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***Paola Ferrante’s “Asch’s Line Study in the Current Anthropocene” is #270 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. (Right: Paola Ferrante. Copyright by Paola Ferrante)
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 idea for ASCH’S LINE STUDY IN THE CURRENT ANTHROPOCENE was conceived in conversation with my partner. We were talking about an emotionally difficult situation and I remember him saying “Where is your line?”
One of my undergrad degrees was in psychology and Asch’s line study is a classic study in conformity, where a subject is shown a line of a certain length and asked which line matches it the best. And even though it’s an unambiguous answer, and the answer should be line C, people chose the wrong line, line B, because the confederates of the experimenter had all chosen that line.
And I had been feeling a lot of grief around the climate crisis and guilt around the ways my own life has contributed to it. So I remember thinking about the pressures in conforming to a capitalist system and living the way we do, along with the poetic possiblities of choosing to “be” as we are, rather than to “see” the issues that we create which contribute to a climate emergency. This was what sparked the wordplay in first line of the poem, giving the piece its start. (Left: Matthew Zapruder)
After that, it was a matter of brainstorming lines, some cannibalized from other, unsuccessful poems I had already written, reading a bunch of Matthew Zapruder’s Father’s Day, and reordering until I felt the poem had an emotional arc.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I’m a fairly boring creature of routine when it comes to where I write, which is always at my writing desk. This means my computer is precariously positioned around stacks of paper about American horror films, my tax paperwork (which is really the same thing), and, of course, numerous books. (Left: Paola Ferrante's writing space. Credit and Copyright by Paola Ferrante)
Because I generally alternate between writing poetry and fiction, my desk is covered in volumes of both genres; Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties
and several collections of Karen Russell’s short fiction which have provided countless hours of inspiration for my own short fiction collection in progress.
There are, of course, many books of poetry (currently Roxanna Bennett’s Unmeaningable
and Matthew Zapruder’s Father’s Day).
The best part about where I write is that my desk looks out over a park that backs onto a spillway which you can just see through the trees. We have been flooded twice, and I think the rivers and water imagery that appear in ASCH’S LINE STUDY IN THE CURRENT ANTHROPOCENE seeped into the poem because of that spillway.
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I started writing this poem at the end of February 2020, just before the world went into lock down. And when I looked back a month later, doing the edits for the final draft, it was strange to me to see some of the predictive elements of the poem (the standing in lines for example), and just sort of how the poem’s elegaic qualities synchronized with the world’s grief and loss during a pandemic.
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 write all drafts, including the first one of any poem, on computer, and I generally do my cutting and pasting electronically. Most of the time, it takes me anywhere between two and four days to get to an actual working first draft of the poem, and then, I find that this draft goes one of two ways. It either becomes a poem with a matter of minor editing; switching some lines here or there or taking them out, or I trash the draft completely because I don’t feel it is “poem-worthy.” For this poem, there are four drafts; a day’s worth of me playing with lines, followed by a real first draft, and then a working draft I brought to a workshop. That feedback led me to the final form of the piece. (Right: Paola Ferrante's first rough daft of her poem "Asch's Line Study in the Current Anthropocene" Credit and Copyright by Paola Ferrante)
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? Not counting the brainstorming of lines I did on my absolute first draft of this poem, there are two lines that didn’t make it into the final draft of ASCH’S LINE STUDY IN THE ANTHROPOCENE. The first is “The line that moved became a fence, keeping in our children, keeping out the children not allowed in our backyards. We watched the line, but did not see in ticker tape that looped in circles while we stood in semi-ordered lines for what new screen to buy, what new thing to love, and more than once, thought all this would help us see all that there really is to see.”
The first part of this line was inspired by Matthew Zapruder’s lines “the children sleeping/ alone in some/ detention center/ don’t need/ our brilliant sincerity.” I realized, as I got farther into my drafts, that while I wanted to the poem to be a reflection on society’s collective inaction and an exploration of why this was so, I was really starting to narrow my focus to discussing the climate crisis, and that this would have been beyond the scope of the poem. As for the second part of this line, although this poem is, in part, a critique of capitalist structures, I realized the imagery in this line wasn’t linked closely enough to the environmental imagery in the rest of the poem, and so should be taken out.
The second line that didn’t make it into this poem’s final form was “When the river became a pineapple in the sky; we stood in lines for elevator talk about the weather as though we’d never tried to buy the rain...” This was actually deleted in the process of workshopping the poem. I had gone down a research rabbit hole about weather patterns, learning about the “pineapple express,” which is the term for a particularly disruptive atmospheric river that transports moisture from the tropics to northern latitudes, and is often responsible for extreme rainfall and flooding.
However, in the workshop, I got feedback that, despite being a fun little research tidbit, “pineapple in the sky” was too esoteric an image, as it generally made people think of yellow fruit and not a deluge of rain, so I scrapped it.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? ASCH’S LINE STUDY IN THE CURRENT ANTHROPOCENE is a part of a collection I’ve been working on called The Dark Unwind, which explores the complexity of living with anxiety and depression in very anxious times. In it, there are themes pertaining to climate grief, and fears around motherhood, especially at the end of the world. To me, ASCH’S LINE STUDY IN THE CURRENT ANTHROPOCENE is a poem of mourning, but also a call to action. It is a recognition of how all of us are implicated in the current climate crisis, and how we need to wake up to this in order to build a better future, especially for the next generation.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional for you to write and why? Definitely the line “With be, the line was chalk, children’s drawings of a home on driveways, those little branches on a family tree, or the smile on the mouth of a boy with the tilt of your own childhood, going down even the reddest of slides just one more time.” To me, that line encapsulates the longing and hope that I have, and I think many people have, for the future to be bright for our children, to the point where we actually simply ignore the damage our behaviours do in the present to maintain this idea because the alternative can be too painful.
Sometimes, I think we want to just “be,” live in the moment, maintain our happiness and our illusions that our children will be happy like we think we are, and that we can continue to live as we’ve been doing because a lot of what is happening with the climate crisis can be overwhelming.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? Yes, this poem actually won the Short Grain 2020 Poetry contest, and was published in Grain Issue 48.1, Fall 2020.
Paola Ferrante's debut poetry collection, What to Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack, was shortlisted for the 2020 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
She was longlisted for the 2020 Journey Prize and won The New Quarterly's Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award, Room's prize for Fiction and Grain's 2020 Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, The Journey Prize Stories 32, The Master's Review Anthology Volume IX, North American Review, PRISM International, and elsewhere. (Above Left: Paola Ferrante. Copyright by Paola Ferrante)
She is the Poetry Editor at Minola Review and currently finishing her debut collection of short fiction.
Find her https://twitter.com/PaolaOFerrante
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