JMW: How does a book of poems come together for you? Do you see a clear through-line from your earliest poems to your latest book? What are your writing practices for your own poems and how have they evolved?
PO'L: I write poetry in books. From the beginning, I imagine the work I’m doing in the form of a book. Oddly, for a decade or so, I also followed a fairly strict chronological ordering of the poems within a book. Two bizarre compulsions converged here: the blessed rage for order that took solace in the controlled form of the book; and my attendance to the psychopathology of everyday life, in which I insisted that things had to be allowed into this overarching structure as they arrived, lest some occult synchronicities be buried in my interferences. My first and second books, Watchfulness and Depth Theology, were assembled in this manner.
More recently, it’s not that I’ve relaxed these tendencies but that I’ve allowed the book to assert its formal qualities earlier on in the process, so that I’ve had an essentially complete sense of the book in place fairly early in the compositional history. My third book, Luminous Epinoia, I imagined early on as a kind of roving eye inside a cathedral decorated with lavish mosaics on the walls of its apse and nave. (I was inspired by the incredible Duomo at Monreale, above Palermo on Sicily, which I visited in 1998.) So, each of the poems in the book would be a kind of mosaic you’d look at for a little bit. Soon after, because I was deeply immersed in reading Dante at the time (the early 2000s), I registered that I wanted the book to have thirty-three poems, divided into three sections with eleven poems apiece. Structuring the book this way permitted me to imagine an architectural plan of composition such that poems later in the progression of the book appeared to me earlier in the process. (This was something new – and liberating.)
This past December, I completed a long poem, entitled “The Phosphorescence of Thought.” From the outset, I planned for it to be one thousand three-hundred and thirty-six lines, the length of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” when it was published in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. A frame to be sure but a large one; at first, too large – the poem arrived in pieces I hoped I’d later be able to assemble into a coherence. (I operated partially on a fantasy of how Whitman himself composed his poem, as a rhapsody, something stitched together.) Nine months or so into this project, I received a piece of crucial advice from John Taggart, to whom I’d written about the difficulties I’d encountered organizing all the material. (I’d just assembled all the fragments I’d composed into a single piece, not quite 500 lines but still disorganized in feel.) Taggart – from whom I’ve repeatedly gotten excellent problem-solving advice – suggested I think of the poem in terms of a musical structure of repeating parts: 1,2,3,4, then repeated, 1,2,3,4… Three is a magic number for me; I recognized I had disparate elements of the poem that assembled themselves into three elements: descriptions of the natural world; myths and texts I was rewriting or translating; and figures important to the poem whose work I was channeling, borrowing or stealing somehow. In quick order, I determined I wanted seven movements in the poem. But like a musical composition, I wanted the whole thing to flow, rather than to be comprised of discrete sections. As with the poems in Luminous Epinoia, I had a structure for “The Phosphorescence of Thought” in place that permitted me to write sections later in the poem earlier in the process. Even so, I finished the poem by writing out the concluding two sections of the final movement: “translations” from Euripides’ Bacchae followed by borrowings from the writings of neurobiologist Gerald Edelman and polymath Gregory Bateson.
For me, the form of the book is the great permission whose masters are Whitman, who fruitfully reconceived one book throughout his life (but whose initial iteration of that book, in 1855, is one of the greatest books of all), and Dickinson, who prepared her poems into serial bundles – amplifying sets of relationships.