Welcome to the second part of our inaugural double-interview feature Pas de Deux, in which Melanie McCabe asks fellow poet and 10.2 contributor Claire Wahmanholm about how she conceived and executed her playful, moving, and sonically-rich near-sonnet “Glitch.” Remember that beautifully understated “fluster/ of lost door keys” at the beginning of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”? Claire’s poem scrutinizes the “radar blip” (as she puts it) of a similar lapse, turning, like Bishop, from levity to seriousness with the expediency we’ve come to expect from fixed forms, especially the Italian sonnet, which “Glitch” both courts and resists. Read on to discover how the poet connects Alzheimer’s, etymology, and assonance in lyric poetry.
Melanie McCabe: I was immediately drawn into your poem for a number of reasons, but one of them was my curiosity as to your impulse for writing it. ”Glitch” reminded me of my mother, who years ago suffered a stroke and struggled for a while afterward with speech.
Claire Wahmanholm: That’s actually a very appropriate connection, though I didn’t have strokes specifically in mind. The poem hatched out of my experiences with family members who struggled with Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. I was thinking a lot about brains at the time, and about how, like all other machines, they can crash, misfire, corrode. But the poem ended up moving away from Alzheimer’s and into a broader exploration of brain “weirdness” that isn’t necessarily as dire.
MM: I am especially taken throughout your poem with the delightful pile-up of sounds—the rhyming, the assonance, the staccato effect of the alliteration that seems to me to mimic the “sticking” of the brain that has developed this glitch, this crash or misfire. Could you comment on your intentions here? Is this typical of all your work—or specific to this poem?
CW: I’m committed to sonic exuberance in general, but I wanted to turn it up to eleven in this poem because of the subject matter. “Glitch” entered US lexicon in the 1960s via the Yiddish word “glitsh,” which in turn comes from the German verb “glitschen” (to slip). The word as a whole translates into something like “slippery terrain,” and I wanted to give the impression of tumbling down a sonic precipice and never quite regaining your footing until the final line.
MM: You mentioned a kind of poignancy in my poem, but I find it very much in yours, as well. The loss of the ability to control one’s brain, the functions of speech and memory, is a terrifying prospect for most of us, and, to anyone who has seen it firsthand in someone they love, it is devastating. Can you talk about how this informs the poem?
CW: This is an interesting question because I had always seen the first two-thirds of the poem as more tongue-in-cheek/playful than poignant, though I think the poem eventually falls out of this mode. Still, I’m not sure I would be able to reconcile what I perceive to be the poem’s airiness with something as devastating as cerebral deterioration. I think I see the poem as more informed by the absurdity that everything we are depends on this one machine functioning perfectly—which is, of course, impossible.
MM: Could you speak also about the form you are working in, which strikes me as sonnet-like, with its fourteen lines and its turn. Was this your intention—or did you have something else in mind?
CW: I’m glad you brought this up—I have a deep respect for form, and enjoy writing within and around the edges of it. In this case, however, I had set out to write a thirteen-line poem—a deliberately “glitchy” sonnet with the broken middle line as a visual echo of a synaptic break, maybe. Though I’m intrigued by what might happen if I considered this poem a sonnet, I’m more interested in having it read as an unachieved, missed, or interrupted form.