Billy Collins on “Eyes on the Prize”:
I cannot help recognize this poem as yet another example of my habit of playing the role of the idle poet, the dawdler who has nothing to do but daydream while kicking fallen acorns. That persona enters poetry history with Wordsworth and Co. who were lucky enough to live in the age of patronage, which eliminated the need for some poets to hold jobs. I’ve tried to keep a similarly attractive fabrication alive in my own poems. This poem grabs its epigraph and runs with it, as it makes the ironic case for the idler, the ordinary man, to be publicly acknowledged. As if one might be honored for sunbathing. In actual practice, I’m the one at the desk, while my persona gazes out the window, waiting for me to take him for a walk. Yes, he is a bit like a dog, a dog who trotted out of the pages of 19th century English poetry. By the way, I think I must have made up that epigraph. Or maybe my persona did. But why in the world would he be reading a guide for writers?
Dzvinia Orlowsky on “Back in the U.S.S.R.”:
When the Beatles’ White Album hit the charts in 1968, ranking No. 1 for nine nonconsecutive months, Ukraine was still unknown to many. Few could imagine what magic powers a Ukrainian girl might possess that could becharm a Beatle. As a young Ukrainian-American teenager, I certainly was clueless. But if McCartney sang it, it had to be true. Plus, if nothing else, we had luck on our side.
By 1969, my sister’s and my chachky, represented in the poem by rabbits’ feet key chains, were relegated to keepsake boxes which, in turn, were eventually tossed. They were replaced by embroidered shirts and fur-trimmed vests sent by family in Ukraine. Although such attire wasn’t known for bringing luck, it held great potential as both transcendental and seductive fashion statements. One particularly heavy vest with shockingly colorful, intricate embroidery from a mountain region in Ukraine convinced my friends it was a replica of those worn by the Beatles while sitting in silence with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
February 24, 2022. Everyone has heard of Ukraine. The tragic circumstance is difficult to navigate, to escape. Writing this poem returned me to a place of innocence and hope. How easy it was to believe in a song, in expeditious, unquestioned luck. To go to bed reassured that deepest wishes and desires could be placed on a world map. To have the first track of the first song of an album be the sound of an aircraft landing and to believe unequivocally that its arrival was something good.
Julia Bouwsma on “Elegy for My Grandmother in Form of a Cactus”:
My grandmother had many plants: a gardenia she tended religiously because it had been my late aunt’s, a large glass table spilling over with spider plants and philodendron and cactuses with tiny people made of wire and crochet who dangled from little swings and lived inside the plants. It was magical to me as a child—an ecosystem, a whole world, a green moment one would could live inside forever. As I got older, she would give me a plant here or there, and eventually and inevitably I would kill each one. But I still have an Easter cactus that has somehow managed to survive. It would bloom annually but at a different time each year, likely due to my erratic tending. In late January 2017, my grandmother died of kidney failure just a few weeks shy of her 93rd birthday. Though my mother and uncle were with her, she was adamant that my sister and I not make the trip to Florida, trying to protect us in her dying as she always had in life. During those final weeks as I waited for the news I knew was coming, her cactus bloomed urgently, frenetic and fuchsia. And it has bloomed in January ever since. Though I began writing elegy for my grandmother immediately, this one was a late one, written during the pandemic, four years after her death. I was staring into space, half-watching the blooming cactus. I was thinking about how the pandemic had created what felt like a moment of extended collective elegy. How it felt like we were living inside, trapped inside, an entire ecosystem of grief. I was thinking about that—and also about how grief is connective even as it is isolating—and then this poem just came tendrilling out.
Oksana Maksymchuk on “Approximations”:
To decipher the poem is, perhaps, to dilute its magic. What it means, in part, is constituted by the reader, the way it lights up within her consciousness, or soul, or brain, setting it in motion. It’s a unique, subjective experience that, a poet may hope, happens against the tightly bound script she provides, individuated by the characteristics of the reader’s singular mind: its memories, dreams, and nightmares; the images it produces when words such as “mother” and “tongue” and “cake” and “terrible” are uttered, and so on.
The script, the poet hopes, is universal. Anyone can make sense of it. Anyone with a mind like ours, a language like ours.
In this case, the poem is presented as a series of containers, each enclosing a vision of a near-brush not so much with “mortality” (so abstract!) as with concrete and palpable violence, an in-your-face promise of extreme bodily harm that may or may not prove incompatible with life. Some of the containers enclose one another, memories within memories, stories of stories. Others are opaque, their position with respect to one another indeterminate, as the speaker tries to come to terms with her own fragility by thinking of a stranger — herself as a stranger, perhaps — in a situation that rhymes (echoes? imitates?) her own.
Witnessing a death, we may also feel compelled to try it on. Imagining what it’s like to witness a violent death may well involve imagining what it’s like to die in a violent way. For days, the poet researches how different types of bombs affect the living organism: what they do to mucous membranes, tissues, organs, bones. Words like “implosion,” “collapse,” and “fragmentation,” words like “instantaneous,” words like “slow burn.”
With increasing certainty, the poet grows to expect that the home in which she carries out her business of living — where she cooks, cares for her child, dances around to disco tunes — may be demolished, containing the beings she treasures, including her own body. The poet tries this on, time after time, and when she grows tired of trying it on, she moves her business of living elsewhere, inhabiting other homes, other rooms, away from the war zone. Yet the habit of trying it on — that stays with her. Through it, she remains connected with those left behind — inhabiting rooms and apartments in the line of fire, strangers and loved ones who sleep as the missiles traverse the skies under which we’re all trying and failing to get on with our mortal lives, as the deadly missives — dispassionate, systematic — sniff out their targets.
Karen Paul Holmes on “Once I loved an opera singer from Spain”:
When I heard Ada Limon read several years ago, she said something like “You’re not supposed to assume the narrator in the poem is the poet, but I’ll admit these are about me.” So I will also admit this poem is about me and that these things did happen. Mostly. (I’ve used some poetic license with the details. For example, the slippery French horn solos were actually in a Brahms symphony (REALLY hard and scary!). I cringe a little when an autobiographical poem is published because, well, now anyone who reads it knows more about me than I’d comfortably tell them if I met them. But the poems come out of me because they need to come out for whatever reason. “Once I loved…” is one of my talky ones, where I let it fly in the first draft, then go back and revise, revise. With the subject matter, it felt important to talk to the reader with candor and vulnerability. The longing for love and partnership in the poem is basic for most humans, isn’t it? Turns out that the last stanza served as a sort of prayer: It was written in early 2019 and by June that year, I had met my perfect “Dane” and am now married to him. And he does sing to me. We’re also both opera geeks.
Carolyn Guinzio on “Meanwhile in Arkansas”:
These three pieces are from a sequence called MEANWHILE IN ARKANSAS. They are concerned with the fragmented experience of moving to an unfamiliar place. The perspective shifts from before, after, inside, and outside, and the sense of not being in the place you are native to never subsides completely. They are meant to hover over instances in the transformation from alienation to belonging.
Elaine Equi on “January” and The Marrow”:
Both of my poems were written under the spell of reading one of my favorite poets, Barbara Guest. She was an early influence and I’ve always appreciated how layered and nuanced her poems are – even the shorter ones. “Marrow” is in conversation with later books of hers like Miniatures and If So, Tell Me.
“January,” the first poem I wrote in 2023, plays with the idea of trying to decide which behaviors to keep and which to abandon. In general, I love throwing things away, at least physical objects. Habits of thought I’m more stubborn about.
Donald Revell on “THALIA”:
For the past ten years or so, I have devoted the better part of my teaching to the later plays of Shakespeare—comedies, tragedies and romances—finding then all linked by a beautiful urge or impetus towards transcendence. There are miracles in “Cymbeline”, “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale”; magic and pageantry in “The Tempest”; and, perhaps most beautiful of all, the final moments of “King Lear” and of “Antony and Cleopatra”, moments in which tragedy simply dissolves into vision and reunion. Lear points towards Cordelia (“Look there, look there”) imparadised. Cleopatra reaches out to Antony in Elysium. I wanted to make a poem from those heartening conversions of tragedy to comedy, and from my own belief that transcendence is the constant guarantor of poetry’s mystery and truth. I entitled the poem “Thalia”, after the muse of comedy, as transcendence is the soul of comedy, the energy that partners Earth and the constellations into one dance.