Nancy Naomi Carlson on “Sequoia”:
Where there once was a red maple standing in my front yard, now there is a mound of wood shavings spread in the shape of a circle of about three feet. At some point last year in the pre-pandemic world, I noticed the tree had not dropped its shriveled leaves…even at autumn’s end. By spring I observed no new leaf growth, despite my encouraging the tree with frequent waterings and pep talks. As time wore on, I came to the realization that the tree was, indeed, dead, though it still stood. I began to research how trees died and came across an article about how twenty-eight giant sequoias had died since 2014, including one named “Lazarus,” which still stands in Sequoia National Park. Lazarus had survived two thousand years, and was supposed to live another five hundred more, but was done in by bark beetles, after being weakened by fire and drought. The poem started out with the title of “Lazarus” which later morphed into “How Monarchs Fall” (from the term “monarch sequoia”) and was once a sonnet. At some point the poem opened up, and the title became “Sequoia,” a word that seemed, to my ear, to convey strength, dignity, and bravery. Fortuitously, I was able to connect this name to “Benkei,” also with its hard [k] sound in the middle of the word, and also conveying a sense of fortitude, greatness, and courage.
Linda Pastan on “Chanukah”:
I’ve always been interested in watching things that are both beautiful and dangerous: ocean waves, falling snow, fire. I’ve written about one or more of them often. Chanukah candles were just a small part of the poem I had in mind this time, but they somehow took over.
Ron Smith on “This Moment”:
I’m not good at writing timely poems, poems that “speak to the historical moment.” When I try to write those, I end up sounding more like a propagandist than a poet, more like an ad man or a politician than like an artist struggling to encourage the medium to find something worth finding, to reveal something worth revealing.
If I know exactly what I’m doing, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it right.
Politicians. I hate politicians. Of all stripes. Of course, I admire hard-working, honorable public servants and authentic statesmen and stateswomen. But when people I admire operate as politicians—weathervaning, desperate to push the right buttons of their constituents in order to secure their votes—I’m—well, I’m disgusted. Disgusted even by people I admire, some of whom I actually love.
I’m told that “This Moment” is a timely poem, so I’m suspicious of it.
I’ve been trying to write this piece for decades. Something about 2020, “the present moment,” the moment of my personal life (should I say “personal growth”? no), something about the national moment—has helped me to finish it. To consider it finished. I do not know what that “something” is. Since that rainy night, the scene, the event has haunted me, troubled me, hurt me into reconsidering my childhood circumstances, especially the unexamined racism of everyone I knew well.
I think maybe, through all those drafts over all those years, I tried too hard to make the event into “art” and that is why I couldn’t finish the piece. Only recently did I feel that I could simply tell what I remember (and don’t), simply tell what remains in my memory.
And then maybe I could consider this event rendered.
Render (verb): 1. provide or give (a service, help, etc.). 2. submit or present for inspection or consideration. 3. deliver (a verdict or judgment). 4. (literary) hand over. 5. cause to be or become. 6. represent or depict artistically. 7. (computing) process (an outline image) using color and shading in order to make it appear solid and three-dimensional. 8. melt down (fat). 9. process (the carcass of an animal) in order to extract proteins, fats, and other usable parts. 10. cover (stone or brick) with a coat of plaster. 11. covertly send (a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect) for interrogation abroad.
Brian Swann on “Across the Wide Missouri”:
Ever since I came to America I’ve been trying to discover it. First I had to rid myself of what I thought I knew, then I had to find what I didn’t know, then what I thought I knew, accept what I didn’t want to know, and so on. I was always grateful for what was given, but confused. America is for me now a kind of movie, a jumpy loop of reality, fantasy and nightmare. It hasn’t helped that as I’ve grown older time has more or less collapsed, which, luckily, is how it finds its own level, even if I have to make it up.
I put this piece together first as prose, then as poetry, then as prose, or whatever it is now. It is part of a 100 page manuscript written during Covid from March to September, “Covid Contusions or Ya-honk Goes the Wild Gander.”
Jeff Friedman on “The Touch”:
I wrote “The Touch” in April during the first wave of Covid-19, one of the early poems in what has now become a sequence of poems about life during the pandemic. The poem really was triggered by my ongoing conversations and exchanges with my close friend, poet and jazz composer Roy Nathanson (Conversations and Other Songs, Madhat Press, 2020). At the time, we decided to write drafts of poems together daily, and we would take turns coming up with the ideas for the poems, which sometimes were single lines or titles one of us had written. Roy and I have collaborated before a number of times on different projects, but this project was intended to inspire us to write pieces about the effects of the pandemic and the ineptitude, corruption and evil of the Trump administration on our individual lives. I think Roy may have come up with a line he liked, and I altered it to the subject of touch, because the question of whether or not you could spread the virus by touching something that someone else touched weighed heavily on many people’s minds. I remember hearing from friends that they washed their groceries, and in the store, where I shop, many people were wearing throwaway gloves. I also remember cleaning my hands with hand sanitizer four or five times every shopping trip and then coming home to wash my hands with soap and water. But I think I was probably too lazy to wipe down all the groceries. Instead, I put them in quarantine in their respective places in the refrigerator or pantry. Anyway, the whole idea of touch being potentially dangerous coupled in my mind with the tale of King Midas, whose touch and greed turned everything to gold. And that led to the first line of the poem comparing Midas to the speaker. The poem went down a different path than I expected. In the speaker’s case, touch is dangerous because what he touches, he loses. By the end, the poem transformed into a poem about the loss of so many people close to me over the last decade and the distance that I was feeling from everyone, locked down in the isolation of the pandemic.
Susan Aizenberg on “The Beautiful American Word Baby“:
“The Beautiful American Word Baby” began—at least in part—many months before I wrote the first draft, when while walking downtown in Iowa City, back before the pandemic, I passed a young woman wearing the “Not Your Baby” tee shirt mentioned in the poem. She and her friend looked to be in their early twenties, and were walking along the street together chatting, and I was struck not only by the tee shirt’s witty and powerful message, but by how strong and confident the two women appeared to be. I thought about myself at that age, and about my little granddaughter, and about how much things have changed for the better for girls and women. I didn’t have a poem in mind at that point, but I did make a quick note in my journal.
Months later, this past August, I participated in a month-long poem-a-day exchange with Betsy Sholl and Leslie Ullman. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and surprisingly productive. Writing a new poem every day was challenging, and I composed my drafts in a number of ways: some poems were entirely new, some drawn from the old notes, fragments, exercises, and very rough drafts I call my “compost.” “Baby” arrived when two things came together: my note about the tee shirt and an exercise from Tony Hoagland’s and Kay Cosgrove’s wonderful book, The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. In the exercise, Hoagland challenges the poet to compose a poem meditating on a single word, after John Weir’s fantastic prose poem, “The Beautiful American Word ‘Guy’.” After free-writing and considering various words for a bit, the young woman and her tee shirt came to mind, together with a little flood of other images and memories, and I began drafting the poem.
Writing a poem a day of course resulted in many false starts useful only as practice, and exercises often remain just that, but sometimes I find exercises work for me much as writing in received form does, with the external constraints and parameters freeing up the subconscious and leading to surprises, a poem one didn’t expect to write. That was certainly the case for me with this poem, and I’m in debt to Hoagland, Cosgrove, and Weir, and especially to that young woman.
Patricia Clark on “August, Hinge”:
To keep myself writing during the lockdown months due to COVID-19, I wrote a series of short poems, mostly sonnet-length, to keep the juices flowing, to keep from freezing up altogether. I think of “August, Hinge” as a bit like a mirror—a statement, or more accurately, a question, in six lines, and then, in answer, six lines of description—details that might seem to “answer” the question, but I don’t believe they do. The reader will wonder: how is this an answer to losses. How is it indeed? Readers perhaps think poetry has answers. To what? I would say. As a writer I want to refuse answers and to upset expectations, create uneasiness, cause a little vexation, perhaps. This is where we live, after all, with uncertainty and, often, with vexation, during a pandemic or not.
Dzvinia Orlowsky on “The Village Crow”:
“The Village Crow” is one of 10 poems in a sequence titled “The (Dis)enchanted Desna” based on the biographical novella The Enchanted Desna written by Soviet-Ukrainian screenwriter, film director and literary stylist, Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956). In 1964, the novella was released as a film directed by Yuliya Solntseva, Dovzhenko’s widow.
Having translated and published this work in its entirety back in 2006, I returned more recently to re-enter the richly evocative, extended reverie that carries the young narrator’s voice —Sashko a village boy— as he exalts the magic of his beloved rural Desna River Valley while fearing for its future. Using key Ukrainian folkloric totems such as crows, saints, broken horses and gossiping dogs, the speaker of this sequence re-imagines, at times through an older Sashko’s eyes, a more barren Desna dreamscape in a time of Putin.
These poems form the core of a new manuscript that I’ve been working on for the last two years. I was honored to have a group of these poems chosen by Robert Pinsky for the New England Poetry Club 2019 Samuel Washington Allen prize.
Monica Cure on translating “Tartine. Quasi-unfamiliar. To handle a relationship” and “A Tall Bird”:
Like most things these days, the experience of translating these two poems by Adela Greceanu and Dan Coman is indelibly colored for me by the experience of living in this pandemic reality. I became familiar with their work through a couple (in-person!) cultural events in Romania in the fall of 2019. I had been invited to read my own poetry at the international Poets in Transylvania Poetry Festival in Sibiu when I heard Dan Coman read his beautiful poems. As for Adela Greceanu, I was attending a popular poetry rooftop event sponsored by the ARCEN organization in Bucharest. I came across a printed poem fragment of hers as part of an installation and it was more than enough for me to want to meet her. In March, with the onset of the pandemic, we experienced a complete government lockdown in Romania, as happened in many European countries. The state of emergency meant we couldn’t leave our homes except for essential reasons and carrying a filled out declaration form. I returned to the idea of translating something by these two poets. The poem “A Tall Bird” by Dan Coman especially spoke to me at the time because it’s a poem about longing and gets played out in an interior space before achieving a settledness, if not resolution. Adela Greceanu’s poem “Tartine. Quasi-unfamiliar. To handle a relationship” resonated with me then perhaps to some degree because a “studio apartment” features so prominently here and in the wider volume. My own studio apartment in Bucharest had become a similar space of contemplation, of echoing words. Translating Romanian poetry and introducing it to a wider audience was important in making me feel connected to the outside world.