Tuesday, March 12, 2019

#80 Backstory of the Poem "Of Water and Echo" by Gillian Cummings

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***This is the eightieth 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. 

#80 Backstory of the Poem “Of Water and Echo” by Gillian Cummings
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? 
The poem was conceived when I was standing inside a tree, a hollow sycamore. I call this tree “my tree,” and I go to the tree when I seek consolation. The tree is up a bank to the side of the Pocantico River. I was standing in the tree, hearing the river rushing nearby, and the poem began to form. I heard its rhythms being spoken in my mind, as if being spoken by the tree, or as if the tree and I—or maybe the tree and the river and I—were one breathing being. 

I wrote the words down in a pocket notebook once I returned to my car. That was the beginning. Then I transferred this poem, in its exact form, into my journal. Sometimes I write longhand and sometimes directly onto the laptop, but this was a longhand poem. 

I showed the poem to various editors as I was working on it. Its current form owes a debt, most especially, to Cynthia Cruz, who cut it down the most drastically and had me retitle it. I’d written a collection of sonnets, and she pruned them all, so that most of them couldn’t remain sonnets. So this takes you from the tree to the book with its paper that means a killed tree, which is sad. Maybe I dare not tell “my tree” about what came of the voice it gave me.

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail. The poem was written in the beginning of summer, and yet there were already signs of autumn in the woods, a red leaf here or there, dead wildflowers and ones just coming into bloom. 

The woods were the woods of Rockefeller State Park Preserve, a place that’s my haven here in Westchester County. I live in the suburb of New York City just north of the Bronx, and we have some beautiful parks here. This one is my favorite. 

When I was going through my serious depression, I went to the park every day, or almost. I didn’t always go to the tree, just sometimes, just in moments when I especially needed to feel the immanence of the sacred. The sycamore is still living. It’s not a dead, hollow tree. 

When I’m inside it in the summer and I look up, I see green leaves on the branches above me. The inside of the tree has a wasp nest and a lot of old spider webs. 

Sometimes people walking down the trail see me in the tree and give me funny looks. I don’t really care. It’s more important to be with the tree. One time, when I was particularly suicidal, I went into the tree crying. I prayed to the tree for help, and heard the words, “Tell Rich to keep repeating to you to have patience, to have faith in him, and to have faith in God.” 

Rich is my husband. He repeated these sentences to me over and over that day. That night, I got a phone call and an email. The phone call was from Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence Press, telling me that my first book had won the Hudson Prize. 

The email was from Kristy Bowen of Dancing Girl Press, saying that she wanted to publish my chapbook Ophelia. So you see, it’s a very lucky tree. And it was important to my second book, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, too.  

What month and year did you start writing this poem? The first draft dates to June 4, 2013.

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?) 
About eight. Sometimes the changes were very minor, like line breaks. After Cynthia Cruz went over it, it became quite a different poem—a quieter and cleaner poem. I can show you the first draft that I wrote in my journal. 

Because I edit on my laptop and don’t make printouts of subsequent drafts, it would be hard to show you more than this. I apologize.

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?  
The original title was “Because Bark Is Neither Boat nor a Hearkening.” The final title is “Of Water and Echo.”

Here are the phrases that were cut completely:

“off chipping, mulchy darkness, water singing throats of wasps’ nests”

“off this closet”

“her (throat) opening to make sense (of) the shrilly (bold call)”—the words in parentheses were kept.  
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? 
I don’t ever assign meanings or morals to my poems. I just want them to be an experience in themselves. I never have preconceived ideas of what I want a reader to take away. 

I guess I could say a feeling of sadness, combined with the solace that is and was the tree—but even to say that is actually much more than I would wish for. What I want is for readers to feel whatever the poem evokes for them, separate from what it evoked or meant for me.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? The hardest lines to write from an emotional standpoint were, “the coming of blade, of the axe’s  / edge opening the throat of bold call…” I say this because what I sought was my own death, but what I imagined was the death of the tree. 

And the tree was innocent. The tree didn’t deserve to die. It made and makes me immeasurably sad to think of that tree encountering an axe. Perhaps that is why the poem has poignancy for me: to lose what you most love, as I nearly lost the love of someone very dear to me—and then I did lose, to death, so many friends and helpers, just not the person whose loss I feared. 

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where?
This poem was first published, under its original title, in Luna Luna.

Anything you would like to add? I would just like to add that when I die, I would like my ashes to be scattered inside this tree. If it is still alive. If it will continue breathing the air I once breathed, standing in the place where I always visited, with the river burbling over rocks nearby, and birds taking shelter in its branches.

Of Water and Echo

She is in the tree by the river
that sings in the tree, in the mouth
of the tree waxing mournful on water.
The hively shrilling of bees, darker
than honey, more homely than resinous gold.
It’s cold and damp in the song of water
ringing of ripple, of rapid and fade, of
day’s end and the coming of blade, of the axe’s
edge opening the throat of bold call. Of
what the moon won’t say in any emergency,
any anxious fall, reds in the greens of summer,
the lone hollow of tree by the river
in which she sings, water in her teeth.

Gillian Cummings is the author of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2018) and My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She has also written three chapbooks: Ophelia (dancing girl press, 2016), Petals as an Offering in Darkness (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and Spirits of the Humid Cloud (dancing girl press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, the Cincinnati ReviewColorado ReviewDenver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts ReviewQuarterly WestVerse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.


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 CafĂ©”

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”
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053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
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054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
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056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
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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”
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062  January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone

063  January 25, 2019
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064  January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas

065 February 02, 2019
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066 February 05, 2019
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067  February 06, 2019
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068 February 11, 2019
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069 February 12, 2019
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070 February 14, 2019
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071 February 18, 2019
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072 February 20, 2019
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073 February 23, 2019
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074 February 26, 2019
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075 March 4, 2019
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076 March 5, 2019
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077 March 7, 2019
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078 March 9, 2019
“My Mother at 19”
by John Guzlowski

079 March 10, 2019
by Chera Hammons Miller

080 March 12, 2019
“Of Water and Echo”

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