In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Amy Bagan
Your poem “Primate” in Volume 23 explores traits and knowledge, things we learn from each other, from our ancestors. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this poem?
Yes, exactly. “Primate” sits atop a mantle of Maker stories, starting from time immemorial. One is the myth of Prometheus the Titan who formed man in the gods’ image from river clay and gave us creative fire so that we could become makers. Another is the story of Victor Frankenstein, who, inspired by 19th-century scientific advances, built a thinking creature he would come to fear and pity. And of course, Adam, as the Book of Genesis tells, brought with his birth the knowledge of good and evil. John Milton gave Adam the lines,“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?”
James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim, which involves the story of women choosing to adopt chimps as their own children (in the name of a language experiment which attempted to determine whether a chimpanzee raised from birth in a human environment can acquire the rudiments of grammar), presented itself as a place to enter the oft-told tale, powered by the creative force’s call to violate nature–and the suffering it can engender.
The concept of language is very powerful in this poem. There’s the line “But I’m as far from who I was as you are near” that sticks out to me; when I read it I sense the fluidity of language and its transcendence of power. What does language and our ability to converse in a multitude of ways mean to you?
Those lines speak to inescapably contrary impulses—creating, civilizing, naturalizing—precisely at their point of intersection, which is language. The narrator is voluntarily surrendering to the urges of the wild that draw her back to Eden, shedding her intellect in order to become more symbiotically connected to the chimp/baby even as that chimp/baby is learning language and, as humans will, learning how to employ it as a manipulative tool, a power grab. An earlier draft has the final couplet: “…One day/he’ll read these words, forget we came from clay.” I guess I switched that out because it was too summarizing but here it may serve to show the purpose of intent.
What are some pieces of knowledge you would pass on to newer poets still learning the craft?
Your timing is uncanny: I just finished a poem titled, “To a Young Poet.” Though it offers no technical advice, it does address how to nurture and “go with the flow” of inspiration. Write down even infelicitously phrased ideas. Scavenge everywhere (what you see; what you hear; what you read; memory, of course) to discover your objective correlatives. Be alone as much as possible. Bask.
I’ve been enjoying watching Alena Smith’s Dickinson which imagines many scenes that provoke Emily to pick up her pen.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
Coincidentally– or predictably?–some of them appear in “Primate”: mother/child relations; the individual’s experience foregrounded against our collective story known as history; the purposes of memory; domestic scenes against natural ones; hands; and windows, always windows!
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Who are some mentors in your writing life?
Wallace Stevens, Richard Wilbur, Jorie Graham, James Merrill, Derek Walcott, Charles Wright, A.E. Stallings, Rachel Hadas, Don Paterson, and Roberto Calasso.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
In other words, what’s the weakest arrow in my quiver? I’d say everything that revolves around the work of revision is a challenge for me. During the second winter of the pandemic, I dove into a dusty file marked “To Mine for Other Poems,” and what I found there were mostly drafts of poems half-written. The fact that I’d not even labelled the file “To Revise” shows the extent to which I’d resisted the advice often dispensed: “When you come to an impasse, put your draft aside to return to later.” Somehow, that never felt right to me, felt like abandoning a child, so, though I actually committed that act, I couldn’t name it. The difficulties posed are threefold: 1) How to re-enter the mental space I’d inhabited when I quit the poem. What were the concerns that were successfully written and which not?; 2) Being receptive to new directions that are not apparent in the draft. This is how something stunted called “Passages” resulted in the finished “To a Young Poet”. Once it had an addressee (originally it was written in the second person but the “you” was entirely generic), all the ideas that had been lazily consuming too much space found a direction; and 3) Determining when it is finished. This problem obviously rears its head during the creation of any writing. Molly Peacock told me a long time ago to lower my expectations on this, not to wait for it to click: “You’ll never know for sure when it’s done and you may find yourself years later thinking of the perfect substitutive word or phrase, even for something already in print.”
What projects are you working on right now?
Just tackling my folder of Revisions. I’ve done three or four so far and if there is a reward aside from the delayed gratification of plucking these mature blooms, it is in the sensation that’s something like setting the poems before a mirror and recognizing an earlier self.
Amy Bagan’s manuscript, “Native to Now,” was selected as a finalist for the Richard Wilbur Book Award 2021. Her poems have been awarded the Grolier Poetry Prize, finalist for the 2016 James Hearst Poetry Prize, finalist for the 2019 Able Muse Write Prize, finalist for the 2020 Frost Farm Prize, and finalist for Southwest Review’s Morton Marr Poetry Prize, among others. Her manuscript “Sand-Blind” was selected as a National Poetry Series prize finalist. Her work appears in Measure, The Cortland Review, Denver Quarterly, Northwest Review, Southern Poetry Review, North American Review, Mosaici, Western Humanities Review, Able Muse, and Salmagundi, among others.