How A Poem Happens

An Interview with David St. John from How A Poem Can Happen, by Andrew Kuhn

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

The poem “The Shore” was begun in draft in the late fall of 1975 or in the early spring of 1976, while I was living in both Cleveland, Ohio and Oberlin, where I was teaching. My first book, Hush, appeared in the summer of 1976. I knew from the very first that I wanted this to be the title poem of my second book, and that the book itself would be a sequence of poems that talked back to one another, all charting the course of a relationship. I knew too that the poems would take as a landscape the California shore.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I write slowly and poems usually go through about fifty revisions or so. This poem easily went through fifty revisions, probably more. I was finished by the fall of 1976.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

You forgot blood. My personal life was a disaster much of the time in those years. I write to discover what I have to say, and then revise carefully, slowly… a little like a cabinet maker trying to work without nails. So, I’d say 50/50

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Oh yes, and I’ve talked about this (the process of working on the poems of The Shore) in other interviews, about how I wanted a very liquid, fluid and yet extremely clear style – more like Bishop than anything I’d done before. I wanted the poems to tell a story by using both highly particular details and pieces of the story, sometimes isolated vignettes. I tried to keep the line breaks to a phrasal integrity, but with surprises.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

In appeared in The New Yorker in May of 1977, which is to say very, very quickly. I should add that it had 20 lines that originally began the poem that Howard Moss asked me to drop. He was right, as he usually was about these things, and those lines became the poem “From the Notebook” which appeared in my chapbook The Olive Grove and subsequently in the book In the Pines.

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?

It varies wildly. Sometimes I let a poem sit a year or more; that’s more the rule. In this case, I was curious to see what people would think of my “new” style, since I felt it was something of a departure for me, so I sent it off to Moss immediately. He ended up publishing five of the twelve poems that make up the book The Shore.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The poems are inventions, for the most part, based upon actual experiences and actual events. However, the emotional weathers and some of the particularf details always have to be recast so that one’s allegiance to the “facts” doesn’t corrupt the poem itself. So, the drama was real, the details shifted.

Is this a narrative poem?

It’s a dis-narrative poem, joining with some of the other poems in the collection to form a more coherent narrative. But. basically, of course. Yes, I confess; it’s narrative.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

Elizabeth Bishop and Montale, who remains a god to me and is the single most important poet to my work.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I write for Larry Levis, even now that he’s dead, it doesn’t matter; Norman Dubie, whose imagination constantly humbles me; Philip Levine, from whom I learned 95 % of what I know about craft; and Charles Wright, the most elegant, visceral, and visionary of American poets. Those are the people I’ve always written for – the poets who I knew would read my work with both sympathy and skepticism.

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?

At that time, the poets I’ve just named were my closest and first readers. However, my memory is that I was so unsure of my new work, beginning with this poem, well, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t show it to anyone before I showed it to Howard Moss.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not the one to answer that question, I’m afraid. Let me say, though, that this poem embodies for me the tradition of meditative lyric – and love poem – that I have always written within to a greater or lesser extent.

What is American about this poem?

Well, it simply couldn’t be more American; after all, the book for which it is the title poem shifts from one coast of America to the other, going from the coast of California to the Maryland coast and the city of Baltimore, where I was living when I completed the book. It is without question and by far the most “American” of any of my books, and “The Shore” itself much in the tradition of Bishop and Robinson Jeffers’ more lyric poems.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

The poem was finished. It was meant to be in some ways a testimony of faith, framing (along with book’s final poem) with belief, and hope, a pattern of failures in the relationship the book depicts. In the end, though the poem and the book were finished, the relationship itself cried out to be abandoned, and so, mercifully and mutually, it was.