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"My misery sleeps through sunrise"
A conversation with Jackie Craven about her poem, "Morning Unmoors Us"
It seems reasonable to describe Jackie Craven as a precise and painstaking poet.
Why else would she have 26 drafts of the poem “Morning Unmoors Us” collected in a Word file tracing the poem’s history “like an anthropological record?”
For Craven, it’s all part of the search for the perfect word, the perfect image, the best ways for the lines to break, or—as the acclaimed poet Ilya Kaminski put it in a workshop she attended—the “reaching for the surprise.”
She’s a “slow writer,” she said, but one with a long and successful history at the keyboard, including a doctorate in prose writing and a career in journalism before she found her way to a “serious” commitment to writing poetry about a decade ago.
That’s when she signed up for poetry classes at her local library, taught by poet and professor Barbara Ungar. And that changed everything.
“My brain exploded,” Craven said. “Those classes opened me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.”
From there, she immersed herself fully in learning the craft, taking part in workshops led by noted poets, joining critique groups, and establishing her methodical writing practice. Her first poetry collection (poems based on her artist mother’s paintings) was published in 2018, and her work, carefully constructed draft by draft, was appearing in top-of-the-line journals (see bio, below). Recently, her collection, WHISH, won the first place award from Press 53 and will be published in 2024.
Craven’s layered approach to making a poem may not really be as unusual as it might sound, but it does seem to be increasingly rare in the digital age for writers to preserve each iteration of a work. Doing so, however, offers a number of advantages, Craven said.
For one thing, not every attempt at revision is successful, she said, “and sometimes, I do go backwards” to an earlier version.
“But it also helps me let go,” she added, perhaps because she doesn’t have to exactly “kill her darlings,” as writers are often advised, but maybe just hold them in abeyance until she’s sure that the “darling” word or image really isn’t the one she wants.
For “Morning Unmoors Us” the whole process of revise, tweak, “fiddle with line breaks” and then repeat took about two years of off-and-on revision, Craven said. During that time, such lines as “ . . . not the whiff/of coffee, not the revelry of sparrows/gusting through our transom window” have changed—even recently—to “not the revelry of sparrows in the eaves,/not the blush of light on our bedroom wall/or the sultry aroma rising/from the mug I bring. . . .”
But that wasn’t one of the larger issues she faced, she said. For one thing, in the poem “My misery” is fully a character in its own right, a counterpoint to the “I” that is the speaker. In early drafts, however, the miseries Craven cited were mundane ones, she realized, and she needed a larger set of concerns—”glaciers weeping, pathogens carousing,” for example— to “open a window” through which readers could enter the work.
“But the biggest challenge was creating a character (my misery) that was me, but not me,” she said. “It was a fascinating decision for me, how to do that.”
Still, for all those 26 drafts there was at least one element of the poem that never changed, Craven said—the first line (“My misery sleeps through sunrise”), which established the syntax of the piece.
That line was one of those that can arrive for poets unexpectedly, as it did for her one morning.
“I’m not really a depressed person,” she said, punctuating the comment with a laugh. “But we all have those days when we just want to stay in bed.”
On that morning a couple of years ago, she recognized the potential of the line, and it became a guide and an anchor for all the revisions the poem would pass through on the way to publication.
“The content changed, but the tone stayed constant,” she said.
Here, then, is the poem.
Morning Unmoors Us My misery sleeps through sunrise, sheets twisted, comforter crumpled on the floor. I’ve been up for hours, brewing coffee, jiggling spoons, but nothing can rouse her, not the revelry of sparrows in the eaves, not the blush of light on our bedroom wall or the sultry aroma rising from the mug I bring. My misery lies on her back and listens to her clock radio— glaciers weeping, pathogens carousing, and in Martha’s Vineyard, manatees washed ashore. My misery floats on the River Styx. I smooth her sheets and fold hospital corners, every crease a lumbering disappointment. I’m a manatee making origami and she’s a pillow stuffed with sparrows, plush and nettlesome. They warble beneath the weight of burning ice. Polar bears sit on her chest. For only $9 a month we can save a polar bear, but can we afford to restore the world? One doomed eye creaks open. Let’s. Just like that: Let’s, and my lungs swell with feathers. — Jackie Craven
“Morning Unmoors Us” was originally published in the spring 2023 issue of Beloit Poetry Journal. A version of the poem is included in Jackie Craven’s collection, WHISH, forthcoming from Press 53 in 2024.
Jackie Craven writes poetry and prose steeped in magical realism. Recent poems appear in AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and other journals and anthologies. Her collection, WHISH, won the first place award from Press 53 and will be published in 2024. Other books include Secret Formulas; Techniques of the Masters (Brick Road Poetry Press) and two chapbooks, Cyborg Sister (Headmistress Press) and Our Lives Became Unmanageable (Omnidawn award for fabulist fiction). After completing a Doctor of Arts from the English Department at UAlbany, she worked for many years as a journalist covering architecture, art, and travel. She lives in Schenectady, New York; Cocoa Beach, Florida, and on Zoom, where she hosts a long-standing open mic for writers. Find her at JackieCraven.com, or sign up for her Distant Dwellings newsletter, scheduled to launch on Substack soon.