The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: Each of your three poems has very different forms. How do you decide what form a piece calls for? Is there a particular form that you favor over others?
Liz Ahl: Form comes to me in different ways, poem by poem. In “Saturn V,” it is perhaps obvious that I was thinking of the visual shape of that enormous and powerful rocket when I shaped the language into those short lines. In “The Radiators in Ellen Reed House,” I was also thinking visually, and the couplets were, for me, measuring out the language like the pipes and radiators measure out water, sending it noisily through a building. The radiators in my office also are long/horizontal, so that was a visual cue for me, I think. “The Radium Girls” is much more narrative and sprawly and wide-ranging than those other two, and I tend to shape my narrative poems into larger chunks, which I suppose function more organizationally like paragraphs, to organize information and control pace and pause. Although none of these poems are villanelles, I must mention it’s a favorite form of mine, and when a roughly iambic line sets itself on repeat in my brain, I often try to craft a rhyming couplet from it, so that I can make an attempt at a villanelle. Sometimes I find a little success. It’s the queen of forms for me.
RR: The “Radium Girls” flows very naturally through three distinct topics. Did this happen organically or did you plan for the poem to take this path before writing it?
LA: This poem was the result of a writing group project — we were working on writing poems inspired somehow by the periodic table of elements. Radium was one of the elements I chose, and I stumbled upon the incredible, awful story of the young women laborers who were knowingly poisoned — and I knew right away I wanted to write something about them. It’s often (not always) my inclination, in poems a drawn from history, to try to make or find a personal connection to that history. In this poem, the connection was my grandfather’s watch, which has radium (or radium-like — I’ve never actually confirmed) ornamentation on the face and hands. And I think that the subject/theme of “time,” which actually starts the poem, was the past piece to come to me. I wanted a way to get to these factory workers, and it came via the watches themselves, which made me think of the features of time-pieces of that era (moving hands, distinct “ticks”), which made me think of how technology changes our very sense of time and how it works.
RR: Where did you find the historical context for “The Radiators in Ellen Reed House”?
LA: I teach at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, in one of the oldest buildings on campus, Ellen Reed House. In 1911, when it was still Plymouth Normal School, Robert Frost taught there for a year. In this instance, the historical material was right there with me, every day.
RR: What grabbed you about “Saturn V” that made you choose to write about it? What about it captures your imagination?
LA: Twenty years ago, after being dazzled by Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 film, I was speaking on the phone with my mother, telling her about it, and she said, “Oh, I remember when that story broke. You’d just been born, and I was up in the middle of the night feeding you, and I stayed up all night watching it unfold on the TV while I held you.” My mother’s anecdote led to my first Apollo space program poem, “My Mom Holds Me.” The poem’s project was to explore the intersection of her story and the astronauts’ story, and indeed the nation’s history. After doing some subtraction, it dawned on me that I had been conceived in July 1969, right around the time of the first moon landing. That led to my second space program poem, and I have been writing these poems, on and off, ever since. Science and space exploration is chock full of great poetic material. The Saturn V rocket remains, for now, the biggest rocket we’ve sent up — it had to be so big because it had to achieve the escape velocity required lift its mechanical and human cargo out past low Earth orbit. Humans haven’t left low Earth orbit since Apollo 17. Films of the Saturn V lifting off still give me chills, no matter how many times I’ve seen them. The power harnessed by that rocket was astounding. And the notion of “escape velocity” as well as the idea that the rocket is built and is fired in multiple “stages” gave me lots of metaphorical fodder to play with in this poem.
RR: It’s interesting that your poems each tend to focus on a particular sensation–in the poems we’ve published, mainly touch and sound. Is there a specific sense or feeling that you prefer to convey in your similar works?
LA: To me, sound in poetry is key. The music of language, especially in unrhymed, unmetered free verse, seems to me like one of last clear distinctions between poetry and prose genres. That distinction — along with the notion of the line as a particular kind of “unit” in writing — is important to me, but I am old-fashioned and a bit out-of-step in my emphasis on those distinctions, I think. I hadn’t thought about touch before, so it’s interesting to me to ponder that some more. Sound is, of course, a kind of touch — in that sound is, essentially, the tiny organs of your inner ear being touched by sound waves. That linkage is something I will try to think about more deeply — and I thank you for taking me there.
Liz Ahl’s work in Issue 3.3: