Getting to Know John Canaday and his new book Critical Assembly
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
I first encountered poetry as I imagine most people do: in nursery rhymes and songs. It gets under your skin, into your blood—by whatever metaphoric process you prefer, poetry becomes part of us all, even those who aren’t conscious of it.
But my earliest memory of poetry as “poetry” was when we studied it in middle school. As part of the lesson, we were each asked to go home and write a sonnet. It was a painful experience and so probably more of a damper than a spark. Luckily, my grandparents loved poetry, and they performed some literary CPR. Each of them had written verse when they were young—my grandmother, for instance, told vivid stories of waking up each morning as a teenager in Istanbul, eager to write, and of hiding herself in the pasha’s garden next door where she could spend hour after hour with her poems.
My grandfather loved W.H. Auden’s poems, and when he heard that we were studying poetry in school, he typed out “Musée des Beaux Arts” as prose and asked me where I thought the line breaks should be. Luckily, it took me a while to spot the rhymes, so I was able to focus first on other elements that the line breaks contributed before gradually taking rhyme into account as well. It was a revelation that language could be so layered, so shaped, so playful, so musical, so subtle. I fell in love with Auden, too, read more and more of his poems, and, eventually, started to write my own.
The writing continued to be painful for a long time, though, partly, I think, because I was beguiled by the apparent ease of Auden’s verse and felt that, if I was a real poet, my own should fall into place without much effort. And in those early years I tried to impose meanings on poems, which usually resulted in cliché-ridden doggerel. I was slow to learn that poetry is a collaboration between writer and language and that every poem has to find its own balance between what the writer wants and the language has the potential to say.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
It varies a good deal. The idea of a writing routine is appealing, and I envy those writers who have one. I keep trying, and sometimes I find a workable approximation that lasts for a while. But life—at least my life—is not as cooperative as it might be. So I am constantly fighting for time. As for place: usually at my desk or, when my back is especially painful, lying on my bed.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Yes, that about covers it.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
My list is probably too long to be very revealing—unless the fact that I can’t narrow it down to one or two (other than Auden, simply for being first) is revealing. But I’ll list some poets (I’ll stick to poets, even though prose writers have probably been just as affecting) whose influences I consistently feel: Dante, Chaucer, Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Basil Bunting, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell, Christopher Logue, Derek Walcott, Kay Ryan, Robert Pinsky, Ruth Stone, William Matthews, Carolyn Forché, Richard Kenney, Terrance Hayes. And of course Shakespeare (does he still go without saying?).
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
A “critical assembly” is an experimental apparatus designed to test the ways in which the mass, density, and arrangement of a radioactive substance influence the progress of a chain reaction. It was a crucial tool in the development of the first nuclear weapons. As the title of my book, it also serves as a metaphor for the enormous assembly of individuals, each with his or her own concerns and motivations, brought together by the U.S. Army to build these weapons.
Each poem in the book is in the voice of a person associated with the Manhattan Project, including scientists, spouses, laborers, locals, and military personnel. I’ve tried to identify pivotal moments for each individual, in which working on these weapons challenged their sense of who they were. The poems then explore how they responded, revising or reaffirming the metaphors and narratives that undergird identity.
The poems in Critical Assembly, therefore, are from a wide variety of perspectives. Each one is intensely personal, laced with individual quirks of desire and experience, but together they assemble into a history—a story about who we are as a society, and how we got here.
I began this project 33 years ago, convinced by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric that we needed a deeper and more nuanced understanding of nuclear weapons. In the intervening years, as I labored away at Critical Assembly, the threat often seemed to recede, particularly with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But, much as I wish it were otherwise, recent events have borne out the continuing relevance of this work. Humanity’s failure to fully dismantle its nuclear arsenals, the increasingly questionable security of old stockpiles, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the stubborn determination of nations like Iran and North Korea to spread ownership of nuclear weapons, and the growing willingness of world leaders to engage in nuclear brinksmanship all suggest that this is a subject we desperately need to address, in every manner and medium available to us.
Why turn to the voices of the individuals who built, deployed, and suffered under the first atomic bombs? In ways that none of the rest of us will ever experience (we hope), these people occupied positions of intimacy—whether privileged, crippling, or both—that gave them unique knowledge of the practical nature of nuclear weapons. Their perspectives and insights, as well as the phrases, images, and metaphors with which they responded to their experiences, have infiltrated our culture, transforming our own perceptions and understandings. As Albert Einstein said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Our future, as they framed and we enact it, depends on our understanding of that transformation.
Read an excerpt from his book here:
Physicist; Diffusion Problems Group leader
Once people thought that angels
beat their wings to push the earth
in its ordained track around the sun
as easily as we might move a blackboard
covered with Serber’s latest figures.
That view has now been somewhat modified.
The blank, unassuming face of a blackboard
makes it easier to calculate the sun’s
mass, and gravity’s figures
speak louder than the handful of earth
in a man. Numbers don’t change
their minds, like people or angels.
As a boy, I thought I’d been left on Earth
by aliens. I could figure
the rotational velocity of a changeup,
but my aim was a radian off. While the sun
arced through the blue vault like an angel,
I scrawled resonance equations on a blackboard.
On my first drive up to Los Alamos, the sun
on cottonwoods and sandstone transformed
me. I’d been thinking of Arline
in the TB ward in Albuquerque. The doctors figured
she had a year. My heart was a blackboard
covered in odds. The naked earth
rose before me then like the figure
of an angel.
I could spend my life slaving at a blackboard
and never quantify the way light shifted
in her eyes. I lay down on a bare patch of earth
to think. My chest was heavy with sun.
I chose the smaller job: alter
the course of a war. Armed with a blackboard,
I would earn my place on Earth.
Behind me, an angel
beat her wings. I circled the sun
with a lasso of figures.