In the historical poems, how important to you is strict accuracy?
I want to be certain that things like sheep-jaw skates and wig stands could exist in a character’s life. I want the trees in my poem to be the trees in a character’s city, and the wood to be the wood that really was used to make a spectacular violin. I try hard to have that accuracy of image, and, given a choice, an image that is aurally rich as well. A visual and aural vividness.
That said, Erasmus Darwin had not seen sheep-jaw skates as far as I know. One day I received a letter from England from a member of the Darwin family who had seen the two poems when they ran on facing pages in The New Yorker. He thanked me for them and “for your interest in my family” (as if there are only few of us interested) and mentioned my “imaginative use” of the objects. He knew exactly the role those items played within the poems—why they were there.
How much do you research and think about a character’s personality and way of thinking – his or her own take on events?
In the majority of the poems, and there are exceptions, it isn’t the figure’s personality that I’m as drawn to as what the figure represents to society or civilization. When I wrote The Profile Makers, for example, I selected characters—from de Silhouette to Daguerre to Mathew Brady to Thomas Edison—because they all worked in one way or another with “the captured image;” drawing, photography, x-ray. That book began when I saw a note in a museum catalog saying that glass-plate negatives from Brady and his crew were used to replace broken greenhouse windows. That image, light passing through the bodies of civil war soldiers to nurture hot-house plants, launched the book for me. All of its characters represented aspects of the book’s central inquiry. Nonetheless, I hope they do come across as human, and I wouldn’t give a character opinions or conclusions that aren’t documented.
How do you decide whether a poem will be in the first or the third person?
It’s not a decision I make before starting a poem. I’ll often experiment with both points of view in trying to find a poem’s voice and tone. Writing in the first person, in the voice of an historical character, is less challenging to me than writing about that person. But it can also be more energizing for me—more fun. My first person “character” poems often reflect the movements of an internal monologue, the speaker’s thoughts shifting without formal transitions, as the mind does when processing both thought and sensory input. That type of first person voice isn’t asked to be responsible to a logical or linear progression, and that freedom often results in surprises. The voice is frequently searching, its impulse to speak stems from discontent, and all of these factors yield a certain immediacy or tonal urgency that isn’t found in my third person poems. The latter, because they’re offered by a seemingly omniscient speaker who is absent as a participating character, progress in a far more balanced way. Their voices aren’t fired by discontent—they are tellers rather than subjects. The reader senses that these voices know the poem’s full “story” from the outset, and the entire poem, its tone and pacing and resolution, is colored by that omniscience.
Do you feel differently about the figures, or about the poems, depending on the point of view?
That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about two poems I’ve written on Marie Curie, one in the first person, one in the third. The poem that’s in Curie’s voice, “From the Orchard,” is in sections, its lines jagged, frequently enjambed. Curie flits from one image to the next as her story emerges through accretion of the disparate. The third person poem, “Thinking of Red,” is in seven six-line stanzas, with lines of about the same length, and the story progresses linearly. I think of my relationship to Curie as “parental” in “Thinking of Red” and “collegial” in “From the Orchard.” Those aren’t quite the right terms, I know, but “parental” is to “omniscient” as “collegial” is to the first person or “borrowed voice”—a point of view in which poet and subject merge.
I was interested to notice that most of the figures in the poems are men. Does that enter into your thinking at all?
I’m drawn to figures who have been highly and dramatically engaged in our journey as a civilization, particularly in science and art. That they are men or women is less important to me than their roles in altering our history.
How do you think about the shape of a book as whole? Do you have a sense when you get into a character that this is going to be a whole book?
It varies, although not extensively, from book to book. As I mentioned, The Ghost Trio and The Profile Makers both were launched by a single stimulus. Usually, after I’ve finished a book, I’ll write poems for a year or more without a sense of how they might be part of a future book. Then something will startle those poems into at least a potential conversation with one another—with First Hand, it was the cloning of Dolly. From then on, for another two years perhaps, I’ll write poems that join the conversation. I hope that the poems work together the way shards in a kaleidoscope do—free-standing parts of a greater whole, distinctly different in shape and color.
At that point do some poems get left behind?
Usually most poems that I’ve spent a significant amount of time on make it into a book, although they may be revised radically along the way. If my process is too programmed, the book will feel static, so I like to bring in rogue poems that enter the conversation from a different angle, but still echo a central inquiry. The structure of the book is a tool that helps me compose, the way formal structure can help us compose: it guides my thinking. It’s a much looser method than composing in a formal structure, of course, but when the poems start to align, that alignment helps me to see ligatures as well as gaps. I’ll write in my journal You need more of this in the early section or You need more of that here, and then try to write to that need.
What about the new poems in Flight that aren’t part of a separate book?
It was hard to let the new poems enter this collection before my next book is finished. I have a sense of where this next book is going: Venice will be a focus, because it’s such evidence of civilization’s ability to create beauty and destruction, and we’re losing it because of what we’re doing to the earth’s physical systems. But that’s just a kernel of the book, and it will be important for me to gather many new poems together so that I can see more clearly the ones that are failing. I already know that certain new poems need revision. Others will join them, I’m sure.
I realize in saying this how much I need the structure of the overall argument of the book to help me see the flaws in individual poems. It took me all these years to have a New and Selected—it’s drawing on seven books. I think the reasons I resisted the format so much are, first, that it required me to abbreviate books that I had conceived of as a whole, but also that I knew that certain poems in the new section would grow stronger over time. They are finished enough to make an appearance, though. In time they may illustrate a process, and I wanted to include them.