Thief Of The Interior Part 3: When I lay out a book, I’m making an early 1990s rock album. I don’t mean I’m growing my hair long, mumbling incoherently, and raging against the machine that pays me to rage, I mean I’m trying to make each poem connect directly with both the one that precedes it, and the one that follows. Often the final line or image from a poem is somehow echoed in the title, first line or image of the next poem.
I don’t write them that way. I don’t finish up a poem with “syphilis” and then write a poem about STDs. I find a poem that I wrote two years ago about a relationship that ends with the word “broken”, and follow it up with “The Fix”. It feels like the most honest way for me to create a manuscript. It feels truer than chronology, and tighter than sectioning a book off by themes, as I often get exhausted when an author has twenty pages of poems about the death of their dog, and then fifteen about sex, followed by twenty pages about 9/11. I’d rather read the heartbreaking poem about the dog, a 9/11 poem, a sex poem, and then another poem that includes the dog’s death. I am way more likely to go back and reread a poem that is echoed ten or more pages later than I am to get invested in a whole section about dead dogs. I realize this goes against my previous post about how brilliant Part 2 of Thief Of The Interior, and the work of Patricia Smith are, but those are two high caliber exceptions to a rule. For the most part, I hate themed collections. The Father is my least favorite Sharon Olds collection, even though I love her poems about family in Satan Says, The Gold Cell, and The Dead And The Living.
I acknowledge that arranging a book for my reading pleasure instead of traditional organizing methods means I am assembling the manuscript For Me. Making it easier for me to contextualize than a reader who might want all of my dead dog poems in the same space. I think, if we are honest, we always write and assemble our books for ourselves. We're just glad when we find that there others who appreciate how our brain chemistry functions.
The third section of Williams’s Thief In The Interior is a masterpiece of ‘90s albuming, with each final line /image feeding directly into the following poem.
In many ways, this is how a successful suite is written. It’s not the only way to write a suite, but I think it makes the process simpler. Writing five poems on a specific theme can be challenging. So why not write one poem on any topic you like. When the poem is complete, look at the last line. Is that a good starting point or inciting image for another poem. It can be thematically related, or it can have the tethering image/line be The Only Connection between them.
Write a five poem suite using the final lines and opening lines as connective threads. Bonus points if you can get the last line of the last poem to echo the first line of the first poem.
Examples from Williams’s Thief In The Interior Part 3:
Who could turn their backs to them and survive connects to I was told I could turn my back to them
We offer to pay. She says “No. Tell him.” connects to No, tell him--
to enter, turn the knob though the knob will burn connects to I go to turn the knob of a burning skull
under skin, over thought, in the tremble of my hand connects to Hands trembling, they wash their bodies
and from which the shade of “resist, don’t” can be found. Connects to “Resist, don’t”: the difference between what one thinks
This first section of the interaction was inspired by the epigraph from Sharon Olds's "Late Poem To My Father". It's also part of a series of poems inspired by a Nicole Homer prompt.
The second portion is just my response to how I read this book at eighteen, and how I read this book at thirty-nine.
Ten Meals I Don't Remember Eating #10:
February 16th, 2016, Cambridge, Massachusetts
When I love you now,
I like to think I am giving my love
directly to that boy in the fiery room,
as if it could reach him in time.
--- Sharon Olds, "Late Poem To My Father"
You were never as eighteen as you were at thirty
sitting on my bed in your room
playing Kingdom Hearts
pretending you didn't hear me knock on the door
We had both ordered dinner at the same time from
slightly different restaurants
Yours arrived first but I had
mistakenly answered the door and paid for your meal
I knocked louder
Not your cluelessly optimistic ex but
a parent trying to
respect the privacy of an unnecessarily
I had a speech memorized
opening with a joke and ending with you
moving out again
I didn't speak to you for three weeks in case
I accidentally recited it
You smiled as you took your food into your room
I paid for my dinner too
sat on the floor in my room
watching the door between us
imagining I knew how to open it
without disturbing you
when i was eighteen and less metaphor i read the gold cell from cover to i can't anymore . laughed at the pope's penis and imagined i truly understood the solution . i loved how sharon olds viewed the world outside her own . but when her family came in . her father . her history . her impending children . i . i read them over and over . knowing that i was missing something . all of my love was current . all of my realizations were in other books . all of my love was things . all of my people were something missing .
when i was thirty-nine and prime time soap opera i read the gold cell from back to front . family to the outside world . how much simpler to start with the closeness i don't understand . end with the world i'm afraid to know
This post was written by Valerie Loveland about her relationship with Sharon Olds's The Gold Cell.
Visiting my Friend from College
Gold Cell I still don’t know what your title or your cover means.
Gold Cell you are the first poetry book a friend loaned me and he regretted it.
Gold Cell, I am sorry I roughed you up!
Gold Cell, how is it possible that you weren’t published the day I was born?
Gold Cell, I could only start sentences with Gold and could only end them with Cell.
Gold Cell, why didn’t you tell me that men will pretend to like poetry to trick me into believing we could have a poetry life together?
Gold Cell I went with them to an arcade and read you instead of playing video games.
Gold Cell, I only wanted to talk about poetry my entire talking life.
Gold Cell, I used you as a poetry diplomat.
Gold Cell, you are thicker than I remember!
Gold Cell you are a time machine a nostalgia machine a regret machine a poetry machine an embarrassment machine.
Gold Cell, remember my uptight friend who accidentally chose the poem that sexualizes the states to read out loud in class?
Gold Cell you name drop my favorite style of dresses to allow me see you even more clearly.
Gold Cell, my friend recently told me she didn’t understand why people like you. I had to defend you and didn’t know how.
Gold Cell you hide from me on my bookcase with your red cover because I was looking for a gold book.
Gold Cell you were such a companion I started calling you Goldie.
Goldie you are back in my backpack and I am 19 again and we are both boy crazy.
Goldie, I wrote you are back in my backpack but I keep writing “where you belong” and then keep erasing “where you belong.”
You first see The Gold Cell through binoculars and press clippings. On the longest day of the year, a man is talked down from the roof of a building by concerned police officers. A woman confronts her own racism on a New York city subway. Paramedics save an abandoned baby. A man has a conjoined twin. A young girl survives rape but her friend does not. The stories are told as facts. No need for melodrama. The truth of the events is enough blood.
"Outside The Operating Room Of The Sex Change Doctor" is sweet mango candy with a jalapeno center. It begins a trio of poems that I use in workshops and classes. "The Solution" which snakes around Sharon's (I don't know if it's ok to call her Sharon yet. There's still a distance here. Like she is someone you're standing in line at the post office, and you're both afraid it might close before you can send out your really important documents, and she just made a very funny joke, but you don't know if she made the joke for you or if you just happen to be standing near her while she makes the joke to herself.) "The Solution" snakes around Ms. Olds's projection for how to fix "the singles problem". (Is being single a problem? is not the address on the envelope she's affixing stamps to. It's for the people who want. It's for people who want to be wanted. It's for people who want in very specific ways that 1987 didn't know how to handle with their lack of Craigslist and farmer-themed dating websites.) "The Solution" snakes around Ms. Olds's view of American sex, and it plops us at the feet of her next poem "The Pope's Penis" where she grants...ahem...a weight to what's inside the Vatican leader's robes. She closes the first section with open arms, watching imaginary mother and imaginary daughter in bliss. This is the section I use in workshops and classes because sometimes a poet doesn't need to memoir and "I" to make poetry seem personal.
Section 2 is her childhood. Her parents. Her how-do-I-forgive-the-loving-monsters-who-raised-me parents. She begins the section with "I Go Back To May, 1937" where she debates keeping her parents from falling in love so that they won't hurt each other. Then Polaroids of what was. Being held over a laundry chute to fix wires. Lies about presents. Driving up steep hills. Her mother's diet. All these innocent sounding things make for poems rooted with grief and regret but mostly love. (And now she is definitely Sharon, not Ms. Olds. You envy her forgiveness now. You wouldn't dare reassure her things will be alright, because you know that she understands more than you are capable of understanding. You would take back every negative thought you've had about your family except that her narrative is telling you no, you can forgive what you need to forgive, forget what you need to forget, but never feel your story isn't important. You feel that once Sharon is finished telling you about her parents, she will ask you about yours, and no matter the size of your fondness or grievances, she will listen and you will feel everything is...not right...not better...survivable...allowed.)
In the third section Sharon leads us away from her past, into the garden of her first love, her first kiss, and her first sex before we arrive in her 1987 present. In "Premonition" she drives through a parking lot filled with children, terrified she will injure or kill one with her car. Then she drives her car into your sternum. She didn't turn on her blinkers. Her hard left against the red light leaves you sitting in your own car, terrified to move or not move.
The final section introduces us to her children. She mentioned them in the third section but now we learn their names and watch them grow for a bit. Sharon is a thoughtful mother, but she also respects you. Each poem is a picture she takes out of her wallet to show you how she loves them. And, and this is unusual for doting parents, none of her photos look the same. It is not four headshots of a child dressed up and wearing identical forced smiles. Everything is candid. Everything shows she, and her children, and obviously everyone, is flawed. Love is flawed most of all. But worth it.
You want to thank Sharon for talking to you. (Oh god, are we still snaking in a line at the post office? Is that sort of metaphor still happening? Because the window is closed and the lights are out. And you feel that maybe your letter wasn't important enough to mail, but you also feel that you already mailed it. Sharon gives you such conflicting feelings of accomplishment.) You want to thank Sharon for not talking down to you or thinking you needed her to explain her feelings. You want to thank her for leaving her thesaurus at home and just talking to you like a normal person. A person who maybe likes poetry or maybe likes interweaving flash fiction. You just want to thank her.
An ongoing conversation between writers and the text that they're reading.