Jane Satterfield is the author of Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter, 2009) and two poetry collections: Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir Press Book Award) and Shepherdess with an Automatic (Washington Writers' Publishing House, Towson University Prize). Among her awards are an N.E.A. Fellowship in poetry and the Faulkner Society Gold Medal in the Essay, as well as residencies in poetry or nonfiction from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A new manuscript, Her Familiars, was a finalist for this year’s National Poetry Series, and her poem, “The War Years,” was selected by Jo Shapcott as winner of the 2011 Mslexia Poetry Competition. Satterfield’s craft essay, “Lucifer Matches,” appears in Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).
Statement of Poetics
The summer before
my senior year of college, I boarded the train every other week with the pulsing
beat of New Order spooling through my Walkman. I’d step off at Philly’s 30th
Street Station and catch the local train to Walnut Street then walk a few blocks
to the Temple University building where, a few floors up, American Poetry
Review, or as it’s known to most poets, APR made its home. I was
working on an independent study with poet and editor Stephen Berg. I believed
then, as I do now that a poem is the finding of a satisfaction, as Stevens put
it. Except I was maybe too studious, too serious and satisfaction, at that
point, lay out of reach.
Still, I felt encouraged. Steve inhabited a world like nothing I knew. He was nothing like my tweed-jacketed, white button-down shirted profs or the ex-nun who taught Pope and Dryden, addressing her charges as “Mister” or “Miss” as she called on us to locate anadiplosis, conduplicatio, litotes. Steve had recently published With Akhmatova at the Black Gates, a book which I beheld with awe, moved by his deep engagement with the poet’s work. My own poems were staid, as sonically driven as anything in Ariel, and, often, ekphrastic. When Steve said that Plath’s work was a specialized kind of hysteria from which I’d best steer away, he must have known that such advice, to a young poet, could only be heard as “swerve harder.”
Steve had me
reading Lowell, Life Studies, in particular, and was fond of dropping
anecdotes about his former teacher, showing me a scrawled version of “Skunk
Hour”—I don’t remember if it was a Xerox or original draft. He had me read
about verse craft and try to duplicate the music of Lowell’s verse. Our
sessions were interrupted by the frequent phone calls he received as editor.
We’d wander out to local delis (he seemed to know everyone, endlessly stopping
to chat). We’d have lunch in the park with one or more APR interns and
he’d read us passages from letters sent by poet friends overseas.
Dialogue seemed deeply embedded in Steve’s life. His urbanity, his sense of vocation, the passion in which he spoke about all things from the mundane to the mystical, his ad hoc lectures on poets and Jewish history—all of this made manifest to the sheltered young poet I was that a life is positioned—for better or worse—in the broad current of history. And poetry’s work is to pay tribute, preserve, and honor lost places, lost lives. These days, of Plath’s many beautifully realized poems, I’m particularly partial to “Nick and the Candlestick”—a testament to the lyric’s power to inhabit the domestic (the room “hung with roses,/With soft rugs” where a woman nurses her infant) as well as the public sphere (the world where “mercuric/Atoms that cripple drip/Into the terrible well”).
I often joke that
my favorite themes are apocalypse and empire, a result of growing up during the
Cold War under the flight path of Andrews Air Force Base. Then, too, there was
my Roman Catholic upbringing in the early post-Vatican II days. One day the
liturgy might be litanies, processions, incense and bells. The next,
Godspell could be performed on the altar. I’m sure this mixing of culture
and language engenders the range between places, times, and registers of voice
in my poems. I think of the poem as letter—its urgencies, and its erasures,
too. The unswerving intent on reaching the addressee. Poetry woos, incites,
even inflames. I think of the party piece: the box of matches that Jo Shapcott
and Don Paterson threw around the gathered circle of writers at an Arvon course
I took back in the ’90’s during the year in the U.K. where I was pregnant with
my daughter. Light a match, give your bio before it goes out. The poem as a
flame that lights up a room: all that can happen in that brief, shining space.
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