Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Poet on the Poem: Bruce Guernsey

Today I'm introducing what I hope will become an occasional feature at this blog: The Poet on the Poem. My plan is to select a poem that appeals to me, then contact the poet and ask him or her a handful of questions about the poem. My hope is that we will all, through the poet's commentary, learn a bit about the craft that has gone into the poem and gain some understanding of how the poem came to exist. I'm pleased to have snagged Bruce Guernsey and his poem, "October," for this first feature.

Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University where he taught creative writing and American Literature for twenty-five years. He has received fellowships in writing from the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His work has appeared in such journals as Poetry, Southern Review, and Willow Springs. His poem Yam was recently featured on Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry." Among his books of poetry are January Thaw (1982), The Lost Brigade (2005), and New England Primer (2008). He is the editor of the highly regarded poetry journal, Spoon River Poetry Review.

Today's poem comes from The Lost Brigade.

(Click cover for Amazon)


Today, they're cutting the corn,
the stalks dry and blowing, brown
and rattling, rattling
when you walk by
as if something were inside,
a deer, a coon, something
alive, someone maybe.
But today
they're cutting it down
as they do every October,
the combines on the back roads,
on the fields,
working all night, next day and next,
until the land is flat again
and we can see
some ranch house we forgot
a mile or so away.
Out here
the corn is a special mystery,
a haunted place
where children warned not to
want to play.
No wonder each September
before the harvest
some farm kid disappears,
losing himself in the tall acres,
tunneling under the sabers
rattling over his head,
vanishes for hours, for days.
Usually, they come back
or are found; once in a while,
they're not. That's why
slowing to a walk
somewhere out from home
and out of breath,
I always stop, sure I've heard
something in there,
something I woke jogging by,
one of those kids maybe
in the forest of corn,
hear him, the closer I get,
running away.

DL: I admire the way you use repetition in this poem. It slows the poem to a pace appropriate for a walk in the country. At the same time, it increases the tension as it holds us back when we want to move forward. Tell us about your use of this technique and what you hoped to achieve with it.

BG: There are indeed a lot of repetitions in the poem, but the ones that mattered to me when I was writing were patterns of sound more than whole words—the long vowels of the first sentence, for example: the “a” in “today” (used twice), “they,” and “maybe,” and the high-pitched, long “i” sounds of “dry,” “by,” “inside,” “alive.”

Such sound patterns are what always lead me forward in writing a poem although I am never fully conscious of them at the time. Thus, following my ear is not really a “technique” as such. It’s far more intuitive than that. But those long vowels do add to the tension, especially the siren-sound of the “i.” These are the poet’s background music that the movie-thriller uses so blatantly.

The repeated words do function rhetorically to slow the pace, but the tension really comes from those words being set against the frequency of high-pitched vowels. It’s not the repetition of words alone that creates tension but how the easy pace of repetition works against the more alarming sound patterns, like hearing an ambulance in the distance on a calm summer night.

DL: The diction is this poem is the language of everyday speech. But certain word choices seem essential and strategic, e.g., cutting, rattling, sabers, mystery, haunted, warned. At what point in the writing of the poem did you consider word choice? Did these words appear in the first draft or subsequent drafts?

BL: Well, October is the month of goblins and ghosts, so there’s no doubt that I was trying to get some of that conventional language in there. But firstly and mostly, I was trying to describe what I heard. The dried corn does indeed rattle in the wind, and you’d swear there was something in it. I wanted to be visually accurate, too: the sharp-edged leaves do have a saber-like look to them which fit in nicely with the “rattling,” and with the “tunneling” as I began to imagine a sort of gauntlet scene with the child running under the drawn swords of corn. As so often happens, I simply got caught up in my own imaginings, and the world I was living in became the poem itself.

One thing I do remember in revising was the debate I had about the house we could see once the corn was cut. I originally wrote “farm house,” then later thought that “ranch house” more dramatically revealed the leveling of the harvest and, in a way, made it more likely that a child might seek the mystery of the vertical corn as compared to the flatness of such a home.

DL: I like the way the poem moves from peaceful to frightening. It takes several subtle turns. The child vanishing in the corn seems innocent enough. But then you say, “Usually, they come back / or are found . . .” That usually is ominous. It made me think that sometimes a child comes to harm. Then there’s another shift at the end. Tell us about that, how you arrived at that. Did you surprise yourself?

BG: Many of my students at Eastern Illinois University grew up on farms, and they told me about playing in the corn and sometimes getting lost in it. One even told me the story of a friend of friend of hers who did indeed never come back. The child simply disappeared. So, I certainly had that possible horror in the back of my mind when I started the poem.

But The Lost Brigade is full of figures who vanish, whether physically or mentally, and around the time I was working on this poem, my own father disappeared from the rural VA hospital he was in. He had Parkinson’s disease, and one day somehow got himself dressed and walked out the door of the ward he was in and vanished. We never found him despite the extraordinary searching that went on.

No doubt I brought my own ghosts to this seemingly innocent scene of the corn field and harvest. So, in a way, I am not surprised the poem ended the way it did, though Freud would wonder why I had a child “running away” at the end rather than his father.

DL: You’ve lived in three distinctly different environments—New Jersey, New England, and now the Mid-West. And I read in your bio that you’ve twice sailed around the world. You’ve referred to Nature as a “feast for the imagination.” What influence have place and change of place had on your work? On this poem?

BG: When I first moved to Illinois after finishing my PhD at the University of New Hampshire, I was able to finish a book about rural New England called January Thaw (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982). The flatness of the prairie gave me the perspective I needed to write about my native stone walls and pine forests. The same stones and those dark woods also made me look at the open fields of the Midwest in a far different way than did those who grew up here. Thus, in my long runs on the open roads that square off the corn fields of east central Illinois, I might hear “something/alive, someone maybe,” while others might hear only the wind.

New soil and fresh water can be as good for us as for any root-bound plant.

DL: What effect has being the editor of a poetry journal had on your own poetry? Is that another kind of feast? Or do you risk losing your appetite?

BG: One can overeat, of course, but my recent stint as editor at Spoon River has been quite a feast. I have been fortunate to read some great poetry that I would never have come across otherwise, and then to have the opportunity to make that work known to others is simply wonderful. Nothing has pleased me more during these last three years than to publish someone for the first time. I frequently call the poet to say I’m taking the poem, and that’s just a joy, a real privilege.

The downside of editing is the busy work of grant applications and funding. But what an honor to edit “one of the best reads in the poetry publishing world,” as Poet’s Market has said about this long-lived journal. And to have met someone like Diane Lockward!

Of course, I haven't really "met" Bruce, but we have spoken on the phone and that's when I learned that he attended high school not too far from where I live. I hope he'll come back to NJ soon so we can really meet. After viewing the video of Bruce reading "October," I almost felt as if we had met. Here's the link. This is a beautiful video, created by Arts Across Illinois in their "Inspired by Nature" series. Take a look at Poetic Nature.

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  1. Interesting new feature....looking forward to it

  2. Hi, Diane, Bruce Guernsey has been one of my favorite poets for a long long time. Thanks for the interview. Here's a link to him reading his poem October for a PBS program in Illinois.


  3. Thanks, John. I have that link included at the very end of my post. It was what led me to do the interview.


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