Tuesday, February 12, 2019

#69 Backstory of the Poem "Singing" by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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***This is the sixty-ninth 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. 

#069 Backstory of the Poem
by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

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?   “Singing” went through thirty-two drafts to get to the stage it is currently in, and I would revise it at least once more if I could. 
When I was working on the poem, I knew calling God a “he” was disingenuous, if not plain ol’ inaccurate. I don’t see any reason to believe God is a he. It makes more sense that God be a she or, even better, a she and a he given that God created the universe, according to the myths I reference in the poem, on God’s own. 
I was fully aware of this problem at the time of its writing and revision, but when I tried “she” or “it,” that didn't ring true either. It didn't occur to me then to try “they,” but that doesn't feel quite right even now. The solution is to eliminate the pronoun “he” in the second line and replace it with “God,” but this did not occur to me until recently. It’s a funny thing how the obvious so often alludes me, but I live and learn and grow.
The poem itself was the last poem I wrote for Ghost Gear, and, in fact, might be the only poem I wrote for the book. I wrote most of the poems in Ghost Gear organically whereas I wrote “Singing” intentionally as a thesis that declares what the book is essentially about. When I say “Singing” act as a thesis, people often recoil in terror and indignation, but it wasn’t my idea! 
It was Judy Jordan’s. https://www.judyjordanpoet.com/  She was my primary MFA mentor and is still one of my greatest influences. I send her most poems I am working on and listen to her criticism with great attention. Her edits to my second book, Visiting Hours, which has yet to get picked up but has gotten very close, were essential to its making.
In our thesis hours at Southern Illinois University, she kept saying that something was missing from Ghost Gear. It took her some time to put her finger on it, but we eventually realized that the book needed a short, lyrical opening that stated what the book was chiefly about: beauty, survival, and transformation. We also needed a poem upfront that sort of proved I could write efficient poetry. I’m laughing while I say this, but she was right: Many of the poems in Ghost Gear are long, or perhaps long-ish. 
When you’re submitting a book, it’s a good idea to help the reader along a bit, to prove to them what skills you have as a capital-P Poet, which for whatever reason is synonymous to varying degree with efficiency AKA shortness.  So that was the goal: to write an efficient and powerful lyrical poem to open the book to act as an introduction to the meaning of the book and to allow for the longer, lyric-narrative poems that followed.
I was also reading a lot of Eric Pankey and Christianne Balk at the time, and it was winter, and, well, outside my door was a burr oak wintered full of grackles. Much of my work emerges from the natural world, and “Singing” is no different. 

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail.   I was in my one bedroom apartment on West Freeman Street in Carbondale, Illinois where I was working toward my MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The place was super small because my ex-wife and I were splitting time between Carbondale and Nashville where I am from and where she had a good gig at Vanderbilt University. Thus we had two rents; thus we had two super small apartments.

Our place in C-dale had four rooms: a kitchen sans counter space; a living room large enough for a couch, coffee table, and bookshelf; a bedroom complete with double bed and dresser; and a bathroom with a sink, a toilet, and a shower.
The doorways were arched. Cracks spiderwebbed the walls and ceilings. Our pet rabbits thoroughly enjoyed scampering about on the carpeted floors and, much to our chagrin, nibbling it down to the hardwoods. The single-story complex was shaped like a U with a solitary burr oak at its center. It sat across the street from the university and was unusually quiet given how close it was to an institution of higher learning. I wrote a lot of poems there, and the two of us were happy. I miss that place. 

What month and year did you start writing this poem?  
November 9, 2007.
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 have a practice of saving every typed draft of a poem I am working on, no matter how minute the revisions are from draft to draft. “Singing” is no different. The final version is draft 32. Here is the first:

Singing 1

What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it?  No spider webs snagged
Like lover’s hair lingering in the breeze.  No horseflies
Drinking up silver hums of water
Hammocked in purple blossoming cones of henbit.
No slug trails penned across the cooled hoods of cars,
Dissipating wakes of schooners at sea. 
We are creatures all, stillborn to this language. 
The picket of split pine rails reinterred.  Ice glazed to bone
In every rut.  Each blade of grass sickled by ice
Sharpened dew.  But we are not entirely alone
Between the mountain ranges.  These hours
Condemned to darkness before the sun gyres open
The face of January.  Winter our time
To catch up with the earth’s egg-shaped wobble.
Mars thrumming its red-jeweled scepter
In the north sky.  The stealth tracks of sleepless jays
Hen-pecked in unmelted snow.  This curved arm
Of the galaxy slung wide across the skyboard
Like a smear of light spread wide by a windshield wiper,
And we gazing up into that black water.
I’ve poems to write.  The bur oak outside my front door
Wintered full of grackles, hundreds of coin-eyed scuttles
Ornamenting its branches.  My breath plumes gray.
Brushfire.  The wind, if you listen,
Is an unstudied calligraphy.   I, if you take me seriously,
Am in winter a weightlessness.  The grackles
Rasping their flight plans limb to limb.  The grackles
Are doors, some edged with light, others black.  I
Am riven.  Rising, my arms
Are open wide.  Stepping through them,
I step through them.  Singing.  I sing.

Bleh. The basic concept of the poem is there but talk about a bloated poem. It’s trying way too hard in this early stage. Too many metaphors. Too much pompous language. Too many images stacked upon images. But, hey, it’s a first draft, right? My method back then was to load a poem with as much imagery and metaphor and lyric and narrative and blee-blee-blee blah-blah-blah as possible then cut from there. This annoyed Rodney Jones (Above Left)
 https://www.facebook.com/rodney.jones.5855594 to no end; God bless him for putting up with me. 
These days, I use the exact opposite method—which I think he’d be proud of—but I wasn’t anywhere close to being able to do that at 26. Eleven years later, efficiency is a constantly evolving skill for me that I hope, someday, to hone.

When I write a new draft, I typically print it out, mark it up, and then type up that revision—so it’s safe to say this poem went through thirty-two full revisions, which, for me, is pretty fast. I could probably find the written versions in my parent’s basement in one of the many composition notebooks I have filled up since I started writing poems in 1997, but I’m not in Nashville right now. Here’s what I can tell you: It would look like all hell broke loose, I love revising. I love tearing into a poem on paper. I have the handwriting of a doctor. My revisions often look more like schematics gone wrong than a thing made of words.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?   I want readers to see that I could write efficient, powerful poems. That’s sort of pompous (“Look at me, I can write powerful poems that aren’t long!”), but what poet doesn’t want that, at least some of the time? I also wanted the poem to declare that much of the book was about beauty and transformation and the beauty of transformation, even when that transformation comes with confusion, loss, pain. I often recite this poem to myself from memory when I am struggling. If anyone else in this world ever finds themselves doing that, I would consider myself a success. That, I believe, is what poems are for: to aid us through the hard times.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why?        The last two sentences: “Stepping across these thresholds, / I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.”
     In workshop, everyone kept asking me why I insisted on using the simple present with the progressive present. I couldn’t answer the question. I just knew it had to be that way even though revising it to “I step across these thresholds. I sing.” sounded good to me as well and was, of course, more efficient, exactly what I was trying to do in my thesis poem for my first book!
Now I know why I couldn’t change it, and I’m glad I didn’t.
As I was writing the poem, the poem was teaching me my basic philosophy: that humans are always growing if they are open, that if they sing at all, they are constantly singing, that if they cross a threshold, they are forever crossing that threshold and other thresholds. Life is an act of song, of crossings.
“Singing” is about eternal life. I do not believe in eternal life in the old fashioned sense, but I have come to know that there is something after death. I haven’t the slightest clue what that is, but my instincts have told me this my entire life and more recent experiences with love, loss, and tragedy have confirmed that knowledge. 
This poem helped teach me (and continues to teach me) what I believed and eventually came to know. I am so very thankful I didn't revise those last two sentences, and I think most people who worked with me on the poem agree with me now, but it was a strange experience knowing the close of the poem had to be like that despite all the honest and caring reflection of my mentors and peers that insisted otherwise.

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where?   It was published in Ascent in 2012 then anthologized in What Matters, published in Ghost Gear, and featured in Chapter 16 in 2014.
Anything you would like to add?   Thank you for the great questions! I’m stoked to be a small part of your exploration of verse. I hope this is helpful.


What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it? No spider webs
snagged in the bluestem, no horseflies at rest
in blossoming cones of henbit, no slug trails penned
to the cooled hoods of cars. We are creatures all,
stillborn to the language of split pine rails
standing in their pickets, ice glazed to bone
in every rut, the stealth tracks of jays a sleepless
ideography in the snow. But we are not
entirely alone between the mountain ranges,
in these hours condemned to darkness
before the sun gyres open the face of February
and the red flare of Mars grows dim.
Just outside my door, the burr oak is wintered
full of grackles— hundreds of coin-
eyed scuttles ornamenting its branches. Here,
my breath plumes gray. In the distance,
brush catches fire. The wind, if you watch,
is calligraphy; the stars in winter,
a weightlessness. The grackles are doors,
rasping their flight plans limb to limb.
The grackles are doors, some limned with light,
others black. Rising, my arms have long
been open. Stepping across these thresholds,
I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is an award-winning author, editor, educator, and meanderer. His first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was published in 2014 with the University of Arkansas Press. His second book has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Jake Adam York Poetry Prize, the Georgia Poetry Prize, the Miller Williams Prize, the Agha Shahid Ali Prize, the Akron Poetry Prize, and the Hudson Prize.
He is also founder & editor of PoemoftheWeek.com, founder and editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series, Acquisitions Editor for Upper Rubber Boot Books, and lecturer of creative writing at Colorado Community College. Learn more at https://www.andrewmk.com/


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”

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
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
"Natural History"
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
“Neptune’s Choir”
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

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