The Poets Speak

Adam Scheffler on “Charade”

I think of this poem as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. I write poems in batches, filling up a journal until it’s full, and then typing it up, editing it extensively, and discarding most of what I’ve written. The discarded poems and pieces all then end up in a massive Word document I think of as ‘the junkyard.’ The magic thing about the junkyard is that sometimes I go hunting through it later and find pieces of things (an arm here, a leg there) that seem interesting enough to me that I pluck them out again to see if anything can be done with them. In this case, there were enough limbs that I was able to organize them, and sew them together, and I almost had a full poem. Then I was lucky enough to have a sudden idea for the ending, which did feel like the electricity that brings the whole contraption to life. I suppose I should be embarrassed to get a poem out of such haphazard and humble origins, but I liked Frankenstein’s monster better than any of Mary Shelley’s other characters anyway (who wouldn’t?). “Charade” may end up in a book next to more of a Ken doll-like poem that was born intact in one relatively graceful rush of inspiration, but I’m sure they’ll get along fine.

 

Frannie Lindsay on “Invitation”

I wrote this poem just before the 2017 winter holidays. I had not written any poetry for a long time. I had been in somewhat poor health, and my husband’s cancer was taking its first stealthy footsteps into the new wilderness where he would vanish come early summer. I don’t know which of us I was inviting into the silence (many silences – some ominous, others sheltering – seemed to await), for it was a challenging time for the two of us. Often, we could not provide the refuge for one another that we had come to trust. But even in this very personal dark of this particular winter solstice, I wanted to find — believed I could find — words of comfort to somehow embrace us both.

 

Kathryn Nuernberger on “The Invention of Fire”

As women’s rights in many states, including the one where I have been living, have steadily eroded over the past decade, I became interested in plants that were historically used for birth control. At first it was just fun to get to know the plants springing up in my pasture in such a new way, but later I had a growing sense of foreboding that such ancient knowledge would become too useful too soon.

As any writer knows, with research way leads unto way. I knew many of the women accused of witchcraft had been midwives, so I wondered if the documents related to their trials might include more details about what parts and quantities of plants like penny royal, rue, and Queen Anne’s Lace were traditionally used. I didn’t find any such answers, but I did find so many powerful accounts of intelligent, brave, kind, and terribly frightened radicals and activists standing before tribunals of men, trying their best to speak their truth. Though the accounts of their trials were all written by the courts that convicted them and were intended to be damning, the defiance of these women always slips through the cracks between the lines of the official language.

I have been writing about these witches for several years now. At first I was so optimistic about the world I, my daughter, and all of the women and non-binary people I love were walking into, that I thought this project might turn out to be irrelevant or seem a little hysterical. I should have known better.

 

Suzanne Lummis on “Ars Poetica Über Prompt (Not the Taxi Service)”

Several years back—motivated by Horace or someone of that stripe—I’d written an ars poetica with the intent of framing my treatise on the art of poetry with a language, an approach, that in itself demonstrated my point. I liked the famous late version of the Hippocratic Oath, Primum non nocere. If physicians should first do no harm what should poets first not do? Obviously – First, Do Not Bore.

I wound up with a rather sprightly thing that seemed a cross between a poem and prose—it also seemed too eccentric for publication. I didn’t even try. It’s lost now somewhere among my notebooks, and maybe even the notebook is lost.

Then, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center invited longtime poets of the region to contribute writing prompts for a prospective anthology celebrating BB’s 50th anniversary year, 2018. I picked an idea at random and began rather idly to work up what I expected to be one round paragraph, but… It kept going. Did it ever. At a certain point I realized I was folding in elements of my lost, half-forgotten ars poetica.

The arts center got squeezed for time and indefinitely postponed this project, so I was stuck with the weird hybrid, this two-headed beast. It might stand at a cave entrance guarding the treasure, but I didn’t think any literary magazine would welcome the thing. I took chance on Plume. I’m chuffed, as the Brits say (or some of them do), that Daniel Lawless accepted it. I like the creature.

 

Betsy Sholl on “Classmate”

This poem comes out of an actual experience, one I could never find an effective way to write about. I think now that’s because I kept trying to write from the adolescent’s point of view, to recreate her experience and emotions. The results were either overwrought or just plain dull, as if I knew the storyor my version of itso well the poem had nothing to discover. Then last summer I was reading some late Milosz and came across his poem titled “Classmate.” It suggested the possibility of writing from a much greater distance, not recreating the past, but viewing it through the long end of the telescope. That made for a more discursive poem, one with pretty plain language, but it also allowed for more complexity. At least that’s my hopethat the ending conveys the surprise I felt, even the pity for this person, gone without a trace (at least as far as the internet is concerned). Maybe the speaker writes now out of a kind of awe at how a life can vanishnot so much to blame as to preserve what little she can against the pull of oblivion.

 

Soren Stockman on “No Heaven for the King”

“No Heaven for the King” came first as a phrase, and the title functioned as a seed for the poem. A lot of my poems are untitled in composition, and the poem being built leads me backward to its beginning. Titles feel to me like docks for their poems; the poems roam about in open waters with that home in mind. “No Heaven” evolved in the opposite fashion, with the title serving as a gilded gate to the poem, and the body of the poem expanding as its interior. I used the second person for this reason, because the language and tone resembles a private conversation with the self — as we all know, these conversations often turn teasingly confrontational. I was thinking about comfort with discomfort; how easily we will, “with nothing left, cling to that which has robbed us” (thank you, Faulkner), and how destructive that specific comfort is to the possibility of freedom. All the more so when freedom, in this case a willingness and openness to pleasure, is unfamiliar. My manuscript, “Newborn,” in which this poem appears, is an autobiographical collection concerned with love. What I want from my book is to make that freedom intimately known after love, and to keep that freedom inclusive of love’s leaving. I want to know myself in the coming back, and love that. The king, as with all kings, is merely a figurehead for a system of power that corresponds in “No Heaven for the King” to the captivity of fear of the unknown. As the poem gathers steam, the king is an external marker by which the speaker measures themselves, a kind of impersonal standard or celebrity. Ultimately, heaven is loving other people, and this love extinguishing our deeply personal fears. Once the system of power is broken down, the king becomes real, and is exposed as nothing. No fear, no love, nothing. Or maybe the king is the fear.

 

Charles O. Hartman on “Birthdays of the Dead”

I wrote it fast and with little revision on July 31, 2013, beginning in my notebook. This was after a glum vacation; a scrawl on the cover attributes blurs and wrinkles to “rain in Maine.” It would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday; he died in 1994. I was born on August 1—they came home from a party then left for the hospital. A note one day after the poem’s draft calls it “definitely my last powers-of-two birthday.” The proximity always made his date easy to remember. My early poem “On My Mother’s Birthday” begins with a mnemonic he gave me: “Bastille/Day but instead/November.” I was a vague only child; anxiety about keeping track of other people may have provoked the poem’s legend about how these matters are handled Over There. Five years before “Birthdays” I wrote another bit of afterlife anthropology, “Maud de Chaworth,” in which a 13th-century ancestor explains the layout and mores of what she calls “a cold place” to inhabit: history.

The notebook breaks off after line 12, “Well out of that cadence!” I shifted to the computer and wrote the last seven lines quickly. While I was in college a friend back home died, and I tied some thread around my dominant hand’s last two fingers and made up a story about ancient Indian (?) customs. My roommates bought it, and when I confessed, they were bemused rather than vexed. I imagine a reader of the poem, too, hesitating between arcane lore and requisite invention.

Editors Note
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