Linda Gregerson on “The Wayfarer”
If one were to open the wooden panels on which this painting appears, one would behold a triptych known as The Haywain, also by Hieronymous Bosch. Surrounding the massive hay wagon from which the triptych takes its name is a dizzying assemblage of figures and micro-narratives of the sort for which Bosch is famous: angels and demons, friars and musicians, kings and peasants, scenes from Eden and scenes from hell, all in the mode of Boschean fantastical.
The painting one beholds when the panels are closed, which is the painting contemplated in this poem, is of a quieter sort altogether. Allegory is by no means entirely banished (the progress of a Christian soul was a common allegorical subject in Bosch’s era), but gone are the flayed torsos and severed heads, the lurid composites of human and fish, human and monkey, human and frog. I wanted to write about a Bosch in which the dazzlingly symbolic left a little breathing room for the merely anecdotal. The homely. Which is what I’ve tried to locate.
Nicole Callihan on Snow: An Essay
What is a poem? As a mother of two daughters, sometimes I think it’s a way to not think about nits, or, in the case of this poem, to think about nits without dealing with nits. This morning, two years after I wrote “Snow: An Essay,” I’ve received nine emails about nits in my youngest daughter’s first grade class, so now, I write this reflection on the poem before going home to find a comb in my mouth as I part the hair with a yellow pencil looking, again, for that which is almost invisible to the naked eye.
Diane Martin on Kents and Others
In writing “Kents” and “Others,” I was very much influenced by Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro memoirs. Like her, I am in love with the sentence, often in tension with the line. I tried lineated version of these pieces, but decided they don’t need to be in lines.
So, you ask, are these true? For the most part, the scenes these two prose poems describe did happen. “Kents,” compacts those memories. The cigarettes fascinate the girl because they are objects of conflict between the subjugated mother and the authoritarian father. They are also the embodiment of rebellion (cf. her love of bus exhaust).
“Others,” came to me when my husband and I were showing his sister and her husband the Pacific, the grand vista conjuring up people who were not there. (I wrote the word “others” in my notebook then to remind me to write this.) In the poem, our stories tell about being welcomed—or not—by people and the landscape. But the memories pulled from the past separate us in the present. I’d like to think the sheep are stand-ins for the ones who are not there.
Jules Jacob on Pensé Que Estabas Muerto
This poem developed when a decades-old thought about a man who came home late darted through my head in Spanish. I began by writing a micro-exploration of betrayal and an acknowledgement of retroactive anger. As with other poems, I employed my concept of “toxic beauty,” i.e. the capability in individuals, societies, environments and/or nations to captivate or create and simultaneously repel or destroy. I utilized my horticultural background and interest in poisonous plants to facilitate fantasies.
I didn’t expect a macro-betrayer to crash the poem, but it shouldn’t have surprised me that he crashed my subconscious. When I learned the Obamas kept bees in the White House garden, I allowed him to stay. The last two stanzas arrived unprompted with a warning and surprise ending in the guise of a favorite childhood game.
Susan Rich on “A Woman I Knew Ate Fire for Breakfast”
Decades ago I worked in an office in Somerville, Massachusetts. On my daily commute, I read, no, I inhaled, the detective novels of Linda Barnes and Sara Paretsky. Their protagonists, Carlotta Carlyle and V.I. Warshawski, became close companions to me as well as to thousands of other women across the globe. The books were translated into several languages and I once learned of a top executive in Tokyo who read 5 minutes of a Paretsky novel every weekday, right before she entered meetings with her all-male counterparts. My wish is for this poem to function a little bit like that. I hope a woman reader might find this piece when she needs it most.
The unexpected moments (I hope they are unexpected for the reader) in the poem surprised me: lamb chop, coconut cake, sweet assassin. This was an early piece written in my active search for a new way to write. I spent a good deal of time getting to know the work of Leonora Carrington a visual artist and fiction writer who began her career surrounded by Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso: artists who in the 1930’s were experimenting with surrealism. Carrington’s stories and paintings continue to reach inside of me. Thankfully, I cannot explain why.
I wrote “A Woman I Knew Ate Fire for Breakfast” in one sitting with little revision afterward. This never happens! Perhaps it was because the day before, I had been listening to a story on the New Yorker fiction podcast, “The Five Forty Eight” by John Cheever about a woman who was seduced by her boss and how that one encounter transformed her life so that she lost her job, couldn’t eat, or sleep. That’s not the way I thought the story should go. I believe my poem is, in some way, a response to that story. In this historical moment where #metoo has become a household hashtag and sexual harassment is finally coming out into the open, this poem presents an alternative narrative. I remember reading the poets Zbiginew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski, and thinking how their surrealist approach fit their country’s concerns so well. Now everyone I know is reading Szymborska. Now we are the ones living in surreal times.
Timothy Donnelly on “All the Shrimp I Can Eat”
Several years ago I heard my beloved colleague and friend the great poet Richard Howard reading a poem in the voice of a schoolchild disturbed by the news that a python had recently eaten all of its offspring. I remembered the speaker as then going on to contemplate bravely the strong possibility that he himself had been consumed by a parent, and that his whole existence was nothing more than the movement through its digestive system. However, I apparently I made this whole part up! The distressed look on Richard’s face when I admitted to him my weird mistake told me that I might actually be onto something. The idea haunted me a while, and last summer when I started a poem addressed to “all the shrimp I can eat,” it finally found its place—although here the consumer isn’t a parent, but God.
Marjan Strojan on “No Touch” and “Elder in a Garden”
The two poems come from a group which, I thought, would take its collective title from a line in Catullus 11 (‘prati ultimi flos’). Lately, however, the group has grown in number, and now these two make part of my new volume (due out in May 2019), as yet untitled.
As a translator, I think I do best with poems that are, essentially, stories in verse – like ‘The Elder’ here, which is no more than a depiction of something I’ve long felt acutely but only recently allowed to take shape by way of the poems. I strive neither to synthesize the experience nor to add anything to it.
As for the shorter poem, there is, earlier in that group, one that ends with a similar generalization: ‘Reality (in its own way) exists… When/ you touch it, you – as if turning/ into a salt-stone – change/ into it.’
I don’t remember which of the two came first but it is obvious to me that the two are connected; they may be one and the same poem. The one in this issue was easier to find words for and, at least in my mind, made more sense in English.
Amelia Martens on “Cooking in Ashes”
This piece is part of a series of prose poems that all take their titles from Bradford Angier’s 1956 wilderness survival handbook, How to Stay Alive in the Woods. I am calling these feminist survival poems, but that isn’t quite right. This series is a space for me to look, in focused bursts, at the threats against non-male human beings. These poems come to me through a need I have to exist and to have my two daughters exist in a country that repeats how little it cares about the non-male experience.
Patricia Clark on “Canine Elegy”
I am most happy writing when I’ve caught a musical phrase, a line of words, something intriguing, mysterious, a few words pulling me along a trail where I don’t know where I’ll end up. That happened, as I recall, with “Canine Elegy.” The rest is following one’s nose—I mean, ear.
There is music, and there is content for a poem. My thinking was something like, “Why do people own dogs, live with them, invite them to share their lives?” It’s not exactly easy—yet I persist in wanting to have a household with a dog. I’ve tried to learn their lessons: patience, love, exuberance, and simple joy. One particular January, thinking back to the genesis of this poem, there were many people I knew who had lost their dogs. I wanted to honor them all—the poem should be longer!—I wanted a capacious envelope to include a list of dogs, the way Donald Hall does horses in “Names of Horses.” And I wanted repetition, not a form, really, but something like a thread repeating, a non-pantoumish pantoum, a dark vein of mortality.