Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Three Takes on a Poem from Prairie Schooner: Editor, Poet...and Me

To mark the first day of National Poetry Month, here's a treat.

The venerable literary journal Prairie Schooner, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, celebrates its 83rd anniversary this year, and I'd love to bring your attention to their wonderful contribution to the literary community. In their current issue (volume 83, number 1), published last week, the editors put a focus on Portuguese poets. James Engelhardt, Prairie Schooner's managing editor, was kind enough to share the poems with me before publication, so that I could choose one which spoke to me and feature it here. Here are the first lines from the poem below.

Why I Sang at Dinner
Roberto Christiano

I was not permitted a word at dinner
because you were too hot from laying
brick in the sun to bear the voices
of children, and mother too tired
to oppose you. My sister and brother,
five and six years older, had graduated
in allowance to one sentence
and on your good days two.

Click here to read the rest of the poem at the PS site. Then, pop back here for an inside view of editor Engelhardt's reaction, my own thoughts on the poem, and some insights from the poet too (all below).

As a nonfiction writer with particular interest in family narratives, I had little trouble selecting Why I Sang at Dinner from the packet of poems Engelhardt sent me. Not only does Christiano's poignant piece tell a compact, unique, but also universal story about a father and his adolescent child, it does so in a way which allowed me to enter the world on the page without losing the battle of slippery imagery which poetry often presents for this prose writer.

From the outset, I'm pulled in by the narrative mood of the piece, a feeling of frustrated static within a family situation which is also changing as we progress through the poem. The voice is charged with the pain of naiveté and longing, as the narrator transitions to puberty, and the more nuanced understanding of a parent's existence as a person apart from his familial role. The poem pivots on that unavoidable but bittersweet time when a sensitive adolescent realizes things about a parent which cannot be unlearned. The emotional transition and sadness are palpable, as is the lingering childlike wish that things will change, that a father will look at his son, see what's behind the hope-filled eyes, and make a change. Instead, Christiano takes us, quite correctly and understandably, into the painful territory of the moment when a child gives up that hope, because a parent has already given up on it himself.

Roberto Christiano:

"It is my belief that writing should stand on its own without any qualifying explanations from the author. That said, I usually draw encouragement from Rilke's exhortation to mine one's childhood as a source of inspiration. The fabulous thing about this endeavor is that the writer can alter events that he was often powerless over when they originally happened. Sometimes poetic license doesn't just make for a better poem, it also makes for a better recollection. I have also taken inspiration from my friend and fellow poet, Norma Chapman, whose poems reflect on the major events of her life with as much clarity as she can muster. "
For those of us who submit any kind of work to journals, here's a small glimpse inside editor James Engelhardt's thoughts:

"There’s a bit of received wisdom in the writing community that editors stop reading after the first few lines (three or five, depending on who heard what from whom), so you’d better have a strong opening. The latter half of the advice is right: have a strong opening; but most of us do read the rest of the poem—you never know what delights await.

Looking at the Christiano poem, the opening is incredibly strong and assured. The opening line speaks back to the title and sets up a tension that follows throughout, a tension between what the reader might expect from family life and what happened in this particular family. The line ends on the syntactic unit – "a word at dinner"-- but that expectation of regularity is immediately shaken in the second line when the break occurs in the middle of the phrase – "from laying / brick." I’m delighted he didn’t describe the father as tired, so that we get “hot” and “tired” in two different places but still in one sentence, still calling to each other.

So that gives you an idea of how an editor might read openings. Throughout the poem, the tensions invoked in the opening play out clearly, but never explicitly. The father silences the boy with “You have no responsibility.” But the boy wants “to loosen the knot / between your brows”—a kind of responsibility he feels toward the father, born of love. The end of the first stanza strives, when describing the abuse the father had received, to explain the source of pain, even if the passage doesn’t excuse the father. The boy feels the weight of responsibility so heavily, he sings: “Slenderly, I quavered out tunes.” So the son breaks the imposed silence, but to what effect?

At the end, the father has not “softened,” and instead it is the boy who changes, at a point traditional for coming of age, thirteen, his “new male voice was starting to break in / and I couldn’t care anymore.” The responsibility has shifted, and the boy turns outward, but the tensions between father and son are never named exactly. The boy is looking for affection and connection, and he finds something like it in the music they don’t quite share, but have in common. What’s particularly nice is that song sets the boy free, and we can always read “song” as “poetry.”

I want to note how tightly the poem stays to this small narrative about family dinners. One night becomes many, but the focus remains on how this relationship intersects so profoundly at this one ritual so many of us recognize. It takes a long time to center a poem so neatly, pare a story down to be available to many people, and lose none of its impact."
For a chance to win a one-year subscription to Prairie Schooner (four issues, $28 value), compliments of the editors, please leave a comment below (and be sure there is a way for us to contact you). You have until midnight PST, April 15 to leave your comment. Good luck. And if you can't wait, check out the subscription options here.

NOTE: IMPORTANT -- please leave a way for us to contact you if you win the sub, either an email address or a link to your site/blog/Facebook profile/whatever, so we can contact you if you're the winner!

P.S. Also, check back here again in a few days, when Engelhardt and I will introduce and discuss a personal essay from the same issue.


Anonymous said...

Hey Lisa....great idea! I really liked this poem a lot, and enjoyed the three reflections.

Sharon Ross said...

It was great to get an editor's insight about the poem, especially the tidbit about a strong opening. Yes, openings are good, but sometimes those endings hold great delight, as Engelhardt said. I also appreciated the poet's take on childhood: "mine one's childhood as a source of inspiration. The fabulous thing about this endeavor is that the writer can alter events that he was often powerless over when they originally happened." I've thought many times about fictionalizing my own childhood but never thought of it in this way. What a magical twist on remembering

Alison said...

Something about the first person on these kinds of narratives where the adult looks back on the child's perspective has always bothered me. I think the first person makes it more accusatory than it is really intended. Third person limited would be less accusatory, but then it adds a distance and loses the umph of the ending. This is something I've never been able to sort out, how to overcome this particular problem.
Fantastic, sad, ending.

Carol Berg said...

I really liked how the "r" hit him--the force of language a physical entity. And how his own voice, then at the end, is cracking, changing. Language is powerful stuff in this poem.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully sad poem. Lawrence Welk tunes, no less.

Jean said...

Best of poetry: strongly imagistic, emotional, felt in the flesh. Perplexing and evocative words and phrases: Excelsior, a rough trill, the rope--the knot.

Finally, the last line: I couldn't care anymore.

Why couldn't?

I went over this line again and again in my mind. I wanted to change it: "I didn't care"; "I decided not to care". But I knew all along that the word "couldn't" was the only one that really said it. "Couldn't" was the only word that could embrace the paradox of a man-child separating from his father.

Norma said...

Disclaimer: I do know the poet and the poem. I do love the poem, especially for dealing with with emotional material with restraint and beauty. It builds wonderfully to the last two lines.

Norma said...

Disclaimer: I do know the poet and the poem. I do love the poem, especially for dealing with emotional material with restraint and beauty. It builds wonderfully to the last two lines. It is a joy to have it so well published.

Bonnie Naradzay said...

Hi,Lisa - This is a narrative poem that's fraught with conflict and unfulfilled yearning and multi-textural. Much ground is covered in the first stanza, and like Rilke, the poet hypervalues words, such as "excelsior," with astonishing effect. The turn at the ending is earned and heartbreaking. Thanks for this!
Bonnie Naradzay

Anonymous said...

Nice blending of narrative and dialogue/dialect but the last few lines are missed opportunities. The idea of him becoming a man, more like his father, the transformation of his voice, etc. isn't capitalized on.

Kari said...

Very poignant and sad poem, but something we can all relate to - trying to change our family dynamics unsuccessfully. As a parent myself it has brought me back to reflect on our own family dynamics and pay attention to the ways my own boys might be trying to change the family dynamics.