Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: In keeping with its form, this poem keeps the same end words as Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur.” Was using this form difficult? How did it affect the actual writing process?
Katherine Williams: My life as a technician and homemaker requires a lot of analytical thought, and it’s hard for me to settle into writing poems. The boûts-rimés helps me to turn my imagination on because it tricks my left brain, which is kind of bossy, into playing along and then letting my right brain have a go.
It’s fun to work deliberately against the original poem’s connections between the end-words—that’s how a reverent poem about transcending debasement through faith can become a critique of religion as it abets impoverishment.
RR: This piece has a lot of mid-line punctuation. Was the use of the commas, dashes, and periods a reaction to the constraints of the template you chose or more of a rhythmic choice?
KW: Hopkins’s original poem makes use of internal punctuation throughout. In general I want the fewest marks possible, and to let word choices do the heavy lifting…but when the words are given, and you’re stringing them together in a new way, and trying also to make five iambs, the sentences get complex and punctuation marks become tiny stitches that hold the phrases together and help them make sense. Hopkins is known for inventive hyphenation, and I use a lot of that too, both as an homage and for the economy.
RR: This poem feels as if it was written about a photograph–the opening lines definitely seem to be about one. Did you reference or think about a specific photograph while writing this?
KW: The scene is a mashup of a few images I carry in my mind. My cousin had recently showed me two snapshots of our mothers as children with their mother, just before becoming wards of the State of Georgia at the dawn of The Great Depression. The pictures reminded me of photographs I’d seen by Dorothea Lange, who documented Dust Bowl refugees.
I don’t know that I set out to write about poverty, which I’ve never known, but “soil” and “rod” suggested subsistence living to me, so then “foil” could be used to describe makeshift living, and I’d seen oiled-paper windows in shacks here on John’s Island. I doubt I’d have come up with such precise images without fiddling with the given words. One thing I love about formal poetry is how the constraints make the brain wander into unfamiliar territory.
RR: Did you ever feel that you had to “force” a line to get it to fit the rhyme scheme? Do you find that a predetermined rhyme scheme liberates or confines?
KW: It both liberates and confines, and sure it feels forced at first. Isolating the end-words and pondering them is like looking deeply at a painting. As the given words sink in, threads start to emerge and knit themselves into connections between disparate words. But then, you put the pieces all together, and they’re too big for the little sonnet-box you’ve got, so you have to work to make them fit.
It’s very satisfying to get the sense and the fit just so, and to make it sound natural.
It’s like a painterly process, you sketch a phrase, look at it, erase this part here and make that part darker over there, come back to it another day to see if it seems right. It’s the labor that familiarizes you with your tools and their use, and eventually the payoff is spontaneity.
RR: What advice would you offer to someone who wants their poetry to be in overt conversation with the works of well-established authors? Specifically, we wonder if you have thoughts on things to avoid.
KW: When you want to get better at chess, you play people who are better than you. Same thing in poetry, jazz, science, conversation, anything that involves learning. First you copy the greats. When you feel experienced enough, you might ask a master a question and try to understand the answer. Eventually you enter into dialog.
Boûts-rimés is a way to enter into this process with great poets, and the thing to avoid is timidity. A poem may be great, but it’s also nothing but ideas made of words. At some point the ambitious student has to take Eliot’s advice, and just dare to steal something—but it has to be something they can take ownership of and defend.
Honestly, it felt almost blasphemous to take from none other than Hopkins, and use his own words and even his title to turn and describe a situation that contradicts his original. But Hopkins is just a person, after all, and I like to think we’d have a pretty good conversation.
Katherine Williams’s work in Issue 3.3: