Today, the last day of a weeklong academic break, I went searching for my copy of a 1989 issue of Interim, the magazine in which my poems made their first national appearance. I was an undergrad at Rutgers when I sent them off, after scouring Poets’ Market for venues. (No web sites to browse back then, and Nevada lit mags didn’t make it to New Brunswick bookstore shelves very often.) I was on a cross-country road trip after graduation when the acceptance letter came–Chris opened it for me during one of my rare calls back home, from Texas, as I recall. (No cell phones, either.) When the issue arrived, I was deep into my first term of graduate coursework, still writing poems but basically abandoning for years any serious effort to get them published. I was ambitious, and poetry remained a lifeline, but the workload at my fancy PhD program was overwhelming, my peers brilliant, and my confidence shot to hell.
I found the red-and-white issue buried under memorabilia (look at those old IDs! I was such a baby!) in a box in my attic. People have accused me of keeping a relatively orderly house, but those people haven’t climbed the attic stairs. Added to many of our old letters, notebooks, and yearbooks are now the kids’ most precious toys and diaries, AND several boxes of photos, papers, and offprints from my mother-in-law, in assisted living. When Chris brought Judy’s boxes home, we were both sobered. Who will ever look again at all those articles on epidemiology, the NIH grant applications, and other evidence of scientific ambition? But who could simply recycle them? Up to the attic they went.
The occasion for today’s search was my second publication in Interim, 28 years later. The current editors very kindly took three poems from what I hope will be my next poetry collection which is, as it happens, concerned with ambition, from the vantage of middle age in a small, small town. The poems “Ambitions: Bath” and “Ambitions: Lexington” are from a series of list poems reflecting various impossible aspirations. They’re strongly rooted in place because for me, coming to terms with feeling stuck has meant digging down and taking in some history. If you’re having trouble shooting up, why not root down? I’m seeing what I can learn, anyway, from planting my feet and so far the answer is: a lot.
During this overstuffed week I spelunked the attic, put together new submissions, booked future travel, graded essays, and organized lesson plans. I didn’t fulfill all my goals, but my goals were pretty ridiculous, as usual, so getting partway through the plan feels okay. And it’s interesting to take the long view for an afternoon, comparing my old and new poems and dreams. The new Interim, edited by Claudia Keelan and Derek Pollard, is in most ways better than the old, founded and edited by Wilber Stevens. But my undergrad apprentice-work was published only a few pages away from William Stafford’s “The Anxiety of Influence”–a head-trip. “You can’t realize your panoply of influence,” Stafford writes, “reaching out from a quiet life,/ and sometimes power extends far over/ a wide part of the world, especially downwind.” The joke is that the “influence” he’s referring to here is literally human stinkiness, wafting along a hiking trail and intriguing some coyotes. I like the way he pricks ego’s balloon: aspiring poet, your words may not be as impressive as your body odor.
It’s fun, too, to reread my now ancient-seeming poems, “Stones” and “Crocus,” as Interim published them ages ago. The latter poem is about potential and striving against hostile elements; it translates other senses, and the nonhuman world, into sound and voice; and it’s slant-rhymed (“thought”/ “thawed,” not bad!). Maybe not so much has changed after all, in the interim.
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