Heather Altfeld on “The Island to Remind You of Your Childhood”
About ten years ago, I decided to teach my young daughters to fish. We cranked up our 1991 Volvo station wagon and went in search of a primitive campground in the Trinity Alps. At a store near Coffee Creek, a woman offered to show my girls how to split-shot their lines. As she bit down on the tiny sinkers, she told us that she watched her grandfather, a resident of the drowned town Trinity Center, crawled into a cellar to hide when the Trinity Dam filled because he didn’t want to leave his home.
I could not get the image of the grandfather out of my head. I spent months reading about the global phenomenon of drowning whole towns with the construction of “water projects.” I learned that in 1959, to build the Xin’anjiang Reservoir in China, they flooded the valley with water. One of the islands that remained was named “The Island to Remind You of Your Childhood.” This seemed an apt metaphor for the approximately four million people displaced each year due to “water-development projects,” which consume not only physical structures, but homelands, languages, cultures—the topography of one’s childhood memories. Even the dead cannot be visited when buried deep beneath these man-made lakes.
Sally Bliumis-Dunn on “Fable” (Bird) and “Fable” (Squirrel), and “Elegy”
“Fable” (Bird) and “Fable (Squirrel) are the first two poems in a series of twenty fables, each with a conflation of human and animal psyche. The idea for this series came from reading about psychologically damaged parrots who focused all their flocking instinct on a single new and kinder owner. I thought, well if parrots can behave towards a single human as though she/he were an entire flock, then the border between animal and human behavior could be deliciously blurry.
“Elegy” was written a month or two after my mom died. The poem did not start out as an elegy. I was in Maine by the water watching the incoming tide. The visual image of the brass cylinder came to me and the rest just followed.
Gregory Orr on “Getting Old, Thinking of Keats”
Keats’ work was one of my first loves when I was young and I still feel that way about the poems and his amazing letters. Lately, I’ve realized that one of my preoccupations is language itself—how words (the pleasure and the mystery of them) unfold in lyric. Specifically, at least with this poem, how they enter and become part of someone else’s experience. Not as if I have any original ideas about this topic, but the poem tries to evoke the phenomenon and at the same time work with the vowel music that Keats loved. Like a lot of my poems, I’ve written a couple of hundred versions of this poem over the course of a dozen years. It’s still not right, but that’s ok; it’s been fun trying.
Laure-Anne Bosselaar on POSTCARD WITH A CITY’S AERIAL VIEW AT NIGHT
I have always been incorrigibly tempted to look into lit windows – voyeur that I am. I’m one to be perpetually curious and transfixed by the millions of lives around me: how we all survive, thrive, despair, love, create, travel, work, eat, sleep, dream. And about our courage and secrets, our fervors and disappointments, our thousand resiliencies. And on and on. So that, when I bought an aerial postcard of New York taken from the skies over Brooklyn, I wondered if, at the very moment the photographer took the photo, I could have busy being alive, right there, behind one of those lit windows.
Helen Bournas-Ney on “Venice is Sinking” and “Window Shopping”
“Venice is Sinking”
The starting point of “Venice is Sinking” involved the images found in the last stanza: the crack in the cup and the lack of flowers shining on the table. I had written this in a poem I started about twenty years ago. I associated these images, which might seem sad at first glance, with a kind of happiness and freedom because they suggested a move away from perfectionism – that is, things didn’t have to be “just so” for one to feel complete. When my family recently took a long-planned trip to Italy, we had a wonderful and very hyper gondolier who told us the dreadful scenario of what was going to happen to Venice AND who then proceeded to belt out “Volare.” This feeling of a joyful imperfection then popped up for me once more, and I knew these images from long ago had finally found their home. The first lines of my poem were hard-won (and included my trying to re-imagine or re-hear my gondolier by listening to various crooners, like Dean Martin, etc., singing “Volare”!), but the fact that I was traveling toward that last stanza kept me going.
I have always loved window shopping – just seeing the parade of “costumes” and objects (sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre or over-the-top, but always interesting and feeding the senses) as I passed by New York City’s store windows. In my family, as in so many immigrant homes, extra money was scarce, so we all grew up knowing that after the basics were taken care of, everything else was usually a wish. . . . I always felt that window shopping was enough though – because once I looked long and deeply at something, it felt like mine, innerly. I could also engage in a kind of visual or imaginative “dress-up” play without even entering the store. At times it even felt liberating and a bit magical to know that these things I saw could be “mine” for free – without the hows and whys of buying them, and then without the weight of actually possessing them. It was all part of a virtual delight.
Carolyn Guinzio on Template
Where I live, the sight of a skink leaving its tail behind is common. The idea of casting something— or someone— off in service of survival is terrifying and makes for a gripping story. The one I was thinking of in Template is from My Antonia, where a wedding party on a sled in Russia is pursued by a pack of wolves. Members of the party are sacrificed to them one by one.
Goodwill stores are one of those places where we go to see what others have cast off. How does the knife-thrower’s board end up there? And how do you part with a possession as intimate as a part of your own body?
No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the tail, separated from its owner, still writhing in the grass, never fails to fill me horror and awe. It’s as if the skink’s body, as a whole, is a mere suggestion of how to be, a template.
Donald Revell on “Catafalque”
When, on September 3rd of last year, I received the news of John Ashbery’s death, I heard quite clearly, and in John’s own voice, a simple phrase from “In the Time of Pussy Willows,” one of the finest of his later poems:
“Angel, come back please.”
In Ashbery’s poetry, death is always a conversation between angels divided against themselves by the lonesome catastrophe of death. And so I wrote the word “angel” onto a slip of paper—a restaurant receipt, I think—and the rest of the poem poured forth into the sudden gap, the aching divide.
I first read Ashbery in 1973, deep inside his own geography of western New York State. I was on the steps of one of those small, beautiful Carnegie public libraries scattered throughout the region. A teacher had told me that Ashbery was ‘difficult”, and so I checked out The Double Dream of Spring. Every poem seemed to be a letter from home, and I was spellbound. I still am. And now the lacustrine and riverine geography of one particular heaven is his forever, and I’m not there.
Nin Andrews on “The Only One”
I wrote this poem in honor of Yannis Ritsos’s poem, “The Third One,” which is the first poem I ever fell in love with, and it remains one of my favorite poems ever written . . .
I can still remember the day I read it—I was in ninth grade, working after school at The New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville, Virginia when the owner of the bookshop handed me a collection of Yannis Ritsos poems and said, I think you might like this book. I don’t know why he picked Yannis Ritsos out for me. I didn’t even care for most poetry back then. I thought that listening to my English teacher read poems aloud was about as appealing as listening to a dentist drill. But I flipped the book open and began to read, and suddenly I felt as if the whole world had changed colors. As if there were magic in the world after all. Or at least there was magic in Ritsos’s words.
In composing my poem, “The Only One,” I attempted to mirror Ritsos’s poem, to metaphorically address that experience of reading “The Third One,” of moving, or being moved from the abstract to the personal, of losing oneself to another or to the world. It is that kind of transition I long to experience when reading or writing a poem, or even when just living my daily life, even if it involves a great loss or a personal catastrophe.