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How Do Poets Choose a Collection’s Final Poem?

Kimberly Quiogue Andrews, Leah Huizar, Su Hwang, and Natalie Diaz answer.

In October of 2017, I started a series of interviews about how poets put together their collections. I began with this interview: How Do Poets Choose a Title For Their Books? That was followed by How Do Poets Choose A Collection Opener? After that, in the penultimate installment, there was How Do Poets Organize a Collection? And now, here is the finale that I had always imagined—an interview focusing on how a poet decides what the final poem in their collection should be.

The final poem has a large task—it has to make the book feel finished. It will, by its position, speak to every other poem in the book. It will inevitably turn the reader somewhere; the author decides where that will be. And the final poem will beg feelings of satisfaction for the reader. It’s a lot to ask of a single poem.

These four new books of poetry are astonishing, and I was thrilled to ask these authors about the decisions they made in finding that final note for their books.

Kimberly Quiogue Andrews’ A Brief History of Fruit we moves back and forth between America and the Philippines, exploring the worlds of central Pennsylvania and Manila, tackling the complications of having varied histories, and voicing what it’s like to think about race and racialization from within a body that oftentimes passes for white.

Leah Huizar’s Inland Empire captures Southern California—its smells, its food, its sounds, its languages, its landscape, its people—all through a Latina lens, grounded through the speaker and her family. When we talk about poetry about place, this is the book we’ve been desperate for.

Su Hwang’s Bodega captures the speaker’s childhood and the unspoken traumas of fractured identities, assimilation, and immigrant labor. Through formal experimentation, this collection explores the stories of the many lives that the bodega brings together—touching and devastating all at once.

Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem is indeed about love, an amazing, scorching love. It’s also about all kinds of things that create bonds between us—like basketball and community—and about those things that destroy bonds—like violence and drugs and colonialism. In reading this book, I was so grateful for poetry’s capacity to hold everything that we need spoken.

Here are their thoughts on how to choose the right poems to close their books.

Kimberly Quiogue Andrews on “Mango Mouth”
from A Brief History of Fruit

I hold to the general view that books of poems should make arguments, which means that the closing poem of a book should in some senses do what the closing of an argument would do: reiterate some of the main points and then add something very slightly new to take away. This may sound formulaic, but that small newness can do a lot of work. I think of the last long poem in Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, the one in which she describes cows doing a form of bizarre ritual circling. The last stanza goes like this:

The moon high up and small. High up and small.
Perfect like a flower. Or an oracle. Something
Completely understood. But unspeakable.

Her entire aesthetic is contained in here—the repetition of detail as a kind of futile invocation, the nod to “unspeakable” violence—but the end is also literally unspeakable. That admission undermines, in a sense, everything the book has been up until that point, but it also and paradoxically reiterates its major concerns.

“Mango Mouth” was in fact one of the last poems I wrote for A Brief History of Fruit, after having taken a long hiatus from the material. I didn’t have any sense as I was writing it that I was writing a closing poem, though there’s a way in which that effect was maybe inevitable, given the fact that I was writing my way back into a collection the major contours of which I already had in view. I have that common condition wherein you get mild dermatitis from residual sap on mango skins, and I found that out by eating too many mangoes in the Philippines and wondering why my lips were all bumpy and itchy. It felt, to me, that something I loved was pushing me away. And it was that note, rather than any soggy note of “I reclaimed my heritage and it was fine,” on which I wanted to end the book. What we lay claim to does not always seem to want us. Sometimes that refusal inheres in the body, in its misguided attempts to protect itself from something. From what? From the possibility of ever being refused? These, indirectly, are the questions the book ends upon, and they remain in many ways unanswered.

MANGO MOUTH

When soft appears,

and I mistake the purple rot of the hydrangeas on the counter for their sweetness—

O yellow ear, o fortitude, o urushiol.

Toxicodendron radicans sounds like a superhero name,
Mangifera indica more like what it is, the manhandled feral,
and something on the skin of my face cannot tell the difference
and the magic works         and its inverse
and I break out into the tiniest hives.

What speaks like the skin of its own geography?
The organ that we leave everywhere,
that hunches and furrows        dries and slicks
makes us human, or less so—

the calculus of touch, the causality of reaction. That burns and prickles,

that renders invisible

In the story where my hands push the fruit
from its peel, where there’s no water at the tap and the stickiness
sings like the blown-down reeds of the authentic,
contact dermatitis serves as a book about indulgence,
about the taking and taking until you’re a swollen mass
of the sun that is not yours
of the leaf that is not yours
of the sap

that you insist, I, that I insist I can avoid by opening wider around the spoon—

I count them on the bones beneath my limbs:

things I love that cannot touch my lips. 

Leah Huizar on “To Explain California Geography”
from Inland Empire:

Closing a collection is a way of reopening it. I was once told that after reading a poetry collection one should return to its first and last poems to see how they speak to each other. To read this way is to venture that there is often a kind of dialogue between these poles. More specifically, the movement from the final poem back into the book’s first poem enacts a recursive transformation of meaning and perspective.

In this view, the final poem might gather into itself the sum labor and language of the collection. Whatever was initiated in the first poem might be satisfied in the last poem, and the reader is given a new vantage point from which to see the preoccupations of the collection. I don’t know that this must always be the case. However, I did take it for my task in writing Inland Empire.

I ended up writing its last poem in the middle of composing the manuscript. It came at the right time, too, as I had struggled to articulate to myself how each of my subjects cohered—California landscapes, the history of colonization and belief on that coast, contemporary life as a Mexican-American, the labor of women—except as threads from the intersecting identities that I wear in the world. The body then became my answer. The imagery of the final poem acted as a guide through the rest of the work and counterpart to the first poem. I see “To Explain California Geography” as its fulfillment and inflection point.

TO EXPLAIN CALIFORNIA GEOGRAPHY

I sign the cross, a compass over my body:
My open hand lifts to heavenly Los

Angeles, drops south near my belly,
San Diegan in origin. I sweep west-east

across my chest from Orange County’s seaside
carnal cities, then over the divide of Santa Ana

Mountains toward the Inland,
where I end this empire; in the interior—

paused, my hand marks
where desert meets valley in the high,

hard heat that yields, year after year,
a landscape of wine, vineyards of dark fruit.

Su Hwang on “Sunchoke” from Bodega:

I wish I could take credit for how my collection opens and ends, but if it weren’t for poet Rick Barot’s genius, I’m not sure how the book would have turned out. Throughout the writing and submissions process, I went through countless versions. I tried everything––eventually bloating to about 90 pages, shifting from three sections to five sections then ultimately back to three. In some earlier versions for example, I started the manuscript with the sonnet sequence that’s now the third poem in the second section, and ended with “Cancer,” which I now realize was a terribly sentimental choice (fifth poem in the third section).

During our hour-long phone conversation, Rick likened the manuscript to a house and asked what if I used different doors to enter and exit the collection, and advised I begin with “Instant Scratch Off” and close with “Sunchoke.” My first instinct was to bristle since I considered them both to be among my weaker poems (buried in the fourth and fifth sections, respectively at the time), but he helped me visualize how the poems needed to work spatially rather than in a rigid, two-dimensional fashion. I imagined each poem to be a room or a hallway to another series of rooms and hallways, then back again, and this relational way of seeing the poems really set into motion the big, final edit.

Once I bookended the two poems and cut about 25 pages, like he suggested, something just clicked into place and in a kind of inspired dark night of the soul, I reshuffled the poems in one sitting and intuitively knew I was finally done. To fully extend this metaphor, if I ended the collection with “Cancer,” it would’ve been like exiting the house through the attic filled with dusty boxes, but with “Sunchoke,” the reader leaves through a sun-drenched kitchen with sliding doors. I’m forever grateful to Rick Barot (whose fourth marvel of a book The Galleons is out now with Milkweed Editions) for his generous mentorship, offering the key to unlock the doors to my first book.

SUNCHOKE

i.

Never    a green thumb     I can kill
perennials     without much       guilt
allow them       to wilt   slowly     twist
into desiccated rinds    along sooty sills
Certain    plants can        be grown
in a cup of water     no need to pit into
soil     exert any human    will     So I cut
the ends of wens     their transections
a tableau of latticed histories  like centuries
scribed into rings      of gargantuan trees

ii.

I stare   absently   at family portraits   old
frames resting on    the mantle     & wait
for an echo     but ivy     has grown over
unfamiliar faces     braided through
eyes     ears & noses    like flowering
weeds     We each suffer     alone in
tandem     maybe I read this    somewhere
on an engraved placard       on a bench
lost    in the woods     I don’t know
what else    to say     about life & love
& guilt   & dying     & loss   &     time
Maybe    it’ll come   to me      soon

iii.

As I linger     in my Lilliputian kitchen
whiffs     of rosemary     sumac     & thyme
emerge like a smattering      of rain
Golden rivulets break    through the late
haze of morning     a sudden invitation
Before     suspending root      into liquid
tomb     womb (phantasmagoric starburst
on my palm)     the southerly     prism
shone a galaxy     I trace     the eye   within
an eye  within an eye  in perfect   concentric
circles   & await       its succulent     growth

Natalie Diaz on “Grief Work” from Postcolonial Love Poem:

The book is not meant to be reconciled, and is instead happening, then, now, yet. The way I intended to end the book Postcolonial Love Poem, a poem titled “Grief Work,” tends to be the way I end singular poems—each is another beginning, one of many vertices of image or emotion, an energy. I wanted the end to be a disruption that is not disruptive because disruption is the condition. As grief is a condition—of my people, my land, my river, my language, my country.

My current relationship to grief is learning to not wait for it to still or subside—that I let it yet be subversive. I want to stop asking my grief to go away and let it enter—then enter it and open all its doors, wander it the way it has wandered me for so long. I am relearning my grief as companion, as watcher, as enemy, as prophecy, as lover, as a word to walk through to another side where grief is still waiting but different. It was important to me that the last poem didn’t let us leave the book—I needed the last poem to return us to the book, to whatever the book has meant for any of us. Grief work, like any work, is a thing that wears you down, a labor for sure, but also a practice, a ritual, a way of building, a way of caretaking.

Through grief I have learned and continue to learn desire. Through grief I have learned there is no such thing as goodness only the way grief can make me new, can make me possible for what comes next—clean not as in unmarred, rather, clean as in ready to be marred again.

GRIEF WORK

Why not now go toward the things I love?

I have walked slow in the garden
of her—: gazed the black flower

                 dilating her animal-
                 eye.

I give up my sorrows
the way a bull gives it horns—: astonished,

                 and wishing there is rest
                 in the body’s softest parts.

Like Jacob’s angel, I touched the garnet
of her hip,

                 and she knew my name,
                 and I knew hers—:

it was Auxocromo, it was Cromóforo,
it was Eliza.

When the eyes and lips are brushed with honey
what is seen and said will never be the same,

so why not take the apple
in your mouth—:                           

                 in flames, in pieces, straight
                 from the knife’s sharp edge?

Achilles chased Hektor around the walls
of Ilium three times—: how long must I circle

the high gate
between her hip and knee

                 to solve the red-gold geometry
                 of her thigh?

Again the gods put their large hands in me,
move me, break my heart

like a clay jug of wine, loosen a beast
from some darklong depth.

                 My melancholy is hoofed.
                 I, the terrible beautiful

Lampon, a shining devour-horse tethered
at the bronze manger of her collarbones.

                 I do my grief work
                 with her body—:

labor to make the emerald tigers
in her throat leap,

lead them burning green to drink
from the deep-violet jetting her breast.

We go where there is love,

to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet
water. I pull her under four times,

                 until we are rivered.
                 We are rearranged.

I wash the silk and silt of her from my hands—:
now who I come to, I come clean to,

                 I come good to.

2 comments on “How Do Poets Choose a Collection’s Final Poem?

  1. David M. Perkins

    I was lucky with the final poem, “CLOSER,” in my new collection, having the double meaning of the intent–to invite the reader closer into the lines–and to have it be “the closer,” to wrap up the intention of the book. Serendipity, that.

    Like

  2. Ihar Kazak
    April 25, 2020

    Indeed, the closing poem in a collection is a choice and decision prone with a multitude of problems and, at times, some post-publication regrets…
    This, however, was (un)fortunately not the case in my latest magnum opus of literary translation of my selection and rendition from some seven books of poetry of the well-known Belarusian-American poet Ryhor Krushyna (1907-1979, the pseudonym of Ryhor Kazak), which I chose to name Love for the Homeland: The Belarusian Poetry of Ryhor Krushyna. Perhaps the judicious reader can judge from the poem itself and see the superlative essence of poetry itself starting with:
    THE WORD

    Within the spectrum wide with intuition
    I recognize you, my word.
    Its taste, its odor, and play of sounds for definition
    And my creative happiness I heard.

    The colors gamut and its play,
    The elixir of youth,
    And golden dreams of yesterday,
    The fervor and the restless whirl of truth.

    I see it all, I feel it all,
    With words creating all anew,
    I hear the voice of my country’s call,
    The war of emotions that I knew.

    For instance, take such a word for taste
    Such bitter word is “absinth” to be sure.
    It seems along the village street there’s waste
    Of weed that crawls along the paling ever more.

    Some though are straining words as castor oil,
    Though surely there are others honey sweet…
    My word! I’ll not desert you in my toil,
    I love your flight of fancy in this feat.

    Mankind you do enrich so much
    To prompt them to come forth in life.
    You’ll cure the ailing with your touch,
    And beat the evil enemy in strife.

    You’re flashing with a lightning sheath,
    And wafting with the warmth of spring and spree.
    Upon my death you’ll meander as a wreath
    To be consumed by life and me.
    Munich-New York 1964
    English tr.©Ihar Kazak 2020

    Alas! this is not the end of the story… Allow me first to explain the word ‘(un)fortunately’ preceding my statement of ‘post-publication regrets’: it never came to this, for the small but thriving publishing house had to fold due to the illness of the publisher. My collection was one of the last remaining unpublished.
    Such is the lot of a poet. Suffering in life under communism and “writing into one’s desk” because the regime would not publish the truth, then came WWII and Nazi camps for the “workers from the East”, followed by the UN camps for displaced persons. Then the arrival in America and freedom to publish and even ultimately a job in one’s profession–a literary editor at Radio Liberty.

    Krushyna, it may be noted, was also prophetic in his poems about Chernobyl and its devastating effect upon Belarus, where nearly a third of the country had been contaminated. There are a number of references in his poems re: “absinthe and wormwood”, both synonymous with Chernobyl, i.e. Artemisia vulgaris (L.).

    It is these analogies and other similarities which struck a melancholic note in my soul upon reading Sarah Blake’s essay and thorough analysis of Natalie Diaz’s work.

    This brings me back once again to my hyphenated prefix in ‘(un)fortunately. For, perhaps, this (mis)fortune is a fortune indeed: for me as a literary translator and compiler of a fabulous Belarusian-American poet, albeit posthumously for the poet, to be freed from the initial publishing contract and open for prospective ones once again…
    Ihar Kazak
    St. Petersburg, FL
    April 25, 2020

    Like

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