Thursday, March 12, 2020

#160 Backstory of the Poem "Last Call" by Ralph Culver

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***This is #160 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. 
#160 Backstory of the Poem
“Last Call”
by Ralph Culver

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? “Last Call” had its beginnings in a memory—an uncomfortable and embarrassing memory—that I’d wanted to write about for some time but wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. It involved a few hours of an evening I spent when I was in my thirties, in a bar with a woman I’d just met and found attractive and was interested in, where I became so drunk that it was only through an act of will that I managed to not pass out in my chair while I hopelessly tried to maintain a conversation with her. After quite a while she got fed up and left, and I really have no clue how I got home, since I was very nearly comatose at that point. One reason why the memory of this night was so painful and embarrassing is that a part of me remained quite objective and detached from my own behavior—a kind of astral third-party observer—and could see what a fool I was making of myself and what a disaster the evening was becoming even while I continued to drink myself into a stupor.
       This particular night seemed important to write about for me because it turned out to be one of the last such events I put myself through before I finally got sober in the mid-1980s, and in that sense represented one of those stepping-stones to getting clean that I wanted to examine a bit more closely. The challenge—and the problem, and the pleasure of it, too—was in how to address the moment, stylistically as well as contextually. I wasn’t at all certain that a poem was—is?—the most suitable way to go about it; in fact, the file name of the oldest computer draft I have of the poem is “prose poem,” and I could have easily written out the event as a short story or some other sort of prose narrative. And obviously, as a writer, those choices are still available to me. But in this case, the contextual problem drove the stylistic choice, as it usually does. I’ll try to explain.
What I did was to invent a complete fiction within which I could frame the experience of that memory. I concocted a story being told by a first-person narrator who describes sitting in a bar across a table from someone who’s become very drunk—it’s implied they’re on a date or perhaps have just met—and the narrator isn’t happy with the situation and patience is wearing thin. The narrator then suddenly recalls another time, sitting in the very same bar but with a different companion, when the circumstances were reversed, and it’s the narrator who’s inebriated, to the point where the act of completing a simple sentence in conversation is almost impossible. 
 Creating this bit of theater allowed me to play with layers of time that seemed to lend itself much more to poetry than outright prose, and while the first draft is only very roughly lineated, the subsequent versions are cast intentionally into a loose iambic pentameter with examples of end rhyme and interior rhyme. Another change from the first version to the second, a major one and a big improvement for a number of reasons, is the shift in tense from past to present. Cast in past tense, it was too hard to tell from the narration just what was going on when, and putting the story in present tense cleared up that confusion, I hope. By the end of the poem, it should be evident that there really are three layers of time the poem exists in: the “live” present of the voice of the poem, the past in the form of the story the narrator relates in present tense, and the “more distant” past.       
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail. The first draft of the poem is in blue pen in an old-style composition book—you know, with the blue-ink ruled pages and black-and-white cardboard covers—that I keep near my work space in my office, and I’m going to assume that’s where I was when I began writing it. At that time I lived in a ground-floor, two-bedroom condo in Burlington with my then-partner, with one of the bedrooms having been converted into my office and writing space. Not a big room, maybe 10x10 feet, with my large wooden desk taking up a lot of the floor, and a tall-backed, black leather, swiveling office armchair on casters. I use the same desk and chair today. Bracket shelving mounted on two walls, facing me above the desk and on my right, loaded with books, notebooks, papers. The room also had what originally was a large closet that we crowbarred a washer and dryer into, so the space doubled as a laundry room. I faced east sitting at the desk, and there were two windows in the room, an awning window on the east wall above and to the left of my desk, and a double-hung window in the south wall basically behind my right shoulder when I was sitting down. The room was painted a sort of pale, misty green that I think maybe annoyed everyone else but I found very relaxing. Working in that room, I felt like I was sitting in a green-tinged fog.  

What month and year did you start writing this poem?
Sometime between April and July, 2011. The earliest dated computer file of the poem is 07/18/2011.

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? The poem went through at least one major revision from the first draft, but I count no fewer than five specific versions of the poem where you can see changes I made from one to the next, even if they were very small. In fact, I changed a single word in the poem from the version that was first published to the one that appears in my last collection (“or rather” became “or, better,” in line thirteen).

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? A couple of lines stand out, and it seems abundantly clear their removal improved the subsequent version. In earlier drafts: “that you could smoke cigarettes without going outside”; “when I had watched myself like a mildly bemused third party”; “and still the woman had not taken her eyes away from mine”; “the woman beckoned to the waitress, begging for her check.”

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? That the narrator of the poem has changed, one hopes for the better, having been “clubbed…into abstinence” by his own drinking, and that the reader still can see the irony and humor, even if sardonic, in the situation the poem describes. 

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? Making the story of the poem reflect on the narrator as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, and in the process showing the narrator in a very negative light. There but for sobriety go I. 

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? Yes—in, under the circumstances, the rather ironically titled After Happy Hour Review, Issue 5, Spring 2016; reprinted in the chapbook So Be It (WolfGang Press, 2018)

Anything you would like to add? I don’t think so. The poem’s really pretty self-contained.

Last Call

What the mind fashions, what the mind does not,
she says, but no way I’m being sucked into that dialectic.
A freezing wind follows someone through the door
and claws its way up the inside of my pant legs,
finishing the job that her voice had begun an hour before
of dismantling my sense of ease and rightness in the evening.
The bar is half empty. This was long enough ago
that you could still smoke while sitting at your table,
and I light one as she slowly drains another shot of ouzo,
the achingly deliberate rolling of her wrist, then
the equally precise wiping of the back of the other wrist
across her mouth. In fact, this was long enough ago
that I had already “stopped drinking”—or, better,
that drinking had clubbed me into abstinence—
and I suddenly, vividly recall a night in the same bar,
a more distant time and woman sitting there
across from me, when in disgust I had watched myself 
strain to complete a sentence with a full ten seconds
plodding by between each sodden word I spoke.
She beckons to the waitress, coral smeared
across her knuckles. And now, she says, the mind
fashions that you will drive me home,
and the mind does not fashion that you will sleep with me.
If this be youth with its glory passing into shade,
I think, give thanks, its dissolution overdue.
She reaches for my cigarette and knocks
the empty shot glass over.
Ralph Culver was born in Champaign, Illinois and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Since the 1970s, apart from a year or so spent in New York City, he has lived in Vermont. He studied creative writing and literature at Goddard College, the New School, and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Culver’s poetry, fiction, and criticism have appeared in many publications, and he is a past grantee in poetry of the Vermont Arts Council and multiple nominee for the Pushcart Prize. His poems have been anthologized and reprinted in print and online, and he is a popular lecturer and reader of his work. Culver’s first poetry collection, Both Distances, won the 2012 Anabiosis Press Chapbook Prize; his second, So Be It (WolfGang Press), was published in 2018. Both are available in bookstores and on Amazon. His new full-length collection A Passible Man is forthcoming in 2020 from MadHat Press.


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002  January 08, 2018
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003 January 12, 2018
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004 January 22, 2018
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005 January 29, 2018
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006 February 03, 2018
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007 February 09, 2018
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008 February 17, 2018
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009 February 24, 2018
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010 March 03, 2018
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011 March 10, 2018
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012  March 17, 2018
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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
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017  May 12, 2018
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018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
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020 June 16, 2018
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021  July 05, 2018
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022 July 13, 2018
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023 July 20, 2018
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024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
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026  August 07, 2018
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027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
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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
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033 October 13, 2018
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034  October 17, 2018
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035 October 23, 2018
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036  October 30, 2018
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037  November 04, 2018
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038 November 11, 2018
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039  November 00, 2018
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040 November 16, 2018
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041 November 20, 2018
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042 November 22, 2018
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043  November 27, 2018
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044 November 30, 2018
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045  December 03, 2018
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046 December 06, 2018
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047 December 11, 2018
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048  December 14, 2018
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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
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052  December 27, 2018
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053  December 28, 2018
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054  December 29, 2018
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055 January 2, 2019
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056  January 7, 2019
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057  January 10, 2019
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058  January 11, 2019
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059  January 12, 2019
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060 January 14, 2019
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061 January 19, 2019
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062  January 22, 2019
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063  January 25, 2019
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064  January 30, 2019
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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
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079 March 10, 2019
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080 March 12, 2019
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081   082   083    March 14, 2019
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084 March 15, 2019
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085 March 19, 2019
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086 March 20, 2019
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087 March 21, 2019
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088 March 26, 2019
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089 March 27, 2019
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#112 Backstory of the Poem’s
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#113 Backstory of the Poem’s
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#129 Backstory of the Poem
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#130 Backstory of the Poem
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#131 Backstory of the Poem
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#132 Backstory of the Poem
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#133 Backstory of the Poem
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#134  Backstory of the Poem
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#135 Backstory of the Poem
by Catherine Zickgraf

#136 Backstory of the Poem
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#137 Backstory of the Poem
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#143 Backstory of the Poem
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#145 Backstory of the Poem
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#146 Backstory of the Poem
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by David Anthony Sam

#148 Backstory of the Poem
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#150 Backstory of the Poem
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#151 Backstory of the Poem
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#152 Backstory of the Poem
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#153 Backstory of the Poem
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#154 Backstory of the Poem
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#155 Backstory of the Poem
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#156 Backstory of the Poem
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#157 Backstory of the Poem
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#158 Backstory of the Poem
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#159 Backstory of the Poem
“The Invisible World”
by Rocco de Giacoma

#160 Backstory of the Poem
“Last Call”
by Ralph Culver

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