Dag T. Straumsvåg on “The Barricade”:
I started writing “The Barricade” on the night Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It was 5 in the morning in Trondheim, Norway, and I was filled with a sense of dread, a feeling of the world coming apart. The prose poem, however, is not about Trump. I had no particular disaster in mind. I worked on it on and off for a year or two, mostly cutting words and lines, adding quotations from TV series and other poets, mixed with ones I made-up—these fragments of conversations, made-up mostly of unrelated quotes, were inspired by Roberto Bolaño’s prose poem novel, Antwerp. If memory serves me correctly, the first drafts included several lines about UFOs, boll weevils, and flying fish. Later, when I had cleaned up the poem a bit, I showed it to my partner, Angella, and to my poet friend and translator, Robert Hedin, both of them stellar readers, for their thoughts and comments. I always find it helpful to show new work to others, especially before I’ve made up my own mind about the text in question. It is my first and most likely last apocalyptic poem, so in that sense it is probably a little different from my other work.
Robert Hedin On Translating Dag T. Straumsvåg’s “The Barricade”:
Of all the Scandinavian poets whose work I have translated over the years, Dag’s prose poems have often proved to be the most difficult. Invariably, they do not follow a traditional narrative path, and instead tend to veer off the map into worlds of surprising unpredictability, often with very humorous effects. “The Barricade,” however, proved to be a whole other matter. The unpredictability is still present, but the humor is gone. A deeply troubling poem, it ushers us into a kind of purgatory of our own making, one populated by fears, anxieties, and existential perplexities, a world of ghostly, disembodied voices speaking in the dark. Dag’s knowledge of English is excellent, and so in this case my task as a translator was an easy one. Essentially, I acted as a custodian, cleaning up minor problems in verb tense, punctuation, and offering a few suggestions on the clarity and concision of the poem’s imagery.
Alice Friman on “Dealing with the Forbidden” and “It Begins”:
There’s this place I go to in north Georgia to hole up in and write. Now, when I look over the six poems I drafted during my last stay, I see they begin both plainly and realistically with an event that actually happened. You might say that shows a failure of the imagination. But so be it. About “Dealing with the Forbidden,” I do throw things away. Truth is, I like everything in its place, and often, just tossing things out seems the simplest and most expedient way to accomplish neatness. But I admit, some things should not be discarded. Books for instance. Great books especially. So when I threw out a copy of Anna Karenina, I knew it was a sin. This poem exists as my rationalization for doing such a dastardly deed. Mea Culpa.
Nicholas Samaras on “Beards” and “The Gospel According to Ian Fleming”:
These two poems are part of a new manuscript centering on the concept of Time. Over years, I have come to realise that everything I am and do stems from my father, an “old-world” Orthodox priest and a single parent who raised his only child with absolute devotion. All I ever wanted was to remain in his presence. He turned even taking me to the movies into an honour, getting me to read the book first and then seeing the movie. For that, I devoured literary authors for the movies: Edgar Allan Poe for all the Vincent Price horror movies of my thrilled childhood, Fleming for the James Bond movies, historical novels for the action films, etc. My childhood was enhanced and educated by text and cinema, with my father by my side. Even my dreams were filled with his massive, patriarchal, “Santa Claus” beard, in which the word “patriarch” etymologically means “He who provides” and, for me, means everything positive, beneficial, and nurturing. And so, I can only smile when I see some of my writing become based on reflections of gratitude, dignity, and honour.
Linda Pastan on “Corona” and “At a Time Like This”:
I wrote “Corona” when the pandemic was just beginning, “At a Time Like This” when it was raging, and I hope the time will come when I can write a third poem when it ends.
Megan Marshall on Scott Harney’s “Norumbega Park”:
I wish Scott could speak for himself about his poem “Norumbega Park.” I can tell you that he researched it obsessively, as he did so many of the poems in his posthumous collection The Blood of San Gennaro, whether they were set in Naples, the Italian city he came to love in mid-life, or in the Boston neighborhoods where he grew up. A friend with a penchant for local history who lives in Auburndale, the section of Newton, Massachusetts, where the amusement park once thrived, tells me that Scott’s poem is the most accurate account he’s found of the park’s rise and fall. But of course the poem is about much more: a boy’s prelapsarian idyll, situated in Scott’s book as a point of relief and reference for “the casual theft[s] ahead.”
Scott, who didn’t own a car and distrusted any suburb without decent public transportation, once asked me to drive him to the house where he’d lived as a nine-year-old, during the time of the free-spirited trespass he describes in the poem. A year later his father deserted the family. The simple yellow clapboard house we found that day became home to his mother’s tears for the few months she could afford to stay on with three dependent children. Scott was pleased to find the house still there, and not significantly changed. He may have spoken of the model airplanes he built with his father; the German shepard given to the family by his father’s secretary, who later proved to be his lover, leashed to a stake in the backyard and then given up for adoption. Or he may have simply looked at the house and remembered things he didn’t tell me, but saved for his poems. We drove on.
Sandra McPherson on “Learning to Play it Again”:
Hard to write more than my poem already says. The rhymes should speak to each other completely. I used them, which I do rarely, because of their tie to the music. I liked the outrageousness of some of them. It was a bit amusing to relate the difficulty of working with my daughter on her piano lessons. Her teacher had a beautiful place, a verdant creek in Milwaukee, Oregon. (Also, he was incredibly handsome— on ski patrol.)
Sydney Lea on “A Brief Portfolio – FIVE POEMS”:
A Last Custard Cup I think the autobiographical/historical dimension here is pretty clear. What surprised me –especially in light of my beloved father’s catastrophic death at a mere 55, and my penchant for the elegiac–was how the poem led me to celebrating my considerable good fortune, less in some putative Golden Age than now. To be surprised by one’s own process is my favorite thing about poetry.
Chiaroscuro I often collaborate with a group called the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. We all lately decided to reverse the usual protocol: at our last concert, for instance, several other writers and I were assigned music, to which we responded with poems. My assignment– no matter VCME’s “contemporary” bent– was Bach’s wonderful Cello Suite no.1. I can’t recall why I chose a painter as my protagonist; I do know that the early portions of the suite brought skating figures to mind, which in turn led me to consider how we “skate over” some existential worries just so as to survive. Again, I was surprised by how upbeat these reflections became.
At the Apple Shack Just over the New Hampshire line from us, a family has sold apples for almost five decades. Their shack opens in May and closes in November. My poem flirts with sentimentality, I know: saying goodbye to a lovely older vendor on election day, I contemplated how much better American life would be if social relations were as respectful and cordial as her manner invites– and if, by some miracle, the love pervading our huge family when we assemble could be generalized. At heart, however, it’s a paean to that same lovely woman.
At the Checkout Counter The poem simply recapitulates a moment in our local market: not without guilt, I contemplated what different narratives of our respective lives would be constructed merely based on the difference in what we laid on the belt.
Old Leather Suitcase My wife was poking around in our attic (though –poetic license—I portray myself as the poker), and unearthed the suitcase in question, which I last used it before I got into recovery from addiction. That was long, long ago; in the valise’s burn mark, I could “read” an ugly chapter of my life, just as I read the old man’s food items at the checkout. Recovery has, I hope, changed my behavior, if not my character. The change has been from intellectual arrogance and, especially, rage, together with mental, physical and spiritual impoverishment– from all that to something like humility and calm and, crucially, to being a decent husband, father, grandfather and friend.
Bruce Cohen on “Bedtime Story”:
Once, when one of my sons was very small, he asked me if I’d ever been in the army. I dismissed it quickly with a fat no, but I suppose I wanted to tell him a story, though at the time, I knew he was too young to understand. This narrative flooded back to me when I was reading an article about the fact that less young people were joining the military and the government might need to reinstitute the draft. This made me afraid for my own sons who were all, at that time, eligible for the draft if it were reinstated. I didn’t write the poem then, but it haunted me for some time.
I must have been a junior in high school, the last year before they abolished the draft. My father and I never actually spoke about the prospect of me going to Viet Nam. Because no one in my family had every gone to college, (both my parents were high school dropouts) I thought about that possibility, about kinds of deferments, about moving to Canada if need be. My grandparents had escaped from eastern Europe in the early 1900’s, though some family members were swallowed up in the holocaust, and so my father was a patriotic American, indebted to our country, though his stint in the army (World War II) was playing maracas in a small combo in Texas. I had a few older friends who were drafted or enlisted, came back from the war psychologically damaged, hooked on heroin, missing limbs or filled with a sort of insane bravado, all with profound personality transformations to say the least. I remember one guy, a little older, nicknamed The Mole, a pudgy non-athletic dropout who sported the nickname because of horrible posture, who was bullied in high school and joined the Marines. He came back with a muscular thick neck, slimmed down, confident and taller, at least he seemed so. He said he found his calling in life. He wanted to be a lifer. Needless to say, nobody came back the same. I was petrified of dying, horrified about the notion of killing women and children in thatched hut villages. My father made snide, demeaning remarks about the Viet Nam protesters while we watched the war of the evening news. I knew if I were drafted he’d make me go or disown me. But I couldn’t have been wrong. I found out he loved his son more than he loved his country. So, maybe, ultimately, this is not a war poem but a love poem.
Jill Bialosky on “After the Blackout” and “flail, snap, struggle”:
“After the blackout…” and “flail, snap, struggle” are two sections from my book length poem, Asylum: A Personal, Historical Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric sections forthcoming in August. In the poem I braid the horrors and threats of extinction, with the will to live. The poem is a journey, through history, forests, personal and historic pain and loss. On the quest I invite many companions, some the voices of other poets such as Celan and Dante, and Blake some voices of the every day. In “After the blackout” the poet and her young son confront the fears together, the poet’s desire to protect, aware of the history she and her young son have been born into as Jews, so that the black out is not just the result of a power outage, but the fear of extinction. In “flail, snap, struggle” the poet is witness to the cost of survival and extinction in the natural world where she seeks sanctuary amidst the trees.
Grace Schulmn on “The Rainbow Shirt,” “The Shirt,” and ” After All”:
These will appear in my eighth book, The Marble Bed, due in October 2020 from Turtle Point Press. The title refers to sculptures that inspired me in the Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa. The three poems here, though in a different section of the book, carry forward some of the same leanings — new life in what is past; radiant light in a storm; praise for beauty in imperfect things..
Adalber Salas Hernández on “One-Way Ticket”:
I remember exactly where I was when I started writing this poem: in Caracas, at home, in bed, at six or seven p.m. on some January day in 2013. I was still living in Venezuela then. The Science of Departures, the book that would eventually contain this poem, didn’t yet exist. I still didn’t know—and this is maybe the most important part—how many plane tickets, customs checkpoints, and baldly lit airports awaited me. How many takeoffs and landings, takeoffs and landings, the motion that would become the systole and diastole of an enormous body I couldn’t possibly measure: my own life.
Today, being Venezuelan means inhabiting an emotional map that someone else has ripped up. Family, friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances: many have migrated, others have stayed, but almost everyone is unreachable. From Barranquilla to Sydney, from Montreal to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, from Okinawa to Tel Aviv: the people I’ve met assemble a new existence with the scattered bones of their former lives. The heart eventually grows new valves and ventricles; the circulatory system fills with paltry luggage, unexpected bedrooms, foreign words that soon become our own. “One-Way Ticket” was, although I couldn’t know it yet, a first step into all of this. I rewrote it several times before settling on its current form in 2016. Every new move, mine or otherwise, urged a new version of this poem.
Robin Myers on Adalber Salas Hernández’s “One-Way Ticket”:
“One-Way Ticket”is the first poem in Adalber Salas Hernández’s book La ciencia de las despedidas, which I’ve translated as The Science of Departures. The collection explores many different kinds of loss: death, illness, exile, oblivion, the slipperiness of language, the hegemonic violence of “official” history. This first poem registers (long before covid!) the ominousness of airports, the unsettling flimsiness and fragility of our bodies as they’re “processed” for transportation, for the insolent transformation of flight. The title casts a particular shadow over the sterile fluorescence of the scene: the speaker is leaving a place to which he may not return, and there’s something heavy, even mournful about the details we aren’t given. As I translated this poem, I thought a lot about how to maintain the narrative elegance of Adalber’s style, his smooth syntax and careful composition of a scene—while also working to cultivate the moments of strangeness, the sudden flashes of discomfort and discordance in the poem’s physical descriptions. Those are the moments when the speaker himself seems to register, with both a visceral jolt and an analytical eye, an imminent change, a loss that has already begun. In translation, then, I wanted to render both the visceral and the analytical with equal vividness and respect.