Originally published in Willow Springs 75
From the author
Notes on the poems
It’s funny to think about it now, but there was a time in the not-too-distant past when I disliked writing poems about myself. I suppose I thought it was antiquated or cliched or something, that the “I” was an overused mechanism. In any case, someone I love committed suicide and that changed real quick. It wasn’t a planned change or anything, but I couldn’t avoid myself anymore. It felt like my brain had been smashed across a floor and glued back together, and not all the pieces were there. Now I find it challenging to keep the “I” out of my poems.
I’ve written a number of poems about Jennie’s death, which took place five years ago. “Suspect” is about the actual moment when, after she was gone and the emergency personnel had arrived, I realized the officers were asking me questions as though I had something to do with it. They asked me where I was, what I’d been doing that night, who I’d been with. You’d think my first reaction would’ve been anger and frustration, but I was so devastated, so wide open, that I just wanted to help them. And being asked those questions was actually pretty calming. What they wanted were concrete answers, and it was nice to have something firm to lean against. The answers were real and comprehensible at a time when many things were not. This poem took about 3 years to write, not because it was hard work getting to the language but because it was hard work re-feeling those emotions and putting myself back in that living room with those cops.
“Phone Call to Plan Abortion, as Flood” is tough to discuss. But like many of the poems I write on personal tragedy, it helps if I have a metaphoric lens through which I can focus the experience. The reality of the emotional trauma is so indefinable and so amorphous that setting it against, say, a natural disaster, gives it shape and intelligibility. The speaker feels evil, the “she” feels overcome, and the emotional charge of the situation is so high that speech will inherently fail to provide comfort to anyone. It’s a situation in which everyone feels powerless, so the metaphor, in the end, focuses the reality in a way that is manageable. This is not to suggest that poems are therapeutic, but that the act of making the poem is at least a recognition that we’re human, that we’re trying to find meaning where it might not exist. Metaphor is human, I suppose, and it’s all we’ve got sometimes. But I always feel like my poems get a bit plain when I write in this mode. The question I end up asking myself is, “Does it sound true?” Which is an utterly ridiculous question to ask, really, since conveying “truth” is impossible to begin with, particularly in a poem.
Notes on Reading
It took me far too long to find Larry Levis, so I’m working my way through him right now. I bought Elegy a while back and it was one of those books that just sort of sat on the shelf. Then I finally picked it up a few months ago and *bang*. Now I’m going through everything of his I can find. I also keep preaching the word of Thomas James, which is a book I read when I was getting my MFA and still read often. Just when I thought Plath was inimitable, here comes this guy who just explodes on the page. Any poet who hasn’t read Letters to a Stranger should do so immediately. When I sit down to write, I usually have anywhere from eight to ten books on the desk. I leaf through them quickly and haphazardly, just to get my head into that world, and when I can’t read anymore I begin writing. Right now I have books by Anna Journey, Josh Bell, James L. White, Tomás Q. Morín, Ellen Bass, Henri Cole, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, and Levis on my desk. I also look for stuff online, in journals or on poetryfoundation.org or poets.org or any of the daily sites, like Writer’s Almanac. In my web browser right now, I have tabs with Terrance Hayes, Uche Nduka, and Andrew Hudgins open. I’ll usually leave these tabs open until my computer crashes. The idea is to literally bombard myself with poems until I’m compelled do one of my own. It’s kind of like looking at pictures of food or watching a cooking show. After a while, you get hungry, so you go in the kitchen and start opening your cupboards to see what you can make.
About Colin Pope
Colin Pope grew up in Saranac Lake, New York. He holds an MFA from Texas State University, where he was the 2011-12 Clark Writer-in-Residence. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Harpur Palate, Texas Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Best New Poets, among others, and is currently a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, where he serves on the editorial board at Cimarron Review. He is at work on his first collection of poems.