Guernsey’s most recent collection, From Rain: Poems, 1970-2010, was released in May 2012 by Ecco Qua Press. The collection gathers together poems from his previous four books and seven chapbooks as well as several previously unpublished poems.
Diane Lockward: The poems in From Rain represent the work of 40 years. How has your work changed during that time period? How has it remained the same?
Bruce Guernsey: My subjects really haven’t changed much over the years, but how I get to them has. In my early poems I would tend to waste time by beginning with a literal description, often composed in a dutiful subject-verb-predicate sentence arrangement, itself usually burdened by the tiresome verb to be.
But over time I learned to get to the metaphor right away, to the imaginative. No introductions, please. Here are the first lines of “Ice Fishing,” for example:
When the doctor beams his line of light
in the water of your eye,
can he see the stars, the glisten of your tears?
I’m also far more aware of the music a line makes as it also tries to make “sense.” I work in syllables more than in words, paying far more attention to sound than I did once, and am very aware of syntax, trying to avoid the standard sentence as much as I can.
“The Eye Chart” is a good example of how syntax can work as a symbol in itself. Here’s how the poem begins
And if these lines
were all that was left
The whole poem is an incomplete sentence, a dependent clause that never ends. That fragmentation is part of its worrisome message.
DL: Most volumes of collected works are organized book by book in chronological order. You have veered away from that plan. Tell us how you arranged your poems and why you chose this different structural plan.
BG: I wanted to put a book together, not a list of poems. So I looked for themes in my work and found to my surprise that I returned again and again to the same subjects.
I also wanted the poems to reflect off one another, something that occurs only by chance in a chronological ordering. All my poems come from me whatever my age was at the time or what was going on. I like to think of my poems “evolving,” which means they have grown from one another, that they crawled ashore decades ago and grew limbs to move about with, but they are me. So I sought to make this collection an organic whole.
DL: How has living in New Jersey, New England, and Illinois and sailing twice around the world influenced your work and its use of Nature?
BG: I was born in Boston and spent every summer of my youth on Newfound Lake in New Hampshire where my grandparents had a lodge and cabins they rented. Even after we moved to the suburbs in New Jersey, we made an annual migration back to that lake. It was and is my spiritual home.
But I have also lived for year-long periods in Italy, Portugal, and Greece, and was wonderfully fortunate to sail as a faculty member with Semester at Sea. Water, water, everywhere, whether in those sea-faring countries, on that ship, or on Newfound Lake—no wonder my book is called From Rain!
Being immersed in the current is one reason I fly-fish: to be waist-deep in time, that “stream we go a-fishin’ in.” (Thoreau liked water, too!).
DL: What have been the high points of your career? And the low points?
BG: I guess the highest point of my career was the first one: getting a full-time teaching position in 1967 at William and Mary when I was twenty-three years old, something unheard of today. I was handed a book to teach from called An Introduction to Poetry, first edition, by someone named X.J. Kennedy. I had read a lot of poetry in college and graduate school but had never tried writing any. What hubris that would have been, but what hurt me into doing so was, ironically, the simultaneous lowest point in my career: the Vietnam war.
Soldiers my age were dying in it, as were students at Kent State because of it. The teaching of poetry meant the putting of sounds and sense from that text into my own mouth as I read poems to my freshman classes. When one of my first students came home in a plastic bag in 1969, writing poems (or trying to) kept him and me alive.
DL: You were for a number of years editor of The Spoon River Poetry Review. How did that role fuel or deplete your own work?
BG: I was deeply honored to edit that magazine and was awed by the variety and excellence of so much of the work submitted. But I was also dismayed by the kind of intentional obscurity that I found in work that seemed meant more for a workshop discussion to figure it out than for a reader to understand.
I sought poems that were accessible which doesn’t mean that they were simplistic, and for subjects, I wanted Mr. Faulkner’s “eternal verities of the human heart.” That is to say, the editorship fueled my own vision of what I wanted in the poems I read and wrote. It sharpened my personal aesthetic and helped me see my own poems better—to edit them and to shape this book with the same deliberation that I gave to Spoon River.
DL: I understand that the father who appears in a number of these poems is, in fact, your own father, a war veteran. Can you tell us about him and how he figures in the poems?
BG: That guy named Doug really is my old man—“Pop” as we called him. Poetry, as such, would have been as far from his interest and understanding as you could get, but I know that I learned how lively language could be from him, a farm kid from the Catskills and a World War II veteran of the tank corps. He never once cussed that I ever heard as a kid, but “hogwash,” “haywire,” or “happy as a heifer in heat,” his barnyard metaphors, were far more resonant than all the “f” words of current diction.
For many poets the missing father figure is a symbol in their work, but for me that disappearance is real. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Pop vanished from a VA hospital in rural Pennsylvania on May 11, 1987. He had managed to get himself dressed and out the door, never to be seen again despite the extraordinary search we had and that in many ways I still continue in my writing.
DL: There are a number of formal poems in the collection and many with formal elements. Where does the formal influence come from? When do you turn to forms?
BG: Form is natural. Check out your body as an example. Hopefully, your hands match when you put them together and your two eyes make one in sight. As any botanist will tell you, “wild” flower is a misnomer: the petals of the sneeze wort have the same number and arrangement wherever you find that weed.
Thus, I am indeed a nature poet, seeking to put sounds and their symbols into a pattern whether that be the sonnet or a form that somehow came to be in the writing of the poem.
The book’s title poem, “From Rain,” is a good example of the latter: the falling syllable “-er” that ends the first and last line of each stanza is set against the liquid sounds that conclude the lines in-between. This pattern is one that came to me naturally, and once it did, I stayed with it to see what might happen.
DL: You have a wide range of topics—children, war, milk, Edgar Bergen, a heart transplant, toads, dogs, etc. How and where do you find your topics? Do you ever worry about running out of topics?
BG: The world and one’s life in it are too varied—how could anyone run out of topics? I have noticed, however, that the impulse toward poetry has begun to wane in me for reasons that I think are natural. I’m simply older now.
I am writing a lot of prose, however, and in fact just finished a book about my daughter’s disappearance in the Los Angeles area in the summer of 2006. Yes, another missing family member—my daughter suffering from bi-polar disease. We found her, but the search was harrowing. The book is called The Sunburned Daughter and between each chapter is a poem: some of mine and some of my daughter’s.
DL: Tell us about your writing practice, perhaps taking us from idea to the finished poem.
BG: “No ideas, but in things”—so let’s take my little poem “Yam” as an example. There I was, yam in hand, staring at the sadly misshapen thing and about to put it into the microwave when I muttered the word to myself, “yam.” Then, I said it again, and liking what I heard and having fun, couldn’t stop: yam, yam, sounds like ham, that damn yam, so spread it with jam, mam, and allaka-zam . . . which is to say, I was a two-year-old, goofing around with sounds while holding this misfit of a potato the color of a carrot. Carrot!! Did someone say “carrot?” Hmmm—where might I go with this little surprise? . . . and so were born the poem’s first lines:
The potato that ate all its carrots,
can see in the dark like a mole,
That second line was the logical extension of the first, my having been told as a kid that carrots were good for the eyes, and surprise, surprise, the yam like its potato brother also has eyes:
its eyes the scars
from centuries of shovels, tines.
The sound of “yam” eventually went from my mutterings to its visual symbol on the written page, and as I looked at the word, what did I gradually see through a glass darkly but “May” in the mirror. And why not, moles and yams alike stay out of the light:
May spelled backwards
because it hates the light,
The final couplet is a completion of the metaphor: both sides of the equation have to work. That is, if you’ve got moles and yams linked together, you better find the words that might describe them both in an imaginative way. And, of course, growing up a Catholic kid, I had to get the dark ages in the poem, too, and maybe enrich the image in the process:
pawing its way, padding along,
there in the catacombs.
Please understand that I’ve made the composition process sound pretty easy here. This little poem actually took a some time to finish—I came back to it again and again over a period of several days. But the impulse that began “Yam” is exactly as I described: the poem was born of sound and pawed its verbal way along from there.
DL: What advice could you offer to aspiring poets?
BG: Years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing James Wright, and I asked him the same question. “Kick yourself in the groin first,” was his response. I agree, then if you survive that, read, read, read. Everything!
I mean it--all of English poetry, Milton and Pope included. Then follow that up with all of American poetry (and, yes, even long-winded Whittier and lugubrious Poe).
Meanwhile, learn another language: both an oral and written knowledge. Nothing will help you understand your own language (ours being American English) like learning another.
Imitate a poet you like, a contemporary one. Learn her voice, or his: memorize three or four poems and say them aloud as you drive along or wait for the bus.
Memorize some other poems, too, ones that sound good to you. And if you find you can’t remember this poem or that, try to figure out why you can’t.
Learn by listening to the poems you love.