The Epigraph Conversation: A Question With Valerie Duff, Robert Nazarene, and Johan Huybrechts

AGNI: As we write, we often have other texts in our minds—consciously or unconsciously—and our work is in some sense always in conversation with those other works. But when we use epigraphs, as you did in your poems for AGNI Issue 83, that conversation becomes more explicit. What kinds of conversations were you bringing to the surface when you placed these words of others—Camus, Dickinson, Spence—alongside your own?

Valerie Duff:
Poem: “Wild Nights”; Epigraph: “might I but moor,” Emily Dickinson

I didn’t set out to appropriate the Emily Dickinson title as I worked, but the phrase “might I but moor” from her “Wild Nights” was running through my head as I wrote. The idea of “wild nights” captures the feel of love, death, dementia so completely—I only hope what I’ve written can live up to those two words. The epigraph, “might I but moor,” holds both ecstasy and grief, and the quick fluctuation from high to low, back and forth, in that cry. Dickinson’s poem came to me over and over in bits and pieces as I worked through various drafts of my own sprawling poem.

The line captures the tempest and sea of living, and the intense desire to still oneself against beauty and pain. We can’t make ourselves timeless—I don’t think the “she” experiencing loss and dementia here has retained enough memories to feel it as fully as the observer, although the loneliness and feeling of being unlodged—unmoored—is there. Dickinson knew isolation keenly, and was similarly consumed in the ever-shifting nature of corporeal life.

Watching a seemingly still present slip into the past becomes more acute, and makes the immediate more acutely devastating, as we move into old age.

Robert Nazarene:
Poem: “Ghazni”; Epigraph: “The people are the landscape,/The moon with the people is no landscape,/Mars without the mar of men,/Without the scars of men. . . .” Gerry Spence

I am very pleased AGNI asked me to write about the Gerry Spence epigraph above my poem, “Ghazni”—and, in short order, look forward to being equally embarrassed. I have nothing esoteric to say. Why would I? I’ve never stepped foot into a poetry class. I made it out of Georgetown Business School by the skin of my hookah. Epigraph, epigram, what’s the diff? My late sister, Margie, once reminded me: “Bobby, you’re the most deeply superficial person I’ve ever known.” So here it is, I always loved the jacket Spence wore—at every public appearance or on TV—Spence, a lawyer, has never lost a criminal case—not once—as either a prosecutor or defense attorney. One sunny day in Nevada City, California, I spied and purchased an exact copy of “The Coat.” I’ve worn it at every poetry reading I’ve given since. A year or so later, my son gifted me a coffee table book about Spence which contained the quotation I used in the poem. I read the quote and wrote the poem over the next 25 minutes—and revised it 4 or 5 times in the next 30 minutes. This is how I write. It’s only a damn poem.

Johan Huybrechts:
Poem: “At the Grave”; Epigraph: “If I then cast the flower which a clay-covered hand holds out to me, it never misses the grave. My piety is exact, my feelings as they should be, my head suitably inclined. I am admired for finding the right word. But I have no merit in this: I am waiting.” Albert Camus

Sometimes things just happen. ‘At The Grave’ was hanging out to dry, I was reading Camus’ ‘l’Eté’.

Camus. He urges us to remain calm and to keep thinking—this is, to remain lucid and true to ourself and give it our graceful loving and intellectual best in useful action, even, and especially so, under pressure or in the face of death.

This implies a fundamental loneliness which permeates his writings.

In digging him up, I expected just that. A breath of fresh air in this smoghole, a look at the horizon in a crowded city. Help.

When I read the cited passage, however, I was baffled. This was too much of the good stuff. To uphold this stance before the grave, this distance, this detachment? No.

To cast a flower in the grave is an old custom, and is doing what has to be done, but to almost cultivate it as an art? It was asking too much. I am not the Buddha.

It brought out l’homme révolté in me, and in an impulse I had found the catalyzing second line of the poem as well as its starting block.

The rose, of course, is Camus himself. He still has time and will not die just yet and in the meantime symbolically practices the art of dying—he, a man of life, casts a weary eye on the hole in the ground, yet seems calmly ready for it. Whereas I had something else in mind.

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DuffValerie Duff is the author of the collection To The New World (Salmon Poetry, 2010), shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize (Queen’s University, Belfast). Her poems have appeared in The Common, Solstice, AGNI, The Antioch Review, Verse, The Prague Revue, and elsewhere and her reviews in Harvard Review and The Boston Book Review. Former managing editor of AGNI and current poetry editor of Salamander, she has received an individual artist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and was the 2015 Poetry Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

gerry sp jacketRobert Nazarene founded the critically acclaimed MARGIE Review and IntuiT House Poetry Series which published the winning volume for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry for 2006.  He is the author of two full-length collections of poems: CHURCH (2006) and Empire de la Mort (forthcoming in 2016).  Mr. Nazarene was educated at The McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.  He is founder and editor-in-chief of the online poetry review Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

HuybrechtsJohan Huybrechts’s poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Ambit, Magma and The Moth. He works as a medical doctor, and lives near Ghent, Belgium. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


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