Matthew Salesses is author of the forthcoming novella The Last Repatriate, and two prose chapbooks–Our Island of Epidemics (PANK) and We Will Take What We Can Get (Publishing Genius). You can find some of his stories in Glimmer Train, Witness, Mid-American Review, Pleiades, The Literary Review, and Quarterly West. He is also a columnist and fiction editor for The Good Men Project. He lives in Boston.
I asked him to write a few words about Bill Knott’s poem “The Enemy.” Here is the poem:
Like everyone I demand to be
Defended unto the death of
All who defend me, all the
World’s people I command to
Roundabout me shield me, to
Fight off the enemy. The
Theory is if they all stand
Banded together and wall me
Safe, there’s no one left to
Be the enemy. Unless I of
Course start attack, snap-
Ping and shattering my hands
On your invincible backs.
Here is what Matthew said:
I took a lit class with Bill Knott during my first semester at Emerson. It was called, I believe, Modern and Contemporary Poetry (though I could easily be mistaken). Bill assigned an anthology and our homework each class was to write two questions on the reading, which he would then answer in the following class. I had taken his class for the following reasons (in no particular order): because I wanted to take a poetry class, because I liked Bill Knott’s poetry, because I heard Bill always made someone cry (like Kathy Rooney, apparently), because the only assignment was a single paper with no set length. This turned out to be the only Emerson lit class I ever really took anything away from except research, though Bill never made anyone cry–that must have been reserved for workshops. I was disappointed, let me tell you. I was exactly the kind of jerk then who just wanted to see some tears over poetry. Anyway, when Kyle asked for contributions to Bill Knott week, I thought I would do the old assignment on one of Bill’s poems. I asked Kyle to assign reading. He assigned “The Enemy.” Here are my questions, Bill, wherever you are, though I have heard you no longer exist anywhere but the Internet.
1. Many of these lines break after prepositions, but the last three lines all end on stresses, where “snapping” is even broken between lines so that “snap” ends line 11. The first of those three lines also has the fewest syllables. There seems to be a turn there. Is the enjambment after prepositions supposed to take power away from the “enemy,” or the “self”? I also notice here that the other stress-ended line ends in “me.”
2. This is one line short of sonnet-length and has an odd rhyme scheme: ABACCADACBEDE. Seems almost like a broken Petrarchan sonnet–maybe I’m way off-base? Can you break it down for us?
We were always trying to sound smart in our questions by making them mostly comments. To style-questions, Bill would usually say something like, “I could break it down for you, but you’re not interested in that.” Well, I was, and I’m still waiting for the answers.
Two from the Bill Knott Mailbag
from Joe Kmiecik:
First off, thank you for doing this. Bill is surely the most overlooked poet of his generation. Sadly, I think his Larry David-ness will continue to get in the way of the critical recognition he deserves. I hope one day he decides to bless a publisher with permission to print a Selected, but I doubt it. Anyway, I took a couple workshops from Bill while in grad school at Emerson. After I graduated, Bill emailed me and offered to print copies of my thesis for me through Lulu. That generous spirit always broke through his curmudgeonly exterior. When he criticized your work, it was done frankly (I don’t think anyone has ever accused him of using kid gloves in workshop), and when he complimented you, it was done with genuine admiration. He stood out among the other teachers in MFA Land because the man is incapable of bullshitting. He is the antithesis of a sell-out.
I hope you’re getting plenty of responses that are much more coherent than mine. I’ve emailed Bill poems of mine, years after my time at Emerson, and he never fails to respond with his thoughts. I really hope that his generosity comes through in the anecdotes you post.
from Matt Summers:
My name is Matt Summers, and I took a poetry workshop with Bill in his last year of teaching, while getting my MFA at Emerson College. I thought I’d share my impressions of the workshop and the man in late 2007. I also wrote an elegy for him while in his class, which I included at the end. Feel free to print any of this.
During Bill’s “workshop,” he would yell at us frequently, Where’s the poem? or accuse us of not trying. He would demand sweeping changes based on his personal aesthetic without much explanation or flexibility (something like “people don’t want to read a poem that takes place in your car.”) It only took him a few minutes to say his peace, he wouldn’t let up, picking and picking at the same points, not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. He was so abrasive some students dropped the class, two dropped out of school, as this was their introduction to the MFA program. I guess If nothing else we can credit Bill for sparing us the voices of possibly hundreds of bad poets over the years. Funny, that might be the only compliment you could print that he’d be proud of. He once told me short poems don’t work, and I countered with Your nakedness: the sound when I break an apple in half. He dismissed it angrily, like his inner battle between overwhelming ego and pathetic self-pity viciously demanded respect and admiration, yet denied any comfort or joy that might provide.
To a certain point his critical voice was a breath of fresh air. He got on my case for being complacent and settling for good enough, so I started bringing in better drafts, trying hard to make him proud in some sort of father/son dynamic. I never did. But his voice is still the one I hear whining in my head when I’m not sure about a line or an idea. If it can’t pass the Bill Knott Test it’s not good enough. That’s why I dedicated my thesis to Bill, for showing me what not to do. He doesn’t know that, I never told him, there’s no satisfaction from giving Bill a compliment. If I had he probability would’ve told me that was a sure-fire way to get no one to publish it, or he would’ve just told me to shut up.
Matt Summers also sent a poem:
ELEGY FOR BILL KNOTT
Whereas Philip Larkin aged
Bill became old,
complaining how we couldn’t listen—
a prophet of what he hated most
while still young enough
to stage his own death.
Where gone has the space between
a sleepwalker’s outheld arms?
What spiteful lovers,
you and time.
She has rolled off
and you cannot wake her.