Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Poet on the Poem: Chana Bloch

I'm delighted to have Chana Bloch as the featured poet for The Poet on the Poem.

Chana Bloch, the author of award-winning books of poetry, translation and scholarship, is Professor Emerita of English at Mills College, where she taught for over thirty years and directed the Creative Writing Program. Her latest book is Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 (Autumn House Press, 2015). Her earlier poetry collections are The Secrets of the TribeThe Past Keeps ChangingMrs. Dumpty, and Blood Honey. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, and elsewhere, as well as in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her book awards include the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for Blood Honey, selected by Jane Hirshfield, and the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for Mrs. Dumpty, selected by Donald Hall. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, in poetry and in translation, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Writers Exchange Award of Poets & Writers, two Pushcart Prizes, and the Discovery Award of the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center.

Today's poem comes from Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015.

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Happiness Research

Rain over Berkeley! The birds are all out
delivering the news.                                                                                   
The evening is wet and happy tonight.               
“Is there more to happiness than feeling happy?”
the moral philosophers inquire.

Research has shown                                                        
if you spot a dime on the sidewalk
you're more likely to tell the professor your life 
is fine, thank you. The effect                                             
generally lasts about twenty minutes.    
Scientists are closing in on                                                               
the crowded quarter of the brain                                                 
where happiness lives. They like to think                                              
it's hunkered down
in the left prefrontal cortex.

“Even in the slums of Calcutta
people on the street describe themselves
as reasonably happy.” Why not be
reasonable? why not in Berkeley? why not                     
right now, sweetheart, while the rain                                         
is stroking the roof?                                   

The split-leaf philodendron is happy            
to be watered and fed. 
The dress I unbuttoned is more than glad
to be draped on the chair. 

DL: Research is clearly an important motif in your poem. How much actual research went into the writing of the poem? Which came first, the science or the love poem?   

CB: Research on happiness by social scientists, neuroscientists and psycho-pharmacologists has grown at a phenomenal rate over the past two decades. I must admit that I can’t help reading the stuff. So it’s not by chance that I clipped and saved a review-article by Thomas Nagle in the New York Review of Books, “Who is Happy and When?” The moral philosopher Sissela Bok, who wrote the book under review, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale UP), wants to know: What is happiness? How much should we value it? Questions I’ve often thought about. 

I almost said that science came before love in writing this poem, but when I looked at the article again, I saw the illustration that first caught my attention—Rubens’ captivating portrait of himself and his young wife, “In the Honeysuckle Bower,” painted the year of their marriage. In both faces, the lineaments of gratified desire.  

DL: What do you see as the function of the two quotations you’ve woven into the poem?

CB: I hope the quotes will draw the reader into the poem, just as they drew me into the review. They made me ask myself: How am I doing “on a scale of one to ten”? Contented, elated, exhilarated? Which suggests that I was ready to appear in the poem long before I made my appearance.
 In the version of “Happiness Research” I'd drafted a few years earlier, the scientists and the dime were already present, though not the inquiring professor. Sharing the page was “a Norwegian philosopher, 82, who recommends / daily swigs of cod liver oil / for despair:/ ‘It’s almost as good as garlic.’” That draft of the poem remained parked in a desk drawer until science and love revved up its engine.

DL: In stanza 4 you suddenly switch from third person point of view to a first person direct address to “sweetheart.” This and the rain “stroking the roof” move the poem from scientific to personal and intimate. At what point in your drafting did this risky shift enter the poem? How did you know it would work?

CB: Once I disposed of the cod liver oil and added the two quotes, the direction of the poem became clear. I knew I had the setting and the dramatis personae—our house (rain on the roof, a chair, and a split-leaf philodendron) and the two of us. I even had a come-hither line, which turns on the two senses of “reasonable”: the people in Calcutta are passably happy; let’s you and I be sensible. “Why not be reasonable?” might conceivably sound irritated, even reproachful, but the context makes clear that it’s playful, teasing, inviting. At that point I was more than glad to work on the poem. I was elated, exhilarated.

DL: You end the poem with a stunning sensual image. Tell us about your use of personification there, the dress that is “more than glad.”

CB: The dress, c’est moi. The truth is, I usually wore pants in those days, but a poem needn’t be true to fact so long as it is true to experience. In The Cortland Review and two beautiful broadsides, framed on my wall—the poem ended with the philodendron “doing its new green thing.” Once something is in print, I often can’t help wanting to change it. Working on Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2015 gave me my chance. I decided that the happy plant was too nature-club-wholesome an ending for a seduction scene, so I revised and changed the order of the lines in order to end with the dress.

DL: Your first three stanzas each have five lines. Then you alter this pattern and give stanza 4 six lines and stanza 5 four lines. Why not stick to the established pattern?

CB: My poems often have an irregular number of lines in each stanza. Although I do write in couplets, triplets, or quatrains, I like to break the form depending on the demands of the poem. In stanza 4 I lay out my argument, so I need a little more room. And there’s a reason, too, for the quick denouement in stanza 5: so the couple can get down to business.

Readers, please listen to Chana reading her poem.

Please also visit Chana's poem, "The Joins," featured on Verse Daily on Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

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