On June 8, 2023, I had the pleasure of talking with poets Tongo Eisen-Martin, Kathy Fagan, and Amanda Gunn about the idea of closure in poem-making. How does one end a poem? What does it mean exactly for a poem to end? The group’s aesthetic range and collective expertise made for a lively and revealing conversation, one rich in presence and surprise. The conversation itself felt, at times, like poetry—understanding derived from moments of pure inspiration. It was an honor to engage with these brilliant writers. The conversation has been excerpted here, for your enjoyment.
We began with each poet reading one of their own poems, a poem where poetic closure seemed significant during its composition. Please join me in reading their chosen poems: Tongo Eisen-Martin read “The Chicago Prairie Fire”; Kathy Fagan shared, “School”; and Amanda Gunn chose “Tyrant.”
D. S. Waldman: I’ve learned a lot from each of you as poets, and I turn to your work for different craft elements. And with that in mind, it might be an interesting time to turn to some of the questions we’ve prepared ahead of time, to get a sense of how you think about poem making, and in particular about how you know when a poem ends or is meant to end or wants to end.
So the first question I have for you, and I’ll ask it openly, is how do you know in an act of writing or revising that it’s time for a poem to end? Is that something that is felt? Intuitive? Is it a knowing? Or is it more of a compositional awareness that has come with aesthetic training?
Kathy Fagan: I feel like I just stop writing some poems because I don’t have the right ending, like there’s no fire there, like something is not happening, right? If, on the other hand, I feel like the poem has busted out of itself and discovered something really fresh, that it has my attention and keeps my attention, then I’m like, “Oh, okay, here we are, something’s going on here.” So, I guess my answer is that sometimes I’m not a good enough poet to end the poem the way I want it to end. And other times, I don’t know, that thing happens that makes it all sort of pull together. So there’s just not a single way to answer that question.
When I first began writing poetry back in the 70s and 80s, we talked about reticent closure and resonant closure. And I still talk about those qualities with my students when we talk about ending a poem. But now I feel like there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to end a poem. And the poem asks for the ending that it wants. I don’t feel like I can impose those kinds of endings anymore.
Amanda Gunn: Sometimes—I feel like I’m going to make this binary, and it’s not probably not really binary—I feel like my poems end one of two ways. One is where I feel like there are connections and surprise, and I’ve gotten to something that I didn’t expect, but that got wrung out of me in the process of writing. And those are often my poems that snap shut in a way. There’s a sort of certainty at those closings. And there are other poems where, like you were saying, Kathy, there’s this feeling like, “Ugh, I wasn’t a good enough poet to accomplish what I dreamed this poem could do.” It’s a kind of ending that feels like a letdown, like it doesn’t quite know how to snap shut.
Fagan: A little safer, right?
Gunn: Yes. It’s not quite satisfying. Like there’s that sense of something being satisfying and something not quite being satisfied.
Tongo Eisen-Martin: I get a sense like a poem is very much its own being, like a person. And poems, like people, might have dominant personality traits. And so, I try to get that kind of picture of the poem, like who is this poem, both in its most extroverted existence, and the subtle traits within it.
And so it takes a little time for me to get a handle on this. I’ll be moving forward, saying, “Okay, how do I say this in a slick way? What’s going on with this word play? What’s the general idea?” But a part of my mind is trailing behind the whole operation, asking, “Well, who is this?” And then once I catch it, once I figure out who it is, then landing the poem becomes—not easy, but it feels clear.
Waldman: It’s interesting hearing you three talk, because I noticed each of you sort of gravitated in your answers toward this precarity, this precarious moment. I heard that in Tongo talking about that sweet spot between listening and speaking, and then Amanda and Kathy talking about the point where “I’m just not a good enough poet to reach any further with the language that I have.”
I would be interested to hear you all speak to that too, the poem as a place to exercise the impossible. Allen Grossman talks about the impossibility of poem making—that these poems are impossible to write, and that maybe some of the resonance comes from that reaching. Maybe the closing might lie along the threshold of where our language can no longer reach for that thing we’re trying to capture.
Eisen-Martin: It’s like confidence can be very helpful and very unhelpful. If you treat your words almost as fleeting, words as actually disappearing or passing, if you can kind of get a sense that no line permanently stands, that your writing is not an exercise in immortality, that you’re a temporary eye, when you can lean into that, then everything kind of takes care of itself. You can cooperate with strength and weakness. But it’s a very kind of second for second, moment for moment, line for line intention.
Fagan: I love this, the humility of that approach, but also, the sense that there’s a center, right? And it’ll hold because we are it, right? So yes, I love that a lot.
Gunn: And there’s also, I don’t know, like a sense that—and this is thinking about craft, but also about career—I feel like 10 years ago when I entered my MFA, it was poem to poem, and there was this sense that the stakes of every poem felt so great, because there was a sense of defining yourself with every poem.
And I feel like as I go on all the poems seem fluid, nothing being fixed, and it drops the stakes of things in a way that feels really productive if you’re looking toward spending your whole life as a kind of artist.
Fagan: Nice. Yes, when you were talking about fluid, I kept thinking about that quotable quote by Frost, that a poem should be like a piece of ice melting on a hot stove. You begin with this solid and end with this sort of fluid, right? The water, the poem finding its way. And the ego being somewhat diminished by the poem’s means. It’s interesting, it’s really fascinating.
Waldman: Do you all find that in your finished poems the endings present themselves in the initial draft more often? Or does that come about in revision?
Fagan: Again, that varies for me from poem to poem. When I was a younger poet, I confess I would write into what I felt were dynamite closes. And then I stopped doing that, because writing was harder if you had the ending first.
But also, I couldn’t be surprised by the poem. And the poems were sort of boring and performative. So I quit doing that. And I allowed the poems to sort of have more autonomy. And discovered a whole lot more about myself and poetry with a capital P.
Gunn: My definition of a first draft is getting to the ending. Doesn’t necessarily mean that I start the poem with a last line in mind, but it doesn’t feel done until I get there, to some emotional place that has transformation and makes sense. I do have a way of revising that puts me in mind of those old train station signs where they would rotate the letters and switch them out. So I often will get the basic structure, but replace it with words that are close to the original draft of the poem. The language transforms, but the feeling is established in that first draft.
Waldman: So there’s a feeling that is reached by the end of that first draft, but then maybe it takes some revision for the language to catch up to that place, that felt place?
Gunn: Yes, exactly. I think for the most part that’s true. But then, also sometimes, I find that I make the mistake of writing past the ending. And this is where my first readers and friends will pull me back.
Waldman: Tongo, do you have a sense of how the ending fits into your drafting process? Whether, after initial drafts, you have a clear sense of that felt ending Amanda was talking about? Or is that something that is teased out through revision?
Eisen-Martin: I feel like my craft took leaps and bounds when I figured out that actually the best way to write, the best state to write in was bored, or even semi-frustrated. Or to just lean into the actual real macro kind of reality of sitting there trying to put your ideas on paper. You know what I mean? As opposed to kind of looking for inspiration or catharsis.
Instead, to actually have my craft cooperate with all of the ways I feel during the course of an hour or two. Because it led to kind of a lucidity of craft and more lucidity even with the content itself. Because when a high is not at stake, well now you see more. Whereas, when you’re writing for the vibe, the quickest route to the vibe is what you’re going to do, right?
But when there isn’t the vibe, so many more devices become available. And you become very literate in your craft and can do more.
Waldman: I wonder about metaphors each of you might use to sort of describe how poems end. There are many famous quotations that folks have used over time to describe the ideal way to close a poem.
I’m curious if you all have any sort of, to use Tongo’s word, any slick ways to sort to describe the types of poems that you like and how they end—any metaphors or images or descriptions?
Fagan: Yes. I mean, maybe because I have a driving phobia, and I also am a little phobic when I am working on a poem, I keep thinking about a roundabout, like one of those just wild traffic roundabouts like—I don’t know, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or something—and you’re just going around and around wondering which street to get off at. “How will I avoid hitting this car and the other car?” Instead of turning off, you’re kind of airborne or something. So the direction feels both surprising and inevitable simultaneously.
Waldman: Yes. Those words seem really important to me, inevitability and surprise.
Gunn: Which is so hard. It’s so hard to do both at the same time.
Gunn: I’m quite sure snapping shut was not my invention, but I can’t remember where I heard it first. I started thinking of that concept around the time that I fell in love with the sonnet, specifically the Shakespearean sonnet. It has that rhyming couplet at the end, right? And it’s a poem that is shaped like a box.
And so I know the notion arose out of that, out of that moment for me of learning. And other poems, I think specifically of poems that don’t want to rest in the heavy emotional material, in the last few lines. I think of a kind of glancing off, maybe like a ball sort of glancing off, like hitting the emotive center of the poem, and then ending some other way, right? This serves as a release for the reader.
Waldman: Something that resists the traditional epiphanic close, that maybe glances off the epiphany and goes in a different direction.
Gunn: Yes. It says, “I’m not going to put an exclamation point at the end of this moment. I’m going to go off as a way of breathing, some form of relief from that moment.”
Fagan: I really like that you mentioned the reader there too, because we haven’t talked about that yet. And sort of how we want the reader to receive the work and respond to it. And so that’s a really interesting way to talk about that, too. But to be sure that you’re not patronizing, right? That you’re sort of offering the gift, rather than imposing it.
Gunn: Yes, that’s right.
Waldman: Are there any poets or individual poems that each of you turns to when you’re struggling in particular with how to close a poem out?
Eisen-Martin: I would point everybody’s attention to Audre Lorde as frequently as possible.
Gunn: All day, every day.
Eisen-Martin: Trust your mind, trust what you synthesize, and throw caution to the wind. That’s how Lorde lands, I mean, almost impossibly. I think it comes from just stepping away from all of the fetters of social convention, man.
So to just lean into the brilliance of your rage, lean into the brilliance, almost to just to ride the electrical storm, man. Or just to dive in and trust what happens on the other side. I think that’s a lesson I perpetually get from reading Audrey Lorde.
Waldman: In sequencing and revising manuscripts, have you found a trend or a pattern in how your poems end? And is it important to you, looking at the breadth of a book, to have a variety of endings throughout the manuscript? Or is that something you think about when you’re going back and revising the book?
Gunn: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this question, and I think part of being a better poet, is figuring out what you’re failing to do broadly. And I think that I have a tendency to like really like hammer my endings. And I was wondering, like why do I feel the need to do this?
And I think it has to do with somehow a lack of trust on my part, not trusting that the work that I’ve done throughout the poem is speaking the truth or speaking the emotional truth. But I have to somehow come down really hard on the ending, or not trust the person who’s reading it.
For a long time the last poem in the book was the title poem. It put as much pressure as possible on this one piece. And at the 11th hour, we added this poem that’s doing something that nothing else in the book is doing.
And so instead of hammering or snapping shut, the book ends up glancing off onto this other material, which felt right and felt in some ways like a relief. So yes, so that was my process. But that was my process of forming, then ending a manuscript and knowing how to exit it.
Fagan: Bad Hobby is, for me, a long book, filled with long, narrative poems. The last poem in the book is probably one of the more lyrical and spare of the poems. And even though it sort of attempts to do a lot…somehow, it remains a kind of modest poem. I think it might not work earlier, because it expands upon some of the things that had been talked about in earlier poems, right? It sort of finds a way to close, sort of pull those threads together.
Eisen-Martin: I usually land on what I feel will help the reader get through the group of poems.… I want to make my point. There’s an energy that I’m going to do right by, but I also just want to like the reader as my friend. And so, I’m not trying to overwhelm the reader, I’m not trying to inhibit or impose awe or mysteriousness. You know what I mean? I’m really almost in a way like trying to make my world, show how legible it actually is.
And so, I tend to organize a book to that end….
I think it’s the pursuit of new ways to organize a poem, new ways to organize a book—that’s part of the fun. You know what I mean? You just kind of balance, I guess, what you think is important for the mass imagination, as well as what is important for your assertions.
Waldman: I thought now maybe we could close with everyone sharing a poem by another poet whose ending you’ve been especially inspired by.
Waldman: Thanks so much, Amanda, yes.
Fagan: That’s beautiful.
Waldman: Yes. Kathy, did you want to share one?
Waldman: Thanks so much. And then, Tongo, do you want to round us out?
Waldman: Yes, an all-time ending.
Eisen-Martin: Yes, that is an ending.
Waldman: Amanda, Tongo, and Kathy, thank you so much for being here and for taking part in this, and for sharing all of your knowledge and wisdom around poetic closure. It’s been a treat to talk with you, to listen, and I feel fortunate to continue engaging with your work.
Originally from San Francisco, Tongo Eisen-Martin is a poet, movement worker, and educator. His latest curriculum on extrajudicial killing of Black people, We Charge Genocide Again, has been used as an educational and organizing tool throughout the country. His poetry has been widely celebrated. Someone’s Dead Already was nominated for a California Book Award. Heaven Is All Goodbyes was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won a California Book Award and an American Book Award. His latest collection, Blood on the Fog, was released in the City Lights Pocket Poet series, and named by The New York Times as one of the year’s best books. In 2020, he co-founded Black Freighter Press to publish revolutionary works. He is San Francisco’s eighth poet laureate.
Kathy Fagan‘s sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022, the winner of the 2023 William Carlos Williams Award. Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. A 2023 Guggenheim Fellow, she’s been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an Ingram Merrill fellowship, residencies at The Frost Place, Yaddo and MacDowell, and was named Ohio Poet of the Year for 2017. Fagan’s work has appeared in venues such as The Atlantic, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Poetry. She co-founded the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits the Wheeler Poetry Prize Book Series for The Journal and OSU Press.
Amanda Gunn‘s debut poetry collection, Things I Didn’t Do With This Body, is out now from Copper Canyon press. She’s a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and a PhD candidate in English at Harvard, where she studies poetry, ephemerality and black pleasure. Raised in Connecticut, she worked as a medical copy editor for 13 years, before earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She’s the recipient of the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize as well as a Pushcart Prize, and she has received fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri’s Foundation, The Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Recent work can be found in Poetry, Los Angeles Review of Books, Quarterly Journal, Narrative Magazine and the Authoring.
D.S. Waldman is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. Waldman received the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from Poetry Society of America. He serves as poetry editor at Adroit.