“A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.”
Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017)
The title Surgical Wing and the different poems titled “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings Patient-Reported Outcomes” on the contents page excited me when I first opened your book. It’s genius! I felt like a nurse going through patient files. How did you come up with the idea of arranging the book in these sections?
Thank you so much! The “Clinical Trial” poems start each section because they are this strange series of persona pieces that somehow manage to bring together the human poems and the bird poems.
Why a book about birds and wings? I’m the type of person that likes to understand a person and why they do what they do. This fascinates me. I want to know the story behind the book.
When I had major surgery, my surgeons who were birdwatchers talked about birds for hours over my open body on the operating table. It’s one theory.
Many, if not all, your poems in this book are couplets. I know from your interview with Hank Backer that you try to do some “conscious uncoupling.” But would you say that couplets are your go-to style when writing poems? And if so, what do you like so much about them apart from the wonderful white spaces they create?
Maybe bilateral symmetry? I say that only half joking—pairs, two halves, come naturally to humans. But, yes, it’s the airing out of the lines and the breaks on the page. The subject matter also informs the poems. I was writing about wings. Now I’m writing a lot of longer, single-stanza poems.
My favorite poem in this book is “Moon Elegy.” It resonated with me and my childhood in so many ways. I have so much love for these lines: “If we search the dictionary for Lunar Perigree, the closest moon ever to the Earth, we’ll find it cast after Pedigree and Peregrine – stay and feed the dog, or fly away?” They invoke in me the need to go out and follow my dreams (perhaps because I’ve never really owned a pet and have never experienced the bond people seem to have with them). Could you tell me more about your process when writing this poem?
I wrote this poem the day after the closest moon ever to the Earth. It’s a poem about how we can’t write about the moon anymore. So it’s a poem about the moon. I’m not a fan of making the moon or the ocean or cats off limits in poems. Certainly you can talk to beginning writers about cliché and sentimentality, but don’t outlaw leaves or stars. I wrote a whole book about birds.
Another one of my favorite poems is “Hyoid Bone.” I notice lines like “Lonely versus lonesome, seeking a companion or pitifully forlorn.” I love how these two similar words are actually very different. In this poem, as well as a few others such as “Haint Ceilings,” you reference a runaway girl. How did she develop and what does she mean to you?
Yeah, she’s a ghost of the book. Maybe one of many, but she’s James Wright’s Jenny to this book. I wouldn’t call her a muse, though. One exception is “Haint Ceilings.” The girl in that poem is a different girl than the others. She and her boyfriend were murdered, and the case still haunts a lot of people who lived in my hometown.
Did you really create the book’s last poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” out of Yahoo answers?
Yes! I was reading articles about human beings and wings, the history, all the different apparatuses, and on a whim I typed it into Yahoo Answers. The responses were so bizarre. This one is truly a found poem. I copied the answers verbatim and pieced them together. I could’ve added a lot more—they talked about DNA, bones, weight in grams—but I feared my reader might not find them nearly as charming as I did.
Does the poem “Will Humans Ever Have Wings?” mirror your ideas/beliefs?
The book is full of sickness, death, and loss, which is not to say it doesn’t have moments of light. This final poem, though, attempts a bit of levity. And in doing so it also helps to bring the whole thing down to earth, I think.
“Rules of Surgery” could read as six separate poems. The idea of one poem separated into six different sections and yet still one poem blew my mind. What was the inspiration behind the rules? Why these specific rules? Was it really “recited by surgical interns at a nurses’ station”?
Yes, these are “rules” new surgical interns learn on the job. I wanted to turn them around, look at them from the patient’s point of view, and have a bit of fun with them.
After reading your book, I stared at the book cover for a long time. I almost want to see a patient with one wing in a hospital background. I know that often times the publishers get the say in choosing the cover (which somewhat upsets me, being an aspiring writer and illustrator). Did you have a particular image in mind for your book cover? If so, what was it?
My publisher asked for a list of images I liked, so I brainstormed a lot of artwork. I sent them about fifteen to twenty pieces, and from those they chose “Black Crow.” I think it’s a haunting, beautiful painting, and the artist, Michael Creese, has been so supportive since the book’s publication.
In the last Clinical Trial poem, the last lines stand out: “It means while surrendering, you kiss the ground.” It’s a huge contrast to “Human wings will be here. Mark my words.” There is a shift from pride to humility in a way. What is your take on this?
The book wonders, in pretty much every poem, what it means to surrender.
What’s the oldest poem in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
By far the oldest poem in the book is “While You Were Out.” It’s about ten years older than the rest of the poems in here, but I fought to keep it. It’s an old friend. And it’s part of the love story.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
“White Birds” was the first poem I wrote about being sick. Many of the others are true stories: “Crane Wife,” “Alaskan Charter,” “Leaving Coins on the Mouths of Cadavers at Emory Hospital, A Defense.” Most of the poems in this collection are true stories. Some are just told slant.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Oh, so many! The strange abecedarian. “Emergency Rooms During Thunderstorms.” “Killing the Geese.” “Retiring the Human Name.” Even the “Clinical Trial” series is a misfit. It’s a book of misfits. While I like a project book as much as the next guy, I appreciate a collection of poems that stand alone and also whisper to each other.
A first book often ends up being a scraping together of the poems you’ve written and published during a graduate program. But poets write their obsessions or at least what’s going on in their lives at the time, so inevitably themes and subjects recur.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
I revised down to the last possible minute. I was revising even while on the phone with the copyeditor. I revised the “Clinical Trial” poems significantly on the final set of page proofs. I have a hard time letting poems fly the coop, if you will. The book is complete because they sent it off to the printer.
In your interview with Hank Backer at Grist Journal, you said that your clinical trial poems were previously published “as one” and that you saw them “working together as a series.” Were these poems your inspiration for this book? What was there a definitive point when you decided that you wanted to expand on this idea of “human beings who undergo plastic surgery to get wings”?
No, they weren’t the inspiration for the book, but they do link the book together. The book is about living in a body you want to escape and coping with illness, love, loss of love. It’s also a book about birds and birds as symbols, as metaphor. The wing poems came very late in the writing of the book, and I wasn’t sure at one point if they would even make it in there.
In your interview with Alice James Books, you say that “when you get really sick, the line between natural and unnatural, well and unwell, becomes murkier. The object of so many procedures, your body can become barely recognizable, and you want to transcend, transform, even transmogrify. At this point in the writing of the poems, the birds appeared.”
In “How to Transform Your Arm into a Wing,” this freedom to turn your arms into wings, to have “four meters of wingspan for human flight” comes at a price: “forever give up violin, a pen, your rings, the button shirt.” This seems to say that perhaps flying, perhaps escape is not really what we need. Can you tell me more about this contrast between freedom and escape?
In the end, you can’t escape from your body. This book doesn’t have all the answers. But I’m suspicious when a poem, or a book of poems, or a poet seems to have it all figured out. A big part of writing a poem is in the searching, the wondering, the questioning.
Kristin Robertson is the author of Surgical Wing (Alice James Books, 2017). Her poetry appears recently or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals. The winner of the Laux/Millar Raleigh Review Poetry Prize, Kristin has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley. She lives in Nashville.