Brian Culhane on “The Immortality Ode”
Often, I turn to solo piano music for inspiration, with the great Bill Evans always high on my list. I owe this poem to him, as it came into being when I began one of his recordings and pictured his hands above the keyboard, waiting to enter the melody. That image, in turn, led me to recall how, when I’d lived in Manhattan as a student, each day meant climbing and descending the (seemingly endless) five flights of stairs in my dilapidated brownstone. Those winters, I would wear an overcoat my father had given me, thereby re-enacting—on some level at least– his own days, too, as a young man struggling in Manhattan. (He’d also given me his old typewriter, which shows up in the poem as well.) How Wordsworth, Camus, and Beckett eventually entered the poem is a mystery—but they variously, even discordantly, summoned an image of circling in time, climbing and descending years. Whether cause for utter despair or a kind of unlikely hope, the boulder we all must push leads, in the poem’s final lines, back to the image of Evans, still there, still waiting to begin.
Mark Dow on “Charlotte”
“Charlotte” is from a manuscript of my so-called Conversation Poems, others of which have been in Mudlark, Wave Composition, and Open Letters Monthly. This conversation took place about three years ago during lunch at the Sky Galley Restaurant in the Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. Charlotte grew up in Toulouse. Her mom and dad, old friends of mine, are from Grenoble and Cincinnati. While Charlotte was saying some version of what’s now in the poem, her paternal grandmother, Jane Ellis, was at the other end of the table, having a conversation with old friends of her own. The food at the Sky Galley is not very good, but Jane liked going there. I’m glad to be able to dedicate this poem to her memory.
Robert Nazarene on “Higher Education” and ”In Every Scene the Mind Might Conjure
The Tow Truck Always Appears Before the Ambulance”
I never know where a poem is going to go. Its destination never fails to surprise me—and hopefully, will surprise the reader or listener. Most often the title comes first. Next, a flow of words —arriving in my mind so fast my writing hand can barely keep up.
No time for thinking. Or worse, over-thinking—the greatest enemy of the poem. The poems in this issue were composed in a matter of 10-15 minutes each. In the next two or so hours I may revise a poem 4, 5, 6 times. Then, finis. I have no idea where this stuff comes from—when it comes. Research? Seldom. I write about what I know—which isn’t overly much.
Maurice Manning on “After Reading Charles Wright I Turn Out the Light and Listen to the Rain”
I see from my notebook that I began the first draft of this poem near the end of June in 2016. The poem pretty clearly indicates its origin. I had indeed been reading Charles Wright for weeks and months when my obligations allowed it, immersing myself, reading his books from the early 1980s to the present. I especially noted a poem from his 1995 collection, Chickamauga. The poem is “After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard.” It’s full of fragments that nevertheless convey a complete and weighted moment. I read this poem as a pastoral that stops itself short, perhaps because Wright becomes aware that poets have been trying to figure out the mortal, human place in Nature for a long time. Tu Fu was pondering this 1400 years ago. Perhaps Wright himself had been reading Tu Fu’s “Night Thoughts While Traveling.” The two poems have much in common. Both lament the near futility of writing a poem, especially in the face of old age. And yet, Wright offers a hint that somehow escaping the self—the confines and the anxieties of the mortal self—may be a way for us to belong more meaningfully to Nature and to be comfortable with our relatively minor significance. It’s a perspective the Tu Fu poem implies. When such a perspective helps to shape an aesthetic, as it obviously did for Wright, the form and substance of one’s art becomes open to change and variation. In my poem I think I’m trying to claim, humbly I hope, Wright’s recognition that one’s artistic ambition pales when compared to the scale of Nature and more enduring reality, is similar to my encounter of Wright’s poetry and his long-earned wisdom.
Leonard Kress on “Not the Way It Was”
Often my poetry (like “Not the Way It Was”) uses narrative structure, though it’s more likely an assembly of narratives—mostly layered or braided (a term I prefer). The poem, both in its composition and its final form, confuses and confounds any actual history or sequence of events. This happens because when I work through it, both leading the way and following, I’m diverted (beguiled) into mythological time as well as recouped and redeemed time. And ultimately, as the title of the poem suggests, the result is both not the way it was as well as the way it really was—an attempt to have it all, to have both ways.
Ron Smith on “Don’t Know Much About the French I Took”
H.R. Stoneback asked me to be the Featured Poet at an event at the American Library in Paris for the International Hemingway Conference in July of 2018. I have always loved The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and a few of the later short pieces. And I have come to admire the sequence In Our Time (and in our time). But Stoney knows how I feel about that macho misogynist blowhard posturing of post-1929 Hem, so I was surprised that he asked me. I vacillated. When he said I would also read poems at the opening event on the Eiffel Tower, I of course said yes.
The conference was, well, amazing. Despite a heat wave and no air conditioning in the meeting venues, the gathering was pure joy. The conference was beautifully run, may have been the best literary conference I have ever attended. I feel a little guilty about the harsh verse attack on A Moveable Feast I delivered on the Eiffel Tower (even if Hemingway scholars pulled me aside all the next week to confide that they hated that book, too).
“Don’t Know Much About the French I Took” spun out of my work in preparation for those readings. In it, I think I have finally made peace with two of my high school teachers (and with my own teenage cluelessness). I will probably never entirely escape the guilt I have for failing—or refusing—to learn French properly. But I have more or less forgiven myself for that. And I have certainly forgiven my teachers for their shortcomings and errors. It’s an old-fashioned poem, I guess. It’s not particularly “clever” in the ways that 21st century poems tend to be. Having just reread it, I like its earnestness.
Kimberly Johnson on “Fidelity”
I spend a lot of time at very high altitudes, where more than once I have been ambushed by the stupefying blue of the gentiana verna, its exorbitant deepwater washing across the dull grays and browns above the timberline. Though the flower does not grow in America, I recently saw its color within a cliff of snow while I was skiing on a white-gray day. This poem considers the puzzle that presents itself when such breathtaking and fantastical unknowns intrude into the familiar—their seductions competing with the less spectacular but enduring commitments of everyday life.
Will Wellman on Tampa at 8PM Listening to a Podcast on Bird Migration:
Woodlawn Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in Tampa and across the street from my home. Over the nearly three years I’ve been here, I wake each morning and, before work, look across the street. The surroundings are always the same—the bahiagrass field that abuts the street, the numerous faded headstones, the pines, cypress, and live oaks, the meandering road snaking between the plots. Yet, each time it’s different—the time of day and the way the sun’s light lies, the length of shadows, the sky above, the temperature and weather, the traffic, the various birds that populate the tree’s branches.
I’ve come to think of the cemetery as my Charing Cross Bridge, my House of Parliament, my Waterloo Bridge. As Monet came to see, and paint, these landmarks as always changing, as always showing something new, something different, so has Woodlawn Cemetery for me. And as each day brings a new vision from the cemetery, they bring, too, a new story. The scenery embodies something beyond mere sight and perception.
There is a term in theology, the apophatic, which is prevalent in the mystical traditions. It is an admittance of this excessiveness, this reality stretching beyond our descriptive capacities. And it seeks, as best possible, to accept this inability, quietly—in a way that approaches the hymnic.
A podcast on bird migrations (BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time), an evening at Woodlawn Cemetery gifted me this.
Martha Serpas on Pélican Dans Sa Píeté:
The Louisiana flag features an Egyptian mythological depiction of a bird vulning (wounding) herself to feed her chicks. The Catholic Church adopted this blazón as Christological in meaning. Jesus sacrifices himself, sheds his blood, for humankind. Through its French government, Louisiana adopted the Catholic symbol for its flag. The design persisted even after Louisianans were sold to the United States without their consent. The poem began with my realization that Louisiana has plucked its own breast, its own coast, to feed the insatiable thirst for oil and natural gas to “benefit” the rest of the country, if not the world. As the poem unfolded, Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s evocation of birthing monsters, a common maternal fear, came to me. I thought of how my mother—oppressed by patriarchy and xenophobia, underpaid and overworked as an English teacher—might have felt about my very presence. (She was forty-one when I was born.)
In the original Egyptian myth the bird has killed its hatchlings and brings them back to life with her own blood. May Louisiana and all scapegoated and exploited realms be inspired to provide better care for their young.
Christina Pugh On “But the Avant-Garde”:
Charlotte Moorman was a classically-trained cellist who became a committed participant in (and spokesperson for) the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, using then-contemporary technologies to complicate musical performance and to revamp what “performance” meant to audiences. Perhaps the most striking of these endeavors was her “TV Bra for Living Sculpture,” in which she played the cello naked, with small televisions “cupping” her breasts. This was riveting to me since I was writing a book (the forthcoming Stardust Media) about the aesthetic qualities of old and new technologies, including screens. But the poem actually began as a “gallery” of avant-garde uses of television, and I’m not sure if I knew at the outset that it would end up to be centered on Moorman’s life and death. Though the connection between the “TV bra” and Moorman’s breast cancer is in retrospect a rather obvious one to make, I don’t believe I consciously realized it until I wrote the last line of this poem. But I often find myself writing into, and out of, blind spots of various sizes and shapes. This is the way that a lyric poem can be a method of genuine inquiry, much as I believe Fluxus was for Charlotte Moorman.
Moni Stanila on Alexandru:
It all starts with a sight potentially triggering off deep emotional impact. The image of a ten-year old boy who, sixty years back, took shelter from a mighty storm underneath a flock of sheep. And that flash prompts the progress of a story inside one’s head. Subsequently, within the space of years (or minutes) the story undergoes changes, it becomes personal – colors, fragrances and feelings are being replaced. The image becomes one’s own. And one tries to fit it somehow within a few lines. The first drafts make it into the recycle bin in record time. Others get stuck into insufficiently developed prose. Still others end up in a bizarrely-titled Word document that rings no bells. You open it and can’t remember the story. One day it so happens that the first sentence rings true and it is joined satisfactorily by the second, the third one. Within two weeks, tops, one has the draft bound to become a book. First came the poem “Alexandru”, to be followed by “Ion” and ”Dan”, who continued the initial story. Too subjective for a piece of prose, too well-rounded for a draft… An ample poem made up of three pieces covering the image of the 20th century, somewhere in a Banat village. With people one knows and can identify with. With grandparents and parents. Such is the case of this here poem.
There are also those fortunate occasions when a football game requires more than ten poems. There is however something which, as far as one is concerned, always stays the same: an image that changes one and that, one believes, needs to be shared.