Keith Leonard: One of the many things I enjoy about “Bathing my 20 Year Old Son After He Has Broken His Arm” is how it moves through both action and meditation, and yet, the poem is never confusing despite a volleying of those two registers. Could you discuss your relationship with clarity in your poems?
Cecil Sayre: The most difficult aspect for me in writing my poems is accurately presenting the emotions of the moment, and I suspect that might be the more meditative parts of the poem. The physical, the action, is much easier to convey; that’s the concrete and almost simply becomes a reporting of the ‘facts’. I struggle with honesty, that is, finding the words that express most truly how the speaker feels. This usually requires the most revision and maybe that constant revision leads to the clarity that you are asking about. I know when it scares me in its truthfulness I have it right.
KL: How has parenting influenced your writing?
CS: Parenting forces me to accept my age, while at the same time remember and re-examine my childhood, albeit from a new perspective. I’ve become more aware, each and every day, of being a parent and a child. My work almost always focuses on the relationships we have and form with each other, and the duality of parenting, being both a parent and a child, leads to all sorts of revelations about the self.
KL: Speaking of “childhood,” can you talk a bit about how you were first introduced to poetry?
CS: By the age of nine I was writing prose, poetry came later and I kind of fell into it. By my preteens I had discovered the Doors and was captured by Jim Morrison’s lyrics, which are poetry. Reading about Morrison’s life I learned he read Rimbaud and the Beats, they were his inspiration, and so I began reading them too. The fact that poetry could have such a strong impact with so few words just knocked me out, and I began reading whatever I came across, both the good and the bad, trying to figure it out.
KL: This poem pays particular attention to the body, describing the son’s age as evidenced by his long hair and broad back. This is a broad question, but could you discuss your understanding of the relationship between the body and poetry?
CS: The body is poetry. It is poetry, it is music, it is art. It is the one thing we can know without doubt. It is the most consistent concreteness we have access to. The death of poetry is abstraction so we must write from the body and of the body. Once we have established the body in poetry, in words, then we can allow in the abstractions, the thoughts about the body.
KL: Can you think of any other poets who seem to share your sentiment about the body in poetry? Who do you turn to for inspiration?
CS: The first two poets I read, devoured, were Charles Bukowski and Adrienne Rich. Their work is very physical, especially Bukowski’s, he is all about the experience of the body, but so is Rich, particularly her book Dream of a Common Language. Lately I’m enjoying the work of B. H. Fairchild.
KL: What are the particular difficulties with writing about family? And besides family, what are some themes or subjects you find yourself writing poems about?
CS: There is a thin line to tread when writing about others, especially family. As a rule, I try not to write about them, or their experiences, instead focusing on my experiences, even though it may, and often does, concern an event we shared. All I can do is be as honest as possible about what I think/thought and felt and at the same time be respectful of the other person (or persons) involved. A difficulty is the form. Some things must be changed to fit the limits of a poem. Hopefully what does become changed, or omitted, is not that relevant. And ultimately what it is all about is the creating of a poem, a work of art, something made up; it is not a factual report of the event.
Most of my poems are about relationships, and specifically family relationships. Some deal with my immediate family, while others tackle family history, and in those instances the family history may serve as more inspiration than anything.
KL: This poem take a wonderful turn at the end when the father’s frustrations are turned back on himself as he realizes his impatience is the failure of the situation, not the broken arm and anger of the son. What is your understanding of failure/mistake in poems?
CS: That’s an interesting interpretation of the poem’s conclusion. I don’t exactly see it as a sense of failure on the father’s part, but maybe more one of resignation, perhaps a failure in general but not one assigned to either party. I feel the poem concludes with more of a feeling of hopelessness. There is some mutual understanding gained by both the father and the son, but not one that seems to solve any issues or even brings them closer. And interestingly it is through the son’s own innocence and naiveté that the reader is offered this insight. So perhaps in that respect there is a failure on the father’s part, an inability to acknowledge the totality of the situation.
Keith Leonard is the author of a forthcoming poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2016), and a chapbook Still, the Shore (YesYes Books). He has held fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Indiana University, where he received his MFA. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, and Gulf Coast. Keith is a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University.