Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS-character-to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Check out Phyllis Beck Katz’s poem, “Choir Boy.” The piece first appeared in the 2014 issue Bloodroot Literary Magazine and is included in Migrations, Ms. Katz’s 2013 Antrim House book. Ms. Katz is also kind enough to offer the poem for free on her web site. The poem can be found here and is accompanied by a picture of her father, the titular choir boy.
Sure, you might want to know Ms. Katz’s thoughts about how poetry can shape the life of an open-minded reader. I wanna know why she did some of the little things in the story. Ms. Katz was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her work:
1) I often employ blank verse in my own poetry, as I love “Marlowe’s mighty line.” I scanned “Choir Boy” with interest. The first two lines are clearly in iambic pentameter. The third line is iambic aside from the missing unstressed syllable in the first iamb. (This pattern is repeated in the poem’s next three lines, as well.)
It would’ve been really easy to start line 3 with “a” and preserve the meter. Ms. Katz, why’d you choose to omit the unstressed syllable in the first iambs of those lines?
PBK: I, too, often write in blank verse, but I am not wedded to a perfect rendering of a pentameter line. In fact, I like to vary the pattern because I think it makes the line more interesting.
2) The first stanza consists of two triplets. (Three times two equals six, so there are six lines.) The second stanza consists of eleven lines that features hints of iambic pentameter, but seems to have less of a formal structure than the first.
How’d you decide to make two stanzas of such different lengths and why do they have such different structures?
PBK: The length of my stanzas is a conscious choice. The first stanza is about my father as a boy. The second about how his increasing dementia gradually destroyed him: both his sweetness and his anger slowly disappeared. The poem is more about his old age than his childhood years.
3) You dedicate the poem to your father. (Which we find very sweet.) Seeing those words, “for my father,” however, might make us think that the poem HAS to be about your Dad, even though it could be about any male figure we love and don’t quite understand.
How come you didn’t leave the identity of the “choir boy” more ambiguous?
PBK: Many poets write specifically about their mothers or fathers, but achieve universality in so doing. For example, in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s most recent book Headwaters, she has a poem entitled “My Mother.” This poem is most emphatically not just about her own mother. Neither is mine just about my father. As for the dedication in my poem “for my father” I wanted the poem to be about him and I wanted my readers to know it was also about so many others with growing dementia. There is no sentimentality here; my father has been dead for twenty-six years.
[EDITOR: As of this writing, Ms. Voigt’s poem can be found on Poetry Daily. You can find out more about Headwaters here.]
4) The word “intruders” seems very significant in the poem. “Intruders” implies a sense of violation by people/objects/entities/feelings that don’t belong where they are.
Why’d you use the word “intruders” where you did? Why not “encroacher,” “usurper,” “invader,” “unwanted visitors,” “unpleasant in-laws,” “telemarketers” or any other word that would mean kinda the same thing? What about “intruders” seemed right to you?
PBK: I think I’ve answered that. My father really did feel threatened, believed that there was someone in his room who would hurt him. We had to cover his mirror so he could not see his own reflection. “Intruder” still seems just the right word to me. I am mindful of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” of how he wants to equate his father with the wise, good, wild, and grave men who, however frail, will “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Thomas’s poem is about his father but it is directed towards all who are “at the close of day.”
From the Antrim House page for Migrations: Phyllis Beck Katz’s poems have appeared in many journals and two anthologies. She is co-author with Charbra Adams Jestin of Ovid: Amores, Metamorphoses—Selections, and co-translator of M. Cecilia Gaposchkin’s Blessed Louis, the Most Glorious of Kings: Texts Relating to the Cult of Saint Louis of France. She received her B.A. in English from Wellesley College, her M.A. in Greek from UCLA, and her PhD in Classics from Columbia University. She has taught English and Classics at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle, City University of New York, SUNY Purchase, the College of New Rochelle, and Miss Porter’s School. Since 1993 she has taught at Dartmouth College, offering undergraduate classes in the Classics Department and in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She has also taught classes in poetry, cultural studies, and gender issues as part of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth. She and her husband, Arnold, have four children and eight grandchildren.