Tuesday, February 26, 2019
#74 Backstory of the Poem "Anthem" by Sandy Coomer
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****This is the seventy-fourth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
#74 Backstory of the Poem
by Sandy Coomer
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? “Anthem” was written in response to a real-life experience I had in January 2016, so I have to give a little backstory.
Out of the blue, I started having severe upper right quadrant abdominal pain. I’m very healthy and have no major medical issues so this was a little startling for me. I took my health for granted. My doctor scheduled an abdominal ultrasound to see what was going on. The afternoon of the same day I had the test, my doctor called me at home. That’s never a good thing. She wanted to see me the next morning. Also, not a good thing.
The next morning she told me the ultrasound showed a mass on my liver and that we needed to do a CT scan with contrast that afternoon. We talked about all the possibilities of what it could be, and what might be the next steps, but all I could hear was “mass” and “biopsy.” I had a dear uncle who had died of pancreatic cancer a couple years earlier and I thought about him a lot as I steadied myself for the scan.
The morning of the day I was to get the results, I awoke to very loud screeching birds. I think it was crows. I thought, “So this is the song I get to wake up to today.” It made me irritated, but of course, I wasn’t really angry about the birds, but about the situation. My mind had already gone through a hundred different scenarios before I met with my doctor. She told me I had a hepatic hemangioma–a benign tumor made up of blood vessels. No biopsy was necessary and that pain, which was probably not related to my liver, has never come back. Of course I was relieved but the experience stuck with me.
Reflecting on that day via poetry was the way I processed it all. I had been writing poems that focused on specific words, italicizing them in the body of the poem. (There are 3 poems in Rivers Within Us that utilize that tactic.) I started thinking about language, how the sound of words combine with their meaning to create some sort of third perception of that word.
For instance, the word “mass” sounds heavy to me, weighted. When held together with the meaning, an abnormal growth of cells, a third sense was created – worry. I started thinking about the journey of this experience through its language, through the words I heard and the words I thought – both words of worry and words of comfort. “I’m relying on language to get by” is a line that balances what’s going on in the mind with what’s happening in the body – the concrete and the ethereal, the rational and the wistful, the science and the poetic. Even the screeching birds contribute language to the poem – a song, albeit a non-soothing one. Titling the poem “Anthem” is also a balance between its meanings (an uplifting song of praise or a psalm-like hymn) and what’s happening with the birds.
The other component of this poem that I think is important is the concept of being comfortable. I’m an endurance athlete and one of my coach’s favorite sayings was “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” I use that line in the poem. It’s a very curious directive. Upon hearing the results of the ultrasound, I was very uncomfortable. My mind moved from anger, to impatience, to dread, to worry. And yet, there was also a layer of acceptance – whatever will be will be. At the end of the poem, the line “I try to get comfortable in the dirt.” is that acceptance being realized. I can’t escape the situation. I can’t fly away from it like a bird. I have to be grounded and sometimes you don’t have a beautiful lawn to stand if. You only have the dirt.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I started thinking about this poem as I was waiting to be called back for the CT scan. It was a typical small waiting room in the Imaging Department, dull and unassuming. There were 2 chairs that were apart from the 8 or 9 other chairs. I sat in one of them while I drank the “contrast” drink I had to have before the scan. I had to wait for that drink to go through my system so I had some thinking time. I thought about the birds that morning and designed the poem in my head without writing it down. During the CT scan, they injected some medicine in my IV and told me to expect some strange side effects. One was to taste metal. They were right. I did. I made a mental note to add that very odd sensory image to the poem.
At home, I sat at my writing desk in front of my computer and typed what I remembered from that day. The birds, the emotion, the uncomfortable feeling, the metallic taste, the language of the experience. My writing desk has my computer, various books and papers in quite the disorderly stack, and a tray that holds some favorite symbolic items – a white horse figurine, a sheep figurine, a small bud vase, a tiny frog figurine and a rock I stole from a river in Alaska.
I have lots of sticky notes all over so I won’t forget important things like the name of a journal I need to submit to, a poet I need to read, a person I need to email. My desk is in the corner of a room off my bedroom that we call the “retreat room.” That’s where I do the majority of my writing.
What month and year did you start writing this poem? January 2016
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I am probably in the minority here. I don’t keep drafts. Since I write on my computer, not longhand, I simply change what I feel needs changing. I don’t keep the original writing. I think of it like this: if I change it, it wasn’t meant to be there. If it WAS meant to be there, I will find my way back to it.
I do revise though. I can guess that the poem is similar to my other poems in that I change various lines a couple times. I think mostly I changed the form of this poem. As it is now, there are very short stanzas, some even just one line. I recall this poem originally being more compact.
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? Like I said, I don’t keep the drafts. But I do know of one line in stanza 10 that was cut when discussing edits with the line editor for the book. The original line was:
“I’m trying to say / I’m relying on language to get by . . .”
“I’m trying to say” was cut. It was a dumb line and needed to be cut!
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I’d like readers to realize how easy it is to take health, to take life for that matter, for granted. In reality, we are all fragile and our time on earth is not guaranteed. I’d also like readers to take notice of language, of words, to hold words in their mouths and allow the various meanings and feelings associated with those words reach the body.
The words that came to me in writing the poem surprised me a little. “I pack my body with sound, silky slips of words like invisible and honest and some with an edge like ardent and practice and abide.” I want readers to do the same thing with words that mean something to them. Be open to the way certain words affect the body, how it feels when they’re held in the mouth and spoken aloud, how it feels when you hold them in your mind.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? The line “These things aren’t permanent. But then, neither am I.” I feel emotional when I read that. It’s about facing mortality and realizing we live on such a slim margin. As an athlete, I sometimes imagine myself invincible because I’ve accomplished a lot in triathlon and endurance sports. But I’m not at all invincible. I’m mortal and my body is easily broken. And I don’t mean to say we should go to the other extreme and become a hypochondriac, but we can be grateful and take the time to notice health and wellness and celebrate it.
I have an athlete friend who trains and races “for those who can’t.” It’s her mantra and it’s a good one. I think I came to a reckoning with health. Lucky for me, I have poetry as a vehicle to help me express that and remember it.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? Yes, Chautauqua Literary Journal in June 2017 (https://chautauquajournal.wixsite.com/website)
Anything you would like to add? This is a fabulous blog idea! I think the backstory of a poem is very interesting, and we, as readers, rarely get to discover that in such a direct way. Kudos to you, Christal, for this brilliance. And thanks for including me. I hadn't thought about "Anthem" in a while. It's always a good idea to remind yourself of certain truths from time to time. Also, thank God for poetry and the gift of expressing these hard parts of our lives in verse so that we are brought closer to understanding our complicated selves.
I wake to the sound of birds
high-pitched and screeching
like they are crushing
unwelcome syllables in their throats.
I try not to be angry on days like this
when the language of the world
nimbly reminds me
that some words carry a weight
lead-thick, a lexicon of worry
like biopsy and scan and mass.
I am trying to be comfortable
with being uncomfortable, to blink
when darkness glooms like a chanted spell.
I try to believe in science, or at least in hope,
even though I can’t wrap my arms around either.
I try to remind myself it’s just
the medicine that tastes metallic in my mouth,
it’s just the invisible beams of a strange kind of light
that razors through me.
These things aren’t permanent. But then, neither am I.
I try to get comfortable with that.
I’m relying on language to get by. I pack my body
with sound, silky slips of words like invisible
and honest and some with an edge
like ardent and practice and abide.
The birds calm in the moist blush of dawn.
They won’t latch me to their wings
and take me with them when they fly.
I try to get comfortable in the dirt.
Sandy Coomer is a poet and artist living in Brentwood, TN. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and she is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including the most recent, Rivers Within Us (Unsolicited Press). A full length collection, Available Light, will be published in 2019 by Iris Press. Sandy is the founding editor of the online poetry journal Rockvale Review, the curator of the ekphrastic poetry project 20/20 Vision, a Poetic Response to Photography, and the founder and director of Rockvale Writers’ Colony, located in College Grove, TN. She is a teacher, a seeker, a dreamer, and an explorer. Her favorite word is “Believe.”
BACKSTORY OF THE POEM LINKS
001 December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”
002 January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”
003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”
004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”
005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”
006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”
007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”
008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”
009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”
010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”
011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”
012 March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”
013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”
014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”
015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”
016 April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”
017 May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”
018 May 25, 2018
Juliet Cook’s “ARTERIAL DISCOMBOBULATION”
019 June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”
020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”
021 July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”
022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”
023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”
024 July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”
025 August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”
026 August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”
027 August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”
028 August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”
029 August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”
030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”
031 September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”
032 October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”
033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”
034 October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”
035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”
036 October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”
037 November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”
038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”
039 November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”
040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”
041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”
042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”
043 November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”
044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”
045 December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”
046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”
047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”
048 December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”
049 December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”
O50 December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s “For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”
051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov
052 December 27, 2018
by Michael Farry
053 December 28, 2018
by Renuka Raghavan
054 December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry
055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo
056 January 7, 2019
by Len Kuntz
057 January 10, 2019
by Camille T Dungy
058 January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister
059 January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave
060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon
061 January 19, 2019
by Linda Imbler
062 January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone
063 January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky
064 January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas
065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille
066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
by Patrick Bizzaro
067 February 06, 2019
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson-Brown
068 February 11, 2019
“Lunch on City Island, Early June”
by Christine Potter
069 February 12, 2019
by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
070 February 14, 2019
by Christopher P. Locke
071 February 18, 2019
“How Silent The Trees”
by Wyn Cooper
072 February 20, 2019
“A New Psalm of Montreal”
by Sheenagh Pugh
073 February 23, 2019
“Make Me A Butterfly”
by Amy Barbera
074 February 26, 20189