Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

John Hoppenthaler and James Harms: Poems and A Conversation Between Poets



Breakfast on the Patio

Despite the weatherman, who in hibiscus
and a grass skirt waved this morning
at a map of clouds, Jeff pulls on a pair
of sunglasses to watch the people walk by.
What he really wants is to go sailing,
which is okay with me, but the harbor
is smooth as an oil slick and breathless.
We watch a parade of moms and carriages,
the babies cooing the sunshine,
and a line of cyclists all tanned to
oblivion.  Jeff goes for more coffee,

the boy next door walks by wearing
chaps and plastic six shooters.
I wave at his mother who is hosing down
the walk, and she waves back.  Then I say, Bang
to the little guy but he just looks at me.
So I say, Hi, and he just looks at me.
Jeff returns with another plate of toast.
He still wants to sail but I raise a wet finger
and he nods like, Maybe later, then shakes out
the newspaper.  Another cyclist pedals by
going, I guess, 20 miles an hour; I watch
the hanging fuchsia stir a bit in the sudden
wind.  The phone rings and I look over at Jeff
but he's reading so I think, Oh well, and get up
to answer it.  At the door I stop because
Jeff has asked, "You know what?" and I'm waiting
for whatever what is.  "It doesn't get much better,"
he says, and we laugh.  Phone still ringing

I go inside; the tape clicks on across the room,
I hear myself telling someone I'm not home,
then I hear someone say, "You're never home,
the problem with you is you're never home."
It's Kay, who I decide to call back later
but she goes on.  "The problem with you is
you're never home when you're home.
You're not there when I look at you.
You don't say a thing when you say something."
Kay is on a roll but I go over
and pick up the phone.  I'm home, I say
and I hang up.  Then I go outside and look
at the smooth water, so smooth it seems fake.
"Who was it?" Jeff asks, still reading the paper.
The Harbor Queen is chugging past, a crowd
of tourists waves at me from its deck.
I lift my hand and say, It was for you.

We Started Home, My Son and I
after Jaan Kaplinski

We started home, my son and I.
Evening beginning.  The small stains
of streetlight spreading across the sidewalk,
thinning to darkness every few yards.
My son paused at the edge of each
then leapt, one hand in mine,
to the next.  Ahead, his mother
touched the meat twice before
turning it, rinsed the lettuce, called out
for his sister to wash her hands.
He said each spot of light
was a great land, each span
of darkness the sea.  And we
followed his map home
out past the edge of town where night
filled the long blocks between
streetlights with oceans.
We rowed when we could, swam
the last few miles.  Until the moon
reared up like an old man
startled from his nap.  And once
again the roads of the world rose
beneath us.  Before long, my son
and I were home.  I watched him climb
the brick stairs to the front door,
whose key I no longer owned.
His mother waved as he fell
into the house, the bright rooms
splashed with light.  The ottoman
covered with horsehair; a damask
draped over the sofa: I couldn't see
these or any other emblems of my
previous life.  I felt the waters rise
around my feet, heard in the distance
the loose rigging in the wind, a buoy bell.
So far from the sea, I rolled up
my trousers, wading in
for the walk back.

The Clock

We sit by the window
waiting for wine and watch
a car burn on Boundary Street,
a stopped clock above
the bar:  half-past three
forever, and then it's now.
I remember a shady spot
north of here on I-5
called Crow's Landing
as five of them settle
on the line above the fire.
An Impala, I think,
or the newer Malibu.
They hop in the heat
waiting for the flames
to settle into smolder.
There's something to pick at
or they wouldn't be here.
And the INS guys in their
black Suburban.  Just waiting.
Here at last, a gentle Lambrusco.
Half-past three with a view
of Boundary Street.  Somewhere
behind us, Mexico.  Eight
crows now, the fire nearly out.

Ransom Captive

The jailer never notices
the weight of keys
in his pocket.
The hangman grows
used to the rope burn
on his hand.
You loved
the two pebbles
in your palm, one
the life we led, a truth
as true as salt
in seawater, the other
a new life dark
and viscous:

you liked the way
they rubbed
each other raw
in your fist
as you smiled and
first selected it
then spoke it:
a sliver of truth
that broke
like a splinter
beneath my skin
and stayed there.
And became a lie. 
You lied and lied
and lied, those little
pieces of truth.

The cuckold
never thinks
to question
the little truths:
the fat Bolivian boy
at the end of her joke,
the junkie with
fake teeth, the sweet
friend who Just had
to be gay, she said
as she left again
to visit him,
and the dumb singer
for a motorcycle--
one and all they fucked
the cuckold's wife
or she wished
they would, she
who keeps two stones
warm in her pocket,
her fingers touching
them now and then
as if to remind her
she can bring them
close, let them rub
and spark, the real life
and the other one,
which soon enough
is just as real,
just as hard and warm
between her fingers--

two worlds
two stones
in the close
of your pocket:
you stopped worrying
which was which,
they felt the same
in your humid hand. 

And Love's patriot
walks through
the market intent
on finding the perfect
persimmon, wearing
without wonder
or notice the extra
weight of her
C4 suicide vest,
pockets stuffed with
iron shavings
and coins.  Take a sip,

you said once
in a dream,
lifting the rusty chalice
of seawater
to my lips.
And I woke
years later and
what it tasted like,
the truth, and took
the splinters
in my teeth and
tore them one
by one from where
you placed them
in my chest, the soft
insides of
my wrists, the tracks
up my arms
like shrapnel
of one life
scattered and
lodged in the body
of another.

James Harms, "Breakfast on the Patio" from Modern Ocean.  Copyright 2002 by James Harms.  "We Started Home, My Son and I" and "The Clock" from Comet Star.   Copyright 2012 by James Harms.  All reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Carnegie Mellon University Press.  

Harms is also the author of Rowing with Wings (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017).  He chairs the Department of English at West Virginia University, where he teaches in the MFA Program.



How to Leave a Small Town Like Yours


The third time we made love

the magic was already gone.

We should have stopped right

there, but instead we moved

into an apartment, adopted

a cat you named Pharaoh,

and took a long car trip

to the mountains. By then

the circus was in town.

A handful of tough looking

dwarves in black leather

drank at the Wagon Wheel

that weekend. 'Just try and toss

us," the tall one kept saying,

'Just try." Your mother came

to visit and we ate funnel cake

among interesting strangers.

It was like the last supper.

Blood-lines showed,

and I could see you in thirty years.

Not bad. But I wasn't happy,

Pharaoh always stoned

on catnip. The little people

leaving on Monday,

and your mother would stay,

so I kissed you both

on my way to bed, slipped

out at dawn with the cat,

and took only that paper bag

of ripe figs from the kitchen table.



Eminent Domain


We'd moved into a farmhouse at the edge of the fairgrounds

when the court forced us from our old place

because we stood in the way of town plans for the new Super Wal-Mart.


One day Mom swept us outside where two dwarves lazed

beyond the fence on folding chairs; one smoked a cigarette

and one was peeling a Clementine.  It was exciting for us to see


that the circus was in town.  Life had grown predictable. 

We were lonely and had spent the whole summer prying

apart dried buns of horse manure with forks.  Someone had told us


that a county fair pony had swallowed her mother's diamond ring,

had lunged for the sugar cube cupped in her hand.

Our patience had nearly run out because summer was history


and school would soon begin.  This was consolation.

From the distant side of the field we heard hammering.

We saw the big top arise against a cotton candy sky.  The dwarves,


by then, were playing chess; a third had appeared to egg them on.

The sad one seemed to take forever to make his next move.  Thank God

the animal trailers arrived.  We admired the thoughtful elephant. 


Hungry ponies ripped at the Timothy.  Two llamas took it

all in stride while a withered lion paced around in his cage.

That night music churned from the dwarves' trailer window.


We watched the one named Rico grill cheeseburgers.  The song

was crazy, one we'd never heard, and Rico stepped back from flames

to play air guitar, flailing his greasy spatula for a pick.  He snarled,


and he spat out some lyrics, but we couldn't make out the words.

We found ourselves sneaking under the fence to have a look around

before Friday night when everything would start, and no one


seemed to mind.  The world reared up huge before us,

but the geeks were out there; our father had told us,

we could end up in their bellies. 


Evening grew uneasy as Mother agitated the rusty triangle

hanging from its hook by the kitchen door. 

Only the dwarves seemed to take it in stride. 


They'd heard it all before and couldn't be bothered.

The lion was reminded and resumed his worried pacing. 

The elephant shat; the ponies shat; the llamas shat, too. 


We crawled back through the opening in the fence. 

It was barely wide enough that we were still able. 

The little people could have followed, had they wished.




Stoned in the canned jangle of steel

drum tunes in the faux Tiki bar, I sit below

dusty plastic fronds and nurse my drink.  A few stools

down, too precious for words, a tongue-studded, nose-ringed,

lesbian couple, heads bowed close, whisper secrets and softly laugh.

I want their love to last.


I order a plate of clams oreganato

with crusty French bread on the side for dipping

into the buttery broth that strongly hints at salty brine.

Ted slides another frozen margarita down the lacquered

surface of the bar top while some raw, tequilaed-up synapse fires,

and I remember the Paul Simon


song that mentions two fragile ex-lovers

speculating over who's been damaged the most.

Guess what?: I think of you: how much like the book

you said you could read me like this is of me: to flounder

still in our marred way of being together in the world.  I love the dead,

dumb clack of emptied shells


as I assemble them into a stylized pile, as if

building an already weathered monument to sailors

the night sea took away and never gave back.  Damaged

dreamboat.  Damaged land.  Damaged ocean.  Damaged man.

Damaged woman.  Damaged tide.  Damaged moon.  Damaged pride.

Damaged angel.  Damaged wing.


Damaged Jesus.  Damaged everything.  I don't think

it will last, though the adorable lovers have now gathered

tightly in each other's arms and seem, in this heartbeat, defiantly

inextricable, their matching dragonfly tattoos now visible, poised as if

for trans-Atlantic flight on each girl's right shoulder blade.  I think of the

artist's needle, how it broke the skin.



Dinner at the Wok 'n' Roll Buffet


Guilty is how I feel on the road.  Floozies sing to me

from the hotel's lobby bar. 

Floozies seem everywhere,

multiplying as if I  travel a hall of mirrors. 

But across the service road

is all I can eat.  Watch me

brave rush hour traffic and remain faithful to you. 


A Chinese buffet is where the overweight take their last meals.

It worries me to death

that I'm here.  Try not to stare. 

Consider instead the grease congealed on your china. 

Every trip to the trough

requires another clean plate--signs

are hung to remind you.  The dishes are scratched.


Decorative rims have faded with the washing. 

A Chinese Buffet is a whorehouse.

Still, fat people arrive.  The hostess

loses her face.  She whispers in her daughter's ear,

"Tell them in back, more

Kung Pao, more beef on a stick."

She dreams thousands of deep fryers orbiting Earth,

watches them glisten like stars.  The fat people

change and grow unearthly. 

Unaffected by gravity,

they gracefully maneuver space around steam tables,

steel serving spoons held

daintily in their swollen hands. 

Wok music clatters through the tiny kitchen window. 


She hates this dying from hunger; she hates how

her face changes when

she sees them at the door.

The fat ones; the sad ones.  How the restaurant loses

money on them.  How,

after eating their weight

in eggrolls, they rise, Coke-bloated angels, generous


tips blazing the red tablecloths as if generosity could make

up the difference, as if guilt

was a toll road and here I've paid.

So goodnight.  There's ice cream on a chubby boy's shirt. 

He's smiling, and his over-sized eyes

are absurdly beautiful.

I've given in, my love, to desire so that I might die fat in your arms.


John Hoppenthaler, "How to Leave a Small Town Like Yours" from Lives of Water.  Copyright 2002 by John Hoppenthaler.  "Buffeted" from Anticipate the Coming Reservoir.  Copyright 2008 by John Hoppenthaler.  "Eminent Domain" and "Dinner at the Wok 'n' Roll Buffet" fromn Domestic Garden.  Copyright 2015 by John Hoppenthaler.  All reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Carnegie Mellon University Press.


Shining Rock Poetry Anthology Conversation:


Hoppenthaler:  Okay, I go first:


So, first a little history.  Although we're the same age, I was late to the party.  You emerged as a poet more quickly, and so I was at West Virginia University in--I guess it was 1994--certain that my poetry dream was over and working on an academic PhD. 


Since I had my MFA, I was asked to join the search committee for the department's new poet hire as the PhD representative.  I went at the box of applications with equal parts anticipation and jealous spite.  In the small handful that finally constituted my personal list of finalists was the dossier of one James Harms, a poet I'd never read. 


I'd opened your first book, Modern Ocean, and soon became a fan of your work because, in that book, you were doing EXACTLY what I found myself unable to do with my poems: that is, you were able to work your way down the page in a way that interested me, that incorporated the narrative conventions I found appealing (via my love of poets like Stephen Dunn, David Kirby, Galway Kinnell and others) but also the associative, quirkily meditative quality that I wanted to get at.  I suppose that quirky meditation was something I found in poems by folks like Frank O'Hara and Mark Halliday.  In your case, the poems tend to be based in a particular situation, and they're often pervaded by moodiness and/or ennui. 


As I've publicly declared on a number of occasions, it only took one workshop and a class on the New York School of poets with you to help me find my own way of writing a poem of this sort, to get me back in the saddle.  So, again, I thank you for that.


Anyway, the poem that first pulled me in is "Breakfast on the Patio."  This poem, to me, demonstrates the quality I've described above.  Where and how did you come to this sort of poem?  The Jeff of the poem is an actual person with whom I've gotten drunk, so I know that this poem is at least partly "true," but how much of the poem--if any--is imaginative fiction?  Have you seen this type of poem you were writing toward the completion of Modern Ocean (which is only one of several types in your arsenal these days) change or shift in any aesthetic way(s) over the years as you now mull over the release of your--yikes!--eighth full-length book of poems, The Only Lie Worth Telling: New & Selected Poems




Thank goodness you had the sense to get back to writing poems! 


First of all, thanks for the kind words about my work.  I think "Breakfast on the Patio" is a representative poem of that first book, and though it seems self-conscious in ways I'm not as fond of anymore, I still like it and read it to audiences now and then.  In other words, if I ever actually go ahead and let go of that book of New & Selected Poems you mentioned above, it'll be in it.


Like many young poets, I was a mimic, trying on different voices as a way of finding my own.  What was my own was my life and how I used it as subject matter, but it would take me years to understand what might be important about my childhood and upbringing; back then, I just focused on the memorable moments to jumpstart the poem-making process.  I didn't care all that much about getting my autobiography into language with any veracity; I wanted to write poetry, not memoir.  And once a poem was underway, I tried to sound like the poets I admired, knowing, I suppose, that I'd end up sounding mostly like myself. 


But the sound of a voice on the page was and remains critical to me.  I'm not all that interested in language that doesn't sound like someone; I want to know there's a person in there somewhere.   Still, I'm also not at all antagonistic to Language and Post-language poets; I read and teach a lot of them.  I just don't want to write like them, and I have none of the political or ideological concerns that problematize the valorization of voice.  I'm also aware of how the preceding sentence could be used against me.  Oh, well.


Certainly O'Hara shaped my aesthetic a great deal, as did the other New York poets.  But this particular poem descends from O'Hara by way of another terrific poet, Robert Long, who published a couple of really amazing books in the 80s.  He was someone you could read regularly in Poetry, The New Yorker and all the important anthologies of that time--very much a second or third generation New York poet (he lived in East Hampton or Springs).  But Long had a teeny bit more performance in his voice, and his poems tended to be more linear than the first generation New York poets.  And man, could he tell a story.  He was only 52 when he died in 2006, shortly after FSG published a book of his vignettes about the famous denizens of Springs (de Kooning, Pollock, O'Hara, Schuyler, Porter, Stafford, et al.).  I'd heard rumors he was writing poems again. 


That long tangent mostly was about getting to this point:  Long wrote vaguely autobiographical poetry and prose that always allowed for the wonderfully meddling presence of fiction.  And I favor that strategy, too.  The only things that aren't fiction in "Breakfast on the Patio" are the setting (my friends and I lived during the off-season on Balboa Island) and Jeff's name.  The rest is a story straight out of a Robert Long poem.


I've written a couple of fairly linear narratives lately that seem a return to this approach, though, again, I've more or less let go of performance.  Mostly, I want narrative to function as fuel for meditation.  I tend to read more John Koethe these days than other post-New York poets, which suggests a dangerous interest in the democratization of statement.  But we'll see.  Whew!  Sorry to go on.


So I re-read your first book, Lives of Water, just prior to writing the above.  Then I re-read the new book, Domestic Garden, just after I finished my meandering answer.  And though the through lines are everywhere apparent and have most to do with reverence, desire and place (primarily, the need to find home, both metaphorically and literally), the language has shifted perceptibly from telling to singing.  You've always written beautiful poems that found the "solace in the particular" that Keats talked about.  But now there's an even closer attention to the patterning of sounds that provides a different sort of foundation to the narratives, and concision and compression that seems to raise the stakes of language.  Which isn't to say the poems have grown shorter and more lyrical in the generic sense; if anything, there's a growing narrative complexity to your work over the years. Is that something you are aware of?  And could you connect three dots between three poets who've been the lodestars of your three books?  For instance, how do we get from "How to Leave a Small Town Like Yours" (Lives of Water) to "Buffeted" (Anticipate the Coming Reservoir) to "Side Porch of the Elizabeth Bishop House" (Domestic Garden)?  Have there been poets who've led you to different ambitions for your work?






‪You know, when I pick through Lives of Water, I see a first book that is--as are many, if not most first books--somewhat uneven, poem by poem, and a bit scattered as far as an overarching narrative is concerned.  That said, I also see a good handful of poems that I still consider among my best. I also see a truth about my aesthetic temperament.  That is, I'm an eclectic person by nature, all over the place in terms of my taste in music, food, whatever, and this eclecticism reveals itself in the array of ways I approach the making of poems.  At least I think it does. 


‪In Lives of Water, I see narrative poems, like "Ice" and "Sea Robins," that seem to me good poems that may owe some allegiance to poets like Bishop and Kinnell and Stephen Dunn and are akin to a kind of poem I still write though, as you point out, as I've matured as a writer, I've come to rely more on "singing" than on a flatter, occasionally more rhetorical approach.  My sonic ambitions have grown stronger with each book.  I've come to trust uneasy singing more than plain-style statements that now strike me as smug in some ways.  An outside reviewer of my application for promotion and tenure pointed out some of this, about Lives of Water, in this way: "On the whole, the diction's consistently plain style . . . at times proves problematic.  Too often, the weaker poems resort to physical gestures . . . to elevate the drama implicit in the flatly delivered meditation. .  ."  The reviewer has it just right.  Still, I remain somewhat committed, from time to time, to physical gestures as a way to relay information, especially gestures--and these are observable in all of the books--that have something to do with ritual.  I suppose, having been raised Catholic, that sense of ritual--wedded, as it is, to desire--has remained even though the dogma has not.    


‪"How to Leave a Small Town Like Yours" is a poem that begins to reveal, I suppose, my own interest in the New York School poets, especially O'Hara and Koch, especially as far as tone is concerned.  That fig in the last line is both a pun on the old saying, "I don't give a fig" as well as a version of the plum in William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say" via the wry tone of Koch's "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams." As a born and raised New Yorker, I think that sort of sense of humor is a part of my natural voice, and it's therefore an organic thing in many of my poems.  My speaker's are often pushing up against the self-deprecation envelope, though they are often naively unaware that they are doing so.  Michael Waters points this out in his blurb for the book, saying something about my willingness to present myself as a naïf in a strategic way.  The dwarves in this poem show up again in Domestic Garden, in a poem called "Eminent Domain" that is not so unlike this one in certain key ways, especially in how the closure happens and in how a mildly self-mocking sense of humor plays off the speaker's apparent desire for justice.  However, I think what I was trying to do in "Small Town" is more fully realized in "Eminent Domain," mostly because my tool kit is now a lot bigger and my proficiency with their use is much greater.  "Eminent Domain" is a poem that benefits from an important development for me, one that you spoke of earlier here in your own discussion of voice; that is, somewhere during the making of Anticipate the Coming Reservoir, my second book, I learned how to trust and more effectively use my own voice.  Even though, as with you, nearly all of my poems are largely acts of fiction, the voice of my various speakers is always already the voice of the poet, my own voice.  While Lives presents a range of styles--narratives, lyrics, hybrids--Anticipate is weighted more toward the narrative/hybrid mode.  This happened organically; I wasn't trying to do it.  But I believe it happened exactly because I was concentrating so much on voice and on how one might move a poem--in a way that is more associative, quirky and cadenced, maybe even more projective, in Duncan's sense, and less plain-spoken--down the page. 


‪Reflecting on it now, I'm convinced that a lot of this interest in voice had to do with some of the reading I was doing as I wrote these poems--stuff by Bob Hicok, say, as well as some of the literary theory to which I had been recently exposed.  I was especially interested, as I still am, in the notion of the author position, in the ways in which a poet might remain in the shadows of the background while language, the story without obvious authorial intrusion, might remain in the foreground.  I also was tickled by Veronica Forrest-Thomson's ideas about the conceit that lay behind an author's belief that he has access to "reality in its unmediated state," what she called "naturalisation."  I was also thinking about Barbara Herrnstein Smith's ideas about poetic closure as myth. That's certainly not to say that I was becoming a theory head!  Far from it.  Yet, such theoretical notions served (and continue to serve) me well in that they keep me honest and aware of certain arrogant pitfalls to which a poet can fall victim.  I also got some ideas about the making of poems from reader-response theories.  I now fully believe that a good poem is a different poem for each reader who reads it.  By that I mean this: the reader is not me. Her culture may be different, her educational background, her age, her politics, etc.  Therefore, how she connects the dots--yes, there is some of Steph Burt's notion of the elliptical poem and how it works at play here--is not the same way another will connect them.  Different needs, different poem.  I now prefer more ambiguity and more room for the reader to make some choices.  At the same time, I am acutely aware of Tony Hoagland's response to Burt's "Close Calls with Nonsense," that a poet ought not relinquish responsibility to a "passive-aggressive, somewhat resentful relation to meaning itself" or to "give away one of poetry's most fundamental reasons for existing: the individual power to locate and assert value."  These days, I want my poetry to live an uneasy life in some middle ground.


‪The other thing that was happening with Anticipate is that I had given dozens of readings from Lives of Water.  That was a real boon to my relationship to each poem, as I attempted to inhabit these poems and perform them at the front of the room in front of real people.  This put me in touch with poetry's oral roots, and it made me have to work on the different skill set required for the performative aspects of life as a public poet.  That is, the other new space I was trying to occupy, albeit uneasily, is the space between an awareness of an audience and the notion that poems are made in solitude and should not be concerned with an audience, only the artistic ambitions of the poet.  I have become more aware, as I compose and read my poems aloud in the revision process, of how I will inhabit that poem on stage.  That's where, at least partially, that "closer attention to the patterning of sounds that provides a different sort of foundation to the narratives" you spoke of earlier comes from.  It also comes from, I think, the training my poetry brain underwent as I drilled it in attention to sound, rhythm, rhyme and slant rhyme, condensation--to music.  I guess a lot of that comes via my informal training at the hands of Michael Waters.  At first, this was largely a conscious activity; over time, however, these things just seemed to happen naturally.  Rather than having to go over each poem, line by line, in revision, to add these things, I began to find that they were, mostly, already there! 


‪Yikes!  What was your question?  Okay, yes, so in a poem like "Buffeted"--one of my favorites to read out--I think I can see a progression informed by these concerns.  I see efforts toward what I spoke of above, the associative method, quirk, and cadence.  In the poem's closure, I leave space for the reader to make meaning while not relinquishing entirely my agency as the artist behind the work.


‪"Side Porch of the Elizabeth Bishop House" is a central poem in Domestic Garden, though it's meant to stand with another poem I wrote during a week in residence there in Nova Scotia, "Sleeping in Elizabeth Bishop's Bedroom."  Together, the main threads of the book--my late-in-life marriage and introduction to the world of domesticity, the fact of my mother's stroke and slow dissolve into dementia, my own sense of having entered the ranks of the middle-aged--come together in this one space, a spaced shared with my new wife and stepson, as well as the ghosts of Elizabeth Bishop and those she knew and loved.  Powerful stuff.  The poem kind of works as a braided, lyrical essay, I suppose, as it shifts back and forth in time and space to make connections between Bishop's world and my own, picking up on the dominant themes of the collection.  I think there's maybe some Natasha Trethewey influence here, in some way, having to do with history, elegy, memory and personal disclosure.  With its closure, again, I'm aware of my intent to not end the poem in the despair of the moment or in some false platitudinous epiphany but to open out into the steps that follow grief, the moving into and beyond at the same time.


‪But enough about me.  You, too, write many poems of domesticity.  Indeed, you agreed to be on a reading panel I pitched for the 2016 AWP Conference made up of male poets who write poems within that space.  That was a fun reading.  It was great to hear our voices, along with those of Geffrey Davis and Jon Pineda, reading poems in this vein.  The justification I came up with for an all-male panel was this: "Faced with Victorian notions of separate gender spheres, women writers fought the belief that subject matter for women should be relegated to issues of home and hearth--issues seen as petty and inappropriate for poetry--and took on political and social matters in their work. Later, poets like Brooks, Sexton, and Plath insisted that domestic matters are indeed appropriate for poetry. Yet, male poets have only infrequently agreed with this idea via the tacit act of writing poems within the domestic space themselves." 


‪I believe this to be true, though I do see more poets writing poems that address domestic life (and strife) these days.  Is this your impression as well? Can you speak to your negotiations with the domestic sphere in your poetry?  Certainly, as one who was at both of your weddings, I can trace the arc of two relationships through poems in a sequence of books, and the books are also peppered with poems about your children.  How hard do you think about using your children and former wives as subject matter?  A couple of my favorite poems of this sort are an earlier poem, "Epithalamium," and the wrenching "We Started Home, My Son and I."  Can you speak about these poems in a way that makes me seem smart? 


Also, more recently, a number of "domestic" poems have appeared, poems that seem risky on multiple levels.  Some of these are collected in a chapbook, Racheland, which appeared in the Idaho Review.  Maybe you can talk about the seething "Ransom Captive."  A poem of victimization can be especially risky.  I think the poem's exposition posits the suggestion of some non-specific implication on the part of the speaker, which is a hedge against the easy cry of foul; yet, the venom of the poem almost overwhelms the gesture and, finally, the speaker portrays himself, in archaic terms, as a cuckold.  This is Shakespearean tragedy.  Or is it Shakespearean comedy?  





I read your questions and immediately set all this aside for a couple of weeks.  Sorry about that.  There were plenty of other distractions keeping me from this conversation, but most of all I've been deep in the weeds of preparing the next manuscript (due in a few days), which includes quite a few of these domestic poems, not to mention poems of "victimization."  That whole process has left me less sure of myself than ever.


But I enjoyed engaging with your answers, and feeling challenged by them in certain ways.  So maybe I'll start there and see if I can get around to your questions.


I think you describe your work and its evolution accurately and astutely, and that you've done the right sort of labor to understand what's important to you about poetry, and why you write it.  I don't mean that to sound patronizing; I admire your deep thinking on these subjects.  But I was struck by how much time we all spend arguing with our instincts, and providing historical and theoretical contexts for what we do as artists (and I definitely include myself in that).  I wouldn't disagree with any of your concerns regarding the pitfalls facing poets who remain wedded to Romantic notions of creativity and creation, and how important it is to challenge and complicate the methodology of disclosure (for lack of a better term), since our audience has evolved as much as the art form has.  And yet . . .

I'm a very private person.  Over the past few years I've come to see where that instinct or need for privacy comes from (too much and too tedious to go into here), and to understand the toll it's taken on my life (nothing dramatic or outsized, but important to me).  We talked earlier about the role of fiction in our poetry, and certainly I continue to invite the imagination to transform and alchemize experience at every step in the poem-making process.  In fact, all three of the poems you mention are largely "made up."  But in one way or another they're all about marriage and family, and since those realities have been the central concerns of my adult life, I tend to make them the central concerns of my poetry.  Perhaps if they weren't such challenging concerns I could look further afield, but I'm still finding a lot to say about the domestic.  And to be honest, I've written many more poems about other things than I have poems about family; still it's useful to talk about this particular focus.


And of course, all sorts of other important things will end up in a poem about family life, and many of my poems about my children are actually more concerned with issues of class and legacy and Freud and faith, to name just a few of things that bubble up regularly.  Still, I've been very disappointed and, frankly, traumatized by marriage, and I've also been very interested in how my experience reflects larger cultural views on the institution.  So, though an early poem like "Epithalamium," written for a friend's wedding long before I ever married myself, is mostly just hopeful and playful, not to mention intensely invested in the solace of romantic love, the other two are about loss and cruelty.  "We Started Home, My Son and I" began as a very deliberate imitation of a poem by Jaan Kaplinski (I think it has the same title, or close) and ended up an object lesson on helplessness.  A poem about helplessness might seem like a poem about victimization (though I realize you were using that word in reference to "Ransom Captive"), but in fact I ended up really interested in how power plays out in divorce, and how necessary it is to embrace helplessness in order to keep going.  Helplessness doesn't necessarily have anything to do with giving up or handing over control, but it's an inevitable condition of interpersonal relationships, on some level.  And it's particularly poignant in the context of a failed marriage.


Frankly, the issue of power in domestic contexts is sort of terrifyingly huge for me.  I have a feeling it is for a lot of people.  So more and more I'm trying to tackle it head on, because it's clear to me how many lives are negatively affected by the inability to navigate power in the context of love.  This may seem a minor concern in the grand scheme of things, but I sense it's actually pretty high, or should be, on the list of societal concerns.  And my poems just tend to end up in that psychic and emotional space, or at least they often do.  So I have to make do with that.


I'm avoiding talking about "Ransom Captive," which I now think of as a failure, perhaps for the reasons you suggest.  At one time it was the title poem of the next book; now it's no longer in the collection. But I'm glad I wrote it.  I learned a lot from that poem, and it gave me permission to go new places with form and content.


So let's get off the subject of subjects and talk a little more about something you brought up in your previous answer:  how the knowledge that you'll be reading a poem aloud someday affects how it's written.  This fascinates me, probably because I don't do readings nearly as often as I used to, but mostly because it would never occur to me to consider the performance issues you described.  But I also have dozens of poems I simply never read out loud because they just don't work very well in that context.  You mentioned "Buffeted" (from Anticipate the Coming Reservoir) as a poem you really enjoy performing, and I can attest to what a terrific poem it is to hear.  Is there a poem in Domestic Garden that has the same sort of value to you (fun and effective to read out loud), and can you describe how and why it works so well as an expression of the oral tradition?  Related to this, has living in the south made story telling and orality more important to your work?






I'm not sure the south has had much to do with the increased attention to the performative aspects of the poems; the younger southern poets I read or have heard read, to me, seem not terribly different, in terms of style or aesthetics, to any other pocket of young writers. In fact, many of the writers giving readings and holding forth down here come from someplace else! That said, there are some that are terrific readers: Jericho Brown, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young all come immediately to mind.  


There are several poems in Domestic Garden that I love reading. I might point to the last poem in the book, "Dinner at the Wok & Roll Buffet." I usually use it to end readings, and I set it up with a bit of canned patter.  That is, I make it seem, at first, as if the poem will reveal some great transgression on my part as I allude to being on the road a lot and "what my wife doesn't know won't hurt her." Then I reveal that the poem is about me sneaking to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets because my wife doesn't like me to frequent them. This is me being the showman, using a comedian's bag of tricks.  It sets up the jokey parts of the poem; specifically, it allows the audience to feel authorized to laugh.  So many attendees at readings feel like it has to be all death and hurt and somberness, so I prepare them to be able to do what they otherwise might not think is allowable. That's important to the poem, and important to me because I want them to laugh where laughs are desired.  Funny is hard in poetry! Any "funny" poem worth its salt, of course, needs to understand what great comedians understand--that there's a fine line between laughing and crying.  So the poem begins in a comedic mode and, at various points, hits a nerve or two.  A line like, "A Chinese buffet is where the overweight take their last meals," for example, is perhaps funny on its surface until one gets at the painful truth of it.  As I bring the poem to closure, the penultimate lines reveal a sweet but unsettling image of a chubby child, and the last line--a complete sentence-- has been constructed so that it has elasticity on the verbal level.  That is, while it works serviceably on the page as written, when I read it out loud I incorporate an additional caesura, allowing me to pause at the word "die" before hitting the last joke, a joke that is only partly funny once it's thought about. So, I leave 'em chuckling, but there's that uncomfortable something left to ponder after the chuckle wears off.



In the weeks during which we've engage in this email conversation, many things have come to pass.  Legendary poets and songwriters have died.  Bob Dylan has been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.  And Donald Trump has won the presidency.  I sat in my office a long time the other day, thinking about how my role as a teacher now needs to focus less on line breaks and more on how to help protect the most vulnerable of my students from the violence and threat that has already begun to be levied at them by this new order.  If I'm a young person interested in poetry, but suddenly feeling very afraid and at risk, what can you tell me to make me think this poetry stuff is of any value to me at all?   






I'm not sure my message or my method as a teacher is going to change all that much, though I'll certainly be even more aware of what's going on in the room, how the threads of conversation are braiding, where comments are coming from and going.  But that's pretty much always my job in the workshop.  And one thing I emphasize (that most of us who do this emphasize) is that the workshop is a safe space; we've been saying that for years, long before that phrase became widely used.  Obviously poetry matters; it amazes me how quickly certain poems go viral during moments of crisis, and that's happened again recently.  I think students recognize that poetry offers them an opportunity to ritualize and honor their inner lives, and to give those lives shape in language in a way that other media simply don't offer.  So now more than ever we need it, especially in the classroom, where many of our students will never write another poem after the end of the semester, but will have known and will carry forward the lyric experience.  And who knows how that will change their lives.  My guess?  At least a little.





I'd like to maybe end up sort of where we started.  That is, with you as a teacher.  You're a terrific teacher.  Can you say where your teaching style comes from, especially as it concerns teaching poetry writing.  Can it be taught?  Or are we doing something other than teaching?  Facilitating?  Something like that?  Can you leave whatever readers this piece has found with a poem that comes, somehow, directly from your teaching of poetry writing?  I don't mean a poem about teaching, I mean a poem that arose via some conduit, some "teaching moment" (for you rather than for your students), from the classroom? 





I misread your question initially and thought you were asking for a poem that I've found particularly useful in the workshop.  I have a long list of those, beginning with William Meredith's "The Illiterate" (a poem I often use on the first day of class) but I'll try to answer your question instead.


Thanks for saying that about my teaching.  Even after all these years, I'm pretty insecure about my abilities in the classroom, which is probably a good thing, since it leads to a lot of preparation and reading, which is good for me.


I had great poetry teachers, starting with Ralph Angel, and including David Wojahn (who may be one of the finest teachers of his generation), Maura Stanton, Yusef Komunyakaa and William Matthews, among others.  And that doesn't include the close friends who also acted as teachers in my life:  Aleda Shirley, Dean Young, Lynda Hull, Laura Kasischke, you.  All have been models of how to approach the teaching of poetry, and I suppose I've cribbed a bit from each and every one of them.


I think you have to read extensively in literary history to be a true resource to your students, and as I suggested above, my insecurities about teaching and about the inadequacy of my own education have inspired me to read a lot.  Teaching creative writing is ultimately improvisational, but without a lot of preparation you don't have anything with which to improvise. 


You mentioned "teaching moments," and I'm certainly aware of those opportunities when I'm reading through the worksheet in advance of class.  I think pointing out and describing what students are doing, and providing a larger context for that description, is incredibly useful.  It's also hard to do well.  And it's definitely teaching (not simply facilitating, which isn't a bad thing to do, too) because you're helping the students find a language for what they're up to as writers, and you're directing them toward the tradition they might unknowingly be a part of, which will lead to incredibly valuable reading on their parts.  Most poets are autodidacts to some extent, at least when it comes to the study of literature; this is when their self-education really kicks into gear, when they begin to realize they are directly a part of a much larger endeavor. 


So much of writing is inchoate and intuitive, and needs to remain that way.  But at some point you lean back and describe to yourself what you're doing, which is when the editing and revising starts.  And until you learn (from a lot of practice or with the help of a teacher) to describe with specificity what's happening on the page, it's hard to truly be effective as a reviser.  So that's a big part of what I'm doing in the workshop, particularly at the graduate or upper-division levels.  As for a "teaching style," I don't know.  I want my students to feel safe, to take chances, to fail a lot and feel OK and unashamed about that.  So I guess it's all about trying to be generous and aware of what's going.  I find teaching a workshop exhausting, because you have to be so damn aware of what's happening.


Anyway, nothing new there.  As to a poem of mine that might have arisen out of my teaching of poetry . . . honestly, just about all of them.  I do every exercise and prompt I ask my students to do, and usually right along with them.  It's incredibly fun and productive.  So almost at random . . . here's a relatively short poem I can just type out from my last book (it was originally in Gulf Coast), one in which I take my own advice.  


One of the things I talk about a lot in workshops is the importance of thinking and writing in scenes, even if you're a poet.  That doesn't mean all poems need to be scenic, but I really do value what the elements of a scene provide poetry at a very fundamental level.  And this poem is essentially just a weird little scene, with the weirdness in charge of making meaning.  Thanks, John.



The Clock



We sit by the window

waiting for wine and watch

a car burn on Boundary Street,

a stopped clock above

the bar:  half-past three

forever, and then it's now.

I remember a shady spot

north of here on I-5

called Crow's Landing       

as five of them settle

on the line above the fire.

An Impala, I think,

or the newer Malibu.

They hop in the heat

waiting for the flames

to settle into smolder.

There's something to pick at

or they wouldn't be here.

And the INS guys in their

black Suburban.  Just waiting.

Here at last, a gentle Lambrusco.

Half-past three with a view

of Boundary Street.  Somewhere

behind us, Mexico.  Eight

crows now, the fire nearly out.




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