Monday Apr 22

ChristinePoreba Christine Poreba's book, Rough Knowledge, won the 2014 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Subtropics, The Southern Review, and The Sun Magazine, and anthologies, among them most recently All We Can Hold: a collection of poems on motherhood.  She lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband and their young son.

Christine Poreba Interview, with Ӧsel Jessica Plante

I’m taken with your use of memory and history in these poems. For instance, the lines at the end of “Transposition” which read: “Like the scent of smoke / transporting the mind back to a house in Southern France, / then a summer in Rhode Island at an Abbey school, / monks standing at a cookout in their robes over the flames. Places rise in us, small fires at daylight.” Why do you think you look to these places, or “small fires” for inspiration in your poems?

I’m not sure why, but I know I’ve always tended toward a narrative style and often start with freewrites or imitations of poems I admire, which ends up leading to associations of past and present. That kind of unexpected journey through time is one of the things I most love about writing poems, how one recent experience or thought leads to another memory or image. In this poem’s case, the experience of my son’s newfound mobility was the spark. His unpredictable movements connected me to the image of the egret flying off which got me thinking about how the mind does a similar kind of jagged motion through time.

Since I’ve read your first book, Rough Knowledge, (which I loved, by the way), I’m wondering about the presence of family in your work. Is it because you want to honor your roots, or a way to understand yourself? How important are these relationships to you as a poet, and, more critically perhaps, how do you juggle the many roles and monikers: daughter, wife, and especially, mother?

Thank you. In Rough Knowledge, I was focused on several then/now pairings, like the move from single to married self, from living in New York to living in Florida, from old house to a newly renovated one, from childhood to adulthood. So in that case I think the presence of family functioned more as a way of understanding myself. In my second book manuscript, though, (which is where these poems are from), I think the presence of family is equally about honoring my roots and understanding myself in a new context. Becoming a mother offered me a lot to explore in terms of a changed self in an individual way, but also brought me more to a communal context and history of motherhood. Also my grandmother, who was my last living grandparent, died when my son was one-year-old. So incorporating some of my parents’ and grandparents’ stories became both a way to honor them and a way to understand this family history I had added a new member to.

Your poem “What Will Stay” is an ekphrastic poem that responds to an old photograph. The photograph opens a window onto the past, both an imagined and an actual past. Can you tell us about the process of how this photo sparked this poem?

I just remember looking at the picture in the book (this was when I started reading a lot about New York City history) and realizing exactly what block it was on. The combination of that realization and the woman being mid-step along with the quotation about the present leaving its traces made the experience of looking at the photograph feel like momentary time travel. The poem sat for a while without a real ending until I read Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us, which is where the images in the last stanza came from.

Your first book won the 2014 Philip Levine Prize and was published by Anhinga Press in 2016. What were you doing when you got the good news?

Tearing up a rotisserie chicken, actually! I had just gotten my son to bed and the dog was barking at the chicken when my phone rang. I saw that it was a phone number in Fresno, California and I panicked and stood for a second trying to figure out if I could wash my hands in time to answer it. I got excited thinking maybe they were calling to tell me I was a finalist (I had been notified that I was a semi-finalist which meant my manuscript was going to the judge about a month earlier). The voice message just said to call her back, so I did just about ten minutes later and when she told me I’d won I actually blurted out, “Are you sure?”, thinking she must have made some mistake. After sending out some version of it for five years, I guess it was hard for me to take it in.

What are your plans for your next poetry collection?

So during those five years, I was writing poems for a second book manuscript, which I recently finished. It examines new lands and languages and incorporates poems about my son as an infant and toddler, new motherhood, my grandparents, Polish immigrants to New York in the 1930s, and stories from my students of English as a Second Language. The title is taken from that last line of “Transposition:” Fires At Daylight.

What is your favorite food?

Freshly baked bread in pretty much any form and flavor.


My son is moving out of reach.
He wriggles from portraits, like the egret

I hoped to photograph beside two horses grazing,
who flew away as soon as I approached.

Last summer, he learned to roll off
his barnyard mat in his grandparents’ kitchen,

where a postcard I’d sent from San Francisco
fourteen summers earlier sat propped between

two coffee cups, pausing the years
in which I’d moved, married, given birth.

Now he takes steps, faltering as though
he’s just joining us from another world,

staggering into the air like smoke
puffing upward. Like the scent of smoke

transporting the mind back to a house in Southern France,
then a summer in Rhode Island at an Abbey school,

monks standing at a cookout in their robes over the flames.
Places rise in us, small fires at daylight.

What Will Stay?

Secure the shadow ere the substance fade…
— 19th century photo studio slogan

In a photograph in The Lower East Side: a Portrait in Time,
published in 1971, a long-haired woman in a mini-dress
steps on a sidewalk, passing an empty lot. 

My grandfather lived just down the street from here
and was probably sitting at his kitchen table
when this was taken, listening to traffic reports

on his handheld radio, a Lucky Strike stuck to his lips.
He might have walked here moments earlier,
might have been pushing my sister in her stroller

on this block behind which you can see the spire
of the church in which I’d last touch the ridges
of his fingernails in 1996.

The present, as the text reads beside the photograph,
is leaving its traces as it moves.  What traces of himself
might my grandfather have left behind on the ship

he chose not to return to in 1932, remaining in the Lower
East Side the rest of his life?  How many times would they
have called his name thinking he was still on board?

Jan. Jan. The echoes of his name left momentary traces in the air.
When this city was built, water of forty rivers
was buried underground.  Still it gurgles under asphalt.

Lessons in Leaving the Ground

Eighty of us lie on our backs, lifting legs into Vs,
strangers stretching inches apart, our sweat meshing into the tears
of nylon mats as our kickboxing teacher tells us what a good job we’ve done,
though none of us can kick the way she does,
swinging her leg like one part of a nutcracker again, again.

Is this how my students feel when they hear me
speaking English, explain the difference between “dew,”
as in water on the grass, and “do,” as in an action,
that their words won’t ever leave the ground like that?

I think of Vladimir from Moldova, who made a joke on the first day,
walked right into his beginner class and said,
“I am question—to be or not to be?”
Who, when shown a picture of an apple core, not knowing how to say
“the apple has been eaten,” exclaimed, “apple, yum yum.”

I think of the accountant who, when she did not understand,
wrote her age on the board and drew a circle around it,
explained the number as her reason for not retaining certain things.

Of singers who know how to find a new note bouncing its pitch
like a light ball in air, and of birders, seated at feeders
or on their feet waiting below trees for one particular flash of feather
until waiting for that song becomes their language.

I think of my friend, a scientist, who spends a summer afternoon
teaching me how to throw a Frisbee. He waits without impatience
for the time when I’ll be able to send it back to him and not behind me.

He experiments as we approach the moment he knows will come,
when the brain and the muscles will make their own connection
and my wrist will flick just enough to project entirely
a single object into the wind, with absolutely no help from me.