We met George Drew through January’s Poet in Residence, Harry Newman. George joined us with the essay, “I Beg You Ezra,” in April and will celebrate the release of his latest book of poetry, Pastoral Habits (Texas Review Press), on May 15th. We’re thrilled he’s agreed to answer our traditional suite of Take Five questions and even more excited to share three of his poems. Enjoy. —Camille Griep
1) Can you tell us about your writing environment? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?
Basically, all I require, initially, is a black ink pen and a small notebook. Those go with me everywhere. Usually that’s where poems begin. Then I move to a Cambridge yellow-sheeted legal pad—really a hardbound notebook. That’s where I flesh out full drafts. Finally, it’s on to my desktop, or laptop when I’m somewhere other than home. The computer, I find, objectifies form and structure beautifully. But, essentially, I’m still old school, in that writing poems is a deeply personal, tactile experience; thus, handwritten is my modus operandi, thorough Gutenbergian that I am. Where do I write, and when? Anywhere, anytime. Ideally, I prefer the solitude of my home or that of the natural world, but when a poem from Porlock comes knocking at my gate, I open it. Anywhere, anytime…
2) Where are you from and where are you now? Does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
I’m an American half-breed—half Southerner and half Northerner. I was born and partly raised in the Mississippi Delta, and those roots run deep. My other half is Hudson River Valley New Yorker—the Storm King Mountains. Those roots run deep, too. Given this dual lineage, place is all-important in my work. How could it not be when so many of my formative years were transient? By the time I was four I was in New York State, where I stayed until I was nine. Then it was back to Mississippi until I was eleven, then back to New York for a year, then back to Mississippi for three years. Put it this way: I attended seven or eight elementary schools in three states; each year of high school in a different state; college in three states. You get the idea. But most of my life until I was twenty was entangled with Mississippi and New York—the latter being where I have mostly resided since. Ironically, while I often felt like a human Ping-Pong ball, transience, or the lack of specific place, has fueled the importance of place in my work. Mississippi gave me an earthy oral narrative tradition that informs my poetry, not to mention a musicality I wouldn’t have otherwise. New York gave me a kind of old-world, almost colonial mythology that I revisit constantly. My first book, Toads in a Poisoned Tank, I hope illustrates all of this, with its Southern and Northern family poems, and their attendant distinct mythologies. I’ve also lived in the West, and in England (I’ve traveled a lot), and from those, too, I often draw in my work. Williams said “no ideas but in things,” and I would add, for me, no poems but in place.
3) What are the basics of your process? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
Poems begin as they begin. A word, an idea, an image, a memory, something read—all of these can spark that magic moment. You know, imagination with a capital I. Sometimes I write quickly, sometimes not. Poems simmer while I stew. Generally, though, they come fast, and the fact that I’ve written so much testifies to that—and, in retrospect, surprises even me. Do I ever give up on an idea? Oh yes, but rarely on the poem. Letting go of preconceived notions often can result in a much more realized poem. Superimposition of what I think the poem is, or should be, almost never works. As per the old adage, one has to trust one’s muse, even if she is fickle as hell. Editing is fickle, too. I think editing, like some poems, is never really finished, just abandoned. Knowing when to cease and desist is as important as knowing when not to. Simply put, I’m not one who bemoans revision, though the process varies: Sometimes I revise as I go along, sometimes not until I finish a first draft. Whether a poem happens quickly or not, I’m never averse to going back to it days, weeks, months, or in some cases years later. For me, there is no statute of limitations on revision. Like Michelangelo and his sculptures—an artist I explore in my book, The Hand That Rounded Peter’s Dome—I really love carving away the dross to get at the poem within. It’s joyous work.
Friends, lovers, family, strangers, even stranger events and “realities”—all inspire. There is nothing new under the sun, and there is nothing that is not new.
4) What other art forms factor into your work? From what or where do you draw inspiration?
Imagination, as I’ve implied already, comes from anything or anyone anywhere anytime. I can be turned on by Keats and by Kinnell; by, in fact, the entire canon, going back to the Greeks and forward to the latest issue of our numerous lit mags. Friends, lovers, family, strangers, even stranger events and “realities”—all inspire. There is nothing new under the sun, and there is nothing that is not new. I love pretty much all the arts, and all have entered my work in one poem or another, but I love science, too—especially physics and its history, and its spinoff, astrophysics, or cosmology. My book, The Horse’s Name Was Physics, I think demonstrates what, I know, is my limited understanding but unlimited enthusiasm. Jack Butler and Jared Smith, two poets whose work I admire greatly, and I have long-running conversations about the sciences and their relationship to poetry. Does it get any better than that?
5) If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending a dark, iced-in winter in Nome, Alaska, which books would you give them and why?
You do realize, do you not, how nearly impossible this question is! But, trooper that I try to be, here goes. Three months demands diversity, depth, mastery and a durable literature that is endurable. So … Shakespeare—the entire opus. This selection might seem obvious and consequently mundane, but The Bard has everything—great drama, great prose, great poetry—and characters and stories that are part of the DNA of Western culture, be you American or European. And oh the language, the language! Just beautiful stuff. Besides, how many among us have had the time or the stamina to actually have read, or to reread, all of Mr. Shakespeare! Second, Homer—The Odyssey. For all the same reasons as Shakespeare. If nothing else, it’s relational: all that island hopping going on! And finally, the Norton—English and/or American. What else can give one such a time-honored introduction to—and sustaining membership in—everything literary in the Western tradition? Plus, given it and the other two books, I dare anyone to say they fear they’ll run out of reading material in three months! Or, for that matter, that they’ll be run out of their minds by boredom.
The Distances Across Which All the Atoms Dance
After the delay it was spectacular,
almost enjoyable in a morbid sort of way,
your taking leave like that
in one enormous fireball,
atoms spinning down the starlit boulevards of space.
Of course when reason returns
we look for reasons,
measuring silence in your wake
and wondering what in god’s name’s left of you,
recalling with a shudder
the god our science took away
and the one it’s given us,
less divinity than wit:
Energy Into Matter And Back Again.
But reason points the other way:
damn it, you were pretty
with your fluff of curls,
your chubby-cheeked and impish face,
your friendly eyes.
And it was plain for all to see
that you were nice,
really turned on to life
and altruistic to the core,
eager to brush a cheek against the stars.
And grace? My god, did you have grace!
One can see it clearly
in the last fullbodied smile
you flashed to all the photographers
before the launch,
a smile as sweet and wholesome
as the Florida orchards below your wing.
Seventy seconds and ten miles out
when your sleek Judas of a steed
blew your companions and you apart,
seeding the heavens,
and even this was fiery grace:
a cloud as white as that last smile
assembling to a huge, majestic swan,
a seething Zeus, his loins on fire with you.
Reasons? Even the stars stand accused
in the courtroom of your charm,
held hostage by your scattered self,
Destiny’s a dud,
and as for God—a shipwrecked alien
on this blue ball of ice and rock,
History’s stooge who once was whip.
For us, light doesn’t emanate. It bends.
The Fat Man Done Gone Missing
We found our thrill on Blueberry Hill
and then Blueberry Hill was under water
and the Fat Man done gone missing,
last seen slogging in New Orleans,
pianos bobbing by like swollen bodies,
trumpets gurgling, guitars flailing away.
Soldiers strolled down Bourbon Street,
the smoky jazz joints closed, the signs
proclaimed, forever. Gone to Higher ground.
We flooded Heaven with our prayers,
and then our prayers were answered:
the Fat Man was lost and then was found,
black pea bobbin’ in a toxic pot.
Blueberry Hill will rise again. Yes,
we agreed, there is the power of the blues.
But the thrill, Sweet Jesus, the thrill is gone.
Running Dead Out to Syracuse
How easy it is to make a ghost.
Syracuse is our poet’s walk in a park my now
dead friend and I took one foggy night
two and a half decades ago, and it is
the hopped-up metaphors of our aspirations spun
by our tongues, then like hawks spiraling higher and higher,
their assimilation into ever thinning air;
Syracuse is the spectral hovering of my long dead
stepfather and the deep remorse his daughter says he
suffered for having made my mother and me suffer
the booze-fueled violence that even his black
sax and its joint-jiving jazz couldn’t undo.
Syracuse is ghosts and ghosts are easy,
but love is the fuel of grief, grief the empty tank of hate;
Syracuse is also these gray skies giving in
to blue and the sun shining like the gold belt buckle
some George Strait wannabe is singing about,
and today Syracuse is the Shining City just
under a hundred miles ahead I am hurtling toward,
my little cool blue Honda holding its own, holding its own.
George Drew was born in Mississippi and lives in upstate New York. He is the author of six collections, including The View from Jackass Hill, winner of the 2010 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. His seventh, Fancy’s Orphan, will be published in 2017 by Tiger Bark Press; his sixth, Down & Dirty, appeared in June, 2015, Texas Review Press; and his New & Selected, Pastoral Habits, in 2016, also Texas Review Press. Recently Drew was an Honorable Mention in the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award and his poem appeared in the Paterson Literary Review; another poem was a finalist for the Knightville Poetry Contest and will appear in The New Guard; another was the winner of the St. Petersburg Review Poetry Contest and will appear in Issue 8; one of his Southern poems was selected for inclusion in the anthology Down to the Dark River and was published in 2015 by Louisiana Literature Press. Drew has published reviews and essays in Louisiana Literature, Main Street Rag, The Texas Review, BigCityLit, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize several times, most recently 2016, and has been nominated for the 2015 The Best of the Net.