Fleda Brown on “Someone is Walking a Pig”:
There were the ordinary days. We call them that, now, since the multiple catastrophes, the apocalypse over the horizon. So the pig appeals to me, the simplicity of her. Might as well write about a pig in the hallway. I haven’t seen her for some time. I hope she’s okay. At the end of the movie Don’t Look Up, just before the meteor hits the earth and demolishes all life, the family is holding hands around the dinner table. “We had it all, didn’t we?” one of them says. Here we had the pig in the hallway, a sweet novelty. How beautiful life is, and how seemingly impossible to maintain between the boundaries of normal. The poem is just drifting through those thoughts.
Leonard Kress on “Museling, A Pastoral”:
It was inevitable, yet still something of a surprise to me, that Twitter would come to influence my poetry. I don’t mean that I’ve greatly reduced the number of characters I use, or that I’ve upped my level of snark or nastiness. No–following a whole host of poets on Twitter (most of whom are around the age of my children) has afforded me access to the personal (gender, sex, identity, trauma, place in the po-biz hierarchy) of the lives of poets I don’t know and have never met. And who would most likely—if this were middle school—not invite me to join their table in the lunchroom. Those who fiercely reveal, announce, and enthusiastically espouse these things. Ordinarily, I would only encounter these injudiciously revealed aspects of life mediated through forms, formats, structures, and tropes. “Museling, a Pastoral” explores those boundaries between what we know and what we creatively know.
Nicole Callihan and Zoë Ryder White on “A Brief Portfolio”:
“Each of these ghazals was built gradually, in layers, often in the span of a day. One of us would choose the repeating word for the title, and the other would write the first couplet. Then, we’d alternate. We wrote in an online document, and we’d each pop in as we could. Some couplets were written while stirring dinner, some in the middle of the night, some while waiting in the parking lot for the kids to be done with camp, etc. Whomever chose the repeating word would write the final couplet, addressing the other by name, as in the tradition of ghazals. We hope that these poems work both as a record of correspondence — each ghazal a conversation, within the larger conversation of the collection — and as poems in a singular collaborative voice.”
Jason Waldrop on “THE PUBLIC SERVANTS” and “AMATEUR”:
Both the magician and the politician trick us with the intricacy of their misdirection, casting our attention away from their cages and their coins, while death and taxes succeed, nevertheless, in appearing from behind our ear or beneath our own hat. George Washington was our first professional American Amateur and The Public Servants was written during a time when I was keenly interested in the use of sleight of hand and substitution gags. At that time images from the nightly news combined paranoia and naivete in a formal but indecipherable code that I struggled to puzzle out. In an email exchange with film scholar William Routt about magicians, he pointed out that in French “amateur is a bad pun that makes a lover into a killer.” So the second part of The Public Servants was inspired by images of two other professional American amateurs: First, Buster Keaton in The Bellboy (1918) takes an elaborate set of tunneling tools—including a pickax and a canary in a cage—to a bank with his friend to fake a robbery. When they finally reach the bank his friend simply picks up a sledge hammer and breaks down the front door. Second, Georgia Outsider artist Howard Finster (1916-2001), well known to his rural Methodist congregation, used to throw on his wife’s skirts when he plowed his fields, commenting on the comfort of the arrangement. As Routt would later observe: the poem is the index. Amateur is the opening poem of my current manuscript: GOD MIRROR GOATLAND.
Jeffrey Gustavson on “Owls Was the Most Likely Explanation”:
Putting a poem together is kind of like building a birdhouse (forget about nests), knowing it’s up to the birds whether they’ll move in. The kernel of this poem came from an aside in a fascinating book I happened to read, How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut (University of Chicago, 2017): “Some observations suggest that animal play is, at times, a matter of pure enjoyment. Ravens in Alaska, northern Canada, and Russia are known to slide down steep, snow-covered roofs. When they reach the bottom, they walk or fly back to the top, and repeat the process over and over again. In Maine, ravens have been observed tumbling down small mounds of snow, sometimes while holding sticks between their talons.” The image of those antics was so beguiling that it conjured, first, an elusively vivid place, and then, through the effort to bring it into focus, a loquacious character inhabiting it, who started rambling on about a catastrophe in his life that turned out not so bad after all. The setting is the northern Rockies, near enough to Canada that the term “whisky jack,” for grey jays, has migrated down into the local speech. I transposed the species over to jays, since they’re right up there with their corvid cousins in the smarts department, thoroughly qualified for their pivotal cameo. And, now that I think about it, it must have been the notorious wiliness of those birds that influenced me to try to give a slightly mythical (or anyway dreamlike) cast to the incident by having the old guy recount it secondhand, through the eyes of Cricket Jake, a man of legendary veracity, hoping thereby to lull the listener into not caring whether there’s even a solitary syllable of actual truth in anything the narrator says and just flying back up to the top of the poem and sliding down again
Lee Bahan on Translating Petrarch:
Since 2012, my translating of poems in Petrarch’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Rvf) has been informed by scholar Thomas Roche’s theory that what I consider an epic chronicle of how eros (sex) complicates the human practice of agape (God’s love) is structured according to the Christian calendar. Roche suggests that Rvf 271-322 represent January 1 through February 21 in a leap year where Good Friday falls on April 6, and “form a year of mourning.” I translated Rvf 271-322 to test Roche, and the result became my first book. Now I’m working through 238-269 and 326-365, including poems which Roche respectively associates with Advent and Lent, and four summarizing and transitioning between the paralleled excerpts. When done, I’ll have translated the sestinas and sonnets in Rvf‘s last third, positing a structure proportioned differently than, but coexistent and interactive with, that of the traditional Laura “in life” and “in death” structure.
Poem “269/December 30,” my date extrapolated from Roche’s suggested correspondence between Rvf and what I call the Petrarchan Year, is one of only four sonnets out of 317 in the entire work to appear singly, as opposed to paired or in a sequence. I picture these sonnets–the other three being “51/May 26,” “120/August 3,” and “238/November 29”–as airlocks between sections of a space station like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “51/May 26” marks the beginning of Ordinary Time after Pentecost. The identifier “120/August 3” recalls one-third of the 360 degrees in a circle, an ideal structure encompassing the 365.25 days of a year in a world gone pear-shaped due to Original Sin. “238/November 29” describes the event precipitating the speaker’s flight from temptation which the beautiful, devout, married Laura represents and–bang!–“240/December 1” is the first sonnet in my “Advent” excerpt. While I include “269/December 30” in Advent and Lent, the poem belongs in A Year of Mourning, introducing the 52-sonnet sequence in which the speaker grieves Cardinal Colonna and Laura, as well as linking an “Advent” sub-sequence’s ship imagery to that in “272/January 2.” Truth be told, I translated the second tercet of “269/December 30” and used it as an epigraph for my first book, largely because of the morning/mourning pun. I’m grateful to Danny for publishing this completed version (rhymes overhauled to work with first tercet) and to Mihaela whose editorial feedback occasioned important improvements. Now people who have read A Year of Mourning can read its “airlock” sonnet in Plume and appreciate Petrarch’s intent better than I did in 2016.
John Walser on “Chronoscope 241: Briefly”:
Years and years ago, my Chronoscope series started as “Hey, I have this image, this movement, this snippet in my journal that is really cool, but I’ve got no place to use it in a longer poem. Let’s pull it out and save it for later.”
After gathering a handful of these, I started to recognize a pattern: a lot of them were almost like Midwestern haiku; these self-contained image-driven moments that really-really-really-short-interval measured the seasons and my instantaneous, emotionally-all-over-the-board reactions to those moments.
“Chronoscope 241: Briefly” was written on a day pretty similar to the day that I’m writing this blurb: a January day of bitter cold when I am looking for a touch of hopefulness. (This morning the low temperature in Fond du Lac was minus-fifteen, but the ore boat has completed its slow turn, I tell myself, and on average tomorrow is warmer than today – which means spearfishing starts soon, which means it’s not that much longer before the lake starts to thaw, which means…)
Besides rearranging a couple lines and changing a word or two, the poem was in my journal just as it appears here now. That often happens with the Chronoscopes: that projectile I first hurl, that raw nugget, doesn’t need much more than a little buffing.
Steven Cramer on “A Story About Vietnam and Alexi Santana”:
Aside from the debt it acknowledges to Thomas James’s most famous—really, only famous—poem, and to the Vietnam poetry by Bruce Weigl, I don’t recall much about writing “A Story About Vietnam and Alexi Santana.” Many poems I finish these days come together from isolated fragments or false starts stored and forgotten. The poem’s cast of characters includes four frauds—two presidents, the so-called Alexi Santana, and the speaker—or perhaps five, if the poet belongs in that band of phonies. I attended Antioch College from 1972 to 1978; in 1971, I received a draft number high enough to pose no threat to a white teenager of my socioeconomic status. But I trust that the poem, beginning with its title, owns up to its fictive constructions; takes for granted that the speaker has risked nothing; and honors, however implicitly, the beautiful and true art of James and Weigl.
Ranjit Hoskote on “Ocean Park”:
I’ve always loved the seesaw between painterly abstraction and everyday life. On one hand, an artistic aspiration to an eternal ideal beyond the material. Its counterpoint: the messy materiality of experience that sustains it. The tangibilities of desire, loss, pain, joy; of homes and streets, abruptly changing weather and chaotic urban scenarios.
Over the years, I’ve returned to Rothko’s paintings, the struggle they stage between ideas that call out to be named and colours that refuse to be named. To Mehlli Gobhai’s paintings, their deep sources of light eclipsed by layers of darkness, surfacing in muted gleam and glow. To Barnett Newman’s blazing fields of colour, which strip the figure to a clean vertical. To Ad Reinhardt’s farouche nocturnes, drowning the world in black. And I’ve sought out Richard Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park’ series, looking for these serene, deeply consoling paintings wherever I could find them – most recently in 2015, at a memorable survey exhibition mounted at the Royal Academy, London.
Are these vistas blocked by rooftops, broken up into industrial lots? Or shimmering geometries of axis, parallax and tangent? Bathed in the light of Santa Monica’s Ocean Park neighborhood, where Diebenkorn occupied one or another studio between 1966 and 1988, these paintings don’t show us the run-down district it then was, being reshaped by cycles of demolition and reconstruction. When we look at abstract paintings, do we turn our back on the world, or do we open the doors of perception? Do we look hard or do we look away?