2015 National Book Award Longlist, Poetry
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts
National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you?
Raab: Everything in the book surprised me. That is, every individual poem was a surprise, since generally I have no idea where a poem is going to go when I start writing. The primary impulse is the desire to write a poem, rather than the need to say any particular thing. I often begin with a line or fragment of a line that seems to have an alluring sense of voice, one that I can imagine taking further, whether or not it’s a character speaking or a version of myself (or a version of myself pretending to be a character). Making the poem is an act of discovering what the poem might be about, a way of surprising myself into thought, into language and finally ideas I could not have predicted. So when the process is working it’s all a surprise. (As Robert Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”)
The most consequential discovery in this particular book was the twenty-five page poem that is its conclusion, and which I hope gathers together and extends many of the concerns of the shorter poems. I had no idea where I was going when I wrote “A Cup of Water Turns itself into a Rose.” For quite a while I’d wanted to write a long poem. I pillaged my notebooks and my abandoned work for passages that might press me further. I just wrote things down, forbidding myself from reading what I wrote for several days, so I could be surprised into writing more. There was the sense of putting a puzzle together but without knowing what the image behind the pieces might be. I was guided less by ideas than by shape––by how the poem might move around. I wanted to trust that if it moved in an interesting way it would mean in an interesting way. It’s my favorite poem of all my poems, in part because its composition was an unfolding act of surprise, then discovery, then pleasure.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Pretend that these poems by Lawrence Raab have come to you from very far away. Think of them as written by Poet Z, a heretofore-unheard-of Eastern European poet, a Kafka-Andrade-Calvino character from Serbo-Chechnya-Lithuania. What's in his poems? Angels and human monsters, decades and generations, universities turned into ashes, the consolation of philosophy, despair in the middle of the night, a tutorial in lucid dreaming. Only his poetic humor gives away his American citizenship. His poems lead you into, then trap you, in strange worlds, boxes constructed of story, logic, and aphorism, which then are revealed to be exactly like life itself. Now, these poems by Z have finally been translated into an American idiom that is canny, sly, defeated, pessimistic, resilient, and perplexingly knowledgeable about the human predicament. They are also often beautiful, bewildered, disquieting, and full of paradoxical laughter and contemplative solace. Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts is a tender, lonely, deeply intelligent tour of that distinctive country of the soul.
About the Book
Lawrence Raab is the author of seven previous collections of poems, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other, which was a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as numerous residences at Yaddo and MacDowell. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.