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Poetry Gone to Pieces: Talking Civilization with Dana Crum

May 23, 2013 | by


It’s early on Sunday morning, about five-thirty, and Dana Crum has awoken without meaning to. His apartment lights have been left on. Craning his neck from the couch, he observes that he never found the bedroom.  Sloughing off the rude awakening, he decides to get an early start on the puzzle of his poetry. He bears down to write. He uncaps his fine-pointed roller ball pens—blue, black, red, and green—and confronts his notebook.

And he sounds rather startled, some hours later, by my phone call. “Hello,” he groans, after the third ring. I ask how he’s doing. “All right,” he says, then interjects, “Actually, can I call you back?” Trying once again to get himself going, he puts on a pot of cinnamon stick tea (Lipton, for a change from Bigelow), while I begin to wonder whether he’s nursing another hangover (Scotch, single malt). As I look over his autobiographical poetry, the canon seems to divulge as much. “In my unlit apartment on Valentine’s Day, me on a soiled sofa above rotten piping, drinking / Macallan from the bottle. My cat’s tail curls into a question mark,” he writes in “Portraits of a Former Lover,” a zuihitsu of imagistic confessions published recently in Blackbird. When we resume talking, though, he explains that not even a single line had taken shape and so he had simply given up and gone back to sleep. “I really wish I could start a poem, and write the first line first, the second line second, and so on,” he insists. “But that doesn’t happen.”

What does happen, as he described it, is something like a young boy emptying his collection of jigsaw puzzles into a heaping jumble then kneeling down to rummage through the pieces. Each piece, for Crum, is a “fragment” of poetry. Often, he has no sense of where a fragment belongs within a poem, no inking even of where within his entire body of work. Unbidden, fragments infuse his days with poetic potential: falling from a giant puzzle box in the sky as he walks to work, or turning up under a school paper he happens to be grading, or springing from the jostle and bounce of a subway ride. His craft is not so much writing a poem as it is cobbling together myriad lines and images and phrases—“a mélange,” he calls it—into the provocative, confessional free verse for which he is becoming known. “I’m receiving a piece of my vision of life,” he says. “These bursts of inspiration are me expressing myself all the time, something my imagination has been trying to get out all along.” Somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, the lights are always burning. Read More »

Free Verses

December 10, 2012 | by

The online forum was empty when I submitted the essay, my first for Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. It was still early—a few minutes before the midnight deadline, when peer evaluators would then be assigned to post feedback. But not knowing who that peer might be, nor how their public evaluation might portray my work, made the quiet unsettling. Expectant, I awaited review on this naked, vertiginous stage.

Our assignment for ModPo, as this Coursera version is known, was to close read the Emily Dickinson poem identified by its paradoxical opening line, “I taste a liquor never brewed.” In the poem, ubiquitous intoxicants are absorbed literally out of the moisture in the air. They unhinge our debauched speaker, who before long is “Reeling—thro endless summer days—From inns of Molten Blue.” Describing the scene I invoked soaked clouds crossing the summer sky, befitting a heavy drunken stupor. “Clouded,” I titled the essay.

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