August: and you’ll be pleased to discover, Readers, that you’ll be spared another chapter in the ongoing Lawless saga. Instead, a new direction, one which I hope will quickly become the direction: contributors speaking of the origins (for the most part, anyway) of the poems you are about to read in the issue. Enlightening – and fun, I hope. I know I have enjoyed the responses immensely. But you be the judge.
Carrie Etter on “Plait”
My father had five daughters, no sons, and tried to relate to us by sharing his own interests. For me, this began with Star Trek—or to go back further, with my father holding me, all of three months old, up to the TV during the moon landing (so I’m told). We watched the original Star Trek series in re-runs when I was a kid, attended the movies as they were released, and compared notes on The Next Generation when it aired. In more recent years I’ve also enjoyed reading speculative fiction, particularly the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks and the YA works of Patrick Ness.
In my poem, ‘Plait,’ I found myself imagining a culture in some respects quite like my own (with the appearance of jacks and Braille) and contemplating what how its rituals and customs might differ. How would gender be signalled? What connotations might different gender markers bear? How would these markers relate to one’s perceived sexuality? ‘Plait’ proved an unexpected venture into a speculative fiction of my own, and I hope it won’t be the last.
Terese Svoboda on “Red-Eye” and “The Window’s Water”
“Red-Eye” was written after the 2016 “Bloody Moon” summer eclipse as seen from a rowboat in the ocean late in the evening. I’d been swimming, and the bathrobe seemed very Marilyn Monroe, and I’d been flying cross country, and that seemed very redeye. The quiet of the glassy water was broken only by the jumping fish and the SUP paddlers. I don’t know why she was crying.
“The Window’s Water” echoes two poems of mine, “Neighborhood Watch,” published in the New Yorker and “Aubade,” published in the Atlantic. The three of them cross the experience of argument with sex and tech and storm. I’m about to spend a week at a lighthouse writing a poem for each of its windows to frame poetical “seeing,” reversing the archetypal National Geographic shot of someone standing in a window, looking out. In “The Window’s Water,” I use the window’s surface. The poem’s word-to-word inspiration was primarily the sounds between/among them.
Paul Nemser on “End of the Century”
I started writing “End of the Century” as a sort of aubade for my wife. An aubade is a waking-up poem, and this one is about that moment after waking when the conscious and the unconscious drift, intermix, split, speed away.
The flow of thoughts encounters the throb of the Ramones on the radio; the chant, “It’s the end, the end of the Seventies. It’s the end, the end of the century,” and the bridge, “Do you remember lying in bed with your covers pulled up over your head? Radio playin’ so no one can see.” The song was released in 1980, and I was writing my poem in the new century when most of the Ramones were gone, but their brief songs persisted, recurring and recurring on the radio and in my head.
“End of the Century” took about three years to finish. A key to completion was Lucie Brock-Broido’s wonderful suggestion to make the lines as long as I could. This shortened and tightened the poem while lengthening its rhythms.
The poem sets up different frames of reference—identity, marriage, society, the planet. In the frames, we see space-time, myth, dizzying webs of sensation, viewpoints and distortions that simultaneously look backward and forward, outward and in.
Leah Umansky on “Sestina”
My poem, “Sestina” was a formal exercise from my poetry workshop. I rarely write in form, but this time it worked out. I enjoyed playing with the end words I chose, and enjoyed manipulating them, especially because I got to toy with the repetition. The poem was written in November 2016 and was inspired by the results of the presidential election and the dissatisfaction I felt at the time, and still, to this day unfortunately, feel. With that said, this is the world we now live in and we need to make the best of it. I wrote this poem, at a time where I was struggling to keep myself afloat in terms of relationship issues and just turning on the news each day. I was starting to become aware that my emotions were getting the better of me. All I could do was write about it and let it out. The formal exercise got me to think less as I wrote, and to be more honest in my writing. I started thinking about the lies we tell ourselves, for better or for worse, to keep ourselves happy, and optimistic from time to time. At the end of the day, we have to be hopeful because the alternative is just too awful. “I might cover myself in flight, or sky, or clover, all to lie To myself into believing that I am stronger than my stresses. I tell myself, Man Up.” At the end of the day, we have to be hopeful because the alternative doesn’t get anyone anywhere. At the end of the day, we need one another.
Nin Andrews on The Orgasm Poems
These poems are from a series of orgasm poems based on the works of other poets . . . .
How can I explain? Except to say that poems and orgasms have so much in common. They are both, for example, like small moments in time, seeking against all odds to grab your attention. But the average poem like the average orgasm is humdrum and ephemeral, fading into oblivion before ever taking hold. I feel sorry for them. I really do. But a select few become acrobats, pirouetting in the back of the mind forever after. Poems like Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body,” Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” James Tate’s “The List of Famous Hats.” Of course, everyone has his or her own personal list, but I am so curious about the poems that stay with me. Some are not even particularly spectacular—like Ignotow’s “The Driver.” Yet I find myself in dialogue with them, writing poems that are openly derivative. I know, I know. We poets are told to find our own voices, not to echo the voices of others. To have our own orgasms, all by ourselves, and not admit we are having them with someone else. And I suppose that appeals to certain types, but I do like a little company now and again.
Ron Smith on “Home Front” and “Oracles”
REGARDING THE POEM “HOME FRONT”
Poetry’s seductive capacity to time-travel has led me all my adult life to write about my parents before I came to consciousness, sometimes even before I was conceived. “Home Front” is an attempt to breathe the air of the early 40s in Savannah, to get inside my mother’s mind when it was still forming in her girlhood. I wanted to feel the texture, to taste the tang of ordinary life in that extraordinary time. I discovered as I wrote that I especially wanted to conjure my “sorry” grandfather, whom I knew only as a face in a coffin. I knew my grandmother Lily very well, but that man who gave her so many children and so much grief—I’m still trying to grasp him, to make him real. Here, though, we only get the girl’s limited perspective. I’m also continuing my experimentation with linebreaks in the shaped poem. Each subject and tone requires a different shape, it seems to me. “Home Front” wants short lines and something that looks just a little bit like the double helix of DNA.
REGARDING THE POEM “ORACLES”
I’ve been to Delphi a couple of times, but I’ve never been to Dodona, the oldest of the Greek oracle sites.
The mystery and hokum of oracles twine together in my mind, the politics and piety, the primeval and the preposterous.
When we go back beyond the verifiably historical, don’t we all feel—what? both itchily pagan and disappointedly post-pagan? There is something real in the clearly superstitious, something authentic in the ridiculously non-empirical, in the aggressively anti-scientific.
In “Oracles” I wanted to go in my mind where I’ve never gone in reality and to be somebody I’ve never quite been—this old man with his old woman at the end—the end of what? I’ve been in many places on the Greek mainland and on Greek islands like this place, but I’ve been never precisely in this place. My characters grew as their climb grew (in discarded parts of the poem). I’m not sure who they are—though of course they are partly me, partly my loved ones.
The poem is both a discovery and a missed opportunity, I think, rubbing up against our universal belatedness even as it finds something significant. Significant to its characters. The poem wavers on the page like its speaker’s exhausted mind, flexible mind, searching mind. Like its couple’s wanderings . . .
Daniel Tobin On “The White Road”
The idea for “The White Road” came at a time in my writing life when I wanted to return to an ampler narrative poetry. As I began to hear the poem in my head, first line first, ‘I am walking along the dazzling ruin of a road I knew,” my impulse was to let the sentence keep lifting off down the page, one long line after another releasing with what I hoped would be a kind of syntactical propulsion. I also knew as I began following where the poem was taking me—back to that period in my adolescence the poem describes—that it needed to hold a lot of material and that it had to move though time the way one might enter a wormhole into different but related frames of one’s own life, not unlike memory itself. The portraiture of the poem, mainly Dante Tedeschi, is pretty much true to life—his evocative name, the bike, the launching pad, his laugh. So this poem marked something of a return to autobiographical material as well for me. I thought about Dante for many years before writing this poem—he was captivating, audacious, and not entirely likeable. He was the first to go of my childhood friends, but not, alas, the last—two by gunshot (one self-inflicted), one by car crash, though not on the White Road. I’m still waiting for each them, I suppose, to suddenly raise their time-soaked heads out of the lake.
Jonathan Taylor on “Undelivered letter from the Rev. Charles Smale to The Times, 1874,” and “Xiuhmolpilli, or The Binding of the Years, November 1507*”
Both of these poems are part of a series I’ve been writing which deal, in some way, with prophecy, and the ways in which we all attempt to control future and past. I’m fascinated by the association between poetry and prophecy, which, of course, is an ancient one. It seems to me that, as soon as people start thinking about the future, their language shades into poetry. Whether spiritual, religious, economic, political or meteorological, there is something necessarily poetic about the language of prediction: think, for example, of the science of weather forecasting and its so-called ‘butterfly effect,’ or the everyday metaphors used by economists. This is not the same as saying that it’s necessarily good poetry – clearly, the metaphorical language used by politicians is often lazy and hackneyed. But the poetry is still there, waiting to be found.
That was certainly the case with my poem ‘Xiuhmolpilli, or The Binding of the Years, November 1507,’ which is, in part, ‘found poetry,’ based on the description of an Aztec ritual by a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún. In fact, the poem is ‘found-found poetry,’ as it were, in that Sahagún himself didn’t actually witness ‘The Binding of the Years’ in 1507, but relied on retrospective accounts. The whole poem relies on an unspoken irony: the prophecy is that ‘all would be well’ – but, of course, such optimism is misplaced, given what would happen to the Aztec Empire and Moctezuma in the very near future.
One of the things I am particularly fascinated by is the way in which prophecies relate – ironically or not – to the future they predict. Placed in a historical context, prophecies are often belied by the future; or, conversely, sometimes ‘hindsight bias’ comes into play, and they are re-interpreted favourably in light of what comes after. The poem ‘Undelivered letter from the Rev. Charles Smale to The Times, 1874’ is structured around such irony: the fictional vicar is attacking the scientist Huxley for his theory of ‘epiphenomenalism’ (whereby conscious volition is seen as an illusion), because it seems to undermine free-will, even the ability to make decisions, plan for the future; and yet the vicar himself fails to post the letter – in a small way, that is, he actually seems to enact Huxley’s theory.
Yes, a regular part of the Editor’s Note, if not the thing entire, for a while, I think. Thanks so much to all the poets.
That’s it, for now – I hope you enjoy the issue!