Pine Row Issue No. 2 Autumn 2020 - Featured Poet
From his window on the ward
I watch it puff from the hospital stack,
black and billowing,
vanishing far across the fields,
and wonder is it coal or oil
thickening the thin fall air.
Five floors up, I’m glad for glass
and wind that blows the stench away
though in the seasonless ether of this place
I crave the smell of burning leaves,
to sit again on the damp, raked grass
and watch my father cupping a match.
He is kneeling to the leaves,
the reds, the yellows, the orange leaves,
the smoke in whispers first soon
full with the breath of fall,
the rhythm of his arms and rake
ghostlike through the gray.
Then, in the swirling haze, he disappears,
slips away to circle back
where I’m waiting there afraid,
searching the smoke for my father—
a hide-and-seek he liked to play
every fall the same, sneaking up behind me
from where he was hiding,
coming back always, like some kind of magic
a boy could believe, from nowhere,
like a promise he would never die.
Images of War
Looking out the front window of my house
this spring morning, the soft rain greening
the new grass of late March
as civil wars rage daily on the TV screen,
I think of the greenhouses built from glass
once etched with the images of war:
barefoot men in muddy trenches dug
to hold back Grant at Petersburg,
the smoky negatives of their swollen bodies
sold by photographers gone broke
at the end of the war, glass plates
pieced together like cathedral windows
to heat the flats of roses underneath,
to green the new shoots, sunlight
thin at first, eclipsed by the dark of shoeless feet,
by the winter haze of empty hands
shading for a time the plants beneath,
then slowly like mist, like a rain cloud lifting,
slowly vanishing—an eye, the nose, his face—
the glass pure sky, a summer’s day.
Interview with Bruce Guernsey
What inspires you to write poetry. Why do it?
The word “inspire” has its roots in our chests when we draw “spirit” into ourselves, quite literally, as we breathe deeply and pause, and in that pausing is where the poem begins.
That is to say, my poems originate in the physical world, most usually with a sound or sight or smell or taste or touch, and not in my mind or brain or checkbook . . . The syllable sounds lead to other syllables and start to take shape into words, or at least into some kind of infantile blabbering, before they begin to get along with one another and find a seat on the crowded subway of my mind.
How do your poems transition from inspiration to draft to final version?
“You look like you’re saying your prayers,” and old friend said to me once as he saw me once, muttering to myself and scribbling on a yellow legal pad. And I guess he was right: growing up as a good Catholic boy, I prayed a lot and listened a lot, too, and no doubt the incantatory power of prayer, especially in Latin, made me listen to the sounds we make. Trying to write poems was my form of praying and making those “prayers” into something someone else might understand, or be moved by, became my goal.
That transition was helped hugely by reading the poetry from all over the world and in their native languages when I could. I wanted to hear the “prayers” of others and have been blessed by having had the opportunity to travel and live in so many places.
What book is currently on your nightstand?
A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall
Is the glass half empty or half full?
In what way does poetry still matter?
As long as we humans exist, poetry will matter. It is us, with a shaping, a heartbeat, a tap of the foot and tear in the eye, and a voice—ours. Poetry is the way it is because we are the way we are.
Do you have a routine, such as where or when you write?
I used to work on a poem early in the morning when I was closest to sleep/dream and furthest from the busy-ness of the day. But along came kids and classes to teach at 8:00 AM and home ownership . . . Now I work of a poem when I can and often do so on a long trip if I’m alone in the car and can talk out loud and have the rhythm of the road for my iambic line . . . But at home I still use that large yellow legal pad to scribble on and talk out loud like a guy in a nuthouse and am.
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets who are just starting out?
I asked this same question to James Wright years ago, and he said, “Well, kick yourself in the groin first . . .” Thank you, James.
Anything else we should know?
I am not much of a computer guy, but I do have a website, out of date a bit though it be: www.bruceguernsey.com. And a selected poems collection published in 2012 by Ecco Qua Press in Boston called From Rain: Poems, 1970-2020. Also, and this is an important book for anyone teaching the writing of poetry: Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching, edited by yours truly with a forward by Ted Kooser. It’s a collection of classroom-tested exercises that really work, written and used by some of America/s best teachers and writers of poetry. Both of these are available through Amazon.
Poet, teacher, and editor, Bruce Guernsey graduated from Colgate University 1966. He later earned MAs from the University of Virginia and The John Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of New Hampshire.
His honors include fellowships in poetry from the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He is a “Featured Poet” on the Illinois Poet Laureate Web Site, and former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, has selected five of his poems for the international column, “American Life in Poetry.” His residency awards include the NEA Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in 2011, as well as past residencies at Ragdale, the Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and Norton Island off the coast of Maine. The recipient of Fulbright Senior Lectureships in American poetry to Portugal and Greece, he has also twice sailed around the world as a faculty member with Semester at Sea.
In 2006, Bruce was invited to edit The Spoon River Poetry Review through the winter/spring issue of 2010. The magazine received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award for both 2008 and 2009. He is the founding editor and former letterpress printer of Penyeach Press which recently published Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching (2013), a collection of classroom tested essays on poetry writing by some of the country’s best poet/teachers.
More at www.bruceguernsey.com