Partita & Sea Ridge
honest devices – John Donne
Effulgent canopies of cornflower and aquamarine
overhang this fixed landscape where memory stands
watch over our earliest walks and drives as one
where by and large I dreamt up an eirenical piece
written out of a humble and afflicted heart
long on resilience short on dark cheer
and resolved to unlearn deceit beside her although in a little thin house
forego preferment along with los negocios and skinny love
and instead compare pleasantries savor household tasks
and so attend to the Umgangssprache as to lonely young friends near and far
rather than be outmaneuvered by an insolent and leonine demimonde
sharpening its recriminations for corner pocket Machtpolitik after hours.
From here we could just make out certain agents of the kairos now and then
when they alighted upon a bare twig midway from table to basin.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I started to write “Partita & Sea Ridge” by copying words out of a pocket notebook onto a piece of paper, and then I wrote the lines of the poem.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I changed a word or two later, but otherwise I wrote the final version of the poem all at once.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I think there is such a thing as inspiration. This poem is inspired because it’s about something I didn’t know at the time I wrote it. The rest is the usual skill.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I wrote “Partita & Sea Ridge” in its final form. I felt like it might turn out to be fourteen lines long while I was writing it, so I kept the shape of the sonnet in mind as I worked. Shape and form are two different things. I think that learning to write means you work on something until breaking your own habits is second nature. I try to figure out what my intentions are, and thwart them.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
“Partita & Sea Ridge” appeared in print about five months after I wrote it.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I send work around as soon as I have something to show.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Words are abstract and opaque, not concrete and transparent, and because of this, every poem is a fiction. Those are the facts. The reader enjoys the poem, and her pleasure in reading is made up of fantasy and critique at the same time, and her pleasure bleeds into the work itself like watercolors applied to paper. That’s when the poem is finished.
Is this a narrative poem?
It’s a lyric poem. It belongs to a set of poems, arranged out of sequence. They all make up the narrative of a moment, let’s say.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and John Donne and his World by Derek Parker. The phrase “Insolent and leonine” and the word “eirenical” came from them. I also had Donne’s letters. In one of them he discusses the difficult circumstances in which he lived with his wife. He adored her, and mourned her bitterly when she died. In this early letter, he says: “Because I have transplanted her into a wretched fortune, I must labour to disguise that from her, by all such honest devices, as giving her my company, and discourse.” I think that means he was taking care of her, trying to distract her from their problems, whiling away the time with her, like people do when they have no money. The phrases “A humble and afflicted heart” and “a little thin house” are from Donne’s letters too. Finally, the Greek word kairos, meaning “moment,” came from a book called Everything’s an Argument.
I like to make variations on lines by other poets. When I was young, I learned about the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti by reading Ezra Pound, like lots of other poetry lovers. Ever since then, I’ve recalled his line about how love awakens in the place dove sta memoria, “where memory resides.” Also, Patrick James Dunagan wrote a poem that has the line “To be my mistress you must learn deceit,” thinking of the song “Mistress” by Sun Kil Moon, I guess, and I never forgot that either. These two phrases are part of my composition in a different way. I don’t think it’s worth much to use other people’s words verbatim. But when you make a variation on words by someone else, they turn into a motif. That can make the relationships complex and interesting.
Finally, I like to include daily life in my writing. My stepdaughter brought the phrase “skinny love” home from high school, and I learned the German word Umgangssprache, meaning “common everyday speech,” from George Scrivani at Neeli Cherkovski’s house. Someone had just reminded me that the Spanish for “business” is los negocios. A partita is a composition by Bach, and Sea Ridge was a good cheap California Chardonnay.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
There’s a New Pop poem, let’s call it, starting to appear right now. I think that’s because of who poets want as their readers. You can tell who has caught on and who hasn’t. It’s an interesting moment, and I’m a bit old to fit in, so I have someone else in mind.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I send a piece of writing to a publication or give it as a gift when it’s finished. I don’t want to waste other people’s time or my own.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
My poem deals with the old story of withdrawing from the world to live with your love. I think it does so in a mature way. The maturity is new.
What is American about this poem?
The voice of the poem is saying something about a tension between public and private life. Maybe the contours of this tension are what’s American.
This questionnaire was completed in 2014 and sent to How a Poem Happens, a site that uses the same questions, in the same order, for all guests. The author didn’t know that he had to be invited to contribute, and that he couldn’t just write his own responses and turn them in. The piece appears here for the first time.