Bruce Snider: Can you talk a bit about the origins of your poem, “Two-Headed Nightingale”? What inspired it? How long did it take to complete?
Shara Lessley: Inspiration? Because the poem was written eight years ago, I honestly can’t recall! Its source might have been an image at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, or one pulled from some online archive. Regardless of where I first saw the conjoined songstresses’ photo, I remember being very moved by both the biographical and fictive details surrounding the lives of Christine and Millie McCoy. At the time, I was struggling — and failing! — to write narrative poems in a rather straightforward way. “Two-Headed Nightingale” demanded I abandon linear strategies. The poem’s voices and viewpoints are multiple, ever-shifting. Christine and Millie speak, of course, as does the general public (audience members, promoters, a mortician, etc.). As I remember it, the drafting process was quite frenzied: while the poem’s various players argued about the reductive sum of the sisters’ identity — are they miraculous, monstrous, inferior on grounds of race or gender, medical curiosities, substantially talented, or simply slaves? — I was pursuing a larger argument about the possibilities of how I might move poetically. Whatever its limitations, “Two-Headed Nightingale” was critical for me in that I entered the poem still wrestling with the idea of plot and emerged from the poem’s confines secure in my identity as a primarily lyric poet.
BS: Would you call your process for this poem typical for your work?
SL: The poems of my own I’m most married to have come rather urgently from start to finish in some approximation of what will be their final form. In other words, it’s extremely difficult for me to piece together fragments, lines, and phrases culled from different periods of time. If I can’t find my way out of a draft during the first sitting — even if the ending is temporary and reworked a hundred times over — it’s unlikely that piece of writing will survive. I envy poets with a gift for hoarding, those whose talents include rescuing and recycling a sentence here, a stanza there. I, on the other hand, remain chained to my desk hour after hour in an attempt to chisel the air.
As with all things, I suppose, there are exceptions. “Wintering“, for example, was written over some odd months during long walks across Stanford’s campus. “Already winter makes a corpse of things,” rang in my ear for days until it was joined by the phrase “Snow reshapes what ice has taken.” When an emotional declaration later emerged to counter the initial sentences’ descriptive impulse, a breakthrough occurred: “You’ve lost interest in letters. So let sunrise come.” Frankly, this psychological turn left me perplexed. Letters from whom, I wondered? And why had their author “lost interest”? After a few more weeks of running the lines in my head, the speaker’s identity revealed itself: a woman abandoned and left to fend for herself somewhere in the unforgiving northern plains of the late 1800s. Particular and peculiar as it seemed, I didn’t question it. The rest of the draft followed shortly.
BS: As is often true in your poetry, you use line in “Two-Headed Nightingale” to provide a remarkable source of tension. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the poem’s formal elements and its narrative? Is line something you think about in the early stages of composition?
SL: Truth told, I’m syntactically obsessed! I’m completely charged by the possibilities of what a sentence can do musically — the elongation of a phrase by Donne, for example, followed by some swift and unanticipated contraction. Whereas diction and phrasing provide the poem’s rhythmic score, I like to think of the line as a kind of choreography that both extends and counters its sonic movement. At times, the line underscores music: it seems to dance with it, to provide the kind of support as would an ideal partner. A phrase’s volume is increased via enjambment, for example, by calling attention to a particular word dangling at its end. In such moments, the lyric moment is amplified. Elsewhere, the line might create emphasis by resisting rhythm. Breaks, in other words, can delay, suspend, counter, or work against the poem’s essential rhythms. They can be quite surprising. Do I think about the line’s greater contributions to musical and dramatic tension during the early stages of composition? Absolutely. For me, structure is muscular. In this regard, I’m very much like a trained dancer; that is, at all times I try my best to be sensitive to (and conscience of) the line’s integrity.
BS: Who do you think of as your primary influences? And have those changed over the years?
SL: Where to begin! My influences, it seems, are simultaneously ever- and never-changing. I love Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop for their gusto and precision, as well as more recent work by contemporary poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Terrance Hayes. I often crave George Oppen and Keats. I’ve already mentioned Donne, I think. I can’t resist Plath’s dramatic urgency. This fall, I spent a lot of time savoring select poems by Lorca. Lately, I’ve been acquainting myself with poets and writers from the Middle East. I also read a lot of prose. A few days ago I finished Flaubert in Egypt. It was horrifying and a hoot all at once.
BS: You mention that “Two-Headed Nightingale” was written eight years ago. What about your more recent work?
SL: “Two-Headed Nightingale” is the title poem of a collection forthcoming from New Issues in 2012. I’m currently working on a manuscript tentatively titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife, which takes as its subject the history of stateside bombings and life in the Middle East. Overall, it’s a much more cohesive project than Two-Headed Nightingale. Although I live in Amman, the poems themselves aren’t necessarily autobiographical. For the first time in my writing life, I have lists of titles from which individual poems are emerging. As a result, the drafting process feels very fresh.
BS: You recently moved to Jordan. Has life overseas affected the direction of your work?
SL: It’s difficult to articulate the extent to which living in Amman has deepened my relationship with poetry. Jordan itself is complicated and rich, beautiful, challenging and, at times, utterly baffling. Petra, Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea, Jerash: what a gift to have such places within reach! The region’s sounds and textures, its history, geography, political complications — I find all of these factors deeply impacting. Granted, there are times I feel very far away from home. After many months, I’m still struggling to learn Arabic. Although the process isn’t pretty, I find joy in the daily failures. With the shift of a single vowel, for instance, I recently told someone “the sky is a giant apricot,” instead of “the weather is quite sunny.” From this I gather that whatever my location, language is damned well determined to remind me that my mistakes are often more interesting than the security of their everyday counterparts.
Bruce Snider is the author of Paradise, Indiana, winner of the 2011 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize (forthcoming from Pleiades Press), as well as The Year We Studied Women, winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, he is the 2011 writer-in-residence at the Amy Clampitt House in Lenox, MA.