Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four seasons, it is also a love letter addressed to a daughter lost to miscarriage. The poem is vividly, beautifully awake to the world, which has been reconfigured by absence, but also by a sense of being stranded, being caught in the act of becoming. Just as the poem questions how to grieve for a child who both was and was not here, so it also struggles with the aftermath of that loss. How can someone be a parent who has never had a child? With whom can he share the strangeness and wonder of New York, if not the expected child, whose hand he will never hold? A sparrow, music from a foreign instrument, a wild creature navigating the streets of New York, a Chinese day of mourning—everything becomes a form of attention, and a kind of prayer, and everything becomes something the poem wants, desperately, to both love and share.
In addition to Dear Almost, contributor Matthew Thorburn is the author of the full-length collections This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser), Every Possible Blue (CW Books), and Subject to Change (New Issues), as well as two chapbooks, A Green River in Spring (Autumn House) and Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City). Thorburn is a former Witter Bynner fellow at the Library of Congress. His poems are widely published in journals, including Memorious 16 and 26, and his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He writes a monthly feature for the Ploughshares blog and lives in New York City with his wife and son.
My first question has to do with form and structure in your poems. Subject to Change, your first book, was as formally inventive as any recent book—stanza forms, prose poems, experimental forms, poems in sections, a section of a poem written as a numbered list. Dear Almost is a long poem in sections, and it is formally consistent, so I was wondering about how your relationship to form has evolved since you wrote the poems in Subject to Change.
Looking back on it, 12 years after it was published, Subject to Change seems like a lot of first books in that it’s a bit of a miscellany, put together from the poems I’d written during grad school and in the years just before and after. I was definitely interested in trying new things then (and still am, though what makes them “new” might be less obvious now). I also think in many of those poems I was maybe driven more by my interest in experimenting with language than by a desire to say some particular thing, to tell a specific story or convey a certain feeling or mood.
Dear Almost has its roots in the opposite situation: a very particular and difficult experience—the loss of an unborn child in a miscarriage—that I wanted to shape a meditative narrative around. It’s also a book that sets out to answer a question: How do you mourn for someone you never really knew, never met or saw? In a subtler way, there is a little of that experimenter’s spirit in Dear Almost too, though. The second section of the book, “The Light that Lasts All Summer,” is one continuous narrative book-ended by two haiku. Also, though the reader probably can’t tell, I wrote the whole book-length poem in bits and fragments in a completely non-linear way, then pieced it all together like a mosaic, framed by the changing seasons, from one spring to the next. So the actual writing and construction of the poem—Will it all fit together? Will this odd assembly work?— felt like a major, multi-year experiment to me.
Dear Almost is a season suite, with each section corresponding to a season. This seems to me to be a more far-eastern approach to organizing a poem, and in fact, early sections mention Shanxi Province and Qingming. I know you have traveled in China and that your wife Lillian is Chinese American, and the acknowledgements of the book reference lessons in Mandarin. Could you talk a little about Chinese language, culture, and poetry, and how (or if) they influenced the writing and the final shape of Dear Almost?
“Season suite”—I love how that perfectly captures what I’d never really thought of as a form before. Something I learned from classical Chinese poetry is how poets like Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei would write about the seasons as a way of describing their own inner weather. From what I understand, there’s almost never a first-person pronoun in Chinese poems written in that time. I talk about this a little in Dear Almost. While I didn’t try to avoid the “I” in my book, I did focus on the changing seasons as a way of amplifying or echoing emotions, and to convey the passing of time during the period of mourning the poem describes.
I want to be clear, though, that I’m not an expert, not even a student of classical Chinese poetry. I’m an amateur reader who has been moved by, and tried to learn from, certain translations of Chinese poems. What I’ve learned about Chinese poetry has come from reading books like David Hinton’s wonderful anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (which I had a chance to write about here) and their introductory essays. I’ve also had the chance to talk with my mother-in-law, who is a great reader of Chinese poetry in Chinese, about different English versions of certain poems, and to hear which translations she likes better, and why—and to try to put into words which translations I prefer, as poems in English.
Beyond that, as you mentioned, I’ve been grateful to learn about and experience Chinese culture through my wife’s family, and to share that with Lillian and our son. Some of those experiences naturally found a place in Dear Almost. Qingming (or “Tomb-Sweeping Day”), for instance, is a time to honor ancestors and visit their graves, which found its way into the book pretty naturally. As for the language, I think I studied Chinese just enough to get a sense of how extremely difficult it can be to learn, especially for adults. I’ve picked up some words and phrases of spoken Chinese as my son advances in both languages (he’s three)—so that I can sometimes get a sense of what he and Lillian are talking about—but not enough to hold up my end of a conversation.
I know that Elizabeth Bishop is one of your touchstone poets—someone whose work you return to again and again. And it seems to me that you share her interest in writing about travel, her interest in place as an idea that can shape poems. Dear Almost looks, physically, on the page, very like some of Bishop’s poems—I’m thinking here of “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room.” Both depend on fairly short, loosely syllabic lines and a strong rhythm. I have a two-part question about you and Bishop. The first part is what you learned from reading her work, especially what you learned about long poems and the shorter poetic line.
You’re absolutely right: Bishop is one of my touchstones. I admire and keep coming back to many of her poems. I love her attentiveness, her way of staying with something and looking at it from different angles, and how she conveys a sense of the mind in motion, working through things on the page. Her “Poem,” which is my favorite of her poems, is a great example of this. How she studies and thinks about this little painting, carefully, meditatively, and then suddenly: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” I love that moment of amazed recognition, and the way the poem takes a turn into more personal territory there. I had the thrill of seeing the actual painting that “Poem” describes in a show of Bishop’s own paintings and a few items she had owned at the Tibor de Nagy gallery here in New York some years ago.
I try to emulate that kind of attentiveness in my own poems, and something like that way of showing the mind at work. Her poems about Brazil, and the way her work embodies the possibilities that travel and cross-cultural experiences can offer for a writer, have been important to me too. There’s an affinity between the traveler and the poet: for both, everything should be new and strange, and require and reward careful study and consideration. I wasn’t conscious of emulating her use of short, syllabic lines, but it’s not surprising to suppose I might have done it without realizing it. I definitely do admire how that kind of tight, crisp line can propel the narrative in a poem like “In the Waiting Room.”
The second part is about content. She was, famously, resistant to the confessional mode of her peers. And yet her most well-known poems are her most deeply felt and personal ones—“One Art,” which tackles losing a love, “Sestina,” which seems to reference her childhood in Nova Scotia, and “In the Waiting Room,” which references places and events we know are part of her childhood. I think of her stance on autobiographical content as a kind of poise, or reticence maybe, or some sort of distillation of feeling through both craft and time. Obviously, Dear Almost is a deeply felt book, but it is also a deeply crafted book. It engages with the deeply personal in ways your previous books do not seem to. Can you discuss how you negotiated, in the writing and editing of Dear Almost, your own stance on autobiographical content, time, and craft?
I agree—I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words. That’s not something I’ve tried to emulate very much, if at all, but I admire it in her poems.
While Dear Almost is not an especially formal poem, the frame of the four seasons—knowing from early in the writing that it would take place over the course of a year, and be shaped by that progression from one spring to the next—provided some necessary boundaries to work within and against in writing about this very personal and painful experience. As I mentioned, I drafted most of the poem in bits and pieces in my notebook, because that was the only way I could approach this experience at first, in a kind of glancing way, a few lines at a time. Then I did a lot of work to fit those pieces together into a narrative within that frame. Without that frame, or some kind of similar constraint, I could see all these lines and images just spiraling out away from me.
In addition to your full-length collections, you have published two chapbooks. One of them, Disappears in the Rain seems to be your first published very long poem, though even in Subject to Change, you have a couple of longer poems—“Three Part Constructed Form / For M. Duchamp” and “The River.” By contrast, A Green River in Spring is a collection of very short poems. What draws you to the long-form poem? What does a book-length poem afford as far as challenges and rewards in contrast to shorter poems? And specifically, at what point in the drafting process did it come to you/did you decide that Dear Almost was a book-length poem?
I sometimes daydream in the abstract about books I’d like to write—a book of prose poems, for instance, or a book of 26 poems named after objects that runs from A to Z. So I had had the idea for a while of a book-length poem that follows the seasons over the course of a year, though with no idea what it would be “about.” This was a couple years before we experienced the loss Dear Almost centers around. On the other hand, I truly don’t remember exactly when I started writing about this loss, addressing lines and images to our “almost girl.” I just remember being in the midst of it. Once I got going, though, it seemed clear pretty quickly that this could be a long poem—and that the thinking I’d already done about what a book-length poem might look like, the shape it might take, could suddenly be very helpful. I wasn’t sure for quite a while whether this thing I was writing would work as a book, or even as a poem, but I could see that what I was doing would at least be book-length.
Because I had never written a book-length poem before, in some ways Dear Almost is also about writing a book-length poem, and includes some references to its own writing within the narrative. While the loss at the center of the poem was difficult to keep facing up to, the actual work of writing and revising, of shaping the poem into a four-part narrative, was something I really enjoyed. I would carry a print-out of the manuscript in my briefcase when I went to work each day, so I could re-read it and mark up line edits on my commute, and during my lunch hour. I liked the steady work of this long poem, of being able to just stay in it for so long, to live with it and within it, and keep trying to make it better. I also enjoyed figuring out how all the different pieces of the poem could work together—for instance, how variations and repetitions of certain images or phrases could create connections between different parts of the narrative.
One of the things I love about epistolary poems is that they willfully exclude the reader, putting audience on the outside of a kind of a conversation, of a deep intimacy. We are meant to overhear, to learn from overhearing, from being an audience. In this, epistolary poems seem to be closer to theatre than other kinds of poems. Epistolary poems afford access to drama, to a kind of withholding and release of information. And again, a two-part question: When did you know Dear Almost would be addressed to this lost child? Did the choice arise organically, or did you, at some point, decide to make the book an epistle?
Leslie, that is a wonderful way to think about epistolary poems, as being like theatrical performances. Some of the earliest lines I wrote for Dear Almost addressed our lost child as “you.” I don’t think I thought about it objectively at the time—I just started writing and that was how I wrote. It felt natural to me. What I wanted most of all was to have some kind of contact with this person I had imagined and looked forward to, but would now know only in my imagining. This was my way of trying to deal with my feelings of grief and heartache over this sudden, staggering loss. I wanted to talk to our lost child, to be with her in the only way I could—in words. I knew of course it was just imagining, and possibly not a “healthy” way to deal with grief, but this was my way of holding on. Even in the short time we had been expecting, it seemed like we had imagined so much of what our life together would be like, and I wanted to keep imagining a little longer. The book is, as you suggest, very much a letter, starting with its title, which the reader gets to read over my shoulder.
Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (Akron) and Displacement (Mariner). Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Baltimore.
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