First Day came out of material developed during that Key West workshop with Jane Hirshfield I mentioned in my last post. I had never done anything like what we did at that workshop. Jane would give us a prompt to write from and we would return in half an hour or so and read our poems to the group, for me a very scary situation with all the talent that was in the room.
The first day I was astounded by what people brought back, I couldn’t believe the quality of what I was hearing. I felt totally inadequate. But Jane also said that what we were producing were not supposed to be finished poems, that the hope would be some of them would eventually turn into something we liked, a hope I hung on to as everyone else’s sounded very complete already.
Then Day 2 of the four day workshop. That day was about memory. In preparation for the exercise Jane told us this: She believes that though we all need to know poetic craft that it isn’t a checklist you go through, it is something you use by intuition. It is learned through osmosis by reading and it will tend to show up in poems as you write them without thinking deliberately about it.
This exercise was about memory so she read us a number of poems that came from memory of the poetic narrators. The beginning of Elizabeth Bishop’s Waiting Room which is a superb entry into a recollection by situating us with detail right from the title. A couple by Philip Levine (Belle Isle was one) where he draws us into his recollection so we feel what he felt through his attention to detail. Two by Marie Howe (the Last Time was one) who Jane said does something better than almost anybody and that is the use of dialogue in the poems of her brother dying of AIDS, she describes Marie’s book What The Living Do as a miracle.
So the prompt was this: Given 35 minutes to write a poem of a memory, triggered through imagination, personal, distant recollection. To trigger we could start with a prepositional phrase or place ( I remember when, the last time… ) and then remove these in the final poem.
I wrote a three stanza 14 line poem where only the second stanza ends had something in common with the eventual final version of First Day. And it only had seven words in common.
I find writing work poems especially difficult, they don’t seem interesting to me. It seems surprising to me that I didn’t realize the high impact that tragedy would have in a poem, but I didn’t. I think it is partially unprocessed trauma for me as a young person walking into that situation but also that was just part of working for me back then, the railway jobs before that also an element of danger. The response even to the fragment I had then was immediate from the group, a kind of shocked silence. I suppose that dangerous workplace I took as normal is normal for some people, but it turns out not for everybody. And the normalcy of that is not normal.
The poem has helped me realize the horror of that situation, even if I was only on the periphery. In the original fragment I also talk about a huge fire when I was working, with flames shooting out one of those concrete stacks, a hundred feet in the air. How the people I was working with were the ones that went to fight it, the head operator of the unit I was on telling me I didn’t have to go to that, to just stay back safe. Them coming back after and saying they “almost lost the plant”. Jane said about the poem, “safe and not safe”.
So I came back home with my fragment and it took many versions to get to the one in the book. The next step was to generate more material to carve the poem out of, I ended up with a one page prose block of detail. Then the work to find the poem. That big fire left the poem, it became a two act poem, the first being that workplace, the second being the more personal situation and feelings and a nod to the future. I used Philip Levine’s What Work Is to provide a lesson on how to write a poem about work, Levine being famous for his work poems and that poem especially. And then after that material was all found the poem found its form.
It was interesting for me in preparation for this blog to go back through my files on this poem. I had documented the experience at the workshop so I had details I normally wouldn’t for it’s initiating impulse. I can see the poem move through its phases from a couple of glowing lines in the middle of an early work, to a huge prose block, to the key phrases and lines, to finally the form it ends in.
The first poem was okay but it was worth the effort to go beyond it and that path was much more than cutting and pasting to edit the first poem, that form of the poem was just a seed for the rest. Matthew Zapruder’s advice in his workshop at Saint Mary’s was to “blow up” those initial poems to find the poem that wants to be. This was a good example for me to review where I did exactly that.
A life of working is dangerous, some dangers are physical, some dangers are psychological, even just getting to work may kill you. The narrator in this poem is me and not me, perhaps a different me that didn’t go back to school or a me that continued on to other jobs with other dangers, whatever, the poem doesn’t have to explain itself that way, its truth is those actual horrific events in 1979 and the its bigger truth that many working people, including those doing unpaid work in the home, live with dangers of all types every day. People think about staying safe as they navigate those dangers as best they can and even then people die, get sick or suffer mental illness as a result of working. The degree of danger does vary between workplaces but there is some danger working anywhere.
The video has a major focus on the monument to workers which is located here in Hamilton, Paul Cvetich‘s Day of Mourning. That work is the main visual in the intro and the first act of the poem. I hadn’t planned that, thought it would perhaps be in the intro. But the power of that image seemed to fit with the words of the poem so it found its way to foreground of the video of the poem, a very simple sequence seemed right. So that first act is kept simple, the statue held still in its agony and the agony contained in my words.
I added the sequence on workplace injuries at the end after the poem to help emphasize that there is a big problem in our society with people dying or getting sick at work and it doesn’t seem to get as much emphasis as it should. People shouldn’t die from working seems like a simple truth, but they continue to in large numbers.
Hope you appreciate the video. Here’s where you can see the book that has the poem.
And this video gallery is being developed with funding from: