andrew mcfadyen ketchum on the creation of "deer ticks"
Istarted writing “Deer Ticks” this past June at the Ropewalk Writer’s Retreat in New Harmony, Indiana. While at Ropewalk, I was splitting my time between writing workshops, lectures, and writing in as replica of St Francis of Assisi’s living quarters in Italy, a white, 6x6 chamber with a bare cot on the east wall, a single shelf on the west wall, and a small, round table at which I wrote, cross-legged on the floor, at its center.
I’d had those first few lines for a while, “Never before had they seen a man pee, / Judy’s pugs…” which I wrote in my mind upon the occurrence of, ahem, urinating on Judy Jordan’s (the Walt Whitman and National Book Critics' Circle Award winning poet and professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale) pugs while after a long day of assisting in numerous projects on her (what else can we call it) “homestead.” She owns anywhere from 10-20 pugs at a time that she rescues from puppy mills, raises, and finds good homes for. They are her companions out there in the middle of the howling woods. And her protectors. To befriend those pugs is to join them. The first workshop I ever had with Judy, she held my poem until the end of the class and then mercilessly ripped into it. It was about Jeffrey Dahmer and a documentary I’d seen about the families of his victims who were given the opportunity to excoriate him in court on the final day of his trial. I spent more time on that poem than any other poem in my life after Judy told us “Don’t turn a poem into this workshop unless you’ve spent 100 hours on it.” I won’t recount all the bad thing she said about it because it isn’t what I remember about that night. What I remember is how she ended, saying something along the lines of: “Clearly, there’s a great poet in here. I’m not sure where he is right now, but he’s obviously in here. Andy, listen to me. If you work hard, if you listen to what we tell you, you’ll get better. Go home and cry and get over it and get back to work and bring us a better poem next week.” Honesty. Diligence. Belief. The defeat of fear. An acceptance (and rue) of failure. Learning. And, ultimately, praise. I’ve loved that woman like a sister since that day and have protected her as such when the opportunity has arisen. This, to much degree, is what “Deer Ticks” is about.
This poem also emerged from my desire to have some fun with a poem, to be funny, to make ‘em laugh before trying to make 'em cry, and to emulate a Bob Wrigley poem both Judy and I particularly love, “Horseflies” (check out his features at www.poemoftheweek.org to read it). “Horseflies” is a poem about a young boy who goes out into a field to burn (via a bucket of kerosene) a dead horse rotting on his parent’s land. It’s wonderfully detailed and simple in its language. It’s one sentence (something Bob likes to note when he reads it aloud with a jab of his finger into the air before him, declaring “punct!, ONE sentence.”) “Horseflies” also utilizes the indented lines similar to what I’ve used in “Deer Ticks.” They have parallel subject matters and titles. "Deer Ticks” wouldn’t exist with “Horseflies.” In a way, “Deer Ticks” is an attempted homage to Bob’s work as much as it is to my relationship with Judy.
But “Deer Ticks” is primarily about my friend, Mary Interlandi, who committed suicide in 2003. I’m currently closing in on a book about her life, death, and afterlife. It’s an onerous struggle to write about such a thing, and “Deer Ticks” gave me the opportunity to enjoy writing about her without writing about her and to express what it’s like to be a poet writing about a girl he once loved and to have no idea (most of the time) what he’s doing. The entire poem is true. I did wake up that morning to find ticks (perhaps not in perfect line) stumbling back into the woods. But it took writing the poem to recognize the significance of the event. The poem wouldn’t exist without Mary; and what I witnessed probably wouldn’t have existed for me without the poem for, how else do we witness such details of the everyday world without the drive for a poem... for signs of the dead within the living... without the desire for solutions to the puzzles that are our drive to create art from, otherwise, nothing but ourselves?
“Deer Ticks” is a pretty good poem but not great. How do I make it great? I don’t know. Probably more drafts. It only took 7 to get where it is today, and I rarely (if ever) feel that such minimal effort is in proper respect of the word. Then again, I meditated on it a long time and had a model to follow that was perfect. So much of its structure, desire, etc… was predestined. Does every poem have to be great? No, I guess not. It’s part of a greater whole while standing on its own. And it’s hella fun to read aloud.