Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On “To the Blackout of ’69, Ithaca, New York” by Lee Rossi

As a semi-pro poet with a family and a full-time technical job, I am always surprised (and delighted) when a journal offers to publish one of my pieces. Given my part-time devotion to the muse, I probably haven’t accumulated the ten thousand hours said to be required for true mastery. Thus, I welcome the tips and suggestions I sometimes receive from my readers and editors. I suppose an attitude of humility is also easier without an endowed chair under my belt (or wherever it is they keep them these days).

The story of “Blackout” goes all the way back to the 1960s when I was a grad student at Cornell, sitting at a carrel in the research library and trying to decide whether I should finish a seminar paper on Faulkner or join the demonstration against DOW Chemical’s recruiters. I could dither for hours gazing at Lake Cayuga, that strange ice-age jewel shimmering in the valley below me. Of course, I didn’t begin writing the poem until many years later, after I’d read Larry Levis. Levis’ poem, “To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969,” gave me the cue I needed to join the loneliness and desperation I felt as a student on the verge of manhood and the feelings I had for my father. It was the first poem I wrote in which I imagined my father not just as my polar opposite, but as joined with me in the frustrated and self-defeating enterprise of manhood itself. On the way to reading Levis, I had lived a goodly part of my life, failing at marriage and career on more than one occasion. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever to have anything resembling a “normal” life. Levis’ poem was important to me, if for no other reason than it seemed to capture some core truth.

No surprise, however, that what was important to me should not necessarily stir a response in others. Besides, it was a big sprawling mess of a poem ─ still is, if like me, your taste runs to sonnets, and anything over 20 lines feels like a bad case of logorrhea. I must have sent it to a dozen venues, but like a foster child with a wall eye and an attitude problem, it kept coming back. Discouraged but still unwilling to give up on it, I showed it to Lynn Emanuel, a writer I admired and whose interests were different enough from my own to give me an oblique, unpredictable reading of my poem. Which she did, spotting, first off, the way the poem’s energy flagged in its second half, substituting psychological shorthand for a more realized presentation, and conversely, the harrowing complexity of the final few images. “Urban Renewal,” I think that’s the phrase we use when we talk about destroying something in order to save it, and so I undertook the demolition and rebuilding of the latter half of my poem.

And yet, good homing pigeon, it kept returning to me, usually without any messages attached. Fortunately I had begun to adopt a more accepting attitude toward revision, finally discarding that “first word, best word” mantra which had lightened my writing load for so long. I’d recently met Tony Hoagland at a summer workshop, and he had shared his approach to revision, which is to re-type a poem completely every time he sits down to re-consider it. No more quick fixes ─ this was hand-to-hand editing, the physical labor of it an attempt to re-kindle the original fire of creation. And so, every time the poem returned from another unsuccessful audition, I’d re-type it, scrubbing here, polishing there, adding, deleting, and updating as the mood or inspiration dictated. And so, every time it went out to meet another casting director, it would be wearing new shoes or a freshly ironed shirt, sometimes with new caps on its teeth, a little more beautiful each time.

When finally it was beautiful enough for publication, there were still some changes to be considered. The editors at Poet Lore were unsure about the final image. As one of them put it, “The image seems overdrawn ─ or difficult to see. Does this make any sense? The depth of the eyes is liquid; the splintered ice is shard-like.” I could see her point; one can ask too much of words. But for me, that was what I wanted, mystery and specificity. Here’s my response to the editor: “So what I was seeing was the glacier, the mountain of ice that formed Lake Cayuga at the end of the last ice age. And I was watching how the little bergs calved from their mountain mother into the deep valley, taking up residence first as ice (shards) and then as water. . . . Also the sound: ‘eyes’ and ‘ice’ taunting one another from either end of the line.” Thus I argued for keeping the line as it was, and the editor agreed. Now it’s up to other readers to determine whether the poem delivers or not. I’m hoping it does.

Lee Rossi is the author of "To the Blackout of '69, Ithaca, New York" (p.99), published in Poet Lore (Volume 106 3/4 Fall/Winter Issue). You can purchase the issue here or procure a subscription to Poet Lore here.


Lee Rossi’s latest book is Wheelchair Samurai. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Harvard Review, Poetry Northwest,The Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Southern Poetry Review. He is a staff reviewer and interviewer for the online magazine Pedestal. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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