November 18, 2019
What was the genesis of this book?
Save Our Ship was inspired by “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” a renaissance alphabet intended to instruct women to avoid sensual pleasure, particularly that of speech. I overheard my art history colleague, Theresa Flanigan, mention her work on it, and my poet-spidey-sense tingled: I knew I could use it. I began by writing against it, but the result was too one-note. Meanwhile, I had become increasingly obsessed by the climate crisis and sixth extinction. So feminist rants were joined by environmental freakout poems, with some more quotidian poems mixed in, I hope leavening the whole with some humor. My elevator pitch is: “#MeToo meets Global Weirding, in abecedarian form. But in a good way.”
How did the form of this book develop, and what is unique about it?
The book began as a 30:30 challenge from my students. I looked up a letter a day in the dictionary, wrote down lists of words beginning with each letter, and used them to generate poems (most of which do not survive; “Quoth the Queane” is one that did.) I used lots of epigraphs from “The Diverse Vices of Women,” with those biblical and classical allusions at the top of each page, and rap quotes below, all shockingly misogynistic. Each poem was suspended between this bile, both ancient and contemporary. At some point a border in Morse code crept in. But it was too much. So I stripped most of it away, and kept what seemed to be poetry. All the rap quotes had to go: they were just too vile. But anyone who wants to knows where to find them anyway. I ended up with the occasional classical or biblical epigraph, and the Morse code to underline each title.
What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?
Although this book began in anger at misogyny, and all the ways our language is infected by it, only after I was done did I remember how much I had loved Edward Lear’s Nonsense Alphabet as a child. My mother used to read me the one that starts: “A was once an Apple-Pie, / Pidy/ Widy/ Tidy/ Pidy / Nice insidy / Apple-Pie.” I probably learned to read from that poem. My earliest poems were illustrated imitations of the poems she read me, so this apple has not rolled far from that tree. I’ve dedicated the book to her, since it so much concerns women and language.
Where did the book’s title come from?
Its working title was “The Diverse Vices of Women, Alphabetized,” which I still love, but everyone else thought it sounded too scholarly. (I think it sounds funny.) Once I wrote the poem “Save Our Ship,” that seemed to work as an overall title, and it incorporated the use of the alphabet and Morse code. As the book skewed more towards the climate crisis, the idea of using Morse code to signal distress, as well as a pure form of the alphabet perhaps uninfected by misogyny, seemed to bring the various strands together.
What was your experience ordering these poems?
Once I had the basic abecedarian form going, I filled it in with poems I had written over the past few years (since Immortal Medusa, 2015) as well as with new poems. The alphabetical form made it fun and easy: Oh, I need a “k” poem; what starts with “k”? “Kintsugi,” and so on. Some letters were harder than others. “X” was hard; I had to re-title a poem that had X’s in it: “Whose Car Is Parked in your Drive” became “X-Wife.” I have way more “S” poems than any others, for some mysterious reason.
Any advice about writing poetry?
The poem “Dear Bill” is full of writing advice, from my late teacher, William Matthews. I don’t have an MFA, but I got my MA at City College, CUNY, which was a rough equivalent. Channeling him, I was happy to realize how much of his advice had stayed with me, whether I’d followed it or not. I remain in conversation with him: one of the consolations of aging is learning that no one ever leaves you; we carry our dead inside us, and they grow even dearer.
How do you approach revision?
Gladly, willingly, obsessively. See “Ars Poetica.” It’s my favorite part of writing, when I get lost in the zone. The scariest part is between poems, when I don’t have any ideas or anything to work on. How do I know when it’s done? A final piece of advice from Bill Matthews that got edited out of “Dear Bill”: “Say everything you have to say on a subject, then stop.”
What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book?
It’s didactic, old-fashioned and not at all hip, but oh well. I really do want to save our planet, and I really do want world peace, like Sandra Bullock at the end of Miss Congeniality.
Where did you get the courage to be so uncool?
Desperation. I keep wondering whether I should quit my job (teaching college English) and go to law school and become an environmental lawyer, or do something else really useful for the planet. But time is short, and my skills are teaching and writing: I can reach young people, and the few who read poetry. There’s a meme going around about scientists realizing that while they can provide facts, as they have for the past 30 years, they can’t transform people’s consciousness: that’s the job of artists, and teachers, and so in my own small way, I try to contribute what I can to that transformation.
Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing?
“Accident Report” and “Ars Poetica,” because they came as gifts, unbidden. “Man Bun Ken” was really fun, too. I just love the sound of it: “Man Bun Ken.” And I love to include a Barbie poem whenever I can. “Iguana Sestina” was also fun: sitting in on a Bernadette Mayer class, I randomly selected the form and then those 6 unlikely end-words, and dashed it off in ten minutes. I’d always wanted to be able to write with the sense of play I had as a child; that is a gift that Bernadette Mayer has, and transmits by her presence, like poetic shaktipat.
And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?
Different poems gave different kinds of trouble. For instance, the spacing on the title poem was hard: I think I drove the typesetter crazy with all the Morse code, but that one in particular was hard. “How It Happens” was perhaps the most emotionally difficult, as it was dredged up by #MeToo, but was also cathartic. “Ode to Ibolya” probably took the longest and went through the most drafts: it is gratifying to have it published on the 100th anniversary of her suicide; my family is trying to arrange a reunion in Margita for this coming summer, where we’ll visit her grave. (Maybe I’ll read it there, and my Dominican cousin can read the Spanish translation of it provided by La Presa, a bilingual journal out of Canada where it was just published.)
Who is your ideal reader?
Anyone willing to sit down with a book of poems, or listen to one read aloud. I am especially gratified when I hear, “I don’t usually like poetry, but I like your work.”
Order Barbara Ungar’s latest book, Save Our Ship, online at Small Press Distribution.