Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tanya Olson on the making of "flower of the mountain"

“flower of the mountain” originated in a visit to the exhibit Beyond the Headlines, by two photographers, Jeremy Lange and Derek Lee Anderson. I’ve long been a fan of Derek’s work from the Independent Weekly and was interested to see it hanging in large format. It was a beautiful exhibit highlighted by two stunning portraits, one of a teenage girl, the other of an older African American couple. I spent a long time with both and jotted down the names of the couple—Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher—and the fact that they lived in North Carolina and currently held the Guinness world record for being the longest married living couple. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the information right then, but I knew I wanted it. I had been writing poems about North Carolina residents and I love names, especially Southern names. Zelmyra was a keeper.

I kept thinking about that portrait all weekend, especially what it had been like for Derek to take it. Derek’s taken my picture before and he’s good at both talking to the subject before he starts shooting and giving directions during the shoot. I wondered what he and the Fishers talked about—what they thought about this young, hip white boy who showed up to take their picture, and whether they cared that they were now the longest living married couple. I loved the way Mrs. Fisher is smiling and isn’t looking directly at the camera; I loved that they got dressed up and the way she’s holding his hand. She’s thinking something but we’re not to know what it is.

Ulysses is my favorite novel and I often borrow bits and styles from Joyce for my work. I’ve written poems as letters between him and Lucia, his institutionalized daughter, and a poem that uses the ending of The Dead to tell how Lisa Marie Presley and I had to break our engagement when I wouldn’t convert to Scientology. In connection with Mrs. Fisher, I kept thinking about Penelope and Molly and what women do to stay in touch with love and other vulnerable feelings. What had it cost Mrs. Fisher to be in an 86-year marriage? Molly mulls over the gains and losses of love before sleep; I wanted Zelmyra to do the same.

Clearly, I stole the stream-of-consciousness, mumbly, associative brain roar of night from Joyce, as well as the lack of punctuation and the repetition of yes at the end. I also plucked the title—Bloom calls Molly his flower of the mountain. I don’t think any of the “facts” about the poem’s Zelmyra and her husband are true of the real Zelmyra and Herbert. I didn’t do any research on the Fishers. I did read about Seabreeze, a real town on the coast founded and run by blacks and the only N.C. beach resort open to blacks during segregation, and Chang and Eng Bunker (also  N.C. residents), who died in 1874. But I never get too boxed in by research; the world of the poem echoes the world in which I live though it isn’t bound by it. For instance, I’ve never been engaged to Lisa Marie.

I hope you enjoy listening to me reading the poem. Share what you think or your questions about the content, the process, or anything else. I’ll read and respond throughout the month.


  1. Hello, Tanya.

    I enjoyed "flower of the mountain" very much. I read it twice before I listened to you read it, and it was a revelation each time.... amazingly immersive.

    I'm a little curious about your process. I was struck by the contrast between your original visual inspiration of Derek Lee Anderson's photograph and the relatively non-visual and narrative style of the poem itself. I ken that you've started with a visual inspiration and some historical background elements to create the world of the poem, and you nod to Joyce's style and decoration... but how did you get from there to here?

    Thanks for a pleasant morning's reflection. I hope you enjoy this gig.

  2. Hi Hoke. It's great to hear from you and thanks for your care with the poem.

    I'm prone to poems that work through narratives because, for me, telling stories is really important and political. The fact Joyce places a Jewish cuckold at the center of the Dublin day he wants to stand for all Dublin days is a big statement. In the same way, connecting a text at the heart of Modernism to an African-American woman who has lived through the worst of Jim Crow in North Carolina while married to the same man repositions (at least a little) our common stories of African-American women, the South, Ireland, and other things.

    First, I had to figure out what my Zelmyra had to say. I thought about her and wrote early drafts trying to find a voice or a story. An early moment I liked was when she wanted her man "to ask right". Once I find one of those moments I just let that voice keep telling what it has to tell. Eventually I find the story and then I keep rewriting until it's shaped and feels done but it's seldom that linear. A lot of the early work gets done in my head while the later work has to occur on paper. Once I can get a first draft, I cut and reshape, usually pulling out lots of text that's extraneous.

    Thanks for the question- it was good to think about how this and most poems come about. It's good to remember that most poems have rocky beginnings until they find themselves since I've spent today wrestling with an uncooperative piece. It's important to just relax with the person or the story or the idea until the poem gets its feet under itself.

  3. How did you get that voice? It is so strong and resonant.

  4. I was very interested to read about the way you put this poem together--it sounds so natural, so Zelmyra, that I absolutely can't see the artifice (the generation, framing, and shaping of the artefact) or even hear the Joyce in there. Your comments in response to Hoke should encourage all of us who write poems with "rocky beginnings" and then just throw them out into the Big Pond.

    Thanks, BPJ, for this blog.

  5. I'm glad you both responded to the voice of the poem. As much as I like people's story, I also love the voice of people- vocabulary, rhythm, pace- and I'm always excited when a poem gets driven by its voice. It's one of the reasons I love doing readings so much- I get to do the police in different voices. (He Do The Police In Different Voices was the original title of Eliot's Waste Land.)

    Joanna asks the million dollar question though- how to find a voice? I don't have the answer but I do know I have to listen a lot. Sometimes that listening can happen in my head; sometimes I have to work out the voice on paper first. Sometimes the voice determines what story lies in the poem; othertimes the "what happens" reveals the voice.

    But I know when the voice is right and when it isn't. I would like to know what other folks use to drive the poem, what comes first, and how they find it if anyone wants to chime in.

  6. Tanya, fascinating, fascinating stuff. YOu have my admiration
    both as a poet and a thinker.....maybe they're the same! I'm proud to know you. Ruth moose

  7. Listening to you read it, the cadence is natural and beautiful. Did you read the lines aloud while you wrote it, listening to the sound? Or did you just hear it in your head? I love her telling us what marriage is not; there is not a secret or a trick or a cliche (are you trying to put women's magazines out of business?). It is a constant choice. Thanks for writing it.

  8. as a technical writer, i've always been mystified and excited by the art and work of your poetry. your willingness to share your process draws us deeper into the story and the mystery without diluting the excitement at all. i don't know the fishers, but i'm pretty sure i've spent time with your zelmyra, and i was glad to be reminded of her through your poem.
    thank you.

  9. Hi Tanya, "flower of the mountain" is a wonderful poem. It captures the realness of a long term relationship and I love Zelmyra's pragmatic approach to life and her man. The discussion of your writing process was so interesting to me; the connection between James Joyce, Mr. and Mrs.Fisher, Chang and Eng Bunker, the Seabreeze, the river. I felt connected too. Thank you for a lovely poem.

  10. Wendy-

    I make a lot of choices based on sound, beats, and rhythm so reading aloud is a key part of the process for me. While most folks will interact with the poem on the page, I'm strongly influenced by what it sounds like when read and I want people to be able to recreate that to some extent in their own heads.


  11. Johan HuybrechtsJune 29, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    just listened to your poem, it sounds so good, fluent like a river (taking me along like a log), halting right in time to make me think; 'married'. and then resume, continue. yes. wonderful.

  12. Rebecca, Dana, and Johan-

    Thanks so much for the nice words about the poem. Poetry is so often a shouting into the abyss- while you can always imagine an audience, the moments when they are actually there listeneing or reading, and the poem actually works, connects, is fabulous. Thanks for reaching out- it means a lot.