John Poch
June 2008

 

John PochJohn Poch was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1966. He has an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Texas. He was the Colgate University Creative Writing Fellow from 2000-2001, and now directs the creative writing program at Texas Tech University.  He was named the 2007 Thornton Writer-in-Residence at Lynchburg College.  

His first book, Poems, was published in January 2004 from Orchises Press and was a finalist for the PEN/Osterweil prize.  His chapbook of fifteen sonnets, In Defense of the Fall, was published by Trilobite Press in 2000.  The Essential Hockey Haiku (a poetry/fiction collaboration with Chad Davidson) was published by St. Martin’s Press in Fall 2006.  A limited edition letterpress/art book, Ghost Towns of the Enchanted Circle (Flying Horse Editions 2007) is his latest published work. Dolls, a full-length collection of poems, is forthcoming in December 2008 with Orchises Press. 

Poch was a recipient of the “Discovery”/The Nation Prize in 1998 and has been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, The Saltonstall Foundation, and Blue Mountain Center.  He has published poems in Ploughshares, Paris Review, The New Republic, Yale Review, Iowa Review, Agni, and many other literary magazines.  He is the editor of the award-winning 32 Poems Magazine.  

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Dolls

I’ve been thinking about dolls. My first daughter, since she was able to crawl, crawled with a doll in her clutches. As if it weren’t hard enough learning to get around without the encumbrance of this doll. This is the beginning of love: when we put someone or something else before ourselves. For a poet, this might be a reader.

My daughter nurses the doll as she was nursed. She chastises the doll as she is chastised. She tucks, feeds, washes, and wishes. Watching her at this game, I get some perspective on myself.  “We see us as we truly behave,” as John Ashbery says in the first line of his first book.

Poems are dolls of a sort. Paper dolls. You’ve seen a child playing with a doll, pretending it was speaking, and speaking to it, and then berating it. This is an analogy that shows why poetry critics are so silly to us. Nevertheless, the engaged critic may be the most innocent of all. The poem, this shell of a thing isn’t really alive, but if we imagine hard enough, it comes alive, and it speaks, and we speak to it, and we come back to it again and again, and we want it to be good.

Every good reader is childish and silly, and the world is against her. Jesus says, “Unless you are transformed and become like a child, you cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” I assume he means: the child who plays with dolls; not the child who does well on her homework or who eats all her dinner.

When we look at another person, we only glimpse the shell of that person. Even the person we love the most. People are dolls in this way.

Every time I write a grant or have to justify poetry to some well-meaning person with practical questions, I feel helpless and utterly ridiculous. Ask a child to justify a doll, and she will scowl at you as she holds it tightly to her chest. Most boys play with dolls, but we have to call them action figures. El poeta, they say in Spanish. That a on the end is very feminine. I’m comfortable with that. What good is it to read a poem? A great good. What good is it to write a poem? Remember Bartleby? 

Why imagine a life, when our difficult lives need our attention so badly? Difficult. Perhaps the only way to deal with the difficult life is to play at another life. Sometimes we avoid the problems with our imaginative escapes, but sometimes we figure a way through the difficulties when we come back fresh from playing. Re-creation. Making the world anew. It is horrible that I end up having to justify play, when play needs no justification. It needs a child’s attention.

Adults have to re-learn to play with dolls. To let go of the world and business. You can’t understand Lorca’s “Duende” unless you’ve been to Andalucía. You can’t enjoy poems until you give up your attachment to the literal. You can’t understand a doll unless you get on the floor with a little girl and believe.

The more rustic a doll, the more I like it. The more realistic, the less so. Dolls that are too real make me uneasy. Like clowns. Perhaps that’s why I like the artifice of a sonnet. Others praise poems made of “real speech” that function the “real way we think”. Give me the hunk of wood, stuffing, and fabric that barely looks like a doll, and I’d rather play with that, and create a life for it. A life constructed out of its formal artifice. It needs some form. You can’t imagine too long with a hunk of coal or a dish towel. Yet that tear in the doll’s hem tells me of some profound tussle. That awkward bend in the arm needs a doctor. I can construct a world around a detail. You can play with a robot for about three minutes, total. You can imagine on and on with a flimsy, lifeless doll for hours. A good poem. We get to, God-like, breathe life into this shell of a being. It becomes. It becomes us.

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