Frances Richey on “The Seven Secrets of Our-Lady”:
When my son was serving in Iraq (2004-2006), I wrote some short ekphrasis poems from Madonna and Child paintings after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. There was a section of religious paintings in a hall at the top of the main staircase, and I spent hours looking at those paintings. So much gold, though in the times they were painted, the materials for blue paint were more expensive than gold. I gathered four of those poems under the title, “Fragments From The Hall of the Madonnas,” which were published in my second book, The Warrior. Back then, when I looked at those paintings, they reminded me of all the US mothers whose sons were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the Iraqi and Afghan mothers who were losing their sons as well. More recently, the pictures of mothers being separated from their children at our borders has recalled me to those paintings, and I started writing Madonna poems again. With lockdown due to Covid 19, I searched for Madonna and Child paintings on the Internet. As I wrote these new poems, I saw both the Biblical mother and son and the mothers and sons of this moment who struggle with the times they live in, and forces beyond their control that profoundly affect the trajectory of their lives.
Daniel Tobin on “Harvest”:
It’s difficult to say how “Harvest” came to be without offering some formal context. At first read it appears “Harvest” is a single poem in the voice of Gustave Thibon, the French philosopher and associate of Simone Weil, who is the subject of Thibon’s reflection. What isn’t evident beyond these twenty-four lines of eight tercets is the other thirty-two sections of like tercets that link together to form “This Broken Symmetry,” a book-length poem following the “world-line” of Simone Weil, her arrow of time, in reverse. Nor are the thirty-three tercets of “From Nothing” visible, on the life of physicist and priest Georges Lemaitre, father of “the big bang.” They come before “This Broken Symmetry.” After follow the thirty-three sections of “At the Grave of Teilhard de Chardin.” The twenty-four-line weave of couplets stitched across all three books, a kind of bindery double helix, with three parts to each book—those, too, appear in the white space of the page around this one poem. So, the writing of “Harvest” came about through a more than decade immersion in these exemplary lives, as well as through an ongoing process of architectural and iterative orchestration realized as always point by point, line by line, room by room. The trilogy will be published by Four Way Books in 2023 under the title The Mansions.
Kim Dower on “Promiscuous” and “Thanking My Breasts”:
Inspiration for “Promiscuous”
In December, 2020, The Writer’s Almanac ran a poem by William Matthews called, “Promiscuous.” Matthews had been a teacher of mine in the ‘70s and was the first person I ever met who kept a teabag in his shirt pocket. But that has nothing to do with the poem or what inspired me. I was stirred by his poem and had an immediate itch to “answer” it. The word, promiscuous, shot me back to my teenaged self and became a juicy prompt. I wrote many drafts — each one an answer to Matthews’– as if we were having a conversation. I read my finished poem aloud to him, hoping he’d hear, up there, surrounded by the fine selection of tea and poetry I imagine he has.
Inspiration for “Thanking My Breasts”
I first wrote this poem in early 2019 and put it away in my “poems in play” folder on my computer. I forgot about it. Then in July, 2020, Pandemic Summer of sheltering-in-place void of family trips, visits with friends, poolside cocktails, I was reading a lot about gratitude and how feeling grateful could help get us through these lonely, scary times. I gave myself the prompt of “Giving Thanks” and started writing all the things I was thankful for and, bingo – my breasts appeared. I remembered the poem I’d written a while back, and that was that. I think when we’re ready to write a poem we write it. Sometimes they disappear and come back to us when we need them the most. Maybe this poem is about being grateful to simply still be alive. I could have written “Thanking my Feet” but that poem would never have made it into Plume.
Lynn Levin on “The Silver Bullet”:
“The Silver Bullet” roams through the times of early Covid. I wrote the poem in the spring of 2020, obviously before we had any vaccines, hence the wish, expressed at the end of the poem, that researchers would rush in to save us with a silver bullet the way the Lone Ranger and the wise Tonto rushed in to save people in the Wild West. I liked washing my hands to the hurry-up music of the “William Tell Overture” more than the “Happy Birthday” song, and that was how I segued to the TV show reference—the “William Tell Overture” is the theme music of The Lone Ranger. I had a lot of fun watching old Lone Ranger episodes as I composed this poem. We often refer to miracle medicines as silver bullets, and since the Lone Ranger was famous for his silver bullet, the TV show-science connection fell into place. As for the unfortunate name of the Lone Ranger’s partner Tonto (“foolish” or “stupid” in Spanish): Tonto refers to the Masked Man as Keemosabi, which I think is a contraction of Quien No Sabe, or “he who does not know.” Just my opinion. At the end of the poem, I reference famous researchers from medical history who did develop silver bullets: Jenner (smallpox vaccine), Pasteur (rabies and anthrax vaccines), Ehrlich (treatment for syphilis), Sabin (oral polio vaccine), and Salk (injected polio vaccine). The effort to save humanity from Covid remains a race against time.
Deborah Gorlin on “Beautiful Worry”:
“Beautiful Worry” is my alternative seasonal version of Emily Dickinson’s famous lines, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light,/ Winter Afternoons-/ that oppresses like the Heft-/ of Cathedral Tunes.” While I know exactly what she feels about that dreaded time of year– I literally live a few blocks away from her house in Amherst– I also experience its springtime equivalent. As the light starts to change and signals the transition between the two seasons, I often grow strangely anxious. Who am I to be so suspicious of spring’s competencies and motives? Still, possibility and potentiality can be unsettling, as in too much of a good thing, or a good thing going very wrong. Of course I may be projecting. And yet while I wrote this poem a while ago, I can now read it against our current historical moment, as we suffer from the unruly behavior of the weather, and struggle with huge environmental eccentricities and uncertainties. The poem, in its own small way, is prescient, and points quite rightfully to the precarity of the natural world and my tentative place within it.
Sonia Alland on translating “A Canticle Rehearsal in The Temple” and “The Waters Do Not Return, Even to Meribà”:
Richard Newman and I have embarked on the translation of a selection of poems by Salvador Espriu. We feel it’s a great shame that this giant of a poet is hardly known outside of his homeland of Catalonia. His extensive opus consists not only of poetry, but of narratives and plays. Espriu was a scholar of Egyptian but also of Greek and Roman culture, all of which subtly infuse his works. He was also fascinated by the Cabala, evident to those experts who can decipher the references! – not to mention the parallels he saw between the fate of the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, leading up to their expulsion in 1492, and the perilous situation of his compatriots, the Catalans under Franco. In fact, in his frequent references in his poems to the Sepharads, that word simply stands for the people of Catalonia.
Though Espriu’s poems offer a rare treat to the poetry lover, they are challenging for the translator, as well as for Catalans. In the poems Richard and I have so far selected from Espriu’s opus, you hear the poet’s voice of resistance and, often, despair before the menace to his language and culture under Franco. These somber poems are powerful, deeply moving. They help us understand why Harold Bloom, who DID know Espriu’s work, was convinced he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
Jessica Greenbaum on “Ode to the Table of Contents”:
“Ode to the Table of Contents”: For my first-ever weeks of teaching a class at Vassar, I thought we would start with something I hoped too variously delicious to dislike: Neruda’s All the Odes, edited by Ilan Stavans. And when Stavans says all he means it, so that there are 226 odes in over 850 pages. I figured that might seem a little daunting so we spent a little time in the book’s proverbial foyer, the table of contents, where I asked the writers to just hang up their coats, find a comfortable chair, pick out some favorite titles and read without distraction. Then I offered a choice of writing an ode, or a meta ode to the TOC. Then I gave an example. Which you now have thanks to Plume’s generosity.
“Reading about Keith Jarrett . . . “ The newspaper is easier to read than it had been for four years, but difficult news still makes its way to us, and I find it’s often news that makes a current story of my past.
Christopher Buckley on “Intelligent Design” and “At Miramar Point”:
Both of these poems take up aspects of a dominant theme in my work—faith and doubt. Shorter poems for a change, “Intelligent Design” took off and resolved with the idiom, “if there ever was one”, and made its way via a short catalog of orthodoxy from a catholic school upbringing. I used the phrase at the top of the poem in a standard conversational/cliché manner, and at the end have it packing more of a conceptual punch—that is the hope.
“At Miramar Point” works from a location and subject I have explored several times—the beach and sea near where I grew up in Montecito, swimming as a child, and later skin diving and surfing. It explores the natural elements of place more than anything theoretical. The connection to the sea where I spent most of my early life was the motivation for the poem—a place where I felt part of the energy and life force and yet where I was left alone to try and figure out what meaning there might be beyond that.
These are both poems from The Pre-Eternity of the World, out next month from Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press.
Ashley Dailey on “Feral”:
My parents were married the summer before my mother’s senior year of high school in a quick ceremony at my grandparents’ house. “Feral” was inspired by a photo from their wedding and is part of a working poetry collection that explores broken family relationships—and truth as a moving target.
Memories and photos are slippery souvenirs of the past, untrustworthy and inconclusive. Studies have found that our memories alter each time we access them and that bad memories stick with us more readily than good—an evolutionary adaptation that is supposed to help us avoid repeating mistakes. Photos, too, are a kind of fiction: We take photos during special occasions. We crop. We pose. We smile on three.
“Feral” is a patchwork poem that seeks truth through layering: Memories and photos. Forms, images, definitions, dualities, and questions. Both weed and weeder, I strive to depict my family and rural Georgia upbringing in the way I know how—from the delicious to the violent. To the love.
Clare Elizabeth Sullivan, on co-translating Natalia Toledo:
In addition to working as a poet and a minister of culture, Natalia Toledo designs jewelry and cooks stunning meals. An eye for detail and color permeates all her creations. The strong imagery in her verses guides me as a translator. I am privileged to work with Irma Pineda in this process and consider her my co-translator since she leads me through each line, explaining linguistic meaning and cultural roots. For example, she told me that the epigraph that introduces the poem “Dxiibi” comes from a game that children play when they see a mantis. They take turns asking questions to which the answer would be a cardinal direction (i.e., Where did my mother go?) and then wait for the mantis to point out their answer. I tried to capture the playful rhyme of the original epigraph in my translation. Readers should note that Toledo, like most indigenous poets, translates her own work, in her case from Zapotec to Spanish. Working with indigenous poetry reveals that language and culture constantly transform and grow. For example, Toledo’s Spanish version of “Nisaguie” contains two words in Nahuatl (“cempasuchil” and “huipil”), another Mexican indigenous language. Collaborating through more than two languages highlights how collaborative and dynamic translation can be.