Kim Jernigan, former TNQ editor, interviews Dagne Forrest whose poem “Abecedarian with Sharpened Vision” won first prize in the 2023 Occasional Verse Contest.
KJ: Which came first, the form or the subject matter?
DF: For me, the subject matter always comes first. I’m usually pulling on several threads of thought and find my way to a poem. In this case, I think many things came together in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I’d been exploring the notion of eyes for a while, and had in mind a piece about three generations – my grandmother, my father, and me – who shared identical irises (described in the poem that resulted). I had some prose fragments and notes in a folder that I’d set aside.
At the same time, I did get up one morning in very early spring, and when I looked outside, the frost-covered ground was almost blanketed in birds, all of them slowly lifting and lowering their wings. That image led me directly to the opening as well as to the fringe of eyelashes and the blinking that ended up in this piece.
Finally, I was listening to a science podcast one day about how hummingbirds process visual information differently from other animals, including other birds, and I was beguiled by this idea. That’s definitely when the earlier threads I’d been gathering really started to make sense. A yellow bird had been knocking on my window some mornings, and was destined to arrive at the end of the poem, unlocking or unfurling the path I followed to get there.
In terms of form, I was reading quite a few abecedarians around this time, and I very much wanted to try one. This poem felt like a strong candidate, as I found myself with an abundance of concrete visual imagery and several thematic layers to explore, and I felt the discipline of an established form would keep me from overwriting.
It was important to me to write a fairly tight and even line, as part of that discipline. I’ve read some abecedarians with wildly different line lengths, and my brain feels they are a bit of cheat (perhaps unfairly!). As a poet, I more often write regular line lengths than not, and here it felt especially important to me. It was a challenge to stick to the form and a regular line length, while still striving for a piece that felt very natural and organic (which the subject matter seemed to demand).
I have yet to try another abecedarian, and am intrigued to see what comes of it when I do find another another poem bubbling up that feels right for the form.
KJ: As you may know, the contest is named for, and in memory of, my father, Nick Blatchford, an occasional poet himself, lover of nature and birds—he would strew birdseed saying “Birds of a feather, flock together!”. He would have loved the way you’ve connected your father’s donated lenses enhancing the recipient’s vision with the enhanced vision of birds. Where did that inspiration come from?
DF: I love knowing that about your father, Kim, that’s such a lovely image! It brings to mind St Francis and the Birds, a painting by Sir Stanley Spencer.
This is definitely a case of a very long gestation for a poem that came out of themes that have been on my mind for years.
My father died very suddenly just weeks before my youngest child was due to have open heart surgery as a baby. It was a traumatic period, and while so much of those weeks and months is lost to me, I remember very clearly the ceremony for families of organ donors that I attended with my family. We were so grateful to know that someone had their vision restored thanks to the gift of my father’s corneas, and it led me to wondering for years what it meant that someone else was seeing with my father’s eyes, in a sense. It left me with a real sense of longing for his lost experiences and recollections, as much as the person who’d been my father.
KJ: Did you choose this poem particularly for the OV contest? If so, why?
DF: I love the title and the notion of this contest in honour of your father, Kim, and reading the selected poems and interviews from previous years is a real delight. Although a great poem can give you all you need, I’m always hungry for the backstory and love delving into why a poet made the choices they made with a given piece.
I felt that my poem was both a response to an occasion or happening in my life, and a way to make many ordinary, mundane aspects of our lives special through noticing them, so it gave me enough confidence to give it a whirl. What a lovely decision that has turned out to have been!
KJ: We appreciate both morning and mourning contexts you’ve created—where did that inspiration come from?
DF: If I’m honest, I never saw the morning/mourning parallel in real time. It all happened very organically, and it’s so satisfying to have you point that out now. The process of working on the poem was definitely a way to revisit the grief that I’d deferred experiencing for many years.
The early minutes after waking occupy a strange space of their own, and that was the mood I was keen to convey for the opening and ending (the middle part of the poem is naturally much clearer in focus). That very particular kind of liminal space where the past, present and even potential futures can mix together, is really intriguing to me, which brought to mind the zoetrope as the starting point of the poem’s final line.
KJ: Is this poem part of a larger collection you’re working on?
DF: The poem is included in a chapbook that I’m trying to find a publisher for, but as someone who has yet to put out a first collection, it feels very fluid. If I’m not successful with the current incarnation, I’ll develop another.
In the meantime, I’m just concentrating on the poems that seem to demand to be written. Those largely sprang out of my own life in the first five or six years of writing poetry (and I came late to poetry, in my forties), but lately I’ve been obsessed with a series of twenty self portraits by the painter Frank Auerbach that garnered media coverage early in 2023. Auerbach is in his nineties and doing some of the most profound and dizzyingly inspirational work of his career. I adore the paintings he has created and have been in “conversation” with some of them for a series of poems, but I’m also just awed by the heights his creativity is reaching in his tenth decade.
I’m definitely changing gears and feel that liminal space I mentioned before. Both of our children have had serious health/life issues to navigate, one of them since birth, and they are both in their twenties now and really finding their own lives (though my husband and I aren’t quite empty nesters yet!). It’s a time of great possibility in a world that can feel very dispiriting and ugly, if still full of wonder. Poetry keeps me focused and provides a different kind of purpose. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
DAGNE FORREST’s poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in journals in Canada, the US, and the UK. In 2021 she was one of 15 poets featured in Canada’s Poem in Your Pocket campaign. She belongs to Painted Bride Quarterly’s editorial and podcast teams, a US-connection originally forged through a mentoring relationship.