getting to know gary metras and his new book the moon in the pool
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
The first poets I read and felt I understood were the English Cavaliers. It was senior year in high school and I was about to meet the girl who would later become my wife, though I didn't know it at that time, just as I had no serious inkling of the Vietnam era draft lurking around the corner. The Cavalier poets had a flair, a style and even themes that appealed to my seventeen year old self. “To Althea from Prison” was the first poem I memorized. I wrote imitation after imitation of Suckling and Lovelace’s verses and enjoyed counting the beats and making the rhymes. Then I fell in love with the work of William Blake and the Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Keats. In the spinning, wire rack of the local variety store, I found John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno,which I read a few pages at a time right there until I saved the sixty-five cent price. I carried it everywhere, though I showed it to no one in the projects but the moon. Shortly thereafter I bought my first book of poems by a living poet: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Things changed after that. I began to think seriously about writing poetry, that maybe I didn’t have to imitate anyone, that I could listen to my own inner voice and hear poems. Later I found Eliot’s “Prufrock” in Ciardi’s textbook, How Does a Poem Mean?, in the Air Base store in Turkey where I was stationed in 1967. (I bought it even though I wasn’t taking a course.) I read and reread the poem and memorized it. “Let us go then, you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherized upon a table...” I read the entire book, footnotes and all, more seriously than I had ever read any other book. I did all the exercises as if someone, somewhere was paying attention to my hard, solitary work and would sooner or later pronounce me, Poet, which turned out to be much later.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I have no routine, no favorite chair, no ideal time for writing. I do have a favorite pen, a Cross fountain pen that I write most first drafts with (and second, third, … twelfth drafts). I write pretty much when the muse slaps me on the side of the head and says, “Hey, this is a poem, write it down!” So I often have a pocket-size blank journal on me, one that I make myself. After I attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference in the mid-70s, so many of the teachers and assistant teachers spoke about the importance of daily writing to the success of the poet. that was so foreign to my habits. I started thinking that they must know more about the process than I do. So I began to write every day for an hour or two. But that didn’t last. The pages I filled were inane, clichéd drivel. Nor did I have time: I had a toddler and a baby in the house and a parent’s routine revolves around the children’s needs, which are, frankly, more important than poetry. I went back to my haphazard ways of writing. I have discovered, though, that I write more and better poems during the months of October and April. I don’t know why, but there must be something about a change is season, so radically evident here in Massachusetts, that opens me to be receptive to inspiration. One of those two months is both mine and my son’s birthday months and the other is my daughter’s.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
One day winter of 2014 I was fly fishing a local river, casting to the far bank. After I caught and released a nice rainbow trout, I turned to climb the river bank behind me when I noticed among the snow and tangled branches of a downed tree, the carcass of a deer. I had walked into this spot on the river right near that body and never noticed it. Made me think how death is always so close to us without our awareness. I wrote about that experience and that idea in a poem titled “A Few Feet Away,” which is in the new book. Some other poems in the new book began in these ways: “Meditation on Chestnuts”: I was sitting at an outdoor café at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul sipping a chi and simply wrote notes about the scene and people around me, and a year later wrote it out. “Advice to a Son”: I had just finished Beowulf with my high school seniors and at home my son was turning sixteen, a dangerous time for any boy, and I had the image pop into my head of me being Grendel’s parent, and I wondered what words of wisdom could you give to a monster’s child, or a sixteen-year-old for that matter, to help ease their way in the world and wrote it out. “The Hammer”: When my daughter got married, I gave her the hammer my father had given me when I got married; I thought, well, isn’t this a novel tradition, and wrote about that. “Seven Stones for Seven Poems”: This sequence took shape one evening at my writing desk when the mood to create was there but no words or images were coming; I then began to take into my hands the small rocks that had accumulated in the wooden crevices of the desk and recalled when, where, and why I had collected those stones, and, more or less, recounted each experience where I found that particular stone, and the meaning of that experience. “The Engagement”: Tells of the Ukrainian folk tradition of the young bride-to-be cross-stitching a pillow that will adorn her marriage bed. I was engaged to my high school sweetheart, as the saying goes, and stationed in Germany as my fiancée back home cross-stitched such a pillow. Years later while mindlessly gazing at that pillow, I began to imagine what was going on in the heart and mind of a young woman engaged in such a cultural tradition. I tried to keep the poem’s details physically accurate while interjecting symbolic meaning to the design and the process. My wife says I got it right. So I guess you could say my life directly inspires my poems.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Different poets and their work have been very important to me at different times of my life. Early on, Keats and Shelley, and Robert Frost were like gods to me. I read everything they wrote I could get my hands on, copied some of their poems in notebooks, wrote imitations, and comparing the two, tore mine up. Later, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Rilke, and Robert Bly became models to emulate, both for themes and for use of language. At the present stage of my career, I pay attention to what my close poet friends are writing, not to imitate, or draw direct inspiration from, but to compare their lives and their poetry to my own, to see what similarities and differences exist in all of our written work when so much in our lives are indistinguishable from one other. It’s similar to the idea of two people looking at the same painting, say Kandinski’s The Cossacks, and coming away with very different emotional reactions.
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 is a project book? etc.
The title of the new book is the last line of the poem “Working Class Villanelle,” which is included in the collection. The tradition of a villanelle comes from sixteenth century French peasant pastoral ballads and basically means a country song, but was corrupted by nineteenth century English poets into a rigidly fixed form exercise to showcase their prosodic abilities, i.e., to show off how well they could work in repetitive stanzaic and rhyming forms while making meaning. The villanelle is still used in MFA programs today for the same purpose. I disagree with this approach. So I used the idea of peasant, or working class, life and values to gather together my various poems into the manuscript. Most of the poems, therefore, employ common, everyday experiences and attempt to elevate them, or when the situation of the poem may seem exotic, Easter Mass in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey, for example, to find the commonality in such a scene. Presa Press publisher Eric Greinke is a sensitive and intelligent editor and he helped me maintain this basic outline. Even with all my experience as an editor, thirty-five years of editing my own Adastra Press, when I put on my “poet hat,” I still need, as most poets do, an editor to assist in the process of making a manuscript become a good book, and I believe this new collection is a good book that many readers will enjoy.
Read a sample from The Moon in the Pool here:
SEVEN STONES FOR SEVEN POEMS
The stony garden of the spirit grows.
Though I have rolled brachiopods in my hand,
dead lines curved along the life line,
and chipped trilobites from shale cells
where time was served neither poorly
nor well, just saved,
and licked sandstone and limestone, my tongue
a delta of sediments
to their place of change,
have bent down, crawling,
to where the lizard goes in search of basalt memory,
what I know of stones
is not science.
Though I have seen a geode sparkling under glass
along the rows of rocks and gems
and read the geode’s mental thrust in verse,
I prefer what occurs in the palm
of a bird’s nest.
This is not to quarrel. But to say
that on the path to his cabin
in Ripton, Vermont, I stole in delight
a small, smooth, round stone as white
as the head of Robert Frost.
This is the stone of inspiration,
the stone that taught me to sing these songs.