In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the
A Couple Questions for Stephen Ajay
Stephen Ajay has published two books of poetry: ABRACADABRA and The Whales Are Burning from New Rivers Press. His poems have appeared in the Paris Review, The Progressive, ZYZZYVA, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, Michigan Quarterly Review and the Christian Science Monitor. He has been a writer in residence at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and the Djerassi Foundation and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at the California College of the Arts.
"Having Come This Way Before" gives me a powerful sense of the pathos of transitional moments. What inspired this poem?
It’s difficult to say for certain but somewhere in some welter I was thinking about how we experience passions at different times in our lives. I think the poem was sparked when I became suddenly aware there is an impossible rhythm to what we are and are no longer passionate about. Also, I’m one of those people who is never quite sure if the decision I am making is the correct one. In this case leaving one bank of the river to reach the other side. If I leave I’m filled with the fear of never being able to return.
The down to earth inspiration of this piece was a memory I had of trekking with my wife and young daughter in Nepal. We were fairly high up in the Himalayas and Anne and I were carrying backpacks and Tenzin, a local Sherpa was carrying Lael in a basket strapped to his back. I remembered that we reached a flimsy ropebridge high above a ribbon of water. Tenzin went across with Lael and then Anne crossed. When Tenzin saw that I wasn’t able to take that first step, he put down the basket and came back across to gently lead me by the hand. I think the fear of embarking with the thrill of making those first steps and the strange remorse of leaving what I felt passionately about are at the core of the poem.
When you pick up a contemporary literary journal and read a poem, what tends to draw you in? What excites you, as a reader?
Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy poems that scoop me up and deposit me somewhere new. I like poems that sprout questions a millisecond after the last syllable is sounded. When I read a literary journal, I am drawn first by the surface of the narrative that I can in some sense identify with. I seem to want or am drawn to what I love in certain friends: their tenderness or empathy, their delving deeply that cracks me open, their joy and their humility. I guess that’s a lot to ask of a poem and even more of a person.