Cherene Sherrard on “Kiss and Tell, or the First Black Bachelorette” and “Wild Yeast”
“Wild Yeast” and “Kiss and Tell” are both from my manuscript-in-progress, Grimoire: a poetry collection responding to one of the earliest cookbooks published by an African American woman: Mrs. Malinda Russell’s A Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen (1866). With baking and parenting, you never know if a success or disaster is the result of the ingredients, the climate, your own effort or inadequacy. My sourdough starter has to be fed precisely at regular intervals or the enzymes and bacteria will die. Children’s incessant questions are another type of hunger.
“Wild Yeast” also includes stray echoes of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poetry, mirroring his ambivalent relationship to aesthetics and politics. How he struggled to balance demands of the market with those of the heart. It’s also about the many pressures poetry puts on the English language. Two lines from Dunbar’s poems, “When Malindy Sings” and “Dinah Kneading Dough” make an italicized appearance. After reading “Wild Yeast,” I hope you revisit his marvelous sense of rhyme and idiom.
You know how it’s hard to look away from a car accident? That’s how I felt watching the latest cycle of televised dating featuring an African American bachelorette. “Kiss and Tell” is a dark fairy tale celebrating the awkward victory of finally reaching the summit of a garbage heap. In each line, pleasure and disgust collide. The poet, like the viewer, is complicit in this delicious mess.
Christopher Buckley on Here & Now: at Miramar Point, Santa Barbara, CA
An essay— “Flat Serve”— several years back in my first nonfiction book, opened with the following paragraph:
“It was not divorce, nor business partners who stole him blind, nor the
fortune in real estate he should easily have made, nor the fact that he
just missed fame as a singer with a big band; it was surfing. Surfing
broke my father’s heart.”
My father wanted me to have a career in tennis and I showed promise at age 6, won local tournaments in my early teens, practiced every day after school and on weekends. But at 13 I started surfing and that took over. The tennis career fell behind, and even though I played for our city team, played in college and played tournaments, taught the game through my 20s, I missed those years of concentrated work and competition that might have got me on TV, or at least a job in a country club. Thank god. Surfing saved my life and gave me the space later to follow something as unpromising as writing poetry. And though I was not fully conscious of the transcendence of the experience at the time, it became clear to me as I started to write and think things through, how fortunate I was to be poor and unpublished instead of being anchored to a job of teaching how to hit a proper backhand for the rest of my days.
I am growing old by the sea in Santa Barbara. I go into the shops and reminisce looking at the old big boards—Yater, Bing, Velzey, Dewey Webber . . . I watch the kids surfing the small swells at one point or beach break or another and remember the moments, the synergy with the sea and waves, and that sends me into my usual debate of faith and doubt, and wonder at my time in the world.
Billy Collins on “Burial Arrangements”
Among other things, “Burial Arrangements” is a study in denial. The speaker has decided that for him death and burial are only temporary conditions and that he will be free to self-resurrect when ever he pleases. Now the choice of a burial place depends on the ease of exiting the cemetery that it offers, first, to the road leading into town, where he will resume his normal life, or better still (he thinks) to the woods in back where he can rejoice about his return to the living with only some woodland creatures to bear witness. Overall, it’s an odd premise, but working out the consequences brought with it the usual pleasures of composition. Now that I am bringing critical focus to bear on the poem, the third stanza with the coffee and apple pie probably was taken from a Jim Thompson novel featuring the sadistic sheriff, Lou Ford. In the penultimate stanza—the one with the chimpmunk—the ghost of Walt Disney must be present. I’ve loved the word “canticle” ever since I read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and there it is in the last line. And that leaves only the source of the “lovely woods” to mull over.
Stephanie Burt on “Kennedy”
“Kennedy” is an experiment with a highly confident voice and with intense exact rhymes (modeled slightly on Laura Kasische’s) and with explicitly erotic poetry, but it’s also a transformative work, spoken by a character from the seventh and last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Kennedy comes to Sunnydale from Long Island, from privilege, from a place of confidence, and her bossy manner (along with her striking eyebrows) win Willow’s heart. Most fans disliked this development as we were still pining for Tara, the first woman Willow loved, but Kennedy was honestly good for Willow, and this poem in Kennedy’s voice tries to show why: she’s also good for the show, and it’s good for all of us to listen to people who seem– to strangers– bossy, or full of themselves, especially if those people are pushing back against a culture that believes some voices, some topics, some points of view, are more important than others. What’s more important than slaying vampires, anyway? (Answer: love.)
Jo-Ann Mort on “Market Day”
This poem came to me while I was sitting at an outdoor concert in Prospect Park listening to the NY Philharmonic perform. My mind was wandering during the music and I began to finger my belt absentmindedly, until I started to think about the belt, and how someone dear to me bought it for me years ago, in Oaxaca, Mexico. I began to calculate the years that had passed and that number of years left me in awe. Then, came the story of the belt that became the story of a love affair and the sense of loss, of missing someone so important in my life. The belt carried me from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Oaxaca, Mexico, to the Adriatic and the village of Supetar on the island of Brac in Croatia. It was a very private memory because no one around me knew about this memory, or the person whom I was missing at that moment. It’s in private moments like these that poetry performs its magic. Lucky for me, I had my IPhone with me, so I was able to write the first few lines of the poem on my phone and also jot down some notes about where the lines would take me, but I didn’t know when I began the poem that the poem would end in the Adriatic with my friend’s ashes being strewn there. Yet, this seemed like the correct trajectory for the poem, which could also have been called “The Belt.”
Ernest Hilbert on “Amusements”
I spent my sixteenth summer slogging through infernal humidity, dumping maggot-specked garbage from the big, soupy cans along the landscaped walkways at Six Flags, Great Adventure amusement park. It paid minimum wage plus an extra quarter-an-hour due to the ghastly nature of the work, which involved sweeping up discarded tampons, dumping mounds of festering foodstuffs, and being drenched to the calf in goat piss beneath the massive groaning compactor. Beside all this, I was constantly monitored and disciplined for any moment of idleness under the scorching New Jersey sun. At day’s end, we showered layers of sweat and gunk off of ourselves in cavernous, echoing military-barracks showers.
Around that time, the park had seen a number of grievous wounds and even grisly deaths: The Haunted Castle burned down, immolating eight teenagers, as young as 14, and leaving many others with severe injuries; a woman died horribly as she plummeted from the top of the loop on the famed Lightnin’ Loops roller coaster. It was known that knifings and gunplay took place, and the park dispensed its corporate duty by covering up as much as possible. But we knew. We saw it all. From the start, my understanding of these sorts of thrill-ride amusements was one of very real danger, not simply the simulacra of it. We may enjoy the sensation of near-death experiences, knowing that we can place our trust in technology. We assume someone must know what’s going on. Not so. By the end of my time there, I was pressed into service running some of the rides, after having been required to sign a waiver assuming responsibility for injuries or deaths that might take place while I operated the ride. We received no training other than turn this key here and hit this button there, try to make sure the people are strapped in.
“Amusements” came quickly and naturally to me, decades after these events, as such poems often do. When asked how long it takes to write a poem, I’m sometimes tempted to answer “thirty years, kid.” The poem is partly about the uncontrollable aspect of thrill-seeking and indulgence, the perception that what seemed fun at first can’t be stopped and is getting out of control. By extension, the same sensation might occur to any of us after we’ve reached middle age and see that we’re at the top of the coaster, with wonderful sights to see, and so much learned, and then remember what we always knew but hardly noticed: That the cold iron bar locks us in at the waist; our shoulders are pinned; the car is out of our control; there’s no way out; and it has to drop—there’s no stopping it.
Danielle DeTiberus on “Disseminate”
I am compelled by the long history of fruit as a metaphor. Our desire for sweet fruit has deep, ancient roots. So much of religion and art depends upon a red apple, stolen pomegranate seeds, the first strawberry of spring. Fruit kept appearing in my work, and I wrote this to try to figure out why. I love thinking about fruit as a conduit, as a means of survival. In this way, this poem is also a kind of ars poetica. Poetry, too, casts out a wide net in hopes of persisting. My poem needs you in order to take root. We need each other. That interdependency reveals something about how to endure.
Jim Daniels on GOING OUT STAYING IN
This poem started out as a reflection back on the first time I stopped drinking, when I was in high school. I remember sitting in my parents’ house watching TV on a Saturday night when a carload of my drinking buddies pulled up in the driveway and flashed their lights and blew the horn, incredulous that I wasn’t coming out to join them. Then, flash forward forty years and being content with where I’m at now. Structurally, this is part of a series of sonnet-like poems. This one is thirteen instead of fourteen because I wanted to leave a line of the empty silence there at the end.
Marilyn Kallet on “Trespass” and “Dante Confidential”
Can an enemy become a muse? Certainly the poem-killing voice that aims to shut down the creative process in “Trespass” is a foe to poetry. Who is this censor, the “she” who tells our poet that she shouldn’t write about a beautiful young friend? The poem-assassin was a real person, a member of a poetry workshop decades ago; she commanded me not to write about a topic that she felt was off-limits. I learned a valuable lesson then. When that voice arises, that censor’s cry––write on! Writing a poem about a charged or controversial subject doesn’t mean one has to broadcast the lyric. But we must write what’s in us. And then choose our audiences wisely.
Writing passionately about my poet-friend who suffered a near-fatal blood clot felt like handling lightning. Before submitting the poem to Plume, I sent it to my friend to make sure there would be no sense of violation. Bless his heart, he told me he was honored. We have become better friends since I shared the taboo poem.
Couplets suggest a love story. And the last couplet, with its wry reference to a lying Verlaine, casts some doubt on our reliable narrator. Just a friend? Really?
Maybe all poems are “breaking silences” poems. This one caused some glass to shatter, walls to crumble, and a bond between poets of different ages to strengthen. Our poem is also about trusting the reader.
In “Dante Confidential,” another Muse tries to shut down the poet. This time, my old friend Dante Alighieri speaks out. His being dead has never been an obstacle to our dialogue. My previous book, The Love That Moves Me, includes many visitations from Dante and Beatrice. My main fear at the start of that work was that Dante would speak to me in Italian, and I would understand about as much as if a duck confided in me. Never fear, Dante and Beatrice kindly spoke in the American Idiom. In this poem, Dante offers both poetry and love advice: “You need too much time with him.”
I argue with Dante in this poem. Having just heard a TED Talk about beauty and survival, I press for more time near the beloved. The banter in our couplets winds up with one serious notification––and hopefully with a touch of wit. The last three lines of the poem are all monosyllables that punctuate and puncture the romance with laughter and rhythmical rat-a-tat.
Carol Kner on “Invitation to the Dance” and “Pieces of us Keep Breaking Off “
Both of these poems were written in response to the awful fallibility of people whom I loved. I wrote “Invitation to the Dance” after we–my nieces, my brother-in-law, and my daughter–had gathered around my sister’s hospital bed and decided to take her off life support. After she died, however, we noticed that they had forgotten to disconnect the SCD (Sequential Compression Device) boots and her feet continued to do an eerie little dance.
I wrote Pieces of us Keep Breaking Off after an especially trying night with my husband who struggled with Parkinson’s Disease. We both struggled, and though he suffered from the kind of dementia that accompanies that affliction, he realized on some level that he wasn’t himself, and said to me one day, “Pieces of us keep breaking off.” That phrase seemed to encapsulate the frustration that had begun to disturb what had been a happy 55-year marriage.
Elizabeth Jacobson on “Notes On Desire”
This poem is part cento, part observation— essentially jerry-rigged from several sources— and one in a series of poems I’ve been working on which considers desire through example. I think the poem originated from what became the second stanza as it’s likely there were eight of us in a room talking about desire during a weekly salon where we study Chan koans. Although, almost every time, each poem I write happens in a different way, the collage or composite style poems have a similar evolution— a puzzle board materializes with several pieces missing, and then pieces are found: Online in the Science Times, between the pages of Harper’s Magazine, among the rustlings of genuine mating mockingbirds in a tropical tree.
Adam Tavel on “A Convalescent Bed in a Field of Yellow Tulips”
“A Convalescent Bed in a Field of Yellow Tulips” is both an elegy and anti-elegy that reimagines a scene of physical recovery, substituting a field in early spring for the clinical aridness of a hospital room. I dedicate the poem to Danny Lawless, my friend and the esteemed editor of Plume, since we both endured a period of successive griefs when the poem was written in late 2017.