Dan Albergotti Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
“Elision” is a love poem, but not in the traditional sense. I’d like to talk about this more in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about the ways in which the poem moves toward love by rooting itself in music and sound, moving from “tin-eared” and “hard divisions” to “soft borders” and “sweet blend.” The fourth stanza of this poem echoes the development of a poet who works in form, but also makes me wonder about what brought you here. Could you talk about your development as a poet who writes in form?
Yes, it is a love poem, and consciously so. The first two lines are true—when my wife and I were first dating and she told some of her friends that I was a poet, they often asked if I wrote poems for her. She said that she’d reply: “He’s not that kind of poet.” We’ve laughed about that, but I’ve often felt a little guilt too. I wished that I could write her a love poem. Last summer, while I was at a residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia, I finally tried to. The parallel of falling in love romantically to falling in love with form wasn’t a conscious goal for the poem, but now that you’ve mentioned it I do think that my relationship with traditional form has evolved from a youthful infatuation into a more mature love.
I really admire how the poem moves from the sound of poetry to the sounds of our daily lives, which are part of what we remember when we’re far from home. The speaker starts to pay attention to the sounds in the room, like the low bulb, and connects that to the sounds back home.
I’m glad that resonates with you. I think that sounds and smells are more strongly imprinted on our hearts than visual images are. That’s why so many poets who ignore the ear in favor of “tricks of the eye” (strange typography, needlessly unconventional punctuation, arbitrary spacing) fail to reach any emotional depth in their poems. But lest anyone think I am an arch formalist who has only disdain for free verse, let me say that I believe you can write just as emotionally hollow a poem in formal verse if you view the form as an end rather than as a mode. I used to think of filling out the mechanical design of a received form as some sort of accomplishment. Now I think of form as a vehicle you might employ to arrive at mysterious discovery. So that movement in “Elision” from thinking consciously about iambs and trochees to thinking about the ambient sounds of life does reflect in a way my overall development of thinking about form. The elements of formal verse feel more like natural elements now.
What first interested you about writing in form?
The first poetry workshop I ever took was with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina. His course was designed as an apprenticeship in the forms, and he put his students through all the paces. I gained a healthy respect for the tradition (and swallowed a healthy dose of humility in my struggles with meter) as I wrote couplets, ballads, sonnets, villanelles, etc. But at the time I saw all those poems as basically just academic exercises. I thought writing a sonnet in the late 20th century was only useful for the lessons you could learn and apply to free verse after having done it. (And a side note here—I do highly recommend going through the exercise of writing in form to all beginning poets whether they intend to write only free verse for the rest of their lives or not. You’ll write a better free verse line if you’ve experienced writing a traditional sonnet than if you never have.)
My first book, The Boatloads, published 14 years after that workshop with Dickey, is composed entirely in free verse. But around that time I also found myself being drawn back toward form. I can’t really say why—maybe because I was putting my own creative writing students through the same sort of apprenticeship and was thinking about it more consciously.
The second book, Millennial Teeth, is about 80% in form of some sort.
I love The Boatloads, but Millennial Teeth is my favorite of the two precisely because of the use of form, but also the way in which the poems in the collection approach difficult subjects. Do you find that writing in form eases the heaviness of this work?
Maybe. There’s a passage in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, his long grief-filled poem on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, that hints at a palliative nature in meter: “But, for the unquiet heart and brain, / A use in measured language lies; / The sad mechanic exercise, / Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.” I definitely think it was easier (or let’s say “less painful”) to write about certain material in that book because I was paying attention to the rhythms of blank verse or the rhymes of a sonnet (though you’ll notice that the blank verse of those poems is often quite loose and my sonnets pretty unconventional). With some subject matter, it’s more difficult to achieve the necessary emotional distance in order to write about it well. I think form might be able to help you achieve that distance.
I agree. Having an additional focus such a rhyme and/or meter can help us come up with ways of looking at the subject that we hadn’t before, that “mysterious discovery” that you mentioned earlier.
Yes, the good thing about formal demands is that they can distract your conscious mind away from the subject matter enough to allow for the unexpected discovery in the content. When you’re more focused on the “how,” the “what” has a tendency to become much more interesting.
I notice this in two other poems featured here. They both employ form, but also allow us a closer look at ourselves. In “No Exit,” a periscope is used to focus on the image of a life and what one might see if one looks closely. This poem looks not inward, but outward, at the entire image of a life, and moves from first person to third person so that we get a sense of looking outward, at really seeing. “Weary of All Trumpeting” does this as well by focusing on a hymn to make us look at our culture both in the past and at the current time. Though we’re listening and watching with the speaker, we have the opportunity to see ourselves for who we are and the circumstances in which we’re placed. I’d love for you to talk about the importance of looking closely at ourselves.
I think fierce self-examination is the stuff of poetry. I don’t mean narcissistic navel-gazing, and I don’t mean that the poet’s vision should be less outward than inward. But I do think we have to be self-aware and self-conscious (in the best sense of that term) to live a meaningful life. The poet is the person who is not afraid to interrogate the self, to judge the self, to try to forgive the self, as impossible as that might seem. I once defined the writing of poetry as “the persistent, futile attempt to earn self-forgiveness.” I hope I’m not talking too much in circles here.
Not at all! Your poems remind me of what Aziza Barnes said in a recent interview about art that goes beyond the ego: “Look at what we can do when we’re not focused on ourselves, but when we’re SEEING ourselves.”
I love that Barnes quote! Jack Gilbert was once asked in an interview about his life being “a resource for his work.” The interviewer had implied that the fact that he’d lived such an unconventional life provided him with “material.” Gilbert was a bit taken aback and said that his poems are not, in fact, “about him.” He said that he’s “in” the poems, but that the poems are really about “what’s important about what happened.” I’ve always loved that response: “what’s important about what happened.” The fact that “what happened” happened to him is fairly inconsequential. And yet a casual reader of Gilbert (one not paying close enough attention) could come away from those poems thinking that he’s all about himself.
He is definitely a poet about the importance of what happened. It is hard to walk away from one of his poems and not be stunned emotionally and intellectually, in the good way that poems stun us.
Your poem “Weary of All Trumpeting” is one that echoes this entirely. We expect hymns to give solace and promise something, but this one doesn’t. The poem leaves us with a question: are we still heard “four decades on” by this Lord? I also wonder if this poem is questioning whether or not we are heard by those who are elected as leaders.
I took a little license in my interpretation of that hymn’s lyrics. I certainly don’t think the author meant them to be read as hopelessly as I do. But there’s enough ambiguity in them to allow for utter despair. As to your question about the poem’s relationship with elected leaders, I’ll just say that I discovered that hymn and drafted this poem long before the man whose name hides in its title even announced his candidacy for President. Given subsequent events, I might revise the poem to make it even more apocalyptic and cynical now!
It would definitely work! I like that the poem leads us to possibly think in that way and to question if we’re being heard, especially under dire circumstances.
I like that it works in our current political environment too, where the circumstances are certainly dire. Despite those circumstances, though, I’ve got to believe that poetry might still be able to help.
Yes! Dan, thank you so much for talking with me about your work and sending these wonderful poems.
Many thanks to you and Connotation Press, Julie.
for Holley Tankersley
When her friends ask, Does he write poems for you?
my wife tells them I’m not that kind of poet.
But tonight, alone in a rustic room,
I wish I were. Instead, I count iambs
and trochees and welcome in a darkness
that she’s almost completely driven out.
I listen to the weight of words tonight,
but find it grows harder to feel their heft,
thinking of our dog asleep at her feet
three hundred and twenty miles to the south.
The low-wattage lightbulb begins to fill
the room with a peculiar, humming warmth.
When my students struggle with scanning poems,
they complain about ambiguity.
They want everything to be black and white,
to hear nothing of elision, diphthongs,
substitutions, the instability
of words like fire and oil, or hour and our.
I tell them, You just have to train your ears
to hear it, thinking of my tin-eared past.
After years of only hard divisions
between sharp consonants, I learned to love
the soft borders between vowels, the sweet blend
of two syllables into simply one.
What do you hear there? I’ll ask my students.
Is that two syllables there or just one?
Do you hear two beats, or do you hear one?
What is it I hear in the low bulb’s hum?
Do I hear our dog’s soft snoring from here?
Is this two hearts beating, sounding like one?
I tripped on hell’s periscope when I was nine.
I held my toe, hopped on one foot
back to the glass lens, and knelt to take a look.
What I saw: an eye staring back at mine,
then darkness, then something like my school,
my church, our town, that low-hanging sky.
The mother and father were there, sisters too,
and faceless grandparents in a world without walls.
They were walking in a circle made of glass.
And outside the circle a whining dog
and a silent boy, both of their leashes
leading back to the same hard-driven stake.
Weary of All Trumpeting
—Hymn 442, United Methodist Hymnal
Captain Christ is a lowly Lord.
It says so in a hymn
composed in 1971
(says that near verbatim).
A hymn’s not where I thought I’d find
the Savior dressed in rags.
But this was 1971,
knee deep in body bags.
The speaker says, Let’s just give up
(though not in just these words)
and climb onto the cross ourselves—
this life is for the birds.
He says that he’s grown tired of all
those promise-heavy songs.
He speaks in 1971
as if despair belongs.
Go forth and commit suicide
to join God’s only son.
I’m certain things can’t get much worse
Four decades on, what would he sing
of this world still ignored,
still left to trumpet grief unheard
by a truant, lowly Lord?
“There is no freedom in art.”
―T. S. Eliot
dom in art, T.
S. Eliot once said.
No freedom from dust or from dread.
No freedom in syllabic regimen.
No unfettered expression by free-thinking in-
dividuals. No freedom from this prison yard that’s life.
No splattered canvas, no noteless song, no manuscript rife
with fragments, ellipses, participles dangled,
wayward colons, dashes, syntax mangled,
words broken in half, empty space.
Prisoner, leave a trace
when you depart.