The Poets Speak

Christopher Buckley on ”I’m Nothing”

“I’m nothing” has seen many incarnations . . . a longer poem, longer lines, more lyricism, until cut down to this final version.  Most of my poems see many revisions over a good deal of time; this saw more.  While engaging my usual subjects touching on childhood, science and physics, and the faith vs. doubt theme that consumes me, it takes its shot at the environmental and political rather baldly.  The older I become the less reticent I am to engage the greed and idiocy surrounding us.  Alas, the probable outcomes so far as the individual is concerned are the probable outcomes, despite our hopes and theories.

 

Nicole Callihan on “Song”

After Brigit Pegeen Kelly died, I read and re-read her poem “Song,” and that goat’s head swayed in the tree of my mind. I thought of those boys who had worked so hard to remove the head; I thought of the song that the goat sang anyway. I’m struck by how, despite our actions, there are still songs. Maybe they soothe us, or maybe they haunt us, but just the fact of song, of melodic company gives me something like hope.

My own haunted song was made in late childhood and has to do with a ferret that Malachi brought home one day and that a gang of us tried to raise. We were sort of wild kids, roaming the apartment complex in Oklahoma, trying to make sense of things. Our notions of love were fractured. We pieced together what we could and used it to take care of the ferret—dressing it, stroking it—but it got to be too much.

This poem, though, is less about the ferret and the terrible act—all tucked in between the snacks and the shame—around the ferret. What mattered most when I was writing (& re-writing) was the end, that in spite of all our shit-headed wrong-heartedness, we got what we didn’t deserve: we got the song; we got the love. But, now what? I don’t know. Really, I don’t. I guess that’s what all the other poems are for.

 

Chris Forhan on “Blind” and “Opulent, Unfunereal World” 

I spent several recent years writing a prose memoir, stretching out—narrating, interpreting, forging connections and explaining them—and that is probably why, when I returned to poetry, I craved language that exists just this side of silence. I wanted poems that do their work quickly and, if they are lucky, through little leaps and shifts and collisions of thought briefly jostle out of sleep some meaningful mystery. Weary of the explaining and educated guessing I had been doing in prose, I wanted only implication and song.

These two poems are examples. In them are allusions—not initially consciously intended—to the New Testament gospels as well as to the gospels of Wallace Stevens and Mark Strand. That one of the poems contains both the word “gospel” and the word “gossip” is either an accident or the consequence of some unconscious part of me recalling a spelling error in a student essay I graded decades ago, in which the writer referred to the Christian “gossipals.” About the broom maker who appears in the poem “Blind”: he is inspired by an actual blind broom seller in Indianapolis who for sixty years has been peddling his products in various locations around town, including the sidewalk outside my local post office. I have never seen him outside a church, but the poem needed him there.

I hope such echoes, as well as the lifting and dipping of vowel pitch, the chiming of consonants, and the intimate ongoing drama of rhythm, meaningfully complicate the poems’ texture and make them about things that we have insufficient words for but might at least have music.

 

Steve Castro on “The Seamstress”

This documentary poem is about my Costa Rican maternal grandmother Alice, who is still alive. She was born on April 14, 1927. When my mother came to work in The United States to save money to bring my younger brother and I to the U.S., I lived with my mom’s grandparents (Tita Alice and Tito Edwin) for two years. I have many memories about my grandmother. The ones I mention in my poem are the only ones I have ever written about her. My grandmother told me her favorite chicken mentioned in my poem was beautiful, especially its color. The chicken’s color in Spanish is called cuijen. Cuijen is a color that is used for describing chickens with black and white (ashen) stripes throughout their entire body. My grandmother does not speak English, so when I called her to tell her I had a poem about her forthcoming in Plume, I translated the poem to her in Spanish. I also told her (in Spanish, of course) “Tita, if a million-people cut open a chicken to perform an operation, only about 2% would not kill it. You would have made an excellent veterinarian.”

 

Alex Dickow on Translating Max Jacobs’ Le Départ and Le Kamichi

I have been reading Max Jacob’s work for close to twenty years. A few years ago, I started translating Jacob’s Central Laboratory, his most well-known collection of poems in verse — almost unknown in the United States, although Ron Padgett did pen an adaptation of “The Departure” many years back. “The Screamer” — a variety of bird — demonstrates Jacob’s propensity for self-flagellation, guilt, and the like, in his usual dizzying blend of bathos and pathos. “The Departure” might rank among Jacob’s best pieces, with its delicious refrain that recalls — or rather prefigures — the lullaby-like refrain of Margaret Wise’s celebrated children’s story Goodnight Moon. I hope someday to complete my translation of the whole collection — just after the next article, and after I’ve completed another translation in progress, and when the novel is finished, and when the semester is concluded…

 

Elizabeth Holmes on “Babel of Signs”
“Babel of Signs” comes from a forthcoming book called Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook (LSU, 2018). This poem appears early in the book and describes the first landing of Europeans on Tahiti–which would lead to enormous and disastrous changes for the Tahitians, but at this point was a muddle of uncertainties, dangers, missed signals and misunderstood messages.

It still amazes me to think that I wrote a whole book of poems about a place I’ve never been and people so remote from me in time, place, and culture. The idea began as I was reading Richard Holmes (no relation), The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. I was struck by his sympathetic portrayal of Joseph Banks, a wealthy naturalist who traveled with Captain James Cook and, during three months on the island, voraciously learned everything he could about the people, even going so far as to strip down to a loincloth and take part in a funeral procession. Although he never lost his sense of British superiority, he developed real respect for these people, and reached across the divide.
There’s something to be said for beginning from a state of complete ignorance–which pretty well describes my understanding of eighteenth-century history and certainly of Tahiti. The more I learned, the more I realized this was no simple tale of evil imperialists and helpless natives. It was a tale with multiple fascinating ambiguities and paradoxes. The gut feeling of holding in the mind/heart what demands to be probed yet refuses to be reconciled or resolved–that’s where, often, a poem begins.

 

Jane Hirshfield on “Words”

In 2007, I was traveling with a small group of U.S. poets and writers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, Ramallah, and Turkey. We spoke with many university students, as well as others. When the war in Syria began and continually since, I have thought of those students – eloquent, open, forthright young people – and have wondered about their fates. How many may now be refugees with young children; how many now must be dead; which found themselves fighting on the side of government; which on the side of the rebels… They haunt me. Their fates haunt me.

 

Susan Eisenberg on “Wants”

Of course when my parents moved from the family home to an apartment building with an elevator where my dad could manage more easily after his strokes, I took more than only two things. But these two had an urgency, perhaps because they held the contradictions of my upbringing. After my parents had moved out and before final papers were passed, I flew into town and had the chance to wander alone through the home I’d grown up in. I was surprised to find the wooden knife holder on a shelf in the basement, surely to be thrown out when the new owners took possession. As though it had no value—or power.

 

Editors Note
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