when i do not want to say anything about the bridges
or about the land of sweet water where my mother
can not bare the shadows of light fixtures, she
can not bare the suburban quiet. her neighbor
sets raccoon traps beside the aspen tree,
which has been cut back away from windows.
there is little to say of the ocean which she cannot
feel. i am not always sorry to return.
sometimes i imagine myself to the courtyard
of my high school. everyone is named "jodie"
or "rachel." the boys smoke around the flagpole
with their milk cartons and long hair. this is a
town with diners. no ravens, no steeples,
no hard rains. you wouldn't have liked it
though you wouldn't have known you didn't.
you can not put your feet in the ocean without
money. you can not learn or breathe without
money. you can not learn or breathe with
money-breathe without trains, without
becoming a mistress back in the horse trails
where the cut machines were sometimes kept.
when you are young there is no way of telling
yet your father suspects something about your walk, about the notes you write to his secretary, lori. i love you you say take me to the beach again you say because you are in fourth grade, because your father is in love with his nurse and not your mother who cannot bear to ease the dialysis needles in. she cannot bear anger or the color of dusk. there is the waiting for someone else to die your father says the transplant wasn't much he says the first thing he does with his kidneys is piss on the operating table he says laughing. and you are laughing too. you are thinking about the tree fort your father had torn down. you do not think his piss is funny. somewhere someone died you think to save him. when you imagine somewhere someone died, he is always a good man, someone who shouldn't have you think, though you would never say-just about your walk: you did not fall in love with the secretary though once you took to smelling her hair and offering your air to the dry sand between her fingers.
when what is given breaks under
there is little of christmas i remember. one bicycle. my father's yellow whiskey. no snow, though I am sure there was. outside the long breath of my father's house, three distinct patches of lawn. on one, my brothers played "keep away" with the soccer ball. they would not let me touch it. on the two front lawns, we spent autumn stuffing black bags with the oak leaves. i was always the last one in. the last one dragged the bags to the street. it wasn't so much the being kept away or even the work of lifting the bags. mostly, it was the loneliness that got to me-the long dark lines of the back shed door.
-these poems appear in the lake has no saint
BIO: Stacey Waite, a 1999 graduate of Bucknell, received an MFA in poetry in 2002 and a PhD in Composition and Pedagogy in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. Waite is currently Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nebraska and has published three collections of poems: Choke (winner of the 2004 Frank O'Hara Prize), Love Poem to Androgyny (winner of the 2006 Main Street Rag Chapbook Competition), and the lake has no saint (winner of the 2008 Snowbound Prize from Tupelo Press). Waite's poems have been published most recently in The Cream City Review, Interim, and Black Warrior Review. Waite's first full-length collection, Butch Geography,is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2012. Waite's other honors include an Andrew Mellon Dissertation Fellowship Award, the Elizabeth Baranger Excellence in Teaching Award, two Pushcart Prize nominations, and a National Society of Arts & Letters Poetry Prize. Waite has also published essays on the teaching of writing in Writing on the Edge, Reader and Feminist Teacher.
An Interview with Stacey Waite by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I love the movement of these poems from the lake has no saint, awarded 2008’s Snowbound Chapbook Award from Tupelo Press. Reads almost like a list or nonsense poem in which associative images and statements leap off of one each other with a pace that can’t be duplicated. How did this poem come together?
Stacey Waite: That’s an interesting reading of the poem. While I don’t really think of the poem as “nonsense” in some sort of conventional understanding of that word, I do think that the lake has no saint is an exploration of sense-making. All the poems, including the one you reference here, are some kind of attempt to push at the boundaries of how we make sense—emotionally, syntactically, conceptually. That particular poem—“when I do not want to say anything about the bridges”—is a kind of attempt to make sense of where I’m from, a suburban town right in the middle of Long Island. When I go there, I am not only struck by the details of my own life that fire off in my memory as I drive the roads or look at the back window of my parents’ house, but I am also struck by the place itself, how the beaches cost money to see, or are owned by rich folks who live on the shores, how many diners. So the poem tries to make sense of language and make sense of how we become ourselves based on the places that get in our blood. But, ultimately, the sense-making never arrives at itself. So, in that sense, you couldn’t be more accurate than to say the poem is a kind of “nonsense.” It’s all non-sense. Ultimately, we’re all a mystery to ourselves. If we weren’t, why write poems at all?
AMK: There are unexpected details in this poem that are a real delight to read. “my mother / can not bear the shadows of light fixtures,…” “this is a / town with diners. no ravens, no steeples, / no hard rains,” and “you can not put your feet in the ocean without / money” are a few examples. I’m wondering if this is something you arrived at over time or if this is one of those poems that “fell out of the sky.” It has that feel to it with its swift pace and association, but, then again, the best poems often seem easy while being anything but.
SW: My poems, in terms of process, usually begin with details—something someone said, a pile-up of images that collide in my mind. But often, at the start, I do not know which details matter, what to make of them together, what details are part of the poem I may write and which are just details. I often tell my own students that anyone can be descriptive or list details, but writing a poem is about illuminating the right details, the ones that feel (even if we can’t tell why) urgent, full of intensity and complexity. I’m not sure I always live up to that myself, but I know I try to. The place on Long Island that is the impetus of the poem is not a beautiful place, and I really tried to also think about what, for me, was missing, why it didn’t seem beautiful. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, a place with hard rains and just amazing churches. So those details rise out of looking at this old place through the lens of the place I was living at the time. I do like the idea that the poem feels like it “fell out of the sky.” There’s a part of the writing process that always seems like that for me, like the poem just arrives. But, of course, then there’s the work of actually making the poem, which is less like an arrival (that’s the part where the poem, or the idea for the poem, first comes to me) and more like traveling in bad weather—that is, you have no idea how you’re going to actually get the place you imagined. I have heard poets argue a few times about whether things like “inspiration” are actually real. I’ve heard poet friends talk about poetry as “work” like any other work. For me the truth is that it’s both at the same time—that there is some part of it that remains mysterious to me. I am often fearful, for example, that I will never be able to write another poem again, that I have pulled it off for the last time without really knowing what I’m doing. I think we might blame that on “inspiration”—that somehow I’m afraid the moment where what I am seeing translates as a poem will never reoccur. But then, of course, there really is the part of writing poems that’s just plan work—the labor of engaging your imagination in a world that might rather you do something else, the work of language, the composing.
AMK: That repetition throughout the poem of “can not” is interesting to me. You’re using “can not” rather than “cannot,” which implies that while these things could have happened or been done, the people connected to them refused to act. Given that this is repeated over and over in the poem, it seems that your using structure to provide a little subtext to the poem. Or is this reading too much into it? Perhaps this repetition is more for a musical effect?
SW: I use this construction of “can not” through out the book. Part of that is rhythmic. When I read “cannot,” it always seems to happen to fast, inviting a reader to read through the impossibility of it whereas “can not” stresses the “not.” It’s funny though, some of the earlier versions of the poem had “cannot” and the wonderful editor at Tupelo Press, Jim Schley, pointed it out to me that I had sometimes spelled it one way and sometimes another. And then when I thought about it, it felt clear to me that “can not” was what I meant. It is subtext in the sense that the decision implies part of the meaning of the poem, and of the whole chapbook—that impossibility is a spiritual and political problem, that each of us can actually trouble the space between the “can” and the “not,” that a life outside of the one you think you know is possible—a life other than the place or family of origin, a life other than the genders that seem possible, a life other than the relationships that make you someone you do not actually want to be.
AMK: Talk to us a little about the titles in this book. I really like how each poem uses its first line as the title and each first line begins with “when.” This gives the book a rushed feeling and imparts a great sense of desire, a need for things to change that I don’t think would be there otherwise.
SW: At the time, I was really interested in the conditional. In returning to some of what I just mentioned about (im)possibility, I feel like the titles of the poems set up conditionals, but then the poems themselves are (at times) disrupting the notion of the conditional. It’s one of the things that really attracted me, for example, to surrealist poets, and to exercises that help writing students see how conditionals can reveal what’s possible to us in terms of language. I’m thinking of a particular exercise from the Book of Surrealist Games whereby one poet writes the first part of the conditional (like “if trees could breathe”) and then the other poet (without knowing what the first poet said) writes the other part of the conditional (like “then there is no such thing as Monopoly money”). So the exercises forces the two writers to begin to think about how that conditional might be true, might enable or prevent certain kinds of possibilities. So the titles were sometimes meant to disrupt the logic of the conditional, and sometimes meant to complicate the relationship between cause and effect, event and result, action and self.
You can see from the first version of “when what is given breaks under” that often the first part of the conditional evolved later after I’d drafted the poem. Originally that poem was going to be called “when my father’s breath smells of christmas,” but then later those details got absorbed into the poem itself once I knew the poem wasn’t about that breath. The poem was about breaking.
AMK: Both “when I do not want to say anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling” tell stories but in a very lyrical fashion. By this I mean that we get snippets of who these characters are (the young girl in love with her father’s female secretary, the mother disturbed by shadows, the father with his faulty kidneys, the boys with their “milk cartons and long hair,” etc…) and how they feel about their world but without any real story being told. It’s all supplied to the reader by images, pieces of dialogue, etc… Is this approach what you’d call your voice or style, or is this something more intentional?
SW: I would say that there are, at last so far, two kinds of modes that lead me to poems. Sometimes the poems are driven by story or narrative—this, for example, might be said to be true about my most recent book Butch Geography, just out this month also from Tupelo Press. This collection is driven by story in many ways. But a few of the poems in that collection, like most of the poems in the lake has no saint, are built of fragments, what you’re calling “images” or “pieces of dialogue.” Sometimes I’m not driven by narrative at all; sometimes the details lead me to what the poem wants to ask. I think of all of my poems not really as having meaning or conveying a particular ideas, but more as asking questions. Poems, well actually all the writing I do (poems, essays, scholarship) are desperate acts of inquiry.
AMK: In both “when I do not want to say anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling” the speaker seems to be you in the present addressing your past self. In the next poem, “when what is given breaks under,” you switch to the first person “i.” Why this shift?
SW: I’d like to say this is some kind of craft decision, but the truth is it’s a kind of intuitive decision that I would say has more of an emotional or psychological dimension. I feel a lot of distance sometimes between the self I remember being as a teenager. And what’s strange is that my younger self—the self in the poem “when what is given breaks under”—feels more like the self I am now, still terrified of that loneliness, still feeling the haunting of that house I spent my younger years living in, still seeing that back shed. Those memories and feelings still feel here—in my body—while the kind who was in love with that secretary, or the teenager that hung out with the “jodie’s” and the “rachel’s,” those kids don’t live here anymore, though, yes, I still need to tell them stuff from time to time.
AMK: Many of the poems in this book are prose poems that utilize punctuation but very few commas and no capitol letters. It gives these poems a very stark feeling to them. As if the language has been boiled down to its essential parts. That said, it seems you could remove the periods to create an even greater structural effect here. Do you mind discussing the forms of these poems a bit?
SW: I suppose you could say I didn’t “go all the way” here, in a sense. *laughing* I thought about that possibility for sure, the idea of no punctuation at all, ever. I wanted the sentences or lines to be able to be read in multiple ways, but I suppose I didn’t want the meanings to be infinite. Maybe I just couldn’t let go of all the control (certainly possible with a Capricorn like me), but I also think that while the poems can feel fragmentary and associative, they are also perhaps even more controlled than my more story-driven narrative work where punctuation is dependable and frequent. They do feel “stark” to me too. So I guess partially they are little experiments: who needs commas when the rhythm works in more than one direction, who needs capital letters when the period already does the work? I also wonder how much of this has to do with the actually way I was writing at the time. As you can see from the page of my notebook I’ve shared with you, these poems were hand-written, the first drafts more of a gathering than a composing. So perhaps, too, I wondered what might happen if I kept the “polish” off, if I resisted the urge to hide the making itself, if the poem was both its process and a product.
AMK: I’ve always believed poems end on either a great image or a statement that stands out from the rest of the poem in some particular way. A great example of this would be that final sentence of “when what is given breaks under”: mostly, it was the loneliness that got to me— “the long dark lines of the back shed door.” Not only is this a wonderful final image, but it stands out from the other sentences in the poem due to that sudden use of meter in an otherwise very “prosy poem:” “the long dark lines of the back shed door.” What do you notice about the endings of your favorite poems? Do you concern yourself much with how you bring your poems to a close or do you let it happen more organically?
SW: I wouldn’t say it happens the same way every time, but I do think I often have the image or the line that will be the last line before I have the rest of the poem, sometimes I am writing towards the last line, or I label the image that I think is going to be the last line. I am not always right about that, but I am often enough to call it a pattern, I guess. Once I have the image, it’s about finding the rhythmic moment where the ending comes in. To finish poems, I always read them out loud to myself over and over, maybe even fifty times in one sitting, trying to hear the moment the poem is over, trying to feel the exhale in my chest that indicates that last thing that needs to be said, for the moment, anyway. I coach a few youth poetry slam teams here in Lincoln, and I often circle images in my students’ poems as “the last image” and then tell them to write until they get to it. Sometimes that works. Of course, sometimes I wrestle with a poem without knowing how it will end, or what its last words will be—those poems get stuck in the notebook a lot longer. And some of them never find their way out.
A Mini-Review of Stacey Waite’s Featured Poems by Assistant-Editor Matthew Huff
The first time I read through these poems I was baffled. Their structure is unorthodox, the poems offer narrative but only in snippets, the point of view suddenly shifts, and Waite utilizes a stream of consciousness reminiscent of Benjy’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury. In short, a lot is going on in these poems, and there is something endearing about the child-like voice of the speaker.
Structurally, these poems share numerous similarities. To begin, each deploy a type of media res in which the reader is dropped into the narrative of the poem midstride. It’s disorienting but, at the same time, highly engaging. Each of the poems uses the title as the first line of the poem, and each title in this selection begins with the word when, which creates a sense of continuity between them. As a result, I kept looking for more story— more narrative backstory, placement, setting, and so on— in these poems when I first read them, but the clever use of medias res coupled with the often abrupt endings leaves the reader wanting more. These short poems act as a snapshot, not a whole picture— similar to a photograph torn in two— functioning individually as a small piece of a larger mosaic. The more you read of these poems, the more complete they begin to feel.
Formally, there is no regular meter to be found here (even "when i do not want to say anything about the bridges," which is lineated), and while there is some anaphora and end-line repetition, there is no formal rhyme scheme. These poems function more as lyric poems than as poems purely in prose even as they don’t necessarily break their lines. The abundant internal rhyme generated by repetition, alliteration, and assonance create a delicate yet distinct musicality in these verses. Though the lines themselves are not metered, the individual sentences share a similar syllabic length, which gives these poems a sense of lineation that, otherwise, wouldn’t exist.
Waite makes a lot of creative moves with syntax. I was particularly intrigued with the use of you in “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges” and “when you are young there is no way of telling.” In “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges.” the poem seems to address the reader, but there is no way to be absolutely certain this is the case: “this is a/ town with diners. no ravens, no steeples/ no hard rains. you wouldn’t have liked it/ though you wouldn’t have known that you didn’t.” Additionally puzzling is the speaker’s intimacy with this “you,” a choice that draws the reader into the poem on a personal level, whether they are the intended recipient or not. The you assumes an entirely different role in “when you are young there is no way of telling.” Now the you, or in some cases your, is told from the second person perspective, the you no longer functions as an address but, rather, as a mode of reflection. Though the reader is clearly not addressed in this poem, the reader (as with “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges”) is drawn into the poem and forced to take an active role within the it: “…once you took to smelling her hair and offering your breath to the dry sand between her fingers.”
Each poem features effulgent and precise details that lend great intimacy. For instance, we receive vivid yet sparse descriptions of the speakers neighborhood in the description of the speaker’s mother’s house in “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges”: “her neighbor/ sets raccoon traps beside the aspen tree,/ which has been cut back away from the windows.” “what is given breaks under” also provides such arresting description in moments like “there is little of christmas i remember. one bicycle. my father’s yellow whiskey. no snow.”
Presumably, each of these three poems, are through the lens of the same speaker, fixing her gaze on the same reappearing characters, particularly the mother and father. The mother is a disparate character; in “when I do not want to say anything about the bridges” the mother, we are told “can not bear the shadows of light fixtures, she/ can not bear the suburban quiet.” Later, in “when you are young there is no way of telling,” the mother “can not bear anger or the color of dusk,” an intonation that the mother and father’s marriage may be fading.
The father is absent from “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges” but takes on a more prominent role in “when you are young and there is no way of telling” and “when what is given breaks under.” The father is a character of mixed morals, or at least a character, which is of great conflict to the speaker. “when you are young there is no way of telling” provides a portrait of a father who is sickly, humorous, and, perhaps, a man of infidelity:
"...because your father is in love with his nurse and not your mother who can not bear to ease the dialysis needles in....there is the waiting for someone else to die your father says the transplant wasn't much he says the first thing he does with his kidneys is piss on the operating table he says laughing. and you are laughing too. you are thinking about the tree fort your father had torn down. you do not think his piss is funny."
The characterization of the father continues in “what is given breaks under,” not so much via his actions as in the portrayal of his house, a foreboding place where secrets are kept, a place where, “i was always the last one in. …it was the loneliness that got to me— the long dark lines of the back shed door.”
These poems, however, aren’t about the mother or the father; these poems are about the speaker, the respective i and you(s) who guide the reader through the poem. Each ending focuses on the idea of the self, an image or idea which directly corresponds with the speaker of each poem and their internal conflict. In “what is given breaks under,” we are left with the image of the lonely and foreboding shed door. “when you are young there is no way of telling concludes with the identity question and a longing for something as permanent as sand yet is uncontainable. The most efficacious ending comes in the final lines of “when i do not want to say anything about the bridges.” This is due not only to Waite’s use of repetition and line breaks but, but more so, because of its confessional nature of speaker to the unnamed you:
you cannot put your feet in the ocean without
money. you cannot learn or breathe without
money. you cannot learn of breathe with
money-breathe without trains, without
becoming a mistress back in the horse trails
where the cut machines were sometimes kept.