poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
Here, in the middle of all this Houston heat, the two
sixteen-year-old featherweights step-by-stepping around
a center which should be large enough to hold them both
are working out, with painful, close attention, a number
of terrible ideas. The heat in here is an idea: it has a purpose
and a taste: it tastes like mile after mile of train passing
by the chicken-wired windows, the endless linked cars
full of what you don't know. The idea is that suffering
teaches you to suffer well, as though the end result
of dehydration isn't the skin & kidneys closing up
until what the body holds turns toxic, but the appearance
of something new willed into the blood, made of pain,
which you can then direct at the only person in the building
as beautiful as you are. Although of course there's nothing
sexual about this, the brief embrace of two boys, wet
with the same water you'd find at the bottom of any ocean.
And from the benches their plain-faced girlfriends watch, deep
in their impenetrable adolescence. As if all this were on TV,
as normal as the newsman saying a train carrying industrial
waste has derailed and is burning outside the city, and the simple
precautions: Stay indoors. Close your windows. Don't breathe.
But these two boys are in it, the sweat washing down
their stomachs and backs rinsing the black air off their skin,
turning the absurd abstractions of last night's news
into visible concentric rings around the waistbands
of their nylon Everlast shorts, as if all this was designed
to be a further test of their endurance, or show us
how even while you sleep your body can be making
serious mistakes, taking in lungful after lungful
of other people's errors. The soaked fabric sticks
to their thighs so closely you can see the hairs
underneath and the moving weave of muscle and almost
the tight string stitched through the overlapping plates
of stomach muscle and cinched tight between them,
drawing them closer until the old men outside the ring
begin to shout they didn't come here to see lovers
and another man comes in to pull them apart.
But words came halting forth...
He came from there not red and howling his one note
like all the rest. And so we had to worry. For years
he didn't cry. Or speak. Until, with such strange fears
and panic-quickened hearts, our senses finally woke
to what he meant. So long unheard he'd spoken in
the thirty-seven different dialects of rain
and all the languages of frost, shrinking in sun
or growing scratch by scratch upon the windowpane.
We'll wait. And when he finds the fragile hiss of mist
no longer answers to his growing needs, we'll tell
him what to say, instead of the thing itself. We'll twist
his tongue around or consonants and syllables.
We'll force our language down his throat until he spits
it back at us. He'll have to take our words for it.
BIO: Andrew Feld the author of two collections of poetry, Raptor (University of Chicago Press), and Citizen (National Poetry Series), holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston and has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. His other honors include a Michener Foundation grant and a "Discovery" / The Nation award. A widely published poet, his work has appeared in Agni, The Nation, New England Review, The Paris Review, Poetry, Triquarterly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review and many other journals. Feld is editor in chief of Seattle Review.
An Interview with Andrew Feld by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: How important is narrative within your body of work? I'm thinking of the poem "Best and Only" and especially as editor-in-chief the Seattle Review, what do you find that narrative, perhaps longer forms can do that shorter, more lyrical forms do not? How do you work between those forms?
Andrew Feld: Narrative is a loaded term (more in the sense of dice than of shotguns), generally meaning the devices and techniques associated with story-telling: plot, characters, development, the whole gun-over-the-mantle piece type of thing. My longer poems focus on or arrive out of a series of discrete images linked together by association/juxtaposition or discourse, using narrative according to Coleridge's use of the word, as in "the common end of all narrative, nay of all, Poems is to convert a series into a Whole." The first section of "Best and Only" starts with what is essentially a snap-shot of Richard Nixon and his "Official Best Friend," the Cuban banker and money-launderer Bebe Rebozo urinating off the stern of the Presidential Yacht. That Nixon and Rebozo cruised up and down the Potomac River at night, drinking heavily, during the Watergate crisis is an established part of a historical narrative: the poem takes frames out of the reel/"real" documentary footage and uses them, as it uses the various kinds of language (presidential obfuscation, journalism, poetic dictions) we use to speak or think about this particular event, for its own particular, peculiar ends.
To answer the other part of your question: when Romanticism, starting with Lyrical Ballads with its heavily freighted first word, entered the (industrialized) landscape, a number of previously thriving poetic modes and genres died off or went into hiding: the poetic dialogue, the long philosophical or mock-philosophical essay poem, the epistolary poem, and many others. These forms seem to be happily rebounding, which makes this a particularly wonderful time to be the editor of a journal devoted to long poems and novellas. As a poet, I can't overstate the importance of knowing that the lyric is only one of many modes available to work in.
AMK: What is the effect of having a poem like "The Boxers" in tercets? Was it written this way initially?
AF: "The Boxers" was one of those poems that seemed to write itself. It arrived with the initial image in tercets. I suppose that hovering somewhere in my subconscious was the ghost of a poem I've loved for decades, James Merrill's "The Charioteer of Delphi" (another poem in tercets with a single line final stanza) and the sculptural solidity and classical grace the tercets seem to retain, even when their usage is purely typographical. We still shake hands, even though very few of us carry weapons.
AMK: The lines "even while you sleep your body can be making serious mistakes, taking in lungful after lungful of other people's mistakes" introduces a social and ethical intelligence. How does subject matter influence the way you write a poem?
AF: In odd ways. That particular line came from my then-girlfriend/now-wife, poet Pimone Triplett, who answered one morning, when I asked her if she'd slept well, "well, I don't think I made any mistakes." That stuck in my head for a long time: what kind of mistakes can you make while you're asleep? The answer became an organic part of "The Boxers," in the way poems incorporate diverse materials into a new whole, as in my previous Coleridge quote. When I started the poem I had no idea that idea would be a part of it. Subject matter (the two kids sparring in the gym where I worked out) provides the central axis, which supports the range of thought, tones and concerns the poem needs to include in the logic of its argument.
AMK: The last line of "The Boxers" is "and another man comes in to pull them apart." What better orchestration on citizenship and its retraction can there be? This seems to be what you're trying to get at the end of the poem. What do you think of this reading?
AF: I like it very much. In their embrace, the boys achieve a respite from the violence they are economically and socially required to inflict on each other. In this eroticized moment they understand their commonality and its significance. The old man pulls them apart so that they can go back to fighting each other.
AMK: "Late-Breather" begins with an epigraph: "And words came halting forth," from the first sonnet of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. Why did you select that epigraph and why was the form of a sonnet important to you in writing this poem?
AF: For a long time I wrote a poem every year on my birthday (Citizen includes two more of these birthday sonnets, "Talking with My Father About God" and "Personal"). The rules I set up for myself, drawing on Frank Bidart's "Self-Portrait, 1969" and some other self-portrait sonnets, were that the poem had to include my age, some elements of my state of mind at the time, and follow the rules of the form. By the time I wrote "Late-Breather"-the last of this series-the self-portrait part had become almost entirely oblique and the age inclusion ("the thirty-seven different dialects of rain") completely arbitrary, which explains why this sonnet was my last effort at that exercise. I suppose it's worth pointing out that the Sir Philip Sidney poem, which provides the epigraph, and "Late-Breather," are both hexameter sonnets.
AMK: Do you think being an editor makes you respond differently to poems?
AF: I love being the editor-in-chief of a literary journal: it is a great privilege. If I read a poem and I love it, I can publish it! It's an amazing feeling that never gets old. The challenge, and another gift it affords, is the necessity of keeping my mind open. Like all poetry editors, I am haunted by the spectral figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. If someone sends in a poem I don't understand or which challenges me in unfamiliar ways, it is my duty-my job-to work at it until the poem has imparted some aspects of its significance, meaning-making and pleasures to me. The work requires me to differentiate between the new and the only new-seeming. I hope that some this informs the poetry I write.
AMK: What does the revision process look like for you?
AF: The revision process for me varies tremendously from poem to poem-it's a matter of finding the shape and cadence the poem needs. Some poems happily fall immediately into form and only really need editing. Other times I'm pushing the words around for days until something clicks and I have a stanza which sets the pattern for the rest of the poem.
AMK: What do you think makes poetry a significant player in today's world? What does it mean to be a contemporary citizen in our republic?
AF: To be a contemporary citizen in our republic is to feel a constant sense of hopelessness and impotent rage at the vile Capitalists who are destroying our planet for short-term profit. Poetry reminds you that the world does not have to be the way it is, that community is possible and necessary.
AMK: Are you working on anything right now you can comment on?
AF: After finishing a long unified poetry project (my last book, Raptor, published by the University of Chicago Press), I'm happy to just write poems as they come to me, with no fixed themes or central unifying concerns. I'm not sure what the poems I'm writing now are building towards, which is one of the pleasures of writing them.