Alejandro Escude on “A Streetcar Named Panera”:
I wrote “A Streetcar Named Panera” pretty much as I was going through the divorce process, while “Elements” was written nearly two years later. Read together, you realize that the narrator has made little progress as far as healing goes. The anger is still there, the grief that divorce leaves one with, especially a divorce that was mutually agreed upon and did not have a definite catalyst. I think that may be worse than one person cheats or steals something. One is left with a mystery, an ambiguity that clarifies in time but never really achieves absolute transparency. I’m always happy when I capture some sense I don’t usually concern myself with. In “Elements,” it was smell. That very human after-exercise scent became a symbol that expressed my then partner’s insistence, despite the fact that she played soccer, on an extremely practical existence. In “A Streetcar Named Panera,” I wanted to capture how mundane divorce can feel, how the end of a marriage can feel like the last day at a job, holding a box in the late afternoon sunshine as one walks back to the company parking lot.
Gerry LaFemina on “After the War of Independence”:
I often think of what Galway Kinnell said about a poem starting with a spark of autobiography and then transcending the self. The fact is, I have no interest in writing about the incidents of my life but rather (at least as a poet) I’m interested in alternative versions of those moments: what could have been. It’s here where the music of the poem and the imagery sparkle and shine, offer me hints of the human condition—in this case, the random acts of violence that we perpetuate or suffer.
This poem: well, we used to collect the dud firecrackers and try to make them work. It was a kind of science experiment for bored ten year olds in summer: the older kids actually shot off the fireworks. We were too protected or scared. We existed in that netherworld between adolescent rebellion and childhood’s desire to be “good.” But what if always lingers on the outside of the frame.
From there, the poem speaks for itself. I remember the New York Post’s gruesome headlines of Manhattan violence, so that’s where the papers come in, and I made the speaker a little older in the memory so as to give the poem a bit more gravitas, a bit more like he should have known what was possible, and perhaps add a bit more weight to his sense of complicity, but I wanted to create a nether-space between guilt and innocence, that age when we’re coming to an understanding of the world through experiencing its cruelties. In exploring these possibilities, empathy happens for me as a writer and (I hope) for the reader as well.
The Poet Speaks on “Despite Nostalgia”
My friend, the poet George Guida, says I have a relationship with nostalgia, and that assumes, of course, that the stories I tell are true. Nostalgia, for me, is a way to open doors to a childhood that could have been. That being said, this is probably a more accurate portrayal of a version of my life in the 70s, growing up lower middle class. We still had a clothes line. We still had an unpowered push mower, and my mother worked so I was often left with the chores. I dreamed of gas powered lawn mower! I felt like an outsider (in a way, that I now know many people felt like an outsider): I didn’t get invited to pool parties, and the mysteries of sex (the seventies were hypersexualized!) and sexuality seemed everywhere.
I think of what Spalding Gray said about knowledge of sex and death is what makes us “adults”: this poem’s ending took years to get right. It needed something more threatening to end the poem rather than the sounds of rock music coming out os passing cars that originally ended it. The poem is populated by kids after all, but also some sense of getting ready to cross over to adulthood. So danger needed to come in. There were no bats in my childhood neighborhood, but of course, I spent many a night watching old vampire films as a kid, and although that’s not in the poem the bats seemed a not-very-far leap to make. They’re hunting insects, of course, but symbolically speaking in the poem, I hope they do more.
As for nostalgia, what’s it Stanley Kunitz said: “We have all been expelled from the Garden, but the ones who suffer most in exile are those who are still permitted to dream of perfection.” I think it’s part of the job.
Mary Buchinger on “The Interview” :
As a linguist, my area of interest is discourse analysis—the give-and-take in interactions—and this is the basis of the “The Interview.” This poem started on a cold Sunday before the 2020 election while I was standing in the median of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge holding a sign that read “No Justice/No Peace.” On this particular morning, a woman was wandering, apparently oblivious, across the different lanes of the Avenue as the car and bike traffic swerved to miss her. I imagined the perplexity of the Avenue—what to make of these feet that were not in a crosswalk? And it reminded me of political interviews on NPR where a response often bears little relation to the question. I started thinking of how many interactions in the world consist of glancing blows of singular intentions and happenstance, interactions which are proximal but independent, or one-sided—like a beer bottle beside a gravestone, a hawk in the wind, a yew degendered by time—all the possibilities of interaction.
Stephen Ackerman on “I Was Reading the Sunlight, I Was Planting the Words on this Page”:
Both poems are part of Ark, my current manuscript, an apocalyptic contemporary flood narrative that may never get published because who wants to read such dark work in a dark time? Remind me to take up musicals. “Auntie Deluvian” plays on “antedeluvian,” and reptiles in the time before the flood; “Alien On The Ark: Two by Two” on the attraction of coupling with a stranger, and conflates light with understanding, as in “see the light” with its Biblical connotations. The epigraph sheds its own light.
Alison Jarvis on “February Elegy with Tulips on a Glass Table”:
My husband died of early-onset Parkinson’s disease which began to manifest in his late 40s. Over decades he experienced the gradual loss of motor function, and in the last years of his life, he was immobile, frozen in place.
When Larry died, I froze. For a very long time, I could barely call up memories of the years we had together. One November day in 2015, a friend said, “You will remember the Before: it will come back to you.” I clung to those words. They felt like an incantation.
In February of 2015, huge ice floes sheeted the East River. Every day I stood at my window looking at them for what seemed like hours— so much water flowing under all that ice. I wrote this down in dozens and dozens of ways: It opened the gates, and in a day or two, there were 30 or 40 pages of the Before life. For about four years, I went back to those pages, but I could never find the elegy I wanted. On the day before March 1st this year, I read, as I often do James Schuyler’s poem, February.
With that earlier, frozen February hovering, I took out the Before pages. They seemed tired, worn out from all my pushing and pulling, and I couldn’t concentrate. I kept looking at the vase of tulips on the table. Finally, I gave in to them. The poem’s first 10 lines came in a rush, but when I tried to open it up with pieces from “Before,” it refused. Then it struck me that all I really needed to do was describe the objects on the table.
Kathryn Kimball on her translations of poems by Guy Goffette:
The poems included here are from Guy Goffette’s most recent volume, Pain perdu (2020), which means “French toast”— literally, “lost/stale bread.” In an interview (2020), he explained his title: “After a stroke four years ago, I was reduced to a wheelchair, unable to write, so I picked up unfinished, crippled poems and took care of those that weren’t working well. I soaked them in milk, eggs; I made French toast.” (https://www.lecho.be/auteur/Sophie-Creuz.1500.html)
These delectable poems from garnered leftovers reveal the poet’s range of subject, form and tone. I tried to retain the look of the original in French by adhering to the same line and stanza breaks though not always to the punctuation. I also kept to Goffette’s interesting and often winding syntax, as far as English allowed. Goffette does not mark the end of sentences with a period but does begin a new sentence with a capital letter, sometimes mid-line. I followed this practice, which has the visual effect in English, as in French, of knitting one thought to the next without a full stop.
The poems of this collection span a range of tones: stately, humorous, ironic, affectionate, despairing. Finding exact words for each tone was the challenge. To settle on tone, I first had to settle on a reading. The poem “Early Spring” for instance, treats writer’s block, but the tone is quite different from that of other poems on the same subject. In everyday diction, the poet bemoans his mute tongue in the face of sap rising and time flowing; no classical allusions here, just bird twitter. The poem’s humor turns on the sudden excitement caused by a sudden break-in (line-break) of moles and the excited yammer of a bird auctioneer. The trick of tone hinges on simple word choice: “… nothing is happening / under this tongue Nothing / in a life which brings / one Thursday after another / unless I count the sudden break-in / of molehills on the lawn ….” My first translation attempt began with the high seriousness of a Coleridge-like phrase: “Time performs its ministries in time,” but the tone did not pair well with the moles and yammering birds a few lines down. I tried making use of the cognate that Goffette offers and also deliver the indefinite article signifying spring that he is playing with: “Un temps manœvre dans le temps” as in “A time maneuvers in time / which nothing can resist.” But Time in this poem is an irresistible charmer so I abandoned the stilted English of “maneuver” and made time a player: “A time is making its moves in time / which nothing can resist.” Ending the poem with the word “auction” has onomatopoeic punch, like a crow’s cawing; the original French ends with “la criée” (auction), which also replicates the sound of a bird, not a crow, perhaps a curlew. It’s rare to have a cross-over in exact word-sound music—but luckily the English “auction” serves the purpose here.
Lloyd Schwartz on “The Rehearsal”
Isn’t every poem in some way a “found” poem?
In January 2019, Emmanuel Music, one of my favorite venues for classical music in Boston, was planning a concert to celebrate the 80th birthday of the beloved Boston composer John Harbison, one of Emmanuel’s guiding spirits. The director of Emmanuel Music asked me if I would like to write something for John’s birthday, something the esteemed composer Michael Gandolfi would secretly set to music, then perform at the birthday concert as a surprise for John. I wanted to pay tribute to Harbison, and loved the idea of Gandolfi setting something of mine to music. But what would I write? What could I write? I knew that whatever I contributed had to be something both personal and heartfelt.
In the meantime, Harbison’s long-awaited book, What Do We Make of Bach?, had just been published, and I’d been devouring it. Although the book seemed to e a meditation on Bach, it was really an autobiography, the intensely personal story of Harbison’s life unfolding in tandem with his understanding of the composer he loved most.
I was particularly moved by the part about John meeting his wife, the violinist Rose Mary Harbison. At the end of that chapter, he writes about what it means to be an artist, about the cost of being an artist. This had special resonance for me. It’s a major theme running through my most recent poems. Suddenly, I “found” my perfect tribute. I saw it. I started arranging this passage from John’s book into lines, and the lines into stanzas. I changed some words. I was making—shaping—Harbison’s prose into a poem. My poem. And although most of the actual words in this poem are not mine, I think this is one of my most personal poems.
(Michael Gandolfi’s catalogue entry for his exquisite setting of “The Rehearsal”—a unique mixture of the spiritual and the doo-wop, for seven voices and piano—reads: Text by Lloyd Schwartz, adapted from John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? for Emmanuel Music in honor of John Harbison’s 80th birthday. Duration: 6′)