Linda Pastan on “Almost an Elegy: for Tony Hoagland”
I have reached the age when I routinely read the obituaries. And so I learned of Tony’s death not from a friend or a colleague but in cold print from The New York Times. I felt an intense need to talk with somebody, preferably with Tony himself, about it. Thus this poem, which more or less wrote itself.
Poem and Predecessor: David Huddle on “My Surly Heart”
For half a century William Carlos Williams’s “The Last Words of my English Grandmother” has been a touchstone poem for me. I doubt that most readers would see the presence of the Williams poem in my poem. They don’t sound alike, and the subject matter is only slightly similar–both poems present a two-voiced argument. What gives the Williams poem its power and insight is that A) the situation is almost certainly autobiography, and B) the stakes of the argument are life, death, love, and anger. My poem is obviously imagined, the two voices are made up, and the subject matter (poetic ambition) is completely theoretical. What the two poems have in common is A) the run-on nature of the language, B) their exulting in the freedom of free verse, and C) the relatively short lines and the relatively strict stanzas. The Williams poem is dead serous; my poem attempts to be clever and amusing on its way to articulating some insight about the writing process.
If Dr. Williams had read “My Surly Heart,” he’d probably nod and say, I know where Huddle got that idea. I think he’d be amused by it, and he’d probably forgive me for unconsciously stealing what I needed from “The Last Words of My English Grandmother.” He and I would agree that artists learn how to make the art of their generation by consuming the work of previous generations. “My Surly Heart” and I are happy and honored to stand in the shadow of Dr. Williams and his majestic “The Last Words of My English Grandmother.”
Peter Meinke on “The Sailor’s Love Song” and “Irish Whisky”
Two years ago a friend writing for a newspaper about the radon poisoning in Michigan said, liking the alliteration, “Why don’t you write a radon rondeau?” She was semi-joking, but that led me to try it, taking some lines and thoughts from my notebooks. I never had written one but liked working with the form, and soon had a basic idea: If I could write a rondeau in a normal American-speaking way, I’d have a different sound, with built-in music.
The rondeau’s demanding, like a shorter, tighter villanelle with an extra complication, the repeated refrain which gives it its “rounded,” rondeau, feel. All poems have minds of their own, but I found that for me, the rondeau was particularly suggestive. I could write about almost anything the muse might suggest at the moment (my grandmother, for example, in “Irish Whiskey”; or youthful dreams in “The Sailor’s Love Song”) and let the sound in the form—rather than autobiographical fact—lead the way.
It goes without saying that this can lead anywhere, and often nowhere. But sometimes I seem to “feel” it working, and so have pushed on. These are two of the dozen or so where the final result seemed to round itself toward music and surprise me.
Alexander Dickow on translating, with Sean T. Reynolds, Gustave Roud’s “Difference”
Translating the important Swiss poet Gustave Roud was first proposed to me by the poet and scholar Antonio Rodriguez, a specialist of the lyric and very much a man of similar interests – we’ve both worked a great deal on Max Jacob, and also on Alain Damasio, the contemporary science fiction writer. I took Antonio up on the offer, and my co-translator Sean T. Reynolds joined the project soon afterward. Sean helped to translate “Difference,” and then we consulted on different possibilities in the translation. The pleasure in translating Roud for me lay in allowing myself many writing strategies I don’t generally in my own writing – notably ample, soaring rhetorical periods of a distinctly neoromantic flavor. “Difference” resonates with particular strength for me, since it involves the experience of one’s personal difference with regard to the surrounding community. Many poets must experience something of that intimate difference. There would be many more of us, otherwise.
Christopher Kempf on CYCORAMA
The “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama—first exhibited in Boston in 1884, and housed, now, at the Gettysburg National Military Park and Museum—strikes one as decidedly less kitsch, I think, than one might expect.
Indeed, the piece is simply astonishing.
Situating viewers on a central platform, the cyclorama depicts the culmination of the battle’s third and final day, Pickett’s troops rushing the Angle and “High Water Mark” before, ultimately, ebbing away toward the treeline from which they’d emerged.
In this poem, I attempt to think through two aspects, in particular, of the Gettysburg cyclorama—
First, the poem meditates on the idea—premise of all cycloramas—that one might attain a central, ordering perspective from which the battle at Gettysburg made, if only aesthetically, a kind of sense.
Second, and more importantly, the poem takes up the trope of synecdoche as both style and subject. Just as the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg learned of the day’s events by narrating, one to another, their own small part of the battle, the cyclorama itself was sewn into a single whole from fourteen individual panels.
Though it appears a single canvas, that is, the painting is many. Though it is many, it functions as one.
In this poem, and throughout the manuscript of which it’s a part, I try to think through this paradox—the paradox of a “United States,” the paradox “we” are.
Alice Friman on “Clytemnestra, Unleashed”
When I started this poem, I couldn’t tell you what triggered it. After all, why Clytemnestra, a legendary queen who held her anger in for ten years before she, as they say, “got even” with the aid of an axe? I taught Aeschylus’s Agamemnon for years, and it’s as familiar to me as the back of my hand, but who would be interested in that ancient history now? And why was that poem followed by two more written in a similar vein, poems about women who were driven to do violent acts—Judith, who chopped off the head of Holofernes, and Lady Macbeth? And why was writing those pieces so satisfying, so pleasing? Dear reader, trust me, I am not a violent person. I am into art, nature, and music. I live a quiet, rather hermetic life.
And then I figured it out! Those poems were all written the spring after the last presidential election. No need to spell out what was, and still is, the emotional turmoil I and so many women were experiencing at that time. And now, I see the news continues. Lizzie Borden, anyone?
The Last Words Of My English Grandmother
There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed–
Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,
Gimme something to eat–
They’re starving me–
I’m all right–I won’t go
to the hospital.No, no, no
Give me something to eat!
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well
you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please–
Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher–
Is this what you call
making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear–
Oh you think you’re smart
you young people,
she said, but I’ll tell you
you don’t know anything.
Then we started.
On the way
we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,
What are all those
fuzzy looking things out there?
Trees?Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.
–William Carlos Williams