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Visiting with Paul Carroll

by Jericho Parms

What inspired your poems “Salvia” and “Vigil”?

Trying to articulate the inspiration behind “Salvia” makes me realize how important it can be to record an experience or risk losing it. Upon rereading the poem, I realized that I had forgotten what it meant to me at the time. I had become absorbed in thinking about individuals—not as individuals but as small parts of a vast collection, of the billions that went before and the billions alive today. We tend to think of ourselves as centerpieces, around which the world and everyone else in it revolves. Age and time and experience make a mockery of this illusion. We are, at best, parts of a vast collection.

“Salvia” sprung in part from this preoccupation. And, much to my surprise, as I wrote the poem, I sensed that this orientation engendered a tenderness toward existence and our tiny membership in it. Death became not the loss of an individual taking center stage, but the loss of a piece in a collection. If the collection is important to us, so must be its parts, whose disappearance depletes it.  And so the poem is about a husband and the paramedics and nurses and doctors who refuse to allow a woman to forfeit her earthly membership. “And I saw in the living an effort to remain/ things in a collection of things:/ people chatting in lines or gathering in fields/ like trinkets or coins./ And I made you keep your membership,/ my mouth to yours, blowing, blowing.”

My brother John in 2007

The inspiration for “Vigil,” on the other hand, I cannot forget. My younger brother died from melanoma three years ago. During his final four months, his wife and one of his four siblings was always with him. My experience of everyone who cared for him is contrary to the oft-heard truism that people in wealthy societies fear death because they are insulated from it. Instead I saw selflessness that appeared to fear little. The poem imagines one of my sisters with him his last night. The details are fiction, no grass, no night herons, no porch; he died in his Brooklyn apartment.

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

Contrary to the good advice of my mentors, I do not write regularly. If I did, I would end up stringing some pretty words together, signifying nothing. Instead I wait until an idea visits, stays a while, and then refuses to leave. That can take weeks or months. In the meantime, I look for ideas. A few weeks ago, listening to NPR, a BBC correspondent announced that “after years of war, Iraqi scientists have begun surveying the country’s birds.” I have always loved birds, like, I mean, really loved them. That newscast left me heartened, not only because of its solicitude for birds, but also for what it says about the human spirit—I think of those Iraqi scientists, each of whom, I suspect, has been harmed by violence. This generated a poem.

And I’m often inspired to write by great poetry. I’ve only been writing about nine years and I find that reading others is essential to appreciate poetry’s possibilities. I’m struck by how often I mimic better poets. I recently discovered a poem by James Crews, entitled Paradoxical Undressing, an extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive poem imagining a true event: a couple caught in a snowstorm outside Omaha died from the cold despite their 911 calls. Everything about the poem was an inspiration. I found myself suddenly writing a poem that mimicked James’s longer lines and two line stanzas.

Do you remember the first poem you wrote? What was it about?

I wrote a poem about nine years ago on the occasion of the bar mitzvah for my best friend’s son. I had read poetry before then but had never really written. That was the first.

Is there a “writing rule” you never break? Is there one you love to break?

There is a writing rule I am trying to break, namely the rule to avoid using adjectives and adverbs. In her handbook, Mary Oliver cautions against their use. Often they are deadly, saying too much too easily and too abstractly, weakening an image or an action, depriving the reader of an imaginative experience. But I often notice that great poets use adjectives brilliantly: “Smudged afternoons when lilacs leaked their smell,” a line by Peter Campion in his wonderful poem Lilacs is a good example. “Smudged” works beautifully. I’m not there yet.

There’s another rule I’d love to break. The dictum “less is more” is a powerful aesthetic rule for poetry, perhaps for any art form. But consider the great, great poet Albert Goldbarth. Of his work someone has said, “Why use one word when four will work just as well?” In his explorations of culture, archaeology, space travel, evolution, and their wondrous connections, he piles on language. But somehow it works, as if the mysteries that fascinate him and us cannot be constrained by language; as if his expansive style is the message, that life defeats the dictum “less is more.” That’s Albert Goldbarth. For me, less is still more.


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James Crews August 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Thanks for the great interview, Jericho. And thanks to Paul for the mention of my poem, “Paradoxical Undressing.” I love both of the poems published here on Hunger Mountain, though “Vigil” is my favorite, and I’m glad you felt the freedom to make up a few details that bring us closer to the emotional truth. It’s good to know our poems are reaching others, isn’t it?

All best,
James Crews

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