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.

letter_perfect@fast-email.com

BACKSTORY OF THE POEM LINKS

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 Caf√©”

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
Juliet Cook’s “ARTERIAL DISCOMBOBULATION”

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
“Aftermath”
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
“BLOCKADE”
by Brian Burmeister

059  January 12, 2019
“Lost”
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
“Menopause”
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
“Shiprock”
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
“Singing”
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
“Anthem”
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
“Paddling”
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
“HAT”
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
“XX”
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
Years”
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

#102 April 26, 2019
“THUNDER”
by Jefferson Carter

#103 May 01, 2019
“The sight of a million angels”
by Jenneth Graser

#104 May 09, 2019
“How to tell my dog I’m dying”
by Richard Fox

#105 May 17, 2019
“Promises Had Been Made”
by Sarah Sarai

#106 June 01, 2019
“i sold your car today”
by Pamela Twining

#107 June 02, 2019
“Abandoned Stable”
by Nancy Susanna Breen

#108 June 05, 2019
“Cupcake”
by Julene Tripp Weaver

#109 June 6, 2019
“Bobby’s Story”
by Jimmy Pappas

#110 June 10, 2019
“When You Ask Me to Tell You About My Father”
by Pauletta Hansel

#111 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Cemetery Mailbox”
by Jennifer Horne

#112 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Relics”
by Kate Peper

#113 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Q”
by Jennifer Johnson

#114 Backstory of the Poem’s
“Brushing My Hair”
by Tammika Dorsey Jones

#115 Backstory of the Poem
“Because the Birds Will Survive, Too”
by Katherine Riegel

#116 Backstory of the Poem
“DIVORCE”
by Joan Barasovska

#117 Backstory of the Poem
“NEW YEAR”S EVE 2016”
by Michael Meyerhofer

#118 Backstory of the Poem
“Dear the estranged,”
by Gina Tron

#119 Backstory of the Poem
“In Remembrance of Them”
by Janet Renee Cryer

#120 Backstory of the Poem
“Horse Fly Grade Card, Doesn’t Play Well With Others”
by David L. Harrison

#121 Backstory of the Poem
“My Mother’s Cookbook”
by Rachael Ikins

#122 Backstory of the Poem
“Cousins I Never Met”
by Maureen Kadish Sherbondy

#123 Backstory of the Poem
“To Those Who Were Our First Gods”
by Nickole Brown

#124 Backstory of the Poem
“Looking For Sunsets (In the Early Morning)”
by Paul Levinson

#125 Backstory of the Poem
“Tracy”
by Tiff Holland

#126 Backstory of the Poem
“Legs”
by Cindy Hochman

#127 Backstory of the Poem
“Anathema”
by Natasha Saje

#128 Backstory of the Poem
“How to Explain Fertility When an Acquaintance Asks Casually”
by Allison Blevins

#129 Backstory of the Poem
“The Art of Meditation In Tennessee”
by Linda Parsons

#130 Backstory of the Poem
“Schooling High, In Beslan”
by Satabdi Saha

#131 Backstory of the Poem
“Baby Jacob survives the Oso Landslide, 2014”
by Amie Zimmerman

#132 Backstory of the Poem
“Our Age of Anxiety”
by Henry Israeli

#133 Backstory of the Poem
“Earth Cries; Heaven Smiles”
by Ken Allan Dronsfield

#134  Backstory of the Poem
“Eons”
by Janine Canan

#135 Backstory of the Poem
“Sworn”
by Catherine Zickgraf

#136 Backstory of the Poem
“Bushwick Blue”
by Susana H. Case

#137 Backstory of the Poem
“Then She Was Forever”
by Paula Persoleo

#138 Backstory of the Poem
“Enough”
by Kris Bigalk

#139 Backstory of the Poem
“From Ghosts of the Upper Floor”
by Tony Trigilio

#140 Backstory of the Poem
“Cloud Audience”
by Wanita Zumbrunnen

#141 Backstory of the Poem
“Condition Center”
by Matthew Freeman

#142 Backstory of the Poem
“Adventuresome Woman”
by Cheryl Suchors

#143 Backstory of the Poem
“The Way Back”
by Robert Walicki

#144 Backstory of the Poem
“If I Had Three Lives”
by Sarah Russell

#145 Backstory of the Poem
“Reservoir”
by Andrea Rexilius

#146 Backstory of the Poem
“The Night Before Our Dog Died”
by Melissa Fite Johnson

#147 Backstory of the Poem
“Pileated”
by David Anthony Sam

#148 Backstory of the Poem
“A Kitchen Argument”
by Matthew Gwathmey

#149 Backstory of the Poem
“Insulation”
by Bruce Kauffman

#150 Backstory of the Poem
“I Will Tell You Where I’ve Been”
by Justin Hamm

#151 Backstory of the Poem
“Comfort”
by Michael A Griffith

#152 Backstory of the Poem
“VAN GOGH TO HIS MISTRESS”
by Margo Taft Stever

#153 Backstory of the Poem
“1. Girl”
by Margaret Manuel

#154 Backstory of the Poem
“Trading Places”
by Maria Chisolm

#155 Backstory of the Poem
“The Reoccurring Woman”
by Debra May

#156 Backstory of the Poem
“Word Falling”
by Sheryl St. Germain

#157 Backstory of the Poem
“Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup of 7,000 Jews Detained in an
Arena”
by Liz Marlow

#158 Backstory of the Poem
“Why Otters Hold Hands”
by William Walsh

#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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