What’s the procedure you use when writing a poem? What comes first? For instance, does a topic come to your mind first and then you choose which form to use, and so on?
The process is different for almost every poem. Sometimes a poem emerges from a memory, or from an idea, or from something I've noticed in the course of my day, or simply from a word or phrase that catches my imagination somehow. Once I've figured out where the poem is trying to go, I might think about what forms will help to get it there. Other times, I might give myself a formal challenge—write a sonnet, or write lines that break after seven syllables, or write a poem that would fit on a postcard to an old friend—in order to help myself break out of habit, to push myself out of a rut. Even then, as I revise and rewrite over weeks and months (and sometimes years), I might try out several different forms until I find the one that seems the best fit for what the poem’s language is trying to do.
How did you decide which format and form was right for “From Too Much Dwelling on What Has Been” and “Minute” (both of which appear in The Worcester Review Volume XXXIV)?
After the first few drafts of “From Too Much Dwelling on What Has Been,” I noticed some similarities to Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things.” Instead of editing away from Frost’s influence, I decided to try emphasizing it. While my poem uses shorter lines and somewhat clipped rhythms, the quatrains are straight out of Frost and the title is borrowed directly from one of his lines. I really liked the idea of trying to steal Frost’s poem from its rural setting and to fit it around my experience of the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I grew up.
In “Minute,” once the language began to feel settled, I wanted to use a caesura similar to the one we see in Anglo-Saxon verse, a space that would open up each line on the page and emphasize the alliterative connections between the halves of each line. Breaking the lines this way—single lines becoming staggered couplets—also seemed like a way to make a line that was both long and short, a way perhaps to mirror the conflict between the improbably small and impossibly large that plays out in the poem.
I enjoyed reading your poems because of how relatable they are. We all have moments when our minds wander off and question the little things that might not be immediately relevant. What does writing poetically about these moments mean to you?
“From Too Much Dwelling on What Has Been” came out of a childhood memory of a fire in Lowell. In my father’s car, waiting to cross one of the bridges over the Merrimack, I asked about the dark smoke and orange glow in the sky, and my father told me what it was. I don’t know why that moment has stayed with me, but it began to seem especially important to me as I moved away from home, as the city continued to change, as even my memories of home began to fade.
I originally wrote “Minute” as part of the poem-a-day challenge during National Poetry Month. About two weeks in, I was already running out of steam, already feeling like I was straining for something to write. As I drove home from work, I happened to notice a bug smeared across my windshield. Later, after several failed attempts to start a poem, I wrote, “I want there to be metaphor in the bugs on my windshield.” With another anniversary of my father’s death on the way, questions about mortality and consciousness weren't far from my mind, and the poem began to take shape.
I’d like to believe that writing about these moments leads to the “momentary stay against confusion” that Frost says a poem should offer. But really, poems are often more interesting to me as attempts to acknowledge the confusion, to enact the mind as it wrestles with the mysteries of the world around me.
Who are the poets that inspired you to write poetry?
This answer might sound like cheating, but I really think I've been inspired in some way by every poet I've ever read. Growing up in Lowell, I knew about Jack Kerouac, so poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso became important to me when I first thought about writing. And lots of the poets we studied in school were important to me: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur. But I don’t think I started to figure out how to write the poems I really wanted to write until I found Philip Levine. Something just clicked for me when I read his poems. And then it was James Wright, Robert Hayden, Larry Levis, and so on. The list is endless. Lately I've been reading a lot of poems by Terrance Hayes, and I loved Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall and Mezzanines by Matthew Olzmann. But even as I've been reading such amazing new books, I've been looking back at Anglo-Saxon verse, including the riddles from the Exeter Book, which make me think about language and rhythm in different ways. For me, it’s important to read a lot, to be always ready to find new sources of inspiration. Of course, growing up, I didn't know very much poetry, but there was always music playing in our house. One of my constant inspirations has been Bob Dylan. His songs can always get my imagination going.
Most poets I've talked to say that poetry holds a truth for them. Is this true for you as well? If so, what makes poetry the way to go instead of fiction/non-fiction, essay, or other form of writing?
I’m not really sure. I’d like to believe that poetry holds some sort of truth, but I’m also keenly aware of the shortcomings of language to represent the realities of the world. I also know that a poem that holds a truth for me may not hold the same truth—if it holds one at all—for someone else. Nevertheless, the poetry that I love best, the poems I return to over and over again, are constantly striving toward moments of genuine communication. They might not always get there. Or a poem’s truth might change over time. But the poems I love best, and the poems I hope to write, seek to communicate something to their readers.
If literature does move us toward some sort of truth, I don’t think poetry is any better at doing so than fiction or nonfiction or drama or song-writing. But, at least for me, what makes poetry the way to go is its ability to make multiple possibilities available to a reader in such a compressed and immediate way. Because a poem’s built both by grammatical structures, like sentences and phrases, and by poetic structures, like lines and stanzas, it can pack a lot of different possibilities into a very small space. The meaning contained in each line of a poem might reinforce the meaning conveyed by its sentences, or it might create moments of play or tension or doubt. And these meanings then become further complicated by the music of the poem, the sonic texture which can often create an experience of meaning that can’t be easily glossed but which is nevertheless very powerful.
You recently lived in Boston. Is location a key factor in how you write your poems? Do you prefer to be in the woods, not the busy streets of Boston, to find inspiration for you poems?
We actually left Boston a few months ago, but it’s funny: I’m now struggling to settle in to our new home in Connecticut. For me, I think the factor is less location and more a sense of place, not the place itself but how I see myself belonging in—or belonging to—the place. And that can take a long time to develop. There’s a part of me that would always prefer to be in the woods, just walking and exploring and experiencing the natural world directly. But there’s another part of me that finds just as much inspiration when I’m watching people at the bus stop or when I’m reading at my desk. What does matter to me, and what often helps me to write new poems, is when I can begin to feel settled in a place, when I can finally call a place home, when I can finally begin to recognize a relationship to a place. Writing often helps me understand that relationship more fully, but I find it difficult to work when I haven’t yet begun to wrap my head around being in a new place, until I begin to feel my experiences becoming rooted in the new place—which can take a very long time for me.
When you’re not writing poems, what do you do? Are you a full-time poet, or do you have another job that has nothing to do with it?
I spent about ten years teaching high school, but these days, I’m a stay-at-home dad. Some moments—making lunches, getting the two-year-old down for a nap, driving the five-year-old back and forth to swim lessons—feel very removed from poetry. But it’s also been wonderful for my writing. Spending so much time with our daughters—going to museums, taking hikes, visiting the local farm—gives me so many chances to watch them experience the world and to learn from them. I think my writing benefits from those shifts in my perspective.
Have you ever written anything creative besides poetry? How did it go?
Once in a while I start working on an essay, but I never manage to finish it. I've also written a handful of short stories and even a couple of short plays. I’ll just say that, at least for now, I’m sticking with poems.
Below are links to Simoneau's works:
- "At a Horseshoe Bend in the Rogue" (Boulevard, Vol. 27, No.3)
- "Watson and the Shark" (The Georgia Review, Winter 2012)
- Mid-American Review, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2
- "New Year's Eve" (Salamander, Vol. 18, No. 1)
- "Working the Garden" (Cider Press Review, Vol. 14, No. 2)
- "The Almighty Reconsiders His Role in a World We've Recreated" (The Collagist, Issue 44: March 2013)
- "In the Months After His Death You Move Through Moments Like a Mountain" (The Collagist, Issue 21: April 2011)
- "Blue Hills, Early December" (Diagram 11.4)
- "What You Learn" (Dialogist, Vol. I, Issue II)
- "My Father's Garage as a Resting Place," "Morning Mass," and "Taking Flight" (Prime Number, Issue 17)
- "In summer the song sings itself" (Waccamaw)
Thank you Brian Simoneau for his time to answer my questions and his contribution to The Worcester Review.