Maureen Seaton on “Heretical Physics”:
“Heretical Physics” changed shape dramatically several times before it landed on the pages of PLUME. Maybe I shouldn’t give it away, but I kind of want to because it’s the first time I ever wrote a sestina only to refashion it completely out of its form. Why? Because my little weekly writing group doesn’t like sestinas, that’s why. They do like prose poems, however, so that Friday last July I gave them a choice between a formal sestina and the same sestina spread out verbatim in a huge 5 inch square block. They predictably preferred the block, of course, but I wasn’t happy with it yet, so I took it home (well, I was already home on zoom) and pondered how to give the square block more air, which was the main thing it was missing, in my opinion. And voila: couplets. Definitely a case of a poem choosing its own form or a poem being coerced by peer pressure into choosing. The couplets worked well for me and the poem, though, and I don’t think I had to change anything from the original sestina. I’m not sure if it’s still a sestina at heart, but, in any case, here are the six endwords, in case that feels more interesting to you than to my writing group. I like them a lot, which is a story for another day, maybe even another sestina: subatomic, seamless, self, soul, spin, and synchronicity.
Rachel Hadas on “Thanksgiving Near Cape Coast” & “Pine Cones”:
Poems can function as journal entries or almanacs – at least mine can, and I know I’m not alone. I’m always a bit surprised at how many of my poems specify a season, a month, weather, and sometimes, though less often, a place. Such poems are evidently my way of both remembering and processing not so much an event, though maybe that too, as a mood.
In late November 2019, back when travelling was easy, my husband and I spent a week or so in Ghana. It was my second trip – we’d been there in 2016 – and Shalom’s fourth. As we had on our previous trip, we spent time in Accra and then in Kumasi; but this time was my first visit to the slave forts.
Furthermore, this time we were an entourage: we were accompanied by my stepdaughter, her husband, their nearly three year-old daughter, the child’s paternal grandmother, and two students at Ramapo College, where my husband teaches. After a few days at KNUST, the university in Kumasi where we had many friends, the van that had brought us from Accra to Kumasi took us to Cape Coast. After the blazing heat of the forts, the jungly walk to the Last Bath, and hours bumping along slow roads, we drove as it was getting dark, through pounding rain, to a hard-to-find little hotel at a place called Brenu Beach, on the Gulf of Guinea, where we spent Thanksgiving. Little Camilla playing in the sand as we dined by moonlight (the rain had stopped) on the warm shore; the proximity of the ominous forts, white against the bright blue sky; the burden of history, the vividness of the tropical colors, which worked themselves into my dreams and painted my memories; the uncomfortable juxtaposition of an American holiday and the vivid stain of slavery – all these glimpses or sensations are what the poem tries to capture without dwelling too much (as I just have) on details.
“Pine Cones” also refers to a season: early spring, while the trees are still bare. The place was Vermont, the time April 2020. Like many others in March and April of 2020, we’d decamped from the city to a place that was presumably safer from the virus. Or was it? The “absolute not knowing” with which “Pine Cones” begins and ends refers to all kinds of uncertainty. I think in those days I feared a tree I brushed against might be infectious – and I wasn’t alone. People were afraid to touch their mail; people scrubbed bananas before peeling them. But fear is so tiring, so consuming, so unhelpful! “Pine Cones” is about ways to escape or dispel fear, and about the way fear vanishes and returns. It’s about wishing Camilla, whom I’d barely seen since our trip to Ghana a few months before, were with me. It’s also a poem about the severe, hushed beauty of our cold hill in Vermont, although this poem might be about almost any hill in April, any pine cones. And like “Thanksgiving Near Cape Coast,” “Pine Cones” helps me to remember a specific time and place: how it felt to be there then.
Betsy Sholl on “The Cocoon” & “Morning’s Only Yellow”:
I feel like these two poems don’t have much in common except for the fact that they were both triggered by experiences that have lingered in my mind for years. In “The Cocoon” it was that preacher and what he said. I tried to stick pretty close to the single story and hoped to capture a little of the surprise and humor. In “Morning’s Only Yellow” one of the threads that has haunted me was watching those two men and the newborn baby. But, given the supermarket setting with its endless display of products, that poem took on more detail, a larger cast of characters. Somewhere along the way the issue of language came to the forethe contrast between a dearth and abundance of language. I have to say the neighbor boy surprised me when he came into the poem and broke my heart with his inability to express his longing and need in any way that might allow it to be fulfilled.
Marilyn Kallet on “Letters from Earth & Sky”:
On March 18, 2020, cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed from his “Comfort Songs,” on PBS. He encouraged others to create their own comfort songs during the pandemic. I started a daily series and composed “Letters from Earth & Sky” about a month into the practice. Lou and I were taking the quarantine seriously––we rarely left the house, except to go for neighborhood strolls or to walk to the mailbox. April means dogwoods in Knoxville. After rain, the driveway path to the mail was strewn with petals. I “read” the fallen petals and found them reassuring. In this correspondence with nature, I could hear William Stafford’s refrain from “Assurance”: “…you’re not alone.” His poem ends, “The whole wide world pours down.” In its connectedness to the natural world, my poem links to the Romantics, to contemporary Romantic, Brenda Hillman and to Symbolist poetry. Baudelaire wrote, “La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers / Laisse parfois sortir de confuses paroles…” “Nature is a temple where living pillars / Sometimes allow confused words to slip out…” His “Correspondances” was the first French poem I memorized, 1967, at the Sorbonne. When I recited “Correspondances,” the kind pronunciation professor said, “Ça commence à se mettre en place, Mademoiselle.” “It’s getting there, Miss.” More than a half-century later, I’m still trying! Poetry comforts in a perilous time.
James Davis May on “The Mending Wall”:
Robert Frost was my gateway drug, the poet who made me fall in love with poetry, but I got a little too dependent on him in college. One day, I turned in a sonnet that used the word “Hark” not once but twice, without an ounce of irony, and my professor, Christopher Bakken, wisely advised me to put Frost away for a while. I did, for a decade or so. After my first book came out and “hark” appeared nowhere in the manuscript, I figured it was safe to go back. When I reopened my dog-eared and graffitied copy of Frost’s collected, I was, and continue to be, struck by how ambiguous the poems are, how well they end while still resisting closure, a surprising quality when I think about how much the poet loved aphorisms.
This poem combines my paying homage to (and borrowing from) the stone wall on Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire with a story from my twenties about finding my neighbor on the porch our apartments shared. She had been shot through the jaw by her boyfriend and, somehow, managed to drive herself home. Holding her and then flagging down the ambulance was an intense, scary moment—Was she going to make it? Was her boyfriend on the way?—one that still haunts me. Until that point, I didn’t know her, and never really would. Drawing on Frost for guidance, I’ve tried to use my poem to understand what that moment might mean, how barriers can be both permeable and impenetrable.
Samuel Cheney on “Butchery”:
My grandfather raises cattle in his backyard. He lives in a little mountain town near the Utah-Idaho border. His P.O. Box is number 13. Every fall, a couple cattle are butchered, and the meat is prepared and distributed to all of his children and his children’s children. The butchery is such a violent, shocking spectacle, but part of the landscape of the place. It’s also an act of such precision and professionalism as to come near to grace.
The form of the poem is inspired by Michael Longley’s clipped stanzas of the early ’90s. “Butchery” is dedicated to my grandpa.
Anna Maria Hong on “Solstice,” “Seven Questions (Private/Public),” and “A Fable”:
These poems were all composed during the early months of the pandemic, when like many people, I found myself taking frequent solitary walks for solace and diversion. I’ve also been living in small towns in rural New England for the last two and a half years, enjoying ready access to hikes in nature with ever more present wildlife and with few human beings. The experience of walking inevitably started to blend with my practice of writing during this time. Although I have a long abiding interest in animals and folktales, I’d never been pastorally oriented before, so these poems inhabit a departure from previous emphases in my writing, which has also, I think, become more ruminative, not consciously poems about the pandemic but informed nonetheless by the extremities of crises and embracing writing and walking as ways to keep moving.
Greg Sendi on “Missa Corona Spinea”:
“Missa Corona Spinea” represents one of those moments in poetry writing where lots of things come together to define the shape of an idea that would be hard to say in plain talk. Among those things is the idea of “negative space,” the images created by the places between things, like when the silhouettes of two people facing each other show a fancy goblet in relief. In its own way, the piece is itself trying to paint a picture indirectly, by spraying perceptions and images around our strange, strange time to examine, in a manner of speaking, the image created by the stencil. The poem is named for and tries to mirror a 16th century choral work (“Mass on the Crown of Thorns”) by the Tudor era composer John Taverner, a work so spectacularly beautiful that it may indirectly have contributed (via Henry VIII’s weird narcissism) to the end of the Catholic church in England. I began thinking about it in the parking lot of a strip mall in Macomb, Michigan during the frightening early days of the current pandemic when we still weren’t sure whether football stadiums would need to be converted into ventilator wards to accommodate the sick and dying. Like the mass (or maybe more like a burlesque of the mass), the poem tries to give a ritual shape to the idea that by directing toward forgiveness and self-forgiveness a disciplined thread of music and language (the poem is a single more or less grammatical sentence), peace is possible. Or at least rest. To be clear, I am not nor have I ever been Catholic.
Judy Katz on “Like California” & “The Other Hemisphere”:
I’ve often wondered why bare walls, a comfortable chair and some natural light draw me like a magnet. This poem began as a journal entry — noticing the sounds around me, luxuriating in them on a summer morning that happened to be my mother’s birthday. I realized that the room itself brought a kind of clarity and calm. It was almost like being in a floatation tank, where, I’m told, the water temperature is set to match your outer skin’s, so you feel as if the boundary between your body and the water disappears. This blurring of inside and outside reminded me of a recent trip to California, where my friend’s garden felt like an extension of her home. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to the permeability between this world and the next.
“The Other Hemisphere”
This poem set out to explore one very particular feature of a trip I took with my husband to visit our daughter in Chile : why did we keep comparing Chile to other places we’d visited? And why did this seem to irritate our daughter so much? The memory of it was both funny and not funny; it nagged me long after the trip. In the opening line of the poem, I admit that Chile “dumbed us” — both in the sense of leaving us with nothing to say, and in the sense of making us stupid. Could my husband and I not see what was distinct about this place? Were our comparisons to L.A. and New Mexico just a form of mental laziness? It took writing the poem to help me understand that my daughter’s experience of travel at 22 is different than mine at 60. What she needs is to discover a new world — landscape, smells, customs, people. The thrill of something never before seen! I’m sure I must have felt the same way at that age. What I need now, it appears, is to bring my store of images and experience with me and continually hold the old up against the new. The discovery in the poem for me was that this mental matchmaking too has its thrills…like catching a glimpse of my mother, who I haven’t seen in 30 years, in the market in Argentina. How could a 22 year old possibly know this? She can’t. She shouldn’t.