This poem, from your new collection, To the Heart of the World
, is by far the longest poem we’ve ever published in Transom
It begins in medias res and ends with a seeming collapse of language.
How did you decide on the path the poem would take through the page?
To be honest, this poem nearly ruined me. I had written another of To the Heart of the World
key poems, “To Carolyn Blessing,” to read at the Ten Gallery in New
Orleans last November, in what was for reasons I don’t really
understand the most intense reading I ever hope to give. I realized
after that reading that, while “To Carolyn Blessing” was absolutely
complete, I had more to say on the matter. So this poem began as a
postscript, eventually titled “Postscript: To Missy Walker.” The fact
of its being a postscript accounts for the poem’s opening syntax. And I
thought I was writing a really short poem – but it kept unfolding and
unfolding, against my wishes. Over a period of nearly two weeks, I got
completely lost in that poem, and basically lost touch with all other
aspects of my life. This is of course what I’ve always wanted from
poetry – the necessity of complete abandon – but in actual life the
impact was not so positive. I’m a husband and a father, and while it’s
not really possible to abdicate from those responsibilities without
hurting Melissa and the kids, that’s what I did in order to write the
poem. I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. And it’s that
abdication from the real responsibility of my life that led to the
breakdown of language that, finally, ended the poem. I was glad to get
there. And poetry really can
change who you are.
This poem presents itself as a private address to one person, Missy Walker. Is the reader an eavesdropper in this poem?
This is one of the occasions on which the premise of the private
address is a lie. The title claims Missy as a listener, but the vast
majority of the poem is addressed to my friend Cassie Donish, and both
Missy and Cassie bring in, each, a handful of other anonymous
listeners, specific or implied. None of this is intended as an
obfuscation: as I said above, the poem began as one thing, and ended as
another entirely. The title came when it was still a very short poem.
My ideal relationship of reader to title is something along the lines
of an imaginary walking companion -- someone both with and not with me
as I walk and talk -- and the person addressed by the title is simply
the first absent walker.
The name “Missy” appears just once in the poem, about four-fifths of
the way through, after a series of absorbing digressions. Is Missy
Walker the anchor of this poem?
She’s one of them. She is actually nowhere in the poem – there is
nothing about Missy in the poem, and nothing about my relationship to
Missy in the poem (worth noting, given the poem’s main themes and the
fact that Missy was a student of mine at Tulane). So, there’s no sense
in which she’s a narrative anchor of the poem. But the poem would not
be what it is, would perhaps have never gotten past its earliest lines,
if I hadn’t imagined Missy as a listener. Others entered into my
conception of listening at other times, but I suppose Missy remained,
not the poem’s anchor, but its horizon, until the poem ended.
The beginning of the poem compares the speaker to a swan in compelling
yet contradictory language: “a developing/edge in the plotless/wild
ravening/of swans,” and the “weird trill/I sing toward.” Is it fair to
read this poem as a swan song?
If you mean “swan song” in the colloquial sense, well, yes, it very
nearly was a kind of swan song. The poem left me in a very bad place
personally. And, also, it wound up the book’s swan song,
unintentionally. But I think you might mean something a little
different. I think you might be asking whether it’s so deeply rooted in
the animal, bodily fact of living that it’s like a swan’s actual song.
And I have to say, to my chagrin, that it is not. It’s ultimately way
too controlled for that. I wish I were more a swan than I am.