By Dave Lucas
You may already know the Dawn Powell line “All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.” If you’re like me, you might both smile and wince as you read it. And you’ve probably heard plenty about the poets and writers who, like Powell, left the Midwest for various elsewheres. (If only there were more classics about New Yorkers piling everything they own into an old Chevy to strike out for Toledo.)
These days, I’m more attracted to the stories of writers who stay, or whose work, at least, cannot seem to leave the region behind. So I have been reading and rereading new books of poems from David Baker and Jill Bialosky, in which the Midwest is sometimes a setting, sometimes an idea or memory. Those books, Scavenger Loop and The Players, evoke landscapes and people and cultures I thought I knew in such surprising, innovative ways that I find myself wondering if I ever knew the Midwest — or midwests — at all.
A Cleveland native and graduate of Ohio University, Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jill lives in New York City, where she works as an editor at W. W. Norton & Company. She is the author of three previous books of poems, two novels, and a memoir.
David grew up in Missouri and now lives in Granville, Ohio, where he has taught at Denison University since 1984. He is the author of ten previous books of poems and five books of prose. He also serves as poetry editor for The Kenyon Review.
Over a few weeks Jill and David and I exchanged emails about their work, the poems and poets they love, and the persistence of the Midwest.
BELT: My first question is loaded, I think, for any American poet, but especially for two poets so concerned with the Midwest. Both of these books seem haunted by the idea of the pastoral, those old poems depicting an idealized vision of rural life. How have you managed to approach these familiar landscapes (and memories of landscapes) without mere sentimentality and without easy irony?
David Baker: The pastoral has always depended on irony. It seems to be pure or uninflected — the beautiful lyric song of an innocent singer, as he (the shepherds are ‘he’s’ at first) regards a sweeping natural scene. Beautiful, transportive, sometimes sublime. But of course even those Ancient Greek pastorals of Theocritus are ironic songs: though they appear to be songs of innocent shepherds, they are specifically made for the amusement of the scholars in the library at Alexandria. That is, they are idealized, nostalgic, performative, and beautifully impossible.
My whole book is built around its title poem, “Scavenger Loop,” a long lyric sequence that works as a pastoral elegy. It’s a poem about and for my mother, who died two years ago, in central Missouri; and its setting is — here in the rural Midwest — a range of pastoral scenes: farms, small villages, woods and fields, but also corporate mega-farms, meth labs, hospitals, and such. What does the modern pasture look like, who works there, what are its identifying features, how has “nature” changed?
The lyric poem faces these huge subjects by looking at small systems, single images, particular narratives. Just as an example, one of my poems traces the invasion of the emerald ash borer — which came to the Midwest on a freighter on Lake Erie — killing billions of trees; but this poem is also about my young daughter, learning to ride her bike. The political is the personal. I try to shape the lyric poem so it can contain beauty but also peril, so it can be a viable political or social voice as well as the voice of transport, memory, and solace.
Jill Bialosky: I have always relied upon the physical landscape in poetry to be a vehicle for translating the interior landscape. They are intertwined in my poetics.
David’s magnificent long poem, “Scavenger Loop,” is perhaps a more traditional pastoral that the two long pastoral poems in my new book, The Players. I’ll get back to that in a minute. In “Scavenger Loop,” David seeks to elegize a particular landscape, in a particular moment in time — a time of transition. As he states, what does the modern transition from rural life look like? His poem seeks to capture it.
One could say that my long poem in 13 sections that opens The Players, “Manhood,” is an unconventional pastoral. It takes as its landscape the world of baseball, the chatter, the aggression, the subtleties of gender as manifested in boys becoming men, and girls and mothers that watch them, and vice versa. My landscape, my pastoral, is both the playing field, the physical baseball diamond and its surroundings, and the emotional, psychological and psychic world the players within that field operate, and that field is the American family. The poem invites a chorus of voices, mothers, fathers, sons, brothers, and spectators to perform. A pastoral poem often juxtaposes the dream of the idyllic neighborhoods and landscapes of the past with the realities of the present, and in a sense that is what “Manhood” seeks to do. It turns an American pastime — baseball, the idyllic vision of American bliss — on its head.
Irony is empty if there is no substance behind it, and for irony to be successful, there must be again a sense of something lost evoked when it is employed. Many of the poems in The Players risk sentimentality — it’s that fine line, isn’t it? — predominantly because this book is elegiac too, mourning the loss of childhood even as it embraces adulthood. Authenticity saves a poem from sentimentality, as well as, yes, pressure on the language, but primarily it is the way a poem mysteriously channels to a reader that serves as its test.
BELT: These poems also demonstrate an attempt to get other people, other voices into the poems: there seems to be a desire in this work to open up the ostensibly private form of the lyric, in which we most often encounter a single, emotive speaker, toward what Jill calls a “chorus.” How do you take on the aesthetic (and potentially ethical) challenge of “speaking” as others in your poems?
[blocktext align=”right”]”I am not writing simply my own experience, but what I see as a citizen in the world.”[/blocktext]Bialosky: I chose a chorus of voices, or the first personal plural in my long poem, “Manhood” and in other poems in The Players as a way of as you say, Dave, of opening the private form of the lyric toward a communal voice and yet, I hope the poems maintain a sense of intimacy. In my poems I seek to create myths — I am not writing simply my own experience, but what I see as a citizen in the world. I’m interested in the ways in which poets employ aspects of fiction to cast a wider net and when I chose voices like the fathers, in the section “The Fathers” or mothers, in “The Mothers” I was looking far afield to attempt to embody the ways in which mothers and fathers exist in the world, with their own primal fears, desires, attachments, hopes and dreams. I’ve always been attracted to the notion of the Greek Chorus in ancient Greek plays. The chorus was compiled of a group of masked performers who looked alike and spoke at the same time. They were meant to represent the same character or group of characters to achieve a sense of uniformity — a kind of single organism. That is what I am after in the sequence, “Manhood,” — an attempt to create archetypal figures so that readers can read their own experiences into the poem.
Baker: The lyric poem is indeed essentially a private form. But that is its mask and manner, not necessarily its reality. The beautiful paradox is this: the lyric poem is essentially a private mode made for public use and enjoyment. Rather than private, I might say it’s intimate, or interior, or meditative. But even here this recognizes only one of its features, primarily the result of early 19th century Romantic poetics.
So, here, it’s important to recall the history of the lyric has always been social. What is the ode if not a public exhortation? Pindar is celebrating social contests and the rationale of the Greek social order. And even the more personal lyrics of, say, Horace or Virgil are understood to be part of a public discourse. The eclogue, for instance, requires more than one speaker — usually two shepherds singing to and for each other — and on and on. And Jill is right on the button, looking at the choral nature of Greek drama (as well as much Greek lyric poetry) as a fundamental source for the lyric poem’s plural note. When Whitman says that “I am large, I contain multitudes,” he is exactly on this point. The “I” he represents, the singular self, is made of many selves, many others; and the grammatical entity he uses, that singular first-person pronoun “I,” is also meant to be plural: one as all.
BELT: You both allude to that tricky pronoun, the first person plural, the “we.” And while both of your books have broader concerns, civic and social and ecological, I also hear a Midwestern “we” in these poems. To what extent have you consciously evoked the Midwest as a place or an idea? What other poets do you turn to for evocations of other ideas of the Midwest?
Bialosky: When I began writing the poems in The Players I had this notion that I wanted the poems to speak to a universal key. While I admire many poets that flirt with language, fragmentation and abstraction in their poetics, I longed for poetry with subject matter, poetry that engages with a community, and that documents the way in which we live.
The Players is ultimately a book about collectives — the team, the family, community and finally I see it as a book about attachment where the self is part of humanity. The poems play with the idea of the self and its relationship to the collective “we.” I grew up in Cleveland and studied poetry at Ohio University in the late 1970’s. The first contemporary poets I read were Robert Bly, Stanley Plumly, James Wright and Philip Levine, all poets of the Midwest, and as I came of age as a poet I saw myself as a sort of daughter to those voices that meant so much to me as a young poet. I recently had the good fortune to participate in a tribute to the poet Robert Bly, and writing it reminded me of how important the image and narrative are to my sense of poetics. Bly’s method is free association; as Peter Stitt rightly wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “the imagination is allowed to discover whatever images it deems appropriate to the poem, no matter the logical, literal demands of consciousness.” As a young poet this method demonstrated the importance of trusting the unconscious to make its own leaps and connections in a poem and yet to require that the poems be grounded in place and time. The poems of the Midwestern poets I cited did just that.
The Midwestern “we” as you have termed it, is certainly grounded in my poetics. As James Agee famously wrote, “you can never go home again,” but as a poet one returns to the place in which one came again and again through poetry, and the poets of the Midwest, those that I read as a young poet — and those I read now, poets like B. H. Fairchild, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, Rita Dove for instance — whose work is grounded in time and place, have certainly shaped my consciousness and sensibility as a poet.
[blocktext align=”right”]”My God, I remember thinking, a person can be from here, the ramshackle Midwest, and still write poems!”[/blocktext]Baker: I hear a Midwestern “we” in my purposes at times, too. It has to do with the collective experience and peril, as you say, the ecological as well as metaphysical presence of us together — what we do with and for each other, but also what we do to each other. I have been interested in Scavenger Loop in trying to give voice and form to any number of social groups we find ourselves part of. Self exists only as it exists in relation to the many others. Because I am a lifelong Midwesterner, the Midwestern “I” and “we” are natural and maybe inevitable stances for my poetry. I want to pay attention to where I live, and how I live here, and how perhaps we may continue to live here together with more conscience and care. I deeply believe that art can show us how to live.
When I first starting writing poems — it was the middle 1970s, my college years — I remember my palpable delight in discovering poetry. I loved Dickinson and Stevens and Cummings and Merwin and Chaucer … but even more, I think, I loved finding those living-and-breathing poets who were virtual neighbors. My God, I remember thinking, a person can be from here, the ramshackle Midwest, and still write poems! So I found Jim Barnes and Mona Van Duyn, Ted Kooser, Dave Etter, Maryfrances Wagner, Larry Levis, Mbembe Milton Smith, John Knopfle, Weldon Kees, and so many more. I learned that T. S. Eliot and Marianne Moore were born in St. Louis, my home state, and Langston Hughes came from Joplin, and Gwendolyn Brooks was right up there in Chicago writing her poems, and one of my favorites, Philip Levine, was writing about factories and families in Detroit.
And now the Midwest is even richer with poets, and I try to read them all, from Jamaal May to Brigit Kelly, Khaled Mattawa to Albert Goldbarth. Just consider the wild range of these four terrific writers, and multiply that times whatever. We contain multitudes indeed.
Dave Lucas was born and raised in Cleveland. He is the author of Weather (Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry, and a co-founder of the Brews + Prose reading series at Market Garden Brewery in Cleveland. He teaches at Case Western Reserve University.