Finding Emotional Truth: The Work of Thomas Aslin

Photo by Michael Hanner

Thomas Aslin (right) is the author of the chapbook “Sweet Smoke” (2006), from Red Wing Press; “Moon Over Wings” (2008), originally from Clark City Press and re-issued by Tebot Bach Press; and “Salvage” (2016), from Lost Horse Press. 

Aslin’s work finds roots deep in place. He was born in Spokane during what has been called one of the worst snowstorms in its history and has lived nearly his entire life in the Northwest: writing, as Joseph Stroud notes, “out of a large country.”

Thomas Aslin holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Washington and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Montana. He has worked as a transit operator, day laborer, janitor, bartender, bar manager, truck driver, store clerk, barista, library assistant, and as a sportswriter and announcer, as well as a high school teacher and college English instructor. 

The WorkThe Interview | “Dissolution of a Marriage” | “A Moon Over Wings” | “Salvage


The Work

by Jordan Hartt


In his collection of poetry “A Moon Over Wings,” poet Thomas Aslin spellbinds from his first lines:

Over this snow dusted slough
where you flushed pheasants,
a moon, white as bone meal,
wheels in behind cumbrous clouds,
behind a stand of cottonwood.

The attention he pays not only to the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses—

Each rooster rose as if
flowering under a flame
his wings rowing air.

—but to the precise rhythms and patterns of language—

The buckshot that stilled
each one was a storm in the flesh.
So lovely in flight, each fell
like a half sack of wheat
from a heaven of feather and grace.

—grips us from the outset, and doesn’t let go. This is work that matters—work in which nothing less than the very lives of blue-collar Montana, Idaho, and Pacific Northwest residents are at stake: this is work featuring narrators seeking to understand themselves, their familial relationships, and ultimately, their place in the world.

“These spacious landscapes frame the background of his poems,” said the poet Joseph Stroud. “In the foreground are the common lives of real people, parents and friends, their hopes and joys, their pain and suffering—the long difficult craft of living.”

In Aslin’s poems, daily chores and honest labor farm life are not backdrop or image. This isn’t a poet taking a leisurely walk in the Lake District. This is poetry that is, like the pheasant, shot through, with lead “spread through…sinewy meat.”

“Tom always says the difference between a good poem and a great poem could be as little as two or three words,” said poet Richard Widerkehr. “When he calls clouds ‘cumbrous,’ he captures both their weight and something else. I think of the word ‘cumulous,’ and of things that accumulate. His diction swings from words like this to the most plain ones, such as ‘horse piss.'”

Aslin’s poems juxtapose the natural landscapes with human emotions and the complicated difficulties and necessities of relationships. These are poems of the working world, poems about working life.

“A line that sticks in my head (but, I think, never became a poem) is when Tom observed, ‘She brings fruit to the table,'” said writer Ellie Mathews. “Not necessarily profound, but it conjures the image of a sumptuous old-master’s painting. Grapes, plums, a platter with a bone-handled knife for the pears. The glow of pewter.

“In his published work, Tom’s specificity startles and delights. Never flower—rather dahlia, or gladiolus, or peony. Never tree—rather linden, or cottonwood, or chestnut. Whether writing about trout or family or fire, he elevates a matter-of-fact sweep of landscape on the Steptoe Butte or the surprising intensity of his father eating a bowl of strawberries or the straightness of seams on a woman’s stockings.”

As will be evident in the poems to come, Aslin is also a master of blending formal poetic meter and rhythm with the colloquial speech of working men and women.

In “A Small Death”, the narrator says.

I would have said
it broke its poor
fucking neck, though
my mother would have
washed my mouth with
soap. No matter.
An owl lay on the ground
below a window it knew
was sky. Its head bowed
to its small, feathered chest.
Its heart stilled.
What it must have seen
in the window was a small
piece of heaven, though
the blood on the ground
was something else.

The use of formal elements, without becoming beholden to them, puts the beauty and bright pain of life on full display here, along with the knowledge that in all animal worlds death awaits, and that in-between is the here, and the now, and, as in the opening poem, “stories of blue snow and feral wings.”

“I lift the lid from a small, wood box”, the narrator says, in “Parents in a Box in a Drawer.”

And like the narrator in that poem, Aslin as author lifts in his poems the lid of what it means to live in the inland Pacific Northwest, admitting “how difficult it is.”

In this poem, the narrator concludes:

…I replace the lid on the box
and slide the box into the drawer. To tell
the truth, I can’t close the drawer fast enough.

Throughout his work, however, Aslin forces his narrators to continue to keep the drawer open: to look, and to experience—and in the process, the reader is immersed in Northwest landscapes both of farm country, and ranch country, and the country of the human heart.

“The key to fully understanding the significance of life can be found in the details, the glorious and the mundane,” said poet Tom Mitchell.

“And to this extent, Thomas Aslin is a technician of the heart.

“I first met him in Missoula at one of Richard Hugo’s second-semester workshops in January of 1978,” Mitchell said. “He was lean and good looking, a cheeky smile, and the devil in his eyes when he found something humorous. He was a very serious young man, and I remember him leaning forward in his student desk next to Walter Pavlich.

“Somehow he seemed to sense more than the rest of us the importance of the moment, the legend of a man standing before us.

“While the rest of us jotted down occasional notes on our mimeographed copies of student poems, Tom carefully recorded in a spiral notebook every spoken word Richard Hugo uttered in his workshops. As he later noted, ‘I wasn’t sure of much in those days, but I believed that if I paid attention and took clear and accurate notes, Dick Hugo would teach me a great deal.’ That was very fortunate for him, and for the rest of us. A few years ago, those notes were published in The Georgia Review (Winter, 2013), and they are well worth reading.

“As valuable as that may be, his greatest accomplishments are apparent in the formation of his own poems, the concise precision of the words and the way they are assembled.

“I use that term because every poem stands on its own, and passes the highest standards of exactitude, each one masterfully and musically completed with a passion of language.  Each ringing true, honestly telling a story from his life no matter how tender or painful it might be.

“Consider the plaintive ‘Oranges,’ the account of a young boy learning to inject his mother with medication, juxtaposed with a beginning poet’s consideration of the word phalange:

My mother asked me, with a syringe in one hand
and a ripening orange in the other,
if I might learn to administer her shots.
You hear that off rhyme, don’t you—syringe
with orange? Not so different from the young poet’s
phalange and orange, though I was not to track
my mother’s finger or metacarpal bones
but the veins in the crook of her arm…

“Madeline DeFrees was the other major poet teaching workshops in Missoula,” Mitchell said, “and Tom eagerly gravitated toward her workshops and her writing.

“In some ways Madeline and Dick seem like opposites…Madeline with her parochial background as a nun, and Dick with his history as a WWII bomber pilot, then working with his his hands at Boeing Corporation. Madeline with her careful ‘baroque’ style and wordage, Dick with his bold and sweeping statements, his attention to the vacant spaces only to be found in Montana,” Mitchell said.

One can hear echoes of Montana–and Hugo–in such poems as “Fishing for Cutthroat on Half Moon”:

The trout’s gills are aflame
in the air. I hold him in
the boat and pull the hook clean.
The trout’s gills are aflame.
As if in an iridescent dream,
I rinse my hands clean.
The trout’s gills are aflame
in the air I hold him in.

Poet Michael Hanner notes how Thomas works by hand, writing on a yellow pad, “across a table strewn with breakfast debris in assorted cafes around Port Townsend and Seattle, or Paris.”

And in the poems, Aslin creates entire landscapes, and the people who live in them alongside him; indeed, these landscapes, and the language that Aslin creates to re-create these landscapes on the page, inform every level of his poems.

In Aslin’s poem “Visiting With My Father” the narrator describes the following scene:

When I walk from the house to the car,
he stands in the kitchen waving.
His raised hand, a timeless gesture,
unnerves me since I am leaving.

He stands in the kitchen waving.
A still wind blown in off the prairie
unnerves me since I’m leaving
with the threat of rain in the air.

A stiff wind is blown in off the prairie.
What he cannot recall worries him.
With the threat of rain in the air,
he closes the windows in each room.

The rhythmic repetition of lines and the attention to physical movement (the narrator walks, the father stands; the narrator is “unnerved”, the father waves) “block” the poem to reveal that physical movement has replaced conversation. The father closes windows. They might as well be doors.

Neither man speaks, and we as readers are given to understand that they have not spoken at sufficient length in this moment, or in any moment. Instead, Aslin lets their thoughts, their recollections, their “worries”, their regrets carry the weight of narrative movement in this poem:

What he cannot recall worries him—
whether a north lake or his son’s name.
He closes the windows in each room.
The sun set behind a fretwork of limbs.

When I walk from the house to the car,
I regret that I must leave him.
His raised hand, a timeless gesture,

Until, as a curtain descends in a play, the sky grows “dim”, and the scene ends as both narrator and reader are delivered to the car.

Aslin has worked as a transit operator, as a day laborer, a janitor, bartender, bar manager, truck driver, store clerk, barista, library assistant, and as a sportswriter and announcer, as well as a high school teacher and college English instructor, and in this collection he turns his wealth of observation, both internal and external, about human relationships and behavior onto this poems.

This is a collection of tulip beds, windborne snow, apple trees and elk, whiskey, strawberries with half-and-half and sugar.  This is a collection of rivers, of relationships; a collection of lives and of flames. Rivers that “murmur in a tenuous light.” Flames that are not only metaphor, but real: burning feed mills, hay bales, and sacked grain.

In “World Without Wind”, the narrator begins “When I was small and came up/to here”

Polaris, Ursa Major
and Minor, even Venus, were visible
from where we lived. Time
as infinite as the sky, I’d run
after you, father, believing
that you, like Jehovah, could make
stars appear out of thin air.

And now that the narrator, “taller than before,” faces a world in which his father is no longer Jehovah-like, he stands outside and speaks, and does not speak, to his father:

Someday, if we speak of this,
I will tell you why I feel at home
in Missoula. Change comes slowly
to our valley. I can go into a bar here
and order a drink in a go-cup
and go out under sky, moon, and star
and dream everyone I have ever known
is alive and well.

“When it comes to the emotional content of the poems…two seemingly antithetical feelings create a paradox for the reader: anger and tenderness,” said Madeline DeFrees.

“I know of no other American poet who has so consistently and courageously attended to his subject,” said Stroud. “Particularly the relationship of son and father.”

In “Ghosts,” the narrator explains:

I feared your moods—
would stay in my room for hours.
Though you seldom laid a hand
on me and kissed me good night
evenings, my fear kept Jesus
jumping in my prayers.

But over the arc of these poems, as the narrator begins to see his father falter, we see the deepening conflict within the narrator. When he observes physical changes in his father—“His hands shake when pouring/his coffee”—the men become “more careful/with each other.”

There is an arc in this collection not only of a man’s relationship with his father, but his relationship with himself, discovering, perhaps, in places and senses his own, changing, self. Like the Eastern poets of Li Po and Tu Fu’s era, or the Western poets of Hugo, Stafford, DeFrees, Welch, the natural world serves as a way to talk about the inner world. Rivers, bending toward the sky. Crows on wires. The smell of lilacs, roses. The river murmuring “in a tenuous light.” Wheat punched by the wind. A thin moon, visible. There is reason enough to love the moon.

In the past two decades, Aslin has been a frequent writer and resident at Centrum’s summer Port Townsend Writers’ Conference: as a teacher and as a lecturer, sometimes, but more often than not simply as a writer enjoying the area and the community to create new work.

In the mid-two-thousands, feeling that the Conference had lost its way on the craft of writing, a strong knot of writers created what they called the Madrona Writers Group, meeting on the Conference grounds during the winter or spring to write, talk, drink wine, sing, and laugh.

“Tom Aslin has been a friend and fellow writer for more years that I care to think about!” said poet Dianne Butler, another Madrona Writer. “They’ve been wonderful years. I love listening to him read his fine works,” she said, also mentioning his sense of humor.

“Thomas Aslin is one of my very favorite poets,” said poet Jenifer Browne Lawrence, one of the Madrona Writers.

“His intricately wrought poems impress on the reader a delicate afterimage, as when one gazes long at a snowy sky, and later the snowflakes keep floating down behind closed eyelids.

“I am especially drawn to Tom’s first collection, “A Moon Over Wings.” One of the poems I return to in that collection is titled “A Charged World,” in which Tom writes about the death of his father.

“The poem is full of trees–maple, birch, aspen, providing a backdrop for the speaker to ‘gaze in tall trees for angels’ after having paused at a fruit tree, ‘a small plum tree/whose dusty fruit is falling. Rubbed/on my shirttail each is darker/beneath the dusty blue… [I] eat one, then the other./The first is sweet. The second bitter. I pick a third, so ripe its skin has split.// I am not accustomed to the feelings I am having. I fold my hands and look to Hopkins. The world is charged, he says.’

“Aslin’s poetry shines like shook foil, to borrow another image from Hopkins. Tom’s craft is impeccable, and his precise imagery and attention to the poem makes reading his work a genuine pleasure.

“What impresses me most about Tom’s poetry, though, is his absolute willingness to be vulnerable on the page. Whether writing about complicated familial relationships, lost love, death, or his own turmoil and traumas, Tom’s words ring deep and true as a church bell, and the resonance lingers long after the poem ends.”

“I have benefited both with the gift of friendship and an invaluable influence on my writing,” Mitchell said. “And still, there’s the pervasive humor. I distinctly remember sitting next to Tom during a poetry reading at the Wilma Theater in Missoula. The last poet of the evening read a perplexing poem that at its best confused the audience.  The enduring silence following it was painful.  As everyone rose from their seats I heard Tom’s characteristic booming voice echo in the theater: ‘What the hell was that?!'”

“Tom writes out of a large country—the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Montana, and the open farmland of the Palouse in eastern Washington,” said poet Joseph Stroud.

“It is through the long craft of his poetry that Aslin brings this world to life within us. He is a poet of large spaces and intimate feelings, and when these forces merge in a poem they create a singular, unique voice in American poetry.

“The tone of many of his poems is a kind of adagio, a sense of time passing, dissolving, leaving imprints of wonder, where loss (of mother, of father, friends, lovers) is salvaged by an alchemy of language, by the music of poetry.

“I know of no other poet who explores with such clarity, honesty, and intensity the shifting intricacies of the family, our primal world. The Greeks said all tragedy begins in the family; one could say love begins there as well. Aslin explores deeply the energy field between these two poles.

“His poems are the history of a man working and finding his way into grace. His excellence as a poet is that he makes that grace available to all of us.

“His substantial, fine-crafted poems accomplish what all good poems do—they make us acutely aware of the marvelous, in ourselves and in the world.”

We present this final poem as a complete work, thanks to the permission of the publisher.

“Dissolution of a Marriage”
After the eruption of Mount St. Helens

No matter how or why, what is done is done.
This evening as silver alder leaves stir
there is reason enough to love the moon.

A musty scent forewarns imminent rain.
The close heat and inversion still in the air.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.

One afternoon clouds occlude the sun,
ash sifting through the air. Even if obscure
there is reason enough to love the moon.

Housebound all week, lonely and nearly insane,
we took to drinking with friends on the river.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.

That summer we could have used some rain
and a loan. Though even if skies won’t clear
there is reason enough to love the moon.

For a long while I would wonder
how we came to love each other.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.
There is reason enough to love the moon.


The Interview

Jordan Hartt: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with Kahini about your poetry work. Your language always grips the reader at the heart. So, uhm, like. How do you do that?

Tom Aslin: Rhythm, language, and emotional truth.

Here’s an example: a poem that I think is a perfect poem. It’s entitled, “How It Is,” and was written by Peter Everwine, and it’s interesting because it’s a poem that I could care less about–until I get to the last image.

The poem starts, “This is how it is//one turns away/and walks out into the evening,” and then goes into specific, single- and two-syllable details: a horse, dark rocks, a river, a prairie, and repetition of the word “speak.”

The sounds are good, the rhythms are good, the words feel right in the mouth, but I could care less about it, until the end: “I have been away a long time/Something is singing in the grass.”

And it’s a gut-punch. Of home. Of longing. The passing of time, the yearning for something indefinable.

The emotional truth comes through through the clarity of language. And you realize only after that all the images in the poem have led up to that moment.

So that’s what I try to do: I try to find the direct language and images in order to say complicated things.

JH: In simple, direct style?

TA: Complicated truths, related through a clear, direct style.

I think I respond to that, as a poet, because it’s sort of my temperament.

I don’t like to bullshit: I like to get right to the core of something.

Even as a young poet, I wrote that way, which doesn’t meant the poems were good, but in terms of the style I was working in. And the language of the poem is how that happens.

The emotional truth, I mean. If the language is right, the emotional truth comes through, and if it’s not, it doesn’t.

Richard Hugo used to say, if the language wasn’t working, to try to put it into a formal poem, that it might get you into new language that you wouldn’t think of otherwise.

Although, he cautioned to use formal elements as a way to get started, or a way to write a poem about a difficult subject, but not force yourself to stay locked into the form.

JH: What do you mean by emotional truth?

TA: By emotional truth I mean the use of language itself is going to make it not necessarily “true” to how it actually happened, but that’s not the point anyway, I think readers make a mistake if they try to figure out what’s true or what’s not true off the page: the point is that it be emotionally true on the page.

And without that, it’s just a lot of nice language that doesn’t mean anything.

The poems that I read over and over again are the poems that mean something, through rhythm and sound.

JH: You studied directly with Hugo in Montana. What paths led you there? 

TA: I started wrting in high school, at Gonzaga Prep, in Spokane, and it all came about because I did the wrong assignment.

We were supposed to write a modern re-telling of a classic poem, about a young woman who gets stolen from her betrothed or something like this, and I wrote it where a guy rides up in a motorcycle and takes her away–it was brutually awful, as a poem, but the teacher liked it, and what it was was that I’d found how difficult it was to write a good poem, and it intrigued me. I knew I wanted to pursue it.

Rhyme, and meter, and being able to relate emotional truths in ways I couldn’t do in any other way. There was something in it for me.

JH: A lot of your poems have a lot of formal elements, but aren’t formal poems: do those elements help get at the emotional truths?

TA: Yes, so that was something that I learned from Dick: you know, Montana was the only school I applied to, so I’m lucky I got in, I’d done my undergrad at the UW, in Seattle, and graduated in 1973.

I’d studied Sociology and English, and also done some poetry workshops there, and knew I wanted to either be a poet or go to law school. [Laughs.] I guess that’s a big difference. But I knew if I went to law school I wouldn’t write poems for at least three years, and that bothered me. I couldn’t do that.

I read a book around that time that featured Northwest poets, and Hugo was one of them, as well as William Stafford and some others, and at the time I couldn’t catch Hugo’s rhythms in my head, so I didn’t think much of him as a poet, at that time, understand. For me, sometimes I have to hear a poet read aloud, so I can hear what rhythms to use while I’m reading, and I hadn’t heard him read at that time.

JH: There wasn’t YouTube, or anything of that sort, at that time.

TA: It was possible to get recorded material, but it was harder to get to it, as you know, it wasn’t as available.

But at any rate, I think that’s how poetry works, you gotta have a voice in your head that matches the rhythms of the poet, and it makes it easier to understand if you match the rhythms with that voice in your head.

JH: Why is rhythm so critical?

TA: Because it mimics the actions that you’re talking about. Single- or two-syllable words tend to be more powerful than multisyllabic words, as an example. With single-syllable words, right away there’s a proposition in the air.

I’ll give you an example, this is from Stanley Plumly’s poem, “Out-of-Body Travel”: “And in one stroke he brings the hammer/down, like mercy.”

The clarity of the syllables, the clarity of the words, the clarity of the language, there’s something about it that’s elemental and direct, another example being Ted Roethke’s “The Lost Son” and other poems, in which he’s kind of searching for the self, but the way he does that is to write about simple, basic things, like a greenhouse.

And I just thought, if he can write about something like a greenhouse, and make it that powerful, then I can write about my dad’s grain elevator.

And that opened up everything for me.

Then, I heard Hugo read in 1975 and that was a sea change for me. So in 1977, when I saw an ad in Writers’ Digest for the Haystack Writers’ Conference at Cannon Beach, and saw that he was going to be teaching, I called them up and sent my money in.

And it was so eye-opening. I mean, he taught us. Rhythm, meter, word-choice, lots of particulars, lots of examples from lots of different poets, lists of writers we should read, just very eye-opening. Very inspiring. My work changed from then on.

JH: How so?

TA: I started writing in longer lines, for one thing. He recommended it, to me: he said that more happens in a poem with slightly longer lines than what I was writing, than was happening in my skinny lines. At any rate, I learned an incredible amount from him–it was three hours a day, for two weeks.

JH: Two weeks?!

TA: Yep.

JH: They did things differently back then.

TA: Yes. Three hours every morning, with the same class, the same people. So I decided to go study with him in Montana, and didn’t want to go anywhere else.

I went specifically to learn from him. I’d taken detailed notes at Cannon Beach, but also missed some things, but whenever I re-read the notes, I’d think, this is great stuff, and it would get me writing at the level I was wanting to write.

I remember the first full class day, at Montana, I looked around the room and he’d said something and nobody wrote it down, and I kind of thought, well, here’s the time, I’m going to get as much out of this as I can, so I took very detailed notes, and went over them at home, and it really helped me as a writer, get to what I was trying to do.

A few of those poems went into my chapbook, “Sweet Smoke,” and then later into “Moon Over Wings.”

Madeline [DeFrees] was also there at that point, and worked with her for one year, just one year though, before she left for Amherst.

She and I had different ideas about what was possible in a poem, and were on different sides of things that year, but we kind of built a base of friendship and years later, when we both lived in Seattle, we become really good friends, would go to readings together. I got pretty close to her at that point.

If I had a new poem, I’d ask her if she had the patience or time to listen to it, and she’d normally say yes.

JH: So you’d read it aloud to her, as opposed to giving her the pages.

TA: Oh, always. Sometimes I’d show her the copy, but the voice always comes first: the rhythm, then the language. She believed the same things Hugo did, they were on the same page, that the voice came first.

Going back a minute, Richard Hugo believed you can write anything you want, as long as it’s emotionally true, and the way you get to that emotional truth is through rhythm and language.

At any rate, Madeline then interviewed me, for my first book. My chapbook came out in 2006; then “Moon Over Wings” came out in 2008.

Those two, and then Joe [Stroud], were the ones who taught me the most. I met Joe at Centrum, because Jenifer [Browne Lawrence] and also Mifanwy [Kaiser] kept telling Stroud he had to let me into the class. I’d come to audit it, was having problems getting time off work, and also not sure I wanted to commit the money to it, but some guy dropped out, and I got his slot.

Joe had us all write a poem, that first day, a loose translation of something he’d given us, and I just thought, I gotta knock this one over the fence. At any rate, I wrote this poem, then during break I was in the bathroom, and Joe comes in and stands at the urinal next to me and says, “Nice poem.”

It was a special class. The writers in it. I’m friends with a lot of those folks to this day.

JH: Richard Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, Joe Stroud…who would be other significant influences on your work.

TA: So after Dick, Madeline, and Joe, would be Ted Roethke, Stanley Plumly, and Elizabeth Bishop. Also Gerard Manley Hopkins, and maybe Walt Whitman.

JH: Do you read much contemporary poetry? Or maybe a better way to ask…what do you think of current poetic trends? 

TA: Well, I think, poetry has to sound meant, and too often it seems like, in a lot of journals are a lot of poems that probably don’t mean anything more to the writer than to the reader.

I think language gets to those places that are hard to get to, and I think a lot of writers don’t put in the work on the language, so they can’t get to those places.

I have the internal checklist when I’m reading, of what I’m looking for, like the emotional truth, etc.

It’s different for every poet. And it’s not easy. Writing is hard. To write something that lasts, I mean. I’ll go through sixty to seventy drafts per poem.

One thing that bothers me about contemporary American poetry, I’m not sure the right way to put this, but I think we’re too easy on ourselves.

As poets, we think because we wrote it it must be good. But it isn’t. And we’re not willing to do the work.

I hate to go against the MFA, because I have one, but I think it’s producing an awful lot of poets who are all publishing, a lot of books are being published, but the quality is low because we’re afraid of true criticism, afraid of true work.

And I think a lot of that is careerism. How many poets seems to be in competition with one another. How many books can I publish in comparison to Joe Blow. There’s an unspoken agreement that if I review your book well, you’ll review mine well. Everyone just pats each other on the ass, and says, nice job.

Going back to Richard Hugo, he used to say that after you get an MFA you should take ten years off before you teach creative writing, and I think there’s a lot to that. It puts you in the world. And it’s a good bullshit detector.

JH: This is going back a bit, but, you read your work aloud each time? 

TA: I do. Not when I’m first drafting, but once I have a finished draft, and I’m re-writing, I read it aloud each time after that. I’m not thinking about audience. They’ll come along for the ride or not: it’s about staying true to yourself. I want to read poems that intrigue me. And so those are the poems I want to write.

I go over poems again and again, until I’ve reached the point where, when I go over it, no word bothers me. Where there’s nothing left to add, and nothing left to take out.

“Indian Summer,” one of the poems in my first book, took me about fifteen years of rewriting.

JH: Was it the language, or the truth, or…

TA: I don’t know. Something bothered me about it, that I couldn’t ignore. At first I think the poem is done, then I look at it again, and I go, oh shit this isn’t done: so, that was the process.

It was a similar process of putting together a manuscript. The process of putting together “Moon Over Wings,” came in realizing–it was mostly by instinct, I know I sound like I have these formulas for what good writing is, but really it’s mostly instinct.

I divided it into four sections: the first section was my dad’s death; the second section returning to childhood; the third section going up through my mother’s death and other adult matters, and then the fourth section, which again brings my father into focus.

JH: Kind of opening it out again.

TA: Yes. And it was a process of, taking out poems, putting poems in. I was sending it out for years, and wasn’t getting anywhere with it, occasionally getting a nice note back, but I wasn’t having any luck.

Through the years I added poems that were stronger, took a few out, so basically I got to the point where I knew it was basically done, and I just had to place it. And I knew I wanted to place it as it was, without much alteration.

I gave a reading from my chapbook, and the editor of Clark City Press heard it, and asked if I could send him a full manuscript. And I did. He wrote me a long letter back, that sounded like he was going to reject it, then near the end does this reversal and accepts it. I think he’d been expecting a longer manuscript, but I’d had my backpack full of poems stolen years earlier, and so my manuscript was only five of the thirteen notebooks full of poems. The manuscript could have been much longer.

JH: Whoa.

TA: You know, that just about broke me. The poems that remained became “Moon Over Wings.”

JH: I can’t even imagine. 

TA: Yeah. It almost broke me.

JH: Did the poems in “Salvage” also come from those notebooks? 

TA: No. I was just collecting, at that point, poems that I was writing. A good number of them were from workshops with Joe [Stroud]. Another was from a workshop with Arthur [Sze].

It was a different process than “Moon Over Wings.” I just started putting poems together, as opposed to thinking of it in terms of sections, and once I liked the order, I just stayed with it.

Again, all these things I’m talking about, the rhythms, the language, the emotional truth, it’s all just trying to explain things that I just feel kind of instinctively.

That book, especially. Putting it together. I did it by instinct. The first one, you know, had the actuarial aspect to it, the sections, my dad’s death, my childhood, my young adulthood, my older self, that’s how that was organized. “Salvage” was different. It just kind of came together. So despite everything I’ve said, there’s something about poetry that can’t be said.



“Dissolution of a Marriage”

After the eruption of Mount St. Helens

No matter how or why, what is done is done.
This evening as silver alder leaves stir
there is reason enough to love the moon.

A musty scent forewarns imminent rain.
The close heat and inversion still in the air.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.

One afternoon clouds occlude the sun,
ash sifting through the air. Even if obscure
there is reason enough to love the moon.

Housebound all week, lonely and nearly insane,
we took to drinking with friends on the river.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.

That summer we could have used some rain
and a loan. Though even if skies won’t clear
there is reason enough to love the moon.

For a long while I would wonder
how we came to love each other.
No matter how or why, what is done is done.
There is reason enough to love the moon.