Ryan Patrick Smith holds a BA in English from Transylvania University and MFA in poetry from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. His poetry, runner-up in the 2015 Boston Review Poetry Contest and semifinalist in the 2015 Discovery Poetry Contest, appears or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Salt Hill, Architrave Press, and elsewhere. His poem “Augury” can be found here. It appears with another poem in the May/June 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Augury”?
The gas station in the poem is the place where I worked for half a year after I graduated college; as in the poem, a tree overhung the roof and the branches collected a starling flock in the fall. Working at the gas station, observing the starlings, got me thinking about human versus nonhuman epistemologies. When a murmuration of starlings takes off, they’re first all together in a tree making this eerie chatter, but then the starlings suddenly go completely. I’d think, how do they know that it’s time? What’s the signal? More interesting to me as a human is why I am made so anxious at this kind of mystery; what’s the source of this envy for that rare ability to have it intuitively together, to synchronize desire, to know exactly when to get out? Because I wrote the first draft of the poem around Halloween, there was also a sense that the birds were an expression of horror—as bird behavior often is, like in Hitchcock’s The Birds—but also a response to horror. Because the other thing on my mind when I wrote the poem was the idea of depletion, of the gas station physically transporting and transforming oil from tanks literally buried beneath our feet into the gas tanks of cars at the pumps into combustion into exhaust. I ended up combining the motion of a set of ecological relations being exploited and the motion of bird flight.
Your piece immediately and overtly calls out to readers, asking for their participation. Did you find that this decision changed the progress and action in the poem? Did it function to make the signs and requests in the piece more personal or more general?
I like using self-talk because it can often give me different options in a poem than speaking in the direct first-person can—I can write in the second-person or the imperative voice; I can tell to myself as though I were an outsider what I am doing or what my desires are; or I can instruct myself, move myself around, in a way that also seems to put myself outside of my own control. Often, it turns out to be useful because it implicates me when I’d rather not implicate myself. In “Augury,” I’m one of the readers called out, asked to participate, and eventually implicated in the violent action at the end of the poem. I also wanted to call out directly to the reader. In the early drafts, the reader was implicitly outside the poem; “read” was only there as a verb. In the final drafts, I decided to physically locate the reader within the poem, inside the car. It made the reader another character.
Your poem seems set in a plausibly contemporary world, though its title and imagery calls back to ancient Greece. With this pairing, did you aim to convince the contemporary reader that your birds contain something more than arbitrary flight patterns? And why did you choose to focus on starlings?
My goal was to unsettle the reader, and as part of that, I wanted to insert the kind of epistemic approach to the world that, in the West, we view as regressive and don’t want to acknowledge. But whether our human epistemology is animistic or mechanistic, we kill things as a way of knowing. We also like to respond to crisis by reverting to some supposed tradition and embracing an atavistic set of “facts.” There’s a great film from 2000 by the director Roy Andersson called Songs from the Second Floor in which Andersson uses a stationary camera to create tableaux of characters engaging in surreal, atavistic behavior, like self-flagellation, in response to a capitalist crisis. In one of the vignettes, a corporate board of directors ritually sacrifices a young woman in exchange for higher stock valuation. The movie is bleak and hilarious. I thought the stationary camera was an interesting way to hold on to the viewer, and I wanted to do something similar in my poem, where the voice is more chilled and detached and ruthless than we would normally want, and where the voice almost floats above us. I wanted to convince the reader that the flight patterns are more than arbitrary while she also understands, at the poem’s end, that the patterns aren’t anthropomorphic. To force humanness into those patterns or, conversely, to deprive them of their own logic, is to be violent toward them. The starlings aren’t acting out of anxiety, but they’re not a random scattering or an event without their own agency, either; they’re not like the eagle in ancient Greek culture, acting as a theistic omen. Instead, the starlings have their own shit going on. Starlings are fascinating because, to me, they emblematize both a lot of communication and a lot of silence. Since it’s not possible in the moment to understand either, everything about the way the starlings in a murmuration interact with each other ignites my impulse to interpret. Starlings were also important for the poem’s feeling of contingency, as they’re obviously important in the poem for the way they’re interacting with a particular time and the way that that time necessitates flight and creates desire—in the starlings’ case, desire for sustenance and survival. Though that’s true of all migratory creatures, starlings are also stronger images of collective action than birds like geese because they can’t be individuated. That starlings are great collective actors in a poem that’s also addressing ruthless consumption and depletion is important, especially since we can be acculturated to feel fear and disgust at the sight of a functioning collective.
While reading your poem, your readers are asked to “read” the birds. Is this command asking something more of them than the reading of the poem alone? If so, what are you hoping the command might instill in your readers?
“Read” was the first verb that came to me when I began the first draft. It’s interesting that the wording of the question is in flux between question and command, making a request of the reader and instructing her, since I wanted the poem to really work in a flux between the authority and certainty that a command represents and the not-knowing and humility that a question represents—and to bring to the surface that not-knowing without humility leads to the kind of violence that’s enacted in the end of the poem. Reading well involves a lot of inquiry; reading with immediate certainty that we know what’s being said is, actually, a passive way of relating to meaning. In the poem, I instruct the reader in several ways to read the starlings’ flocking and flight; the readings lead inexorably to the reader vivisecting the birds, not to suggest that trying to understand a text—and in the poem, the starlings are treated like a text—will kill it, but to suggest that working to understand the starlings in a way that objectifies them is an act of violence, one that never really ends. At the end of the poem, the reader is still reading.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I used to let a poem’s form and meaning cohere in the first couple of drafts. Now I don’t. Now, I often end up making radical revisions to form even as I’m far along in a poem and allowing whatever the poem “communicates” to change through the course of its drafting. I wrote the first draft of “Augury” seven years ago, but the hugely extended lines didn’t happen until recently, a couple of years ago, and the radical change to the line lengths also meant the meaning of the poem’s images changed, at least for me. I started working within the idea that though a poem’s form is essential, it could be spontaneous, jarring, and mutable—I was influenced by the digitalization of poetry, the way we can read poems now on screens and the various sizes of the screens can change the form of the poem. If you read a poem on a phone-size, rotatable screen, you can suddenly create unintended line breaks, change the poem’s shape. I became interested in the idea that a poem’s form can be contextual; I think it reflects that the reading of any poem is contingent and exists within an ecology made of when you’re reading it, where you’re reading it, and even why you’re reading it. The change in the way I approached form ended up changing how I approached content and meaning, so that I also stopped worrying whether my intentions translated fully and became more interested in form and content whose effects and readings were more a cluster of family resemblances than a forthright communication of whatever I think I’m saying, or the impact I think I’m having. A case in point—when the host of a reading I was featured at introduced another poem that I wrote in the paragraph-length line form, he interpreted the line breaks as a kind of nodding off. That’s not the effect I intended, but I thought it was really interesting and really resembled the effects I had in mind. Ultimately, everyone including me has a slightly different and contingent relationship with the poem.