Laura Kasischke has published eight collections of poetry. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2011 for Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon). She teaches at the University of Michigan. Her poem “For the Return of the Bee” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “For the Return of the Bee”?
My husband Bill Abernethy is the translator. He wrote his dissertation on ancient Germanic metrical charms, so it’s full of beautiful, strange, magical texts (along with historical and literary analyses that are, to say the least, beyond me). I love reading these charms (in translation—since I don’t—again, to say the least—know any Old English or Old High German or Old Icelandic, etc.), and have always wanted to work with them, but they need no re-translation from me, being so powerful as they are. I decided to use their implications and some of their structural elements to write this poem.
Could you talk a little bit about the first time you encountered the Old English charm you reference at the beginning of the poem, translated by Bill Abernethy? Did it affect the structure of your poem (especially the repetition)?
Bill has two translations of bee charms in the dissertation—one written in Old High German and one in Old English. I worked with bits of both of them, although the two are actually quite different. (Full disclosure: what I know about the origins of these charms comes entirely from my husband, and I could be bungling it a bit!) Both of these charms have remained in existence only because they were found in manuscripts of other texts, written as marginalia. The Old High German charm was found, composed in a “small 10th c. hand,” written upside down around the edges of a book containing the sermons of St. Augustine. The Old English was written in a “tiny angular hand” in another manuscript—but both are probably far older than their written versions, having been passed on orally for who knows how long.
The Old High German one speaks to Christ, but it’s rather un-Christian—not a prayer, but a magic spell to be cast on bees. The Old English seems pagan, and requires the throwing of sand, that kind of thing. The Old High German is (it seems) to be repeated until the bees are under control, and it’s the one with the line I lift for my poem: “You shall not escape me, nor ever be free of me,” along with the structure of repetition in my poem.
They’re both utterly mysterious. Clearly the beekeepers are upset, and need some magical intervention to control a swarm of bees that have probably left the hive, following the queen. Or are they swarming the beekeeper? The charms are for gaining control of bees, but mostly there are suggestions in these charms that are lost forever, motivations for them at which we can only guess.
And that’s where my meditation on loss and misinterpretation comes into my poem.
Bees have become a symbol of dire and mysterious environmental changes. Did you do research about their disappearance as you composed this poem?
I didn’t research this, no, but, like everyone else, I’ve read and heard about, and been alarmed by “colony collapse disorder.” I find not only the phenomenon but this clinical term for it to be terrifying in every way. And killer bees: if you haven’t seen the Smithsonian behind-the-scenes footage from the documentary Secrets of the Hive, in which the camera crew disturbs a swarm of 40,000 bees, I recommend it.
Was there a particular moment that inspired the image (the recording device, the satellite, the child, and the imagined star) at the end of this piece?
I read the account of a child left in a car outside a bar at night—parent in the bar. I was, with the charms and the bees, considering magical interventions and the experience, for that child, of having nothing he could do, I’m feeling, but watch for signs and symbols—the wishing on stars, the saying of prayers, the many things that humans have done forever to try to control that which is beyond our control. The attempts by the helpless to ask the universe to intervene on our behalf. This is clearly the impulse of a magical charm. That the star he might have seen in this situation could have been a human, rather than a celestial, vision—well, I’m not sure if that’s better or worse.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My writing process has been pretty much the same since I was in my mid-twenties. I write a little every day. That’s about it. Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, often both. Some days the “little every day” turns into as many hours as I can find, or is truly a few minutes and that’s it. I’ve found that if you have the luxury of getting older, that really adds up to a lot of writing!
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Love! My husband, son, and step-daughter, primarily. Friends. But then there are also cats, chickens, and a few material objects I shouldn’t love since they’ll just get lost or broken eventually, but I do.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any bad writing advice—or, if I did, I ignored it. And that might be the best writing advice I’ve ever given: if you get advice that seems wrong to you, ignore it. I hope that the bad advice I’ve given (and I’m sure that, after about thirty years of teaching writing, I’ve given so, so much bad advice—please don’t ever make me think about this again!) was undone by the better advice I always give: ignore advice that seems to you not to be good advice.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’ve been putting together a new and selected poetry collection, and trying to finish a new novel.