Les Kay

New Poem at Roanoke Review

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My poem “The Alchemist’s Wife” has just joined the new issue of Roanoke Review. That’s the big news. If you’d like to know a little more about the poem and how it came to be, keep reading. I promise not to bog you down with any interpretation or analysis and leave you to assess the poem’s quality, value, etc. as you see fit.

The poem, which is a persona poem, is a bit unusual for me in these post-Bureau days. While I do hope there’s an argument to be made that virtually all of my poems are persona poems where the speaker–even in poems that use the third-person extensively–can and should be read as a character the majority of poems that I’m sending out right now (though not all) are comfortable nestled within that familiar “lyric I” that could be easily conflated with the speaker. Persona poems, however, have been crucial to my own work and development as a poet since the late 1990s when I first began to take myself seriously as a poet. Back then, I believe, the use of personas helped me approach emotionally disorienting subjects that were difficult–though not impossible–for me to approach with a speaker roughly equivalent to my authorial voice.

Since then, I’ve used those methods first learned from Robert Browning and T.S. Eliot as a way to shift perspectives and move beyond, hopefully, my own narrow view of the world. Often, I hope, as a way for me and my readers to understand the unfolding of history and/or myth and how it shapes, even now, our (collective) lives.

This poem, however, was first drafted in the early 2000s. At the time, I was newly married, living in Oakland, California, and taking the BART to and from work in downtown San Francisco. I had a newly developed habit of taking my laptop with me anywhere I went and working on poems during lunch and on the BART rides in both directions, assuming I could find a seat. The day “The Alchemist’s Wife” began I was probably writing online training, using PowerPoint, for a glass manufacturer that would shortly move all of its production to China. Perhaps that day, sitting on the fading blue cushions of a BART car tunneling beneath the San Francisco Bay, I really needed some escapism.

What’s odd is that the ideas did not come as content or subject (as they often do for me), but as a kind of musical figure, and by the time I’d reached home, I had the first draft, which already included much of the imagery you can see in the poem at The Roanoke Review. The experience was, in short, INSPIRATION, Romantic style. And I thought, for a long time, that that version was really good because it was “inspired.” It wasn’t. But the nonce form and the music stuck around. The vision of history and myth stuck around as an attempt to rend something from silence. The poem was changed, here and there, again and again, for many years. And the Alchemist kept sleeping.    

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