I’ve asked Maine poet Carol Bachofner to guest blog on here in the past. Since this is a big year for her, I’ve asked her to write again for this blog. My prediction: you are going to want to order The Boyfriend Project right away.
by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner
2017 proved to be a year of productivity for me as a poet, with two manuscripts finished and both scheduled for publication. It was a hard year. The process for writing the two books was very different in terms of style, approach, and form. The work of moving back and forth between the two projects was a challenge to say the least, not only in the writing but also in the editing, revising process.
The finished products are very different too. One is somewhat typical, poems largely in free verse with shapes and setups that look like what we think of when we imagine poetry, other than the occasional prose poem. The other, Test Pattern, a fantod of prose poems is a breakout in terms of style. The poems do not look act much like typical poetry, more like little bits of fanciful, dystopic prose.
For now, I begin with book #1, The Boyfriend Project (Such a Girl Press, 2017).
The Boyfriend Project
In 2007, having moved back to my home state, I heard from high school classmates that a boy I dated in high school was dying of lung cancer. He wanted to see me. I spoke with his wife and she urged me to visit. The visit was wonderful and poignant. We admitted that what we experienced as love when we were teens had prepared us for the love we’d both found as adults. We laughed and joked and shared our memories of kisses, his unauthorized visits to my babysitting job, and how we saw each other then. We shared a kiss on his porch, a goodbye kiss. As I drove away, I could see him in the rear view mirror and knew at that moment this would be the last time. He died two weeks later.
I began thinking of the other “boyfriends” I had known (including crushes) and wondered what had become of them. This was punctuated by reading an article online about a war memorial in the town where my high school sweetheart had lived. His name was on the memorial. I was filled with dread that he might be deceased. I wanted to know. I did an internet search and found a business listed under his name. I called and left a message: “hey there, this is me, if this is you, please call.” He called within the hour. He was alive and well in a nearby state, married with two nearly-grown daughters. I called. It was such a relief to hear his voice again, a voice which sounded exactly like it did the last time I spoke with him. We decided to meet for lunch. We enjoyed five hours of wonderful conversation, glad to be connected as friends after 45 years of each wondering about the other. He apologized to me for breaking up with me on the telephone on Valentine’s Day. I teased him by “breaking up” with him in a phone conversation the year following.
Break, Break, Break
Valentine’s Day 1965,
a break in his voice, a zip
of energy I feel through the phone:
I love you. I miss you.
We should date other people.
45 years now, married to those other people,
we break up over and over, just for fun.
My meetings with these two former boyfriends gave birth to the book, a look at girlfriends and their boyfriends. I saw the project as a possible chapbook with funny or tender poems about boys I’d known and “loved.” What I did not expect was that the project would end up a full-length manuscript or that it would morph into looking at boyfriend stories of other women who were eager to tell me what those boys meant to them, and that I would end up looking at a timeline of relationships that spanned the innocent crush to the crushing and sometimes cruel. The book project raised its hand and demanded I take it more seriously.
When I began discussing the project with others, hearing stories about them and their boyfriends, I realized that my singular perspective was a little narrow and artificial. After all, it’s not about me. It’s about this universal thing called love, whatever that means. I wanted more. I wanted to give my readers more. Shortly thereafter I also began to realize that sweet glittery hearts and cupids was not all that needed to be covered here. Everyone who talked to me about their boyfriends had one who was cruel or unkind, even dangerous. What about those? Again, the project raised its hand and demanded to be a part of this. The project had a new idea of itself and I had to accept that.
Always in love is how I would describe my life. I love the idea of love, the rush of new love, the comfort of long-lived love. My father called me boy-crazy on more than one occasion. So the poems I set out to write was partially focused on resurrecting the many boys who’d come into my life, however briefly or in a more substation time frame. I had to start with my ride on the Kindergarten Bus. At age five, I was in love with two little boys whose names I cannot recall. What I do recall is the ride home from school. I wind the clock backward and write in the present tense. This is a technique I recommend to make a poem that happened in the long-ago seem more like something in the now. Of course the poem had to anchor the manuscript. I share it here in its entirety since it is a short one:
Kindergarten Bus c. 1952
little men without a clue
want to hold hands with me —
I let them.
One tries to kiss me.
Two, who by high school
would not have shared me,
hold my hand in turn.
Their faces shine
with something like love.
Last off the kindergarten bus,
I am a kiss stolen by the boy
whose house is 3 blocks away,
who walks by my house on Saturdays,
wishes school was 6 days.
This poem is soft and funny and sweet. Sweetness deserved the entre to the book. I knew pretty quickly that the arc of the poems would move from this childlike sweetness to the teen years, fraught with frustration and fumbling attempts at love and relationship. Isn’t that the way the teen years work anyway? The teen stories I was able to access showcase a range of experiences, not the least of which uncover a look at forbidden love and a bit of risk. The following poem, a story shared by a woman friend, illustrates this.
Church Boy, Town Girl
At the edge of town,
behind the Baptist Church,
behind the church bus, they smoke, inhale
unfiltered Camels. Church boy
wearing Jesus Saves tee, town girl
in a yellow sun dress. He presses her hard
for a kiss; she blows smoke circles
with her eyes closed. She knows what’s next,
like her mama told. Watch out for them
churchy boys, they’s the devil. They take
what they wants and lets you go.
Still as a broken clock, she waits.
Inside the church, singing:
and the walls came a-tumbling down.
One of the problems with writing about love, and writing about the less beautiful side of love, is doing it without getting too personally involved (as the writer). Huh? you are probably saying, isn’t “love” a most personal thing after all? How does one write about love from the outside, looking in and still get across the feeling of love in all its facets?
The answer, for me, has always been to write somewhat obliquely. In other words, don’t think everything needs to be told. Find those details which will tell it. Let the truth of the situation emerge on its own, which will happen with some diligence on the part of the writer.
Look at what this poem does and what it does not. We can see the girl and boy from the elements of setting: where are they? at the edge and behind the Baptist Church.
What are they wearing? He is wearing a Jesus saves tee; she is wearing yellow sun dress. Who is this girl? A Town Girl. She is no church girl. This suggests also that she is out of her normal setting. He, by virtue of what he is wearing is in his normal setting, but maybe not by his own choice. As reader, you get to decide by way of the details. You have become the omniscient observer.
It is easy to discover the set up and the problem from these small aspects of setting. All writers should consider setting when writing and revising, poets included. Setting details place the action of the poem in a space that matters to that action.
Look now at what is happening, the action of the poem. The boy and girl are engaged in doing some things likely forbidden by the church, smoking and making out. The setting (behind the church) suggests this. They are unfiltered as the cigarettes they smoke,; they are not concerned about what’s right or wrong. She has her eyes closed. He is pressing her. Running through her head, is her mother’s warning about boys, especially them churchy boys. The use of this internal warning provides another layer of the girl’s dilemma. In the final line, we know the outcome from the song they (and we) hear… and the walls came a-tumbling down. Readers know what is probably next.
This is oblique writing. Oblique writing is not at all vague. It is about telling what needs to be told in such a way as to let the reader experience what the people of the poem are doing or feeling. Oblique writing is an embodiment. You are the girl. You’re not simply told about the girl. This attention to detail let’s you be part of the girl’s story without intruding. I am grateful to “Donna” for sharing her story. I hope my poem honors her.
As the manuscript began to take shape, I realized that it would be good to include a few poems about the sadness and rejection that sometimes accompany love. We’ve all been there through bitter breakups, divorces, even illness. What does love ended or altered look like for the dumped, the thumped, the sorrowful who are out of love? Again, women stepped up and shared. I already had my own stories to render into poems. There was no end to the dearth of material. I decided to fill the middle of the manuscript with the sadder side of love. There were so many stories, I wondered if I’d ever be finished telling them.
One thing I learned from talking to women is that love is elastic. We can come back after a fall. More importantly, we are the sum of our loves. It doesn’t subtract from us. We are also part of the equation for one another in coping. We are part of a community of lovers. When one of us is suffering, the rest of us can make a difference.
Thanks to Jean and her story, I was able to show that. In my poem, After Your Divorce, I explore how empathy might work, how there is a support we might offer in time of lost love (for whatever reason; this is about loss via divorce).
There is a you, a she, and an I in the poem, never named. These do not need to be named because the poem is about all of us, and about how we sometimes miss the opportunity for being the help that is needed. In a sense, the poem is an apology. It is also an acknowledgement that love problems know no gender. The you might be a man, might be a woman. We don’t know and we don’t need to know. What we do know is that the I has missed an opportunity for empathy.
After Your Divorce
I asked you to read my poems
I wrote table and forced you out
into the woods to choose a tree,
maple, oak, or maybe an exotic teak.
You had to decide the shape too,
round or rectangular or oval. I wrote
a cobalt bowl filled with orange day lilies
and a white coffee mug, rim smudged
with Dior’s Infra Rose. I might have
written an apple on an ivory table runner
from Brazil, but I wrote a half-eaten
nectarine set on a white paper towel the way
she did to keep from messing up a plate
for just one item. I knew about your divorce
and yet I wrote table, leaving so much
for you to do. I should have written door.
The poem relies upon the details to show the situation of the you as well as the response and final empathetic gesture of the narrator. Notice again the setting and the details within. These amplify the situation as well as show the lost relationship. We see how the lost person was in the relationship. We see her details in the specific lipstick she wore, how she used a paper towel for her snack. We can see her. We can feel her. Not only that, but the you has become a sympathetic person to us.
The speaker of the poem, the I, has gained empathy by poem’s end. We feel satisfied with the character. The sadness is not gone, but we are heartened that empathy has come.
What of the fact that some people would do anything for love? Some maybe want to avoid bad love by extraordinary means. I included a quirky prose poem in the book that tells how that might go. Even in light of the somewhat odd connections made between the speaker of the poem and the fortuneteller, it is details and setting which hold up the ideas of the poem. The speaker desperately wants to know about, be warned about bad lovers. The epigraph by Maggie Smith describes lovers as confetti. The speaker knows already that confetti is unpredictable. Still, she is crazy to find out what can be predicted. If only she could pay what is asked. I hope the poem leaves readers asking what would I do for love or to avoid a bad lover?
Bad Lover Juju
Everyone you loved was scattered confetti
— Maggie Smith
Some of it (them) green, some yellow, some a garish orange. One was your favorite purple, the kind with blue-red in it. No matter. They weren’t your type of lover. Not that they cared. Not that you knew that back then. Disposable was what they thought when the lights were out and you had gone home. All eventually floated away on the backs of birds of prey, leaving you bitten. Shiny feathers fell on your head, on your shoulders as they went. You visit the woman whose talent is seeing lover juju. You want a new lover, someone not confetti. She asks for beads of glass, blackberry ice cream as payment. You’ve brought vanilla ice cream — all you have. Bad juju she says, licking the bowl and stringing a noose from the beads. You want to hear the name of a lover who could save you. More beads, more ice cream. The woman falls asleep with her hands on the noose she’d made. She begins to look like your mother, your grandmother. Bad juju you think, backing slowly from her chair. Bad juju she dreams, saying aloud the names of every bad lover. You dial the ice cream parlor down the street. They’re completely sold out of blackberry. They tell you there’s been a run on that lately. Bad juju.
Still, even in light of the somewhat odd connections made between the speaker of the poem and the fortuneteller, it is all about details and setting holding up the ideas of the poem. The speaker desperately wants to know about, be warned about bad lovers. The epigraph by Maggie Smith describes lovers as confetti. The speaker knows already that confetti is unpredictable. Still, she is crazy to find out what can be predicted. If only she could pay what is asked.
I decided, after the rather tragic or lonely poems in the second part of the book, to end with my own stories of great love, my last love. I want to leave the reader with a sense that sometimes, if we are lucky enough, love can be mature and enduring. One of the poems comes from a time when I needed an unselfish love, needed a supportive love. From a time when love may well have been all there would be for me. This poem is from my grownup story of love.
I chose to write this poem in my own voice. I am the speaker and I am the receiver of the love. Poets are often told to avoid “confessional” poems as they leave out the reader. But facing probable death in a poem willingly breaks that open. As in the discussion previously, we all could use a little empathy. Who would not be drawn to the relationship in this poem, feel a sense of empathy toward both the speaker and her lover? Need and gift. It is because of great love that the need may be expressed and the gift given. Look at the details. See the love at work in those details.
I call to you, whimpering in the night
where we once cried out in lovemaking.
I call and you lift me up for my medicine
or a trip to the bathroom. I am not yours
as I once was yours; I have become your task.
Your burden, wrought in love and devoted
service to that love is the meal we have set
before us. We dine together, you sip wine
as I nudge soda crackers along my dusty palate.
We eat in bed and talk of other times, times lost.
I call you the little pet name I made up in jest
when you danced naked with a hat on your penis;
You laugh, call me “pretty lady” despite my gray
flat skin. Your hands run my slackened frame;
still I am beautiful to you. All angles and bony
points of interest, still I am your passion.
Your face shines, avoiding pain and distress
over my possible outcome. The doctors face me
with treatments which blush up in high fevers,
but you are cool. You collect my favorite things
near the bed to distract me from all suffering.
I call out to you in the night when I think “this is it”
and you roll to one side, spooning my weak body
with your strong one. I feel your current seep in
and get enough juice to make it to morning. I call
and you bring me whatever I need. I need everything.
The final poem is Polaris, a short poem to my husband. A poem that says so much about how love blends us one into the other. The poem encompasses that relationship which has evolved over many years, over many constellations of love have burned themselves into something eternal. I always end my public readings with this poem. It delights both of us when he is present. When I read the poem, I feel my palm pressed together with my husband’s. I can taste the starlight on my tongue.
— for Bill
On our January porch, hands
open to star shine, we are pierced
by Polaris. It’s a stigmata I feel
as my right palm presses
your right palm, fingers laced.
It’s a burning, a covenant. Later
in our bedroom, some shine
on your shoulder where I touch
as you drift into your own night
sky. We have been pierced
by star points, filled with light.
We sail on it, I your compass, true
North, and you my lantern
and flame, tower and beam.
Carol Willette Bachofner, poet, watercolorist, and photographer, has published five books of poetry, most recently The Boyfriend Project (2017) and Native Moons, Native Days (2012). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including, Dawnland Voices, an Anthology of Writings from Indigenous New England (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). She won the Maine Postmark Contest 2017 for her poem, Passagassawaukeag, which is published in The Maine Review. Her photo, Rigged, received Honorable Mention in the Spirit of Place contest by Maine Media workshop and is printed in the contest anthology. She served as Poet Laureate of Rockland Maine from 2012-2016. Visit her web site at www.carolbachofner.com
Watch for Carol’s second post about her new books. She will write about Test Pattern, a book I was thrilled to write a blurb for. To purchase The Boyfriend Project click through the book cover art to Carol’s website and you can order the book.