Peter Johnson On “The Last Dance,” “Nice Socks,” and “My Friend,”:
My most recent book is called Old Man Howling at the Moon. These three poems are from a new manuscript in progress titled, Old Man Still Howling at the Moon. In both books we find a first-person narrator, a frustrated Old-Guy Everyman, who’s navigating an absurd world where all the old narratives he’s lived by don’t work anymore. In a sense, he’s an exaggerated version of me, a persona that allows me to express outrage at our current culture, while also poking fun of my own obsessions.
Most of my poems begin in fact, and then spin out into what I might call controlled made-up digressions. There is, in fact, a local strip joint with a weekly event called “Legs and Eggs.” It’s a wonderfully bizarre concept to picture a bunch of boneheads devouring eggs and pancakes as strippers go through their moves. There’s also something sad about it all, and what it says about my gender. Likewise, there are “compassion centers” in Rhode island, which distribute marijuana to people who medically qualify, and I did attend my senior prom with a young woman who wore a white dress with red hearts on it, one heart cut out to reveal her navel. But what happens in all these prose poems is not controlled by fact but by the logic of the poem. I love following that logic, taking that leap of faith. It’s what makes writing fun.
“Nice Socks” will always be one of my favorite poems. Why is Jesus obsessed with the narrator’s socks? The literary critic in me might say that Jesus is trying to tell the narrator to stop obsessing about the big questions and focus on the simple things. That critic might also argue that the poem makes fun of people who expect Christ to enter their lives and solve all their problems. But maybe the Jesus in this poem is cold and tired and sick of people looking to Him for inspiration. Maybe He just wants a pair of warm socks and is impressed with the narrator’s taste. Maybe He desires to be a regular guy for a few minutes. Now that’s the kind of Jesus I’d like to hang out with.
Betsy Sholl on “Whatever Alights”:
More than most poems, this one came pretty much whole, its movement all there from beginning to end. I fiddled with line breaks and phrasing, had to look for a title, but otherwise it was all there. I remember sitting at the window, pen in hand, looking at the birds and feeling a sense of openness, a sense of welcome to whatever might come and a stirring of language, which may be what we mean by inspiration. Then my once brilliant sister showed up and was swept into that same mood. She was considerably older, and I had been grieving, not so much her recent death, but the way in her last years she had diminished in spirit, becoming opinionated, demanding, controlling. The poem gave me a sense of the pain behind these changes, and an image of another realm, an afterlife in which she was free of her defenses, much as she would have been before any wounding set it. I guess that was imagination’s gift.
Stewart Moss on “The Book of Forgotten Geniuses”:
I hadn’t written any poems in a while, so when I opened a used copy of a novel I’d purchased online and found tucked inside a post-it note with these enigmatic and totally unrelated words scribbled on it – “Einstein,” “3 dollars,” and “famous failures” – I decided to make a poem that would somehow incorporate them. I changed “famous failures” to the obverse “forgotten geniuses” … and, because my brother-in-law is both an Einstein & and Egyptology enthusiast, I immediately thought of the ancient Egyptians’ elaborate burial rituals. This, of course, led me to reflect on my own burial (which I hope is not imminent!) and then, because of the task I’d set for myself, Einstein’s burial as well. The structure of the poem gave me enough latitude to include other reflections on history, philosophy, biography and the fantasy of encountering other souls in our bardo-like transition to the next life.
Nin Andrews on “The Shadow of Love”:
I wrote “The Shadow of Love” after a long conversation with a friend who had what I always thought of as a picture book marriage. Everyone thought she was happy. In fact, she said, it was all a sham. She said her husband never loved her, but he loved the idea of her. An idea that was just a shadow of who she really was. And so I began to think of a man who married a shadow.
Elena Karina Byrne on her 6 poems:
These six poems arrive from my forthcoming my Omnidawn 2021 ekphrastic-weave book If This Makes You Nervous. I was looking for counterpart voices (majority are women) with whom I might dialogue– the artist images led me into a necessary conversation with my past (something I have avoided), especially the pre-teen years. Because I was exposed to contemporary and conceptual art at a very young age, my intuitive intellect became a key tool, how I perceived without the adult vocabulary… and so too, later, the counterintuitive became familiar.
This Turner poem is a perfect example of the aforementioned note–– for fifty years, my father, Herbert Samuel Jepson, was a renowned figure drawing teacher (Otis, Chouinard Art Institute, UCLA) who taught Disney animators anatomy. He was one of the earliest believers that we have to involve the whole body and mind in order to see, to create… like method actors, his students had to “know” what they were representing. During that seminal period in art history, Ed Ruscha and Baldessari ––many of those famous artists attended Chouinard or The Jepson Art Institute. Ruscha and my mother, the painter, exchanged a harmless flirtation–as Lucille Clifton once insisted, the fidelity is to the poem’s truth, not to the facts. Like my father, I’m always excited about coming “in contact with the ocean of the unknown,” (Carlo Rovelli) and willing to take more risks, willing to fail.
Awol Erizku was one of the first poems written for the series and represents what’s still going on in the plea bargain arena of our justice system. Culture contamination places everyone under the influence. Caught with drugs, my nineteen-year-old cousin was told he would be protected if he testified against his dealer in a murder case. Clearly, he was not protected. If a tree…if someone dies in a desert and no one is there to hear them, do they…? What are the quantum mechanics for grief? The Leonardo poem formalizes another kind of grief experienced in a failed, one-sided relationship. Grindstaff’s art duplicates loss that occurs in families while pointing a finger at our ecological disasters ––you’ll see I have a hard time separating intellectual, emotional, and physiological responses: the perfect triad, romantic triangle! In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart says it when she sites Lacan’s notion of “interchange and interorientation.”
Our Japanese prints and Japanese art history books led me to Hokusai’s Great Wave when I was in high school (I hand-duplicated the image to be a girl’s blanket about to break over her while sleeping). I began doing research for the poem and stumbled across Angus Lockyer’s article that included Hokusai getting away with murdering his wife and her lover! We live in a time when the President believes his position and fame entitles him to get away with anything… we are drowning in corruption hence why the last line references my near-drowning moment while scuba diving. Proximity approximations made for film…
John Skoyles on his Five Poems:
“The Blue Sea Motel” and “Alphabet” are love poems. The occasion for the motel poem was seeing a woman on a bench outside that motel in North Truro, Massachusetts. She reminded me of a former lover, the evanescence of the sand and snow we experienced during our time together, and the transience of guests—at the motel and beyond….
“Alphabet” came about from reading one of Oscar Levant’s autobiographies, in which he took credit for the crazy line in the film, “Possessed.” The line, “I love you is such an inadequate way of saying I love you,” was cited in a review as being particularly peculiar, which delighted Levant. I enjoyed the thought that most of what we say is often inadequate—the poems I had been working on, for example. This piece came out in one sentence, marks on a page that might or might not speak to a lover. Or a reader.
“It” is a poem about alcoholism which, in this case, starts at birth and continues into recovery where the disease might be called a gift. The poem questions that appellation. The part of the poem that delights me most is the 9th stanza, where I hope I have captured the totality of the disease in a few idiomatic toasts: no matter where you go, it is there. And whether you are up or down, you are out of it.
The three poems, “Friends in Dreams,” “The Revenants,” and “Last Words, Last Rites, Last Acts,” were written in the time frame of a few months, the result of having lost several friends during that period.
I began the poem about meeting friends in dreams on January 15, 2020 – I had a dream about my friend, Roger Skillings—that he called and asked me to meet him for a drink. The next morning, I had the feeling that he had died. I looked online and in the local newspapers, but found nothing. Later in the day, a mutual friend texted me that Roger had died during the night. I previously had had dreams about others: Tom Lux, Larry Levis, Michael Sheridan, but never anything like that. Reviewing those dreams led to that poem, and the last lines conclude the dream-life of those friendships, and bring them into the conscious world.
The longer you live, the more “last words” you hear, and I’ve recorded many of these in “Last Words, Last Rites, Last Acts,” ending with the figure of the poet who may or may not be the person demanding attention to his tears.
“The Revenants” recounts the attempt to prolong the life of a terminally ill friend, even for a few hours, through the invention and recollection of figures real and imagined. No art can do this, of course, and yet in some way it does enrich, entertain and even revive us over a lifetime.
Monica Cure on “The Country of Leaving” and “Romanian Lessons.”:
I started writing both “The Country of Leaving” and “Romanian Lessons” several months after returning to Romania (the country where I had been born but left as a refugee when I was two years old) on a Fulbright fellowship. Reconnecting deeply with Romania involved being able to hear, even when the facts differed, the echoes of common experiences in the lives of other Romanians. “The Country of Leaving” references the contemporary phenomenon of migration and brain drain in Romania. “Romanian Lessons” questions a narrative in which countries are either “winners” or “losers.” Both poems were catalyzed immediately by strong emotional experiences that didn’t make it directly into the poem. For “Romanian Lessons,” I attended a screening of a documentary about Aristina Pop-Saileanu and the partisans in the Maramures region. Her father, after having saved Jewish children from being deported to Auschwitz, had to flee to the mountains four years later with her and her brother to resist the new communist regime. The experience in “The Country of Leaving” was more personal and initially it formed part of the poem. However, over time I realized that the true drama of the poem was the ongoing one of identity, even if something specific had sparked it. For both poems, I feverishly got down their basic structure as I rode the respective forms of public transportation they feature (the tram and the train) home. Editing, on the other hand, took a couple years. I had to step away from them, I read earlier versions at the Poets in Transylvania international poetry festival in Sibiu, I got excellent feedback from my good friend and fellow poet Tara Skurtu. Given how emotional they are for me, I had similar experiences with several of the “Romanian” poems in the manuscript I’m working on, in which “The Country of Leaving” is the title poem.
Nancy Mitchell on “Always a Woman, A War or a Lost Cause”:
Recently, I’ve been thinking and writing about being conceived and growing up in the 50s. What were considered perfectly normal parenting practices then might warrant a call to Child Protective Services today. Pregnant women smoked, drank—heck, the cocktail hours were de rigueur—if you don’t believe me, go read Cheever. How many of us were among the umbilical tethered, defenseless fists of fins and gills twisting in placental gin? My sibs and I, in full view of our parents, rolled mercury in our hands from old TV tubes we dug out of the trash and smashed on the stoop. Barefoot, we’d tear out of the house in the morning, and roam the neighborhood until lunchtime totally unsupervised. Summer evenings we’d run behind the mosquito trucks, the spray of DDT cooling our faces. No helicopter parents for us; if anything, we were on the periphery of, satellites to the adult world and its attendant dramas. My father worked his way up the ranks to Army Colonel during World War II, the Korean and Viet Nam wars. When he retired to work as a civilian in the oil business. he continued on in the Reserves. To get him ready for Monday night meetings, we kids scurried around polishing his brass, and spit shining his army boots—ah! those delicious, toxic fumes from Brasso and Kiwi Black shoe polish would make us drool. On Saturdays, he’d make a big show of taking us out for ice cream—wink-wink—to give our mother some peace and quiet. And although we did get our treat, we spent many sunny afternoons huddling out of sight near the jukebox, taking cigarettes apart in some dark bar. When he was sufficiently lit, he’d summon his “troops” to the bar, and, to the delight of a bunch of old barflies, put us through drills. We never thought a thing of it, until we had our own kids and noted how differently we spent our Saturdays with them.
Regan Good on “The Worm”:
THE WORM is a cosmic poem with creator and destroyer as worm (we know the worm aerates the ground, but the worm also eats flesh). What if the sun is also a worm? A worm who aerates the air. The worm as world energy/life force repeating the offering of the leaf, countered by the work it does to the leaf in the ground. The spiders are us, in the middle, eating cotton candy with eight arms as the worm barrels towards us from the dirt but also from the sky, in this case. Poetry is full of worms, some are invisible and fly, some climb stairs, some are 70 inches long, some glow. Worms are holy and they terrify, as Blake knew, coming toward us, hungry to taste our “crimson joy.” More Blake: “The Door of Death I open found, And the Worm weaving in the ground….”