Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: In “The Peach Tree,” we’re struck by the image of a young girl holding a peach with flesh that has been eaten away by bugs. What inspired you to create such a powerful, contrasting image?
Matthew Roth: Though I firmly believe that poems can come from anywhere, this particular image was drawn from life. I really did have a peach tree planted halfway up the bank above our vegetable garden, and the first year it bore a real crop of peaches, I was aghast when I found that the unripe fruit was being devoured by brown marmorated stink bugs, a recent and unwelcome visitor to our part of Pennsylvania. The image of the peach was for me a meeting place for the linked emotions of anticipation and disappointment—emotions deeply familiar to gardeners and parents alike.
RR: We’re drawn in by the image of the peach tree’s “unburdened branches” that are “bowed as if still beneath that weight.” The image suggests how our past experiences shape us, but there’s also a sense of loss that resonates in it. What is your approach to using metaphors to guide readers into making these connections?
MR: I’m the kind of poet that likes to draw his metaphors directly from the scene where the poem’s narrative takes place. So many of the poems I love focus on an image that is integral to the literal scene but suddenly gathers figurative power. I suppose that’s why I love Frost’s poems so much. I often think about that moment in “After Apple Picking,” where the speaker momentarily looks at the orchard through a thin piece of ice, sees its hazy strangeness, then lets the ice fall and break. There are whole lives and Platonic philosophies bound up in that image, but it’s not contrived, it’s chosen from among the various images at hand. It’s also not over-determined, so readers get to engage their own memories and imaginations in order to make sense of the image, a sense that will change and grow with successive readings.
RR: The bond between the father and daughter in the poem is unspoken yet powerful. In your eyes, what is the value of the father-daughter relationship?
MR: Your question makes me consider the long tradition of “For My Daughter” poems. I’m thinking of Coleridge and Yeats, but also Weldon Kees. Taken together, those poems pretty well capture the feelings of responsibility, hope, and anxiety most parents experience. A great contemporary example is Maggie Smith’s book, Good Bones, which is largely concerned with these complex emotions. I hope in my poem that I managed to get across some sense of the competing emotions and responsibilities that go with being a parent.
RR: When writing a poem, do you typically start with an image, a theme, or something else? What does that process look like for you?
MR: Most often I start with an image, and I have a little game I play in my mind. In this game there is a tiny Dick Clark (or sometimes Richard Dawson) with a gold blazer and baton microphone, and he shows me a picture of something (whatever the image is) and asks me, how is this like life? My job is to avoid the awful buzzer sound that comes with a wrong answer. So, those overgrown lilacs, what are they like? That gap between a glacier and the mountain it rests on, what’s that like? Or, in this case, that peach tree with its premature harvest, what does that remind you of? Of course not all poems come this way, but I’ve found the scenario generative.
RR: We understand you teach creative writing at Messiah College. How has your approach to writing poetry evolved over time as you’ve studied and taught literature academically?
MR: My favorite thing to do is to sit across a table from one of my students, poem in hand, together working through the poem, developing some sense of the unconventional, some way of saying something simultaneously surprising and true. The discipline of having to articulate with, I hope, generous clarity, the strengths and weaknesses of a poem, day after day, week after week, has helped me to see my own work more clearly. I’m a better poet now than I was twenty years ago. Perhaps that would have happened anyway, but I like to believe my work at Messiah—where, I should add, I have had the pleasure of engaging with the most earnest, hard-working, talented students I have met anywhere—has fed and sustained my own creative work. I am saving this paragraph for my next five-year review.
Matthew Roth’s work appears in Issue 7.1: