Wesley McNair: I try to be patient. Collections of poetry don’t happen all at once. They grow over time, poem by poem, out of a cluster of feelings that are related in ways you don’t entirely understand. It’s only by gathering the poems and shaping them into a collection that you discover what you’ve been up to. Robert Frost once remarked that in a book of 25 poems, the 26th poem is the book itself. What you create in the end is an integration of the book’s individual entries, and a broader source of truth and beauty that surprises even you.
SC: ► Where did the poems of this book come from, and what is it about?
WM: Before I turned to this book, I was intent on a series of long narrative poems for my last collection, The Lost Child. But I also wrote a number of short poems both before and after that period, and they became the core of The Unfastening. Some of them were personal poems about my mother’s death and the death and disability of others, but there were uplifting poems as well, dealing with the small pleasures and triumphs of everyday life. As I assembled all of the poems, I gradually realized that I’d been trying to tell a story not of sorrow alone, but of renewal. I began to envision a hopeful book that would move from my darker poems to an awareness of the blessings of ordinary life just as we live it. And this led to a second burst of inspiration and several new poems for the book.
SC: ► Were there any obstacles to shaping the book, once you discovered the contours of it?
WM: Well, I knew the darker poems would come at the beginning, and the affirmative ones at the end, but I didn’t have a transition for the book I imagined – a series of poems that would show the movement from despair to hope. In effect, I had the beginning and end of my book’s story, but I was missing the middle part. What opened the way for me was an invitation in 2015 to write a commissioned poem for a conference on regional culture at Colby College. The eight-section poem I wrote, “Maintaining,” described how the rural people living around me managed to “maintain,” and even thrive, in the face of troubles and hardships. Even though I finally placed “Maintaining” in the last, affirmative, section of my book, writing it convinced me that I could create bridges between the dark and the light in other poems. I was ready then to create the transition of my book, which I discuss further in the video reading featured on this site.
SC: ► In the new book, there are several poems about the place in Maine where you live. How important was place to you as you wrote?
WM: Very important. Northern New England has always been my home place, first New Hampshire and now Maine, and it’s always been the home of my poetry – the place where my metaphors and my way of speaking and thinking come from. My wife Diane and I now live in a small Maine town called Mercer, and we spend our summers in an off-the-grid camp on Drury Pond in the dead-end town of Temple. So when I wrote about my personal sorrows in The Unfastening, it was second-nature for me to include the sorrows of others in my town, and when I wrote my poems of affirmation, I often relied on experiences I’d had in Mercer and Temple. But my sense of place doesn’t stop with geography, because it also includes the locations where I write my poems – the places within the place. In the summertime, I write them in the quiet retreat of a writing cabin in the woods beyond our camp. And in the winter, I sit on a couch in the big kitchen of our Colonial house beside the wood stove. These were the places where I wrote the first poems of The Unfastening, and where I became intrigued by the possibilities of my book’s vision.
SC: ► It sounds as though the book guided you after a certain point, rather than the other way around.
WM: That’s exactly right. The themes that emerged when I assembled my poems inspired me to write a range of poems I didn’t know I had in me – poems that were happy and sad and in between – in order to complete the book’s story. In effect, I was learning the vision of The Unfastening by writing about it. I not only wrote new poems but reordered and sharpened earlier ones, and I discarded some that seemed inferior or out of synch with the book’s developing argument. My additions and revisions kept me occupied all the way to the final proofs from my publisher.
SC: ► What you seem to describe in your account of making the book is a creative process
not unlike the process of making a poem or anything else artistic.
WM: Amen to that. I don’t think enough has been said or written about the creative interplay between a poet and a book in progress. That’s why I’m excited about this new, interactive project that’s been launched by Colby College Special Collections. Now students and anyone else who’s interested in poetry can be among the first to explore this overlooked subject.