that kind of violence explicitly?

I thought the answer might lie in a broader framework. I spent months researching the major events of 1947: the Truman doctrine was proclaimed; Kalashnikov designed the AK-47. The partition of India and Pakistan was just one thread in a chaotic, bloody blanket. By weaving the events of 1947 into my family stories, I’d hoped to slip in the necessary background information, blunt the violence and use historical material to provide contrasts and surprises. This grand idea resulted in a glib, list-laden bit of verse, reminiscent of a pop song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire. . . .” I shelved the project for almost a year.

Then, I happened to be at a reading where a poet read several sestinas. I came away thinking about repetition: a word or phrase paced and repeated becomes an incantation, a ritual, a structure. Isn’t that exactly how the telling of these stories had worked in my family? And what about variation, the breaking of expected repetitions? Might it enact retelling, misremembering, the rupture of family structures and rituals?

I began to sense the path, the shape of a poem: a pantoum, with its circular structure and its spell of repeated lines. The repetition and variation of whole lines gave me a way to build up information organically, to create an intimate world and then break it. As I worked, I found the form providing a second voice, locked in conversation with the old, immutable stories.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Karen Lepri on "Root" and "Wave"

The poems “Root” and “Wave” come from a short series, "Meso Cantos," which belongs to a longer body of work made up of groups of these cantos. The label “cantos” is not only a response to The Canon (I was reading Pound, thinking of Ovid) but also a descriptor of how I view these short, lyrical works—I want the poems to sing, to combine rhythms, sounds, and images to produce lyric beauty. The different groups of cantos (Nano, Micro, Meso, Magna), organized by scale, mostly respond to scientific or natural phenomena; however, to borrow from Forrest Gander's writing on George Oppen, they also attempt a “meditative investigation into intersubjectivity,” a consideration of world through the body, through the human eye, through the observer's awe. They are poems of perception that struggle with the question of how and what to perceive in our surroundings: at what scale, according to what theory, in which world?

The "Meso Cantos" derive from what I consider middle forces—somewhere between universe and bacteria—currents, winds, atmosphere, waves, root systems. The elements vary in terms of global reach but are connected by their roles as carriers (of force, water, life) and the wide-scale effects of what they carry. When I write one of the cantos, I begin with two types of material, my own preconceptions and scientific research—though I used the Latin terms in “Root” less for their scientific meanings (which are quite bland) and more for their acoustic zing—the i's, s's, r's. This music elevated what for me is already a wonder—the roots themselves. In the moment of writing, I am often drawn to scenarios opposite to the ideal I initially imagined. I begin to incorporate vulnerability or subtle violence. I feel it is necessary to interfere with flat beauty or my own na├»ve awe.

The titles are important starting points, but they must transform in order for the poem to work. One of my colleagues once described this type of transformation as “self-revision,” a term I find interesting: the poem revising itself, not the poet revising the poem. In “Wave,” I began with the “real” world and moved into the imaginary. I live on the coast and spend a lot of time watching the waves arrive. I was thinking about where the force that forms the wave originates, if there even is such a place to pinpoint. The unpredictability of waves compared to the very predictable rise and fall of the tide in the harbors and beaches, as well as their unseen forces, led the poem to the incalculable consequences of war and the deep seas’ historic use as nuclear test sites.

With their short stanzas and frequent enjambment, these poems' broken, riddled forms allow space, I hope, for the reader to meditate on an image or to read multiple meanings. I want the poems to move beyond the page, as Barbara Guest has said, as opposed to resting in it. Their success depends wholly on the reader's terrifying leap from page into ___________.