Christopher Buckley on “Existential” and “Refugee”:
Both of these poems are from a new book, The Consolations of Science & Philosophy, due from Lynx House Press in 2022, the title pushing a heavy cart of irony. . . .
“Existential” is a subject I’ve taken up in the past, but beyond the facts and historical bits, I revisited it following the death of my wonderful friend and great poet Peter Everwine in 2018. Despite the questions I proposed, Peter was comfortable in his wisdom and appreciation of humanity, his time on earth, and had an amazing and inclusive generosity of spirit while acknowledging all the ironies in play. The poem rests on a frequent metaphysical question—is there a there, there?
“Refugee” approaches the question from a slightly different angle, and is about an aesthetic refugee, not so much the poor souls who find themselves at drift in the world today. It admits to the struggles and influences pulling at one early in life before moving through middle age to a landscape of loss—comrades mainly—that eventually comes to us all. Charles Wright said “All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation.” I’ve lined up behind that banner since the first time I read it.
Doug Ramspeck on “the midwest sheds its skin”:
Before retiring and moving to Black Mountain, North Carolina, I taught for twenty-one years at The Ohio State University at Lima. Where I lived—just outside of town in corn and soybean country—I could drive for miles and see only Trump signs. My congressional representative was Jim Jordan. My students at the college were uniformly wonderful, but the politics of the area were more than a little unnerving. I suppose, in my mind, I was witnessing firsthand the growing midwestern sense of being left out and left behind. My poem—“the midwest sheds its skin”—is my attempt to capture that malaise.
Peter Johnson on “Truscon, A Division of Republic Steel, 1969-70″: A Prose-Poem Sequence Disguised as a Lyrical Essay, Itself Aspiring to Be a Fictional Memoir”:
I’ve always had mixed feelings about memoirs, especially ones that suggest how someone became a writer. Most of them are self-absorbed, mean-spirited, or whiny. So imagine my surprise when I decided to write about my one year working in a manufacturing division of Republic Steel. At the time, I knew I needed a hybrid form to merge scraps of the familial, personal, historical, cultural, and literary influences that have made me who I am. I ended the first draft with what I thought were unconnected fragments of prose, but, as I read and reread the whole thing, a pattern emerged, connections were made, and an order was decided upon, after which I added a few more sections. This improvisational strategy wasn’t conscious. It reflects the way I process experience.
Is this memoir “true?” I think the reliability of memory must be questioned in all memoirs, especially ones told by old guys. All too often old guys end up being the heroes of their stories. They are more handsome, or smarter, and certainly sexier than they were in real life. I’m talking about that old-guy terrain where reality and the imagination collide before agreeing to coexist with each other.
So of course this memoir is true, except for the sections that aren’t, which, in their own way, are the truest of them all.
David Keplinger on “Pomade”:
My grandfather was a barber for sixty years, starting from the late Depression until the late 1980s, in a struggling city to the north of Philadelphia. I have pictures of him standing in the same pose, over what seems to be the same anonymous customer, across the decades of his life, aging or getting young again before my eyes. I’ve held onto many of his things. In a can of pomade I discovered a fossilized thumbprint of a child. It could be my own thumb from the early 1970s. The print has a mournful quality, like the skeleton of archeopteryx set into rock, an unreachable past caught flapping toward the future. My grandfather’s pictures, like the thumb, leave imprints of a self existing everywhere, but not anywhere for very long at all.
Dennis Samson on “Sources and Outcomes” and “Through The HospitalCorridor”:
That poem of mine SOURCES AND AND OUTCOMES…there is an atypically gentle line in a poem by James Dickey where that line lives. I have thought about that line for years and this particular poem of mine crawled up out of the grave of my unconscious some four or five years ago with that line in mind. I could go on about beginning middle and end here but I won’t. The other poem…there is a late poem by the magnificent poet Louise Bogan that speaks to her times in the asylum…it is as if this poem were written by mistake or by someone else…it is methodical and prosaic and exquisitely attentive…she owes much of this bizarre poem to Auden…but who cares. I wish I could remember the title.
When my father was dying in hospital I would go to see him…and walking that corridor I heard the voices referred to in my poem. Death is never more imminent than it is in the 6th floor of a hospital room for the elderly and that sense of an ending often inspires panic. That’s a fact. But there is of course a hell of a lot more to the story about being alive for a little while on this earth of ours.
Anita Gopalan on translating “Nail”:
What attracted me to the poem “Nail” was the internal energy in its simple external reality. Geet Chaturvedi’s poems think with images. They often look deceptively simple, tempting the translator to misread and translate superficially, which could result in diminished potency or even triteness. I also want to mention, in the grammatical structure of the Hindi language, verbs are placed toward the end that frequently balance a sentence.
The approach I took for the translation was building a balance between language and sensation and letting my own voice create the energy and rhythm. The ‘flowing’ form seemed a natural choice. At the time I was also reading Celan in Hamburger translation, the clear and evocative language strangely helped me to almost imagine the words of this interesting poem in English.
Patrick Whitfill on “Acne”:
There was this tuba player back in high school, John something, who was pigeon-toed. Our band director, Mr. Hurt, screamed at him every morning for ruining the lines during marching practice. The trick with doing okay marching band work is to step exactly where you should at exactly the right time, to move collectively as individual units. Like an infection. Or enough like an infection. I gave that John guy a hard time, too, but not for his gait. He’d only wear sweaters and shorts, no matter the weather. Sweaters and shorts. Or maybe that was Josh, from the tennis team. Either way, it’s what I think about when I think about back then: trying not to stand out, standing out anyway. “ACNE” comes from all that, I think. Somewhere in all that, too, it’s just an apology to that John guy. To everyone from back then, really.
Adrienne Su on “How to Cut a Pineapple”:
I’m no longer capable of cutting a pineapple in the wasteful way I once did. Sometimes, under time pressure, I try to convince myself that doing so wouldn’t dishonor my forebears, but it’s still a struggle because my forebears had a point: it’s better not to waste food if you can help it. Why can’t I just get on with my day, I wonder. The poem is the closest I can get to resolution.
Steve Kronen on “Bee Line”:
In an essay I was reading over breakfast, a character makes “a bee line,” indicating, of course, a straight, efficient path. It’s a curious term as a bee’s path is anything but straight. The glitchy phrase generated the poem’s various incongruities as well as the popular truism of identical snowflakes, in this case, falling across a manichean Berlin Wall. I included, too, the very peculiar, “head over heels” – meant to denote an ebullient upside-downness but which, if read correctly, speaks only of good posture.
Halfway through writing “Bee Line,” the nearly exact homonym “belie” suggested itself. This seemed right in a poem about miscommunications and misheard truths, and I thought the poem might be onto something. I ended it with the supposedly pacific, “sleep… like a baby” which, if anyone has ever had a baby or been one, we know is a misnomer.
The poem was also a sort of test for me as I tend to default to sonnets and other forms, and I worry sometimes that I’ve barred myself from free verse poems.
Andrea Lingenfelter on “Beipei, Low Water, Winter 1985”:
In between my MA and PhD, I spent a year in Sichuan teaching advanced English to a group of high school teachers at Southwest China Teacher’s University. The university was in Beipei, which at the time was a bumpy and sometimes hair-raising hour and a half car ride to the city of Chongqing. Beipei itself, then a small town of 100,000, sits on the banks of the Jialing River, upriver from Chongqing proper, which lies at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangzi rivers. In order to qualify for free housing as a couple, my boyfriend and I had to pretend to be married. We lived in the “Foreign Experts’ Building,” a four-story, six-apartment residence inside a walled compound. The compound gates were locked at night. The apartments were on the upper floors, and the ground floor was divided into two sides. On one side, there was a lounge with a television and communal telephone, and across the hall was the Waiban, or Foreign Affairs Office. This office was staffed by four people, who were responsible for our welfare and who monitored us closely. Our students and all other visitors had to sign in with the Waiban before being allowed upstairs. Due to the political climate, our movements were restricted as well. We had privileges as foreigners, but because we were also kept separate by design, we often felt isolated. That said, many of our students, who came from all over Southwest China, regarded Beipei as a rural backwater, cut off from the world.
Li Ping was a kinesiology major who specialized in track and field. My boyfriend liked to run around the track in the early mornings, and one morning he struck up a conversation with her. He wanted to interview Li Ping for a planned book project, but his Mandarin was limited and he needed me to interpret. She became a frequent visitor to our apartment. After the second or third visit, my boyfriend lost interest and would retreat to another room, but Li Ping kept coming over to hang out. Sometimes we took walks. It was a mile to town and another mile down to the river. There was a place north of the docks where you could hop down the embankment and sit in the sand. The hillsides surrounding Beipei were full of citrus orchards, and from October through April we enjoyed wave after wave of different varieties of oranges and tangerines.
Because of her privileged background, Li Ping felt like an outsider. Her parents sent a monthly allowance that was equal to the teaching salaries of most of my students. Raised in a military compound in Kunming, she had access to censored publications that ordinary people could never read. She was full of confidence and had a bright future, but her brothers had not been so lucky. Members of a lost generation whose opportunities to attend college had been wiped out by the Cultural Revolution, they were very bitter. At least one of them earned his living as a driver, which at the time was a prestigious job, since there were very few cars on the road, and almost none of them were private. Nonetheless, that sort of work was poor consolation for not having a college degree. Li Ping’s brothers liked to crack irreverent jokes, many of them about Lao Mao (“Old Mao”). Sitting on the riverbank that day eating tangerines with Li Ping and looking at the grooves carved in the bank, I was acutely aware of the hardships that many people had experienced over the centuries and in recent decades as well. I thought about the way that history has no compassion, nor does it remember the millions of people on whose bodies the achievements of the renowned have been built. The last line of the poem is literal and metaphorical. A lot of local people didn’t know how to swim, and every summer when the water was high people would drown. Metaphorically, the waters of politics have been treacherous since time immemorial.
I wrote a draft of this poem many years ago, when I had no one to show it to. At one point I ran it past a strict formalist who objected to what he referred to as “stepped lines.” I set it aside for over a decade. Then, during the pandemic lockdown, I found and worked with a poetry mentor, Heather June Gibbons. She liked this poem but said she wanted more context. In response, I added a couple of lines to the second stanza. That made all the difference, and I was fortunate in having a group of new readers who affirmed the changes I’d made.
Helen Pruitt Wallace on “Paying a Blind Man to Wash and Wax My Car”:
Who was I then, a crazed young mother of a toddler (ringing phone, yapping dog, spilled coffee) who never considered ignoring her doorbell–much less turning the man away?
And when he finished (from my door) the car looked great. These days, anything one-sided seems suspect. I think the decision to tweak this narrative into its eventual sonnet form came from an urge for compression. Like water through a spigot.