Friday, December 14, 2018

#48 Backstory of the Poem ""Laika" by Frank Paino

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***This is the forty-eighth 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. 

(Title Photo of Frank Paino given copyright permission by Frank Paino for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

#48 Backstory of the Poem
by Frank Paino

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?   I suppose the moment I first learned about Laika (Right.  Public Domain), who was the first dog to be launched into low earth orbit, I knew I’d write about her one day.  That being said, I honestly don’t remember when I first read about her, so I can’t say how long it was between that first encounter and the poem’s creation.
 Regarding "final form," I'll say I subscribe to Valery's (Left:  Public Domain) view that “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” Each time I read one of my poems I find myself wanting to change something here or there.  So let’s just say “Laika,” like all of my writing, is subject to change.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail.   I’d taken the day off work to try and write.  It was a Friday and I was in my writing room, which is a rather large space (14 x 12) on the second floor of my house.  It’s carpeted (though I would much prefer hardwood). It’s somewhat sparsely furnished with my desk and chair, a wingback chair, bookcase, lamp table and large cabinet/dresser. Three walls are painted a colour called “Sensational Sand” and there is an accent wall in “Reddened Earth.”  The room has two windows, one of which is to my left and behind me as I sit at my desk.  The other window is to my right as I sit at my desk—it allows me to look out onto green space, tree branches, and a neighbouring house a little distance off. (Below:  Frank's office.  Copyright permission granted by Frank Paino for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

As far as decorations, I have:  Clay, handmade Tragedy and Comedy faces (Rigth Above) purchased by my father on one of his trips back to his native Sicily. He bought them from a street vendor and was very fond of both.  I adored my father, so it’s very meaningful for me to have something he cherished in a place that represents who I am as both a poet and person.  Beneath the little masks is a framed print (Right)  of one of his favourite poems, “The Infinite” by the Italian poet and philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi.  (Below:  Public Domain)   
An acquaintance copied the poem in exquisite calligraphy in the original Italian, and the English translation is typed beneath that.  I don’t want to go into an explication of the poem, but because he loved the piece, it offers insights into my father that I find beautiful and sad at the same time.
·  I also have a framed, shadowboxed, flying lizard from Indonesia and, next to him, a framed, shadowboxed, set of three beetles, also from Indonesia
·     I’ve got my framed diploma from Norwich University’s,Vermont College (where I earned my MFA in 1990) (Right) 
·     Draped on the side of the frame is the medal I was given when I was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature in 1994 (Right) 
·     Then there’s a wall niche with a reproduction of Mucha’s sculpture, “Nature” (Below)

·     Behind my desk is a large framed print of the Haserot Angel (a famous bronze memorial sculpture by Herman Matzen at Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery) (Below)

·     I also have a set of Asian-themed wind chimes
·     Next to that is a large, signed and framed print of “Blind Narcissus” by the artist, Jeff Jones (Below)

·     I also have a near life-size stuffed Rottweiler named “Damien"
·     On top of the dresser/armoire is a reproduction of a 9th or 10th century sculpture of the Hindu goddess, Uma
·     On top of my bookcase is a polystone reproduction of a mourning Victorian angel cemetery sculpture (Below)

·     On my bookcase itself is a white polystone Buddha in a pose conveying protection and overcoming fear (Below)

·     There’s also a skull in a shadowbox frame.  I regard him as both my muse and a memento mori (below)

·     Finally, I have two small pewter phoenix birds.  I think of the phoenix as a personal totem/symbol that reminds me to be resilient and to never, ever surrender
·     On my lamp table is:     
·     A lamp (what a surprise) (Left)
·     A figurative, aluminum horse sculpture my twin sister gave me decades ago (Left)
·     A box with a hedgehog design which was packaging for a coffee mug my sister also gave me (Left)
On my desk is:
·     A bronze sculpture by Heather Johnson Beary (“Eternal Flame”)

·     A tiny silver piece depicting a human figure in the “child” yoga pose.  This was given to me by a dear friend
·     A tiny bronze snail given to me by another friend (Below)

·     Speakers
·     A high-intensity light
·     A snowman snow globe (below)

·     A pin featuring the death mask of the unidentified woman whose face was used as the model for the first CPR doll (given to me by a dear friend)
·     Last, but certainly not least, my 27” iMac

       The lion’s share of the bookshelf is comprised of my poetry collection and books on various Victorian-Era cemeteries (an obsession of mine), but there’s also a nice selection of books I would describe as being concerned with what I will call “the unusual.”  Finally, there’s a very small fiction section.

What month and year did you start writing this poem?   All of my poems begin with a pen and paper.  I keep a notebook for this purpose, so I can say with certainty I began writing the poem on the 10th of March, 2017. (Left:  Frank Paino's Facebook Logo Photo.  Frank with his poet friend's dog Rocco in October 2017.)

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 really can’t say how many drafts I wrote.  Once I have a solid start, I move to working on my computer and I don’t keep track of versions but, rather, simply keep revising the one so that it transforms as I work.

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?   There were plenty!  Most are lost because they were changed as I went along on the computer and I don’t keep track of the evolutions. 
     As for lines I do know  I had - most are too embarrassing to even admit to...but I'll humiliate myself by giving you one that is on the page I photographed: (Above Left) "In the pale wash of moonlight,"  which is so trite and cliched.  Sheesh!  But you can almost see most (all?) of the writing is bad - scattered, uninventive, lost - but searching!    
This, and all the other instances of truly terrible writing I “commit,” is a perfect example of what happens in the revision process—which is, for me, what writing is really all about.  I simply adore revising and can spend untold hours at it.  I look for clichés, easy language, awful and/or awkward similes, metaphors and syntax.  I play with form and punctuation and keep trying to push the boundaries of the poem further.  
This is the time when my head really gets into the eye of the hurricane, so to speak—a place where all the noise and tumult vanishes and my mind has free rein to associate the seemingly unassociated.  It’s a place where surprises happen!
     Revising is largely a very fun endeavor for me, though, after a few days of working on a single poem nearly non-stop, I can relate to a quote that is (perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Oscar Wilde (Right):  "I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out."  

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?  
For me, the question is more properly stated as what I hope a reader will take from the poem…that being said, here’s what I‘ll say about this question. 
Of course, I want to tell Laika’s (Left) story… but I also know that, on the face of it, most people would tend to vilify Dr. Yazdovsky and leave it at that.  In this piece; however, I hope to convey he wasn’t an inhuman monster.  
The poem’s epigraph is indicative of this, but, really, for me, it’s the fact he was so insistent on adding a window to Sputnik 2 (Right:  Model of Sputnik 2).  Misguided as it may have been, he wanted to give Laika something he thought might soothe her on her final, horrific journey.  Rather than being in a dimly-lit capsule, she’d at least be able to see something.  Granted, I doubt that was really of any comfort to her, but I think that’s beside the point.  It’s his intention that counts.  And that goes for taking Laika home so she could play with his daughters, too.
       On a larger scale, I hope the poem encourages people to avoid quick judgments and black-and-white answers, because neither is helpful.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?  
That’s a difficult question because the entire story is so appalling and heartbreaking.  But when I really stop to think about it, it would have to be:

       …no way to make right

       the trust that was betrayed—
       the muzzle and mad tongue of it—

   I suppose that’s the worst part of Laika’s (Left) story. I can’t claim to know the level of sentience dogs have, but I am confident they understand love and kindness.  I’m sure Laika came to trust Dr. Yazdovsky, regardless of the small enclosures he put her in, the loud noises he accustomed her to, etc..  He still fed her, played with her, petted her, etc..  Betraying that trust is the most terrible and tragic aspect—even beyond what I am sure were the appalling final moments of her life. 
       But again, Yazdovsky (Right) wasn’t a heartless man.  In fact, in his later years he admitted one of the things he regretted most in his life was sending Laika to such a terrible death.  But he was a scientist and also a man (among others, of course) under incredible pressure, having been commissioned by Khrushchev to get Sputnik 2 designed, built and ready to launch in only four weeks... and with a live animal on board that could not only survive the launch, but also endure long enough to provide (via attached equipment) crucial data about the physiological impact of travel at that distance above the earth. 
As I understand it, the plan was not to leave Laika to die from the heat/fire inside the capsule (Left).  There are various versions of the story—but all seem to agree the scientists knew she would never come back alive, but the intention was to somehow kill her painlessly after some time, either with sedative-laced food or water, or even some sort of mechanism that would deliver a lethal injection.

Has this poem been published before? And if so where?   Yes.  It originally appeared in Gettysburg Review 29:3 (Winter, 2017) 

Anything you would like to add?  
The most important person in my life is my twin sister, Gerrie. (Below) We have a bond that is magical, irrevocable and profound.  Other than that, I have a handful of dear friends who give my life another dimension and richness I cherish.

Thanks to Luke Hankins (,  
editor extraordinaire and all-around great guy, my third book, Obscura, is forthcoming from Orison Books (  in late 2019 or early 2020
Other than that, I simply want to thank you for inviting me to share my work and be a part of your “Backstory of the Poem” Series. 

       (First dog to be launched into low earth orbit.
       Sputnik 2,  3 November, 1957)

      Laika was quiet and charming...I wanted to do
     something nice for her:  She had so little time left to      
                               -Dr. Vladimir Yazdovsky 

Because she’d gone unbroken
by three years on Moscow’s barren streets

she'd proved her will to survive simply
by surviving and so was chosen

for a kind of brute salvation, a halfway gift
whose bad conclusion was already written

in a lack of funds and time and the keen
knowing there’d be no way to bring her back.

And so began fierce weeks of acclimation:
each cage smaller than the last

to accustom her to stricture tight as
an overnight case,

the relentless gyre of the centrifuge
to mimic the weight of ascent,

and crude machines to simulate
the cacophonous dirge of ignition,

shrieking metal, everything it would take
to lift a thirteen-pound mongrel into history.
He called her “Little Curly,”
“Little Bug.”  As if naming the doomed,

taking her home one night to play
with his two bright-eyed daughters,

could make the great burden of her
approaching death a lighter thing

to bend beneath when it came time to
tighten the harness just once again and

no more, to hold her in waiting
while the riddle of malfunction

was worked through its three-day resolution
and she watched from within that

aluminum tomb where she could stand
or lie but never turn and late October’s chill

settled its silver pall around her.
Three days and, finally, lift off—

then three anxious hours back on Earth
before they saw her heart’s green tracery

slow again to nearly-calm
while the unshed core quietly kindled

its black wick inside the polished dome.
Listen, there is no other way to tell a thing

that has no mercy in it:
she burned up from the inside.

Fevered.  Frantic.  Blood-boiled. 
Six-hundred miles between herself and

solid ground.
And there’s no faith to be placed

in the weary myth of sacrifice;
no way to make right

the trust that was betrayed—
the muzzle and mad tongue of it—

how she was thrust into weightlessness,
into the useless memory of steady hands,

of the man who spoke softly, who turned,
at last, from the wild extravagance

of the round and riveted window
about which he’d been so adamant,

as if she might somehow savor
the breathless view, the spinning blue

that beckoned like a ball tossed into a street
she could only return to in flames.


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

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”

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