blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
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Setting Truth to Music

Excerpted from a November 3, 2006 conversation with Ellen Bryant Voigt, who participated in a question and answer session with students and faculty in the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University; an audio capture of the event and transcription appeared in Blackbird v6n1, spring 2007. Questioners included VCU faculty members David Wojahn and Gary Sange and MFA student Tarfia Faizullah. The evening before, Voigt had read from her then forthcoming Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976–2006.

David Wojahn: I just had a question about Kyrie. And it’s a question about how you go about researching a poem or a sequence such as that. And maybe, you know, what the dangers of research are. Where do you stop? And I’ve noticed increasingly over the past few years that maybe it’s because of the Internet, and, you know, if you want to write a poem about alchemy, you just call it up on your computer and you have all the information you need about alchemy; you don’t even have to go to a library. And how did you go about trying to think about the historical period?

Ellen Bryant Voigt: First of all, this was not a designed project. I did not set out to write a sonnet sequence. I did not set out to write a sequence about the influenza. I was interested after what happened with Two Trees with those tonal variations. When I put the book together and I saved about two dozen out of the eighty-eight and put them together, I noticed that here I was doing this project two and a half years, you know, writing nothing but fragments—tone was going to change. There was a tone missing. There was no irony. It seemed to me, a fifty-year-old woman who has no irony in her makeup, that this was very unseemly. I was much too earnest, and I thought, this is the next thing you need to learn to do: an ironic view which really says there is no truth to be found, that says these two things are there in equal weight to be seen. 

So I thought, okay, let me see if I can write a persona poem from the point of view of someone whose circumstance is so that, if they didn’t have an ironic view, they would shoot themselves. And what popped into my head was this country doctor that my father used to tell stories about, the person who delivered him and for whom he was named. And so he used to always tell this story about Dr. Gilmore Reynolds and how he came around during the epidemic, came around on his horse. There was nothing he could do. He had no way to treat it, and that was true of most things—nothing to do. So he would come in, and he would tell you what you had, and that was about all he could do. And I thought, now that guy, he would have to have an ironic view of the world. So that was my interest in the epidemic: it was an interest in tone. What tone, how would he approach the world, how would he think about it? So I wrote a longish—I don’t know, it was about [a] fifty line—poem from his point of view, and that was it. I had no interest in the flu. None. 

Then the next thing that I happened to write, I had been wanting to write for a little while. My father’s mother died in 1914 in childbirth, before the epidemic. The epidemic started in 1917, 1918, right in there, so it was all before that. He was the oldest of five, and he was eight. What happened then was that my grandfather farmed them all out to relatives. My father went to live with his aunt and uncle who were nineteen and eighteen. He lived with them until he was twelve while my grandfather looked for a maiden lady to marry, and he married my father’s stepmother, Miss Sally. And then in the fall of 1918, they brought them all back together except the baby. They left the baby where she was, and they brought all the other children back. 

So when my son turned eight, I had this moment of astonishment when I looked at him on his birthday. Now, you all have this. You have data from your family that you’ve just known, I mean, you’ve just known forever. We’d go by that grave every Sunday. My father would go out, and he would stand by the grave, and he would weep—you know, his mother’s grave. So you know that that’s just a given thing. But it has not registered on you what the feeling/experience of that would be. That was my case, and when I had a child—this was my second child; the first one was a girl. When I had a boy, and he turned eight, and I looked at him and I thought, Jesus Christ. This was the age my father lost his mother and when he was sent away to live with teenagers for four years. And I was stunned by understanding what that was, and how that, of course, shaped all the rest of his life, everything that he was. 

So sometime after that, then—my son was born in 1976, so he turned eight, then, in 1984. In 1992, then, I sat down to write this poem from the point of view of a boy standing by the bed when his mother’s dying. And I thought to myself, you need some real constriction on this; you need something that is going to keep this thing from, like, blowing out of the water. So I thought I would write a sonnet, so I did. I wrote a sonnet. Point of view: boy is standing there looking at the mother. Mother is dying. I wasn’t going to write a sonnet sequence. I was just going to write the one sonnet. 

Then, because I write very slowly, some time goes by before I write anything else, and I had this kind of aha moment, which was the realization that, during the epidemic, that that was the time when my father’s experience was repeated over and over and over. So then I had in mind to write one of my little shorter experiences, which is about six or seven sonnets. And I thought, okay, this would be good to have the form, and if I could have seven of these—where it is the same experience over and over and over, and I have seven different speakers who speak it in the same form—I got a little sequence. So I wrote that; I thought I was done. I had no—again, I had no interest in the epidemic; I thought I had no interest in the epidemic. Turns out that I had written a lot of poems that deal, in one way or another, with impingement of the individual on community and community on the individual. You can define community however you want to: family, larger than that. But that has been something that I have always been drawn to. And this was kind of the perfect dramatic situation for looking at that. 

Time goes by. My editor keeps saying, I really like those poems where everybody’s coughing and dying, why don’t you write some more of those? And I was saying, who wants more of those? Again, the possibility to see, okay, how far can you extend the sequence? How many of these can you have, not looking at variation, looking at alike, alike, alike, alike, alike? How intense can you get that way before your reader runs screaming from the room or before the poems become imitations of one another? So I got up to about fifteen, and then I thought I truly was done—truly done. And they were all completely lyric in that they were at that moment of the worst of the epidemic. Everybody, in extremis. Absolutely, fourteen lines, in extremis, that’s where they were—fifteen. 

I went up to Idaho to do a week in Idaho—Moscow, Idaho. Not a lot to do there. So I was staying in this motel, and I was doing a class every day, and they have a very nice library there. And I live out in the country, and this was before Internet stuff, right? So I thought, hmm, I’ll go to the library. I probably should find out something about this epidemic before I publish these fifteen poems, you know, and say, this is what the experience was. I better go do some research. So I went over to their library and did this big search. 

And I found out that there wasn’t anything. There was one article from the National Geographic that was published in the fifties, and it had some pictures of everybody wearing masks in San Francisco. And there was one book by Alfred Crosby, historian. So that kind of intrigued me then. Then I had another kind of level of interest, which was, why didn’t people talk about this? So then I really got the kind of research bug, and I thought, let’s go investigate. So I read a lot of World War I history because I had enough—just enough—information from Crosby. For instance, twice as many American soldiers died of flu as died of war wounds. 

There, you know, go look at, you know, the descriptions of the battles. They don’t mention the flu; it’s just not in there! Well, what about this great flowering of American letters in the twenties? All those people lived through it, right? So I go and look there  . . . not there. Even the great memoirs, Goodbye to All That? He got it, he was sent back from the front. [Robert] Graves was sent back from the front with the influenza—one paragraph. Mary McCarthy? Her parents put her and her brother on the train in Seattle because of the dangers of the flu, sent them—they were, I think, six and eight—sent them cross country to maiden aunts in Minneapolis. Then the parents got it and died, and she was brought up by these maiden aunts in Minneapolis. Now, this is kind of life-shaping, hmm? Two paragraphs. 

That was when I got intrigued about the actual event, and the worst thing that happened to me for a while was the Crosby book, because then I had information, and I wrote some dreadful poems. I wrote about a dozen of the worst [poems], because they were so encumbered by information. That was when I thought I was going to be this historian, and nobody else talked about it so I was going to talk about it. And they were horrible—things like “Thirty Million Dead” and “‘Black Jack’ Pershing Crosses the Sea.” So I saw that they were awful, and I first thought that was a sign that the whole sequence was done, and I said okay. 

But I thought what could be useful would be just to read a lot of fiction that was written in the twenties to help me with some notion of idiom, because I really wanted these speakers to be believable. And I thought, okay, I can continue to do kind of secret research to see if anybody refers to it, and then at least I’ll sort of have in my ear the syntax and what the idiom was. That was my helpful research, was reading a lot, a lot, a lot of fiction of the time, going back and rereading Ford Madox Ford and Willa Cather, and you know, all those people, to have some sense of this syntax. 

I know that that’s a very long answer, but I guess some of it depends on [the fact that] you have to know your own temperament. My temperament is very didactic and dogged. So for me, the worst thing [is] information that I have to instruct people on, because then that is what I would try to get the poems to honor. And I find this a lot in young people’s work that I see; they do the same thing. If you come to the conclusion before you have the discovery of the poem, you ought to be writing an essay. It’ll kill a poem. No matter how intriguing this information is that you have discovered, I would say try to imagine it first. Then you can always go back and say, well, I imagined something that couldn’t possibly be. I had plastic flowers in a poem, and they didn’t invent plastic until the forties. But I think that all of it ultimately has to be imagined. If you are of a temperament that you can look up something on the Internet and that will start you thinking about something and spur something—terrific, go do it. But then let go of whatever it was that you found. Your job is not to convey information to the world. There are other forms of that that are much more efficient than poems. It isn’t what poems do. 

Gary Sange: What I hear [through] what you just said is the influence of your father and what must have been his isolation, estrangement, what it was like with his involvement with his mother that just kept pressing.

EBV: When he would tell it, it was all about Dr. Reynolds and how Dr. Reynolds came and gave them all corn liquor. He loved to tell the story because his little moral to the story was, “And we all survived. We didn’t need high-tech Western medicine.” He was a very superstitious man. But the facts of it, the fact that they were brought back after the four years, meant that it lodged in his memory because it was so charged. That’s that lyrical power again. It was charged. I didn’t know why it was charged. I had not made that connection in any kind of way, but it was charged, the story that came down. He’d love to tell that story. He had other stories he would tell, like how somebody cured their sore throat by putting their finger in an open socket: you put your finger in the socket and then you put your other hand on your throat, and then the electricity comes down and just zaps it right out of there. 

Tarfia Faizullah: You were saying that poems don’t convey—or poems aren’t the best source of conveying—information. So what, in your opinion, do poems do?

EBV: What do poems do? They set truth to music. My hope is that somebody would read Kyrie and have some sense of what it must have been like, given that we’re in our own epidemic. That’s been a kind of interesting thing to see. Because in 1995—well, I first started reading them I guess around 1993, 1994—whenever I read them, I would have to give like a five-minute thing ahead of time because nobody in the room had ever heard of it. There was a pandemic, and at that time they thought it had killed thirty million people. Now they figure it’s over a hundred million people, but people have heard about it. The reason you have heard about it is because of the other viruses. You have a motivation to think about what it might have been like. 

[Daniel] Defoe wrote the Journal of the Plague Year not during the plague [but] when they thought the plague was coming back to London. That’s when he wrote it. 

What a poem can do that Alfred Crosby could not do was to take a person and elicit from them some imagined, felt experience about it. His book is fabulous if you have any interest in that period. It’s just great, and it’s full of statistics. And it’s like with the Holocaust—you cannot get your soul to incorporate the figures. You can do it rationally. But to feel that—to incorporate it into your being, into your soul—that’s the great thing that literature does. It makes us incorporate into our souls experience that is beyond our own little restricted whatever-it-is. Isn’t that why we read? Isn’t that why we love it? You can feel your own being stretch; because of that you’ve been able to enter through the discipline of the art and through the imagination that is at work there. Then that is your little wormhole. So you go through that little wormhole into this larger experience. Those are the memorable poems; those are the great poems. 

You know, these things go in waves, and the particular wave that we’re in right now puts a very high premium on being clever. And there’s a lot of work that I see in magazines—I see everywhere—that is terribly clever. You know, you drop out all the nouns, or you take a sentence and you chop it up, throw it all around the page. So I’ve already passed that fork in the road. Everything else drives us to shut down, to defend, to be narrow, to be self-interested—everything else in the world.  


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