Eric Pankey on ‘Melancholia’ and “Trouble in Mind’:
These two prose poems, as with most the prose poems I have written over the past twenty years, were written to prompts generated by my graduate students in a course on the history of the prose poem. We read poems by Bertrand, say, or Stein, or Baudelaire, discuss their innovations upon the form. We all write prompts based upon what we see happening in the work before us, and then draft poems based upon a prompt by another class member. This fall I will publish my second collection of prose poems,Alias, poems that would not exist except for the elaborate constraints and challenges devised by my students.
Bruce Bond on ‘Book of Dolls 5’ and’ Book of Dolls 10’:
I started a book-length series of doll poems not long after I wrote a different series entitled Scar exploring trauma and the splintered psyche. That earlier poem took a lot out of me. There was a lot in there about our long negotiation with painful memory in a world of faces anxious to be read, considered, heard. So the dolls poems grew out a sustained interest in psychological transference as one of our fundamental problems and imaginative triumphs, one of our primary sources of play, empathy, misunderstanding, and abuse. While going deeper, interrogating the healing process, I wanted the tone of the book to be strikingly different, so I gave myself more license than usual to be funny-ha-ha in addition to funny-weird, less in these particular poems than others in the series. I wanted the kind of immanent distance that you find in dreams as gateways to the lost self. As I wrote, the notion of a doll morphed into transference objects more broadly understood—the memento, the fetish, the mirror, the pornography, the tomb—each a mirror and yet ghosted by a sense of the other side. Thus the doll was granted voice. It was there to intimate if not reveal something radically other, some portion of what we cannot see, there, beneath the surface, the part that connects and disconnects, in equal measure, our wounded past from the summons of the near at hand.
Peter Johnson on ‘A Nun to be Named Later’:
My poetic method tends to be improvisational. Wassily Kandinsky defines improvisation as “a largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character.” I guess that works, but that description has a certain “Woo, Woo, Woo” aura about it that really turns me off, as if the poet is this special person divinely chosen to tap into arcane forces your average sap isn’t up to. In fact, what I do with my brand of improvisation comes through hard work. I juxtapose images, along with real and fantastic events, trusting that both my imagination and intellect will work together to create something coherent. Spontaneity, yes, but also some kind of plan that only becomes clear to me after rewriting the poem thirty or forty times. Things are cut; things are added. This is nothing new, though I think the form of the prose poem lends itself nicely to this give-and-take
“A Nun to be Named Later” is about a real nun; it’s about my life-long, hopeless quest for truth and authenticity; and it’s about the disappointment in discovering that yet another grand narrative has bitten the dust. I didn’t know any of this of course until I wrote the prose poem and revisited it many, many times, trying as best as I could to let the poem find some meaning on its own. The nun is Sister Josepha, who in elementary school wouldn’t let me go to bathroom. She had been my third-grade teacher at St. Ambrose, where I witnessed her bloody a girl’s knuckles with a ruler and slam the metal swinging door of a bathroom stall into a boy’s face. So imagine my horror when, after we moved a few miles away, I walked into my fifth-grade class at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and discovered that Sister Josepha was not only teaching my class, but that she had an unnatural fascination for controlling my bodily functions. The Catholic Church was doing what it does best: hiding its more sadistic clergy by moving them around. Fortunately, it didn’t last long. Most Catholic parents of that time would’ve been afraid to challenge a nun, but not my mother. Wondering why I was unable to sleep at night and why I suddenly hated school, she got me to confess. The next day she appeared at school, unannounced, and a week later Sister Josepha mysteriously vanished from my waking and sleeping lives. Amen.
Floyd Skloot on ‘Elegy’ and ‘Brooklyn, 1957’:
“Elegy” and “Brooklyn, 1957” were written in the summer of 2017, just after I turned 70. They emerged close together, along with a couple of other poems, all looking back into the volatile world of my childhood, the pervasive sense of danger, the development of strategies for understanding and coping with what was going on. Looking at “Elegy” now, two years after I wrote it, I can see the poem as a kind of love sonnet to my brother, eight years older than me and sometimes my protector in those days. Especially since he died in the summer of 1997, exactly twenty years before I began writing the poem. “Brooklyn, 1957” was begun within earshot of the Pacific coast, where my wife and I have a small getaway place, and the sound of the surf reminded me of the similar sound from my childhood on the Atlantic coast.
Debra Nystrom on ‘Observatory at the Prison’:
This piece became prose partly because it felt almost like direct notation (yet it took years before I could write it)– but also because it seemed that there was so much going on in this confined space that it would be right to let it kind of bulge as if ready to explode, even though most of the details only indirectly suggest the level of emotional charge held in the yard, as the lives there were contained, observed, checked in every way. My brother, like so many guys in this “facility,” was there on a drug charge, stemming from circumstances still murky to all of us, and the faces of other prisoners and family members around us talking, joking, playing cards, smoking, eating vending-machine food, made it clear that even while we visitors were right there for a time with our fathers, sons, brothers– seeing and listening to them– we had no way of knowing what life inside was really like for them, just as they had no way of knowing what was or wasn’t true in what they heard from each other, from guards, even from us outsiders, helpful or soothing as our intentions might’ve been. Still, the searches they’d been through before receiving us, and would undergo again afterward, weren’t subtle, weren’t simply electronic, as ours had been. My hope in writing this was that the unspoken– within, beneath all the observed details– would be what registers with a reader as the most of what goes on inside a place as noisy as a prison, as I understand it from my brother, even when you get the chance of conversation with someone from outside.
Gardner McFall on “The Groundhog”:
I love animals for all the reasons Whitman lists in Section 32 of “Song of Myself” (and then some). However, a few years ago, a groundhog bedeviled me with its insatiable appetite for my garden. In desperation, I called a trapper to catch and humanely release the groundhog, in the woods far from my home. Later, I learned from the Humane Society, that relocating a creature to an unfamiliar locale is not, in fact, humane. I felt terrible, imagining the groundhog (a creature like any other) lost and probably easily plucked off by a predator. A few months later, at Yaddo in a studio that uncannily afforded a view of a groundhog burrow with its familial comings and goings, the emotional turbulence caused by the interaction with my groundhog occasioned this poem, a gesture of contrition and a reminder to leave nature alone, indeed protect it. The poem went through a number of revisions.
Richard Jones on ‘Blue Plaques’ and ‘Three Ballerinas’:
I was born in London in 1953, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation. My father, an American pilot stationed in England after the war, found us a little house on the west side of London in Eastcote. Times were difficult: food was rationed, parts of the city lay in rubble from the bombings, and the day could turn thick with the yellow “pea-soup” fog of coal smoke and mist that Eliot wrote about.
Memories of England are with me still, like dreams. I still have the three porcelain ballerinas. And my wife and I visit London when we can—we love the Blue Plaques!—and occasionally take the train to Eastcote to see the little house I was born in on Pavilion Way. The prose poems presented here gather those almost-lost bits and pieces of the past and preserves them in the only timeless vessel I know: poetry.
Alexander Dickow on ‘Old Lithographed Landscape’ and ‘Woolgathering’:
‘Woolgathering’ is an old term for daydreaming, presumably on the basis of the reveries of those responsible for shearing the sheep, but also reminiscent of watching the woolly clouds go by. This poem is an exercise in internal echos and tightly woven associative thinking; hence ‘marooned/merino’ (and ‘merino’ references the wool of the title), ears and listening and eavesdropping, etc. ‘Old lithographed landscape’ is inspired by the images of the nineteenth century, particularly those of popular literature. The dog “neglects to bay” in a Mallarmean gesture of presence in absence.
John Kinsella on ‘Western Spinebill Sighting and the Absence of Tim’:
Though Alfred Jarry’s ‘pataphysics’ lurks behind the banksias of this poem, really the question is: how does the western spinebill hold on in a narrow band of protected bushland that is being degraded by suburban overusage — leisure that erodes? Banksia blooms are unforgettable in all stages of their blooming, even in their death. The ‘crumbling banksia’ is sadly a comment on a death before its time as the eco-system comes under pressure from development, the colonial legacy. The noongar name is ‘Mangkatj’, and to learn more, go to Noongar Elder Neville Collard talking about them: http://whadjukwalkingtrails.org.au/media/swamp-banksia/.
Western spinebills (‘booldjit’ in Noongar language) are an exquisite honeyeater becoming less and less common. See: http://www.climatewatch.org.au/species/birds/western-spinebill. Same pressures as the banksias are affecting them, though the illnesses they suffer are different: their ‘intersectionality’ is being disturbed and destroyed. Tim, our son, is concerned about their fate, as he is the wellbeing of all birds and their habitat. He so wanted to see one that afternoon, but was at the Goethe Society (we came a long distance down from the country so he could attend), doing his language exercises. I took this poem to take the moment to him because he couldn’t be there, but also with critical scrutiny of the politics of colonial observation and invasiveness, which he’d expect.
The liminality of this poem is about the vagueness of hold on what is seen, and what rights ‘we’ (he and I) do and don’t have (largely don’t have) in seeing, and about the portending of weather and loss and vulnerability. What can the poem do in the face of the degradation of habitat, of the rights of banksia and spinebill? The rest is in the poem.
Afaa M. Weaver on “Salvation in B#”:
“Salvation in B#” is a bop, a form I created while teaching at Cave Canem in 1997, twenty two years ago. The form is explained elsewhere, including on the website of the Academy of American Poets, so I will not go into detail about the structure, except to say it is triadic and makes use of the golden mean, the latter which I studied during the years I was hoping to be something of a photographer. “In Salvation in B#,” I am looking at the landscape of Baltimore, where I was born sixty eight years ago, and the poem is part of a book project about the city. Addiction is a major problem in Baltimore, where the addict population is one of the largest in the country. I use the word “addict” in the larger recovery sense, which is to say alcoholism is an addiction, as well as certain compulsive eating disorders, etc. It all is rooted, I believe, in the “hole in the soul,” the place of deep spiritual hurt and loss many human beings experience. In the case of those addicted to substances and self-harm, I hope this poem comes across as an appeal for compassion, and in this appeal it speaks against the seemingly endless waves of criminalization that are projected onto those who suffer. We speak of the criminalization of African Americans, and that process is certainly more intense with them and other people of color, but extends in similarly tragic ways to whites. It is compassion that I hope the poem inspires, and not pity. Pity helps no one and is a poor motivator for developing public policy, I believe. Most importantly, I hope the poem achieves some literary transcendence, in that the sound of the language evokes and sustains a lyric’s musicality.