In the following, Phill Provance comments on his poem, “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”, forthcoming in the September 2010 issue of Cha. See what we said about the poem here.
Dear Cha Readers and Fellow Writers:
I’ll be honest: This is some kind of major compliment for Tammy and Jeff to ask me to write this little note to you. I’m not sure they wanted a note or letter, or anything even slightly epistolary. But as I sat on the New Jersey Transit train heading into New York to meet my publisher today something about the decaying yellow-brick buildings from nearly a century ago, the characterlessness of the uniformly red-brick buildings from only a decade ago, and the flat-gray sky—or is that smog?—in short (if you can forgive my momentary lapse into the voice of some High British Imperialist) what passes for the City of Newark, N.J. these days—as I was sitting here I just wanted to talk to someone. Someone I’ve never met before. Someone, I suppose, like you.
I am in Penn Station again. It is several hours since I wrote the paragraph above, which I intended to follow with a string of my New York impressions. I have rehearsed this statement several times now. I was hoping to get to the Strand (a landmark-sized bookstore you must visit if you ever make it out to these parts, by the way) early, then give all my Hong Kong readers a taste of Yankee-ness. But I ended up imagining this portion of the essay so much I walked all the way to SoHo and had to walk all the way back up town, leaving me no time to jot it all down.
As for the point of recording my impressions, it would have been to give you an idea of how I think. I figured this was as good a way as any to segue into how “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” was written because how a poet thinks is just as integral to process in my opinion as technical aspects like style and tradition. But sifting through the tidbits just now I’ve realized everything will strain through the present, which gives me a kind of nauseous feeling as if I am an actor reciting, rather than acting, my part. Anyhow, for the sake of making that hour or so I spent thinking and walking worth something, here is what I can remember from what I wanted to tell you in a purer form:
New York really has the prettiest women. Probably all aspiring actresses. You know, it’s a shame most of them are so pretty but the difference between stardom and 2.5 kids in Brooklyn could be as simple as a few misplaced hairs. I wonder if they realize this. I wonder if it makes them miserable. I wonder how many New Yorkers are miserable. I’m sure I was when I lived here, but then there’s nothing like dating in New York in Winter. That little Russian girl’s glossy red lips and soft cashmere scarf outside the IFC theater in January were simply brilliant. God, I wish I wasn’t putting on so much weight! There are too many McDonald’ses in Pennsylvania, and I don’t exercise nearly enough. Now these girls won’t even look at me. Time was they would at least screw me then leave me for a hedge-fund manager. Funny thing about women in the city: They might think they want poets, but they all secretly, subconsciously want hedge-fund managers. What do I want? A nice piece of ass. Well, maybe. I mean, I want someone to talk to me about words and ideas and imagined things, who will rub my back and make me soup when I have a cold, but will still be a piece of ass. Yes, world, sadly I am another selfish poet (Read: Loser) with a burgeoning waistband. But, world, I am a good boy. I am a nice boy, a smart boy. I just answered wrong when they asked me what I wanted to be after school. I should have chosen “finance” or “gynecology.” I’d have a pretty little thing like one of these here then. But maybe… I mean, I’ve known several finance guys now. Most of them have more money than sense, and after all, I have more balls than cock (apparently). Maybe I should find a patron. Yes, that would work. I mean, people ought to pay me for being me as cool as I am, right? Why should it be any other way? I should directly ask my readers in this essay if they would mind being my patrons. I need approximately $160,000 U.S. dollars. I’ll tell them if they find anything I say in my essay useful to their own enterprises to contact Tammy and Jeff. Yes. ‘Contact Tammy and Jeff, darlings. Send the money express mail. Do it for art. Do it so I can breed with a pretty city girl. I love you gently and forever, Phill.’ Beautiful. Perfect. Now pop a stamp on that shit and throw it in the mailbox…..
I hope this little excerpt of my thoughts and feelings about New York gives you some insight into how I think because, likely, this is where theme comes from. Initially when Tammy and I discussed my writing this essay we concentrated primarily on how I wrote the poem. But why is just as important. To some extent, I’d wager, if you don’t find my personal point of view charming and attractive—something that you yourself would think—you wouldn’t choose a similar theme for your own work, and I expect you shouldn’t need to. Your own themes will do just as well, and probably my No. 1 rule for visiting New York also holds true for writing poems.
Now, getting into specifics of that theme I’d like to point out that blatantly pointing out ironies is normally a faux-pas in poetry. But this is one of those cases in which you take a chance and it works because the theme itself has to do with desiring a return to innocence from a place where all you see is irony. I wrote the poem after recalling a trip I took to visit my ex-intended—a woman I loved very much in a very innocent and direct way—in St. Petersburg, and the writing itself was painful for this reason. All I wanted to do the entire time I was writing the poem, in fact, was to stop writing it. I didn’t enjoy going back because more than the simple pain of losing someone the poem revealed that I had lost parts of myself in many ways: Post-relationship, pre-poem, I was dry and jaded; I had bet the best parts of myself on this love and lost, and more than anything else this is what made me sad.
In this way, thematically, “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” is very much a “Fall” poem from the Judeo-Christian tradition. We can almost imagine biblical Adam writing some similar thing after he and Eve are ejected from the Garden of Eden, and to have those feelings is pretty powerful but also pretty awful. The good news about this, though, is that it places the poem within my own tradition at its earliest roots. I cannot claim this was something I was consciously doing, but then, I am an advocate of intuitive process and believe that like theme tradition is something that will come out whether you want it to or not.
Switching gears now, there were several very intelligent comments I made concerning this poem to Tammy one day, and those had to do with what was intentional. To expound on those here, my first point of intention besides wanting to talk about my visit with my ex was my desire to experiment with a contemporary form. The night I wrote the original draft of “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” I had gone to a book launch in New York for Eric Baus’s Tuned Droves (a very good recent collection I suggest you pick up), and I was contemplating how Eric recycles images to create his special brand of word poetry. What I most admire about Eric’s work is that it dissociates with literal meaning and preferences the texture of the words themselves. Reading Eric, you are not supposed to make sense of a poem, but simply feel it out, as if you are groping around a dark room to find the light switch.
This other, more sensitive kind of reading was something I wanted for my readers, but I wanted to do Eric one better. Having studied the works of James Joyce at Oxford University, I wanted to incorporate something I think Joyce does very well in Finnegans Wake, which is create plurative meaning. To be sure, Joyce is one of my favorite authors and personal heroes, so I can safely say the modernistic playfulness in “St. Petersburg” is largely the result of my close readings of this father of Modernism.
But I also do not write from the same mental place as Joyce. My process is not nearly as cerebral, but more automatic. While writing a poem and then while editing it, I tend to feel out the words for their impact rather than intentionally injecting more information from the logical centers of my mind. So, for example, rather than cram the meanings of several foreign words into one phoneme, as Joyce would have done, I chose to rely on standard meaning and texture as my two points of reference for the reader and use this to create metonymic meanings that were closely tied to the words’ original definitions.
In this way I hoped to tread the line between what Baus and Joyce do. Rather than simply asking my readers to “feel” my meaning, I wanted to provide them with signposts; and emotional signposts at that, not heavy-handed riddles that require decades of study to unpack. And this was in accordance with another of my intentions: To make the poem appreciable to the few, but accessible to all.
Finally, to give you some idea of the structure of “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches”—a structure my editor at Cy Gist, Mark Lamoureaux, called “a new kind of form”—I will mention that this too was something automatic and “felt-out.” To my own mind imposing a structure on a poem or story distorts the content. It is forced and unnatural and, at the end of the day, can only serve as a superficial novelty, a bar trick. Yes, I could do it, probably, but I doubt the power in doing so. Rather, I prefer to let my poems find their own structures in an organic way. Naturally, someone might be better at imposing structures and could use the form from “St. Petersburg” for several very successful poems, but I wouldn’t and couldn’t. For me structure is more a matter of how content wants to exist in its own space.
The overall thought I wish to convey about “how to write poems,” then—though I doubt I can or would want to teach anyone how to write poems like me—is that the process is primarily a felt thing, not a logical thing. Of course, I have practiced the technical aspects many times, and I could show you hundreds of unsuccessful poems in which I was practicing sestinas, haiku, villanelles, etc. It takes this practice, in my opinion, for the technical skill to be there when you need it. But I would advise against seeing any such exercises as more than practice. Being an art, poetry by definition is not something you can execute well with a diagram or blueprint, but like walking or driving a car, is something you can only get better at with time and practice.
Or better yet, think of it this way: The lovely young ladies performing gymnastic feats of unimaginable skill at the Beijing Olympics probably were not thinking mid-somersault of where to place this hand and that leg. What they were probably doing was going through the motions after many years of experience. My advice to younger poets, then, is to practice and not expect everything you write to be a masterpiece. You, like anyone else who hopes to gain mastery over a pursuit, are allowed to have your behind-the-scenes “off-days”. You’re allowed to have many. It’s not, after all, what you do in all the moments leading up to the big game, but what you show and prove in that singular moment itself. And without the practice and the ability to put your skills into flawlessly unconscious use you won’t make across-the-board 10s, but will instead jam your crotch against the figurative horse. Why? Because you will still be practicing.
This is about all I have to say concerning “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches,” but I do hope you have found it useful and informative. Of course, if you think of anything you’d like me to expound upon, please don’t hesitate to send me a response via Tammy and Jeff. I am not some inaccessible hermit, and I welcome any and all commentary—unless you only want to be a prick, in which case don’t bother sending because T and J will likely filter that out.
Besides all this, I wish you the best in your own poems. And I hope that, barring any direct emotional connection, “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches” will be something you enjoy generally, something that will make you think or something that, at the very least, will keep you interested to the last word.
P.S.: Please Buy my book, The Day the Sun Rolled Out of the Sky, from Cy Gist Press for $6.95 USD, plus S&H. Doing so will not only help me pay my bills, but will also allow me to continue publishing with Cy Gist and Cha.