J. Allyn Rosser on “The Central”
Maturation in America has at times seemed to me – certainly it did on the day I wrote “The Central” – a prolonged process of inuring oneself to disappointment. We are taught from the moment we first get shoved into kindergarten (shoved by that boy who regularly throws up his milk and cookies) that we can be anything we want if we study hard enough, work hard enough, hope hard enough. Then one by one the doors close: nope, not gonna be an astronaut with my claustrophobia; nope, not a veterinarian with my allergies; nope, not a psychiatrist with my neuroses (or are they a prerequisite?); not a rock star, with my stage fright; not a lawyer, with my horror of charging ridiculous fees; not a jeweler with my myopia (but maybe a jewel thief?). I recalled the rare treat of dining out at the place described in this poem as an apt emblem of pure nopedom. This is a faithful representation of the restaurant, though I did delicately omit the owner’s grandma from Naples who liked to sit in the overheated kitchen and mutter curses, throwing her dentures at the waitresses when we came in to retrieve orders.
Patricia Clark on “I Like to Tuck a Leaf”
Memory plays a few tricks when trying to recall a poem’s genesis. What’s true, for sure, is that I like to pick things up (a rock, a seed, etc.) on walks—not always, but often. And in Michigan’s fall, the leaves are sometimes so colorful or weird that I hate to ignore them. But I tell myself no, let it go, until I finally cannot resist a certain very compelling one. That thought got wrapped up with the word “tuck” which came to me, I believe, just in mulling over words. Here I was trying to honor its connotations of such tender love and care. Wrapped up there, too, is the thought that in our minds lodges a lot of junk (celebrity names, advertising slogans) and yet it’s hard, sometimes, to retain the important stuff, such as leaf-identification, not to mention the date of someone’s passing.
“I Like to Tuck a Leaf” takes a thought-journey that ends in my own selfish wish that I’ll be alive some day in the future and open a book, and voila, a leaf. I say this in prose here but the poem says it better. I also see a very democratic population when I see autumn’s fallen leaves; they seem like all the individuals of the world gone this year, gone in the future. I think of Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass,” and his phrase from Leaves of Grass, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The leaves symbolize that for me. Somehow those thoughts reside beneath the surface in my poem.
Kim Addonizio on “Sullen Art”
An earlier draft of this was a somewhat snarky take on poets “touring” other people’s suffering, with a couple of self-implicating lines at the end. I couldn’t figure out the tone. I’m still not sure about it. I was wondering about the value of writing poems that wouldn’t be read by those they were about, or for. Which led me to think about Dylan Thomas’s famous poem. I couldn’t decide on a stance to take, so I created a guy in a bar, gave him a monologue, and left it to the reader.
Jane Springer on “Velvetleaf”
A forthright question to Tick, why leave Eden? Parásitos (Greek origin): Person who eats at another’s table. Two universe collision: Our scythe. Kid room, a murder mystery: shorn animal of bedsheets, cut-for-comics tree. Our son set fire to the brush beside the creek that summer (tinderbox). Is the murder in the music. I wonder, if the puncture vine has in it Tick’s teeth. Jelly-wound’s a sadder sound, & silly for the wobbly fruit—what a jam: Lime (Lyme) has an acerbic sting—not best explained, but felt when first you see the red-rash target rung thrice round your teen. What better music for this mama’s bildungsroman than in Queen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ
Ever hurt I tried to say sopped-up in sound.
David Clewell on “More Than I Can Say”
After a few years of readings where I’d tell the story of this one introducer’s warning–which of course ably served as my own by-proxy warning–I decided to go on the written record, re: this whole not-exactly-haiku thing. Surely it’s no accident, then, that the epigraph’s attribution is nearly twice as long as the poem itself.
Michelle Bitting on Pompeii, October
I couldn’t help becoming obsessed with Vesuvius and the ever-compelling history of its historic bursting; how centuries later and beneath the layers of strange dust, bodies were found in eerie preserved tableau–caught as the people of Pompeii were by the sudden rush of spewing volcanic cloud matter. I had been to an exhibit on the subject at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, and soon after, began daydream associations with my often volatile childhood home situation that could swing from states of cold war isolation to sunny suburban normality to insane levels of ferocious violence. Often when these shifts took place, it seemed to rush through the house like a wildfire out of nowhere; though certainly there were tremors and tensions rumbling beneath the surface. There usually are when us human types cohabit through 365 days of circadian rhythms and whatever baggage we carry from the past. The trouble comes with exposure to traumatic events at an early age: one gets stuck and some part or ghost may remain in the buried layers. Excavation can be one brutal (and most revealing) bitch to achieve.
Rafael Campo on “End of Life Discussion”
The poem took shape in a reflective writing workshop I lead for Harvard medical students, part of larger initiative to think together with them about how literature and the arts may provide important, indeed necessary, context for the work of physicians. Our theme was one of the realms in which the strict biomedical narrative of illness so often falls short: at the end of life, when there won’t be another round of chemotherapy or surgical procedure that can cure, but when we still have a role as healers. We talked that evening over pizza what else we might have to offer our patients and their loved ones in the face of death; one of my students shared her sense of irony in “the last words” she marked as a young woman died of ovarian cancer lived on in the poem she was trying to write about her. So my own poem revisits the insufficiency of our words, what can’t be easily translated and understood, even as they comfort and (perhaps) suggest a life beyond this one; and it’s brevity, perhaps, serves as a reminder of how short our time on this earth can feel.