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Visiting with Murray Silverstein

by Claire Guyton

What inspired your poem “Back Porch, Twilight”?

A September day, summer vanishing before my eyes, longing to slow time down if not stop it altogether, I wrote a few phrases in my journal: “back porch, twilight,” “garden on its late-summer binge,” and “light left twenty minutes most.” That’s about it. Then, over a period of about two years, I wrote and rewrote about forty drafts.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this poem.

I tend to start poems all the time with notes, phrases, journal entries, and so on, and then see what comes up—which “starts” do I find myself thinking about between writing sessions? When I’m drawn back to something, new material—a word, a phrase, a line by others—begins to insert itself or to attach itself to the original phrases. A few in-between-session moments like this and I’m off; I can feel my way into the “middle” of the poem. That’s the best place to be, by the way, the middle of a poem! Being within—almost in a spatial sense—the middle of something that you sense is going well: in media res feels good to me. Finishing, though, is hard. I tend to fidget with my drafts for a long time, setting them aside, coming back to them; sometimes radically revising. As a result, I find it helpful, even necessary, to keep a rotation going, always something at each stage. Which automatically seems to happen, I’ve noticed, if I follow the rule Keep Starting.

If you painted this piece, what colors would you use?

As an architect, I find it more congenial to think about places in these terms. If this poem were a built space, what would it be like; what if it were a building, or a room? In that sense, this one’s easy: it’s an outdoor room, or a wonderful porch, half-in and half-out. A place that endures while you (and time) pass through. And a “back” porch, at that, with all the wonderful connotations.

What books have had the most impact on your writing?

That’s tough to answer. I read way, way more than I write. And sometimes I have the weird and pleasurable feeling that my writing is simply reading in another form—aggressive reading, an extension of the reading. The writers and books I love are like one big river in which I always seem to be splashing around; powering along on currents, finding the creeks, the eddies, the delta, the sea. Hard to say what things exactly, at any moment, are keeping me afloat: it’s all one element! A mix of old and new, the canon stuff—I’m adoring Joyce these days—and whatever feels alive. I loved Natasha Trethaway’s Native Guard. For the past few months, I’ve been reading the collected Tomas Tranströmer; just finished his Baltics and The Truth Barrier, and The Sad Gondola. What a great poet! For me, he’s one of those poets, who, as you read them, show you ways, strategies, for going deeper into your own work; very useful. Stevens, Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Heaney, Kunitz, Bob Hass, Mark Doty, and on and on, all are like this for me, all part of the conversation.


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