I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?
From its readers: a scrap of linen, a bone, “an oversized musical score,” with its “Southern cadences and at least a decade of Texas“ in “rich, ever-focused poems,” with “such clarity and emotional courage” they “hit the mark” in a “rich voice and discerning sensibility,” a “lived past that invests worn objects with the sheen of meaning”—a “luminescence.”
How did you come upon the subject of your book?
Any poem I wrote always intended to point to what’s in the landscape and the people and the birdsong and every natural thing—the acorns, the orchid, the purple peas and butterbeans, those “ameria maritime, cleft-clinging, paper-thin pinks and stark whites”—a stubborn resilience to shine, to plant in the world the mark of everything out there that made its mark on me.
And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?
The first iteration of this manuscript was titled “in all this hurt air,” a line from the poem “Mandatory Evacuation,” but as soon as I wrote “The Failure of Archaeology,” I knew part of the world’s historical document was up to me, that
will inch by inch
to a bracelet, a scrap
of linen, a bone and write
the story without us—
and they would, inevitably, of course, get it wrong. The day I put those words on paper, I scratched through that other title and penciled in a scrap of linen, a bone.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.
The most difficult thing, hands down, (and I bet you’ve heard this one before) was ordering the poems which meant deciding what to leave in and what to leave out. There were those darlings, of course, that I had to be convinced didn’t belong here, and I went down hard on some of those decisions. I rearranged the manuscript a dozen or more times, the pages strewn, as poets will do, all over the floor, the bed, the kitchen table, and I sought the help of friends who had none of my prejudices. Finally, when the book had an editor and I heard Tom Lombardo’s vision for the book, I could see the book in a wider way. Tom Lombardo gets credit for shaping what’s here.
And the most pleasurable?
Oh the most pleasurable thing happened whenever an ending (or a title) that seemingly would not come got dropped into my brain in the bathtub or during a movie or on a run, and I’d scramble for some way to write it down. Hard to say how many perfect endings and titles escaped because I didn’t write them down.
What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?
I remember the first two pieces of advice I ever got. They came in the same sentence: “Read Triggering Town” and “If you ever get a chance to take a workshop with Ellen Bryant Voigt, do it.” I’ve done both and while those are both right up there contending for the “best” advice I ever got, the prize for “best” goes to “Take out the last three lines.”
I’d been a teacher for 31 years and, when I started writing, I knew how the poem would end before I’d written the first line. I was still a teacher, now writing poems, so I announced what I was going to say, said it, then summed up what I’d just said in case you missed it. The result wasn’t a closed poem, but a poem with the lid firmly nailed down, and every time I workshopped a poem, I heard, “Take out the last three lines.”
One day after a workshop, the light beginning to fall, I went through all my poems on the computer and ripped off the last three lines. The poems just hung there, trailing off. . . . Some of them stayed that way a long time, but eventually, the teacher in me gave way to the poetry and the poems started suggesting other endings. Getting the right ending feels to me like winning the lottery.
I honestly can’t remember ever getting “bad” advice.
Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.
I love Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive. I was at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH while she was Dartmouth Poet in Residence there, just after Paradise Drive had won the first annual Press 53 Prize for Poetry. I loved her earlier book, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, poems that knocked on the door of everything human in me, but Paradise Drive is a life journey (the traveler is Pilgrim) written in sonnets. I was halfway through the book before I realized I was reading sonnets, and I’m sure the form, even its contemporary iteration, did something to shape the narrative—intelligent, tragic and humorous social commentary that’s as much fun to read as a sparklingly satirical novel.
A book--open on my desk right now--that I read and keep re-reading is Kurt Brown’s posthumously published I’ve Come This Far to Say Hello: Poems Selected and New, poems with Kurt’s innocent, jaw-open surprise of discovery. How can my own jaw not drop at the surprise? And the craft! I’ve Come This Far to Say Hello is my go-to-book anytime I want or need a workshop. Stop anywhere in one of Kurt’s poems and ask: Why this verb? Why here? Why this line break? Why this space, this shape on the page? Everything I need to know is answered in the poem. As generous as Kurt was in life, his poems keep on giving.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.
Sure. Here’s a quiet lyric poem titled “Evening”
At this angle of hours,
the orchestra all oboes—
through the sea oats—
the windfall pears
have mostly gone to ooze
seeped into the earth,
all these trees
unclothed to cold,
the last of the shining
downstream by now.
Slow hungers breathe
beneath leveled dreams,
the muscular sky
painted over now, paler blue.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
What would I tell someone starting to write at a later age like I did?
Read, read, read contemporary poetry. Go to readings and buy the books. Every book I have has something to teach me. so never read a poem just once. Read like a writer. Ask: How is this different than the same idea or story written in prose? If I like the poem, what did the poet do in the selection of language and its placement on the page, in the tone, in the tempo, in the music, in the images to manipulate my feelings? I am intellectually moved by what the poem says, but the art of the poem is in how it was said. What craft is at work here that viscerally made the poem move under my skin? Keep reading until you figure out what that is.
Read The Cortland Review. It’s free at www.cortlandreview.com. We’ve published amazing poems in audio and text for 20 years and, for the last 5 years, our Poets-in-Person features in HD video. Use our pages to see what poets are writing today. If you’re interested in publishing, find a poem you like. If you feel something as a result of a poem on a page, check the bio to see where that poet has published. If you respond positively to a piece, chances are those publications might be interested in your work, too. Never take a rejection personally. A rejection is an invitation to question the poem, rethink, revise it and send it out again. Never give up on your poems. They are your children. Some behave better than others and most require a good bit of attention before they come to their full potential.
OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?
It’s also available from amazon.com. If you buy the book from amazon, you are eligible to write a review. I hope you do.