Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Blas Falconer reads “Infidelity” by Stanley Plumly.
Chris: Blas, this poem strikes me as “confessional.” Am I wrong in thinking that? What can you tell us about Stanley Plumly’s writing? Is he the type of person to be offended by the confessional mode?
Blas Falconer: You know, Stanley was my professor back in the day at the University of Maryland, and if he had not helped me to break out of a terrible rut, I would have stopped writing twenty years ago. So I committed to memory as much of what he said as possible and often hear his voice when I am working through a poetry problem.
When I read your question this morning, I remembered him say, “Every poem I’ve ever written is somehow about my father.” I can’t remember the context, but it was probably an offhanded comment in workshop in response to someone else’s poem, something about poetic obsessions. This wasn’t terribly surprising, I suppose, but it left an impression because of what he said soon after: “Every poet eventually has to learn how to not write about himself.” I think that these comments come to mind because, after all of these years, I’ve never thought of this poem, any of his poems, come to think of it, as confessional, though it’s easy to see why someone would. When I imagine the speaker of the poem, I don’t think of Stan. Nonetheless, I don’t think that he’d be offended.
Chris: So much depends upon that single letter, “I.” It must be a tiresome role. It’s interesting that he doesn’t come to mind as the narrator. Do you think the poem suffers in anyway if it is read with Plumly as the speaker? What does the poem gain if it isn’t him?
Blas Falconer: No, I don’t think that the poem suffers or gains anything either way.
Chris: I really like the idea of “poetic obsessions.” Are there other obsessions that inhabit Plumly’s poetry? Do you have any poetic obsessions yourself?
Blas Falconer: As for Stanley, I don’t know, maybe birds.
As for me, I often return to the landscape of Puerto Rico, my mother’s homeland, and to my mother, and to exile. I return to these subjects even when I’m not writing about them explicitly, which was Stanley Plumly’s point, I think.
Chris: I also enjoy this idea that poets have to learn how not to write about themselves. To me, that sounds like a thing easier said than done. Was not writing about yourself something you were already practicing when you were at Maryland? Or did that come with experience?
Blas Falconer: I think that Stanley meant to suggest that eventually we had to move beyond our own stories to address our obsessions. We needed to find alternative approaches, other devices. I don’t think that he wanted us to do away with narrative altogether.
For some of us, it was a thing much easier said than done. At the time, I was, for the most part, writing poems inspired by personal experience, and I still often have to challenge myself to move beyond some version of my own story.
Chris: Do you think Plumly was attempting to get students to write universality into their poetry? For instance, in order to write about our obsession accurately we have to consider and understand them both subjectively and objectively?
Blas Falconer: I’m sure that he was, Chris, and I think that he was also encouraging us to find multiple methods of approaching a recurring theme so that we didn’t write the same poem (or same kind of poem) over and over again.
Chris: This may be a bit of an odd question, and it’s definitely the wannabe critical geographer in me talking, but given how you return to the landscape and your mother in your writing, I’m curious, what does “place” mean to you? How do you perceive and understand the landscape?
Blas Falconer: The Puerto Rico of my childhood was somewhat Edenic, and so in my mind, rendering the landscape became a way of infusing my poems with a sense of wonder and loss. I guess that I often use landscape as a means of conveying a sense exile. For example, my first book, A Question of Gravity and Light, often juxtaposed imagery of the island with the imagery of Tennessee to express this sentiment.
Chris: Blas, sorry for the strange detour from Plumly’s poem. We’ll get back to it now. What characteristics of “Infidelity” make it essential to your bookshelf?
Blas Falconer: It’s been fun, Chris, and this question is perfect because it helps me to better articulate my first point. When I read “Infidelity,” I’m drawn into it the way that I’m drawn into a compelling film. Watching a good movie, I don’t think about the actors or the screenwriter or the director. I’m not wondering if the trees in the background are real. (They probably aren’t.) I just give myself over to the experience. Only after the magic is over will I wonder how the movie was made.
Similarly, after reading “Infidelity,” I begin to see how hard everything is working to create the experience: the title, how it speaks to both to the parent and the child in the open-ended final lines, the narrative with all its pauses, the descriptions, the lines, the line breaks, the turns, the repetition, even the comma in the middle of the thirteenth line, for crying out loud. Everything works together to draw me into the world of the poem, not the world of the poet, and it happens every time. For me, this is why it’s essential for my bookshelf, because it’s a model for the kind of poems that I like to read and the poems that I aim to write.
Blas Falconer is the author of two poetry collections, The Foundling Wheel and A Question of Gravity and Light, and a coeditor of two essay collections, The Other Latino: Writing Against a Singular Identity and Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange, and a Tennessee Individual Artist Grant, his poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Puerto del Sol. He is the Poetry Editor for The Los Angeles Review and teaches in the low-residency MFA at Murray State University. His third poetry collection, Forgive the Body This Failure, is forthcoming through Four Way Books in 2018.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.