The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: “Futile – the winds -” comes from the Emily Dickinson poem “Wild nights – Wild nights!” Do you usually draw from Dickinson or other poets? What about the line inspired you to write your piece?
Benjamin Gucciardi: I actually came to the title “Futile, – the winds -” after much of the poem was written. I was reading Dickinson when I saw the line in “Wild nights – Wild nights!”
The brackets around – the winds – struck me, it was as if she had pinned the word down on the page with two dashes, reinforcing its depiction as futile. When I think about the wind, I usually think of its wild freedom, of its power. This poem is in many ways autobiographical; I lost my older sister when I was twenty-two due to complications with diabetes compounded by drug use. The idea that even seemingly untamable, mighty forces can at times be futile felt very central to my sister’s story: Neither my family’s love or our relationship, which felt so profound, were able to keep my sister from her destructive habits and her early death. I also liked that the line, when used as a title, introduced the theme of the natural world which is central to the poem, and I felt evoking Dickinson was an appropriate tone to set.
I love the idea that as poets, we are in conversation with other poems and other poets. When I write, I get to enter this parlor full of strange, beautiful voices.
There is a line in Galway Kinnell’s poem Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock,
“I can make out through the leaves / the old, shimmering nothingness, the sky.” I think about that line most times when I’m lying somewhere on my back with a partial view of the sky, and I smile. Poems have revealed so much to me about the nature of things, how to appreciate and see. They have literally shaped my understanding of the world around me. So I do think I am drawing on other poets, Dickinson and others, in my life and in my work, all the time.
RR: The formatting for your piece is an interesting approach. What inspired you to use such a form?
BG: The format of the poem includes five sections. Sections allow connections to be made between seemingly separate images and ideas. Sections also allow a writer to chronicle time in a way that is less linear and more coiled, which seems more accurate to me. Some of my favorite poets use this approach. Galway Kinnell, who I mentioned above, often uses numerical sections in his poems. Larry Levis’ poems move from one place to the next so skillfully—from personal narrative, to historical moment, to description of the landscape of the central valley of California, his work is totally hypnotic and astounding, and this journey is often facilitated through section breaks.
This sectioned format felt like it could hold the content of this particular poem, with the literal journey of the pelicans, and the movement between distinct periods in my life. It came together very naturally in this form. And my hope is that as the reader moves around in time and place, they establish links between phenomena that they may not have otherwise seen.
RR: The imagery you use within your piece is stark and jarring, drawing the reader’s attention inward as you relate the pelican’s existence to the sister’s death. What advice would you offer new writers trying to conquer such big topics?
BG: In many ways I still feel like a new writer trying to conquer big topics, but I suppose I can offer this: One of the challenges I face when I write about such intimate material, particularly loss, is the tendency to let the poignancy of the moment or the weight of the pain carry the poem, instead of the quality of language and the images. I often write about things that have either happened to me or, at the very least, carry an emotional significance that is real to me. What may feel so moving, so heavy, so crucial to me may come off as flat or not land well, or more often, may just not make sense to a reader. Its like you are watching a movie, and there is really poignant soundtrack supporting the action, you may feel touched by what is happening. But if the soundtrack is taken away, you might realize that the plot is actually kind of dull or unclear, and the acting is bad. For this reason, I think it is key to have other poets/writers that you can share work with, because they can reflect back some of the ‘deadwood’ of the poem, as James Wright called it. It is easier for them to turn off the soundtrack.
This poem came together over several years and many drafts, periods of working on it intensely, and periods of letting it be. I think that time and reflection were key to the poem resolving itself and finding coherence. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to gain new understanding about my own grieving, which is one argument for taking on bigger topics. It seems crucial to tackle something you truly want to sit with, to know more about. For me, the process of writing a poem is an inquiry into an event or a moment that holds abnormal significance, a moment that sticks out like a loose thread from your sleeve, that you can not ignore. Why did that light falling in the meadow paralyze me all afternoon? What is it about that news story about pelicans plunging into desert roads? And my work is to discover the truth buried in that significant moment or event, and scrape it down, then polish it, and finally, if I am lucky, share what I discovered with others.
RR: Where did your inspiration to draw on nature in such an intimate way come from within your piece?
BG: This question immediately brings to mind a quote by the Buddhist teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hahn:
“When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain,nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there…. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.”
The line, this is not just poetry, it’s reality, seems especially important to me. I think at the ultimate level, there is so little distinction between us and the natural world, and between us and other humans. This is not just a buddhist idea. One section in one of my favorite poems by Pablo Neruda Still Another Day begins, Pardon me, if when I want / to tell the story of my life / it’s the land I talk about.
So my inspiration to draw on nature in such an intimate way comes from my intention to see at this level, my intention to be intimate with nature (interbe), to be intimate with other human beings and with all experiences. It is work in progress, but I feel writing poetry is a great ally in this pursuit; it requires me to pay attention, to notice things more closely. When I do that, I see that everything is changing all the time, and I loosen my grip, and sink more readily into things.
RR: We read that you do nonprofit work with youth. How do your experiences affect what you write about in your poetry?
BG: I feel a great resonance between the work I do with youth and the work I do as a poet. We live in a world which is sick, suffering maladies of environmental destruction, income inequality, police brutality and persecution at the hands of those who have economic and political power. I worry that in America, so many people are building walls to insulate themselves from other people’s suffering. We have a choice: we can turn our backs on what is happening, or we can resist and offer a hand, in whatever way we know how. One way I can do that is by working with youth. I work with refugee and immigrant youth who have been gravely affected by the world’s sickness and injustice; many have seen war first hand, have experienced violence and neglect, and are now trying to adjust to a new language and a new culture in a challenging urban environment. Providing these youth an opportunity to play and connect in a supportive community offers the possibility for healing.
So if the work I do with young people is my way to engage with the world’s suffering, I think poetry is my method of better understanding it. And I don’t want to ignore my own suffering, my own part in perpetuating harm, my own privilege and biases, or my own affliction. I want to go into all of this, understand it, make meaning of it. Suffering is fundamental to human existence and we are all afflicted in one way or another. Whether I’m working with youth or writing poems, I am defining where I stand in relation to the world and its enormous pain and its enormous beauty. I don’t want to look away from the pain and pretend it is not there.
Poetry is such an important force across time and culture because it helps us understand our suffering. A poem can be like a salve, for the individual and for the community. I hope my poetry, like the work I do with youth, helps to transform suffering and turn it into something of value.