blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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The Lyric, Victrolas, Road Kills, and a Counter Muse: An Outtake
A Conversation with Steve Scafidi
Conducted January 21, 2023

M.A. Keller
We’ve talked about the lyric and the power of the lyric. I love the idea of following an image or phrase, following the music and not knowing for certain where you’re headed.

I used to tell students that when we read a poem back through our bodies we are the “playback machines” for the poems. It’s like putting a disk onto the old Victrola and your body, needle to groove, is putting the utterance and song of the poem out into the air. And then the emotions you feel are happening in part because of that revoicing of the poem, the vibration of the words through the body. (And sometimes you don’t even yet fully understand everything about what you are saying on behalf of the speaker you are intoning.)

I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Steve Scafidi
It makes perfect sense. I think that’s a really great analogy. In fact, at our shop, one of the fellows that I work with is our Victrola expert. And so this effed-up Victrola showed up and its internal works were messed up along with the body. And he worked on repairing the body but sent off some of the works to someone who does that repair for a living. He got the whole thing going. And then he played some 78s.

The beauty of a Victrola is that they were built for a parlor or often for a ballroom. And so you can control the volume by the doors, or the louvers, so can you can make it really loud if you open the doors all the way.

We were in the barn and some people upstairs didn’t want to hear three hours of Victrola music, but he kept playing it all day. And it was a beautiful Italian opera from 1919. So exquisite. And yet people upstairs are like shut up, turn that off. But most of us who were in the presence of it were entranced, as if we were around a magical person—like here comes Apollo into the room to sing to us or something. I don’t mean to overstate it, but it’s like that. It’s like none of us have really been around a Victrola record before, right? I think that was a perfect analogy, especially for talking about the lyric.

Think about Pindar’s time in ancient Greece with the first Olympians; his first odes—these early, early lyric poems—were sung and danced on the streets of some ancient city in Sicily or in Greece. And it was almost like something Beyoncé would put on, from my reading of what performances of these old odes would be. One of the earliest Greek lyric poets, Simonides of Ceos, speaks of that private experience of the passage of time, comparing it to a dragonfly just coming into view, landing for a moment and gone. I love this translation by Sherod Santos. [Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, Norton, 2006.]

by Simonides of Ceos  

Being no more than a man, don’t pretend
you can tell what the new day
brings, nor that, seeing someone happy

you know how that happiness will end.
Things change–we never know why–
with the zigzag speed of a long-winged fly.

And there’s something to that. Writing the Lincoln poems, I was intrigued with the momentary . . . this moment . . . gone. To look at the history that way and to look at a great personage that way, the little moments that actually accrue and make us ourselves over the years. It seems that happens one dragonfly at a time. So I really wasn't trained with just capturing that split second somehow or that quickness even with these little lines.

When I was first doing it, I kept thinking to myself, sometimes at the beach you will have sand that’s not too close to the water, but not too far off and dry, so you can kind of build, with your fingertips, almost absently, a little tower or something. And it would be crumbling as you built it, almost, but you’d be just quick enough that it didn’t crumble entirely, and then it would fall over. And I always thought to myself, that’s pretty much what I’m doing here, making something that is so fragile somehow. I always looked at these poems as fragile little things, as opposed to what I felt of my other books, which were aiming to be more well-built, certainly louder.

But I always felt like when I was writing these poems, I was doing something very different. And I think that was really refreshing and exciting to me. And I liked the fact that it reminded me of the oblivion of things. I think when you think about history and you think about your writing—about people who are long dead and they’re suddenly alive to you, you’re spending time with these ghosts who are quite alive. And that’s, to me, what lyric poetry has always been—you are talking to the dead; you’re talking to the living; you’re talking to yourself. What is that?

You’re talking to the divine. You’re talking to a flower or to a tree or to a bridge . . .

So there’s this strange interaction constantly going on in lyric poetry where who we are engaging with is mysterious. I felt like I was engaging with people gone, and yet here. And that seemed to perfectly help me understand what a lyric poem is in some sense.

I think that there’s something very real when we write elegies, when you speak to the dead and of the dead. I don’t know of another art that does that. I think it’s valuable and powerful. And thankfully our country can’t really monetize it; our art remains the kind of secret enterprise, even though I know loads of people write poems and thank God they do. And loads of people are getting MFAs. Thank God they’re doing that too.

You’re not going to waste your time learning how to speak like that, or to think like that, or to feel that way. And so I think that I just keep thinking that poetry is an unkillable gift that we’ve had for millennia. I go back to Gilgamesh and then the little things we do that we don’t even publish. I think they matter; they matter a lot.

I never expected to publish this much, and it’s more than I’ve ever deserved is my feeling. But those poems that go unpublished that we’ve been alluding to, they’ve mattered to me a great deal. And it’s only to me, I reckon, and the idea of publishing is then you get to share things with others and thank God that exists. Thank God for Blackbird, which is constantly giving us poems that we might love and we might need.

And that’s how I look at it—what you’re up to as editors and what we’re up to also as writers—there’s something we need from each other that lyric poems provide.

And I know song and lyric poems are the same person almost. But there’s something about lyric poems that are not sung, that are simply spoken, the way we say things to each other that we don’t forget that’s valuable. I think to talk like this about poetry is so lucky because I never get to do it. I’m not a teacher anymore. But I remember and I know—because I write—that it matters what we’re up to.

When my daughter was in high school, she was assigned poems by Anne Bradstreet, but whatever happened, or didn’t happen, in her classroom, gave her no access to the poems, and she was probably expressing her frustration in them or some associated homework when I said, let’s look at them together.

I had likely not read the poems since college or high school, and certainly not since becoming a parent myself and losing a parent, but in reading one out loud, perhaps about the loss of a grandchild, I unexpectedly found myself catching my breath, choking up on one of the lines. And my daughter heard that intake of breath and reaction and reacted, following the same, hearing the words in the context of someone, who voicing them, was moved by them. She could go back then and read the poems differently; they were suddenly more accessible. She still talks about that moment.

I love what you said about that reaction, that response to the Bradstreet poem you and your daughter had. I think we get so used to just reading alone, naturally as reading often is. Private. You know, just you and the poem. But to have that communion with another person, with the poem between you, so that you’re singing the poem to your daughter and you’re both being moved by it, you just completely reminded yourselves of the power of the lyric itself. I think I forget that a lot, that part of it, how important it can be.

I don’t go to readings; there are no readings around me. And for a while in my life I felt like, “Oh, I got my fill of readings,” but I don’t feel that way anymore. But not long ago, me and some of the guys in the shop were talking about deer because it’s deer season and it’s getting dark so early and people are hitting deer all the time. And someone was talking about a deer that they’d hit and how it hadn’t yet died.

And so it led us into a really sober conversation that became a meditation. There were four of us talking and each of us had our own story like that. And of course we do. And it wasn’t like joking. We were all moved because you have this encounter with incredible grace and then sudden death, or something like that.

And so I said, “Well, you know, there’s a William Stafford poem ‘Traveling Through the Dark.’” I never read poems to these guys, to any of them of any kind. They know I’m a writer and we’re friends and they are rooting for me and they’re interested too; they love songs. So I knew they wouldn’t mind. I said, “Let me read it to you.” And I read that poem to them. And it was in the morning; it wasn’t like the end of the day when we’re all tired and stuff, but they were so moved by it. And I was too.

And it was shocking for me to read that poem in that environment where I’m always at work and we’re all working. But that’s where this whole Lincoln book came from, that same place. It was a beautiful response of that “catching your breath” that you said. I don’t think it was as visceral as that, but it was still a visceral physical moment of listening and . . . like grief. And it was really beautiful. I was so tickled that I took the chance to read a poem to my friends at work.

You’ve talked before about what it is to be the only poet at your workplace. Am I remembering that they give you a hard time sometimes about being a writer?

In the past, when we were younger. Now we’re all adults and everyone’s wiser. People care about each other in a way that’s very different when you’re in your twenties. A lot of us have worked there since we were in our twenties, but, you know, people get married and people fall, get divorced. People die in families. And so the relationship is more human. When we were younger, it was more egocentric. Men pounding our chests about things, so it was kind of dumb.

One of my coworkers used to say, “Well fuck poetry.” And he would sometimes say, “Well fuck a book.” When he heard that I was late to work because I was up late reading a book, “Oh fuck a book.” It was that kind of thing.

That’s gone.

But that was going on during my first book. And the guy who said that kind of stuff to me, he said to me directly almost every day. He became a kind of counter muse to me to write my first book. So someone who wasn’t encouraging me. But I took what he said—I’d be sleepy and ready to go to bed—and I’d remember him saying that to me and I’d go, “You know what? Yeah, yeah, eff you,” and I’d get up even though I was tired and I’d go write my poem. And so I’m grateful to that dumbass who said those words.

But now at the job it is totally different, right? We are adults and people who are curious about the world. But as you get older, even if you’re a dumb ass—and I was a dumb ass too—you get, hopefully, more patient, more kind.  

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