The Black Telephone has five fast questions for poet Rhett Iseman Trull.
BT: I love beginnings; one of my favorite poem-beginnings is: "The rusty zipper, the Pawcatuck river/fastens Rhode Island to Connecticut down/to the sea" from Leslie McGrath's poem "Renewal." Is there a poem beginning that you absolutely love?
RHETT: That’s a beautiful beginning, and such a perfect opening to that particular poem in which the journey along this river is the background to a couple’s journey through the years. It’s a powerful love poem. I love beginnings like that, beginnings that feel like a lift-off, that sweep me up with the feeling that I’m about to go somewhere. And some of the best beginnings, in my opinion, are those that take on more layers of meaning once you’ve read the whole poem, as McGrath’s does in your example.
One of my favorite beginnings is in “Mood Indigo,” by William Matthews, which opens this way: “From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled/brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink/lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales/like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck/of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied/on her hand…” I could keep quoting, but I’ll stop there on that amazing image of the “glove of rust.” This is one of my favorite poems and I’m amazed at how, in those first few lines, Matthews creates this energy, starts something rolling that will build and build (he keeps up that anaphora for the first 15 lines) and saturate the poem and the reader just as this “mood indigo” has built up, moment by moment, for years, inside the young girl in this poem.
BT: What would you want your readers to say about you as a poet? For example, I'd want my readers to say, "That girl can write her butt off..."
RHETT: Well, just the idea that I might, one day, have people out there that I might think of as “my readers” is nice. I think I’d like them to say, “That poem really moved me.” That’s the most any of us could hope for, sending poems out into the world: that they reach someone and move someone, communicate somehow the feeling that inspired the poem in the first place.
BT: What made you want to start writing poetry?
RHETT: I think my short answer to that would be “my need for song.” The longer answer is that I started writing novels and stories at age 5, but poetry came later. I was around 12 or 13, difficult years for many reasons, and I was visiting a friend. She was older than me—in high school already—and had a beautiful voice. We were in a musical together that summer. She had one of the main singing roles, while I was ever-delegated to the chorus where my off-key singing might blend in and be lost among the stronger voices. But I loved it, loved being a part of the show and disappearing into my character (I always thought up elaborate back stories for my character, even in the chorus) and channeling the intensity of my feelings into songs.
Anyway, I was at her house and I think she sensed that I was struggling with some great unnamed depression that I’d been trying to keep all locked up inside; she showed me a notebook filled with poems she’d written, sort of in lieu of a journal. She let me read a few of them and I was struck. I still remember some of the lines. It wasn’t that they were brilliant poems or anything…it was just that I’d never thought of trying to take my pain and confusion and put it into a kind of music, give it a voice, as she had done. I went home and started my own notebook the next day. Those early poems were more than a kind of therapeutic venting, though they did serve that purpose. But I think my urge to write poetry was more of a need to search, a need to find the right words for emotions that had been too complicated for me to begin to express before. And whether we’re talking about depression or love or anger or hope, etc., I think that’s probably, to this day, what inspires me to try to write a poem. For me, it always starts with some great feeling and a reach to—not necessarily name or define it—but to give it some sort of shape and voice. And music. To give it music. To give into music. I think the same thing that drove me toward musicals in my teenage years drove me—drives me—to write poetry.
BT: In the First paragraph of a New York Times article by Sara London (November 7, 2008), London writes, "When I was 8 or 9 I copied a poem from a library book in loopy cursive and taped it to the wall over my bed." I tell you this, to ask you, today, if you haven't got one taped to your bedroom wall already, what poem would you copy from a book and tape to the wall over your bed?
RHETT: This question makes me happy. I like the thought of poems hanging up in people’s houses, and it’s interesting to think about which poem should hang in which room. I’ve got lots of poems taped to the closet door in my office, for instance, and we have a few broadsides up in our family room. But in the bedroom, right now, we have only one poem up. It’s called “Two Charms for Charm” by Fred Chappell. I was lucky to have Fred as one of my teachers in UNCG’s MFA program about 8 years ago, and at the time he was writing a book of cat poems. Half-jokingly, I asked if he would write a poem about my cat Charm. Well, he did it! He had me bring him a picture of her and write down some facts about her (i.e. “Charm Kitty’s favorite food is ham. She cries when I sneeze. She prefers her water in a mug. She was born in LA and traveled 3,000 miles in the car back to NC with me when she was just 4 months old.”). My mom copied Fred’s resulting poem in calligraphy and framed it for me. It’s one of my favorite poems and it’s a great one for the bedroom because it’s a kind of prayer, not just for Charm, but for all beings in our house. Part one pleads, “Frightful spirit, fly away” and part two asks, “Guardian genius, linger close.”
I’m inspired by your question to add another poem to the bedroom wall—right over the bed, sure. On Valentine’s Day this year, walking through the bookfair at AWP in Chicago, I stumbled upon what has to be one of the greatest love poems ever written: “Charismatic Ambulance Driver” by Mark Leidner. It was a broadside taped to a table with beautiful handmade poetry items. I sat down on the floor and read it over and over. I forgot where I was. I was struck by the beauty and the power of this poem. I bought it immediately for my husband, Jeff, who loves poetry as much as I do. As soon as I get a good frame for it, it’s going over the bed.
BT: I'm trying to start a chain, a chain of poets, sort of like a chain gang of poets. Can you please suggest a poet I should ask five fast questions to next?
RHETT: After that last question about taping a poem to the wall, I think you’ve got to talk to Stephen Frech. He’s a wonderful poet, whose new chapbook, The Dark Villages of Childhood is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. But he also runs Oneiros press, which publishes gorgeous poetry broadsides. I’ll bet he’s got a poem up on his bedroom wall.
Rhett Iseman Trull won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry for her first book, The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press, fall 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2008, Iron Horse Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other publications. Her awards include prizes from the Academy of American Poets and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her MFA from UNC Greensboro, where she was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. She and her husband publish Cave Wall in Greensboro, North Carolina.