BY JACQUES J. RANCOURT
While reading In a Beautiful Country, I’ve noticed quite a few sonnets, rhyme patterns, and a distinctive visual form that has characterized many of your poems. My question is: how do you approach form, both the received forms and the invented ones? Do you begin with certain limitations and restrictions when you start out to write or do they emerge later in the drafting process?
Well, most broadly, I sometimes imagine that my free verse poems are like little minds working away at big problems. What, they sometimes ask, happens when we die? What are our responsibilities to each other as citizens? As human beings? Where are our nation’s borders, and are they more fluid than they seem? I like to think that these questions aren’t really answerable, but that the form of the poem might, in some way, reflect the poem’s struggle with them. With this in mind, I’ll offer an indented line and white space where I imagine the poem pausing, rethinking the problem, changing gears. Or a larger break and more white space might suggest that the mind has abandoned one approach for another. A tight rhyme implies comfort and (often false) conclusiveness; slant rhyme suggests things not quite coming together as they might. I think this even applies to the more narrative poems—poems like “On Mercy” or “The Ambassador”—where I imagine the speaker of the poem inventing the story, making narrative choices that reveal as much about himself as they do about the events he relates.
I suppose this is less true of the poems in closed forms—the sonnets and traditionally rhyming poems. These poems contain, coded in their forms, a sense of their own inevitability. The sonnet, after all, will always end on the conclusion of that final rhyming couplet. For others, there’s always that next rhyme five (or four, or whatever) beats away. For myself, it helps to think of these poems as more declamatory, as public expressions. Often—in “The Twentieth Century,” for instance—I imagine the speaker to be something of a collective mind, perhaps the all-encompassing mind of our nation. And that mind has something public to say, something it has worked out in advance. I know that sounds grandiose…
I’m interested in your use of segmentation throughout In a Beautiful Country. Many of your poems in this collection are spliced by section breaks and string together several different voices and characters. I’m thinking in particular of your poems “On Mercy” and “Night Watch,” although many others also unfold in this way. I’m curious of your process with these poems—whether they came together in this form or whether there was the act of collapsing and connecting these various parts together?
Well, poems like this never come out whole. I work at them pretty hard, cutting, moving bits around, cutting some more, rethinking. Always, though, I try to keep the momentum of the narrative in mind and, to that end, I always ask myself what happens next, what this speaker is likely to fixate on, what he’s likely to elide.
I think my generation of poets has come to a sometimes counter-productive suspicion of narrative in poetry. So many of us want to undercut it, refute it, “interrogate” it. I suppose that’s OK if it yields good results. But I came to poetry through writing fiction and remain fascinated by the power of narrative and stories. What happens when the same story is told simultaneously from two points of view? What if God tells the story? Or an inanimate object? Or one speaker tells it in his present while the other remembers it as her past? Or, in “Night Watch,” what happens when the speaker realizes, suddenly, toward the end of the poem, that the entire narrative is his own invention, that none of it happened except that he needed it to happen to help him through his current difficulties? I think that we can communicate a great deal of human truth through stories—that our stories and how we tell them reveal a lot about who we are.
In a Beautiful Country is broken into twelve sections. While I was reading it, I was reminded of something Dean Young said about how poets are so drawn to brevity because we love beginnings and endings. With so many section openings and closings, there’s a lot of opportunity for poems to be highlighted in interesting ways. What was the process of constructing the order of the poems in In a Beautiful Country, and what was your method in organizing it?
The book went through many restructurings. For me, the so-called “arc” of a book is almost always an afterthought, a strange imposition on poems that were constructed one by one as individual objects. But the fact is, they do begin to bounce off each other in interesting ways when they’re asked to live between the same covers.
I know constructing the book in twelve sections of four poems each is a little eccentric—most poetry books are in three sections these days—but, beginning with the poem “Four Artes Poeticae,” these poems seemed to talk to each other most interestingly in smaller groups. Earlier versions, in which the poems came all at once in two or three large sections, were too intense. The softer voices, or the weirder voices in the rhymed poems, got lost in all the competing stories. And, once I’d committed to the idea that the poems might exist in the book as twelve intimate, mini-conversations about war, history, or death, I became more and more drawn to it. It seemed to me that all kinds of questions and little twists emerged where the poems disagreed with each other, where they played with the same image in vastly different ways.
I love how certain images echo throughout In a Beautiful Country (the horse on fire is one that strikes me the most). In reading your other books, I’ve noticed that certain images and even poem sequences (I’m thinking of the “For the Dead” sequence in particular) have spanned across several books. And yet, despite the way your books are interconnected by motifs and sequences, each new book feels very unique and different in its own right. Could you talk for a bit about what restrictions you place on yourself when starting a new project and how these interconnected poems or images change for you as you continue writing them?
I like to think of all my poems as part of one big project. Perhaps that project is my own trying to figure out what a poem can be, how it might make sense of a very complicated world. Given that, I’m OK with returning to themes worked on in other books, continuing sequences of poems over several books. That’s all productive and part of my sense of a larger, ongoing education in poetry.
At the same time, I worry about hitting the same note too incessantly—not just because it might bore readers, but because after a while a certain poem becomes easy to write. When that happens, it’s important to stop writing that poem and try something else.
Truly, though, much of the apparent theme of a poetry collection reflects not a set of plans made at the outset but the accident of certain obsessions that sustained me in writing over the years of the book’s production. When I was writing Fallen from a Chariot, for instance, I was completely consumed by Roman history, politics, and drama. I couldn’t stop reading or thinking about it, and this naturally influenced poems that ended up trying to understand our current political/historical moment through the lens of classical history. The same occurred in National Anthem, though in that case I’d become fascinated by apocalyptic literature, science fiction, cinematic destruction.
But, of course, these are all just ways of trying to understand the world, screens through which we make sense of it. They are useful.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on longer narratives grounded in worlds that seem, at least superficially, more like our own. Of course, things go wrong, narrators invent stories for duplicitous reasons. Uncanny, harrowing, or supernatural things happen. But the stories are, for the moment, unfolding in the domestic sphere, a terrain that is less historical and more personal.
April 15, 2011