Q & A: Linda Gregerson
The poem covers a lot of territory, from Obama campaigners to geese on an icy river. How did it come together as a single poem?
Ah, well. I’m forever trying to master the art of the short poem, and for a single deluded evening I imagined I’d finally written one here. I’d been working on the first four stanzas for quite some time, committing and deleting all the usual gaffes—miscalculated diction here, clunky rhythms there, lots of muddled efforts at managing the dangerous hot spot of the unspoken word in stanzas three and four—and when the narrative had finally settled into place, I thought, or hoped, the poem was finished. In the cold cruel light of day, however, I discovered it was anything but; that it was, in fact, damned with its own smugness.
At some level, I must have tried to finesse the whole question of self-congratulatory judgment by casting the poem as a kind of dramatic monologue, spoken in a voice whose relationship to my own involved much ambiguity and a certain dose of proclaimed distance. Feeble in the extreme, of course: no decent poem has ever been built on deniability. So the poem, bless its heart, came back and bit me, as poems are wont to do. And stanza two begins with that bite.
“The Selvage” seems, in part, about the current division of the country into so-called red and blue states. Can you say more about how the poem understands these divisions?
Of course you’re right, but let me try that one from the opposite direction. “The Selvage,” as the title suggests, is meant to address the question of oneness: that binding-at-the-margin that holds us all together and keeps the fabric from utterly unraveling. The rhetoric of division has become so naked in the United States of late (even the name of the country begins to sound ironic), so appalling in its coarseness, that of course the poem has red state/blue state, tea partiers and “birthers,” the whole unseemly cacophony in mind. But these divisions are neither new nor exclusive to the flagrant talk shows. They saturate our every daily gesture. What is it but uncomprehending division that makes us take comfort in condescending to one another?
Stanza two is meant to acknowledge as much by playing in another key one of the major divisions implicit in stanza one: the divisions of social class. So even in academia, which we like to think of as a meritocracy, even in the department of physiology at a major medical school, or rather in the social surround that constitutes one of the professional requirements and tribulations of a scientific career, a foolish woman who has no accomplishments whatsoever of her own can condescend to my sister because we come from a family of people who have never been to university. As no doubt you can tell, I took a great deal of pleasure in putting that woman into my poem. And the grounds on which I condescend to her (which I shall largely keep to myself) are not entirely to my credit.
What were the challenges of writing about the recent presidential election, especially the famous anecdote to which you make reference in the first section of the poem?
The story was told to me by my daughter, who heard it in turn from friends who had been canvassing for Barack Obama in North Carolina. I had no idea it was famous until I repeated it to one of my own friends, who said, Yes, yes, urban legend; one of the best.
I wanted to capture it—well, frankly, to pirate it—because, in the first instance, it’s just a fabulous story. And it turns against the teller. It tells more about us, we who repeat the story, than we are happy to discover. I know these people, we say to one another. These people are an open book to me. They may live in the sticks, they may eat the wrong foods and talk funny, they may be completely oblivious to their own benightedness (note the matter-of-fact deferral to the man of the house), but by gum they’ve seen through the sleazy quagmire in Washington and are going to vote for my man; there’s hope for America.
Hoist on our own petard.
Because these forms of presumption and entitlement, of speaking-on-behalf-of-others-but-better-than-they-can-possibly-speak-for-themselves, had hijacked what began as anecdote and had become the substance of the poem, I tried in section two to open up to a more porous or destabilized voicing. Or perhaps “triangulation” is the better term. On the one hand, there’s a bit of retroactive distancing which casts the speaker of section one in the third person. (And of course this commenting on the smugness of others is a dicey terrain: the new speaker, whoever she is, could rightly be charged with smugness herself.) Then there’s the ventriloquized voice of the faculty wife, and, before that sentence concludes, a voice that comments upon hers. This third voice is close but not quite identical to the voice in sentence one because it has dropped a deliberate confession of proximity: “my” sister. And then there’s the voice that mounts the soapbox, glibly projecting a circle of listeners and addressing them, in politician-speak, as “friends.” (Actual friends are not addressed this way.) And behind it all, there’s Robert Frost, or rather, there’s the farmer in “The Death of the Hired Man”: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”
Which brings us to one of the harshest, most contentious divisions in contemporary political rhetoric: that between old immigrants and new, “naturalized” and un-, “legals” and “illegals.”
The third section seems to function almost as a parable with respect to what has come before. On the one hand, the geese use their numbers to shelter rather than to divide themselves—but on the other hand, they seem to be uniform creatures (unlike us). Is there anything we can learn from geese?
Actually, I’d hoped to avoid anything like a one-on-one analogy. Having spoken its opening monologue and added other voices, at odds with the monologue and with one another, the poem needed someplace else to go, a neither-here-nor-there. Most of all, it needed to find a quieter voicing, less hedged-about with opposition and self-consciousness. (As it turns out, I couldn’t quite manage without the internal opposition: nor is this the first time I have recruited my long-suffering husband for the voice of practical skepticism.) And while the poem was stalled there, on the verge of something I hadn’t yet imagined and couldn’t pre-plot, I really did encounter that massive flock of migrating geese. They were astonishing in their sheer numbers and presence, as though a message had authentically arrived from elsewhere. Or rather, as though a message had arisen from the properly here and now, to shake me out of more abstract speculations. And out of my dithering about proprietary positioning.
I will confess that their status as migrants came to be important to the poem. The geese had arrived in all their strength and adaptability, able to make a natural element of air, able to take shelter on a river, which itself is ever-moving, ever-changing in our northern climes from liquid to solid and back again; and what seemed to be their own massed feathered stillness was in actuality a series of perpetual fine-tunings and realignments. They were beautiful, did I say that before?
So the poem circles back to a very old discovery: It was I—is I—who am here on sufferance. God knows the thought is not new. But the taking it in, at least for me, is a pretty fugitive affair.