The weathering of igneous rockforms…; Feste at the city park concession stand; Today I
The weathering of igneous rockforms
in high-altitude riparian environments
I live in memories:
a careful step through the
laundry room at midnight,
the rough spot on her cheek,
a familiar F-sharp sliding to
blessed resolve, the thornbush
behind the workman’s shed
and smell of burning leaves.
I have been careless with
my life more times than
is healthy. I have lived
I would live forever.
And what should I say—
what can be said:
that yesterday was gentle magic—
blown glass and alpine rain.
Today—sunlight and oh,
such beautiful sky.
Feste at the city park concession stand
It needs to be torn down and rebuilt. There
is debate about remodeling—that it would be
cheaper, a better stewardship of taxfunds. In the
desert outside of Las Vegas three women were
beheaded and left, their bodies turned up to the
sun. Feste wonders who misses them: whose hands
are left unheld, what half-empty bottles of lotion
will be found months from now, crusted at the nose
and unfinished. A young boy of valor, no more
than four, hits a ball from a tee, begins to run—
kissed a friend on the face
made a girl laugh
invented a rhyme
feared for young children
thought of my mother
held conversation on ancient poems
made bad tea
forgave myself everything
sang at the shifting sky
from the safe side of an open
John Belk is an Assistant Professor of English at Southern Utah University where he directs the Writing Program. He holds an MFA in Poetry and a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Pennsylvania State University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Cheat River Review, Arkansas Review, Wraparound South, Habitat, Levee Magazine, and Pivot. His full-length manuscript was selected as a finalist for the 2018 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. His scholarly work can be found in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Composition Forum, and edited anthologies.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I started writing poems early in high school, so twenty years or so.
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
I think it was Seamus Heaney’s “Postscript.” I remember being sixteen and sitting in a bookshop and coming across Heaney’s The Spirit Level. I already liked poetry, so I picked it up and read the first and last poem (which was my MO for a new book); when I read Postscript I was just floored. And not an earth-shaking, mountain-splitting kind—just subtle and shook. Because like every sensitive sixteen-year-old, I felt like the world was in a big damn hurry and so was I. And also like every sensitive sixteen-year-old, I was used to my heart being caught off guard and blown open like the last line of the poem. I already liked poetry, but that is when I loved it.
Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
If I had to pick a favorite poet, it would be Elizabeth Bishop. As for her poems, anything from Geography III. My favorite poem, on the other hand, is “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I used to be very ritualistic in my writing, and I was an incorrigible binge-writer. I had to be in the right zone and the right frame of mind and the right physical space—and then I’d go for eight or ten hours straight. Grad school broke me of that, then being a professor tossed dirt on the casket. Headspace is a luxury when I’m lucky to get 30 minutes to myself during a work day. So I re-trained myself to write in 30-minute blocks: it took a year of setting a timer and stopping at 30 minutes (even if I was on a roll), but I’m honestly more productive now than I’ve ever been, despite having much less time to actually write day-to-day.
I am curious about the process behind “Feste…” specifically. It has such a wild turn at the 3rd stanza. Did this poem come about with that image first? I can see that as the focal point—but then there is Feste as the central character, so I imagine the idea to have Feste be an observer in a poem was also an idea that could be the starting point for the poem. How did this one come about?
I live a few hours north of Las Vegas and in my little community there was this utterly nonsense debate about whether to tear down or remodel the busted concession stand building at the local little league park. Folks got heated and there was a bunch of macho posturing. Around the same time police found a woman’s body in the desert south of us, and I remember watching the concession stand debate play out and thinking how big it was for so many people and how small it seemed. At the same time I had been writing a larger chapbook of poems about self-harm, and Feste was a bit of a recurring figurehead for the kind of self-harming masculinity that is oblivious to its own toxicity. Like how he musters a brief moment of truly sensitive consideration for these women before his attention is jerked away to a young boy (of valor) playing fucking t-ball. But I also wanted that moment to be beautiful and breathtaking and hold/distract our attention as readers, too. Because isn’t that how so many traumas get erased?
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
Both, all, it depends. I love formalist poetry, especially sharp, contemporary formalist poetry that pushes the boundaries of traditional forms and plays with metricality in surprising ways. Poetry started as an embodied art, and meter especially (even irregular meter) is an important artifact/memory of that. I once went to hear Li-Young Lee read and he said “Poetry orders breath the way cathedrals order space” and that has always stuck with me.
All of these poems end with a gorgeous and peaceful image, sometimes despite the content of the rest of the poem. Its refreshing… No matter where the poem takes my mind I always have a sense of safety or calmness come the end. And I feel like I can read each ending in a variety of ways. Is this a theme in your work or a coincidence of this selection?
I’m a sucker for good endings, so I try to write them, too. Going back to the Li-Young Lee quote, if poems are cathedrals of language, then I want mine to leave readers breathless.
But I also think poetry has a responsibility to safety. We live in a world of traumas. Poetry is word magic that lets us exert safety into the violence of everything.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Form a writing group. It doesn’t have to be complicated or formal: grab two or three friends who also write and meet once a week in public to share one new poem each with each other.
Writing is a social act, and starting a group will 1) force you to write, 2) help you think of your voice beyond your own self, and 3) keep you honest.
What is your editing process like?
Obsessive and meticulous and probably pretty unhealthy. I’ve dealt with anxiety all of my life, but one positive of that is that I can hella obsess over an unresolved trochee in line three of stanza six.
Speaking of editing, I adore the “careful step” through the memories and images in the first stanza of “…weathering…”. I can imagine that these images were easy to be over analyzed and edited. Did these images just come out whole and in order or was it a heavily edited process of deciding which images to highlight?
Those came out whole and in order (though that doesn’t often happen). In an interview about the flash-writing of “Postscript,” Heaney said “There are some poems that feel like guarantees of your work to yourself” and I just love that. Sometimes a poem just comes and clicks and that’s all there is to it. It’s not often, but it’s the best feeling in the world.
When do you know that a poem is finished?
When my anxious and obsessive brain stops obsessing over it.