Writer's Block Feature: Q&A with David Baker
Much of your work contains natural and pastoral imagery. “Forced Bloom,” for instance, which appears on the Academy of American Poets’ website, describes a woman cutting back the branches of a forsythia so that the blooms will return later on. What draws you to this natural imagery? Why are you so concerned with it?
“Forced Bloom” is about hands, about touch, physical contact. It blends several scenes into a kind of narrative braid. First, the woman in the poem has bad hands; they hurt her. My ex-wife, Ann, suffered a very painful long bout of crippling arthritis and carpel tunnel, which stemmed from (we found out after much testing) her stunted hand and wrist tendons. I mean, this was during her late 30s and 40s. In the poem the doctors try to assess a similar condition, and in the meantime the woman goes about her task of gardening, of making beautiful things. To force a bloom means to cut the branch, bring it inside, and nurture the cutting to see if it will bloom, even out of season. Ann is a master gardener, in fact, so I borrowed some things about her for the woman figure in this poem. It hurts her to work with the flowers but she does it. Why? For beauty, for habit, for nurturance, for custody of the growing things in the world? For pleasure?
There’s another shadow figure in the poem, the man inside the city doorway, pleasuring himself, too, as we say, with his hand. His rendering intends to convey both pain and pleasure, like the woman’s action with the forsythia. His act may be condolence, consolation, comfort, even the illusion of company. And the two lovers in the poem, likewise, touch each other and themselves, and as always, this touch—our touch—contains pain and pleasure.
Why am I drawn to natural imagery? I can’t answer that sufficiently in a small space. But some quick replies. Because nature is my home. Because I grew up outside, in the fields and woods and creek-sides of rural Missouri, and live now in rural Ohio. Because nature tends, to me, for all the complexities and multiplicities that word suggests, to equate with the beautiful, with joy or connection or recognition. It is where the primal part of myself is from, and lives in, and goes to. And finally because, while nature is our home, we are with staggering velocity destroying it—destroying it both out of sheer ignorance and willful greedy awareness. What we know of nature is already irreparably damaged or altered. Fortunately nature will—in some shape and condition—survive. We likely will not, certainly not for the duration of many, many species that lived and perished before us.
That poem in particular seems highly metaphorical. It speaks to the sacrifices all of us must make—as writers, but also as humans—in order to flourish. As you state, “Sometimes we are most ourselves when we are / least, or hurt, or lost, face over a face—.” Why fashion such an intricate metaphor?
Flourish is a lovely word. To bring into flower as well as to prosper. Is the metaphor intricate? I don’t know; that’s for readers to determine. It seems to me pretty simple. In fact I hope the poem is highly literal and authentic. Its intricacies may have to do with the braid of narrative scenes, or with the sometimes-complex syntax, or maybe more so with the relation of that syntax to a blank verse/syllabic line. I love the interplay of line and sentence, as well as the interplay of discipline and freedom.
We make sacrifices, I guess, as you say; but we also make deliberate proactive decisions to seek comfort, connection, beauty, even if that means some element of pain or loss or humiliation. I wouldn’t call that sacrifice as much as necessity and nourishment. Beauty is necessary for our survival.
Is there anything in particular you meant to communicate with this piece?
As best as you can sum it up in this small space, what do you view as the role of metaphor in poetry?
Metaphor—figures, tropes, the representative—is the fundamental gesture of poetry because metaphor is the fundamental quality of language. “A word,” writes Robert Hass, “is elegy to what it signifies.” That is, when we say a word, any word, that linguistic and sonic entity is a replacement for and a memory of the thing or idea it points to. It affiliates with, even as it substitutes for, that thing. “Forsythia,” the word for the yellow flowering shrub, is not in itself the yellow flowering shrub, but a gesture toward the shrub, a pointer. It means shrub; it is not itself a shrub. That is the essence of metaphor, a manner of representation of a thing for another thing.
Poetry wants to make deliberate these kinds of linguistic constructions, to remind us of the things of the world while reminding us as well of the creations we have invented that connect us to those things and to each other. In fact, poetry wants to deepen and explore that basic metaphoric characteristic of language; a poet will enhance, deepen, complicate, take apart, recuperate, and perhaps decuperate the figure of metaphor. Poetry is about the world, and about the language we make to access and identify that world.
Your poems display a strong sense of rhythm—unusual in an age where free verse poems dominate the pages of most presses and literary magazines. Even pieces that do not conform to a traditional form (i.e., the sonnet, blank verse, etc.) maintain some semblance of prosodic structure. Is this purposeful? And if so, what urges you to engage such rhythmic structures?
I was—I am—a musician. My first art was music, the guitar, and then the bass and banjo and mandolin, and just a month ago a dear friend gave me a ukulele. Poetry, says Poe, is the most musical configuration of language. That makes sense to me. And virtually all poems are rhythmic entities, whether that rhythm (meter) is regular and predictive or irregular or episodic (free verse). Annie Finch has a lovely book about the “ghost” of meter that haunts much great modern poetry. I find her trope of the ghost equally applicable to poetic forms of all kinds. Poetry remembers itself even as it evolves.
I love to find tension in my poems between the formal and the not-so formal. In “Forced Bloom,” for instance, it’s the interplay between a non-metrical or non-regular rhythm and the highly self-aware decasyllabic line. I would like the language to be so artfully “natural,” in fact, that a reader might not even notice the syllabic structure. In other poems, I like to write with mathematical aid: my early drafts of poems these days are almost always decasyllabic; that helps me apply pressure to the line not just from the left side but the right side. Formal pressure leads directly to linguistic or narrative or psychic pressure. But then I frequently take that form back apart. I have written many poems first in syllabics and then dismantled that structure, buried it, within a seemingly random shape. When I then repeat that random shape, over and over, something like a fractal emerges. Find my poems “The Rumor,” “Too Many,” “The Feast,” “Posthumous Man,” on and on, for examples of poems in a fractal stanza that first began as a decasyllabic.
Everything in my poetry is purposeful . . . though every purpose may not be intentional.
One of poetry’s most identifying and distinguishing features is precisely this issue of form. The line, the rhythm, the relation of syntax to line and rhythm, these are poetry’s definitions. Of course it’s further fascinating and accurate to call such things as rhetorical constructions, too, versions of form. The pastoral, the ode, the panegyric, the elegy are kinds of poetic form, as the very arguments we make, the stories we tell, tend to abide by particular formal designs and variations of those designs. I have a whole book about rhetorical forms in poetry, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (Graywolf), which I coedited with Ann Townsend and co-wrote with Ann, Stan Plumly, Linda Gregerson, Carl Phillips, Eric Pankey, and Richard Jackson.
Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
Yes, thanks for asking. Though I have to resist the word “project” for just a moment. I try very hard not to write projects. I hope to write poems, wherever they come from, for whatever purpose, and I am grateful when that process of discovery takes me far from any projected aim. I read so many poems, and books of poems, that merely seem to be projects, where each poem goes about filling in the predictable blanks of that project. I read such project-books, and often find a handful of good poems and lots and lots of filler. Projects come from the need to please agents or satisfy editors or marketing managers, or most awfully to be able to compete for grants and professional opportunities. I fear sometimes that university administrators, and grant-givers, can’t or won’t really engage issues of aesthetic value or make aesthetic determinations; it’s far easier to judge theme and subject matter, easier for them to convert beauty into mere quantitative data.
I am always working on poems and, often, on prose about poetry. I am pleased to say I have a new book of poetry, Scavenger Loop, forthcoming in April from W. W. Norton. The book is, among many things, my way of participating in the eco-poetic imperative, though I did not intend that focus while I wrote most of the poems. We talked about nature above. Some of the poems in this book are explicit complaints, political or social indictments of corporations, villages, individual people (including myself). I am excited about the book, though it has taken me a long time to achieve; it follows closely on the heels of my new book of essays, Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poems, and Poets (Michigan, 2014). Some of these pieces also investigate the environmental and ecological.
And finally I am really excited about another long “project.” After two years of work, I have gathered a large group of poems from twenty-one poets to appear in a special issue of my magazine, The Kenyon Review, next May. I have just finished the introductory essay. This feature is called “Nature’s Nature” and presents a wide array of nature poems by some very established and some just-emerging poets. Some are explicitly political, some are not, though all make use of the “natural.” The point is to look at what we mean when we indicate the natural in poetry, what the natural is, how we use it, abuse it, refer to it, defer to it. What is nature? What is not?
I am really excited about these three publications together. I hope some wonderful reader/s will notice these as a kind of group. I’m also working these days with a very exciting new-music quintet, River Song, one of whose members has composed a long piece based on “Scavenger Loop,” and we’ve performed it once at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and have plans for more such performances. See? I get to be in a band again.
How does that work depart from your previous writing?
I have edited poetry for more than thirty years, but this will be my largest single Kenyon Review edited feature. I rarely edit or arrange KR poetry for subject matter, but in this case the figure of “nature poetry” is the point itself.
I have written four previous prose books about poetry. Show Me Your Environment permits me to look at several individual poets whom I’ve loved for ages—Dickinson and Moore, Whitman and Keats, for instance—as well as to write in some of the essays in a considerably more personal way. A few of these essays are likely the closest I will ever come to memoir, a form I tend more and more to distrust.
And Scavenger Loop is, I hope, my best. So far. It contains my longest poem ever—nearly thirty pages, the title poem—and some of my shortest; some of my most fractured or partial with some of my most formally rigorous. With all the variation, I hope they are identifiably mine. I tend to be less interested, finally, in departures than in deepenings and discoveries.