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Transom:
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?

Stallings:
To be honest, this poem nearly ruined me. I had written another of To the Heart of the World’s 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.

Transom:
This poem presents itself as a private address to one person, Missy Walker. Is the reader an eavesdropper in this poem?

Stallings:
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.

Transom:
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?

Stallings:
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.

Transom:
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?

Stallings:
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.