Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. Poetry editor Rick Barot spoke recently with poet C. Dale Young, author of “Partially Right,” which appears in NER 36.3.
RB: “Partially Right” starts with such a distinct image of Galileo. Was that the trigger for the poem, or did something else inspire the poem? And what was the process of composition like for this poem?
CDY: I began this poem a little over ten years ago. Galileo was not a part of the original draft at all. I revised and revised it but I just could not get the poem to work. Eventually, I took the last 5 lines and put them in a folder on my desktop. Early this year, I had a funny conversation with a fellow writer friend about historical fiction. I imagined it was more difficult to write historical fiction, and my friend said that most of it is made up, that you take a few things known and fill in the rest. I jokingly said, “So, I could just write a story about Galileo?”
Days later, I could not shake the idea of this. And so, I set out to write a poem about Galileo. But within a few lines of drafting this new poem, I remembered a moment in time at a writers’ conference I attended many years ago. Suddenly, I had a pivot. I went back to my scrap folder, and there were those final lines I had saved for a decade. The poem assembled easily. I needed not only Galileo but also a snippet of memory to fire up the poem, to write the poem that ended with those five lines from a decade ago.
RB: The poem mentions the “hardened scientist in me,” which I assume refers to your life as a physician. How do you see your poet and doctor selves intersecting?
CDY: I don’t see a poet self or a doctor self. I just see myself. I don’t stop at one point in my day and become poet self. I am always doctor self, always poet self, always teacher self. They aren’t easily dissected, one from the other. My comment about the “hardened scientist” is merely an acknowledgment about how even those who live by science and scientific truths must at some point face the fact the world and universe as we know it is always only partially correct. The absolute flatness of the world is replaced by the sphere. What we once thought were stars become planets. Over and over, our knowledge expands, and the universe demonstrates to us that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did.
RB: You were the poetry editor of New England Review for over 19 years. I wonder how you would characterize American poetry during that time period. What were the shifts and developments that you witnessed as an editor?
CDY: That is a difficult question to answer! As you must know now, as the current poetry editor, one is always working on the next issue. There was always an issue coming up. So, my focus was always on the individual issue in front of me. But I did notice some trends during those nineteen years. One I noticed was the easy ways many poets of our generation were neither cowed by Eliot or the obstreperous nature of Lowell. We neither revered these poets nor were we afraid of them. Our generation loves the amalgam. We take from Eliot as easily as we take from Ginsberg. We borrow from O’Hara as easily as we snip a piece of Bishop arcana. We are not particularly afraid of formal issues, nor do we seem tied to them. Our anxieties of influence are not quite the anxieties of the generations that came before us.
RB: Who are the poets you’re avidly reading these days?
CDY: I find myself returning to John Donne fairly often. Still. After all these years. It is almost pathologic. I have also been rereading a lot of Derek Walcott’s work. To read Walcott is to be humbled as a poet. I read many of his poems and simply marvel at them. I am anxiously awaiting a new collection by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, but so far I have not heard of a new book on the horizon. A poet I follow with great fascination and admiration is Natalie Diaz. Her poems surprise me in so many ways. I anxiously await her next book. I also follow the work of Alice Oswald, an English poet whose language is razor sharp and powerful. There is so much good poetry being written right now, but the amount of great poetry is about the same. I suspect it has always been this way.