On writing "No One Dances"

William Stratton

Though I strive in large part to maintain a state of non-fiction in my poetry, there are times when I am unable to retain my grasp on the actual. I've found this happens most often when in pursuit of a portrait of some sort, or when writing about something for which the difficulty of the subject matter exceeds my ability as a non-fictional poet. I don't mean I consider this a failure, even though on a personal level it can be intimidating, humbling and frustrating. These poems, when they come, I recognize as  an important part of how I am able to continue writing without becoming bored with hearing myself, or having lost touch with the myriad of different things writing means to me (and with the nearly overwhelming knowledge that it means so much else to so many others).

11-13 blog Brianne Burnell

"No One Dances" is such a poem, a conjoining of men I have known with the ones I have imagined, and the circumstances of their lives. I should acknowledge that my great grandfather is a big part of this picture. Growing up in the wilds of Chenango County, NY, I lived on the farm he sold to my father, and saw him often as he retired to a trailer across the road. He was missing fingers, and there's some of his life in there as well. His impression on me was not small, and though I loved him, I thought too that he often seemed to be a man who was tormented in some part by his life. I don't think I ever saw him in a state I think I would describe as joyous or elated, and I imagined the ways in which such an intelligent man would have to vent his anxieties on the farm might be limited. I never saw him play any instrument, for instance, but having learned to play one myself, and having seen my father play one, I couldn't help but imagine what he might have said with music.

Somewhere in that imagining was this poem, and it came from me all at once and in a rush, the way writing sometimes does. It was as if I was hearing the story for the first time as I wrote it, and in each moment of the poem I was able to catch a moment of a life I was observing. A poem like this allows me to forget being a writer for a short while, at least in its first moments.  My revision process, on the other hand, leans towards the cerebral, and even for a poem like this I spend a good deal more time in thought than in emotion while revising. This is a constant source of friction internally; having felt through so much of the creative process, to then comb back over it intensely with thought and with as much as I can muster of my knowledge of poetry, prose, writing, language, art, and with a mind towards all of the things I have read and been taught...rarely is this a satisfying process, but it does seem to work for me, to some extent.

11-13 blog

Recently, during a Q&A at a reading, I was asked what I do to keep my poems accessible for those who might not read as much poetry as, say, poets, while maintaining the integrity of the poem. I thanked the man for the compliment, and proceeded to talk for a minute or so about diction, syntax, word choice, association, abstraction, etc, etc. Luckily I caught myself before everyone interested in the answer fell asleep, and started over, borrowing a phrase from one of my mentors (David Rivard): “Say the thing” I said, “I try to just say the thing”. It was a turning point for me, gaining permission from a teacher to be able to say what I meant to say without groping around clumsily for language or constructions which do not fit with my voice or style, and which are not necessary at any rate. In poems like this one, where I am writing a narrative which combines the actual and the fantastic into a persona, the mantra served me well; I didn't feel a pull to be poetic, nor was I distracted by associative urges and at any rate I didn't have time for anything but “Say the thing”.

A poem like this one also allows me, as it develops, access to a sort of glimpse into fiction writing as a creative process (or at least I fancy it does). I imagine fiction writers in a sort of conversation with their characters, wherein the characters may answer questions about what they might do or who they are or what has happened to them. In this poem what I knew of the man with three fingers started off as something small but grew in scope and depth as he began to answer my questions and live his life in a state I could observe.  This is especially apparent when the poem corrects itself “Did I say it was/ a mandolin? I was wrong.” For me though, the conversation is how the poem developed as a whole, and I derived comfort from the interaction with memories of my great grandfather and the exploration of this character who was in part himself.

If what I have learned here is about the nature of the relationship between poetry and fiction, or poetry and the actual, or poetry and the nature of what the poet wants versus what the poem wants, I am happy to have stumbled into it. I think in large part a poem like this teaches me, in its creation, about craft—that what I am writing and how I am writing it pays no attention to my expectation, or that I ought not to allow the idea I have of myself as a poet to interfere with the writing of any particular poem. That whatever my ego has attached itself to is of very little actual value while writing. That I have quite a bit more to actualize in my writing than I had previously considered, or that I have a long way to go in recognizing what writing is capable of realizing.

No One Dances

Each night before sleep the man with three fingers plays
the mandolin and wishes for his missing digits back.
His left hand. His right is normal, and when he thinks
how he lost them he remembers the impossible shoulders
of the black horse and the white of its teeth, the spinning
shaft of the power take-off and the hum of the mower.
Each morning he fumbles with the laces of his boots
though it has been decades since the horse. Some days
the handle of his coffee mug slips and dances away, twirling
in the early sun, trailing its dark dress in an arc of frozen
air and he remembers then that the last time he had
all of his fingers he had a wife who bore him two sons
and she too whirled away, though the music that played
behind her flat eyes was consumption, and the ballroom
a ward full of white beds. No one ever danced for him
anymore. No one listened to him while he played, while he
moved his missing fingers over the long body and felt the
holes; each a reminder, a stab in the dark, the motion
of the wings of a bat in a dark room. Did I say it was
a mandolin? I was wrong. It was a harmonica, and his fingers
flipped and shimmied and the harp wailed and moaned

and even the cows turned to look.

William Stratton currently lives in Winooski, VT, and teaches poetry and creative writing at Franklin Pierce University. Under The Water was Stone was released in May 2014 and is currently for sale on the Winter Goose website, in a few local bookstores, and on Amazon. William's poem "Plenty, Hay" is in issue 299.1 of the North American Review, Winter 2014.

Today’s artwork is provided by Brianne Burnell, a freelance digital illustrator living and creating from her home studio in Toronto, Canada. Brianne was featured in issue 299.1 of The North American ReviewWinter 2014.