In a world ravaged by contagion, famine and war, Exits dovetails with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Every life is finite. Though circumstance and timing may vary, death remains the one inescapable attribute of the human condition. Awareness of this inevitability and recognition of the transient nature of our biological selves profoundly affect each person’s perspective on their life and its meaning.
The poems in this book relate to one or more aspects of mortality—disease and decline, death and remembrance. Many of the images and metaphors are drawn from nature. In addition, each poem is paired with a piece of artwork intended to resonate with the writing and enhance the reader’s experience.
Despite the ostensibly somber theme, all of the poems feature vivid imagery and abundant wordplay. The collection also presents a potpourri of styles, ranging from traditional forms to free verse to hybrid works. Nine of the poems have appeared in literary journals, and six have been recognized in regional or international poetry competitions.
Read on for an interview with Stephen C. Pollock, author of Exits.
Q: What motivates you to write a poem?
A: The impulse for me to write can originate from a variety of sources: from a dream; from a vague thought or idea that percolates to the surface from somewhere in the subconscious; from an observation, usually of some natural phenomenon; or from a particularly compelling or disturbing personal experience.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: Sporadic and intense.
I have always been undisciplined with respect to writing poems, as evidenced by the fact that I have no set writing schedule. In contrast to many other poets, I lack the ability to sit down daily at my desk and call forth ideas and/or personal experiences to serve as the basis for new poems. Nor have I ever relied on writing prompts. Instead, I wait for lightning to strike (or, mixing metaphors, for the Muse to whisper in my ear). The unpredictability of this approach means that I never know when, or even if, the next poem will materialize.
Once I begin writing, however, I become intensely focused. I often begin as I did in childhood, with pencil and paper. After sketching out a preliminary concept or drafting a few auspicious words or phrases or stanzas, I transition to composing in Word on a laptop.
The key for me is to occupy a mental space where words, sounds, rhythms, and metaphorical possibilities freely and continuously enter the mind, while at the same time applying critical filters to eliminate the 99.9% of options that lack usefulness or merit. Those filters are internal and idiosyncratic. They don’t relate to prevailing trends in poetry or to contemporary poets, though some, no doubt, are subtly influenced by selected works of historical poets.
When fully engaged and maximally productive, I typically write four new lines of poetry per day (derived from perhaps a dozen pages of notes and drafts).
Q: In many of your poems, form seems to play a role. Can you discuss the prevalence of formal elements in your poetry?
A: Form is as old as poetry itself. It excites the human psyche. Even young children respond to rhyme and repetitive rhythms with joy and the impulse to move in concert with the tempo.
The received form that most commonly appears in my work is the sonnet, probably because of its musicality and because it often surprises the reader with a change in perspective or an unexpected twist at the end. While some of my sonnets obey traditional conventions, others employ more challenging rhyme schemes and/or syllabics (a prescribed number of syllables per line). This raises the stakes, but it also increases the potential for enjoyment if the diction retains its natural inflections and fluidity, the syntax resists distortion, and the formal elements seem to materialize as if by coincidence (what Frost famously described as “riding easy in harness”).
In most of my longer poems, formal elements coexist with free verse. The role of meter and rhyme in these “hybrid” works varies, but includes irony (when blended with darker content), humor, and maximizing the impact of a closing line.
For me, form is paradoxically liberating. Word choices and ideas that never would have bubbled up into consciousness are often evoked by the very constraints that define the form. Indeed, I find free verse much more difficult to write than formal verse, mainly because it mandates that I create the desired semantics, tone, rhythms, and sonic effects organically and without a safety net.
Q: Why are the poems in this collection paired with visual art? How did you select the artwork that would be represented?
A: The decision to include visual art was an intuitive one. I sensed that many of the poems would resonate in interesting ways with visual images and that this would enhance the reader’s experience.
While a few of the images were selected solely for illustrative purposes (e.g. the image of a goldfinch and coneflower accompanying “Seeds”), most were chosen because they offered alternative slants on the content of the poems. Though the poem “(eclipse)” drips with erotic innuendo, it’s paired with the image of a 1908 patent for an orrery, a mechanical device that replicates the motion of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth. The sonnet “Nasal Biopsy” is ostensibly about a surgical procedure, but a cathedral door was chosen to accompany the poem because the speaker perceives gothic architecture in the structure of the nose and because the poem is ultimately concerned with questions of faith.
Q: While writing a poem, do you have an intended audience in mind? Does this influence the content, tone or technical aspects of your work?
A: The intended audience is always me, or to be more precise, the facsimile of me that constantly looks over my shoulder and critiques every word I write. The word ecstasy comes to mind. It captures the elation I feel when a line finally comes together, but it derives from the Greek ek-stasis—to stand outside of oneself.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing for a defined audience, or respecting the conventions of a particular genre, or exploring themes and issues that currently are in the public eye. My approach happens to be different. What matters most to me are the words on the page, how they sound in air, and whether or not the poem achieves what it set out to achieve.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
A: Enjoyment of the book.
An enhanced interest in form.
Deepened immersion in the concepts of mortality, renewal, and the cycles of life.
Perhaps once in a blue moon, a sense of awe and wonder.
Stephen C. Pollock is a recipient of the Rolfe Humphries Poetry Prize and a former associate professor at Duke University. His poems have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals, including “Blue Unicorn,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Live Canon Anthology,” “Pinesong,” “Coffin Bell,” and “Buddhist Poetry Review.” “Exits” is his first book. To learn more, visit http://www.exitspoetry.net.