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Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

02-24-2014

 
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
 
Singing

What do I know of God but that each winter
I thank him for it? No spider webs
snagged in the bluestem, no horseflies at rest
in blossoming cones of henbit, no slug trails penned
to the cooled hoods of cars. We are creatures all,
stillborn to the language of split pine rails
standing in their pickets, ice glazed to bone
in every rut, the stealth tracks of jays a sleepless
ideography in the snow. But we are not
entirely alone between the mountain ranges,
in these hours condemned to darkness
before the sun gyres open the face of February
and the red flare of Mars grows dim.
Just outside my door, the burr oak is wintered
full of grackles- hundreds of coin-
eyed scuttles ornamenting its branches. Here,
my breath plumes gray. In the distance,
brush catches fire. The wind, if you watch,
is calligraphy; the stars in winter,
a weightlessness. The grackles are doors,
rasping their flight plans limb to limb.
The grackles are doors, some limned with light,
others black. Rising, my arms have long
been open. Stepping across these thresholds,
I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.

-originally published in Ascent and reprinted in the anthology, What Matters?


Ghost Gear

          Low tide, my father highsteps the trammel net, stoops
half-submerged in Tanaga Bay and begins the work
of disentangling another sockeye from the interlaced snares.

He stands before me now, the same foot shorter
he's been the last ten years, my sister and I
nothing back then but a notion
when my father could hold his breath

                     well over a minute,

how or why I've learned not to ask, the familiar arc of his story
cast out like he, the newest member of the crew,
flung to the farthest edge of the intertidal.

                    I could hear better then, he adds.

Good thing. Otherwise,
he'd not have heard that thin cry of alarum from the beach. Otherwise,
he'd not have looked up from his work

          to see the bellowing cord of the continental shelf
rise to obscure summer's first dusk as if Britomartis herself-
goddess of fishermen- has half-risen from the sea
to encompass that final island of the Aleutians.

          Dumbstruck, my father watches the wave suck in the tide
like a maw: his legs, Wranglers rolled to the knee,
for the first time exposed, the net an organism in and of itself,
a bare root system, salmon left clapping wet sand
as far as the eye can see-
                                      a wave the width of his vision charging the land.

My father claims that in such moments,

                     the body lightens.

My father claims that there, he saw himself
bird's-eye view, that he watched himself look up at the sky
and the sky had become a mirror.

          And he sees his body ascend the cumulus
as if pulled by threads of light, each thrust of the sky's wide wings
lifting him ever closer to a rift in the clouds.

          But my father does not kneel genuflect to the gods,
my father does not consider his sins or ask for forgiveness. Rather,
he gives his marrow to those ropes,
he weaves himself into those moorings.

And the last thing he sees is the wave.
And the last thing he hears is something like the clap of a thousand hands.

And the sea took him.

Language fails my father here, so he resorts to sound:

                     Wham!

slamming one open palm into the other as if to quash
something living, his posture surging in our living room-
the tumblings of his cliffhanger-
body whipped by the imagined sea.

                     How do I describe what seemed like hours beneath the waves?

I am a poet retelling a telling.

The sea did not care about my father,

                     But

the wave came and went and my father
held his ground, the backdraft strong in the wave's wake-
Britomartis' final tug for his spirit.

And he lashed the flesh of his life from that ocean.

And the water receded.

Now, my father lights up when he tells how he returned to the beach

                     as slowly as possible

and how, when the men finally saw him emerge from the sea,
they cheered his name, my father returned
from what they believed to be the dead:

                     Ghost gear, they call it:

nets and riggings lost at sea to fish for no man.
Blindly trolling seines illuminating the deep
with their bioluminescent catch.
Ruptured buoys and trammels coasting past coral reefs
until they drift down,

                     down into the dark.

Only once have I asked my father
why he chose out there to live. Only once
has he told me that as the wave approached,
                                                                 he heard a voice.

And that voice asked him,

                                Are you a father?

And my father said,

                    Yes.

-originally published in Copper Nickel

 

The Word Damn and the Word God

Who knows what strung those words together on my tongue
the summer Chris moved in across the alley, all those long
June hours we tiptoed the rusted-out railroad, begging

for the vibration of approaching freight or playing Yahtzee
camped out in the dome tent pitched in his back yard,
searching in the numbers for any sign of first light.

But my money's on the afternoon I stepped into a mining bees'

hive, mid-stride catching a touchdown spiral with time running
out, their home woven among the roots of Chris's peach tree.
For weeks thereafter, St. Anne's across the street called Repent!

Repent!, I the kid who stormed the neighborhood in escape
of bees, crying countless curses, every inch of my body scorched,
a hymnal of Goddamns tucked between bicep and bird chest.

Chris's father poured two gallons of gasoline on that construct

of whispers, and my father let me watch him drop a lit match
into the earth from our high kitchen window. That night
Chris gave me a mason jar of dead miners curled up

like wolf spiders swept out from under the couch, and all night
I dreamt of the mason's magic, bees rising on invisible spindles
in the grass in that pause between time and conflagration.

But my mother decided it was Chris, who through the darkness

of a few nights later she heard screaming Goddamns
with each strike of the father's leather across the son's back.
I cried when my father told me I no longer could play with Chris,

and he wept when I said, But Chris is all I have. Chris
who caught a carp a day later, his prize strung up by an arm's-
thick tree branch through its breathers. Chris

who liked to strum the testicles of his pit bull Rex,

mean as hell kept chained to a sycamore by the alley
between our yards but when Chris was around, turned
into the sweetest thing. Chris who I thought of this morning

as fog lifted to reveal three acres of wheat grass frosted silver
reaching for the polestar like a bed of nails, and I was flung back
to the day I stumbled from Chris's basement with a two-by-four

rust-nailed to my heel-Chris unhooking Rex's chain,

the panic bitter in my mouth, my eyes squeezed shut...
then the warm slap of Rex's tongue from foot to nail, from nail
to foot-Chris and I bearing witness to the healing power

of a dog's saliva as he rubbed Rex's balls and Rex groaned
as blood eased from my skin. He and his father moved late
that fall, chasing factories Deep South, and now Chris lives

in that place where everything seems true. Some say his father

took to Evan Williams. Some say Chris simply became
what he already was. And I wish I could say I've run into him
in line at the DMV or at some bar I've come to for the dancing

and there's Chris stitched into fishnets, neon strobes like moons
in his vinyl knee-highs, eye-shadow thick as clay in tire tread.
Wish I could say we've laughed over beers and told old stories,

slapped one another on the back and argued over the tab.

But Chris's father didn't bother to clean the boning knife
sequined from yet another Sunday on Arkabutla Lake,
three largemouth reserved on their bed of ice,

Rex outside howling. And now I wonder if this explains
that Summer of Goddamns Chris yowled down all those dreary railroad
miles, how he always knew at the splits which curves turned

toward the switchyard and which paved the path

to Tennessee's Jerusalem. So Glory Be to the Goddamns
he cried all those hours it takes a knife to the gut to kill a man.
Goddamns to the hours it must have taken Chris to die.

Goddamns to the carp we never caught, to the knife
destined for Chris's gut. Goddamns to all dogs too weak
to loose their chains. Goddamns to all the stories we do not tell.

To all fathers angry with their sons,
                                                  Goddamn.

If I could, I'd take Chris in my arms. I'd get down with the grit
and linoleum and patch that rift of skin with my tongue.
I'd hold the boy drunk between two lives.

I'd freeze ourselves and wait for the sculptor
who fools greatness out of stone, our two bodies draped
one into the other.

          The word damn and the word God.

-originally published in New Letters

 

The Torchbearer

If you ask, my father will tell you
          the story of building his first
crystal radio: night after night

          after lights-out, a sheet draped
like a mosquito net across his bed,
          shadow creatures cast

across the slapdash walls of his tent
          as he worked: first, a pair of hands
flapping before candlelight,

          then a V of snow geese towing
the floral print northward,
          finally, a school of fish

frantic within a paper lantern.
          If you ask, my father will tell you
when he finally finished constructing

          that radio, he stumbled upon a voice
who told the story of a traveler
          and the world he discovered uninhabited

by light, its people blind as cave
          pool fishes. When he tells the story
of that night, he never fails to mention

          that though he pinched himself awake,
he fell asleep never having heard
          the story's end and became in his dream

the explorer landed on a planet
          cloaked in darkness. And in the darkness?
A rustling of creatures in the brush.

          The call of a child in her sleep. A star
overhead, eclipsed and dangerous cold.
          Sometimes, before he thought

me old enough, I'd ask my father
          what made the solar system. He'd tell me
God gathered stones in a pickling jar

          and thrust it to the cold nucleus
of the elements, our great obsidian
          peppered with dust. Sometimes,

when I close my eyes, I can almost see him
          in search through the night for that voice,
fingers delicately maneuvering the tuner's knob,

          the crystal's black longitude
sliding east to west its brief radio range.
          But all he ever finds is static

and the morning with no sleep.
          All his adult life he's waited
for the turn of the page that will send

          him back to that sightless world,
eyes torches, hands turned to flame,
          the vestigial sockets of the desperate

glowering forth from the pitch,
          my father the first torchbearer

to surface in ages, my father the mystery
          between fire and flame.

-originally published in Anti-

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Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's first book of poems, Ghost Gear, was released in 2014 with the University of Arkansas Press as a finalist for the Miller Williams Prize. His anthology, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, was released in 2012, and he is series editor of the Floodgate Poetry Series: Three Chapbooks by Three Poets in a Single Volume. He is Founder and Editor of PoemoftheWeek.org, a freelance editor, and teaches college writing in Denver, CO. Read his work at AndrewMK.com.    
__________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 
Poetry is a Collaboration with the World: An Interview with Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum by Zach Macholz

Zach Macholz: Your first book of poems, Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), features three distinct, thematically cohesive sections. Our first featured poem, "Singing¸" works as a prologue for the book and the final poem, "First Catch," acts as an epilogue. Can you explain how "Singing" came to be, both in terms of its creation, and in terms of its place in the collection? That is, at what point in the construction of this book did you write the poem, and did you always have this particular purpose and placement in mind?

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Singing" was the last poem I wrote for the book and was always intended as an epilogue. I didn't always separate it from the first section, physically speaking, with white space, but I knew I wanted a "thesis" poem, a poem that announced what Ghost Gear is about and what I'm about as a poet.

I'd been reading books like James Kimbrell's The Gatehouse Heaven and Judy Jordan's Carolina Ghost Woods, both of which open (as many books do) with short, imagistic, personal poems that more or less announce what those books are all about. I was also reading a lot of Eric Pankey at the time; it was winter; and grackles were roosting in the burr oak outside my apartment across the street from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where I got my MFA. I was thinking a lot about where I was in my life and how I had gotten there as a result of being a poet.

Ghost Gear, I think, is about two primary things: survival and how we survive. For my father, it was going through the essential heroics of not dying when a tidal wave struck him while fishing on the Aluetian chain ("Ghost Gear"), when he was nearly struck by a copperhead while exploring the swamps of Shreveport, Louisiana ("The Ever-Chamber"), and living to tell stories about his exploits, particularly to the children he works with as a psychologist and, of course, his own children.

My survival was a little different. Mine was more urban. I grew up in a violent, soul-sucking, working-class neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee. I don't want to give folks the impression death was always around the corner, but I was a sensitive kid (and still am!), I didn't go to church, I and, thus, was constantly beat up and bullied as a kid. And there were instances when I certainly thought my life was in danger. Was it? Who knows, but I never felt safe or comfortable anywhere I went. It didn't seem to matter what I did: someone was always looking for the sensitive, lanky kid with feelings to hurt, and I was in fights all the time.

Somehow, some way, I found my way to poetry. I wrote my first poem at the age of 13 while pushing a broom around The Produce Place (a little local grocery store in my neighborhood where I got my first job) for $4.15 an hour. I was sweeping up under the corn bin when a rotted ear rolled out from a dark corner. Out of nowhere, somewhere in my mind, a voice asked the following "What if I were this piece of corn?" and the brilliance went on from there...

All jokes aside, that moment saved me. It was a ridiculous poem, but it was a poem. Previous to that I hated poetry like most 13 year old boys and fancied myself a fiction writer. I honestly can't remember if I ever wrote another story in my life after that day. Finding poetry saved me. It still does. Every day. And over the years, poetry has made it harder and harder for me not to believe in God, in some higher power that helped me survive. Maybe it's poetry, maybe it's storytelling, maybe it's having a loving family, maybe it's just finally getting out of the neighborhood and coming into my own. Who knows. Thus the line "What do I know of God but that each Winter / I think Him for it?"-oddly similar to the first lines of poetry I ever wrote. "Singing" is a poem that says "I don't even know what God is but when the cold weather arrives and this world is finally dormant, I'm thankful." How can one be thankful to something that doesn't exist? So it seems God must exist somehow. Poetry taught me that.

Of course, no one tries to beat me up anymore, and when I do find myself in potentially dangerous situations, I feel confident I can handle myself and take care of those around me. Ghost Gear is a book about my journey from that fragile little boy to manhood-a fairly typical subject for a first book. But it's also about how that journey changed my belief system (I was raised agnostic/atheist), how the stories we tell are what keep us going, the holiness of the line, and how, as I move through the world in one skin, I'm always moving through the world in another skin, the poet's skin, the skin that kept me alive and fuels my everyday-thus those weird final few lines in both progressive and simple present: I'm always two people at once. Or maybe I should say two people are always within me. Who know who they are or where they came from. I'm thankful either way.

ZM: "Singing" piles up image after image, one on top of the other. This is a technique you use in poems throughout the collection. Though many of these poems are narrative, and there are plenty of rhetorical, philosophical, and meditative moments also interwoven throughout them, it seems fair to say that imagery does most of the heavy lifting. Why do you prefer to use imagery more frequently than these other modes of expression?

AMK: Boredom! Seriously. Poems without lots of imagery simply bore me. My primary goal in a poem is to transport the reader to another place, another time, another person, to remove the reader from their current environment and put them in another one. This is my goal because this is why I read. Fiction. Poetry. Non-fiction. Essays by students. I want to be taken away, and the only way I know to be taken away and to take a reader away is via the senses-primarily sight and sound. So I stack image upon image upon image.

I'm fully aware that, at times, I go too far, but I'm almost as big a fan of fiction as I am of poetry and simply love compounding sense upon sense. I want my reader to be overwhelmed in these poems at times because, well, the experience was overwhelming, and I think that poetry is an artform that lends itself to mythic proportions. "Singing" is one of the more quiet poems in the book, one of the most focused and simple. My hope is that when "my breath plumes grey," the reader sees their own breath rising before them. I hope that when I say "no spiderwebs snagged in the bluestem," readers see streamers of gossamer spider web lifted in the wind. I don't want my reader to feel like they are reading. I want them to be there. I want them to see through my eyes and hear through my ears and taste via my taste buds. There's always that fear in me that the compounding of all these senses pulls people out of the poem, that the very act of all this sensing reminds folks that they are reading. I'm aware my poems can be a little dense. But I've had enough positive reactions to my work to believe it works, and let's be serious: of course people know they are reading. I just hope to get as close to that goal as possible.

ZM: "Ghost Gear," the title poem, tells the story of your father surviving a near-drowning. It interweaves moments of the poet's voice, your voice, with his voice, captured in indented and italicized lines to show he's telling the story aloud. You focus on the details of how he tells the story-his gestures, his sound effects, his wanting at moments for the right words. Then, toward the end of the poem is the line "I am a poet retelling a telling." It's a line that seems to peel back the artifice, and this explicit acknowledgement is, to me, a surprising choice, but one that definitely works, so how'd you pull it off? What do you think the poem gains by acknowledging the poet-I's particular role in the passing on of this story?

AMK: Well, I'm not sure I do pull it off. I've been told by many readers to cut that line because it reminds them they're reading a poem, which, of course, isn't my primary goal. But others have scoffed at such commentary.

Now, reading it in the actual book, I wonder if I should have played it safe, if I should have given up that line (which isn't particularly beautiful or needed) and just moved on. But I kept it, and I'm glad I did. Look, it's what the poem is about; it's what the book is about; it's what I am about: I'm just a poet retelling a retelling. How can I describe what seemed like hours beneath the waves. The sea did not care about my father. The sea doesn't care about any of us. There are no gods who will rise up from the deep to pluck us from death. We save ourselves. We make that decision to live, to die, or to let the fates decide. My father "chose out there to live" and when he did, he made a pact with God: that "Yes," I am a father even though, in the poem, he hadn't yet met my mother. He had no children but learned, right then and there, that fatherhood was his calling.

Let me take a step back. My father was raised in a family that showed very little love. Perhaps they do love him, but they do just about everything they can to indicate they don't. He removed himself from them long ago. He never should have been so far out in the ocean that day. This is a hazing ritual/a right of passage that, back then, regularly took people's lives. This isn't in the poem, but he did this sort of work with his dad all the time, and his dad put him in very dangerous situations like this on a regular basis. I'm not saying his dad was trying to kill him, but much of what my father survived as a child was directly linked to decisions his father and mother made.

My father is a child psychologist. My father's purpose in life is to help children. He realized this as his life hung in the balance beneath the sea. He wanted to let himself die out there, but when he heard that voice, it asked him the most strange thing: "Are you a father?" and right then he learned what his passion in life was: to be a father, do right by his children, to make right what his father did to him. So in many ways that question was a command and my father's response, "Yes" was his signing of a contract with God to follow that command.

Truth be told, I don't remember if God speaking to my father was part of the original story or if I made that up at some point in the writing of the poem. He can't remember either. I wrote it in the poem and now it stands as fact. When he tells the story, he tells that part. Who knows where it came from and, honestly, who cares? It's the story that helped both of us survive, not just the event. I'm so pleased to have written it for him. That line works for me because it announces something I know to be fact: that I am a poet and my father is a storyteller; "Ghost Gear" is the thing that exists between us; it's the thing we both made together; it's the thing that saved us, forty some odd years in the making. So I kept it. I hope it works.

ZM: Speaking of embellishment, "The Torchbearer," begins with the lines "If you ask, my father will tell you / the story..." This poem, like "Ghost Gear," is the retelling of a telling. How does that progression-from your father's oral recitations to your memories of those recitations to putting the memories of those recitations onto the page-fundamentally change the story? What is lost or gained, filtered out or embellished? What advice would you give to poets trying to write a poem from a story-especially something personal and familiar, like family history-that's not their own?

AMK: Great question. Many of the details in Ghost Gear are fictionalized, not just the title poem. In the case of "The Torchbearer," though, it's almost 100% true. The poem is about the loneliness and isolation my father felt as a child in an unloving house. He was what I'd call an intellectual very early in his life and was a scientist pretty much as early as he can remember. He went to Duke to study physics only to learn that physicists at the time were mostly educated and employed to build devices of mass destruction (directly and indirectly) for the US government. My dad was a pacifist then (he was a CO during Viet Nam and was a civil rights activist and he and my mom are well-known activists in Tennessee's political scene). He switched majors from physics to psychology his junior year and had to leave Duke as a result. He's never been one to sacrifice much for his beliefs, for what he knows is right.

As a kid though, taking care of children hadn't yet entered his mind. Then he was most fascinated by mechanical things. The mechanical thing he makes in the poem (the crystal radio) introduces him to his other passion: stories and their power to take him away to another world far away from his family. We see the seeds of his desire to help others in the poem as well, to bring light to those in need, to bring hope to those as hopeless as he was.

Virtually all of these details are absent in "The Torchbearer" in a literal sense. If you catch on to what the book is about though, I think it's pretty clear, but it's all metaphorical. I chose in "The Torchbearer" to limit myself a bit more than in other poems, to reveal as little exposition as possible and focus purely on the event of building the radio, hearing the story and searching for it for the rest of his life.

My advice to poets regarding story and transcribing others' stories and fact, truth, fiction, etc? Don't worry about it. That's not your job. Make the story your own: that's your job. If you are writing about something that actually happened and if players in poem you write might be affected by it in some way, do be careful, do check in with them. It can be difficult to navigate such waters, but that's part of the writer's job, particularly the poet's.

That said, don't forget that facts are just about as true as fiction. We thought Pluto was a planet for how long? That was a fact in all my textbooks growing up. Now.... The goal of the storyteller/poet is expression of some sort. Do what you must to express what you must express. Then share it with some readers and, if need be, share it with the folks you are writing about and see what happens. It's pretty rare anyone will be bothered by fictionalization because, guess what, life is a sort of fiction. Why do you think so many people read novels and go to the movies? We live now, not yesterday or in ten seconds. Now. Now, this life as we live it, that's what you are writing about.

ZM: "The Word Damn and the Word God" is sweet, tragic, and weird all at once. While I realize it's not a detail that's intended to be comical, you've written a poem in which a kid with a rusty nail in his foot (you) is having said wound licked by a Pit Bull who's simultaneously getting his balls rubbed by his owner. That's a pretty strange image. But that same poem takes a turn in the second half toward a much sadder, darker ending to the story, one that leaves the reader choked up. That's pretty impressive. Similarly, your father, even in the stories of his near-drownings, manages to find moments of humor in their retelling. How do you balance such extremes of levity and gravity within a single poem?

AMK: Oh I laugh every time I read that line aloud. It is funny! And weird. So maybe my laugh is sort of a "hey guys, it's okay to think this is weird and funny at the same time" sort of laugh.

In "The Word Damn and the Word God," Chris and I are boys on the way to becoming men. Chris was realizing (I think) at that time that he was gay, and I think his father was figuring that out too. That explains why he got beat for virtually anything he did. And he lashed out quite a bit and did some weird sexual things (there are a number of instances I had to cut from the poem that were just too strange), and I think when he said "goddamn," he really did mean "damn you, God."

When we abuse our children and try to beat their sexuality out of them (or whatever makes them different), what do we expect is going to happen? We end up with desperate kids who will go to desperate measures to explore and express who they are. And they'll damn God if they're raised to believe that their essential way of being is a sin, is somehow wrong, and they'll lash out at those around them, sometimes in extraordinarily violent ways. Thus all the goddamns and the dark turn when Chris is killed by his father. This, of course, is rumor. I don't know if he was really murdered by his father but some of those who knew him after he moved away have told me this is the case. I'm still not sure I believe them. I don't want to believe them, but it's certainly true metaphorically, if not literally.

How do I balance levity? Hell, I don't know. My poems are really rather serious, and I'm a pretty serious dude, but I also pride myself in making people laugh. I tried standup a few times and was pretty decent at it. Humor/levity seems to come and go as it pleases. It's its own sort of muse, and, honestly, half the time I make people laugh in a poem or in real life, I'm totally surprised. I'm like, "Really, that was funny?" And when I read poetry, I often miss the jokes entirely or think they're inappropriate to the subject matter. But everyone else tells me I'm wrong, so I move on.

I think the key to levity is the key to just about every other tool of the poet: try it out, test it on readers, see the results, and revise accordingly. If you take a poem to workshop or share it with a friend and they think something's not funny or isn't appropriate, take that into consideration. If they think a moment is funny that isn't supposed to be, well, spend some time pondering that too. Don't ever sacrifice that little voice telling you not to alter a poem. Don't not listen to that voice saying the opposite. You can trust it if you work hard enough at this whole poetry thing and learn how and when to trust yourself. Even if it fails you from time to time, that's just part of the process.

ZM: Throughout the collection, you demonstrate a fascination with celestial objects: stars, moons, comets, planets. You're also attuned to things that glow here on earth, like lightning bugs and bioluminescent jelly fish. You're certainly not the first poet in history to fall in love with light-emitting bodies (of all kinds), but you manage to avoid cliché in this register of imagery. How do you set out in a poem to see or imagine these things in a way that feels fresh and new?

AMK: I really had no idea how obsessed I was with that until I was editing Ghost Gear for publication. That shit's everywhere. I've always been obsessed with space. I'm a total Trekkie, and when I learned VirginGalactic was trying to take people into space for $200,000, I almost started a website called putapoetinspace.com that would take donations to do just that.

I think I'm obsessed with this stuff in the same way I'm obsessed with God and with survival and with how things are made. If I could just shoot myself into outer space, I could get away from this scary, depressing life and get closer to God-again, whatever the hell that means-right? If I could just find another habitable planet to live on, no one would ever beat me up again, right? I know that sounds a bit maudlin, but it's true, and it was certainly something I battled in the writing of this book. How to talk about all this emotional stuff without getting sentimental or sensationalist.

I think I manage to write about such things without being cliché in much the same way I write everything else: I refuse to lie to myself; I'm never satisfied; and when I seek help from readers, I don't let them lie to me either. People I share work with know damn well I want their real opinion, and sometimes I get very frustrated and emotional with them and have to apologize to them later (ask anyone who was in my first graduate school workshop!). But I think that's okay and my peers have said as much. Being a poet is tough work, and it's rare the poet who can teach you what's really "good" in a poem. It's pretty easy to teach what's bad in a poem and why. But teaching what's good and why something is good, that's a heck of a lot harder to do. I was lucky enough to work with folks like Judy Jordan and Robert Wrigley who actually could (and would) do that. I owe them a debt I can only repay in poems. In many ways, the publication of Ghost Gear is more important to me for this reason than for saying "Hey, look at me, I have arrived." Who cares? It's not about me. It's about saying thank you and presenting an offering to those who helped me get here.

ZM: There seem to be two other distinct registers of imagery that echo throughout the book. One is hard, industrial, and man-made-images like steel, fire, nickel, and iron-and the other is natural, earthy-bluestems, henbit, burr oak, sharp-winged monkey flower. Is this simply reflective of how you see the world, or are you purposefully developing a tension or paradox that carries throughout the collection? How do these two seemingly opposite sets of imagery work to complement one another?

AMK: Let me say this: much of my work is accidental. I really mean that. I'm a very analytically-minded guy. I'm very organized. I'm oddly logical, and I work very hard for the things I want. And I want lots of things.

But when I'm writing poetry, much of the metaphorical stuff, the subtext, much of the stuff that links one poem to the next or links a line of poetry to the real world is a subconscious act. It's absolutely incredible what it teaches me about myself. My obsession with things made by humankind and things made by nature is exactly as you put it: it's an expression of the paradox between the way the world is (nature) and the way we make it (war, poverty, violence). I'm obsessed with how poems are made much like I've always been fascinated by relay stations and power plants and mountains and other humans and my rabbits (in short, everything around us) because I have no idea how that stuff is made.

How does a flower spring from the soil? I have no idea. Sure, I can read about it, but that's not knowledge, that's information. These are not the same thing. Or take multiverse theory. The current theory of the big bang says there was a singularity in the void that one day blew up and eventually become the observable universe, supposedly the entity of all there is in existence-give or take a few minor details. Well, how the hell did the singularity get there? It just doesn't make sense to me. There can't be something just sitting around in the nothing all on its own. Multiverse theory says (among other things) that that singularity was a whitehole (the "other" end of a black hole) opened by the formation of a blackhole in another "universe" somewhat like our own.

This theory seems to get us closer to understanding how we got here, to understanding what I keep calling God. That's much of what Ghost Gear is about. But did I know any of that as I was writing it? No. What taught me this? Ghost Gear did. My subconscious. My silent obsession.

This greater knowledge of the self and, thus, existence itself is a natural result of hard work on my poems. You can see why I might see the line as a form of God. God, to me, is the thing that gets me closer to what I really, truly am. All that said, I'm so very far from achieving that goal. I think that may be what writing poems is all about for me: chasing that dream, that knowledge, but never catching it. I used to fear I'd stop writing poems one day. I no longer fear that.

ZM: Questioning is a technique you use in several of the poems-I'm thinking of "Tonight" ("What else can I say...?"); "Sacrament" ("Why not...?"); and "Winters, We Watch Snow Descend Slowly" ("Who am I to tell them...?"), among others. Sometimes, these questions seem directed at the reader, and at other times, particularly in "Sacrament," at other characters in the poem. Sometimes they seem rhetorical, and other times urgent. What poet or poets that you read did you learn this technique from? How do you decide when to introduce these kinds of questions into the poem?

AMK: Gosh, I have no idea who I read who might have taught me this, but I imagine quite a few poets I like do this.

I think it may come more from my being a student and teacher. I ask a lot of questions of my students and of people I hope can help me learn something, which is literally every single person I ever meet. I have absolutely zero interest in sounding smart or displaying a bunch of stuff I know. Zero. I'm much more interested in learning, in gaining something closer to a greater understanding of myself, which of course requires a greater understanding of everything else. It's rather exhausting really. So these questions emerged as naturally as sentences that end in periods, exclamation points, ellipses. Robert Wrigley taught me that poets have tools. Just like a carpenter. The more tools you use, the better you are at using those tools. The question is a tool I use in everyday life and in my poems. It's rare I add them in for any sort of technical reason.

ZM: You demonstrate fluency in a wide variety of lineation, line break, and stanza styles, and vary these throughout the book. Can you talk a bit about how you arrive at the final shape for a poem? Do you generally have something in mind-i.e. a long, blocky stanza or two with longer lines, versus three-lined stanzas with shorter lines-when you begin writing a poem, or do you try several on to see what fits? Do you use a particular kind of line or stanza for a particular kind of subject matter or a particular poetic mode?

AMK: I think of the line as a form in and of itself. I compose lines according to what is needed right then, not what a hard form dictates. The line is my form. As those lines develop and teach me the form they must exist in, that invented form eventually takes over, but it's the line (the thing that makes the thing) that rules my everyday life.

Iambic is like the beat of the heart, the stride of the legs. If I need that stride at that moment in the poem for some reason (see much of "The Ever-Chamber," for example), I use it. Trochee is more abrupt and can be defined in two ways: the opposite of iambic or iambs with their heads cut off. I like the second one better! Anapests, according, again, to Robert Wrigley (he's been an amazing mentor to me), is a rhythm to summon ghosts to (http://www.poemoftheweek.org/id364.html). Much of Ghost Gear is an act of summoning, thus all the anapests. The list goes on.

Learn your meters and use them. I can't think of any greater advice for the poet, particularly of free verse.

What I try to do as a poet is determine what I'm trying to say in a line, why that line exists as it exists, and how music (which of course includes meter) might play as a soundtrack to that meaning, to that line, to that instant. But boy is it hard. I think that's why it took me six years to find a publisher for Ghost Gear; it took that long to get it right. And it was painful all that ejection, but boy was it worth it when Enid Shomer told me "The first adjective I wrote down after reading Ghost Gear was ‘classical.'" I jumped all over my apartment and whimpered as quietly as I could muster into my iphone when she said that. It's what I was aiming for in my book: a classical style without the classic, known structures. Not that I have anything against forms (I'm now writing almost exclusively in blank verse because, you know, I like to torture myself), but Ghost Gear wasn't a book that would work that way, and I get enormously tired of people asking me why I don't write in forms. I do write in form; I just do it across the line not from the top down. Horizontal form, not vertical. The result are poems in forms of their own making.

Look: the line is holy. The thing that makes the thing is what I pray to, not the thing itself. And the line isn't something often given us; we must work for it, and, when we find it, we must thank it, we must praise it, we must ensure we use it properly.

Sam Hamill recently said he doesn't write free verse poetry; he writes what some call "organic poetry," poetry that utilizes form as a tool (rather than as a guide) and most certainly does not simply write lines in whatever random fashion-at least this is how I define the term. Previous to encountering this term, free verse that didn't utilize music and meter, free verse that didn't tend to the line, I simply didn't think was poetry at all! It's a poem in its infancy, not a "poem." Occasionally it works as is, but not often. I'm not sure we need a term for free verse that actually cares about the line. The word verse means "writing arranged with a metrical rhythm. So if we free it up a bit, this implies we still have to compose lines with at least the shadow of iamb, troche, anapest, etc... Maybe I'm wrong, but that seems right to me at this point in the journey.

As for stanza structures and the lengths of poems and such, I don't worry too much about that when I start writing a poem. I just write. Typically in prose. I get out the meat of the poem. Then I start to play with it and see what it's about and, thus, how each line works in relationship to the line before and after it within whatever context I'm working in. Then I start to think about things like how long a poem should be, if it should be one stanza or several stanzas of the same length, etc... I like to say that my poems evolve quite a bit. Revisions for me is not editing; it's RE-VISION. I throw the kitchen sink at my poems and see what I like, cut out the crap, and throw the sink at it again, and cut the crap again. I often rewrite purely from memory. If I forget a line, it's probably not crucial. If it IS crucial for whatever reason, I ask myself "Why did you forget it then?" Typically the answer is that there's something not write about the music of it, something that isn't ringing (singing) true, that isn't saying "I must exist in this way," so I change it until it has to be there in that form.

ZM: Can you talk a bit about the book's origins? Where and when were most of the poems written? Did it begin as far back as graduate school, or even earlier? Like so many writers, you keep busy: running PoemoftheWeek.org, editing anthologies (Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days), freelance editing, and teaching at a bunch of different colleges and universities. When do you find the time to write? Who are your most trustworthily critical readers? What kind of reaction did you get or are you expecting to get from your family upon seeing themselves immortalized in your verse? Now that you're singing, how does it feel to sing?

AMK: Now that I'm singing, how does it feel to sing? I couldn't have said it better. I guess that's a bit part of what "Singing" is about as well: I'm finally actually doing it for others, not just myself.

Ghost Gear showed up at the door the other day. It feels amazing. It really does. I feel like a different person; I am a different person. I've wanted to be an author as far back as I can remember. I've been writing stories since before I could spell, and I was ridiculously lucky to attend Hume Fogg High School where poets Bill Brown and Georgeanne "G'anne" Harmon were my English and Creative Writing teachers. I also attended the Tennessee Young Writers Workshop (I'll be teaching there this June) where I met Jeff Hardin and Malcolm Glass. I'll never forget Jeff's saying in class before we would start writing: "Aright guys, it's time to crank up the poetry machine," he'd cry while swinging his arms wildly like a rockstar slinging verses on his electric. He taught me music. Bill and G'anne taught me clarity, that, "Yes!" I could be a poet.

Malcolm Glass taught me it was okay to tell stories in a poem, that people who said narrative poems are "stories with line breaks" simply didn't know what they were talking about. Then I went to Virginia Tech and met Katherine "Bonnie" Soniat who taught me to cut off the tails and heads of my poems and try again, who taught me to love my poems, who taught me that, yes, I was good at this, that, yes, it was a worthy pursuit.

Then I went to Southern Illinois University where Judy Jordan instructed the class on the first day of my first graduate workshop: "Don't turn in a poem to workshop until you've worked 100 hours on it," and I was lucky enough to have a wife who responded to my "Babe, I have no idea how to spend that much time on a poem," with "Sure you do; you just haven't tried it yet."

I'm not any good at this because I was born with a pen in my hands. I'm good at this because I want to be good at it, because it's my calling, because I work my ass off, and because I ask for help, and I've met people who actually will work with me. Sometimes I'm the mentor; sometimes I'm the mentee. They're one in the same. But being a "writer" and being an "author" are two different things. I've been a writer my entire life. I've only been an author for three days now.

The first poem I turned into Judy's workshop was about Jeffrey Dahmer. I spent 100 hours on it, and it really blew chunks. The only nice thing she said of it was "Nice font," but then she said "We clearly have a good poet here. Keep working; you'll get there." Three workshops later I turned in "Ghost Gear," and she told me to send it to Poetry. I was stunned. I'd written a good poem and, what's more, I'd stumbled upon something: I could versify the stories my father told me growing up, and I could create my own story within that framework. Thus Ghost Gear was born.

Not a single poem in Ghost Gear was written outside of grad school. I edited the sweet Jesus out of those poems after I graduated, but they were all written there. I owe Allison Joseph and Rodney Jones and Beth Lordan and Pinckney Benedict and all my peers at SIUC a debt of gratitude I can, again, only repay with my poems, with this book.

But writing a book and getting it published are two different things as well. This is also why I do things like PoemoftheWeek.org, Apocalypse Now, etc... They were a way to repay my debt to...everyone and everything before Ghost Gear came to be. I wouldn't be alive without poems and without stories. And I truly believe that, at the end of the day, we're all connected. There's only one person on this world: you, me, us. We're individuals; we can only exist in the bodies given us; we can only think with our own minds; we can only know the thoughts and motivations and dreams of our selves. Each of us is limited to the self. Thus every single person on earth is simultaneously themselves and everyone around them, perhaps even every thing around them. When we hurt someone we hurt ourselves. When we take an enemy's life, we take our own lives.

Poetry, I truly believe, is a collaboration with the world. I, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, didn't write these poems; everything I am and have encountered and have read and all the people I have worked with and all the folks who have encouraged and taught me and on and on and on an on....wrote these poems. I'm a small but grateful part of it. I thank my work everyday, and I thank the world from which they come everyday. That's what my poetry is about.

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Poems - Bio - Interview - Reading

 

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