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***D.A. Gray’s “Wire” is #280 in the 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. (Right: D.A. Gray at a poetry reading. Copyright by D.A. Gray)
Can you go through the process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was conceived in your brain until final form? In March 2018 a bomber from Pflugerville, Texas began terrorizing Austin with a series of package bombs sent through FedEx. The 4th bomb was a tripwire in a quite Austin community.https://abcnews.go.com/US/alleged-austin-serial-bomber-kills-explosive/story?id=53897636
(Left: the perpetrator Mark Anthony Conditt)
A friend who lived close to this had shared a story of how it reminded him of an experience in Iraq, and his story reminded me of a near miss when the sun reflecting off a piece of wire appeared just a second before we would have driven through it, and that flash of light probably saved us. It was the unexpectedness of seeing instruments of terrorism at home and having to become hyper-vigilant again that made me start writing.
This was originally two pieces, a memory of the near-miss and the street cordoned off with yellow tape and flashing blue lights. (Left: bombing victim Will Grote III)
The two images were parallel but I couldn’t think of a way of weaving them together or articulate why this moment was even more disturbing. I remember listening to Dylan and hearing the last lines of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ – ‘wondering what price you have to pay to get out of going through these things twice.’ That, to me, told the story of what a veteran returning from fighting terrorism only to experience terrorism at home. (Right: Bombing victim Anthony Stephan House)
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I was in a Killeen parking lot getting ready to head home after teaching a college class. I’d heard the news story of the wire and the search for the bomber (at first it wasn’t known if it was the same person) while listening to NPR in the car. My classroom wasn’t far from the Fort Hood gate and I wondered how many others were affected by this experience. I wrote the memory down in the car, and talked to my friend, who was in the area, later that week. The description of the Austin street came later as I began to see the images. (Left: Bombing victim Draylen Mason)
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?) It took about three drafts.
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? I originally wrote two pieces, one of the memory of Iraq and one of the current event in Austin. The end of the memory I first focused on the odd details that the speaker remembered, and thought later that the way trauma scatters the memory, or at least my ability to remember, felt like a separate poem that would have to be revisited later:
‘I couldn’t find my voice at first,’ he says
looking down, as if that detail of weakness
were the fact that mattered most,
and when you’re putting the pieces
of your mind back together after
the trauma passes – sometimes it is.
(Below Left and Below Right: D. A. Gray's drafts on his poem "Wire" Credit and copyright by D.A. Gray)
What do you want readers to take from this poem? There is no way to express violence in language that doesn’t leave someone hurt, and there is no way to express violence in language and pretend to be innocent. Poets often talk about avoiding abstraction as a matter of style but it has a greater impact when it pertains to living together in a society. Overseas, ‘freedom’ results in countless bombs being dropped on families. Here, talk of an enemy fills an armed man with rage which results in grieving families at shopping centers and schools and places of worship. Linking those two experiences for me is a way of saying ‘you don’t want this.’
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? Probably that last explanation. But also seeing that wire overseas and knowing what it was a few miles away -- places me back in a place where the oppressed felt it was the only way to be heard, and shows me the place where we are now, a place where people have told themselves they were oppressed. It would take me pages to unpack that emotion.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? In the Summer 2018 issue of Rise Up Review. (Left)
‘Oh, Mama, can this really be the end?’
Bob Dylan, ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)’
A man I knew briefly in Iraq, who stops
to talk whenever we’re among veterans,
or on the sidewalk of Austin like now,
recalls the story of his last convoy
on the outskirts of Tikrit. In 2006, he sat
next to the driver and scanned the road
and the piles of trash on the edge.
Still, he almost didn’t see the wire,
not until the sun gleamed along its thin
edge before it disappeared under the truck’s
“I couldn’t find my voice,
at first.” He said it as if that was the detail
that mattered most. “I shouted but not
quick enough. The driver looked my way
and shouted over the engine noise. ‘What?’
and I realized we must have tripped it.
I sat there bracing for a blast that never
came, heart pounding, my driver looking
for an answer. I said, ‘nothing’ because
it wouldn’t change what happened then.”
“We lived,” he said “but every night
I feel that pounding as if something is
lifting me off into the atmosphere.
I still wake with two fistfuls of sheets.”
We stand just outside the yellow tape,
cardboard shards, plastic red white
and blue adhesive streamers, a smattering
of nails across the path. Faces gather
attached to neighborhood bodies
floating up like ghosts to the barriers.
Sometimes we catch a set of eyes
in an explosion of blue light.
I don’t remember when we left the site
of the blast; we stood most of the night,
dumbstruck, both wondering what price
to avoid going through this twice.