Sally Bliumis-Dunn on “Northern Flicker” and “Where the Robins Took Me”:
I wrote “Northern Flicker” near the beginning of the pandemic when I envied the animals and plants, the natural world that I at least hoped remained unaware of the virus. I landed on the Northern Flicker because I had never seen one before and was mesmerized by its plumage.
A poem often begins for me in simile and once I had “the elegant pattern of polka dots” reminding me of “the folds of a fine silk blouse,” I thought of my mother who would have worn such a blouse to church. The tea hat followed easily. When I attended church with her, I was about six or seven. It was a short-lived period but the idea of good behavior leading to reward was something I was taught.
The ending came as a surprise. “Bright-lit” evoked for me an atmosphere where there is nowhere to hide, as well as the image of a hospital ER where so many people ended up in those early weeks. The candle image harkens back to the wish for a more peaceful time. Thinking about the word, “flicker” brought me to the candle.
“Where the Robins Took Me” also began with a simile. The flock of robins looked as though they were connected like a “crocheted blanket” as they landed on the lawn. The blanket had to be crocheted and not tight-knit as there was space between each bird. Once I had the blanket, each bird became a stitch which worked well with the idea of the stitches being undone as they lifted to the sky. In the sky they could try to recover their individuality, though in my mind, they seemed more flock than individuals, which is why the poem says, “as if to recover themselves.” This image of the birds as a single entity seemed to fit our interconnectedness as humans. The image of the heart came as a surprise, but the idea remains the same, that we are all part of one big heart.
Ashley Mabbitt on “Oak Leaves as Young Musicians” & “Longing”
“Oak leaves as Young Musicians” led me in an unexpected direction, as so often happens when I sit down to write a new poem. On this particular Saturday in autumn, each time I happened to be near my apartment windows, I was struck by the leaves of the pin oak tree outside. It was a rich, sunny day. From my bathroom window (frosted), a glowing frame of pure tangerine. And from my living room, I watched individual leaves blowing around in the breeze, still attached to their branch. There was a lighthearted and boisterous sort of intimacy happening amongst this group of leaves. And this felt connected to something else that happened a week or so before, which I thought I’d forgotten: milling around backstage before a music concert, surrounded by a high school orchestra, all waiting for our cue to walk out onstage and perform.
“Longing” is my attempt to understand, or at least to pause and notice, an emotional response I often have immediately following a visit with dear friends or family who live far away, and moreover, to understand the contrasting thoughts & feelings I experience once I’ve had a little time to get back into my normal day-to-day routine. Both feel very real in the moment, but also seem almost totally contradictory to one other. Is one set of emotions closer to the truth than another? Is one trying to tell me something I keep refusing to hear?
Ron Slate on “The Dangers of Contemplation”:
Major League Baseball is fielding teams and broadcasting games during our pandemic summer, but I won’t watch. I’m reading about the game instead, though I’ve always done so since encountering a child’s life of Mickey Mantle when I was ten years old. Recently I opened Branch Rickey’s Little Blue Book: Wit and Strategy from Baseball’s Last Wise Man, which had been sitting on my shelf since it was published in 1995. Rickey (1881-1965) had played ball, managed two St. Louis teams, served as GM of four others, and is most famous for signing Jackie Robinson.
In addition to writing about baseball, Rickey also addresses civil rights, education, physical fitness, politics and religion. His remarks about the latter are both conventional and idiosyncratic. For instance, he says, “I believe that a man can play baseball as coming to him from a call from God.” His pieties are sincere but usually not memorable.
And then I found, in the middle of it all, set off by itself, this line: “The spiritual life cannot go too deep.”
This observation, which didn’t contradict as much as qualify his routine sagacities, reminded me instantly of similar warnings in the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical teachings.
Around that time, an editor invited me to write an essay about the necessary attributes of a poet. I declined. But annoyingly, the subject stuck in my head. I concluded that the single most critical attribute for a poet is the ability and willingness to concentrate. Peter Davison described the capability this way: “This verbally meticulous, sensuously specific, image-borne, music-induced variety of concentration.” Losing concentration, he said, ”is the poet’s principal peril.” On the other hand, concentrating too hard and long “is to risk distraction.”
Finally, one of my daughters and I were reminiscing about the years when we enjoyed our grandstand seats at Fenway Park. I recalled the elegant birds that would swirl in circles high above the illuminated field — a small colony of night herons that feed in the wetlands around Fenway and nest on an island in Boston Harbor.
Ideas and memories comprise our poems – but there’s a difference between subject matter (what a poem is “about”) and content (what we find in the subject matter as we write the poem). To begin the poem, I had the bird in my sights – and its appearance as an ordinary gull rather than a stylish heron helped me deflate all of my prior thinking. I could start anew. I could try to make a poem that concentrates on the dangers of concentration.
Fred Marchant on
Brian Culhane on “Armorial” and “The World Is Burning”:
“Armorial”: The title, both esoteric and arcane, refers to armorial insignia, i.e., heraldic devices, rather than, as the word would suggest, medieval armor—though my poem plays on the suggested meaning.
“The World Is Burning”: The epigraph to this poem might be Stephen Dedalus’s famous remark that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Amit Majmudar on “American Upanishad”:
I was reading the Upanishads and thought about how they were composed around 700 BCE. What it would be like to think about capital-E Existence before the humankind’s vast amount of philosophy and theology had accrued itself? I had become aware of all that material from various traditions, and read some portion of it in translations. What if none of it existed yet? What an exhilaration it must have been to ponder! What a direct, unmediated approach to the root questions of being! I regressed myself to a 700 BCE mindset–pretending I was the first person ever to write about stillness–but I kept the intervening centuries in play as far as allusion was concerned–my own background, both cultural and geographical. I accessed that ancient Indic exhilaration of my ancestors, but I kept the poem itself contemporary. Hence: “American Upanishad.”
Chad Parmenter on “An Invasion”:
Four poems this poem probably couldn’t have happened without: Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Hell Pig.”
David Blair on “Black Mountain Music” and “Riding the Metro-North New Haven Line”:
“Black Mountain Music”—
The ICA in Boston had a great Black Mountain College retrospective a few years ago, an interdisciplinary show, which I attended a few times, and there would be concerts in the galleries and that sort of stuff. I got to thinking about Tony Bennet talking about starting out as a singing waiter in Astoria, Queens. “All I have is a voice” is a line from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Probably a lot of people would disagree that voice is important in lyric poetry, but I think that the work of voice, nuance, is very basic, unadorned, individual, joyous and subversive.
“Riding the Metro-North New Haven Line”—
I was down in New York in the spring of 2015 after another one of those ghastly midterm elections, and I had the feeling, which I have had periodically for decades, that a lot of people would have been happy campers supporting Mussolini. This crew of thick-necked braggarts drinking in their nice suits before getting on the commuter rail gave me a bad vibe. I think I am satirizing the way we tend to think the worst of people in general, but during the 2016 election, I decided to make the Wharton School a brand of sausage just the same.
Carol Stevens Kner on “All That Evening.”:
My husband had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, one of the symptoms of which is hallucinations. It was quite early on in his illness and neither of us was accustomed to dealing with it. His certainty that his father was near drew me into these imagined circumstances, and I decided to write about it. The poems I wrote at that time grew into a collection, a kind of love story, about marriage before and after the onset of this destructive and steadily degenerative disease. I’m looking for a publisher.
Jules Jacob on “Strychnine Tree”:
This poem is part of a collaborative collection of poisonous plant poems with poet and Master Gardener, Sonja Johanson. I chose the title from a list of our favorite toxic plants and like other poems in Rappaccini’s Garden, it calls upon our education, knowledge, and interest in poisonous plants.
In her sonnet, The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus calls the Statue of Liberty, “Mother of Exiles.” As a child advocate for abused and neglected children in foster care, I’m shaken by the separation of families at the U.S. border. Consequently, the first version of this poem written in 2018 was a death-by-strychnine rant/chant peppered with botanical terms and common names like semen seeds and Father of Abused Children.
In later versions I considered trauma’s effects on place and country when leaders deem immigrants, exiles, and citizens “stranger” or “other,” not unlike Hawthorne’s Beatrice in Rappaccini’s Daughter. Beatrice is kind and loving but deadly due to chronic exposure to a toxic environment through no fault of her own.
In the sixth revision the poem experienced rhyming couplets like hiccups; they’ve been around forever, came out of nowhere, and eventually had to go. Something lighter and non-toxic made its way to the poem in final versions. Credit Hawthorne’s epigraph, Lazarus’ Mother of Exiles or words from the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” that popped into my head when I was still working on the last line. Come ‘round right.
Lloyd Schwartz on “In Purgatory”:
This dark poem was completed before the pandemic hit. It was originally intended to be part of a series of poems in the voice of the devil, beginning with a poem called “Lucifer in New York,” which I wrote after the 9/11 attacks. There was a very long gap before the next one in the series, which I’m still working on. But with a new and independent title, “In Purgatory” seemed to be closer to my own state of mind in moments (or longer periods) of despair, disappointment, and anger at myself. Then came the pandemic and I seemed to be surrounded by people who shared at least some of these feelings.
Angela Ball on “Spinach Salad”:
“Spinach Salad” is true story. As true as I could make it. Sometimes, violent emotions attach to trivialities, and small interactions can create legacies of anger. And that’s both funny and disturbing. The poem wants to stretch perversity to its limit, if it has a limit.
Lloyd Schwartz on “In Purgatory.”:
The first title of this poem was actually “Lucifer in Purgatory,” and it was part of a series of poems in which the Devil figures. Even speaks. The first of these was a long poem about 9/11—almost a collage—called “Lucifer in New York.” Then came a more recent poem—partly about poetry itself, filled with puns and anagrams—“in the voice” of a literary devil. And then this poem, also in an evil voice. But the more I worked on this new poem, the more it felt like me, what I myself was feeling in my darkest moods—“my voice, in my mouth,” as Elizabeth Bishop one put it. The poem took this dark turn just before the pandemic really hit us. But I was afraid it might be too dark for public consumption. Did I really want anyone to see me in this dark place, or even to think it might be me? It was at that point—a kind of now-or-never moment—that I thought I would go public and I sent it to Daniel Lawless, whom I regard as one of my best readers. At the same time, between the pandemic and the election, I was beginning to hear these dark thoughts from many sources, both public and, especially, private and personal. We all seemed to be living through a time when everything went wrong. Was wrong. And how much of that was our (my) own fault? How much might we (I) have wanted it to be that way?