Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Poet on the Poem: Ann Fisher-Wirth

I am happy to have Ann Fisher-Wirth here today to discuss one of her poems. This is one I selected last year for the inaugural issue of Adanna for which I was the Guest Editor. I loved the poem then and I love it now.

Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author of four books of poems: Blue Window (Archer Books, 2003), Five Terraces (Wind Publications, 2005), Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts (Wings, 2009) and Dream Cabinet (Wings, 2012). The Ecopoetry Anthology, which she is coediting with Laura-Gray Street, will be published by Trinity University Press early in 2013. Her awards include the Rita Dove Poetry Award, a Poetry Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and two Poetry Fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission. She teaches English and Environmental Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Today's poem comes from Dream Cabinet.
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It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow
Unseasonal weird once in a green moon Mississippi beauty—
deep deep snow. We woke early, dressed,
walked through the silent town and Bailey’s Woods
to Faulkner’s house, before anyone but a deer
had made prints, we trudged through abundance.
I held my husband’s arm down the uneven trail,
the snow-mound stairs of the woods,
because I was afraid to fall, knowing how suddenly
bones break. Again and again when I touch him
I am filled with joy for the sheer fact of him
among all the infinite spaces—this burly,
beetle-browed man with the muscular legs
and fine-pored skin. Now, through my window,
grays and taupes of gingko and maple,
fractals of branches softened and warmed with snow,
then the greens of privets massed shabby beyond them,
and way down the hill, the Methodist Church
just barely red, a smudge through the trees. Someone
has built a snowman, someone is romping with a dog.
Soon night will climb the hill outside the window
where I wait for the white bees to swarm,
surrounding the branches, the house,
surrounding my sleep, scattering their cold pollen again.


DL: Tell us about your title's allusion to Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Why those lines for your poem? What do you think they add to your poem? At what point did they occur to you as just right for the title?

AFW: In Mississippi, we get heat that will fry your eyeballs and humidity that will curl your toes. The spring and fall are balmy, and it almost always freezes for a while each winter. Nearly every year, there’s a smattering of snow that melts almost as soon as it falls. But we hardly ever have the chance to imitate a Northern climate, such as Wallace Stevens refers to in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  We hardly ever have real snow, deep snow, strange and continuing snow. This is why the title stolen from Stevens seemed right, once it popped into my head. The overnight snow reached shin-high—and best of all, we could tell it would not immediately be over. It was snowing and then it stopped, yet we knew it was still going to snow.

DL: The syntax of your first line is immediately arresting and engaging. How did you arrive at that line? What kind of revision did it undergo? Or was it a gift?

AFW: This poem began as a prose free-write; in the lull after Christmas, when I had a lot of free time before the new semester began, I vowed I would keep a journal every day. Since not much was happening except weather, I wrote about weather. I wanted to write a poem from this day’s prose paragraph and to begin the poem with a rush and tumble of adjectives to convey how surprising, how wonderful this snow was. The line just leapt into my mind. I have to admit, the next day I nearly cut the line. Why? My hyper-rational mind took over and told me there is no such thing as a “green moon” or even a saying “once in a green moon.” Luckily someone told me I was crazy.

DL: Your use of pronouns is intriguing and subtle. You begin, in line 2, with the first person plural "We." In line 6, you split that pronoun in half and speak as "I." This allows a shift from description of landscape to contemplation of love—for the other half of the We. What's said in these middle lines could only be said by the singular I. This movement from exterior to interior also parallels the action of the poem. Finally, this shift brings warmth into a poem about snow. Was any of this on your mind when you made the switch? What was your intention?

AFW: The “we” at the poem’s beginning refers to my husband and me; we took a walk together. “I” takes over when I begin to contemplate my feelings. You are right that the poem shifts at that point to become more inward; I did intend that, as I wanted to poem to expand beyond narrative or description to include this realm of self-awareness about feelings.  I broke my knee about ten months before the day of this snowfall, and had surgery and a long recovery.  That made my progress down this specific snow-covered trail gingerly, but it has also made me intensely aware of the everyday gifts--starting with life itself.    But that is the nature of “I” and “we” anyway: my thoughts are always solitary, even if what I am thinking about is the person walking beside me.

DL: What governed your line breaks? Also, I can see spots where your poem might have been broken into stanzas. Why did you opt for one stanza?

AFW: In this poem most of the line breaks are syntactic yet there is quite a bit of enjambment; only three of twenty-three lines end at the end of a sentence. I wanted a fluid, meditative quality to infuse the narrative, which describes a single arc from daybreak to gathering night. This is why, though the poem is broken into sentences rather than being one long continuing sentence, there are not stanza breaks, and the sentences are handled with variously placed caesurae. One of my favorite poems in the world is Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking,” and it just occurs to me that his great poem, too, enacts an arc in a single stanza (admittedly partly through flashback) from sleep to waking to impending sleep.

DL: The "white bees" metaphor that closes the poem is so wonderful. How did you land on that?
AFW: My children had a beautiful book, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The Snow Queen comes to little Kai to carry him off in a blur and flurry of snow like bees. That, of course, is a malevolent image. But it lingered in my mind for its beauty and—if snow is likened to bees—in some weird way, its potential fertility and sweetness. Also, like the blank white screen with the film projector running that always used to come at the end of my father’s slide shows, the snow-bees create an atmosphere of obliteration that is both ominous and comforting. “It Was Snowing and It Was Going to Snow” is the last poem in my book Dream Cabinet. The book begins with “Slow Rain, October,” also a poem about love and family, the natural world, the liminal states between day and night, waking and sleeping. Dream Cabinet as a whole looks back and through the course of a life with its places, events, concerns, and larger historical context, always conscious nevertheless of death and dream.

Readers, please enjoy Ann's recording of her poem.


6 comments :

  1. I enjoyed reading about how the image of the snow bee swarm developed, almost as much as the end of the poem itself.

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  2. Speaking of ends, this poem is the final one in Ann's book, Dream Cabinet.

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  3. Great interview, Diane! I love reading how poets make their choices. Thanks...

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  4. Thanks, Carol--and me too re the choices.

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  5. I love the parts of the poem you highlighted, Diane, but also the sense of joy and "abundance" the poem conveys. Good, complicated, joyful poems seem a lot rarer to me than sad or angry ones--more precious and harder to write, too.

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  6. Yes, it's hard to express joy and love without going corny. I think Ann escapes that by just hinting at the possibility of danger--the fragility of bones, how in a moment things can change. While the scene is beautiful, it is also cold. This complexity is, for me, what makes this such a stunning poem.

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