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"Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus"
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2012
Selected by Cornelius Eady
What inspired you to write “Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus”? How did you come up with the title?
I can answer the first and second questions at the same time: I came up with a version of the title first, and then I wrote the poem. I had been in a stretch one summer where I was producing poems every day. When I ran into trouble getting myself to write, I turned to prompts I have gathered from various places. The writing prompt was to “create a portrait” of someone. I had come up with something like “Portrait of My Father with a Stomach Virus,” but the poem took its own direction when I brought my mother and the memory of what I saw in their bedroom into it. Then I had to change the title.
The reader develops a striking image of your father afflicted with a stomach virus based on your word choice. Do you think consciously about word choice as related to the poem, or does it develop “unconsciously” as you write?
Sometimes, when I get lucky, I write a poem in one shot. The memory of my father’s illness was so vivid that I didn’t have to think too much about the language I used, and the vast majority of the poem was left untouched from the first draft.
What inspired the ending?
The ending is where I did most of the revision. The original ending had me outside the door hearing my mother and father having sex. I think I was trying to be courteous of my parents or something because I have never stood outside their bedroom listening to them have sex when I was a child. I did, however, walk in on them once shortly after, as I describe in the poem. I realized that trying to rewrite the ending—that is, to tell the story not as it had actually happened—didn’t serve the poem nearly as well as the truth. Go figure.
Is this poem part of a larger work?
This poem is part of my second full-length collection called Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair Missing. Most of the poems in that collection are about my childhood and family.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
My biggest fear as a writer is that I will be a one-trick pony. My biggest challenge comes from that—wanting to stay fresh. Ordinarily, I’m not very good at resisting my own tendencies to write a certain way which is why I spend so much time on revision. It’s during that part of the process where I can start to see some of my habits and work to change them. Sometimes it is clear that the poem is as it should be and I leave it alone.
How did you decide on the format of this poem? Do you typically structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?
I always begin by writing in my notebook in prose. Then I type up what I have, often making preliminary line breaks. Playing around with the body of the poem actually helps me to revise and edit.
Which writers have influenced you?
The first poem that ever made me want to be a poet was Paul Laurence Dunbar’s My Sort o’ Man. I was fourteen years old and I remember feeling something, like a tension in my chest reading that poem. If it were not for Dunbar, I don’t know that I would have found the numerous others who have made me want to write. Different writers have influenced me at different times in my life, and I can look at my own poems and tell you which poet(s) I had been reading at the time. I had been reading Sharon Olds the summer I wrote “Portrait of My Parents Making Love as a Stomach Virus.”
What are you currently reading?
I have just finished Nikky Finney’s Head Off& Split and a selected works of Yehuda Amichai. I am also finishing up a Master’s Degree in English, so I have read quite a bit of work other than poetry in recent weeks as well. J.M Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country blew my mind.