Thom Ward is Editor/Production Director at BOA Editions, Ltd., an independent publishing house of poetry, poetry-in-translation and fiction. His own poetry collections include Small Boat with Oars of Different Size and Various Orbits, both with Carnegie Mellon University Press, and The Matter of the Casket, published in 2007 by Custom Words. His lives in upstate, New York.
Tom Ward interview, with Steven Huff
Thom, your poems in this issue of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact are four sonnets. Do these represent a new direction in your work? What led you to work in the sonnet form after years of free verse and, more recently, prose poems?
Actually, I’ve been chipping away at these “loose\lapsed” sonnets (so-called because they don’t follow traditional sonnet-meter and true-end rhyme) for a number of years. I have written about 50 or so and have 20 that I like, that do their levity-gravitas job, and then, quickly, leave the scenes of their “crimes.” True and slant-rhymes are buried in the lines, and, I hope, these poems offer ample acrobatic linguistic moves.
In your most recent book, The Matter of the Casket, you’ve ventured into—and here I rely on terms that may not entirely fit—surrealism and absurdist. This is miles and miles from the realm of your first book, Small Boat with Oars of Different Size. You’ve never been afraid of turning a corner. Can you talk about the progression?
I don’t know if it’s an aesthetic progression, but I enjoy writing in all forms –sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, nonce-forms, prose poems, “free” verse (though I prefer to call it “rhythm-driven verse” dictated by one’s breathing, ala Uncle Walt Whitman). I believe exploring all forms is one way of doing “aerobics” for the imagination, and, I’m always looking for ways to keep my imagination nimble. Far harder to do as I get older. I know for sure, though, I’ve never wanted to be Johnny-One-Shot in the How and What of the poems I’ve written – the “successful” ones and the many failures.
Some poets create a body of work that seems transparent, that is, the reader can see, whether accurately or not, the writer’s home, the family scenes, right down to the washing machine. Hayden Carruth’s Vermont poems would be an example. Others create platforms and such imaginative territory that the poet’s personal life is smoky and remote. Many people who knew Orson Welles said that they had never been invited into his home, and in fact he rarely talked about his personal life. You seem to have created both kinds of theater. I think I can see your personal life plainly in Small Boat, while some later work is in the magician’s terrain. Do you think this is accurate?
Yes, and I thank you for the associations to Carruth and Welles—two of my favorite artists, and far, far greater lights. I suppose to answer this question, I’d say, I try in my writing to fog the personal, and to clarify what is more impersonal. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always felt that Keats’ notion of “Negative Capability” is right on, is where we want to be when we cut-loose our imaginations and through them into the abyss of the Logos.
You work as an editor for BOA Editions, one of the country’s foremost publishing houses of poetry. How does your work as an editor feed your own poems? Does it heighten or burden the process?
Both. I’ve learned an awful lot about the How and What of poetic moves by reading closely and having the great, good luck of editing the poetry manuscripts of some of this country’s most adroit and distinguished poets. So, unconsciously, I’ve stolen some of their “local brilliances,” as W. D. Snodgrass calls them, and that’s a sweetness. Conversely, there are times when I’m writing said poem, and think, “I can’t continue this poem as it’s a poor derivative of said BOA poet’s poem – “X,Y,Z” – and there’s no point in writing (or publishing) poor derivative poems.”
In your experience, is the poet ever comfortable with the poem? Does the angel always have to be wrestled?
Yes, the angel has to be wrestled, and, of course, most of the wrestling comes in revision, time away from the poem, more revision, etc. My students know I’m a big proponent of “Not First Thought, Best Thought”—though you need that first thought to start the train of your imagination down the track. But, then to contradict myself, I will say, that maybe two or three times in my thirty-years of writing poetry, the angel/or Muse/or daemon has swooped down the “placed” the poem before me, and it was “finished” before I even knew what I had. That’s rare, though. But most certainly it’s a kind of blessing.
Once in a while my soul exits this body,
goes shopping for another house of flesh.
Giant sheets of ice north and south of us rip
from their moorings, crash into the sea.
Those with the most superfluous gadgets
cast the longest silhouettes, but not enough
to thwart ultraviolet rays. For a dollar the drunk
outside the corner bar will share fantastic tales
from the captain of the ship in the bottle. Yes,
that's correct. Goldfinches no longer visit
our garden, and the cockroaches have a new king.
My soul is a fickle shopper, rummaging through
clearance sale bins. What you didn't do, what I did;
at the end all we can hope for are the right regrets.
Haphazardly, she stepped on the bathroom scale. It read:
to be continued. Not good, but no less ridiculous than
him, alone in the dark, putting out the black eyes
of his pencils, releasing those undernourished images.
The closed and open universe of the refrigerator
is where she finds herself, haphazardly, of course,
gazing at a slab of plated chicken, two triangles
of pizza, dead father floating with the bottled olives.
Scratch, scratch, goes his tenacious, little implement
while clouds choke the moon and not haphazardly.
Too late for the apostles to commence their all hands on deck
apostle-shtick. Of course, you know that already.
Everything else: to be continued. Go on, eat. The poem
is the nightlight in the room in the house where no one sleeps.
Splendor from Squalor
History is a pair of cloth napkins we attempt
to keep clean. But look – tomato sauce in a beard
and cannoli on a blouse! If oregano means
joy of the mountain in Greek, will the gods forgive
our appetites? Oh, to be worthy of the lies we tell,
the wild fabrications. Notice how at the precise
moment my small benevolence might increase
the world, I sneeze, I burp, I flinch. The wind
at the top of the budding maples and walnuts
is a wind refusing to console. Make it more mary
than bloody you demand. The bartender listens,
knowing only a single swinging door separates
splendor from squalor. Free of the shaping past?
I think not. All we can hope for is to be free with it.
Not Quite, Then Again, Perhaps
His sense of dislocation was palpable, like a sofa
left out on the side of the road. She was the integration
of all things disparate, weather vanes and vinyl albums,
fire hydrants and stethoscopes. Friends thought he was
an overgrown mosquito. How else to explain his constant
whining. Her acquaintances were gypsies who became
philosophers in their dreams, so she said. At the office
he’d take a cup of water, a crayon, some string, a paper
clip and pretend he was fishing. One morning, dressed
as Plato, she passed his cubicle and inquired about
his intentions. Drowning worms, was all he muttered.
She told him poodles are typical therapists, so focused on
themselves, and that her blues were evergreen. Nodding yes,
then no, he barked, then offered her a pocketful of stream.