Issue 129 |
Spring 2016

About Alan Shapiro

Often, when I’m writing, I open up my Internet browser onto poems I’ve found to be particularly instructive or compellingly enigmatic, poems that connect me with the reasons and, indeed, the questions about why I write and return to poetry as a reader, a parishioner, a believer. I’ve collected these poems via links I’ve emailed myself or titles I’ve remembered, and sometimes, when I’m writing, I only open them—I almost don’t have to read them—as if their power’s volatile, in the air. In the fan of tabs, I feel as if I’m communing with some kind of poly-faced god, and each poem represents its different incarnations. I know the poems so well, know their switchbacks and shortcuts and thoroughfares, their grid and range and population, and yet they still surprise me, connect me to the essential reckonings, the bewilderments of being alive.

Call me superstitious, but I hesitate to reveal which poems constellate my heavens as I navigate my own wine-dark sea, but Alan Shapiro’s “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them” has been such a prominent blue-brightness on my horizon that I feel I wouldn’t be honoring the poem—or Alan—by keeping quiet about it. I’ve taken this poem to students in class after class, read it again and again in silence or out loud, again and again listened to Slate’s audio of Alan reading the poem, and several times challenged it to be as relevant and potent after months away from it. I have never grown tired of this poem, even though it’s been with me for several years now, and I expect it to continue to direct me, carry me, question and devastate me.

When I met Alan at the 2013 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where he was faculty and I was a fellow, I wanted to tell him about my love for the poem, but I worried about saying something or, worse, requesting it before his reading, a sin akin to yelling “Touch of Grey!” at a Grateful Dead concert. I never know how someone feels about their own poems and, as a poet, I know how a poem can have its own life, how it can distance itself from its maker like an old flame and become intimate with a reader, as if to make the poet jealous. As if it’s saying: I’ve moved on. Or maybe, it’s the poet that has.

I suppose I was also worried about saying something to Alan because, in some way, by talking about the poem with him, the ownership of that poem would revert to him (now I was jealous). By not saying something to Alan about his poem, I could carry on with the poem, could continue to believe it was speaking to me and only me.

… maybe it’s like a subway passenger

on a platform in a dim lit station late

at night between trains, after the trains have stopped—

ahead only the faintest rumbling of

the last one disappearing, and behind

the dark you’re looking down for any hint

of light—where is it? why won’t it come?

But then, Alan’s so funny and generous and welcoming. At Bread Loaf meals, he sat down in a gray hoodie sweatshirt, folded his elbows on the table, and talked (basketball, music, poems, whatever). In getting to know Alan, in getting to learn the ways in which he thinks about poetry, the cadences of his speaking voice, I realized how much more that first poem I’d encountered began to resonate with me, how it began to seem driven less by an idea than an empathetic and playful heart. And then he read the poem. He walked up to the microphone and read the poem I’d been wanting to hear. I hadn’t mentioned or expected it and I sat in the audience and cried. I didn’t shake, I didn’t make a sound: I just listened, tears streaming down my face, to a poem about an imagined place where one waits until one of his dead arrives on a train for the duration of a recollection and then leaves.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Alan Shapiro has published numerous collections of poetry, including Reel to Reel (2014) and Night of the Republic (2012), which are two of my favorite collections in the last five years. His lines seem like a twisting of logic, an entrance into a complication, a nuance, a thought. Of his writing practice, he said it’s “the usual—one word after another.” He’s also the author of two memoirs, a novel, and a collection of craft essays, and he’s a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When I asked him who his mentors were, he cited J. V. Cunningham, Ken Fields, Donald Davie, and every poet he admires, including “all of the poets in this issue of Ploughshares, never mind the illustrious dead.” But Alan sieves his poetry through the strata of culture, the high and the low. In a 2002 interview with The Atlantic, he said, “I want to be able to devise a way of writing that can make a place for all of those influences. The high and the low. The elevated, the demotic. The literary, the street slang. The popular culture, the high culture. All of that has to have a place in what I write, if what I write is an attempt to bring the whole soul into activity, as Coleridge says it ought to be. It’s got to be impure if it’s going to be good.” It’s exactly this balance—or, rather, teetering tonal, cultural, and prosodic imbalances—that makes me trust his poems, his voice, the way he steps fluidly in and out of spaces, the “paradise of absence.” In his poem “Joy,” he describes “What hides when held,” which for me is what a good poem does, indeed what Alan Shapiro’s poems do; they allow you to hold them and then they slip from your grasp so you keep reaching for them again and again.