Monday, March 5, 2012

The Poet on the Poem: Martha Silano

Martha Silano lives in Seattle, Washington, but she's originally a Jersey girl. She is also the winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize for her third book, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, chosen by Campbell McGrath. Her work has appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. In addition to being a delightfully quirky poet, Martha teaches composition and creative writing at Bellevue College and is mother to two young children.

Today's poem comes from The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.

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It’s All Gravy

a gravy with little brown specks

a gravy from the juices in a pan

the pan you could have dumped in the sink
now a carnival of flavor waiting to be scraped

loosened with splashes of milk of water of wine
let it cook let it thicken let it be spooned or poured

over bird over bovine over swine

the gravy of the cosmos bubbling

beside the resting now lifted to the table
gravy like an ongoing conversation

Uncle Benny’s pork-pie hat
a child’s peculiar way of saying emergency

seamlessly      with sides of potato of carrot of corn
seamlessly      while each door handle sings its own song

while giant cicadas ricochet off cycads and jellyfish sting
a gravy like the ether they swore the planets swam through

luminiferous       millions of times
 less dense than air       
ubiquitous          impossible to define a gravy like the God

Newton paid respect to when he argued
that to keep it all in balance to keep it from collapsing

to keep all the stars and planets from colliding
sometimes He had to intervene

a benevolent meddling like the hand
that stirs and stirs as the liquid steams

obvious and simple       everything and nothing
my gravy your gravy our gravy       the cosmological constant’s

glutinous gravy       an iridescent and variably pulsing gravy

the gravy of implosion       a dying-that-births-duodenums gravy

gravy of doulas of dictionaries and of gold
the hand stirs       the liquid steams

and we heap the groaning platter with glistening
the celestial chef looking on as we lift our plates

lick them like a cat come back from a heavenly spin
because there is oxygen in our blood

because there is calcium in our bones

because all of us were cooked

in the gleaming Viking range

of the stars

DL:  I am delighted by the leaps this poem takes. How did you negotiate the progression from kitchen to cosmos, from real gravy to metaphorical gravy?

MS:  My leaping guide in this poem is Pablo Neruda, especially his odes. I have read some of Neruda’s food odes so many times it’s like I have a Neruda microchip inside me. “Gravy of doulas of dictionaries and of gold” could easily have been lifted directly from a Neruda poem—not the exact words but the trope.  Also, I had been doing a lot of research: Simon Singh’s Big Bang, a biography of Newton, a book about Aristotle and his ether concept. And I’d been kicking around for months this idea of writing a poem titled “It’s All Gravy.” I didn’t know what the poem would be about, but I had to make good on a promise to myself to write a poem with that title. Once the lucky accident of the cosmos research and the gravy idea merged in my head, the poem, at least an early (and mediocre) draft of it, emerged quite easily.

DL:  Tell us why you dispensed with punctuation and sentences in this poem. And at what point in your drafting was that decision made?

MS:  As far as I can tell from pouring over early drafts of this poem, there was never any punctuation or sentences, so the answer to your question would be “very early on.” As for why I dispensed with punctuation and sentences: it wasn’t a logical or rational choice, it was an intuitive one. From the very first draft, it felt like the poem should be fragmented and punctuation-less. Looking back on my choice, perhaps it had something to do with the subject matter—where we come from. It seemed so huge … as if ordinary grammar and punctuation could not contain it—it was like the words had to be flying through ether, or mingling with the carbon of dead stars. How could I place a period in a poem that was communing with the stars that made us?

DL:  In several stanzas, you use white space. What do you see as the function of those open spaces? How do you accommodate them when you're reading the poem aloud?

MS:  The white space was an experiment. In the past when I have written poems without punctuation, one of the problems I continuously encountered (and why I have come back to loving punctuation) is how to create pauses without periods, commas, semi-colons, and dashes. Usually that would mean a line break, but I did not want “seamlessly” on its own line, and the same with “luminiferous” and “ubiquitous.” I just wanted them set off from the rest of the line, so I copied what many writers do—I hit the space bar a few times. When I read this poem, I pause between the white spaces about the same length of time as I do for a line break.

DL:  I'm also intrigued by your strict use of 2-line stanzas. The formality of the form seems at odds with the absence of punctuation and sentences and the use of white space. What made you choose the form?

MS:  Many of my poems are written in couplets, whether or not they are punctuated or written in sentences. Very often early drafts are written without stanzas, or in three-line or four-line stanzas, but usually the poem does not start taking off until I put it into couplets. I am not sure why this is the case. I never wrote a poem in couplets until Linda Bierds pointed out that I had that option. She explained poems that might warrant the two-line stanza (two opposing forces, a poem about two people, an either/or situation), and it turned out that just about all of my poems present dualities, couplet-worthy subjects. In the case of “It’s All Gravy,” the pull is between the personal / private / particular very real gravy and a universal and cosmic gravy.

DL:  Certainly one of the characteristics of your poetry is the obvious joy you take in language. In this poem, you mix elevated diction with humble diction. Words like cycads, luminiferous, and doulas play up against words like little brown specks, dumped in the sink, and Uncle Benny's pork-pie hat. Talk about this disparity and fusion.

MS:  The poem presented itself to me as both a personal poem, bursting with my own family history (Uncle Benny, my little brother and his baby-talk “emergency,” which actually sounded something like “the mert-it-y”), and a poem embracing the history of how humans have viewed the heavens. Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein on one side of the scale, and regular folks—a middle-class, suburban family, sitting down to dinner, to “a gravy with little brown specks.” I wanted the reader to experience both—“my gravy, your gravy, our gravy”—to know the gravy wasn’t perfect, that it was made from scratch—and also to view it as something universal and cosmic. I realize now that these specks could be the planets sprayed across our solar system, or millions of stars spread across the Milky Way, but that double meaning was not my intention. That was a gift.

DL:  I also admire your use here of strategic repetition. The word "gravy," for example, is used multiple times. Then you also use anaphora as in "splashes of milk of water of wine / let it cook let it thicken let it be spooned or poured // over bird over bovine over swine." To my mind, such devices make the parts cohere and add music and momentum. Was that your intention or just a lucky outcome? Tell us how you went about working with repetition in this poem.

MS:  There was quite a bit of luck in terms of how quickly this poem moved through the drafting process to completion (it was accepted for publication at The Cincinnati Review within one year, with only six rejections prior!), but the music and momentum are anything but luck, unless you count the luck of having an undergraduate instructor tell us to go home to our dorm rooms and recite all fifty-two sections of "Song of Myself." I was hoarse by section fifty-two, but I never again doubted the power of anaphora! Or the luck of hearing Allen Ginsberg read at Rutgers University in 1979 (my first poetry reading). If I had not adored Ginsberg’s poem “America” these last thirty years, I do not think I would have had the nerve to use the word gravy fourteen times. Repetition comes naturally to me because I have had Whitman and Ginsberg singing in my brain since I was in my teens.

Readers, Martha has provided us with a wonderful reading of the poem. Please enjoy!


  1. Enjoyed the discussion on white space. Looking forward to more of these interviews!

  2. Thanks, Andee. I've done a number of these Q&As. If you put Poet on the Poem into the search window, you should be able to find them.

  3. I love

    the gravy of the cosmos bubbling / ... / gravy like an ongoing conversation

    -- what wonderful turns of phrase.


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