As the New York Times reports, we’re seeing industry-wide hand-wringing right now about how rarely books are fact-checked, following scandals involving Naomi Wolff and others. I’m proud that Shenandoah editor Beth Staples makes fact-checking a priority: the interns comb through every piece we publish, following up on names, dates, and a host of other check-able details. Not every poem needs fact-checking, of course, but some do. For example, I posted my own poem about the moon landing recently. Most people wouldn’t notice if I got the date wrong, but some would, and spotting the error might impair their faith in me as a writer.
So what level of precision do poets owe their audiences? Spelling proper nouns correctly, and checking dates and quotes, seems important, if a poem references real-world people and events. The trivia doesn’t matter, really–if I tell you right now that my teapot is as blue as loneliness, but it’s actually an unromantic beige, that seems like a reasonable bit of poetic trickery. (Gotcha! It’s orange.) Even in a persona poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a piece that’s obviously fictional, you’d want to check the Dante quote before you hit send.
I just handed in copy-edits for my next book, The State She’s In–overcoming the usual Prufrockian abulia to do so, because finalizing a book makes me REALLY ANXIOUS–and the process involved a final round of fact-checking on my end. Several poems involve public history that’s important to get right. While I know I was careful during the period of composition, what if I made a bad mistake in a poem about slavery, say, or Confederate history? The vultures aren’t wheeling around my publications the way they do around high-profile nonfiction, but still, I’m addressing sensitive material.
For example, last year I published a poem in Flock. They nominated it for a Pushcart, bless them, although it’s a very tricky piece about studying lists of enslaved people once owned, then sold, by my employer. In it, I think especially hard about a boy named Albert, 13, who was the same age as my son at the time; his name appears on an 1826 list but has disappeared by the 1834 version, and I’m wondering what happened to him. This weekend, I went back to the sources one last time to check the names and numbers, and guess what? I’d made some mistakes. They didn’t change the tenor of the poem: I had to change “fourteen names further” to “thirteen” and the sum of “twenty thousand” to “twenty-two.” Still, I make the dodgy move in the poem of speculating about how Albert’s ghost might have answered me, if that were possible, and that’s enough risk for one poem. I’ll likely never know his fate, but I can damn well be true to the part of history that’s verifiable.
John Robinson’s List, 1826
This ruled and foxed document the only
record of your name, followed by numbers
firm and fat: three-hundred-twenty-five flat
for Albert, age 13. Your face, nowhere.
Ma’am, you do not know the first thing.
Persons bequeathed by Jockey Robinson
to this university, along with a thousand
acres at Hart’s Bottom. A sepia squiggle
ties you to Jerry, 53, and Elsey,
36, blind. Your parents? Dick, Amorilla,
Claiborne, Pompey, sisters and brothers?
I couldn’t say
but it does look likely.
Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy,
68, twenty dollars, but the note,
in a column usually blank, offers a hard “worth
nothing.” The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.
A breeze huffs at linen curtains. A pitcher
sweats on the marble sideboard. How unworried
the appraisal. How satisfied the gloss.
Or thirteen names further, James the Preacher,
40, costly, his wife Mary, their eight children,
eldest five hired out, down to eight-year-old
Isaac for five dollars a year. What did James
preach about to Creasy-without-price,
“club foot” Nero, and “lame” Dick McCollum?
Your son is thirteen. Would he listen
to a sermon or sleep right through?
Are you like him? A quick boy, loves a game,
strategizing always? I remember you,
eyebrows hoisted, forehead grooved with notions.
No one gains by your imaginings.
Unless you do yourself.
I can’t find you on the 1834
“List of Slaves Belonging to Washington College,”
with Amorilla, Claiborne, Pompey, although
I riffle all the bills. Eighteen months later
Garland purchases nearly everyone
to send to his Mississippi plantation:
“Old Jerry was refused upon inspection.”
After the commission, trustees count
twenty-two thousand dollars into coffers.
That money translated to red brick buildings,
lichened shady trees, and my salary.
Is that how you linger, a ghost of ink
boiled from walnut shells? A row of desks,
a library shelf, digits propagating
in some faraway white-pillared bank?
Ma’am, I cannot say.
I’ve posted about revision A LOT in this blog–I just went back and reread this post from 5 years ago, which contains most of the wisdom I possess about ordering and pruning poetry books, and then there’s this shorter one about reading aloud to revise. Revision feels like a big subject, though, almost as big as the subject of inspiration in the first place. I think often about the day I first drafted the poem above: I was sitting in my office in the supposedly-haunted colonnade, shivering as I read that brutal history, typing out my questions, and then hearing the answers float up, a gift from my own unconscious, I suppose. The various days I wrestled with the poem, though, to make it as accurate as I could–those are important, too.