Rae Armantrout On “Blues”:
This poem is an encounter between the ordinary objects and events of my morning and a couple of philosophical (or metaphysical?) problems that were on my mind. The first three lines rephrase (reframe) a famous question raised by both Heidegger and Wittgenstein: “Why is there something instead of nothing? Here, though, the question is more like, “Why is there all this writing instead of a blank page?” The last three lines were inspired by a book I was reading. It argued that our senses tell us only what we need to know about the world in order to survive, which isn’t nearly enough for us to be able to perceive reality. In between these two ideas is as precise a description as I could give of what happened when I accidently kicked the coffee table in front of me. I guess the poem is the tension between the sensual world–the things I experience, and the ideas that challenge their necessity or reality.
Floyd Skloot on “A Progressive Illness”:
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in September 2018. It’s a relentlessly progressive neurological disease. My neurologist believes that my symptoms first began in 2014, though it took the three of us–my wife, my daughter and I–a while to piece together those symptoms and seek a definitive diagnosis.
For several weeks this past April, as many symptoms suddenly worsened, the first line of “A Progressive Disease” repeated over and over in my mind. I wrote it down in the lovely notebook my daughter had given me and began to follow where it seemed to be leading, arriving–to my surprise–at a kind of faint hope. At least I think that’s where it landed.
John Wall Barger on “A Self-Guided Tour of Machu Picchu …” & “The Triumphs of 1974”:
“A Self-Guided Tour of Machu Picchu …”: I came across an article describing the scads of people who (apparently) fall off cliffs at Machu Picchu. The flat tone, contrasting terrible deaths (man asks stranger to snap photo of him mid-air, then slips off cliff) with natural grandiosity, hooked me. The awful humor of it. I adopted this structure for my poem: placing reported language (“US tourist … stumbles 400 feet,” German couple, Belgian man) beside the lush language of the terrain. I knew the park ranger’s quote (“Many tourists from all over, especially foreigners, always get very close to the edge of the abysses”) was gold, but wasn’t sure how to use it at first. It took me ten drafts, over one year, to find the ending. Neruda’s line, from his famous “Heights of Macchu Picchu,” helps me enter one lonesome soul’s vision of “abysmal light” at the moment of falling.
“The Triumphs of 1974”: It is a seminal moment in my life: I am four, my mother and father and I are living in California, my father working at a good government job, when suddenly he decides to drop out and move us to Canada. He came across an ad in a pennysaver for cheap land in Nova Scotia. So we lived like hippies for a while in a tipi in the forests of Bear River, NS. But this poem occurs just before that move. It took me thirteen drafts, over two years, to realize that the best way to illuminate my 29 year-old father might be his beloved Triumph motorcycle (which he drove everywhere, and parked in our living room). One of my first, and deepest, memories is him taking me for drives on the dirt hills of a vacant lot near our house: me holding the tank, with real joy in the air.
Jane Zwart on “At the perennial exchange”:
“At the perennial exchange” is the product of outdoor chores and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and gratitude. Gratitude for this bit of the world that I inhabit and that needs, over and over, to be tugged back toward order. Gratitude for the sweet, stubborn waywardness of flora and fauna. And gratitude for those brief truces between those rivals, domestic order and natural unruliness; for those half-hours of everything feeling just so.
Denise Duhamel on “DEAR AMERICAN AMNESIA,”
I was inspired by the letter poems in David Hernandez’s Dear, Sincerely to write epistles to big concepts. So much about the writing process, for me, is remembering, and I wondered what it would be like to write about what is buried/suppressed, especially by white Americans. The poem is a twist on the idea that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Though I wrote this poem before the pandemic, it seems ludicrous to me now to be commenting from Florida where COVID-19 cases and deaths are rising at an alarming rate. The government is acting like all will be fine, already forgetting all the sorrow of New York and the remedies that state took to flatten the curve, though that ordeal was merely a few months ago.
Steve Kronen on “An Island”:
What’s come to amuse me about “An Island” is my later discovery that the poem’s “real” bird (which, of course, is not real – I made it up) in stanza 1, is juxtaposed against the consciously metaphoric birds later in the poem. I was not aware that I had placed them both there together. But this discovery seems to enact for me – again, after the fact – what the poem might be getting at – the attempt to reconcile the supposedly blurry and submerged with the supposedly palpable. This latter makes its appearance via the hard pew benches (made first from trees, then dredged up from Lake Erie), the hymnals and newspaper (where thoughts are given ink and paper), and the television (which re-substantiates both the factual and fictional across the distances). The poem ends, I hope appropriately, with a phrase from the reminiscences of Charles Cowden Clarke who quoted Keats’ comment about turning dust motes into fairies.
The poem went through many drafts, and I gave each line, somewhere in the poem, a rhyming mate.
Sean Hill on “Family Way”
Sometime in 1997, I wrote a sectioned prose poem experiment titled “On Improvising Movement: A Study in Kinetics.” I revisited that poem over the years. And about four years ago I took a couple of those sections that seemed to resonate with each other. I played around with order and lineation and titles and point of view. There is a version that is sparer, in the third person, lineated with indentations and spacing in the lines, and has an obscure title from the Greek for “dream divination.” I sent both versions to the editors of Plume; they chose the prose version.
Perhaps, those sections resonated with me because I was a still-new-dad, and I wasn’t sure that would ever be the case.
Before becoming a dad and before the poem there were those women in my family—grandmothers, great aunts, much older cousins—whose dreams showed them things. They were most all alive in 1997. But we lost the last of that generation last October; she was just starting her ninety-ninth year.
Kate Moritz on “Nesting” and “triptych”:
Nesting: I was first inspired to write “nesting” while working as a production editor for The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. I had been editing an article on Nicrophorus vespilloides, a beetle that crawls inside the dead and spreads its secretions to preserve the carrion for its offspring. A few months later, I took a new job and moved into my parents’ farmhouse in rural Vermont. I had expected the residence to be move-in ready, empty. Instead, it was full of my parents’ previous life. As I cleaned and packed, I reflected on the act of creating space for ourselves and for others.
Triptych: Although it’s a common notion that blood connects us to our family, the blood we carry also often contains a mystery. How did my brother’s finger end up injured by the sash weight? Why hadn’t the droplet been cleaned from the wall? What kind of person will the baby inside me become? Who were the women who painted the manuscripts? Why had my father bled on his towel? These blood ties, the closest we can hold to other human beings, are still, in the moment of then and now, beautifully unknowable.
Both of these poems, as well as others I have been writing recently, are quite different from my earlier works. I have begun to move away from more knee-jerk emotions and responses to embrace larger and more challenging meditations on space, time, and meaning. Due to a rare autoimmune disease and a high-risk pregnancy, I have been in isolation since March. My days are shaped by the ways I craft my time, my energies, my thoughts. I see more now. I think more. I notice the landscapes that hold me, both immediately and on a larger scale. This has pushed my writing in new ways, which surprises and excites me. A newcomer to the publishing scene, I find courage in this growth, and look forward to sharing my work.
Gerry LaFemina on “The Undomesticated”:
“The Undomesticated” started with one of those images that I played around with for months and couldn’t figure out a way to use it. That’s the image of “The sun like a gong reflected in the pond/ vibrating in silence.” I tried various ways to use it in the poem, but nada. Finally I found a home for it when I stated thinking about this scene: a typical summer scene. I had been speaking with a friend about geese, which tend to be nasty birds, and I took some various aspects of the conversation and started to write.
I remembered something a monk told me about animals living in their Buddha nature: how they don’t apologize, they are mindful of their needs, etc. It was the connection to the Buddha nature that allowed me to finally use the pond image. I then used a flash of memory: I was attacked by a goose when I was a child, though my mother didn’t snap pictures or respond with anything other than concern.
It’s the feeling of threat, of the predator that led me to the bobcat and the ending. What I love about poetry is how it can embrace ambivalence. The whole poem is about/embodies nonduality (Buddhism and Nietzschean philosophy, the two different mothers and sons, the wild and the domestic) and that’s what I tried to bing to life in that last image. And of course, the bobcat just makes the noises it makes, and I like, too, the level of uncertainty that the ending suggests.
Don Schofield From the Introduction to Wherever the Sweet Breeze Blows:
Let me say a few words about translating Wherever the Sweet Breeze Blows. I’m very fortunate to have been able to work closely with the poet, whose English is excellent, as is her knowledge of American literature, which she teaches at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She has translated several American poets, including Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, H. D., Denise Levertov and Gary Snyder, so has a fine sense of lyric poetry in the American tradition. I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator.
My primary challenge in rendering this collection into English has been how to bring its rich, densely detailed world to life for the anglophone reader, how to make it comprehensible and meaningful in accordance with the poet’s intent. I also wanted to make the milieu conveyed by the poems as immediate in English as it is in Greek. Since there is considerable foreignness already in the world that Sakelliou’s poems inhabit, I strove to make the translated versions as target-language friendly as possible. In a book packed with mythological, historical, geographical, cultural and environmental particulars, all easily familiar to Greek readers, I had to keep asking myself how to convey these details without sending the reader to page after page of notes at the back of the book, not an easy task since most anglophone readers of poetry don’t know, for example, many details about the Nazi Occupation of Greece or the overthrow of the government by a military junta in 1967, though virtually every Greek does. How many anglophone readers are familiar with the rites connected to Greek Orthodoxy, or with the biographical details of historical figures like Ioannis Kapodistrias and Demosthenes? Many English-speaking readers know about Aphrodite, Poseidon, Dionysus and other deities from classical mythology, but few know about the ancient rites connected to them. The same applies to poems that relate various aspects of commerce (such as the international trade in lemons grown on the island), farming and fishing as islanders do them, or what spoon-sweets are. In a book where concrete details are paramount, conveying these specifics clearly and with the immediacy intended by the poet sometimes required various kinds of intervention on my part (always in collaboration with the poet). I worked closely with Sakelliou, not only to bring across the history, mythology, genealogy and geography associated with Poros, but also to provide a clear, relatable context for the poems as they build, one upon the other, and interact back and forth throughout the book.
Those were the challenges. The main reward has been, to say it most simply, the pleasure of translating itself, of seeing Breeze come alive as a book of poems (real poems) in English. That pleasure includes all that was gained in the dialogue between poet and translator as we articulated and deepened our understanding of the intent of the original, poem to poem, section to section and the entire collection. Making images, phrasing, diction and other elements work for the target audience; getting the flow from stanza to stanza, poem to poem right; clearly expressing the frequently shifting points of view and the various personas they represent; assessing the nuances of tone, draft to draft—all these required hour after hour of intense discussions that, in the end, improved my ability to deploy the elements of my own language in the service of translation, and, more importantly, enabled me to appreciate Sakelliou’s profound vision of place—”the smallest of places”—and the lives that bind her to that place, especially when a sweet breeze blows