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***Matt Hohner’s “Saratoga Passage, August 2014” is #279 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.
The poem was written in red ink, since I couldn’t find a blue or black-ink pen to use. I rarely handwrite in anything other than black ink. I’d left my little reporter’s pocket-size spiral flip notebook at home here in Baltimore, so I had to improvise. These days, if I don’t have my notebook with me, as long as there is charge in my phone, I’ll use the Notes app to compose, either typing it in or dictating it, then emailing it to myself to copy and paste into a Word document in order to start shaping, revising, editing, adding to, and crafting it. I often use words like “hammering” when it comes to crafting my poems after the first draft, as it often feels like a physical act, beating and pounding the words into useful form in the heat of things, then letting them “cool” for a day or two (sometimes merely hours) to put distance between myself and the poem, a little like standing further back from a painting to see the whole piece a bit more clearly before returning to the close-in, detail-oriented wordsmithing. I should note that I do not view my editing as violent; on the contrary, it’s an act of creation, but the real exhaustion sometimes after working and reworking a poem until I’ve stopped editing it (as opposed to finished editing it, since I often think about how a poem could have been better long after it’s been published).
SO. It was late in the evening, after dark, my wife was already asleep, and I had this burst of thought and feeling—the ol’ inspiring wind vibrating through the lyre strings—so I headed out to the small deck overlooking the narrow Saratoga Passage waterway between Whidbey and Camano Islands. The Perseid meteor shower was in full swing, the air was cool and the night clear and quiet, as the tide ebbed three stories below me. I had the right interconnected, swirling braid of natural metaphors to help me as I sat down to try to capture how I felt at the cusp of my 43rd birthday. (Right: One of Matt Hohner's rough drafts to the poem "Saratoga Passage, August 2014" Credit and Copyright by Matt Hohner)
I was probably out on the deck for a couple of hours, writing by the light spilling out of the room, which, though bright enough for me to write by, wasn’t hindering my wife’s sleep. (Left: Saratoga at dusk. Credit and Copyright by Matt Hohner)
When I finished jotting down my thoughts and observations, I came back into the room, tucked the draft into my suitcase pocket, and went to bed. When I got home, I left it sitting on my desk on the base of my desktop computer for about a month, until I was ready to return to the rather intense feelings in it and begin the real “scheisse work” (as my beloved, late mentor at Naropa University Anselm Hollo was fond of saying) of shaping it into a poem that worked well on the page. I don’t remember how long it took me to truly be “finished” the poem, but it was easily weeks of on-and-off editing bursts when I had the impetus and discipline to head back into the word-forge with hammer and tongs, apron on, ready to lean into it once more. (Above Right: Saratoga at low tide. Credit and Copyright by Matt Hohner)
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I began writing this poem on a half-sheet of paper torn from a notepad in the room of the fancy inn where my wife and I were staying in the small town of Langley, on Whidbey Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound. We’d decided to splurge, since it was the last part of a vacation that started with our attending my namesake cousin Matt’s wedding at his now-in-laws’ family farm south of Seattle, within view of the side of Mt. St. Helens that blew off all those decades ago. (Left: balcony on which "Saratoga Passage, August 2014" was written. Credit and Copyright by Matt Hohner)
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?) This poem has easily had dozens of past lives before I settled on its final state. Once I start typing a poem, sometimes from first draft onward, I don’t print it out to mark or edit it, nor do I use the “track changes” function the way I would electronically with a word file from, say, a participant in one of my workshops, or a poet friend who asked for my input on a poem they are working on. I usually print the latest draft of where I am with the poem before calling it quits for the time being as a sort of time stamp on the work in progress, so just imagine a clearing’s-worth of paper in a stack for just this poem. I need to be able to see it on the page, physically. It helps me understand what needs to be trimmed or where something might need to be added or rearranged. (Above Right: Anselm Hollo)
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? You might be able to discern some lines and words not in the final poem from my photograph of the first draft. The final line breaks and shape of the poem came from the hours and hours of editing it as a Word file. The process of making this poem was solitary, so I don’t have any interactive evidence of the editing process, other than the photo of the original draft with squiggles and arrows and crossed out lines and notes up the side margin-edge.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? I hope readers get the deep sense of disconnectedness I as an adoptee have with what many people almost take for granted as their moment of origin, their emergence into the world. I do hope that perhaps an adoptee will read and identify with my work, and know that they are not alone, that my voice might lend a bit of itself to their experience, and maybe even help them find their own voice and self-ness in their situation. I want folks to know that uncertainty about an aspect of oneself—whatever that might be—is okay. At times it can be a hard thing not knowing one’s familial stories of immigration, triumph, tragedy, marriage, etc. from a genetic standpoint. As with everything I write, my goal is to bridge a gap, to communicate, to connect with others, and thus reaffirm our collective existence. It’s my reaction against the obfuscation, lies, truth-denying, façade-making, advertisement-like sound-bit cheap language we find ourselves immersed in minute-by-minute via social and other media. Now is not the time, quite frankly, to be fucking around as a poet. People are still, as W.C. Williams once pointed out, dying from the lack of real news in the world; poetry, when done right, can be that news of our own humanity which we are all desperate to hear.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? The last few lines. It returns me to myself in the here and now, all these years later, imagining the moment of my birth to a mother I’ve never known. Nothing’s changed. I’m still alone in the world in a way relatively few people know. And everything has changed. I’ve spoken my self-truth into the universe.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? “Saratoga Passage, August 2014” was shortlisted for the 2015 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize in Ireland (now called The Moth International Prize for Poetry, and was published in The Moth, Issue 20, Spring 2015
and The Irish Times, Friday, April 24, 2015.
It was also the winner of the 2015 Lascaux Prize in Poetry.
It’s in my first collection, Thresholds and Other Poems, published by Apprentice House Press in 2018.
Saratoga Passage, August 2014
Whidbey Island, Puget Sound
Up late, I watch the Perseids etch their brief furies through
high, cold, moonlit air. My wife of eleven years, partner of
twenty-one, sleeps in the room behind me. Three stories down,
the salt tide slides away from concrete bulwarks, slips quietly back
into itself: the air’s fragrance leavens with life and decay as twelve hours
of water give way to rocks maned with kelp, sand rivulets emptying
under carcasses of hundred-year-old driftwood, and the distinct whiff
of an uneaten fish, speared by talons and dropped, bottom-sunk until now.
In two days I will be forty-three. I know nothing of my birth, hold no
narrative of my making, nothing of the weather that day, what you wore,
who drove you to the hospital. Above, particles ricochet in skips
and scratches through the dark emptiness between stars. I must have been
like these: a brief interrupter of cycles, growing for nine moons, released out
of you and away into space, gone but for an umbilical scar, fading into the sea
of darkness and memory, covered by the rhythm of tides, washed by time
into something smooth you carry, but cannot touch. A loon at the bend
trills across glassy currents; sound of wingtips in flight touching calm water.
The soft heartbeat of waves lapping the receding tideline grows fainter as
the frozen cosmos delivers hot specks into fleet fire. I listen as ocean
and moon sway their eternal slow dance, one drawing the other closer,
then releasing. I have known this pulling-to and letting go, the
profound momentary ripples, the desolate stillness that follows.
I have known the searing white heat of entry into this world alone.
Matt Hohner was shortlisted for the 2015 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, published in The Moth, Issue 20, Spring 2015 and The Irish Times, Friday, April 24, 2015; winner, 2015 Lascaux Prize in Poetry from Thresholds and Other Poems (Apprentice House 2018) (Right: Matt Hohner in March of 2021. Copyright by Matt Hohner)