On Writing ‘Black Wings; Sharp Teeth: A Modicum of Love’ & other poems / Bethany W. Pope
Poetry is an amphibious art. Amphí (both; two) βῐ́ος (life). It is an art with two lives — one of the conscious (the surfaceplace where everything is cold, rational, and bright) and the unconscious (where there be monsters). If a writer tries to divide the two, well, they wind up with physics on the one hand and inchoate, primal shrieking on the other. Both have their uses, separately. Both, like fish and mammals in the wider world, are necessary to the ecosphere we’ve created in our skulls, but neither one (alone) is poetry. Poetry is something else, something alchemical, something alive. It is the product of intellect, combined with experience and just the faintest whiff of spiritual risk. These poems are the living result of the life I’ve lived, the life I only just finished living, before embarking on my present voyage.
You’ll notice that the poems are all intensely biographical, and they share a theme of isolation. In ‘Black Wings; Sharp Teeth: A Modicum of Love’ I recall an encounter that I had with a rabid bat. I was living in an orphanage at the time and I was desperate for any sort of contact — even inherently destructive contact. This is where the inchoate shrieking comes in. The form I chose to temper it (which is repeated throughout all of the poems) is a ten-syllable line. This is intentionally monotonous. I was shackled, in my life, in that place: I want the reader to feel it.
Not everyone can sing in their chains, but song is not the only music.
‘Speaking of Windows’ is less constrictive. It describes, in large part, the together-but-apart relationship that my father and I continue to share. There is a bond, but it isn’t filial in the usual way. There is beauty, but it’s solitary, and somewhat strange. Stained-glass windows (however beautiful) take on a different aspect, seen from inside, at night. So does faith. I wanted to reflect that.
As an aside: I wrote this poem after being informed that the church described in it had been torn down and the windows auctioned off to several different bidders. I don’t believe, personally, that anything good is ever truly lost (the laws of physics refute absolute destruction) but writing this poem seemed like good insurance.
‘Rose Red’ is set right before I ran away from home. I thought that I was losing myself, pacing the yard like that, spinning my imaginary worlds, but that was just and only surface. I was learning to see below seeming, beneath the urge for status that had been impressed on me as the highest of human values. The underlying structure of the poem (like the rose garden described within it) is a square. The square eventually becomes a cube. By the end of that year, by the end of the poem, I developed into something different. Not better, perhaps, but at least new.
I was born in North Carolina. I lived in an orphanage. I lived in Florida. When I was sixteen, I ran away from home and went to university without having graduated from high school. I earned my MA, my PhD, and I married. When I wrote these poems I was working full-time in a cinema in Swindon. I was drowning in student-loan debt and my life was comprised of a series of small, exquisitely painful humiliations. Now, I am teaching in a university in China. I am still drowning in debt, but people no longer throw their garbage at me or tell me to go back to America. I am awaiting the arrival of my husband. I am learning, finally, to be happy. These poems were written, at least in part, as a reminder and an escape. I am glad that I wrote them. I am proud of what they are (I am proud of what I have been) but now it is time, I think, to try something new.
People are amphibious.
We have many lives.
Let’s live them.