G A R Y S H O R T
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: These poems are from an as-yet-unpublished manuscript, John Clare’s Sparrow. All the poems are outstanding, but we’re particularly interested in the opening quartet. Each of these poems—sometimes as intimate as a diary entry, other times as fierce as a political tract—consists of four or five couplets organized into three associatively connected sections. (Hence the three-part titles: “Quetzaltenango, Oh Wow, & Two Small Stones”; “Time Travel, Exit, & White Moth”; etc.) How did this sequence develop? How do you approach the gathering or assembling of the poems’ three sections?
Gary Short: Several years ago I wrote a poem entitled, “Half-Dream, Sign & Rainwater,” which editor Susan Terris took for publication in Runes. This poem was like the poem you describe in your question—it had three sections of 10 lines each made of five couplets. This was a different kind of poem for me—the couplets were brief observations and aphorisms with no chronology and story. My three published books had been comprised of highly narrative poems that often harkened back to the past. I thought that the poem published in Runes would probably never fit into a manuscript.
A few years later I was looking back at poems of mine that had been published in good magazines, but had never appeared in a book. I hadn’t considered “Half-Dream, Sign & Rainwater” for some time. I was pleased with the poem—that it was different than my other poems, that it seemed to evoke a sense of humor or wryness not found in my narrative poems. I couldn’t remember how I’d written the poem, but guessed that I had probably comprised it from notes I keep whenever I am reading or daydreaming. I live in Guatemala. It’s Goldilocks weather here, all year—not too hot, not too cold. Every day, in the morning or afternoon, often both, I sit in the garden under the avocado tree and read and think or not think. On white blank paper, I take notes stemming from what I’m reading and seeing and hearing around me in the garden.
I had a six-week residency coming up at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’d read in an interview with C.D. Wright that she had written most of her book Deepstep Come Shining at VCCA, piecing the poems together section by section on the tackboard wall of her studio. I’d also read that Mary Robison’s novel, Why Did I Ever, was composed of fragments of writing that she had compiled on index cards. I made up my mind that I would not work on completing my fourth book of narrative poems during the residency, but I would compose a book comprised of couplets—aphorisms, fragments, thoughts. I liked the idea of moving away from my three books. I felt like a musician with a side project that’s much different than the usual work—like Jack White taking a break from the White Stripes to produce and play on Loretta Lynn’s album Van Lear Rose.
So I show up in Virginia with a couple hundred pages of notes, a stack of index cards, a box of thumbtacks (the elongated transparent colored ones, not the classic flat steel), a bag of rubber bands and a box of paper clips. It looked like I was trying to MacGyver a book together. I knew I wanted to have 31 poems in the book—20 poems would have the three-section format with five couplets and ten lines in each section. For variation, there would be ten poems of varying length but employing couplets, and a coda using the three-section format. The first ten days I went through the notes high-grading (a mining term for separating the best ore) them and writing the most promising material on index cards—I chose to transcribe the material into two lines on the index card. If I had only one line I liked, I wrote that line on the card and sifted through for another line to add to that card. I worked like a horse. When I was done transferring the best of the notes to index cards, I had about 450 index cards with two lines—I figured the book would have about 750 lines (I would need 375 cards—75 would not make the cut).
Once I had the index cards in hand, I began to assemble the poems on the tackboard wall. I had the form—three sections,10 lines in each section, five couplets. I know this sounds highly predetermined, but I had little or no idea what the final poem would contain. I would work on three or four poems at a time—three poems in the three-section format and use a different pattern for the poem on the far right of the wall. Each poem had 15 spaces (cards) to fill. I stood in front of the wall with a stack of cards in my hand and I sorted through them—first card, doesn’t grab me, move to second card. This couplet sounds like a 3rd & 4th line to me, so I place it (thumbtack it) in the space for the second couplet of the second section. I did not place the cards in a linear way. I moved around in poems and sections of poems.
When I’ve been around painters at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MacDowell or at VCCA, I’ve been envious that they get to move while they work. Holding and placing those cards, pieces of language on the wall, it was a joy not to be in a chair at a desk. I thought of C.D. Wright saying “A poem is a made thing, made out of the body.” I thought of Jane Kenyon’s phrase, “To body forth.” I tried not to think too much when I was placing the cards. I tried to work associatively and through intuition. I wanted it both ways—I wanted the placement and juxtapositions to seem random, but I also wanted the couplets to ricochet off one another and accrue sensation and meaning.
I spent about 20 days pinning, unpinning, moving index cards on a tackboard wall. Sometimes I took every card down from the wall and started over. It was hard work and serious play. When I got a group of 15 couplets in a sequence I liked, I took them down and paper-clipped them together. In three weeks I assembled 20 of the 30-line, three-section poems and 10 other short poems. I took a couple days off, sleeping, walking, talking to birds, and the last week I typed the poems from the index cards and ordered the manuscript.
The first person I showed it to was my friend, the Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku. She told me that
the book is “a foolish effort by someone who thinks he’s post-modern bullshit man.” I thought, well, at least I’ve got my first blurb! I was glad that Luli could be honest. Other poet-friends, David St.John, Michael Waters, Wendy Miles, were more receptive and intrigued. My longtime Sacramento group—Lisa Abraham, Cathy French, Denise Lichtig—were helpful in flagging some of the weaker couplets. I cut those out and substituted two new lines in the way the comedian Mitch Hedberg would do when he told a joke in his stand-up routine that bombed: “I’m gonna fix that joke by taking out all the words and adding new ones.”
I’m grateful to COMP for bringing out six of these poems together. A lot of editors at different magazines are choosing to publish multiple poems from John Clare’s Sparrow—for instance, Juke Joint, six poems; Superstition Review, 4 poems; Diode, 3 poems; American Journal of Poetry, 3 poems; Terrain, 2 poems. It makes me think that the poems have taken on a depth and spin and that the editors are sensing some accrued power. John Clare’s Sparrow is an odd bird of a book: I hope it finds a nice home.