An Interview with
-by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Portrait of
a Child,” is an unusual poem. And while it’s dangerous to say that any piece of writing is an original,
I don’t think I’ve ever read a poem that proceeds in quite this way.
Can I ask where this poem came from?
Corey Marks: It’s hard for me to remember a great deal about writing “Portrait of a Child.” It’s
one of the oldest poems in Renunciation and it’s one of those extremely
rare poems in my writing life that came as a gift. I do remember drafting the piece with an entirely different closure in
mind. The two elements that I knew would be in the poem from the outset were the situation of the painter finding the child’s
body and the turn to the Last Supper. I think the poem’s ranging motion comes from an ambition I was discovering at
the time to write poems that were driven by a restlessness, by a desire to begin with disparate elements that didn’t
immediately or easily fit together and then find a way to yoke them. I wanted to write larger, more complicated poems than
the lyric narratives I’d written up to that point. I wanted a stronger meditative strain to enter my work that could
find ways of juxtaposing elements that earlier would have wound up in separate poems. “Portrait of a Child” was
a breakthrough for me that really happened in the moment of writing. The opening was unexpected—it was a discovery that
came as I began to write—as was the boy’s rising at the end. I remember writing the final lines arriving with
a jolt of surprise. I sat back and thought, “Oh, that’s the end. Where’d it come from?”
AMK: Reading the poem over and over,
I can’t help but wonder what that ending is really about. Is the boy dead? Or is he alive? Is this
a poem about art and renewal? Is this a surprise ending meant more for its shock factor than for its “meaning?”
Without actually asking you these questions; what is it that you hope this
ending does for a reader?
CM: Again, I come back to that surprise I felt in writing the poem—that’s central to the
experience I’d like a reader to have in reading “Portrait of a Child.” But I would differentiate surprise
from the rug pull of “shock factor.” Surprise, when it works in a poem, leads us to a turn that feels simultaneously
unexpected and convincing; the terms we begin with change, but the change never feels completely random. That restlessness
I mentioned before is key to how “Portrait of a Child” moves. The poem unfurls its changing terms, leading the
reader from one set of expectations to an unexpected resolution, to something mysterious, perhaps, rather than baffling, but
still very much part of the poem’s meditation and its story. At least, that’s my hope.
AMK: There’s a wonderful attention to rhythm and sound in lines like “I think of wind
that runs like a river along a river,” and “whispering, waiting, posing, even, for the thousands of painters not
what element (sound, repetition, rhythm, pacing, meter, etc…) do you find yourself most attracted to.
CM: I’m very attentive to music in my poems, though I’m not sure I can say there’s
any single element I find most attractive. I’m more drawn to how a poem’s music comes from the interplay of its
sonic elements. I generally write free verse, but its free verse that's written for the ear, that seeks the intensifications
that poetry can achieve through its sounds and rhythms, and that remembers that a great part of poetry’s power comes
from its music. The sound of a poem acts on us, moves us, challenges us even before we fully apprehend what it’s saying
to us. One aspect of a poem’s sound I do pay particular attention to is how the movement of the sentence is amplified
and complicated by the line. The intersections of sentence and line yield a play of tension and release that is important
to all poems, but proves particularly crucial to free verse.
AMK: What do you think (if you don’t mind my asking) you do best in this particular poem?
CM: What I take pleasure in reading this poem again is its ranginess and its surprise. I like
how the poem threads its stories together, but I also like how it refuses to explain some things, how its omissions exert
themselves. And because it came so quickly, I relish how it’s retained its strangeness for me as a reader. I don’t
remember being inside it, managing its works. All its service doors are closed and sealed over.
AMK: I'm struck by the verb choices
in “Scale model of Childhood:” “what calls to me….the ladybug retracts…Canis Minor, / who licks….when my constellation is
finished…the shoe box diorama/ I assemble each night…a line
of blood pocking the snow…”
What do you think it
is about verbs that make or break a moment in a poem? Sound? Precision? The image they evoke?
CM: Certainly all of those things. Weak,
flaccid, uninteresting verbs so easily derail a poem because they lead to flatness in language, in sound, in thought and imagination.
Verbs can serve as precise figurative engines, they can add richness and surprise to a poem’s language, and they can
create a sense of immediacy and drama.
AMK: When I look at a poem like “Scale Model of Childhood,” I eventually start wondering,
“Is this really true?” I don't mean to say that I doubt its sincerity, but I start pondering what’s
imagined in the poem versus what takes place in the poem.
The construction of the constellation on the back of a ladybug, for example, seems too good to be true. Or the
moment when, at the end, the image of the speaker’s parents becomes the shoebox panorama…is this something the
speaker imagined at the time or is this a metaphor created by the speaker looking back in time?
Rather than have you analyze your own poem or to tell us what happened versus what didn’t
happen, I’d be more interested in your thoughts on truth in poetry. Is truth an element of facts and actual events…things
we think we observe or feel? Or is truth something less corporal than that, a sort of representation? An act?
My students sometimes worry about the truth, or factuality, of what they read, of what they write, and often want to bring
the dilemmas that surround nonfiction, the memoir in particular, to bear on poetry. But poetry, for me, approaches truth through
imagination; it renders experience into something other than a mere record of facts and events. I want my poems to strive
for emotional truth, and I want them to succeed as poems. I readily abandon the actual details of an experience in favor of
the poem itself. What truth the poem reveals is shaped through the poetic act, and that truth is partial, imperfect, and colored
as much by longing as accuracy.
I wrote “Scale Model
of Childhood” while I was living in a house on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Every year, this house has swarms of
ladybugs that work themselves inside to hibernate. The poem started when I happened to look closely at a beetle crawling on
my desk at around the same time that I had been flipping through a book of constellation maps—because of the remoteness
of that part of Michigan, the stars there
are really quite remarkable. The speaker who emerged in the poem fit with the strange image of mapping a constellation on
a ladybug’s back because of the narrowness of his circumstances. His imagination confronts his sense of being trapped,
of being withheld from the world, by working in miniature.
AMK: How do you approach questions like this when you read contemporary poetry? Are you a suspicious
reader? What makes you willing to go (or not willing to go) with what’s on the page?
CM: In his essay “A Defense of
Ardor,” Adam Zagajewski writes, “from poetry we expect poetry.” To use this line here smuggles his quote
out of context, but it underscores for me what I expect from poems. Zagajewski argues that we seek vision in poetry, something
we don’t look for in newspapers or scholarly essays, but his line reminds me that I also read poems because they are poems. Poems aren’t transparent lenses through which we glimpse truth. I
read poems because of how they enact a struggle towards truth, how they make that struggle into an aesthetic experience that
both gives pleasure and allows me to understand something differently than I did before I read the poem. I’m willing
to go quite far with a poem so long as it rewards my attention, and for it to convince me, it must first succeed as a poem.
AMK: How do you come to the form of
your poems. “Portrait of a Child” and “Scale Model of Childhood,” are both free verse, but one
is in tercets while the other is constructed more loosely.
Does the poem determine its form or does the poet determine a poem’s form?
CM: I don’t think it’s either/or but rather both. Early in my drafting process, a
form begins to suggest itself. My poems often begin with a line, a trace of music, that primes my ear. A stanza pattern soon
settles in—regular or not—and offers a further necessary restriction. But the poem—the actual language of
the poem—changes a great deal after that initial flush, and the discovered sense of line and stanza becomes a tool,
a resistance that shapes the movement and development of the poem. A poem’s form occurs in the relation between what’s
received and what’s made.
AMK: Thank you.