Stan Galloway Interview, with Nicelle Davis
I was delighted and surprised to find your poems write for joy. How are joy, hope, and happiness an important element for poetry? Why might such feelings / concepts be absent in poems?
I think these things – joy, hope, and happiness – have been buried in modern society by disillusionment. It has probably happened in all generations, but it seems that a lot of poetry has embraced disillusionment for the last century and deferred hope. All three of the poems here show, in one way or another, the resurrection of hope. In “Dinner at The Phoenix,” the restaurant name blatantly announces that something that has died can be reborn, even from the fossil state. To a natural scientist, of course, this is impossible, but the metaphor suggests that even things that are really dead, dead to the point that every vestige of it has been replaced with some other element, can be reclaimed. And the setting of the poem puts that idea into everyday relationships. “Inside,” likewise, portrays the breaking out of something that has lain dormant for a long time, and while the new form it takes may surprise, it is worth nurturing. The least hopeful of these, ironically, is “hope.” Here it is a fragile concept in jeopardy from any number of opponents – wind, rain, and even acceptance. Hope becomes that image that you can only see peripherally, because to focus on it makes it disappear. For many people, hope remains only as long as it is unacknowledged. The first advice many poets receive is “Write what you know.” We all know disillusionment. I would suggest “Write what you want” is just as useful. Fantasy? Okay. We will never live in a better world if we don’t imagine it.
In your poem “hope,” you make a surreal yet concrete image out of abstraction. For the beginning poet, please explain how this technique enriches poetry and by extension our lives.
I have to smile at your request that I help beginning poets on this. This technique is new for me, months-old in my own work. I see it best at work in Denise Levertov’s “Pleasures,” a poem from 1960. The establishing statement in her poem is this: “I like to find / what’s not found / at once, but lies // within something of another nature. [. . .]” For me that is the essence of poetry. Translating something abstract into something concrete is exactly what the Romantic poets did, and what most poets still attempt to do. Levertov’s poem goes on to describe “hidden” things that have meaning, including such mundane things as the “butteryellow glow” inside the morning glory. Her poem changed the way I see the world. It is that challenge to find the meaning around me that starts many poems. “hope” did not begin with the image though. Instead, I wanted to make a statement about hope and searched my experience for images that would evoke the same kind of emotion, or at least understanding, that I held for the concept. When dealing with an abstraction, it is critical that the “explanation” of it not be left to a thousand permutations. That works for politicians, but not for poets. I needed an image that could be accessed from any reader with the same degree of certainty. It’s not stiflingly precise, but it is agreeably precise, so that readers come away with reasonably the same image and emotional response. As poets, we are translators, turning our experience, and imagination, back to the reader in a meaningful way.
Lucille Clifton is an inspiration to many poets. What does her work mean to you? How do her poems guide what you write?
I’ve read Lucille Clifton for a number of years. I discovered her in graduate school and always thought her voice bold and genuine, important attributes of good poetry for me. I attended a seminar on her poetry in 2009 at the Furious Flower Poetry Center, where I was able to meet her and get my picture with her. I didn’t know at the time how precious that event would be to me, with her passing less than a year later. I reread her collection Good Woman this winter in preparation for one of my classes and was struck by her untitled poem beginning “there is a girl inside.” I thought, “This is a poem I wish I’d written.” It brought on what Seamus Heaney called the “jealousy test” in me. So I asked myself, if I wrote this poem, what would it sound like? The first draft was simply a paraphrase of Clifton’s poem; then I began changing ideas and images to suit my personality rather than reflect hers. This is not the way I write very many poems, but it is a useful exercise I’ve found. I’ve done it maybe half a dozen times where it resulted in an original poem. My poem “Inside” still retains a relationship to Clifton’s poem and I wanted to draw attention to that with the dedicatory line beneath the title. In this case the guidance is pretty literal; more generally, though, I find Clifton’s work important for me in demonstrating the smooth integration of narrative and metaphor. I’ve been pretty heavy on the narrative side in my writing and Clifton (as well as John Hoppenthaler, Julie Ellinger Hunt, and Claudia Emerson) has pushed me to try more metaphoric writing.
If you were to make hope an object, what would it be?
I did that here, a tiny dot of fire. But it could be quite a number of things. I’ve used stars, eyes, birdcalls, computer screens – the object becomes meaningful because of what the poet invests it with.
If hope were a verb, what would it be doing?
I’d like to say that hope is active, assertive, transforming. That’s the optimist’s response. And sometimes it is that way. Sometimes hope is deferred, as Langston Hughes reminds us, but that doesn’t make it something else. In “hope,” hope is simply existing, against the odds, waiting for the opportunity to grow.
Dinner at The Phoenix
A yellow riff from the guitarist
crowns our table near the back,
makes salamanders of our hands,
darting, halting, frolicking on the mesa
under a warbling sun perched sideways
on the centuries of terracotta.
Your eyes, wells of promise, grottoed comfort,
stir a hope in me defying circumstance,
hope that the fossil of iguanodon in me
will somehow rise to flick a living tongue
in newborn clover.
after the winds have carried off
the last shred of flame,
the blue dot spontaneously appears
in a crevice out of sight
underneath the charred remains of dreams,
so small that one raindrop
would cover twenty of them,
fragile living crystal,
quivering, afraid, ignored,
because to embrace it
would smother it for good.
On a theme by Lucille Clifton
Inside, a teen –
for any warm beast –
let go of the spleen
he has divided
in the old man.
around the deadwood
of past years
in a writer who has
lost his words.
He has been there all along
silent as a trap
on a little-used trail,
in stasis, hidden from sight,
until the spring can release.
And the bunnies and the foxes
will not startle in his mouth
but turn to musk and heat
while the deadwood stares
in shock and awe.