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Visiting with W.M. Lobko

by Claire Guyton

What inspired “Ballpoints/Homecoming” and “Cold Spring”?

Hank the spaniel, from "Cold Spring"

My work tends to spring from the chance occurrence or the overheard word as opposed to some imagined “What if…” scenario. I’m a magpie for sensations and phrases. “Ballpoints / Homecoming” germinated mostly from a real-life moment mentioned in the poem: the backwards chalk text, which, to my memory, a student of mine wrote on the board, the wall of which I shared with my great friend and fellow teacher Jeremy Gregersen. At the time, he taught sophomores and I taught freshmen. When my classes and I weren’t busy with, you know, textual analysis and such, we would speculate about how to prank the sophomores next door. One enterprising student came up with the totally absurd idea of cutting a small hole in the wall and piping foam into the midst of the sophomores. A lot of the poem, in fact, is indebted to that freshmen-level willingness to imagine the most manic thing possible—partly just for a rise, but partly because a part of them still wishes for such fantastic unlikelihoods. A lot of my poems seem to share that adolescent, “but it would be really crazy if we…” mindset. So, from that silly conversation, I drew the idea of being stuck within the wall, between rooms. The notion of such a liminal space resonated with me, and I hope resonates in the poem, because of the speaker’s placement within his grieving process; he’s left the “room” (or whatever) of one stage, and isn’t yet into the “room” (or whatever) of the next. The actual homecoming scene is also fairly true-to-life. Blue & White: Mustang Pride!

The poison room, from "Cold Spring"

Similarly, “Cold Spring” came out of a furlough from the city, a weekend of escape designed by a best friend of mine. I’d been living in New York City after some years away, and the urban lack-of-color started to grate on me. I remember clearly trudging to work one morning, listening to The Morning Recordings, wondering what it would be like to never look at or speak with anyone ever again. It became comical. That bit was recollected afterward, although not so much in tranquility. The real impetus for the poem was the driving tour my friend gave me of his hometown: Oyster Bay Cove, NY, out on Long Island, which is home to the laboratory where Watson and Crick partnered up to model what turned out to be DNA. It was an innocuous, blink-and-you-missed-it compound, which, candidly, wasn’t nearly as interesting as the simple, busy, lush fact of the foliage. “Tunnel of summerleaf” hit me then, and behind that little brick was the rest of the poem. I owe my friend everything for that weekend, which was the sort of knock-down, get-tattooed sort of weekend that my dead brother would have loved. I wrote the poem in a prone position, under early summerleaf shadow, out on the grassy hill behind my friend’s house, as the rest of the revelers slept. I wrote the last line and surprised myself with some weeping.

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

Friends tell me I generate a lot of material. It’s true that for a long period—six or seven years—I wrote a poem a day. Much of that material sits unused on a shelf, but I’m glad for having done it: I couldn’t’ve carried out such a project without paying a great deal of attention to—and putting a lot of stock in—the conversational and the quotidian. I’m usually willing to bet that within the most banal circumstance or object or situation, there is something that remains as yet unexplored, or as yet un-transformed into a weirder, realer version of itself, and that’s a kind of self-imposed training I’m happy to have forced on myself, even though I didn’t know at the time that that’s what it was. I don’t need a lot to get going. Usually I don’t have an idea so much as a phrase, an image, a snippet of conversation: anything that has the scent of a poem on it. From there, I chase down what I can—sometimes I get a stick, sometimes I nab the car. I revise an average of ten times and go through a few formatting / stanzaic changes before I feel that the work can hit the mail stacks or email inboxes. Anything less feels too fast.

Raymond Carver said a writer should follow the command “No tricks.” Do you keep any quotes or reminders at your desk? Or just in the back of your mind as you write?

No quotations really—with one little caveat—but I do have a series of postcards and images.

In front of me at the moment, from left to right: 

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Russian babushka, well, more like a babushka-to-be, a young Russian immigrant woman in kerchief and long frock. Black and white. She’s sitting on a wooden bench, and dozing on a small trunk covered with a blanket. She reminds me of my refugee grandmother, who has always been “Baba” to me. She’s family.
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James Merrill in his writing den. Black and white. He’s in a button-up shirt, loosely buttoned. He’s leaning back all cool. His desk is a holy mess: drafts, letters, inkwells, a roll of tape. He’s smiling. He’s industry. 
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Ernest Hemingway as a young man, in suit and mustache and overall Ron Swanson-like demeanor. Black and white. The bottom sixth of the postcard is a quotation: “What difference does it make if you live in a picturesque little outhouse surrounded by 300 feeble minded goats and your faithful dog…? The question is: Can you write?” He’s simplicity. 
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Seamus Heaney. Portrait, super-up-close. Black and white. A plain wooden chair, with plenty of vertical dowels forming the back. Heaney’s hair is long & mussed. His expression is wistful, as though he’s about to say goodbye for what you both know is an indeterminate period, which likely involves an ocean journey. He’s holding back from saying something. He’s beauty. 

Then on the wall to my left:

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A postcard on a plain signpost, I believe from 1930sArizona. Black and white. The signpost announces, simply, “Surprise.” In the background, a tiny nothing town appears and peters out as simultaneously as it can in a still image. That’s surprise. 

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A greeting card in the shape of Walt Whitman (old Walt) from my friend and fellow poet, Emily Carson. He’s excess.

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A framed photograph of my brother Jon on an Alaskan glacier, taken by his girlfriend a few weeks before he killed himself. Color. He’s just himself.

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Edward Sheriff Curtis in a self-portrait of his—he was a photographer of the western frontier and Native American culture who caught flak at the time, and still does today, for staging or arranging overmuch the subjects of his portraits. He’s persona.

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Family, industry, simplicity, beauty, surprise, excess, brothers, personae: these are the poles around which I try to make my work orbit. Just before I start to write, I high-five each one.  

If you were to write a book on the craft of writing, what title would you use? 

The Warm Industry.


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