Derek JG Williams On “Prizefighting”:
Boxing’s an easy metaphor for writers, and writing. It appeals to the drama of our vocation—the struggle we internalize and idealize. This poem tries for the opposite of that. It’s a real poem. A realist poem. A poem! “Prizefighting” owes a debt to work by Philip Levine, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Joyce Carol Oates, Nick Tosches, Kerry Howley, Elizabeth Alexander, and Adrian Matejka, who have all written elegantly on the subject I hesitate to call a sport. It too, I think, is a vocation. I sincerely hope my poem contributes to the tradition these writers have helped establish.
Jane Springer on “After the Fire”:
I don’t for the life of me know where this poem came from. Mom died. Azy died. The doctor said our boy would go blind. Our house burned & the insurance man wanted to know what was in it by how much, how many. The list became a trauma sheet of overkill by detail. I’d watched too much murder TV. We escaped to the woods before each dawn to let the dogs run free—even sounds, still asleep. We had to feel our way with our hands and feet as though the creator had not yet decided If or Where to sketch a ravine.
Donald Revell On “The Irretrievable”:
My favorite passage in all of the Bible is John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.” The words are unequivocal, tender, and reassuring. And they resonate not only with the Christian in me but, even more immediately and more tellingly, with the son in me. My father, although a loving man, spoke only seldom, and then only a very few words. Nearly everything I know about him I’ve learned in the 25 years since his death. And so Christ’s words in this familiar passage give me a moment’s rest in my tireless though tiring search for my father. A Christian is often exhausted by enigma and paradox, always afoot upon the shadowed verge of orphancy. His faith hangs suspended in mid-air more often than not. And so it is that any reassuring news of father is very great ease indeed.
Karl Kirchwey on “Edinburgh University Anatomical Collection”:
I got to know the city of Edinburgh a bit because our daughter earned her undergraduate degree there. I was acquainted with certain small beautiful European cities (Lausanne, for instance), but with its extinct volcano and its view of the sea, Edinburgh still stood out. What I didn’t know about it was that, in the early nineteenth century, it was one of the European centers for the study of human anatomy. And such a study required a steady supply of human cadavers. Thus I was introduced to the word mortsafe (an iron grille locked down over a grave to prevent the grave from being robbed) and to an enterprising pair named William Burke and William Hare. In 1828, these two hit upon the idea of eliminating the trouble of grave-robbing, and instead simply smothered the visitors to their lodging house, selling the bodies to the celebrated anatomist Robert Knox. This practice has given the English language another valuable word: to burke an investigation, for example, means to suppress it, to kill it. Burke and Hare got away with this scheme for a surprisingly long time (sixteen murders), but in the end, Hare turned King’s Evidence against Burke and Burke was hanged before an audience of about 25,000 people. His body was then, of course, dissected, and his skeleton is the first thing you see in the Edinburgh University Anatomical Collection, which is open to the public one Saturday a month. It is a museum full of many beautiful oddities.
The evolution of a book of poems can be a gradual and accretionary process. I now discover that I have an eighth book manuscript, tentatively entitled Opoponax (an ancient medicinal herb) and comprising a certain number of medical poems, including “Edinburgh University Anatomical Collection.” About a year and a half ago, I was also asked to edit a volume called Poems of Healing for the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. This volume will be published in the spring of 2021. I had no way of knowing that the current Coronavirus pandemic would provide a very immediate context for the work.
Christopher Buckley, on “On the Calculation of Chances”:
“On the Calculation of Chances” was one of the first few poems I wrote for the new book, The Pre-Eternity of the World, due out in January. After long work on the long title poem, I went to this mid-length poem, and as I am an inveterate reviser, it took months of drafts plus the edits of my stalwart poet friend Gary Young. “Calculation” is speculative and more philosophical than the title poem which had more historical references. It is the final poem in the book and takes up my main concerns involving science and what we know vs. accepted beliefs over the centuries. We’re here guessing at best re mortality and the unfolding of the universe. What are the chances? That is pretty much a thematic précis. More than that, I hope the poem says more memorably.
Maxine Scates on “Boy in a Hole”:
This poem began as I flew into LAX over the GI Loan post-World War II housing tract where I grew up. When I looked down, I saw all the houses were gone, the tract on its way to becoming an airport parking lot, and then I thought of the boy. At first I thought I had forgotten him, or, tried not to remember him and, of course, there’s a difference. I think this poem wanted to understand why he had stayed. In writing it, I found his helplessness was the helplessness I felt as I watched what then and now seems a singularly cruel act. But I think what surprised me was the sense of complicity that emerged in the course of the poem. The boy was shamed by his father, and I was shamed for having watched and for having felt lucky that it was the boy who was being humiliated and not myself. I was also learning something about how to be in the world. Of course, the child can’t intervene, but I think in writing the poem I ran right into my own potential, as well as that of others, to commit or co-exist with the same kind of cruelty.
Steven Cramer on “A Burn So Bad It Requires Ice,” “Ours,” and “Flight”:
“The case for nonsense is not the same as the case against meaning,” writes Louise Glück—a typically authoritative claim that makes sense until thought about. Maybe that’s her point: some thinking means to unmean. In “A Burn So Bad It Requires Ice,” I didn’t know why I wanted to unmean until the “carrot ruining history” entered. The starvation of our language—always bad but worsening daily since 2017—derives from a deficiency of two nutrients: science’s evidence-based facticity and art’s imaginative, often irrational, empiricism. The speaker’s verbal nervous system addled by malnourishment, the poem means to observe nonsense.
“Ours” abuts two recalled episodes to provoke some troubled thinking about habitual stereotyping and—nudging the envelope a bit—stereotypical habits. I hope that its fantasy about a human capacity for empathy transcending difference includes the hard truth that unexamined privileges underlie, and maybe undermine, all such fantasies.
“Flight” stems from something a widowed friend said, cribbed for lines 20-21. After its first sentence, nineteen further lines form a chain-linked fragment of similes, stopping short after my friend’s heartbreaker. Then Blake intervenes to shut the poem’s mouth, almost. The friend whose comment induced the poem read it and said about its last two lines: “that’s a bit of a leap.”
Jeffrey Harrison on “Before Things Got Bad”:
I wrote this poem in March, during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, when we didn’t have much information (some of it wrong or incomplete) and the suggestions about what precautions to take seemed contradictory. No one was wearing masks yet, but the idea of social distancing was already being promoted as well as resisted, and interactions as simple as walking by someone on the street were beginning to feel creepy. Maybe because so much was still unknown, and because in many areas of the U.S. there were still very few confirmed cases, the virus seemed to be taking hold less in our bodies than in our imaginations, where it was perhaps at the height of its potency. We didn’t know what was going to happen or how well we were going to deal with it, either as a society or individually.
I instinctively wrote the poem in the past tense, as if looking back from a projected future to a past that, at the time, was actually the present. Now, several long months later, that present is actually the past. Some of the things I had imagined happening didn’t happen, or haven’t happened yet. But after an enormous number of cases and deaths from Covid-19, the virus is no longer something mostly imagined but instead something very, very real. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of unknowns, everything is still changing, and nobody really knows what lies ahead. And, although we have certainly seen a lot of different behaviors in reaction to the virus, the poem’s main question has not yet fully been answered: we still don’t now what kind of people we will turn out to be.
Kim Dower on “Poetry”:
Ralph Culver on “Paramouria” & “You Do What You’re Good At”