Getting to Know Martin Edmunds, Author of Flame in a Stable
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Before I could read, my parents read aloud from what they called books of rhymes, among them, Mother Goose and Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. The beat and the rhymes made a rightness that was memorable, made poems a rich thing, one you could keep with you always once you got them by heart. I wrote poems in elementary school for the joy of it. The poems you liked best made you want to write your own. Songs came first and foremost. After Stevenson, Blake; Shakespeare’s: from the plays, the Three Witches’, the Fairy’s song to Puck, Ariel’s, Caliban’s. Writing was just there, a given. I fell in love with words; they ran away with me. Discipline followed, born of delight—in “getting the words right”: a slow apprenticeship. It takes time to learn how to name your gait, ask for a lead on a canter, command a lope, a trot, a fourteener, scuttle the chatter to trip a tetrameter, settle back into ballad measure. But when it works, when the words are air-borne, making the shape you listen into being—when you hear them and see them coming from all directions but mostly straight at your face—like sprinting into a rain-squall, the aberration of starlight synapses blasting, the brain taking it in—nothing trumps that, whatever sets your oxytocin thrumming. And when that isn’t happening, you need the courage to live with that blank, the hole in the heart of the poem, and wait for that hole-shaped word, phrase, line. Or tear it up, start over, plough it under, green fertilizer, burn it for light to write down the next one by. But first, close your eyes and listen: writing is listening—into the silence.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
For a few years, when I needed it most, I had a studio to write in, a luxury I made use of. I wrote for hours every day, a stint in the morning, a bout at night, scribbling in notebooks, learning the speed of different meters, stanzaic shapes, which form is a crowbar, which a tenaculum, how to move the fulcrum to set a balance or get the leverage where you need it to lift the line. At the same time you were testing stance, pitch, voice, teasing words out of the ether, tuning in to their stations on a crystal set, losing the signal, or hearing it crossed by another, stronger voice. If something lit up, you pursued it, refining your senses, divining where the real life of it was. (The real life of it is in the bulb, the bleb, the nub of the syllable.) Night then was my best time for writing: the world was quiet, and the signal clear. Later, raising girl/boy twins, then on my own with them from when they were four, there were new responsibilities: lots, some joyously raucous; a great blessing; less freedom about the when and where for writing—an hour before I got them up for school, sometimes a few hours after they went to sleep. Or in the middle of other work in the middle of the day, whenever, wherever it became possible. I’m pretty much there still. The more you get to it and give to it, the more it gives back. With this caveat: it’s easy enough to turn gold into lead by overworking the surface, staying un- or under-committed to what’s at stake. Never did learn the opposite alchemy, turning lead to gold, but I do know that in this world, in poetry as in geology, there’s one way to turn—not coal but carbon (unstable stuff of life)— into undying diamond: heat and pressure. For poetry: the compression of meter and form (diamond’s carbon lattices), the heat of the passion you bring to the writing.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
A few words, a phrase, a line crossed with a particular music which insists—whether it creates an image or a beat of speech. The sureness of it rhymes with something inside you you can’t yet place or name. What’s true is the way to that discovery as it goes is the whole soundscape-acoustic of the poem.
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
If you can’t tell, my saying won’t matter! Some things move you but aren’t yours to take up. In any case, don’t let my failure to absorb impugn their power to keep flowing into us, through us, despite our belated arrival, our quasi-virtual state; let’s talk of inspiration, not influence, to thank not the muse, who always knows her own name whatever form she takes, but those mistress masters of my craft and passion.
Songs, first. By Anonymous, otherwise known only as “author of –. ” “Eardstapa, The Wanderer,” reciting a tardy charm in its ubi sunt litany of losses. “Mad Tom’s Song.” “Lyke-Wake Dirge.” “The Baily Berith the Bell Away.” Shakespeare. Blake. “The Tyger.” What being more magical, full of terror and wonder, than that sun-striped beast peering through Blake’s portrait of his Creator? When I look at the world of men and lose my faith in God (we are made in his image), if I consider the animals, how unlikely, how necessary to life’s web for use and beauty, if I say or read “The Tyger,” faith is restored, I find God afresh, the lavish love, the terrible potency, the mystery, the awe.
Border ballads. Lorca, who broke through to the “marrow of song.” Sun-shimmered, moonglamoured Neruda: elemental song; elemental brother-lover for whom “the rain takes off her clothes.” Donne: Go and Catch his Holy Sonnets, his epistle-poems, including “The Storme,” “The Calme.” Ralegh for his Walsinghame poem, for “The Lie,” for “Ocean’s Love to Scinthia” (despite his part in the slaughter of six hundred prisoners at Smerwick to please that very Scinthia, aka Elizabeth Tudor). Wyatt—“Whoso List to
Hunt,” “My Lute Awake”—aroused indeed, fingertips bloodied on lustrings plucked, this time, in anger; indefeasible structure, founded on the stones of those monosyllables, the tensile steel of his lines. Baudelaire, the formal, aural structure of his quatrains, and the way the sense, the sentencing, flows through them.
Prose poems? Paz and Rimbaud. Which books did I read to bits? Shakespeare. Hopkins. Yeats. Those others who also bed their song and sense most deeply into the words that embody them. Keats, loading every rift in the great odes, as he does in “To Autumn,” whose monosyllabic nouns and verbs engorge your senses with fullness, roundness, ripeness, whose sounds resonate till time dilates in them and in the doubled o’s of “ooze”, the diphthong of “hours”—“by a cider press with patient look, / thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours”—so we hear what Autumn sees, the hours cut and drowse till time itself begins to ooze the sweetness of pressed apples. Heaney, “lobe and larynx of the mossy places.” Those who choose their path and go by soundings, foregrounding the physical properties of the lobbed mud bombs and sweet, swoll, silk-skinned drupes of their syllables: vowels giving you the skinny on pitch, rising higher in e’s and i’s, sinking into the plummy voluptuous rondure of a’s, o’s, u’s, and sometimes y’s held slingshot, slyly launching a zingy retort, diphthongs bending their notes; pure phonetic mass measured by vowel length, numbers and kinds of consonants: r’s growling, s’s hissing at t’s that spit back, l’s trills, glutted crops’ glottal stops giving gizzard-gritty traction to the line—solo or doubled or clusterplucking meaning from the ab-original Proto-Indo-European grunt—each syllabic nub humming its own quid-ditty.
Whitman, wide as America. But who can sing like Walt? The Latin Americans. Dickinson. If she strays far from the ballads’ sequentially unfolding narrative action with her mainly paratactic sentence structure, her telegraphic dashes that score the movement of her lines pointing toward the simultaneity of revelation—a mostly cool intellectual ecstasy in her case—a species of timelessness (if not that extremity of it felt when sentencing lacks even a main clause verb), still, she stays close to song, varying ballad and hymn meter or common measure. Like the ballads, too, with their frisson of the supernatural, her poems can make the hair on your neck stand up with their strange power. Tsvetaeva, her nearest sister? Matron and maid of honor—for each other. Pound, early on: “the sequence of the musical phrase”; words cut in time; “the ‘sculpture’ of rhyme.” Mandelstam: “Judaic chaos” plus Christian logos (“Let there be light” / “In the beginning was the word”). Vowel- and rhyme-rich, Italian’s made for an aria, an open-throated flow, but the resistance put up by some of Montale’s hard-won, tough and grudging music, with its fizzy, buzzing, sputtering, choking, grizzling doubled consonants and dissimilar consonant clusters, could fuse La Scala’s spotlights, but then one more spark struck by their friction ignites a Roman candle that scours the air and ear and dazzles, though its reek of sulfur brings back his war, those we’ve been in, the one we are entering now (“And hell is certain”). Each of these two poets lost and recovered his voice, took back his rough freedom. Montale, Mandelstam: ever more central, prophetic, and contemporary.
Walcott’s insistence in poems and plays, essays and conversational asides—and his best work’s proof—that every aspect of language is mimetic. There are other kinds of achievement, and awards for them, including the Nobel, but how many in the last century so refreshed poetry in English? Contenders are few. Something from another world, different families of languages: Native American (both North and South) poetry and song. They keep alive an oral tradition preserving cultural memory that, for some pueblo nations, goes back past 10,000 years, in the same river valley, to the Anasazi; for nomadic nations, remembrance might require re-crossing a land bridge (gone now) in reverse, to the old ones on the other side of the sea (frozen or melting): “The wind gave them life. . . In the skin at the tips of our fingers, we see the trail of the wind; it shows us where the wind blew when our ancestors were created” [Navajo].
What has moved me? What have I aspired to achieve? Poem by poem to make a particular aural texture, a sonic sphere, a soundscape for that one poem. To learn rhyme as well as reason—poetry and prose—to be at home in poetry’s way of thinking, of comprehending the world, not only the grind, the grist of the logic of argument.
What excites you most about your new collection?
I’m shallow. I like the cover. I like the title, but won’t say more and spoil it. I’ve always been ambitious with variety—rhymed verse; free verse; different meters; different forms; different lengths; change of soundscape, stance, subject, tone; what the poem’s up against. This book brings together work from many years, which can be a challenge as well as a blessing. I’m pleased with the form it found, with the movements of the sections and the flow through the whole book.
The other thing I’m excited about—and proud of—is being published by Arrowsmith Press, a very smart, generous, writer-friendly, committed group of individuals. They are truly supportive of the work they champion. I always look forward to seeing what Arrowsmith will publish next—there is no algorithm. Melnyczuk and Arrowsmith have nerve—they’re choosy, eclectic, excellent. Read their books! Google them, and listen—to Poesiaudio, a selection from Nidia Hernández’s multimedia poetry project, La Maja
Desnuda, a rich trove of Spanish-language poets thirty years in the making.
As the body ages,
does your spirit grow younger?
My spirit cries and rages.
Satisfaction? Too little too late.
Kissing the maid at the mill,
enough’s never enough.
I want what feeds the hunger.
To be sated is
to suck tart greengages.
Going going gone.
All my pretty ones?
Songs of Love and Hate
or songs of love and loss?
Shall we play
Schubert or Leonard Cohen?
Airbnb the Schloss
or crash outside the gate?
What do you want from me?
Tonight should I be
Macheath or Macduff?
Shall I lick the blade
or weep into my cuff?
My spirit cries and rages.
The body loves its cages.
The spirit likes sleeping rough.
Purchase Flame in a Stable
Martin Edmunds’ poems have appeared in Agni, The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Paris Review, Little Star, Berfrois, and Consequence, and are featured on Poetry Daily, Vox Populi Sphere, the W. B. Yeats Society of NY website, and on Tina Cane’s Poetry is Bread. His book Flame in a Stable (2021) and chapbook Black Ops (2018) were published by Arrowsmith Press; Donald Hall selected his first book, The High Road to Taos, for the National Poetry Series. His work has been anthologized by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, and appears in Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets and New Mexico Poetry Renaissance. Edmunds was for several years an Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine; other honors include an Artist Fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize, and the Lloyd McKim Garrison Medal for Poetry. He co-wrote the screenplay for Passion in the Desert (Roland Films/Fine Line Features), an adaptation of the Balzac story. Edmunds freelances as a writer and editor, teaches privately, and vies publicly with moon snails, sea stars, and gulls for clams and oysters.