George Perreault’s most recent collection, Bodark County, features poems in the voices of characters living on the Llano Estacado. He has received awards from the Nevada Arts Council and the Washington Poets Association, and has served as a visiting writer in New Mexico, Montana, and Utah. His poems have been nominated both for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, as well as selected for 16 anthologies and more than 80 journals.
His poem "Chamisa" will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, April 1, for special savings and discounts.
Did "Chamisa" go through many revisions? If so, how did it change over time?
For me, poems are usually bimodal—they either come together quickly or take a good deal of time in what I think of as the “marinating” process. I will come back to those poems periodically, perhaps adjusting the wording or reordering a bit to see what might work better. Sometimes, of course, a poem will have to be abandoned, and perhaps that’s for the best. On the other hand, “Chamisa” was one of those lucky occurrences where the poem almost seemed to write itself. The structure and imagery just seemed to flow, and then it was a matter of making sure the rhythm worked. I edit almost entirely by ear, and getting to a place where the poem’s meaning and sound are harmonious and self-reinforcing is the main task of revision. Duke Ellington may have said it best: “If it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing.” Then he added a few “doo wahs” to make sure we got the point.
Does this poem represent your style or voice generally? If not, how is it different?
I’m not sure I have a particular style. I have written a couple of villanelles, but usually I avoid end rhyme. “Chamisa” uses what I’d consider medium-length lines, but often I use longer or shorter lines. It avoids capitalization and punctuation for the most part, but I will follow those conventions if the poem requires them. I suppose I might have a more consistent voice, if you’ll allow that most of us have a range of emotions, intelligences, and quirks, and that each day we’re all somewhere on the spectrum in regard to these. Like many of my poems, “Chamisa” reflects the natural world, and it’s well up on the sunny side; people who know my work would not be surprised that I wrote it. On the other hand, I once sent out a poem about road kill, and the editors wrote back wondering if I’d considered professional help. A good number of my friends thought that was high praise, and some were downright jealous.
What advice would you give to a beginner poet wanting to write a poem in a single sentence, like this poem?
I’m not especially keen on giving advice on…well, on anything, generally. But strictly for myself, I have found when I am working on a poem that a structure will often suggest itself in the process of getting words down on the page, and then in some symbiotic way an emergent structure will feed the imagery and, of course, the rhythm of the poem. If you look at “Chamisa” you can see where I might have used end punctuation in a couple places—for example, after “forest”—but it seemed to me that the rhythm should be more fluid than that, as if it were a single thought, so it should flow quickly and without pause. Another recent poem begins:
this guy I know
his dad just died
Then this poem continues in a number of short two-line stanzas with the kind of pauses that seemed appropriate for the subject. I think if you edit by ear you will find the rhythm of a poem, and that rhythm will take you to the structure.
Can you tell us more about your recent collection, Bodark County?
A few years ago I was working on writing with semi-adults and asked them to provide their backstories for a billboard I’d seen out in cattle county; it read, “Love is a hammer that breaks the hardest heart.” While they were doing that, I wrote my own draft trying to capture the voice of a woman whose son came back from desert wars to an unfaithful wife and drove his truck into a bridge abutment. Then I wrote another in the voice of an old woman telling about secrets she learned on telephone party lines. And eventually there were more than forty poems in the voices of various people living on the Llano Estacado, the great plains of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. It’s like Winesburg or Spoon River, I guess, an exploration of beauty and loss, love and desperation, small town America. If you tell me you read about it here, I’ll sell you a copy at discount, because what’s more American than salesmanship?