Lauren Camp on “Honest Orbit”:
The poem came out of time I spent as Poet-in-Residence at Lowell Observatory, talking to the astronomers and looking through telescopes. In all meanings of the phrase, I was over my head. I was not just trying to understand the origins of the universe, but also the passion the scientists felt for their discipline.
Science is not my forte, though I seem to keep putting myself in its path. For a while, my drafts were chunked with scientific language, which made them feel at a remove, like a textbook entry, and not like poetry. More than that, though, I knew I needed to make a leap—but where to? I was waiting for the shift rather than the inevitably clear direction, and got it with —“You can want to watch what is / unseen. I’ve done that.” Both a truth and a surprise!
And with that, I was able to go forward and back, up, and solidly into earth.
In “Honest Orbit,” I am again—as I so often do, writing into place. I am using place to both hold space in the poem and to lead me into memory and emotional awareness.
Ann Pedone on “Fifteen Essays on Boats, Boats, Language, and the SS”:
Who decides what is a language and what is a dialect? Who decides who is a foreigner? An immigrant? A migrant? And what are the linguistic, cultural, and sexual politics which power these decisions?
“Hotel Sappho” began as a love story. A couple staying at Hotel Sappho in Rome—although there is no Hotel Sappho in Rome—it’s actually on the island of Lesbos. About a quarter of my way into the writing, I decided I needed to switch gears.
At that time I was thinking a lot about Catullus. And then I remembered Anne Carson’s essay on Twombly and Catullus. Which made me want to know more about Twombly. So I started reading. Read about his time in North Africa, and that made me think about the migrant crisis. A kind of circle.
I wrote this particular piece while I was doing some preliminary research for the project—although I suppose it wasn’t preliminary research in a strict sense, since the writing and the researching ended up becoming two arms of the same beast.
Twombly’s work now sells for millions of dollars. Thousands of migrant are dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Maya Pindyck on “Risk Factor”:
After a poetry reading in Chicago last spring, a Jewish woman asked me a version of the question that begins this poem. She reflected on the risk she felt hurting her family by criticizing Israel and wanted to learn more about how I do that in my poetry—at what cost. Her question made me consider how poems have lives of their own, sometimes braver and stronger than the “I” who writes them. It made me grateful for my family who wants my art to thrive, even if it makes them uncomfortable, even if they disagree with what the work is saying. The gift of that woman’s question also reminded me of the fact that I cannot control how a poem will be received. That lack of control compels me to trust my reader, to believe in the poem’s moment, and to let the poem go. Since the massacre of Jews by Hamas on October 7th and Netanyahu’s government’s ceaseless bombing of Gaza, killing over 11,000 Palestinians and displacing 1.7 million from their homes, I have been returning to her question with a broken heart. I wonder what it does to share this poem now, at this impossible time. I wonder if the poem says enough. I do believe that any path forward is based on how we choose to dream—and that dreaming is a matter of how we imagine each other, each and every “other.”
Keith Flynn on “The Dragonfly”:
I read a lot of history, biographies and historical novels especially. Scientific tomes also take up a great deal of space in my brain. And the genesis of my poems are often jump-started with a stirring or singular image that I cannot shake. The vision of a cherub, or young angel, astride a prehistoric dragonfly the size of an alligator, invoking the brilliance of the 19th century Comanche horsemen, was too powerful not to build a poem around. I had also felt a lifelong guilt about the killing spree myself and the other neighborhood kids had conducted one summer after overhearing an adult call a dragonfly, “a snakefeeder,” and we somehow simultaneously romanticized and seditiously fantasized that the beautiful little jewel of an insect was really conspiring with snakes to provide their venom. We began a calculated massacre of these harmless creatures willy nilly with tennis racquets, keeping track of the number each of us killed. In retrospect, it seems macabre, but children are wildly impressionable and it doesn’t take much to rev up their fearful, percolating imaginations. And, of course, children can be unspeakably cruel.
Poems are not made of ideas, they are made of words, and the words conjure ideas if they are fashioned into rhythmic and muscular sentences and associations. Dr. Williams just touched the surface of the surface when he intoned, “No ideas but in things.” I am not a great adherent to sheer abstraction or find it compelling unless a larger mental picture is created as the poem unfolds. Poems should try to enter the world in action and leave it in motion, or stop still, draped round an abiding image that resonates in the reader’s mind after they have closed the theater door of the poem and re-entered the bustling street of their life. The best poems are sometimes distilled from cinematic immensity into intimate particulars. Movies, poetry, paintings, ballet, are all built from consilient details. It doesn’t take too many reasons to want to ride a prehistoric dragonfly. Stir in the inspiration of Louis Bogan’s poem by the same name and I was off to the races.
Daniel Bourne on Bronislaw Maj’s poetry:
As I mention in the headnote to my translation of Bronisław Maj’s poem [“Maybe it will happen in the span of a sentence”], my decision to translate this poem happened literally a couple of decades after I had translated the rest of the poems from Extinction of the Holy City. Now, and not only because the threat of cultural and political erasure that Maj voices is currently being felt by Ukraine as well as other cultures and peoples around the globe, I am glad I did try to find the words for this poem in English. Maj’s insistence that poets speak about their own freedom while they bear witness to the world around them, and vice versa, is an important vision of its own.
Bill Hollands on “Hi. My Name Is Billy Hollands.”:
A few years ago my brother Peter had the good idea to transfer our old home movies from film to DVD. I remembered that among all the scenes of us playing touch football in the front yard and surfing the “big” waves off Florida’s coast was a recording of my elementary school class performing a song for a local television station. It’s not really a home movie, so I’m not sure how we got it or why it was inserted among the actual home movies, but there it is. As the poem says, what I remembered most about this event was that I was chosen to give the introduction and that I practiced it over and over again, particularly the “improvised” tilt of my head. I hadn’t watched the clip in many years, and I wanted to verify that my memory was correct. Sure enough, the tilt. And not bad! Looked pretty natural. I think what surprised me the most about this poem was the sympathy, even tenderness that I felt for that kid. And how I can still feel that tilt of my head in my body, all these decades later.
Dorianne Laux on her essay:
I wrote this essay in response to a call from Dustin Brookshire who began a project called “Why I Write”, in 2008 or 2009. Essays are not my favorite thing to write. Prose is not my first language. You can find Dustin’s project here which he has recently resurrected: https://www.whyiwriteseries.com/ Because my skills in prose are limited, I quickly fell into a more poetic mode, and continued in that vein. Once I found the rhythms and images, the words began to flow. This little piece of writing made it into a new handbook I’ve written called Finger Exercises for Poets, to be published by W.W. Norton in fall of 2024. In fact, it became the first chapter. So, I’m grateful to Dustin for asking me to write the “essay” and to Danny for publishing it here in Plume.
Often, I find the poetic impulse through visual art. Sometimes as ekphrasis where a particular piece unleashes a creative response. And other times, art jolts me out of my every day to reset my palette. So, whenever I can and wherever I am, I will find time to wander into an art museum or gallery or to sit with public sculpture. Yet, the poem “Pentimento” came while I was at Community of Writers in 2022, surrounded by nature and poets, and the rigor of writing a poem a day. “Pentimento” began on an afternoon walk up in the Sierra mountains. I don’t recall if there were butterflies, certainly there was a pond. But I know the first sentence came to me on that walk. And then, later that evening when I sat to write my poem, I followed that surprising last word—“tourists”—into an art museum, and then into the imagined world of two lovers, who were sketched by an artist, then painted over. To be the pentimento, to still exist but be hidden, what does that mean? There is contentment and safety in being unseen, but also shame. Why did the artist change course? It made me think of the Judeo-Christian origin story. How Adam and Eve are the supposed archetypes of humanity, and yet there is sin and shame. That our natural impulse is to hide our imperfections and look away from humanity’s ugliest truths. The choice of “when” versus “if” in the penultimate line ensures exposure and reckoning, and yet the poem ends with an understanding that humanity will continue to fail to confront itself.