Though it is romantic to imagine that poems appear out of the ether, more often than not, when we speak to our poets about craft, they mention the many writers and books they read which helped develop their own poetic voice. We asked Jane Springer, author of the stunning new collection Moth, to speak about the poets and books she loves and who have influenced not only Moth, but her poetry as a whole.
Once while we were chatting history, C.A. Conrad said to me: “Let’s burn the museums!” The thought seems prophetic now that we upset civil war monuments across the south, but back then, it sent me reeling with such questions as why, in my small town high school, did we read William Cullen Bryant in lieu of Jean Toomer or Gwendolyn Brooks? It wasn’t until graduate school that I fathomed how limited my grades 1-12 education had left me, and I began to play catch-up with great books by, say, Honoree Jeffers or Kevin Young. They helped me view my (especially southern) history from a wider scope than I had previously. While Conrad’s statement is (hysterically) explored in The Book of Frank, you can see the ghost of our conversation in some of my poems, too (e.g. “Swallow” or “No Bogeyman, Tonight”).
And you can see verses from the King James translation of the bible, as well—or if not see, you can hear them. As a pastor’s kid who colored in the bulletins’ ‘O’s each Sunday till college, these verses are as rhythmically steeped in me as Dickinson’s hymn meter must have been to her. This biblical beat and syntax is most apparent in poems like “Stranger’s Song” and “The Ghost, The Martyr, The Driver”—although content-wise, my poems take gnostic gospel-ish turns, often allowing the Eves (or Eurydices) to shake the Adams in this book’s creation myths. I’m oft inspired to jettison the line’s accord to play with shape, and George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is partially to blame for that—though James Kimbrell has a haircut poem in My Psychic that moved Herbert’s original wings in hilarious directions that expanded my concept of the ways shape poems might resonate now.
Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War explored wars in stunning books that I relished (a harrowing sort of relish) after submitting Moth for review, and that I highly recommend reading. Even without their contexts for inspiration, I thought about the mess of various wars and political conflicts during my composition process. While growing up in Arkansas, Vietnamese and Cuban refugees rowed en masse into Ft. Chaffee—investing our town with new customs and aesthetics that affected my family down to the dinner served: now the Safeway stocked spring roll wraps which mom stuffed with hamburger meat. Though, that’s not the war-mess I mean.
I’m talking the relative with a militia of basement guns, helling over each othered-person he drafted to death on orders, or my husband’s kin starring post-Iraq on a brain-damaged-limb-lost-TV special. I did have two war-authors on my desk while thinking through Moth: Wiszlawa Szymborska and Bruce Weigl. Szymborska’s image of “sweeping up after war” spurred me to think about the roles survivors play and Weigl put me in a Zen-like state, wondering what it means to share space. I mean, in The Abundance of Nothing he has a moment with a furry being that is so poignant as to make me cautious not to bruise even the mosquito’s wing, shooing. Ovid changed me, similarly, changed my humanity with the final, dithyrambic movement of Metamorphoses. Someone once told me only Ted Hughes’ translation of this book held merit—I disagree. The quality of epiphany in Ovid is so sound he sings crystalline in every translation I have read.
That previous paragraph began with a Hamby-ism. When I say, “I’m talking,” I hear a Barbara Hamby poem ringing—she’s worked her talky in medias res into me. Each ampersand I write is a wee elegy to Larry Levis, I don’t know who writes a more intensely lyric narrative than this poet. I once wrote “the three-storied house of my childhood” and didn’t realize, till years later, Frank Stanford had possessed me. I guess I am saying, here, the writers I read become me, my voice maps back to them in mysterious ways.
How many books is that, so far, needed to create a poetry collection? A dollop in the skillet when considering how my books are, in part, secret love letters to writers, whether they be Roxanne Jeffers, who shares with me characters of southern churches, or to Marilyn Chin, whose badass personas lend me verve or—beyond poetry, who can tell how much Moth owes to Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America, Donald Barthelme’s “The School”, or to the Harlequin Romance writers I devoured in a 4th grade minute when they were all I could get to read? Or to Eudora Welty! Whose leashed alligators tell how well hyperbole’s tantamount to understatement in the south. Annie Dillard’s Kamikaze moths—they made me die to write, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, would this book be here without her?
Here are eleven books to add to the extraordinary authors and texts listed above. Each volume, for private reasons, made me a better writer than I would have been sans living in its dream-space for a few blissful days, weeks, years—and even then, it’s astonishing how incomplete my book list for learning how to write Moth is.
- Nin Andrews. Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum? (Subito Press, 2008).
- Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Back Bay Books, 1976).
- Monica Hand. Me & Nina (Alice James Books, 2016).
- Jen McClanaghan. River Legs (Kore Press, 2014).
- Campbell McGrath. Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco, 1996).
- Gabriela Mistral. Poemas de las Madres (Eastern Washington University, 1996).
- Terrance Hayes. Lighthead (Penguin, 2010)
- Liesel Muller. Second Language (LSU Press, 1986). This was the first book I stole from Mike Carson, author of The Keeper’s Voice (LSU Press, 2010).
- Bruce Smith. Devotions (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
- C. D. Wright. Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998).
A native of Tennessee, Jane Springer now lives in upstate New York and teaches at Hamilton College. Her previous poetry collections are Dear Blackbird and Murder Ballad.