Elizabeth Savage Interview, with Nicelle Davis
I love, love, love, love, love your grammar poems. When and how did you come up with this poetic concept?
Thank you for your loving reaction. Too often, I think, poetry is accepted, but not loved—or we editors try to be professional and think “professional” means “without feelings or opinions.” Your happiness and connection to the poems pleases me half to death.
Grammar seems like a cluster of happy accidents. On a visit to see my in-laws a couple of summers ago, I found a copy of a 1946 grammar book entitled Drill for Skill on the bureau in the room where we stayed. I love to look through grammar books, and this one by C.C. Rickett charmed me with the voice of its friendly, formal introduction and elegant lessons and exercises. The chapter headings and subheadings were the best, though. My mother-in-law said I could have it. Shortly afterwards, when Jane & Paige or Sister Goose was finished and in the pipes, I felt lonely for a series to work on and thought I’d try write about grammar as a way of thinking about family. I started with “Gerunds”—maybe thinking about gerunds started the project, I’m not sure—the inherent sadness of actions converted to things, motion to stasis. But the project branched into familial associations, like ideas of nation, and the appetites and impulses indicated in grammatical structures and uses. Christophe Casamassima, editor at Furniture Press Books, read the first three or four poems and asked if he could publish the series as a book. I’d decided by then to write fifty poems (inspired by Liana Quill’s Fifty Poems, a book I keep nearby), but after Christophe wrote me, I started thinking of the exercise as a book and not just a series to think and write on while thinking and writing about other things.
When did grammar come to life for you?
In graduate school, when I took Latin while studying French feminists. Language became visible to me in ways it hadn’t before, as well as invisible to me in ways it hadn’t before.
What is your favorite part of speech?
Oh, prepositions. Hands down.
If a period and a question mark were to get in a fight, who would win?
The period—he has a brother who holds up the other guy. The fight would be rigged.
Which tense do you think in?
Present, and I feel very lucky that this is so.
What new poetry projects are you working on?
I’m roped up in writing details of Wallace Stevens’ “Woman Looking at a Vase of Flowers”—kind of a study of a study. This poem has preoccupied me for years since I first read it. The poem seemed to make my heart pound and to describe my heart’s pounding, but it evaded me intellectually. This sequence is my effort to break into the poem and live there. So the short answer is that I’m a squatter in one of Wallace Stevens’ poems.
An Abstract Noun
News is not all: it is difficult
to drink long from its flimsy
cup or for its inky ships to meet
the drowning, yet many a man is
making friends with misery
for lack of news alone. Every day,
even as I speak (for I, too, am concerned:
hear me out), it is more difficult
to get love from poems that rise and sink
and rise again, gathering into gardens
of gentleness and goodness hot with memory
but offering at last no table cheer, no food
for lung or bone. It well may be,
but it is not the end of the world.
Prodigal arena: here is your door
Lady pets tiger
she will not be
made to choose
Is the wish for peace merely affection
for the still life, the radio’s calm weather
report or white envelopes ordered
in a box. Such clearings of simplicity
arrest the commonplace as conclusion
and so observable. The huddled
apple and fearless pears quiet us
over their good cloth draping a resolute
surface, an assurance of flesh, motion
having put aside function in favor
of the dove, not flame, curled
in the belly.
Nominative of Address
Lest you be understood as the world
divided by light and darkness
or rounded up to the nearest
category of gray
singled out from rough numbers
your name figured from the population
crunched under emphasis
When you’ve sorted resident
from neighbor, block from burb
citizen from the unpublished
listing, meet my eye
over the mended wall
stone on earth on stone
what names we may place
together where our orchards tilt
into the rain
Champagne taste unbecoming
an economical personality
A paratactic appetite
packed in a little black dress
Let some air into
Let down your hair
froth or foe
my parallel Virgo
a rose goes
before a clause
like the pause
Thorns in threes may
see or be
the defects of design
Be pleased by what you leave
& all you will pass by