David Sanders on sense, sensibility and form in his new collection, and the ‘propensity for the lyrical moment’ in flash essays, poems.
As an artist you are not merely concerned with getting your meaning across, or you would just write expository prose. You want to generate interest and involvement with the language as well as with what it says.—Judson Jereome, The Poet’s Handbook
Compass and Clock by David Sanders. Swallow Press, 72 pp.
I wonder how many prose writers unconsciously draw on the rhythms and content of the poems they read as children? The longer I write, mostly nonfiction in my case, the more poetry I read. Poetry’s distilled wisdom feeds me as a person, and its precise diction and careful phrasing nurture me as a writer. Poetry grows your literary intelligence and seeps into your sentences.
Formalist poetry—which employs meter and sometimes rhyme schemes—enchanted me during my nine years as book publicist and then marketing manager for Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. David Sanders was the director then, a poet and a publisher of poets who launched the Press’s esteemed Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We didn’t publish only formalists, and poetry collections of any kind constituted a handful of our annual publications, but they were among our most interesting. I moved on, and later so did Sanders, but our old Press, now led by Gillian Berchowitz, has just published a new collection of his poetry, Compass and Clock. In it, Sanders mixes free-verse poems with those that employ formal elements. The book was elegantly designed in-house by Beth Pratt, using Jeff Kallet’s collage “Sunrise” as the cover’s striking image.
I’ve read Compass and Clock twice. There’s the strangeness of true art in odd little poems like “He Was Once,” about a man who drives a widow to a mountaintop to watch an incoming storm. She’s alarmed when the man compares himself “to the quiet air”:
calling it yellow, volatile but unshaken.
Beyond the pass, they saw as they sat there
the clouds massing. And she asked, as if from another
life, as he sat gazing out, to be taken home.
Such a great, weird moment, resonant, full of mystery. The kind of thing you might remember forever but not understand. Sanders made it up, he told me. He sketched the opening portrait of the man—maybe young and sensitive, maybe odd, maybe just literary—who was once “amazed by simple things,” based on Sanders’s own experience of seeing his shadow on a lawn in the moonlight. The spooky rest, he imagined.
Along with his witty wordplay and his poetry showcasing, as poetry does, the power of metaphor, I was struck by Sanders’s spare, precise descriptions. The “thin curtains” in one poem seemed so perfect, telling, and sad. One of my favorite narrative poems in Compass and Clock, “The Mummy’s Curse,” is about a man returning to his hometown to bury his father. Stopping at an orchard’s roadside stand, he sees a woman he once knew but doesn’t recognize. She’d stayed in that smaller world, and she recognized him instantly. Whereas he, who’d traveled and seen so much more, just saw another person—until she broke the spell of his blinkered drifting. Such a deft way to express the adult truth of feeling like a ghost in old haunts. Despite his worldliness, he sees, the “change was theirs”: having grown in place, they looked different to him, whereas time for him had stopped, as if by death, having left his roots.
In such story poems, I like to mentally remove their line breaks and see how they’d function as flash essays. (Sometimes nicely, as in this poem; sometimes you can hear an editor’s cry for the person to reveal “what’s at stake,” reveal why this story, why now?) Narrative, to me, salves some of the inherent melancholy of poetry. But I think because of that quality, poetry seems mature to me, like adults of a certain age. Maybe literature itself is inherently elegiac because it’s at last about memory, and therefore about loss, our fleeting lives set against the ongoing ruination of time. Many of Sanders’s poems deal with memory, and therefore with vastly separated time frames, with adulthood’s losses.
The formal poems and riffs on form in Compass and Clock intrigued me. There’s plenty satisfying “blank verse,” iambic pentameter’s classic five-beat line. I wondered if Sanders had snuck in a classic structure to boot, such as a sonnet, and sure enough counted 14 lines in the two stanzas of “Here, Now,” on a page I’d dog-eared. In the first eight lines, a man watches a group of restless young punk rockers loitering on a summer evening and feels his separation from them; in the final six lines, he remembers his own garage-band youth in Ohio “without imagining it would come to this.” It’s a loose sonnet, the rhymes random rather than regular, though true to its form with that distinct turn after the octave, as the man goes inward and pensive.
What surprise lurks in form for poet, I imagine, and certainly for reader. This is allied with what I envy as a writer about poetry: its employment of an ongoing sensibility instead of only experience, autobiography. Though I suppose we never run out of memory—there’s always yesterday!—the big stuff of the past gets used, or tiresome. And yet there you still stand.
Sanders, the founding editor of Poetry News in Review, hosted online by Prairie Schooner, has published his poems and translations in journals and anthologies, and in two limited-edition collections, Nearer to Town and Time in Transit. He now teaches English at Ohio University and remains associated with its Press, serving as general editor of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We met to discuss Compass and Clock, over a long lunch at a barbeque restaurant in Logan, Ohio, and then traded emails, in which he tackled the questions below in bold.
Q. There have always been holdout “formalist” poets, but for decades, free verse poems displaced those with meter and/or rhyme, at least in terms of number. Lately there seems to have been a resurgence, or maybe it’s an absorption, of more formal elements in the mainstream. Though not all your poems employ a metrical or rhyming scheme, many do—and your various combinations are exciting: “The Fossil-Finder” is free verse yet rhymed. What do meter and rhyme add to poetry? Why does subtle blank verse, iambic pentameter, still feel so right? Are Shakespeare’s soliloquies in our blood, or did something earlier put iambic pentameter in our marrow?
DS: Rhyme and meter are matters of craft and history as much as anything else. As a reader, I do have a physical response to rhythmic patterns, of which iambic pentameter is the predominant one in English verse. The response is one of anticipation and gratification. But it doesn’t have to be iambic pentameter. In the poem you mentioned, “The Fossil-Finder,” there is a recognizable though irregular beat in the first four lines:
My hope as a writer is that the reader can discern the modulation even if it isn’t a regular rhythm, and that the play of the rhythm in concert with the natural syntactical phrasing of the language provides the reader something familiar and physical riding beneath the words. The same holds true of the rhyme. Whether it’s end-stopped (coming at the end of a phrase) or internal (buried within the syntactical unit) the similarity of sounds resonates to varying degrees. When it’s done well, the effect is one of subtle fulfillment.
Leaving the house far behind,
while his friends, two lovers, quarreled,
he studied the ground at his feet to find
a proffered world.
But I use these devices for a more pragmatic reason too. They allow me to go places I would not necessarily go if left on my own, so to speak. The path I take by employing these devices is usually more interesting, indirect, and surprising to me than the path I would take if I just wrote down the first thing that came to me. In a sense they act as obstacles in my path, forcing me to think differently about what I think I want to say, and taking the poem in unexpected directions.
Although I have heard for decades the argument that there is a connection with the heartbeat and the iambic pentameter line, I do not believe that is the case. The simple reason is that there are other cultures for which the parallel of the ta-dum of the iamb and the ta-dum of the heartbeat isn’t present because the idea of the iamb doesn’t exist in some cultures. Japanese poetry, for example, is built on a syllable-like structure, not on a cadence like English meter. On the other hand, I think we, as humans, regardless of our culture, do have a primal sense of rhythm or rhythmic patterns. It manifests itself in everyday activities such as walking, running, washing our hands, or tapping our fingers on the tabletop while we wait for our drinks to arrive. It is even more evident in dance and music and song, the temporal arts, regardless of culture—though the rhythms themselves might be different. Verse straddles prose and song. It is the lyric after the lyre has been put down. As heightened speech, it wants to retain that rhythmic undertow without leaving its home on the page or as spoken word.
Q. There seems an affinity between nonfiction and poetry, perhaps because they both ultimately point to the writer’s own sensibility. But however much a particular poem “might work” as an essay, there feels a difference, something subtle. Maybe more of a mysterious moment caught in a poem, rather than an essay’s “clear point.” What does poetry try to do that’s, if not unique, distinctive to the genre? What do you try to do and like to see done?
DS: I think you’re right that there is an affinity between short nonfiction and poetry. The propensity for the lyrical moment is one common point. The deflection of the didactic urge is another, I think. But there are differences that are significant. Paul Valery said something to the effect that the difference between prose and poetry is the difference between walking and dancing. I like to think that the difference is that the point of prose is to be so well-made as to be transparent: we are seeing into the writer’s mind, the way it is working, and following the course of the thoughts. Poetry, on the other hand, always makes you aware of itself as it takes you on its journey. It risks the stark clarity of the unencumbered view for the rose window.
That awareness is accomplished in part through the devices described earlier of rhyme and rhythm, although good prose certainly enlists rhythmical energy to drive the rhetoric.
But more to the point, poetry, more so than prose, is likely to use tropes —figurative language—not merely to illuminate an image or idea but also to take the reader on the scenic route, wherein the metaphor might be the basis for the poetic dramatic situation or as a measure of the poem’s emotional weight. Think of the words trope, verse, and volta. Trope is a turn of phrase; verse has as its origin the image of the plow in the field turning to the next row, which is the picture of what happens in the lines of a poem; and volta, the Italian word for turn, is the rhetorical place in the poem, most widely used in reference to sonnets, where the meaning of the poem turns.
To the extent that both poetry and nonfiction are a sort of meditation on a subject, there is a commonality. But I sense that nonfiction is more apt to try to home in on the understanding of a thing, whereas poetry prefers to let it keep slowly turning, sometimes just out of reach. That is a pretty broad statement, which might not bear up under scrutiny.
Q. When an essayist says he puts an essay through 30 to 50 drafts, we basically know he works on it for one to two months, on average—each day writing, reworking, or polishing is a “draft.” I realize you must work on some poems for years, in the sense that you put them away at a certain point. But when you’re actively working on a poem—getting a solid draft, as it were—how long does that take? What’s your record for one that took long gestation?
DS: It’s hard to say. For the poems in this book, I would estimate that the average number of drafts was ten to fifteen per poem, and I normally spent two to three weeks on getting a working version of it.
There are some for which decades later I changed a few key words, completely altering the original meaning (For example, one poem I wrote in 1982 was revised last year in preparation for the publication of the book. I think it was an improvement.). But there are others, which, over years, have been collapsed and then re-purposed as parts of other poems. One that went through several violent revisions is a poem titled “River Where the Lovers Wait.” The title takes its name from a place in Thailand where my neighbor, working on his doctorate, studied bat viruses. I remember going home one summer and standing under the streetlight throwing pebbles in the air, taunting the local bats. I wrote a poem based on those two details, my action and his experience in Thailand—40 lines or so—as a dramatic monologue, then let it simmer for a few months till it reduced itself to seven lines:
Bats come here at dusk to hunt,
following the insects’ paths that loop
above the water. From the shore,
I toss a handful of stones in the air
and watch the bats dive then veer
from that wrong, unfamiliar pattern:
they, in their way, know better.
As I read the poem again now, I see that the only element from the dramatic monologue that was retained was the mention of a shore. There was no shore at the end of my parents’ very long driveway, just Ohio cornfields.
Q. I share my work-in-progress with other writers, and their questions and edits are helpful. At the same time, it’s humbling to see my dumb errors, gaps, and infelicities—sometimes in a fairly polished draft. Could you discuss your revision process, including whether you share draft poems with other poets?
DS: There are a very few people with whom I share my poems as I write them. They have different aesthetics from each other, so it’s informative for me to get their responses. I generally wait until I come to a point where I think the poem is finished or nearly so, or conversely where I have no idea if it is “working” or not. I’m less interested in editing per se, than in finding out if I’m on the right track. Just making it public (even if it’s a public of one other) is often enough to make me reconsider my choices. Most of the process is private.
The hardest draft is the first—going from the idea or image or phrase that triggers the poem and putting it down so that it has a chance to incubate. And I usually need to find a rhetorical entry point, a first line that gives voice to the poem: “Faced with going home again, / where you grew up and all of that” or “These days the chatter turns to friends / who’ve quit responding to our letters” or “This is the shower / that every day settles the dust.” For better or for worse, once that cadence has purchase it’s much easier for the rest to follow, even if only to be changed later. If the idea for the poem incubates solely in my head, there’s a good chance it will get lost for good, which might be for the best.
After I have committed it to paper, I will often try to recast it in a way that’s memorable to me, that is in a voice that is near my own, with a rhythm and phrasing that I can commit to memory and repeat to myself. I use that memorization to find the soft spots in the poem. If I continue to forget a passage, it usually means there’s a problem with it. As I mentioned, I will often use formal devices to generate a direction for the poem that is not in alignment with the original draft. That process gives me the opportunity not just to work out problem passages but also to let the poem turn itself over in the back of my head while I’m working out the smaller details. At least that’s what I imagine is going on. From time to time, I will print out large-scale versions of the poem and hang them in my room and just leave them there so I can reassess them from time to time as they catch my eye. I’m in no hurry.
Q. Poetry has a passionate audience. But of course some readers have found poetry too challenging. Who are some classic poets who are more accessible than we remember from high school English? How can prose writers benefit from reading such poetry? Who are some modern masters, including formalists, we ought to read?
DS: Not to be contrary, but I think poetry is meant to be at least a little challenging. Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost are challenging if you spend any time with them. The question is whether or not you are rewarded for accepting the challenge and investing the time and energy. With Dickinson and Frost and more recent poets like Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur and Elizabeth Bishop, the answer is “yes.” Accessibility in discussing poetry is almost a trigger word for me, akin to relatable. Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” There is something to that. Still, I think most people would be able to appreciate the work of poets as removed from one another as Pablo Neruda and Philip Larkin, without much trouble.
A very small sample of some of my favorite contemporary poets includes Lucia Perillo, Timothy Steele, Joshua Mehigan, and the late Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. Each is very different from the other, but each is interested in telling the truth but telling it slant, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson.
I think nonfiction writers might benefit from looking at work by the names I just mentioned if only to see the choices made in approaching the subject matter. Look at how these poets set up a dramatic situation and how the voices they adopt suit the poems. Consider how they skew our version of the world: making the ordinary strange and fresh, and the strange less so but also fresh. I think all good writing does that, but poetry makes greater allowances for accomplishing that than prose. For example, here is the beginning of a poem by Lucia Perillo titled “Blacktail”:
Like tent caterpillars, we cover the landscape with mesh
because of the deer, the ravenous deer.
They enter the yard with the footwork
of cartoon thieves—the stags wear preposterous
inverse chandeliers, the does bearing fetuses
visibly kicking inside of their cage. . . .
Listen how the repetition of deer rhymes with chandeliers and stags resonates with cage and how the description of antlers as “preposterous inverse chandeliers” is both an accurate description and comical. It’s comical to pronounce too—preposterous inverse chandeliers— that’s a mouthful and the humor is set up with the image of cartoon thieves. However, the comic element is cut by the idea of the deer starving and by the image of the fetuses kicking inside their cage, isn’t it? The juxtaposition of sounds and images is disquieting. Reading it aloud, with its line breaks and its many starts and stops, forces you to slow down the process of comprehension almost to the point of hovering over the individual lines.
This is a luxury that most nonfiction cannot afford. Still there surely must be something to glean from that. But I have to admit, writing nonfiction is a much more mysterious enterprise to me.
Q. Why do you say that?
At its heart prose is, I think, about telling stories. And I can’t tell stories. I remember when I lived in Arkansas, I would hear friends tell wonderful shaggy-dog stories, that would go on for twenty, thirty minutes, with little or no point—it was all in the telling. In my retelling of the same story I’d manage to boil it down to two or three minutes. So not only did it not have a point, there was no story there either.
But it is beyond my reach to figure out how even short non-fiction is constructed. I’m not speaking of the micro/flash stuff, but rather an informal personal essay of some length. As a poet, I look to juxtaposition of images, metaphor, sound, line breaks, rhythm, voice, and the lyrical impulse as aids in pushing my pen down the page towards some unknown. I keep Frost’s dictum at hand: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The idea of those tools receding so that all is left is the sheer force of my language to focus the reader’s mind to follow the path of my thoughts (!) as the piece moves from point to point is more than daunting. It’s exhausting.
To have a large idea that you want to express slowly and clearly so that the reader is with you every step of the way, to know what you want to say and then say it is an intellectual mystery for me. When I try that, the idea sputters out into something much less consequential than what could be considered thought. I refer to the best of those as first drafts. I like those crystalline essays: Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Joseph Epstein, Ann Fadiman, Annie Dillard. I feel like someone is trying really hard to explain things to me in a way I’ll understand. I appreciate that effort.