Writers often say that their craft is a compulsion: they write because they must. But when putting pen to paper, what is it that inspires some to communicate in verse? The three poets in the 2015–2016 fellowship class dig deep to tell us what drives them.
2015–2016 Walter Jackson Bate Fellow
One of the reasons I write poems (there are many that I know of, and probably many more that I don’t) is because my life is made of questions, and some of those questions seem most answerable by the thinking poems let me do. Which is thinking in music and associations and pictures; but equally, or more, thinking with my tongue, my mouth, my throat, my breath, my feet, my hips, my heart (yup, I said it, and I meant it: heart heart heart)—which is all to say, thinking with and by the truth of my body, which is fading away as we speak. Thinking with the truth of the fading, I’m saying. Which is also the truth of my wanting, in some real way, at least a little bit, to fade into you. To be taken in by your breath, your body—maybe, even, a little bit, to die there, which is what sound does when it leaves the body, unless, settling into the body of another, it becomes something else. It becomes, if we are lucky, another kind of music.
Becoming a Horse
It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s
that made me know
the sorrow of horses. The sorrow
of a brook creasing a field. The maggot
turning in its corpse. Made me
forsake my thumbs for the sheen of
And in this way drop my torches.
And in this way drop my knives.
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
And my face grow long.
And these words cast off, at last,
for the slow honest tongue of horses.
Copyright 2015 Ross Gay. This poem appears in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)
My initiation into language and poetry was split-level, like the ranch houses on our cul-de-sac in a suburb of Paterson, New Jersey. Upstairs, among first- and second-generation white European immigrant families, our native languages and accents were being thrown off like so many dirty schmattas that might betray our newcomer—and formerly working-class—status. I was mutely aware of the giant invisible hole into which the old ways of speech were swallowed. Couldn’t everybody feel that vacuum in our midst sucking the sweetness from our words? All-purpose words—great, cool, neat—were used for all purposes. Language lacked the flavor and subtlety of varietals. You asked a question and got a one-word answer, which was helpful. But also sort of lonely.
Meanwhile, in the cigar-scented basement, we kids played amid Dad’s bar, golf trophies, and the taxidermic sailfish with the walleye he caught in Florida. On the wall. My friend Mo’s wavy blond ponytail was fastened with what looked like two shiny gumballs on elastic. We giggled at nonsense ditties, stuff we made up, Dr. Seuss. A few lines from I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew sent us into spasms of giggles every time we read it, a cause-and-effect behaviorist experiment that never failed us:
a very fresh, green-headed Quilligan
sneaked up from behind and went
after my tail!
Poetry returns me to that basement, that vivid state in which language can be felt on the tongue as a substance, a dear birthright, a food we can play with, together. It’s a way to swim in the communal ocean of language that we’re plunked into at birth, so mysterious and alien. The “upstairs” language seems such a tiny current in that vast sea.
Greed got in the way. We built a fake estate.
Levinas said to see ourselves we need each other yet
doorbells, rows of them, glow in the night village
a string of lit invitations no elbow has leaned into
(both arms embracing messages). Unanswered
the doors are rotting from the bottom up.
It’s another perplexing pothole in our road, loves.
Hard core from the quarry might make it level,
hard core and cunning speculation into matters
concerning love and doubt, concerning want and plenty.
O the places where pavement runs out and ragwort
springs up, where Lindenwood ends but doesn’t abut
anywhere neatly, a petered-out plot of Tayto
tumbleweeds, bin bags, rebar, roof slates, offcuts,
guttering, drain grilles, doodads, infill, gravel!
A not-as-yet nice establishment, possessing potential
where we have no authorized voice but are oddly fitted
out for the pain it takes to build bit by bit.
When the last contractions brought us to the brink
of our new predicament, we became developers.
Copyright 2011 Alice Lyons. This poem was first published in Poetry.
2015–2016 Frieda L. Miller Fellow
I want to write poems people return to for mystery and nourishment. I like the idea of them lodged in the mind, where they subtly screw with the wiring. At school, I picked an old edition of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock off the library shelf, not really knowing what it was: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” I wanted desperately to be able to make something like that, singing just beyond sense.
When I was 21, I moved to America, to study at Harvard for a year. There was something about being in an unfamiliar place, feeling foreign again—my family emigrated from Hong Kong to England when I was seven—that pushed me into writing poems with a commitment and need I hadn’t really felt as a jotting teenager.
A summary of my first collection, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), would probably call it a poetic meditation on my mixed Chinese-English heritage. A string of poems tells the story of my Chinese mother, who was an unwanted girl adopted as a baby, growing up in Hong Kong in poor and precarious circumstances. In some ways, the poems try to make sense of the difference between my life and hers. That strand is a strong one in the book, but a lot of the poems are weirder and consciously less placeable than that summary would imply. In fact, troubling at labels and categories is a large part of their conceptual and emotional work.
I had hoped to write a book that would offer up certain pleasures on a first reading, but also an experience that would shift and deepen on later encounters. I’m aware that’s a lot to ask of busy readers. But then again, if a book of poems gives you permission to slow down, to contemplate and savor, maybe that’s not the worst thing.
I watched the turquoise pastel
melt between your fingerpads;
how later you flayed
the waxen surface back
to the sunflower patch
of a forethought, your
instrument an upturned
brush, flaked to the grain —
the fusty sugar paper buckled.
You upended everything,
always careless of things:
finest sables splayed
under their own weight,
weeks forgotten — to emerge
gunged, from the silted
floor of a chemical jamjar.
I tidied, like a verger
or prefect, purging
with the stream from the oil-
fingered tap. Stop,
you said, printing
my elbow with a rusty index,
pointing past an ancient
meal’s craquelured dish
to the oyster-crust
at the edge of an unscraped palette —
chewy rainbow, blistered jewels.
Copyright Sarah Howe. This poem previously appeared in Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015).