B. L. Gentry's poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, Eclectica, Rhino: The Poetry Forum 2011, and is forthcoming in Rhino 2013. Gentry was born in Lawrenceburg, TN. She holds a BA from the University of New Mexico, and is an MFA student in the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. She lives in Oklahoma.
Her poem "Cedar Swing" appears in issue Forty-Three of The Collagist.
Here, B. L. Gentry talks with interviewer Elizabeth Morris about static swings, turns, and shifts in landscape.
1. What was the process behind “Cedar Swing”?
I wrote “Cedar Swing” over a year ago, in an effort to reconcile my home at the time with the home of my upbringing. My family and I had relocated months before from rural Oklahoma to a fairly suburban neighborhood just outside of Tulsa, and I hoped to use the plain experience and mild culture shock I experienced during the process as a lens for discussing my childhood in, and removal from, the rural south.
2. This poem about a swing doesn’t actually have any swinging in it—except for perhaps implicitly at the end. How do you think the image of a static swing works compared to one in motion?
It’s telling that you bring up image in this poem, because, as the title suggests, the swing wants to be central to the poem’s meaning. A static swing may represent many things—the decisiveness of clear conviction, an end or a beginning, a pause in chronology—but for me, because it is an image and not discursive information, the static swing encompasses all of these, especially the speaker’s current state of mature perspective on her childhood. The swing in motion, however, belongs to the speaker’s young self, to a developing understanding of her surroundings as she navigates them.
3. At the end, the poem turns from the husband’s swing to the father’s. Could you talk about getting to that point in the poem? Why the decision to turn to the past?
When Jane Kenyon was translating the poems of Anna Akhmatova, she discovered a word that encompassed her work method, that is, the preference for image that she gave Akhmatova’s poems over literal denotation. Because there is no word in English for the Russian word, rodnoi, (meaning “all that is dear to me, familiar, my own,” and because this was a concept dear to Akhmatova in many of her early poems), Kenyon and her translator prioritized image because it was capable of communicating overlapping ideas in one moment. I had rodnoi in mind when I used the image of the swing.
As you say, the poem turns to the past at its end, and the focus shifts from a romantic relationship to a paternal one. The images, the swing, but also the elm tree, help to make this transition formally, allowing the speaker to see an object in her current setting and to remember a past moment, moving from the tree’s leaves shining in the sun to the doomed, glittering minnows. Yet this meditation also works as an invitation to meditate on the speaker’s interaction with men in her culture, a culture as she experienced as a subservient, first as a daughter and then later as a wife. The decision to end the poem with thoughts of the father, however, has more to do with the speaker’s longing for her past culture, the developing mature perspective we discussed in your previous question.
I made the decision to turn to the past because the poem seemed to want to discuss, through image, the idea of homesickness for one’s birthplace and an appreciation for that heritage—rodnoi. As I said, I was living in a suburban area, surrounded by houses that were typically identical to one another, and this was a very different climate than that of my upbringing. The first two decades of my life were spent in southern Tennessee near the Cumberland Gap, an landscape of forests and creeks, deer and hunters, the poverty of failed farms set against a natural beauty of the foothills of Appalachia—a land of sharp contrasts. I also had a six-year-old daughter at the time, so my thoughts naturally turned to myself at that age.
4. What’s on your summer book list?
My booklist, in whatever season in which I consult it, always includes the poets and novelists that I turn to repeatedly for inspiration, the Russian Acmeists and the canon of Western writers known for their use of imagery like Kenyon, Plath, and Gluck, but also poets that employ aesthetics that I do not habitually employ. Jack Gilbert and Philip Levine are on there, as well as my standby formalists like Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur. I’m very drawn to the work of John Crowe Ransom right now, as well as the lesser-known novels of Robert Penn Warren, one such being The Wilderness. Charles Wright’s “Outtakes” is also on the list, as well as the biography of Gerard Manly Hopkins. Perhaps these aren’t helpful answers. I don’t usually plan my booklists. Mostly, I read whatever interests me at the time.
5. What else have you been writing recently?
Lately, I’ve turned from short, imagistic lyrics to poems that employ a narrative structure while using image either sparsely or in a utilitarian manner. “Cedar Swing” is a good example. I’m also working on a first-book manuscript. The poems in the book attempt, so far, to deal with the past in several different locations, ranging from the rural south to the suburbs to the maritime zones of North America. My hope is that they propose the dialogue of a speaker struggling to understand place and the disappearance of local cultures, the effects of these things on people, the land, and on herself.