In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Dan Albergotti

by Jul 8, 2024

Capital steps.

Your poem, “On the Third Stanza of a Poem by F. S. Key,” blends today’s history of the last election with the beginning of our country. What caused you to weave these two events together? What brought Key’s song to the forefront of your mind? 

I can’t recall exactly when it was, but I remember being surprised to learn that Francis Scott Key’s poem/song “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” was written not at the very beginning of the United States, but about three decades into the nation’s history, during the War of 1812. He composed it to the tune of a popular drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” and now we sing the first stanza of his poem to that tune and call it “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I think it’s really poignant that our national anthem presents not an assertion of confidence or certainty, but a timid question about the country’s existence. “Tell me—does that flag still wave?” it asks. “Or have we been defeated?” That was an immediately urgent question for Key; he wrote the poem less than a month after the British had sacked Washington, burning the President’s home and the Capitol. But the viability of this audacious American experiment in democracy is always tenuous, so the question is always relevant. 

About 24 years after Key wrote his poem, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in which he asserted that no foreign power could ever destroy America, but that it could be destroyed by forces from within—forces that do not respect its laws, courts, and institutions. “As a nation of freemen,” said Lincoln, “we must live through all time or die by suicide.” I thought about all of this on January 6, 2021.

Ever since I first learned of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmic Calendar,” I’ve been a bit obsessed with long-range perspective. In that piece, Sagan scales everything we know of time—via astronomy, geology, etc.—down to a single calendar year. On that scale, the Big Bang occurs at the first second of January 1 and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth occurs at 12:59:56pm on December 31. So from a cosmic perspective all of what we call “A.D.” has taken up only the last four seconds of a year. (That will teach you some humility!) “Ancient history” begins to feel not so ancient. Sometimes it feels nearly contemporaneous. While to some it might feel like a stretch to think of Francis Scott Key in relation to January 6 and our fractious political present, to me it feels perfectly natural. “Do we still exist, or are we dying by suicide?”

We sing the first stanza of Key’s poem at sporting events and graduations, and the words feel innocuously patriotic. But the final three stanzas have some fairly gruesome stuff in them. That’s especially true of stanza three. Early in 2021, I wrote a series of three poems, one on each of these final stanzas. My formal challenge for each poem was to include as many words from Key’s stanza as I could. In addition to the phrases that I explicitly quote in this poem published in Water~Stone Review, I also lift the following words from Key’s third stanza: band, swore, havoc, war, battle, country, confusion, blood, wash, footsteps, foul, pollution, home.

This all feels like a too-long answer to your question. Apologies for rambling!

This brief scene with the porter and the children leaves a lasting impression. What made you choose this scene particularly to include? What scenes were you thinking of adding that you left out?

Well, that scene is something that I actually witnessed. I was in Washington in early 2022, and I saw this happen outside the hotel where I was staying. A bus pulled up, and a group of children who all appeared to be between the ages of 8 and 12—all of them wearing red “Trump 2024” hats and all of them, of course, lily white—exited and filed straight into the hotel, guided by their parents. An older African-American man held the door open for them. I couldn’t shake that scene from my mind. So when you say that the scene in the poem “leaves a lasting impression,” it makes me feel like I perhaps succeeded in conveying the power of the moment from life to page. I hope so.

But to your question of why I “chose” to include it in the poem, I have to say that when I’m writing I’m never very conscious of making deliberate decisions about what to include and what to leave out. It’s a much more intuitive process than that. I remember an interview with a poet—it may have been Jack Gilbert—who said “I want to think the way poetry thinks” (or something to that effect). That’s what I want too. To let the poem lead me to associations and connections, and not to be in complete control of where things go. Robert Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” It’s hard to surprise yourself if you don’t relinquish a good bit of control in the process.

You address the reader directly from the sixth stanza to the end. What was the driving force to include us in that manner?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe it comes from an urge to connect and find camaraderie with others in our shared predicament. Clearly the speaker is specifically reaching out to other Americans, those who know the first stanza of Key’s poem “by heart.” As if to say, “Hey, you can see this too, right? You and I are in the same boat here, facing something really dire.”

Maybe it’s equally an urge to confront fellow Americans who don’t think January 6 was a significant crisis, to shake complacent people by the shoulders in our fraught political moment. Robert Frost (again!) says that poetry is “a way of taking life by the throat.” And sometimes poems can take the reader by the throat and say, “Listen! This is important!” 

Of course, believing that a poem could ever shake anyone out of complacency might be foolish. But recognizing that does little to quell the urge. Especially these days.

You utilize internal rhyme within this piece—”war,” “door,” “floor.” When you craft poetry, what sort of intentionality do you find yourself using with rhyme? When do you strive to leave it in, and do you ever work to remove it?

I’m sure I wasn’t deliberately thinking about incorporating rhyme in this poem. But that doesn’t mean I’m not pleased to find it there. Such occasional internal rhymes in a free verse poem are often evidence that the poet’s ear was alive to the sonic pleasures and possibilities of language. The only reason I’d ever revise to remove rhymes is if upon reading the poem aloud I thought they created an awkward sound or suggested a too-self-conscious “poetic flourish” (that is, as if the poet was reaching for rhyme for its own sake). 

And, for the record, I write in both formal and free verse, so I don’t see any innate virtue in removing rhyme from a poem. I know that some people see formal verse as an outdated mode only employed by politically retrograde “traditionalists,” but I very much disagree with that view. I think there’s still a place for rhyme and meter in the 21st century.

Do you find that you often write about political topics in your writing? What other themes do you return to?

I think there’s always been a certain political strain in my work, but it seems to have become more pronounced since November of 2016 for some reason. Enough said about that.

I also think that poems are often “political” without being “about political topics.” In his book How to Read a Poem, Edward Hirsch says, “The poet wants justice. The poet wants art. In poetry there can’t be one without the other.” I’ve always loved that, how it suggests that aesthetic concerns are inextricably—even if mysteriously—linked to political ones, to the questions of what’s right and what’s wrong. Poetry demands that readers think and feel deeply, and you’ve got to believe that if we think and feel deeply we’ll advocate for the best, the most just, policies for everyone. A lot of politicians (all too many) encourage people not to think and feel deeply. Many these days encourage them not to think at all. Maybe that’s one reason politicians of a certain wing frequently vote to cut funding for the arts and for education.

Are there books or authors that inspire or delight you? What are some of your favorites? You’ve written several poetry collections, including The Boatloads (BOA Editions), Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press), Of Air and Earth (Unicorn Press). What do you focus on when creating poetry collections? What are you writing now?

There are far too many books and authors to list in response to the first part of your question. I’ll offer that John Keats is my all-time favorite poet, and Jack Gilbert is my favorite American poet. Gilbert’s The Great Fires is a touchstone for me. 

I couldn’t begin to name the poets writing today who inspire and delight me. I’d give you 20 names and then be chagrined to realize I’d forgotten to mention 20 other obvious choices the day after this interview appeared. Suffice it to say that it’s a great time for American poetry. Iron sharpening iron, as the saying goes.

As to the latter part of your question, I only assemble poetry collections after the poems have been written. I never have a book-length project in mind beforehand. So I’m always just “writing poems,” trying to “honor my obsessions,” as Natasha Trethewey advises. That usually results in a body of work that can be arranged meaningfully in a book manuscript. 

My third full-length collection, Candy, has just been published by LSU Press: 

Thank you for your questions and your interest in my work.


Dan Albergotti in a white shirt.Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatlads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as the chapbooks Of Air and Earth and Circa MMXX (Unicorn Press, 2019 and 2022, respectively). His third full-length collection, Candy, is forthcoming from LSU Press in fall 2024. His poems have appeared in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, The Southern Review, The Best American Poetry, and Pushcart Prize, as well as other journals and anthologies. He is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.

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