Ron Smith: a prose piece on his poem “August 3rd”:
The August 3rd events in my poem happened many, many years ago. I recorded them the same day they took place (as I discovered last year in the notebook I cannot locate since we have recently moved). I copied the entry out long hand, then typed it up, filling in some gaps with remembered or misremembered details. It was sort of a poem. But I didn’t want to show any of it to anybody. I couldn’t do anything but remember and try to forgive myself, as well as—I admit it—my mother. Somehow, within the past year I found that I could shape the piece a little, that I could be, as Whitman says, “both in and out of the game.” But mainly in.
Before the August 3rd in the poem, I had flown from Virginia down to Georgia to help my father, who’d finally decided he couldn’t put off a knee replacement any longer. I think that was the occasion of my substitute caretaking at that particular time. For years, my father had been dealing with my fiercely independent and always impatient mother in her newly disabled condition—and would continue to do so for several more years. Every day for more than ten years, as it turned out. She had already been his wife for nearly half a century when she was felled by a stroke in the kitchen of the house he had built for them, their “dream home.” The morning of the stroke he had driven himself to breakfast, and I am sure he felt guilty for going or for not hurrying back. Maybe he could have gotten her to the ER in time for the powerful blood thinners that can prevent brain damage. He never mentioned not being there when it happened or any feelings about not being there when she needed him most. Nor did I. He was never one to dwell on the past.
He was eighteen when he landed in the first wave at Guadalcanal. After Mamie Lee Smith died, he told me that caring for her was “the hardest thing I have ever done.” But I knew that already. I knew it partly by witnessing her frustrated rage at everything in her life, including his inability to make her whole, partly by my few hours of trying to play his role myself. She couldn’t even walk without human assistance.
But the worst of my mother’s afflictions was her “fluent aphasia,” also called Wernicke’s aphasia. She talked constantly but it was gibberish, though she could not recognize that herself. Very, very rarely, she would somehow say the right word—or even a full, coherent sentence. But, in the avalanche of nonsense, sometimes we’d miss it. A precious few times, when I did hear her miraculously say what she intended to say, I’d freeze and look her in the eyes and say, “Mama, you said, ‘I hate them.’ When I asked you how you liked my new shorts, you said, ‘I hate them.’ ” And her face would take on the look of wonder I could feel on my own face. One night, the phone rang and Dad, 529 miles away, said, “I have to tell you this. Your mother and I were watching TV just now and she pointed at Basil Rathbone and said, ‘Sherlock [here he paused for effect] Kabalasky.’ “ I had him on speaker phone, and Delores and I could clearly hear Mother in the background, laughing and laughing with genuine glee.
Lia Purpura on her poems:
I was accompanied through the pandemic by haiku, mainly those in Robert Hass’s fine collection “The Essential Haiku.” The Covid years, both immediately accessible to me now, and as distant as a shadowy country visited in childhood, were a time of tremendous loss in my family, as they were for the world at large. I see I wrote in my journal then “Haiku is saving my life.” By which I meant that the sensibilities of the Haiku masters, their habits of mind and heart were singularly life-giving.
The work of Basho, Buson, and Issa strengthened my inclination towards brevity and the silences trailing it or created by it. I can’t draw a clear line between my poems and theirs – but I do know that the spaciousness created by their work, the confirmation of the moment as worthy, the way those encounters, images, perceptions opened out into a vaster humanity beyond the contours of the present, made some space for my own words at a time when I was hardly writing at all.
Here are some notes from my journal at that time:
Reading, I have the sense that the initiating event of the poem both would – and wouldn’t — exist without the poet
“…the bones of Hakkai are plainness and oddness” – yes!
Brevity as depth and resonance, not quickness and flash
The secret heart of all haiku: time.
Language that’s as present as a stick or rock creates an experience that lifts away from language. The shiver that produces…
Single, spare images are “in service of”… they do not “capture moments.” “Capturing” is a choice with political/ecological implications. Moments are en route. Not held fast. Not “arrested.”
The smallest, briefest passing griefs: lavished. With time. In time. Held close. The burnishing of an otherwise lost moment.
The unworded parts, the after-shimmer, the integument between the lines (invisible) are as much a part (a palpable part) of the poem as the words themselves. I keep saying this in different ways.
How much (all?) of the action happens off-stage!
The certainty that these are the only words that the perception or moment can bear. The poem as an act of choosing words with an eye to doing the least possible injury to the moment. Brevity as just the right amount of presence. Brevity resists imposition.
Awe is never diminished by brevity; brevity cuts a path through overwhelm so awe can flash its light (swinging lantern, dark path, illumination coming and going, a direction sensed…)
A way of reading as a way of being. A way of reading that teaches a way of being.
Jane Zwart on “The Angels’ Share” and “Poem Without a Title,” :
I keep a cardboard folder called “Poem Crumbs.” Its insides are shingled with Post-it notes, each with a few words on it; an image, a metaphor, a phrase, any promising grit my attention happens upon. Most of these crumbs are from other writers’ tables. For instance, it was a tweet of Catherine Rockwood’s that gave me the three words “the angels’ share,” which expanded, in Poem Crumbs, into a question about what, besides the whiskey fumes that distilleries expect to forfeit, would rightly belong only to the angels.
I keep a mental folder of poem crumbs, too. In it, for a long while, a word I first heard from Christian Wiman—apophatic—has been waiting its turn, along with George Herbert’s poem “The Windows” (I first read Herbert on Wiman’s advice, too). So “Poem Without a Title” is only partly mine. To be sure, every poem I’ve ever written is only partly mine.
Thank you, Catherine Rockwood. Thank you, Christian Wiman. And thank you, Danny Lawless, for welcoming the lot of us in.
Donald Platt on “Streak,” “Exit Survey,” and “Against All Endings”:
As their author, I feel slightly awkward offering any commentary on these three poems since, of course, to comment on one’s own poems implies, more often than not, that the poems need to be explained and have, therefore, failed. However, putting this scruple aside, I think it might be potentially entertaining for a reader to know something of these poems’ origin stories.
“Against All Endings,” an atypical poem of mine, was paradoxically written as an ending for an epic poem (now at 300 pages), which I frankly despair of finishing. I wanted to kill that epic off—“Die already!” I soon realized that “Against . . .” was, in no way, the right conclusion to my folly, but that it could be a stand-alone poem. Currently—on the suggestion of Rosanne Altstatt, my partner—it serves as the proem for an unpublished manuscript of occasional poems entitled Essential Tremor. I am intrigued by the strategy of starting a book with a poem about not ending that book before it has even begun.
“Exit survey” came to me very quickly after growing bored and annoyed with the many Qualtrics surveys I was receiving through email at work and after breaking my shoulder in a foolish, painful, skating accident, mentioned briefly in the poem. Frankly, I was ‘in a bad way,’ and the poem morphed into a grumbling against God, the universe, and its ills.
“Streak” exists because I saw that spill of feed corn on SR 231 and had recently read a profile about the streaker Robert Opel in The New Yorker. All I had to do was free-associate to the Rogers & Hammerstein tune “A Wonderful Guy” to connect the two. I love ‘walking into’ poems. In this case, I drove past a poem. It was also fun to research “Streak” by watching the video of the 1974 Academy Awards on YouTube and capture frame by frame, word by word, how David Niven came up with his bon mot. Humor should, I believe, play a more intrinsic part in our poetry.
To close, I’d like to add that these three poems are not mine alone. As the Beatles have it on their eponymous cut from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I “get by” and metaphorically “high with a little help from my friends.” These poems owe much to two friends and my beloved, who became their discriminating first readers. The poet Mary Leader saw an early draft of “Against All Endings,” which was then many short prose paragraphs separated by white space. Rightly, she sensed that the poem was driven by biblical cadences and should be an uninterrupted run akin to verses from one of the Psalms. She went so far as to recast the poem for me in units of flush-left lines followed by indented ones and to number these clusters in the same way the Bible does its verses. I liked how she transformed the poem and have adopted her lineation, though I didn’t opt to include the numbers. Bruce Beasley (three of whose poems have been published in Plume) suggested crucial cuts to “Streak” and helped streamline it. Rosanne advised reordering the last multiple-choice list in “Exit Survey” so that the poem ends on a slightly more upbeat image than that of the “howling” dog, its original ending. These poems are, truly, theirs as much as mine. I am unspeakably grateful that nucleotides of their aesthetic DNA have thus been passed down to me. They have become part of these poems’ genomes.
Karen Paul Holmes on “Unrest or What the French Horn Can Teach You”:
Years of playing the French horn needed to amount to something, right? Since I no longer have the chops to employ that means of expression, I decided to write about the experience (and difficulty). It seemed like a “how to” poem might be the right vehicle.
I shared an early draft with poet Joseph Millar in a one-on-one session with him at the Sarah Lawrence summer writers’ seminar in 2012. He suggested a few just-right edits that I embraced. (One I remember was adding “dead center” to line 4). The poem has changed a bit here and there since, but the biggest thing I did recently was changing the title from “Mastering the French Horn” to its current one, because that seemed to open the poem to (dare I say?) perhaps a larger truth. I’m even older now and still cringe when I think of what I did – I guess writing the poem didn’t assuage my guilt.
David Trinidad on from “Sleeping with Bashō”:
These are only eighteen of 1,012 Bashō haiku that I “translated” as we began to emerge from COVID lockdown in the spring/summer of 2021. In each case, I tried to capture the essence of the original and add a sparkle of my own. Sometimes I took liberties and deviated from Bashō’s meaning—a practice that will no doubt irk purists. And sometimes I modernized a haiku, as in “Priority Overnight,” where I combine a contemporary term with an image from nature (wind-blown clouds). The title of “Eighteen” is actually the answer to the question the haiku poses: Bashō wrote it in 1676 and would die eighteen years later, in the fall of 1694.
Sally Bliumis-Dunn on “The Reckoning and “3 AM”:
“The Reckoning” postulates a time when there may have been a path, a possibility of clear language that was missed somehow by the people in this poem — a time lost. The speaker lives in this biosphere of loss, a world where birds and trees seem closer to being able to speak than the humans. The diction of the poem was designed to have some emotional resonance beyond the literal meaning of the words as they appear in the context of a given line: “creeping”, “cling” “apartment” as in being apart, “murmuration”, “edges” and “pine” as in to long for.
As for “3 AM”, we were dog-sitting for my daughter Angie’s Irish Doodle who missed her terribly. I had never heard Huckleberry cry in this way, all by himself in the middle of the night. It did not sound like the kind of crying that expected an answer or any kind of soothing. Just the deepest mourning that cannot be contained and arises involuntarily from that part of us that is most alone. Its atonal soundscape stayed with me for days, my body like a cave where it echoed, still echoes.
Bruce Smith on Dear Lucinda Williams and Dear Jules:
The poem is a gift, Anne Carson reminds us, that shouldn’t be something you can’t unwrap. So, two letters. One in praise of the sublime and sleazy in Lucinda Williams’ music and memoir, Don’t Tell Anyone the Secrets I Told You. And the other to a companion traveler through the music and mystery that is Ohio.