Tuesday, April 23, 2019

#101 Backstory of the Poem "Rare Book and Reader" by Ned Balbo

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*** The CRC Blog welcomes submissions from published and unpublished poets for BACKSTORY OF THE POEM series.  Contact CRC Blog via email at caccoop@aol.com or personal Facebook messaging at https://www.facebook.com/car.cooper.7

***This is #101 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. 

All Images are given copyright permission granted by Ned Balbo for this CRC Blog Post only unless otherwise noted. 

Below Title Photo:  Ned in his Iowa State University office in October 2015 around the timeframe when he wrote "Rare Book and Reader"

#101 Backstory of the Poem
“Rare Book and Reader”
by Ned Balbo

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’m not sure when exactly I conceived the idea for “Rare Book and Reader.” I’ve carried the memory that lies at the center of the poem since the day I walked into the Vassar library’s rare book room as a first-year college student and asked to see an original volume of The Prophecies by Nostradamus. 

       It was around 1976 or so that, as a high school student, I’d first read about the French court physician and seer in the liner notes to Al Stewart’s (Below Left) album Past, Present, and Future. The album cover text was drawn from British author Erika Cheetham’s (Below Right) spooky speculations about all the historical events that Michel de Nostredame had supposedly predicted before they’d taken place. I think that in our early years, especially at transitions like the one between high school and college, the attraction of imagining our own faraway future is tough to resist.
     “Rare Book and Reader” is also the opening of my new book, 3 Nights of the Perseids (University of Evansville Press), selected by the Erica Dawson for the 2018 Richard Wilbur Award.  Much of the book explores the tension between the past that shaped us and the contemporary technological world in which we find ourselves today – not always happily.

       The musician avatars of my youth and young adulthood – David Bowie (Right), Prince, Patti Smith, Elliott Smith, and more – comprise a whole section of the book, so the poem’s inclusion of a less iconic musician is also a nod to the book as a whole. 
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail. I started the poem in the winter of 2015, during my first semester as a visiting associate professor in Iowa State University’s MFA program in creative writing and environment.  I was living apart from my partner, poet Jane Satterfield, for the first time since we’d married.  Fortunately, her sabbatical coincided with my taking on the new job, and we’d set up the apartment together so that, for the three years I taught at Iowa State, it felt like “our” place, not mine alone.
       We loved the apartment.  It was nothing special – a second floor unit in a slightly seedy garden apartment complex built in the mid-1970s – but the sliding doors opened onto a balcony and view that stretched for two or three miles ahead.  Every day we could look out on a vast sky and a tree-line shifting with the seasons, not to mention the roof of the nearby middle school, and the distant water tower whose motto, we knew from driving past it, declared, “Welcome to Ames! We’re glad you’re here.” Maybe the 1970s vibe of a building where lots of students lived, too, pulled me back to those days that gave birth to the poem. 

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 started the poem, the first I’d written since moving, after Jane had left for a few weeks.  I thought about it a lot – remembering the rare book room and how out of step I’d felt with the background and social class of most of the people I was meeting.  My adoptive mother was terminally ill and died shortly after that visit to the library, so I had lots of reasons back then, conscious and unconscious, to wonder what the future held.  In 2015 I’d just moved and begun a new chapter in my professional life – a transition with echoes of the one I’d experienced years earlier.
       I wanted to write in a form I hadn’t used before.  Chaucer came to my rescue.  Discovering his work was a formative experience during that first semester in college, so revisiting the Monk’s Tale stanza seemed a perfect fit:  it was challenging yet flexible enough to contain a good deal of material and allow me the space to go off on what I hope are useful tangents.
       I Googled the information I needed to ensure my memory of the location, procedures, and rare book room holdings was as accurate as possible.  Then I went to 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? I can’t share any drafts with pen marks because I write almost exclusively on the computer – in fact, I doubt whether the relative fluency I gained in my post-college writing life would have been possible without the option of word processing. I like to clean things up as I go along to avoid becoming discouraged about the quality of work-in-progress; for that reason, I’m uncertain about exactly how many drafts it took to get the finish line.  Maybe 3 or 4 sittings, a couple of hours each, to get the whole poem drafted, and a few more to touch up the weak spots, a little at a time? (I do sometimes touch up late-draft printouts by hand, but I don’t think I did this in this case.) I discovered the following cancelled lines, along with reminder notes about content, in the poem’s original file.

Stunned to contemplate the transformation
Time brought to the living and the dead;

Hesitant to face the transformation
Time would bring. Before me, dead ahead,

Phase-shifted strumming near ten minutes long,
What other proof in time would come along?
that hucksters knew would sell

Repackaged and reprinted
Bunk centuries old interpreted anew

A priceless book the college could afford
To lock away and guard

I sought the book that gave birth to the song—
A first edition, vulnerable and rare,

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? Maybe that who we are grows out of who we were, and that we would look back on our awkward, earlier selves with more compassion than embarrassment. That our human impulse to know the future is irrational and deep, a complicated mix of superstition, hope, and guesswork.  That there’s a higher power, and all we can do is trust ourselves to its unfolding.

        The poem reminds us, too, of how the world has changed.  A college degree once promised, like that portal on the album cover, entry into a world of infinite possibilities – a perspective that seems poignant in today’s gig economy when students are often faced with crushing debt.
       On a personal note: as a regular reader of superhero comics till around the age of thirteen (my first publication, ca. 1971, are letters in Marvel’s Daredvil and Tomb of Dracula, and Warren Publishing’s Creepy), I was happy to discover that the figure leaping into the time portal on the cover of Al Stewart’s album (Right First) is Stan Lee (Right Second) and Steve Ditko’s (Right Third) Doctor Strange –recognizable by the trail of his collar and cloak as he vanishes, halfway through but mostly obscured (probably to avoid copyright infringement).  I’d never noticed this back in the days when I actively listened to the album.
      That discovery, as quirky as it is, enriches the poem for me.  It reminds me of how random elements (two of Marvel’s celebrated creators, Al Stewart’s (Right Fourth) music, an unsung graphic designer, etc.) are swept along by time and, briefly, brought together by happy accident.
Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? Rattle, Fall 2016.

Anything you would like to add?  Thanks for having me aboard, Chris.  It’s a pleasure to talk bout our shared vocation and all the unexpected factors that come together and ignite into a poem.

Rare Book and Reader
Helen D. Lockwood Library, September 1977

Back in the days when we called freshmen freshmen,
I was one, a lank-haired Vassar co-ed
newly landed, searching for the reason
I was there. Before me, dead ahead,
the future held its promise like the shaded
vistas in brochures, or like an album
on the rack the moment you’ve decided
that you have to buy it, take it home—

And so I felt (caught in that no man’s land
of post-arrival limbo, nothing sure
except how much I didn’t understand
of privilege, wealth, and class), this much was clear:
the album’s title—Past, Present, and Future—
and the cloak of Marvel’s Doctor Strange
vanishing through some portal on the cover
promised an escape—at least a change.

The last track was inspired by Nostradamus
Gallic seer and astrologer
who wrote The Prophecies, mysterious
quatrains of cryptic riddles that declare
foreknowledge of disaster, plague, and war,
offering hints that tease and tantalize
(through allegory, tangled metaphor)
the gullible who read with opened eyes—

Hister (Hitler?), three brothers (Kennedys?)
world wars (all three?)—well, sure, he could be wrong,
but if Al Stewart thought the prophecies
troubling enough to put them in a song,
what else would time confirm before too long?
I sat, the huge book open to a page
five hundred years old, in a foreign tongue
(French mostly), brought out carefully from storage

by a young librarian, or senior,
watchful and amused at my expense.
Who wouldn’t be? She knew I was no scholar
steeped in sixteenth-century charlatans,
but just some boy who’d wandered in by chance
or impulse, new to college, drifting still,
his mind enraptured by coincidence
proclaimed as proof, each generation’s will

to buy such bunk, as always, bottomless.
Now I’d beheld an ur-text, reassured
it did exist. A reader under glass,
I sat, sealed in the hush, but not one word—
archaic, clue-encoded—struck a chord:
I’d never studied French! And yet I’d seen
the priceless artifact kept under guard
in some dark vault climate-controlled within

the labyrinthine archives I envisioned;
briefly exposed to light and then returned
to deep oblivion, the world’s end
unknown and waiting.  What else had I learned?
That where the distant future is concerned,
no language equal to it can exist
nor is there language clear and unadorned
to show how time recedes into the past

—Or if there is, it’s written not for us
but for the eyes of one whose practiced gaze
sees farther than our own—who knows that loss
becomes the weight and measure of our days—
who, in the hidden turnings of a phrase,
detects a revelation cast in code
we almost grasp but which remains, always,
unbroken, like the mercy that we’re owed.

     Ned Balbo’s most recent book is 3 Nights of the Perseids, selected for the 2018 Richard Wilbur Award. His previous books are The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems (Donald Justice Prize and the Poets’ Prize), Lives of the Sleepers (Ernest Sandeen Prize), Galileo’s Banquet (Towson University Prize), and Upcycling Paumanok. His poetry, prose, and translations appear in Antioch Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Dark Horse, Literary Matters, Notre Dame Review, Scoundrel Time, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of three Maryland Arts Council poetry grants, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, and the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize, as well as fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation grant and was recently a visiting faculty member in Iowa State University’s MFA program in creative writing and environment. His partner is poet-essayist Jane Satterfield.


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

070 February 14, 2019
“Daily Commute”
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, 2019
by Sandy Coomer

075 March 4, 2019
“Shape of a Violin”
by Kelly Powell

076 March 5, 2019
“Inward Oracle”
by J.P. Dancing Bear

077 March 7, 2019
“I Broke My Bust Of Jesus”
by Susan Sundwall

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”
by Gillian Cummings

081   082   083    March 14, 2019
“Little Political Sense”   “Crossing Kansas with Jim
Morrison”  “The Land of Sky and Blue Waters”
by Dr. Lindsey Martin-Bowen

084 March 15, 2019
“A Tune To Remember”
by Anna Evans

085 March 19, 2019
“At the End of Time (Wish You Were Here)
by Jeannine Hall Gailey

086 March 20, 2019
“Garden of Gethsemane”
by Marletta Hemphill

087 March 21, 2019
“Letters From a War”
by Chelsea Dingman

088 March 26, 2019
by Bob Heman

089 March 27, 2019
“Clay for the Potter”
by Belinda Bourgeois

#090 March 30, 2019
“The Pose”
by John Hicks

#091 April 2, 2019
“Last Night at the Wursthaus”
by Doug Holder

#092 April 4, 2019
“Original Sin”
by Diane Lockward

#093 April 5, 2019
“A Father Calls to his child on liveleak”
by Stephen Byrne

#094 April 8, 2019
by Marc Zegans

#095 April 12, 2019
“Landscape and Still Life”
by Marjorie Maddox

#096 April 16, 2019
“Strawberries Have Been Growing Here for Hundreds of
by Mary Ellen Lough

#097 April 17, 2019
“The New Science of Slippery Surfaces”
by Donna Spruijt-Metz

#098 April 19, 2019
“Tennessee Epithalamium”
by Alyse Knorr

#099 April 20, 2019
“Mermaid, 1969”
by Tameca L. Coleman

#100 April 21, 2019
“How Do You Know?”
by Stephanie

#101 April 23, 2019
“Rare Book and Reader”
by Ned Balbo

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