Linda Pastan on “Truce”, “Class Notes” & “On Rereading the 23rd Psalm”:
I was an adolescent when I first read Browning’s lines “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…” and I was skeptical even then.
Now that I’m old myself, I see that the poetry of aging is almost a genre itself, and I often find myself writing in that genre. It is not a cheerful one,
“Truce” is a poem I wrote trying, in my own old age, to come to terms with my father and our stormy relationship. “Class Notes” was written after the many “class notes” I received from the high school, college, and graduate schools I attended, all listing the current deaths of classmates. But it is in “On Rereading the 23rd Psalm” that I try to deal head on with the fact that all the comforting things we are told—in Browning, in that psalm– don’t really apply to my life. On the other hand, it is language I have tried to live by, and poetry whose function, as I see it, is to celebrate or comfort. The beauty of language itself, illustrated so well in that most familiar of psalms, seems to me to be the best comfort I can find.
G. Hanzliček on “The Window” and “On Turning 79”:
Many of my poems have their genesis in an encounter with a bird, and such is the case with “The Window.” I couldn’t believe how fierce this little kinglet was, how much energy was required for the battle he was willing to sustain for as long as it took. At first I thought he was attacking me, but then I slowly realized that, like so many of our own quarrels, his was a quarrel with the self.
I’ve written several birthday poems of varying tones over the years. “On Turning 79” finds me celebrating small pleasures and affirming that to be is much better than that other thing. As the great master Theodore Roethke said, “Being, not doing, is my first joy.”
Robert Nazarene on “Litterature”:
Back in the day poems would come to me like Edgar Cayce’s automatic writing. I didn’t think, I just wrote. No more. Maybe we’re like Mickey Mantle: the booze, the knees, the crash. A sea change of productivity, for the worse, depending on how you want to look at it. For poets more particularly, maybe it’s simply: “For a salesman there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake.” Because we’re all salesmen. Just look at all those books we haven’t sold.
Rogan Kelly on “Pull Off on Old Lyme Road to Fuck”:
I had the title first and knew it created a hurdle but also provided a kind of constraint. I like to create movement and tension in a prose poem and the simple shifting of scene does that here. The poem’s close both delivers and subverts the subject. I’ve always admired Ann Patchett’s writing and like her late cameo. For such a sad poem, it’s having an awfully good time.
Carolyn Oliver on “Blueshift”:
This poem is an early entry in what has become a series of poems imagining other versions of the speaker’s life, which may or may not be my own. In these poems—so far—the speaker and the beloved are separated, the distance between them measured by space or time or something unspoken, or all of these. I’ve loved astronomy and physics since I was a child—though of course I make no claims of understanding either—and for months I tinkered with a draft beginning “In another life I’m a cosmologist.”
Then I read Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), and I found a way in: a cosmologist studying ends, not origins. Poincaré recurrence delighted me, as did the example Mack discusses (this is a rough approximation, since I no longer have the book at home): a group of physicists ran the numbers on how long it would take for a piano to spontaneously build itself in a box. It’s a very, very long time. When I borrowed this idea, I chose a harp instead of a piano, since its parts share names with a human body’s, and instead of a box, a glass casket for its various associations, and for transparency.
From there the poem took off quickly, to a point: I struggled for a long time with the final stanza (say a dozen drafts to hone the poem’s architecture and images, another dozen drafts just for these last lines) before settling on the plea that ends the poem.
Troy Jollimore on “Want”:
I could write that this poem began in a taxi in New York. That would be true to the spirit of it but not historically accurate. I’m sure the truth is that this poem began with want. With wanting to be in New York, and with wanting to write a poem.
The modern city is a machine for agglomerating and magnifying desires. Desires and the languages and gestures that express them. And contemporary language, especially the language of technology, especially the subpart of that language that is pointed toward the consumer, replicates and reiterates, and at the same time shapes, the language(s) of cities and the language(s) of desire.
Now that we are online, when a movie opens, it opens everywhere at once. Now, when something happens, it happens everywhere, which means that it happens nowhere, which means that nothing happens. Everyone knows Gertrude Stein’s classic remark about Oakland: “There’s no there there.” Now we inhabit a world in which there is no there anywhere. Or so, at any rate, the language of technology wants us to believe. You can be anywhere you desire, see anything you crave, have anything you want without leaving home. It’s all streaming. It’s all online. It’s all there for you, whenever you want it, on demand. You can have it before you have had time to fully feel the desire for it. You can have it before you really know that you want it.
So a poem that expresses a longing for a city, or for a person who might be found in that city, or a person whom you would like to take to that city, and one that, on some level, also expresses an anxiety about what technology and its language are doing to the drives, urges, and actions of a species that is, after all, still just a bunch of animals, no matter how prone we might be to forget that (and what is more natural, more animal, than forgetting?), an anxiety about the tendency of the language of technology and consumer culture to infect the kind of language we might have wanted to preserve for purposes of expressing attraction, desire, lust, and other such matters, might begin with lust and then allow itself to be infected with the language of technology, of immediate access, of commodified gratification, as well as with the fragments of language you might overhear wandering around on that city’s streets. Everyday utterances. Misquoted song lyrics. And it might take those fragments and turn them into another kind of song.
A love song, to risk stating the obvious. A song that isn’t afraid, indeed that wants, to be found wanting.
Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky on Natalka Bilotserkivets’ “Wolf Wine Bar”:
“Wolf Wine Bar” is being published here for the first time in any language. Natalka Bilotserkivets found it written out in longhand when going through her archives this spring. Based on some other clues, she thinks the poem is twelve years old, but it was undated. How unfortunately serendipitous that this poem from the reckless 2000s would equally suit today’s mood! She sent it to us in lieu of a foreword to the collection of her poetry that we’re publishing with Lost Horse Press, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow. It was so good that we rushed to translate it and persuade our publisher to make room for it in the book.
Sherri Felt Dratfield on “Duets”:
It was mid-June in Greenwich Village. My husband had invited a young flutist, who plays with him in the Greenwich Village Orchestra, to play flute duets that evening, as they did periodically. Our dear friend Stephen, our houseguest for a few weeks while recuperating from a life-saving surgery, joined us in the living room. Also in attendance was our Wheaton Terrier, Chelsea, who was used to such soirees. There was something special about this impromptu concert, infused with extended summer solstice light and our small company, that resonated and germinated the realization that there are duets of all sorts surrounding us. I wrote the first draft of Duets that evening as the sun, at long last, was setting.
Sherri Felt Dratfield on “Duets”:It was mid-June in Greenwich Village. My husband had invited a young flutist, who plays with him in the Greenwich Village Orchestra, to play flute duets that evening, as they did periodically. Our dear friend Stephen, our houseguest for a few weeks while recuperating from a life-saving surgery, joined us in the living room. Also in attendance was our Wheaton Terrier, Chelsea, who was used to such soirees. There was something special about this impromptu concert, infused with extended summer solstice light and our small company, that resonated and germinated the realization that there are duets of all sorts surrounding us. I wrote the first draft of Duets that evening as the sun, at long last, was setting.
Rajiv Mohabir on “The Fox…”, “Quarrystone” and “Midwinter”:
These three poems, in my mind, chronicle my time in the Boston area. I moved here in 2019 and was able to engage just a little bit with the world around me until the pandemic saw us all hiding in our homes. “The Fox…” is a poem I wrote alongside my students in a writing prompt where we engaged with the poem “Fable of the Fox and the Weasel” by Nipmuc poet Benjamin Larnell (1694-1714). He wrote the poem in Latin and was the last student “associated with the Indian College” at Harvard University. Listen to the original here.
The poems “Midwinter” and “Quarrystone” are my bursts of joy and anguish during the lockdown—I really journeyed into myself and what arose for me between feelings of spiritual elation and sadness was an engagement with my past. “Quarrystone” was also written from a prompt that I created for international students. The shifts between the image and what the speaker “sees” and the dive into a father-son relationship attempt to show how these sights can trigger the crags of one’s emotional landscape.