Beth Bachmann is the author of two books from the Pitt Poetry Series: Temper (2009),winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Do Not Rise (2015), winner of the PSA Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award. Her poem “hamartia” can be found here. It appears along with two other poems in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “hamartia”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With an image?
I fell in love with a bird. Don’t most poems start there? I saw a picture of a lyre-tailed nightjar—a gorgeous bird with long, black feathers twice the length of its body. It made me think of Orpheus’ head still singing as it floated down river, away from his body.
My friend sent me a recording of Jeff Buckley singing “Hallelujah,” I think, perfectly, and it made me think poetry is not what you say, but how you say it.
This is how the poem began and ended. Here’s what happened in between.
Where did you first encounter Aristotle’s “Poetics”? When did you decide you wanted to weave elements of it into a poem—or did it appear as you were writing?
For years, I couldn’t get the bird out of my mind. The nightjar is also known as the “goat-sucker” for the legend it sucks the milk from goats at night. I was thinking about pastoral poems, shepherds and goatherds, the way the bird, not wolf, became the threat. Also, probably not irrelevant to the poem, between these years, I had two babies.
My friend’s life story was being made into a movie described as a “dramedy.” I wrote to say I preferred the word, “tragecom.” This got me thinking about the word “tragedy.” Reviews of my poems (and my friend’s poems) often contain the phrase “tragic lives.” I wrote to my friend:
Is all violence tragic? Romeo and Juliet, that’s tragic. Maybe what I’m really thinking when people say “tragic lives” is, “who you callin’ tragic, motherf**ker?”
1) tragic: 1540s, “calamitous, disastrous, fatal,” from Gk. tragikos “of or pertaining to tragedy,” lit. “of or pertaining to a goat,” and probably referring to a satyr impersonated by a goat singer. Tragic flaw (1913) translates Gk. hamartia.
2) What then of the bird known as goatsucker? nightjar: nocturnal bird. So called for the “jarring” sounds made by the male when the female is brooding, which have been described as a “churring trill that seems to change direction as it rises and falls.”
Tragic-sucking birds. Now that’s romantic.
This is when I decided to see what Aristotle had to say about this. Here is the letter I sent the next day:
I take it back. According to Aristotle, you and me are some tragic motherf**kers.
3) “A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation….
Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet…. Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful.
Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention—except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done—these are the situations to be looked for by the poet…. Again in the “Helle,” the son recognizes the mother when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses whose history contains moving incidents like these.”
In short, happy chance.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Sadness. Today a new review of my book, Do Not Rise, appeared that contains this sentence, “To Bachmann, the pain of the subject is the pain of the world—a world that’s been filled with pain for as long as Bachmann can imagine.” That line made me laugh. I’m not really ALL doom and gloom. The review also notes that despite the subject, the poems are sometimes funny.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I like the question Muriel Rukeyser proposes, “is this poem better than a cheese sandwich?” That’s a high bar we should all aspire to. I think my favorite thing in the world is eating a cheese sandwich with my feet in the swimming pool. Gluttony is a pretty good sin, but I don’t want to put anything in my body or brain that’s not really, really good.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m at work on two poetry collections: Cease, a book about peace process and another project called, Form. The three poems in the current Kenyon Review are from Form and the title poem from that manuscript and other selections will be out soon in American Poetry Review. You can read more about them here: bethbachmann.com