Originally published in Willow Springs 73
From the author
Notes on “How Long This Drought Will Last”
For the past few years I’ve been writing poems about monsters, both of the fantastic and more mundane varieties, a project that occasionally has led me into alien territory, as is evident in this poem. Because my best friend and best, first reader, Andrea Scarpino, hates aliens, I apologized every time I gave her an alien poem (although I kept giving them to her). We were discussing an early draft of “How Long This Drought Will Last” when she said something that cracked the poem open for me: “I don’t really hate aliens. I just think we like to ‘other’ them,
when really we’re a greater threat to ourselves.” The idea that the most pressing danger comes from within is a recurring theme in the monster poems; we seem to need monsters to reassure ourselves of what we aren’t.
As I revised the poem, most of my work was in honoring the cadence of the speaker’s voice, a voice that reminds me very much of the farmers I knew growing up in northwestern Missouri. I wanted the speaker to maintain what I imagine as a kind of native dignity—he wants to meet the aliens on their own terms and trade his knowledge for theirs. He is too stubborn or too proud to ask outright for help, but he does hope the aliens will be willing to answer his most pressing question: whether this drought is just a passing difficulty or whether farming is no longer a viable option on our ravaged earth. And I love that, as a farmer, this speaker imagines that aliens also must have farms and thus feel a kind of kinship with him. The juxtaposition of aliens (unknowable, perhaps threatening) and corn (mundane, life-giving) also reminds me of a line from Keats’s great “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the speaker imagines Ruth “in tears amid the alien corn.”
To me there’s something lovely, though also desperate, in the speaker’s desire for a visitation, in “the hiss / and roar” that will bring, instead of unwelcome invasion, a kind of salvation, or at least a greater knowledge. Although I’m fairly certain the aliens won’t be coming any time soon, if they do, this speaker is exactly the kind of person I want to greet them on our behalf.
Notes on Reading
For me, reading is far more than a hobby. I like to tell people it’s my natural state—what I do when I’m not interrupted by anything else. I’m lucky that as a poet and a professor I can read all kinds of strange things and call it “research”—British murder mysteries, the autobiographies of professional wrestlers, sweeping historical novels or nonfiction explorations of sports culture, religion, and human intelligence. Because I am always thirsting for a story, I read at least as much fiction as I do poetry, although the writers I most often return to are all poets: Keats, Frost, Bishop, Rukeyser. Among poets working today, I am awed and inspired by the work of B.H. Fairchild, Dorianne Laux, Natasha Trethewey, and Philip Levine. And while I am perpetually behind in my reading of new books, lately I’ve been blown away by Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad, Jeff Simpson’s Vertical Hold, and Cleopatra Mathis’s Book of Dog.
There are times when my poems are directly related to my reading, when I’ve taken on a subject or a form or an insight that I can follow back to its source, even if I’m the only one who would see the relationship. But there are at least as many occasions when an idea surfaces that seems untraceable to anything I’ve read, when the impulse or seed of a poem seems to have emerged from the air. Because reading has always felt, to me, like a kind of breathing, I know that often what I breathe in from a book will be exhaled, in one way or another, in a poem, even if I don’t know when it’s happening. As with many things related to the making of poetry, for me it’s enough to trust that process without wholly understanding it.
About Carrie Shipers
Carrie Shipers is the author of two chapbooks, Ghost-Writing (Pudding House, 2007) and Rescue Conditions (Slipstream, 2008), and a full-length collection, Ordinary Mourning (ABZ, 2010). Her poems have appeared in Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other journals. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Marshfield/Wood County, a two-year college in the Wisconsin state system.