John Maroney recently interviewed Owen Lewis concerning his new book of poems, Best Man. Owen Lewis is also author of Sometimes Full of Daylight. John Maroney IV is a student at Xavier University majoring in English with a minor in writing. He will graduate in 2016.
The full text the interview is below:
What was the writing process like for Best Man? Did it begin with a concept, a single poem, an emotion? How did the book go from its early stages to being published through Dos Madres Press? How did you feel writing it, and how do you feel now that it’s written?
Best Man is an extended, belated elegy to my brother who died at the age twenty-three from an addiction. It was written over thirty years after his death, and is as much about me, the unwilling mourner, as it is about him. A year or two after his death, a novelist friend suggested I write about him. I panicked. There was so much to say, yet I didn’t know the story. About five years ago, I began a sequence of poems to him, or about him (that has nothing in common with this set). It was stilted and flat. I still didn’t know the story.
In late February, 2015, walking into my house in the country, there’s a spot of garden next to the walk, I saw a patch of thaw and an early shoot of a snow-drop pushing through. Looking across the lawn, the wonderful blue light of sun across an expanse of snow, I thought how the snow smooths the contours of the land. An elbow of a branch sticking through jarred me. These images gave me a start into Best Man. (See the poem “Thaw.”) Thoughts about my brother, whom I associated with snowdrops, led to other thoughts—his theft of my prescription pads when I was a young doctor and the many calls that followed from the illicit use of these prescriptions. These recollections (now in the first poem “So,” after the prologue) were also part of the initial inspiration. “So” and “Thaw” were originally part of a single poem. From February to May it must have gone through thirty drafts. Sometimes a poem will demand draft after draft after draft, which was the case with that poem. It was a good poem, but still not “So,” and “Thaw.” I did not yet know I’d be writing a sequence.
To follow the questions, the poems began with the dual image of the snowdrops and a field of unbroken snow. The emotion, at least that I was aware of, was one of avoidance. The work of the cycle, as I learned in the writing, was to break through that avoidance. One answer to how the book progressed from this early stage is that it was time for it to be written. I was engaged to be married, and I was troubled that my future wife wouldn’t or couldn’t really know this chapter of my life. How could I bring it to life? But there was another event which was absolutely pivotal.
In May of that year, I was fortunate to have been offered a place in a weekend workshop at Poets House in New York conducted by Ed Hirsch. I had first heard Ed’s poetry at Breadloaf when For the Sleepwalkers was just published. It was a poetry I had never before heard, that lodged in my psyche. I had a sense then that here was someone who would one day assume great importance to me. How, when—I didn’t know. I drifted away from writing for over twenty-years, but when I came back to writing, I realized instantly just how formative his first book had been for me. So the opportunity to take a weekend workshop with him felt long overdue. I was still working and re-working that initial poem and brought it to the workshop. Ed suggested that that first poem was actually two poems. Much to his surprise, I returned the next day, having reworked that poem two that are close to what appears in Best Man. Ed took me aside, quite praising of the poems, and suggested that he saw a sequence of poem. He unleashed it.
Within two weeks I had written another five poems. One line led to another, one poem to the next. I’m an earlier riser, and I write every morning. Sometimes for just an hour, sometimes for several hours. When one was finished, at least in draft, another lined up. While most of my inspiration arises in those early morning hours, lines were coming at me throughout the day, sometimes intrusively. Most of my poems begin with a line, or a phrase that comes to me.
After I had this first group, I wrote to Ed, telling him that his prediction about a cycle seemed to be materializing. I also asked him if he might work privately on them with me. He agreed, and we began to meet at least bi-weekly, sometimes weekly until the fall. His suggestions were few but always spot-on. In a broader way, though, he played an important facilitating role.
While I did know that Ed had lost a son perhaps two years earlier, what I did not know at the time was that at this time he was just finishing his book Gabriel, a similar extended elegy to his son which would be published in September, 2015. What I also did not know were the similarities. Gabriel and Jason were both twenty-three when they died, both adopted, both experienced troubles and ineffective help, and there were others. In fact, reading a profile of Ed that had appeared in The New Yorker, I read that his son had attended The Devereau School, and in a flashback I remembered visiting my brother there. And so written the poem At the Devereau School. I believe that his recent experience of grief, working with that grief in an extended elegy, and perhaps his comfort in that energy, allowed me to fully enter into the world of grief that I had held off for many decades.
The writing progressed. Frequently when I came to a problem spot in a line or stanza, the solution was actually another poem, as if that problem were just a place-holder. I had the sense of the set unfolding like an accordion, from the inside out. Sometimes recollections of my brother gave rise to a poem. Sometimes I wrote to fill in gaps of what I didn’t know. And in some sequences, I have imagined posthumous conversations.
How the book got to it’s final form? I’d ask what was missing from the story. I needed to find ways to represent that this story occurred not only over my brother’s lifetime, obviously, but was also occurring over the thiry years after he died. Recurrent images gave clues to stitch the book together. I also had a good deal of input from a beloved teacher, Fran Quinn. Fran would ask a few key questions that immediately set my mind into rewrites. The order of these twenty-three poems partially reflects the order in which they were written, but there was a good deal of shuffling and reordering. This is not a linear sequence because memory and emotion are anything but linear. Yet it does tell a story. The narrative line, however, comes to life in the lyrical moments.
It is a relatively short book of poetry, and I owe its publication in this form entirely to its publisher Robert Murphy. Dos Madres Press had brought out my full-length volume Sometimes Full of Daylight in early 2015. I have been working on a new book Marriage Map, and I intended Best Man to be a section of it. Just to show Robert what I had been up to, I sent him Best Man as it neared its final form in late 2015. Robert immediately wrote back, “We’re publishing it!” At first I resisted, still thinking it belonged in the new volume. But inclusion of all of it led to a real imbalance in the new volume. It took me a while to appreciate Robert’s wisdom. He saw the book as is. Though a short book, it is long enough to tell the story it needs to tell, and perhaps all the more forceful in its brevity. And when I saw the cover Elizabeth Murphy designed, and how it really captures the book, I knew beyond any doubt that Robert was correct in his decision.
My feelings about writing it? Clearly, there was much grief within me. Like many unmet feelings, I had a sense of what was there, but I was not living with much consciousness of it. As I made my way into it via the poems, there were definitely points where I was overcome with emotion. There are some lines, even to this day, which can cause me to cry. But imagine a sunny day, a storm briefly rolls by dropping buckets of rain, then the sky clears again. That’s what these emotions are like for me.
However, I am now at home with these emotions, my brother’s story, and this part of my life. I sensed before an impatience with individuals suffering from addictions, and now I can respond with empathy.
Perhaps one of the most heartening responses I’ve received was from a teacher of troubled kids, Claire Jones, in the U.K. (where I recently gave a series of readings.) Excerpted from her letter to me, “So really spoke to the young people and they connected with the final lines strongly, they often are left not knowing what to think as the emotions are too strong or unidentifiable, so very often they make the choice not to think or to feel, to hear an adult declare they too felt like that made a few of them sit up and question and this is what l I ask of my young people, to foster and encourage the ability to question.”
Poetry should do something in the world, and I could hope for no better confirmation of Best Man doing its work. It gave me a feeling that the suffering of my brother’s life was redeemed—and for this, whatever it took to get there, however long it took—gratitude.