new prose poetry by Charles Rafferty
The Problem With Philosophers
I spend a lot of time on distinctions — whether I prefer compulsions or obsessions, whether outer space or firmament is better for what’s above. Meadowlarks and dungeons are another matter. Now that I’ve written them into a sentence, I’ll think of them both whenever just one is mentioned. At a dinner party, no one is eager to sit beside a philosopher. They are always into their third glass of wine, and everyone is hoping the baked Alaska might settle the conversation.
The Last Slave Died in 1972
I could have passed Peter Mills in my baby carriage if my parents ever took me to Pittsburgh. It’s something to think about — that the Beatles broke up before the last slave had died. Race suffuses everything, though my whiteness makes it hard to see as I stand outside my home without anyone asking if it’s mine. True, my lack of melanin leaves me prone to skin cancer but also to better paychecks. And when the police arrive, I am confident the phone I called them on won’t come to resemble a pistol. I know. There’s no need to shout. I understand my privilege. I’m so white that if I were black I’d expect some reparations.
The gas makes up most of what we breathe. Apparently, it’s here to keep the world from exploding when I light a cigarette. How else to understand the Apollo disaster? Likewise, I try to make sense of the ball of molten metal at the center of our planet. Both everything and nothing seem fine on this side of the eggshell. Despite the asteroids and tsunamis, we carry on. Look, we are saving the tiger by giving it a cage.
When I spot the quick star of the astronauts traversing our backyard sky, I call the children over and point. They say Daddy is excited about the airplane. They say Daddy is funny when he drinks his wine. In no time, the space station will be above Europe, I tell them, but they don’t even ask what Europe is because already they have resumed their search for marshmallow sticks. Later, when I’m taking off your blouse, you profess not to care about the astronauts and how they have risked everything to have a difficult time in the toilet. They must stink, you say. They must take a hot shower as soon as they get back. As I kiss your stomach, I wonder if they’re floating above our house again, and whether they face a window that faces away from us.
The Signs Are Easy to Miss
If a river slides under the highway here, somebody names it. Those signs can be easy to miss as we hurry to the liquor store. It’s odd that they’ve taken the trouble. After all, no one has put a sign up to mark the migrating swallows, or to indicate the westerly drift of our own tectonic plate. It doesn’t matter if we’ve argued about the exit, or if the car payment is overdue. The river continues along its downward path.
I feel uneasy when swimming across deep water — like I’m inside of a lens, like something is watching from a great distance. It’s how we see the stars in December, or the shimmering puddle of summer heat, just before a storm. As evening accumulates, I stop to get my bearings, and my toes dip into that layer of coldness that seems to travel with me. Despite the darkness, I keep going — uncertain if the lights I’m headed for are bedroom windows or departing ships that will take me deeper still.
The Lake Is Dismantling the Sun
If you were here, you would have said it was reassembling the sun. This is hardly a comfort. I’d have to be crazy to hear the song inside an egg, and then to tell someone about it. I don’t usually keep this loaded, but I’ve grown tired of the leopards that walk so lightly they don’t leave prints outside my window. Given enough time, almost anything can happen. Almost everything already has.
People believe in this confusion of ink. Even though it has grown less coherent over the decades, its unreadability proves I’m me. It’s like a mandala of sand that slowly blurs despite the lack of wind. It is ruined by the forcing shut of the bureau drawer, the thump of a boiler that keeps us warm, the spiritual shaking that rattles the whiskey resting inside my palm.
The Case Against the Semicolon
- It is one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train.
- It is part of the wink emoji.
- It is twilight.
- It is the length of time between when you stopped kissing me and when you felt relief.
- It is Wednesday.
- It is shale when the world wanted mud or slate.
- It is the pause between Netflix episodes.
- It is too much and too little at once.
- It has never been used in a love letter.
It was April and I drove over a frog on the way home from work. Later, on the back deck, I wanted to listen to the silence of the dripping woods, but all I could hear was my own tinnitus. Once again, the auroras failed to reach down to Connecticut. Once again, I was left with cold vodka and the brightness of named stars. That’s when I remembered a piece of advice I had meant to give my daughter, but she was abroad in a city with different traffic patterns. If you’ve ever dropped something off the side of a boat by accident, you know exactly how I felt.
all poetry ©2021
Krysia Jopek interviews Charles Rafferty
From what age(s) did you know you were going to be a writer—poet and fiction? Were there pivotal moments or was there an overall feeling/determination?
In high school, I had fallen in love with the idea of being a poet, though it took a long time to grow into that aspiration. Rimbaud was important to me – and still is – for the model he presented: the possibility of taking language very seriously, the mastery of forms and the willingness to discard them, the importance of giving yourself over entirely to the pursuit of art. Illuminations is a book I keep returning to. It continues to confound and delight.
I don’t think there was any one moment when I knew I was going to be a poet. It’s something that has felt inevitable because I can’t imagine not finding the time to do it.
My move to fiction came later in life. I was probably in my late 40s when I started writing short stories. I had begun this experiment at about the same time I started writing prose poems. At a certain point, I gave up on lined poetry altogether. I’m not sure why that’s been important, but it has. I’m more productive with my prose poems, and repeatedly they seem like the right container for what I’m after. I don’t mean to suggest I’ll never write a sonnet again. Boredom eventually creeps into everything, and when it does, I’ll move on to the next thing.
What have been the largest influences (literary, visual art, music, science, philosophy, etc.) on your creative writing?
Early on, my biggest influence was other writers. I mentioned Rimbaud already, but there are lots of writers whose work has consistently struck a chord in me – James Dickey, Stephen Dunn, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, Mark Strand, Lucille Clifton, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Russel Edson, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney, Donald Justice, Baudelaire, Mallarme. The list is quite long really, and in the beginning I tried to read everything I could get my hands on. I think you have to do that if you have any hope of succeeding. An unawareness of what others are up to means that you’re not leaving yourself open to influence. We need to embrace influence. We shouldn’t worry that it will make us unlike ourselves. I see influence, rather, as helping us to become ourselves.
Nowadays, of course, I’m still an avid reader, but I’ll confess I don’t read as widely as I’d like. I’ve been spending more and more time out in the woods or down at the river. I get a couple of hours in just about every day, and these hours have been spent reading the world instead of books. I couldn’t imagine writing what’s currently in progress on my desk without having walked in the woods for a long time. And I’ll say this is doubly true for the poems that don’t have anything to do with the woods.
What is your writing process from idea/conceptualization to end product? Does your process evolve or stay consistent, or both?
My process has evolved over the years. Currently, my process has been to spend a month writing down whatever comes into my head. Usually, I’ll spend an hour in the morning before anyone else is up. Sometimes more. I may fill up a couple of pages, or maybe I’ll just have a paragraph or two. Then, after a month, I take all these pages and start distilling them down. I probably spend a week just cutting the obviously terrible parts out, but over the next two or three months, I start whittling a poem out of the mess. I like to take a line from Day 5 and see how it responds to a line from Day 28. Even better if they seem to have nothing to do with each other. I see if the juxtaposition of those two lines will suggest a third. There’s a lot of this swapping and comparing and revising and rearranging that goes on. After a few months, I’ll generally end up with between 8 and 12 prose poems. By the end of it, each poem has undergone 30 or 40 revisions. In fact, there’s a point I sometimes get to and I get very excited – when I’ve finally excised from the poem the line that started it in motion. When that happens, I feel like the poem is more in control than I am – and that starts to make things click even faster.
What are your writing habits—where and when do you write, for how long per day/week, with music, noise, or silence, on paper/and or a laptop/PC?
I generally write every day for an hour, usually in the early morning. At evening, I tend to do the “business of writing” stuff – sending out poems, responding to editors, etc. I prefer to write in the morning because that’s when I’m feeling best. It’s important to be selfish – to save the best hour of the day for one’s art. Luckily, in my case, no one is vying for that hour’s attention. The family is always asleep at 5 a.m.
Keeping to a schedule has always been important to me. I’ll always take 5 straight days of writing crap to 5 straight days of avoiding the task at hand. You still have to write the 5 straight days of crap. It doesn’t matter that you’ve put it off.
How has being a professor and co-Chair of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Albertus Magnus informed/enhanced your work?
One way is that my teaching has kept me in closer contact with certain masterpieces than I might otherwise be. When I teach the same class from one semester to another, I often keep many of the readings the same. Knowing a work well is always a good thing. I’ve never read a good poem so often that it lost its shine.
Beyond this effect – greater familiarity with certain great poems – I don’t think there is a large influence on my own work. Certainly, hearing and having insights about students’ works can be stimulating, and hopefully those insights are carried over into my own work. But it’s a difficult influence to quantify.
The largest effect of teaching is that’s it’s made having a schedule a necessity. I’ve always had a day job, and I’ve always had teaching duties at night. That makes for a busy life – not to mention the fact that I’m also a husband and a father. So finding a time in which I can be productive has been essential. True, I don’t have unlimited time to spend on my writing, but part of me doubts I’d be able to fill the time even if circumstances allowed it. I feel like I’m in a good groove right now. A slow drip eventually fills the bucket.
Who is your ideal reader?
The ideal reader of the unfinished poem is the one who will spot the greatest flaw and suggest a way to fix it. The ideal reader of the finished poem is someone who says the poem aloud, who is willing to practice the poem until it drips off the tongue unimpeded. That’s how it sounds to me, but all poems require practice, familiarity. I want someone to take the time to notice how I’ve arranged the rhythms.
What publishing advice would you give to contemporary writers?
Practice your craft and read voraciously. Figure out the market that will be amenable to your work. Then send things out relentlessly. If you get a rejection, read over the poem again. If you still believe in it, if there’s not one syllable you think can be changed, then send it out again. Rejection is merely the chance to make something better.
The aliens have landed with notebooks in hand at your front door and ask you,“In one sentence who is Charles Rafferty?”
In terms of my writerly persona? I’d want them to know I’m primarily someone who writes impressionistic, associative prose poems. And if they were interested in one of our possible futures, I’d tell them to read my first novel, Moscodelphia, which is out in September.
What is your favorite single work that you’ve written?
I find that this question is almost impossible to answer well. It depends on my state of mind. I usually think that “the thing I just finished” is my best work, but that’s me falling in love too easily. The feeling doesn’t last. I find that, if I return to a piece 6 months later, I’ll have a more sober eye.
I would like to share one fairly recent poem that I still enjoy. It’s a prose poem from my new collection, A Cluster of Noisy Planets (BOA Editions, 2021):
Everyone wants it to continue — the arches, the latrines and animal cages, the rooms where men wept in what passed for their last privacy. When the emperor showed up, the lions ate the slaves. There could be no other outcome. It’s still here at the center of Rome, obstructing traffic and collecting the dung of gulls. For the price of a shrimp dinner, we can see where Caesar sat. We can feel the stone that bore him up and which we have not let crumble.
“The Pond,” another poem from Cluster, newyorker.com
short stories by Charles Rafferty, Somebody Who Knows Somebody (Gold Wake Press, 2021)
latest collection of prose poetry, A Cluster of Noisy Planets (BOA Editions, 2021)
Charles Rafferty’s novel, Moscodelphia (Woodhall Press, 2021)
a chapter from Moscodelphia, “The Silver Smile of the Hatchet”
Charles Rafferty’s most recent collection of poems is A Cluster of Noisy Planets (BOA Editions, 2021). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Escape Into Life, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Milk Candy Review, Juked, Okay Donkey, and New World Writing, and his most recent story collection is Somebody Who Knows Somebody (Gold Wake Press, 2021). His first novel, Moscodelphia, is due out in September from Woodhall Press. He has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism. Currently, he co-directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College and teaches at the Westport Writers’ Workshop.
more on Charles Rafferty, poets.org/poet/charles-rafferty