CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper/fiction writer, poet, photographer, painter. CRC Blog is an INCLUSIVE & NON-PROFIT BLOG acknowledging ALL voices, ALL individuals, ALL political views, ALL philosophies, ALL religions including Islamism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Agnosticism, Atheism. She has a B.S. in Criminal Justice & completed her workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing. She lives in St. Louis.
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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
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.
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.