Behind a Name, Into a Poem [Q&A]

This is a poem talk with poet Scott Edward Anderson.

Naming

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

“Naming” was published, for the first time, in 2001 and you wrote about it once again in 2010, and now we are talking about it again today. What about this poem makes it relevant across so much time?

I think there’s a mystery to it, an enigma of sorts, which seems to unfold in and out of itself. The poem almost seems to grow organically. It’s an unusual poem and I think that possibly helps it find new audiences. There’s mystery, but it’s not “difficult,” the images are all grounded, specific, and real. We can know them, we can name them. Some are familiar, some exotic. Someone once told me it is the one poem of mine that may survive me, which both pleases and disappoints me. (I’d like to think there will be more than one!) There’s a film poem of it made by Scottish filmmaker, Alastair Cook, which premiered at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Edinburgh back in January 2011.

What’s the meaning of this poem to you personally? This idea of naming, how do you connect with it?

At its most basic level, the poem was written at a time (winter into spring of 1996) when my first son was just about to be born and the work on it continued into the first year or so of his life. I’d been thinking a lot about naming – not just his name, but the concept of naming and why it’s important to us as a species. Also, I’d recently moved to Alaska when this poem started to come together and that got me thinking about the distances between people – especially people you love — and, yet, how we can be connected by our names, whether in our minds, on the printed page or even a handwritten note.

This poem is full of specific references both to historical moments (Foreman losing to Ali, Troy falling) and also to just specific things (magpies, I.M. Pei architecture). Why these references? What do they add? How did you pick them?

Specificity is important in a poem, I think, places and history, animals and architects. I strive to be more specific, less abstract in my poetry. To me, the more specific, the more grounded a poem becomes: when I say “magpie,” you see a very specific bird; if I just said “bird,” that specificity is gone and you might see whatever bird comes to mind or the one you saw most recently. As to why these things, I guess they are all things, events, places, I’ve seen or am interested in. For example, although much of this poem comes out of Alaska, the great-tailed grackles in southern coastal marshes came from a fishing trip I took with a friend down in coastal Texas. As for I.M. Pei, I’ve long been a fan of his architecture and try to visit his work whenever I’m in a city where it can be found. The one I had in mind here was the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, which I probably visited during that same trip. Maya Lin and Frank Gehry are other favorite architects whose work I seek out.

When you speak of magpies being a totem of yours, what do you mean by that? What does it mean to you to have a totem for your poetry? 

A totem is a spirit being or a symbol that serves as a guide of sorts. Gary Snyder, with whom I studied 25 years ago, instructed us to find and adopt totems for our poetry, something that would inform our writing or our approach to writing. Mine is more likely the raven, if I’m honest, although all corvids, which includes magpies, crows, ravens, and jays, are helpful symbols to me. Bears, or more specifically polar bears, are another. Corvids because they are mysterious, crafty, intelligent, problem solvers; bears because they are emblematic of grounding forces and strength, and stand up in face of adversity – they are in touch with the earth and the cycles of nature. I like to think these two totems help guide me and ground my writing, especially my poetry.

What was the writing process for this poem?

I have a very specific memory of when this poem started: I was skating alone on an outdoor ice rink near my house at the time in Anchorage, Alaska. This would have been late winter 1996, just before my oldest son was born. Some of the original images started to form and coalesce in my head on the ice. Back then, I wrote a lot in my head before putting anything down on paper, and that was certainly the case with this poem. I recall working some of the rhythms and cadence in my head while skating. And, in point of fact, I remember making that snow angel on the way back from skating. Not sure when the trip to the Texas coast took place, but I traveled a lot for work at the time, so it was probably around then as well. My son clearly shows up in the reference to children “who know only syllables endlessly repeated,” learning to talk, humming, and processing his world.

What was the editing process? 

I worked on it over the better part of a year, maybe even two or more. Revision is, for me, the real work of writing poetry. I can’t remember the exact number of versions there were of this poem, but I seem to recall it came together fairly quickly once it got to paper. I suspect the opening stanza was not its original, as that is usually the first to get cut when I write. Then I pare and trim and try to listen to where the poem wants to go and resist taking it where I think it should go. I did a lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage, called “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” [link] in which I examined Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man” and my poem “Black Angus, Winter,” through the numerous drafts of each. It explains my editing process at the time, which is still largely unchanged.

Where was it first published, how did this happen (what did you do, how many places was it submitted, etc.)? 

“Naming” was first published in the Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR) in the summer of 2001. I remember the editor Ron Spatz wrote to me, shortly after I won the Nebraska Review Award in 1998, asking why I hadn’t submitted anything to AQR. In fact, I had submitted over the years, but they never took anything. “Do you want to see an Alaska poem of mine?” I wrote back. He said it didn’t have to be Alaska-themed, but sure. He took it straight away. I’m sure it was rejected a half-dozen times or so before that by various places.

What was the most major editing done to the poem?

Trimming, trimming, trimming. Ezra Pound said “dichten = condensare” (poetry is to condense), and I try to follow that advice.

 

Villanesca

Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).

Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”

“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.

I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.

 

This poem is much more recent that “Naming,” how does that create a difference between them? Were you a different poet when you wrote one or the other? Different concerns/style/etc.?

Yes, I’d say I was a very different poet when I wrote “Villanesca,” especially when I finished the poem, which was almost a decade later.

“Naming” actually went on to inform a very specific body of work – in tone, style, and cadence — a poem sequence called “Dwelling,” some of which makes up section four of my book, FALLOW FIELD, but is actually part of a much larger, sustained sequence of poems, an “ecopoem,” in my conception. Most of that sequence was written during my residency at the Millay Colony in upstate New York in the fall of 2002.

“Villanesca,” I’m guessing was somewhat of conscious a break from that style and the concerns of that sequence, how we dwell on the earth. I started writing it in 2004 or at least I started noodling it back then, but I didn’t finish it until sometime in 2015 – eleven years after starting it!

What’s the story of the idea for the poem? You mention it in your previous discussion, but I’d like to talk about it here too.

The poem had its genesis in an overheard conversation between a friend and colleague and his daughter. We were on a train heading from Philadelphia to DC, going to pitch our concept for The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report. (We landed the gig.) His daughter had forgotten her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and wanted him to bring it to her. She hadn’t realized he was traveling. “She’s a teenager,” Jan remarked at the time. “Her world revolves around her.”

The poem took off from there albeit in a very direction, towards a general miscommunication, and quite quickly from a father-daughter relationship to a relationship between two adults.

This poem, you mention, was in progress for years. Could you map the editing and changes it went through over that? How did you know it was done if it’d been in progress for so long?

My God, this poem gave me a lot of trouble! As I mentioned, my revision process is to try to listen to where the poem wants to go, and I remember resisting that with this one. I struggled to sequester the emotions and feelings that were coming through in the poem, largely reflective of my own failing marriage at the time. I was in denial and, every time I tried to sequester it, the feelings would surface, stronger and with more assertion. Finally, I just had to give into the poem and let it go where it wanted. Of course, I really couldn’t do that until I got a bit of distance from the poem, which is probably why it took so long to finish!

Interestingly, the title was originally, “Spanish Dances,” and later changed to “Villanesca,” which is one of the movements in Granados’s “Spanish Dances.” What I like about the new title is it means “rough,” as in “rustic” or “peasant-like” in Spanish, which fits with both the roughness of the relationship described, and the way the narrator’s partner plays the movement of Granados’s piece, “your rough interpretation”. But it is also connected to villainous or villainess, which speaks to the behavior of either or both of the couple.

There’s another meaning, too, a synonym in Spanish, “Hombre ignorante,” which is brilliant and fits perfectly, both for the narrator/protagonist who is ignorant of his/her true feelings and for the piano-playing partner, who is also ignorant of the effects of his/her behavior on their relationship, and who “always forget(s) the score,/ ignore(s) signals, struggle(s) to find the right notes, refuse(s)/ to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.”

Personally, I find this poem to build towards a twist. It builds up to a conclusion with a more traceable narrative when compared to “Naming” which is more all-encompassing, needs no specific time markers. What do you think of this observation, did you intend to capture more of a narrative in this poem?

I think you’re right in that observation. This poem required more of a narrative than, say, a poem like “Naming.” There’s clearly a story happening here, wanting to be told. It’s interesting, early drafts of this poem had a very clear division similar to what you observed: there was much more description of the music and the way it is played – one friend who read an earlier draft observed there was such an obvious demarcation from the first part — largely a detailed ode to the physical score/pieces of the music, how it is played and by whom, and a lot of precision and attention to detail.

Then the quote “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline” sort of signals a switch and crystalized the selfishness of the pianist. There are consequences to the behavior and those consequences ultimately lead the speaker to abandon the pianist, at least for the duration of the flight — or perhaps even forever.

This poem was based on a phone call from a friend’s daughter, but the poem itself suggests a different relationship (at least in my reading) how did it end up where it did? How much of the poem is drawn from real life? 

The poem had it impetus in the overheard conversation, but definitely took off from there, much like the airplane…

If a poem is largely fiction in the actual narrative, but speaks to a human experience or a relatable experience, at least, how do you think that impacts the poem? Does it lessen the impact at all to speak more broadly about these types of poems? 

Is it fiction or fact? Not sure. The poem is not a document of history so much as an impression…that it describes a relationship – and specifically relatable experiences in a relationship. We’ve all had moments of miscommunication, been irked by someone’s lack of consideration. As to whether the impact is lessened by speaking about it – I’ll let the reader decide.

I’m interested in how a poet arrived at a poem – even if, as I wrote in my essay, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Writing from the Shadows,” the poet may be the last to know how he or she got there.

What was the editing process? 

I worked on this poem off and for about 10 years. Finally, in early 2015, I mentioned it to my friend the poet Alfred Corn because he was musing about his connection to Spanish music in a post on Facebook, possibly Granados’s music, which reminded me of this poem I’d never finished. I sent it to him and he liked it, but felt it needed some editing. That encouraged me. He wrote that “If you cook, and if you ever cook eggplant, you know they recommend putting salt on the slices to expel excess water. I think the same could be done for this poem. If you could make it shorter by 10%, I feel certain it would gain in concentrated power.” I do cook and got the analogy right away. I was also ready to try anything with this poem.

So Alfred and I corresponded about it a bit more over the next month or so and as the poem cooked and condensed. His advice was immensely helpful to me. I’d also achieved some distance from the feelings and emotions surfacing in the poem, which may have been tied to my failing former marriage. (I was happily remarried by then, which also helped gain an objective perspective.)

Where was it first published, how did this happen (what did you do, how many places was it submitted, etc.)?

After working on the poem for a month with Alfred’s advice, and when we both felt it fully cooked, he asked me to send it to the Cimarron Review, where he was a contributing editor. I think it had been to about a half-dozen places from about 2008 to 2012, before I put it to rest for a while.

What was the most major editing done to the poem?

It was much longer (41 lines) and the line length was much shorter, and there was a lot more detail in the poem about the Granados pieces (and even other versions from that in-flight music station). All that got stripped out and it got down to 26 lines and more condensing and chopping away at unneeded adjectives, adverbs, and articles – really cooking it down as you would reduce a gravy, until it was down to 17 lines and only the essentials.

 


Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts, and received both the Nebraska Review Award and the Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. His work has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Anon, The Cortland Review, CrossConnect, Earth’s Daughters, Isotope, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Poetica, River Oak Review, and Terrain, among other publications.  He was a founding editor of Philadelphia’s Ducky Magazine and writes The Green Skeptic blog.  More of his poetry can be found at scottedwardanderson.com. He is also the author of a book of natural history of New York State, Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995).

 

 

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