Scott Bailey

Interviewed by Sarina Redzinski

The first thing that struck me about “Blue Moon” was its merging of our “human world” with the natural world. For instance, the anthropomorphism of the animals provides the emotional arc of the poem. I found this a useful lens through which we could chart the speaker’s free-associating thought process. What are your thoughts on the overlapping of these subjectivities?

Your observations and questions address a long-standing conversation between literary predecessors about the human in relation to the natural world. Narrowly stated, the crux of the debate concerns the assignment of meaning and value to nature either as an imbued reflection of our sensibilities and intellect, or an entity synonymous with a benevolent or wrathful God, thus a positive or negative influence, a dichotomy classically depicted in religious and literary texts through acts of nature upon us or in correspondence with us. In my poem, a pastoral elegy that is neither an example of light verse nor a standard representation of the peace and simplicity associated with rural life, nature does not so much wail in sympathetic response to the speaker’s grief as reflect the speaker’s mood through a chain of correspondences, a formulaic approach known as the objective correlative. However, the role of nature, in my poem, is more than a mirror of the speaker’s feelings. Rather a symbiotic relationship is established wherein nature becomes a source of consolation and transcendence for the speaker who perceives it as innately good, indicative of a benevolent God, a source of comfort and hope despite his real sorrows. Such a stance runs contrary to Eliot’s The Waste Land which emphasizes a loss, rather than a gain, between the individual and the natural world.Conclusively, I, the poet, am resisting the negative conclusion that we merely read meaning into a deterministic and meaningless world. I’d rather believe in a primitive homeopathy while wandering among the philosophical vegetables of Emerson and Rousseau than swim with Melville’s vengeful whale, inspired by Burke no less, all of which is a matter of perspective. Given that the mind is its own place, endowed with the ability to make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven, as Milton aptly says, why not transform the psychological dump into a fertile field? Why not perceive and internalize nature as a remedy to our detriment? After all, nature is an image of transformation. And since we are ranked under the name, NATURE, as Emerson says, it seems logical to conclude that we are in, and of, nature. We all possess the wonder and power of nature: we create; we comfort; we destroy; we wound. Therefore, we are all, unfortunately, divided by our deeds and will to increase or decrease each other in the smallest or gravest sense.

There seems to be two kinds of grief here. The narrator’s grief for his grandfather seems more rooted in mundane dialogue and images, whereas the language around the other loss of a love is more existential and abstract. How do you think these different kinds of grief operate in the poem, and how did you go about connecting them? 

The first stanza does indeed establish a solemn and reverent tone, the gruesome and violent image of an owl triggering an emotional memory of the speaker’s grandfather who battled cancer. Given that one perception leads to further perceptions, this moment in the poem serves as a springboard to juxtapose the seemingly negative image of death with pleasant, peaceful images: “may mine [my death] be like the jazzy sap of maple | trees, a moon walking hills & fields of figs & dates, | my atomic spirit a double-helix sunrise, | no second death!” Here, the speaker appropriates nature to offer his definitive stance on the afterlife when he alludes to biblical scripture, “no second death,” a phrase synonymous with everlasting life in contrast to eternal damnation. In addition, the layers of grief unfold as the speaker continues to walk and think, eventually contemplating but rebuking suicidal ideation in the wake of his lover’s death (suspected to be suicide), and eventually analogizing his lover’s death to the loss of vision.

Essentially, losing vision is as permanent as death, vision therein coinciding with life. I could have ended the poem there as a stark reminder of our frailty, but I chose instead to end it with images of optimistic contingencies within an open denouement. In a sense, I inverted Bishop’s conceptual line: I did not write it as a disaster! Within this conceptual context as represented in my poem, I would not argue with anyone who labeled me a transcendentalist. I was a transcendentalist before I ever read Emerson and Thoreau, which is not to say that I have consistently acted accordingly. In writing this poem, I took this task quite seriously. I wrote numerous versions, eventually merging portions of other poems into this final version; sometimes a poem must be wrestled with, especially when trying to figure how to best evoke the sentiment of loss without being sentimental.

This feels like a very Southern poem to me, though Im not sure if thats due more to the farm setting or due to the measured, molasses-like pace of the poem. I know you grew up in Mississippi, and you also have a book of poetry, Thus Spake Gigolo, which is set in the South. Could you tell me more about the ways in which you think your deep South background finds its way into your work?

I should visit a Northern farm. Are cows milked differently there? If I were to write about the city instead of the countryside, would I still be considered a regional poet? The hypothetical outcome would depend on my use of language, imagery, tone, and diction, but also my perspective, the lens through which I view and interpret the perceived landscape. Undeniably, stylistic conventions and motifs can delineate the shape and presentation of a text, as demonstrated in Thus Spake Gigolo, wherein I chart the evolution of a self within the conceptional landscape of the southern gothic, my persona poems engaging themes of isolation and marginalization, oppression and discrimination, destitution and decay, decadence and transcendence. Some have said my persona ultimately profanes the sacred, the religious fervor of his upbringing a source of angst rather than refuge, which may be the case, narrowly speaking. However, in “Blue Moon,” a poem that is characteristic of my second collection, now near completion, I have created a persona who, despite his loss—that is, the loss of his lover and his partial loss of vision—focuses on benevolent optimism to counter desolation and views nature as a sacred source of wisdom, hope, and spiritual reflection. Overall, within this literary context, the cultural, physical, psychological, religious, and social landscape of my upbringing provide a rich context in which to reflect upon and historicize the world around me, the South knocking on my door regardless of where I am, the idyllic pastoral and the southern grotesque forming the narrative in which I walk.

You also came from a very religious background. How intentional are these references to God and religion?

Verses of scripture, poems of poets, essays of philosophers, and texts of other influential authors are interwoven in me, synthesized ideas elemental to my deductive reasoning and subjective truths. “Bildungsroman,” an early poem included in Thus Spake Gigolo, captures my struggle with my sexual orientation, an adolescent wrestling with condemning scripture and his “prescribed desire,” a phrase that suggests that desire is predetermined, as natural as walking. “Adolescent Tornado,” another poem from my second collection that appeared in The Ocean State Review, echoes a similar adversity albeit diminished more so by the speaker’s unapologetic acceptance of himself despite the voiced disdain of others. Instead of responding negatively, the speaker quotes scripture from the Book of Proverbs, as in “Blue Moon” he paraphrases scripture: “words can heal, words can kill.” In these instances, my references to God and religion were intentional, as much of a foundation upon which to build as all the other texts I have read. “Blue Moon” can be read, then, as part of a long conversation on the relation of man to nature and on poetry as imitation of nature, in which I portray nature as a representation, even an extension of God, nature as a church per se. When the speaker says, “Nearer, my God, to thee,” he confirms his belief in the existence of the divine; he’s voicing his desire to walk alongside God as he walks in nature, God and nature thus intertwined, with God’s existence evident in the “the dragonfly patrolling the pasture” or the sound of sap oozing from a maple tree. The perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream, “Divine Laughter,” strengthens this correlation, specifically the perceived resurrection of the luna moth flying to the ash tree where the speaker carved the words seen in a dream: “Divine Laughter.” Subsequently, the speaker’s sorrows are overshadowed by acts and images of nature endowed with benevolent optimism. To reiterate Milton’s aphorism, value comes from the human mind reflecting on Nature; the same principle pertains to the assigning of value to all aspects of Our Nature. In other words, perception can be a decisive and transformative action; our lives are affected and altered by how we choose to perceive and internalize the external forces upon us.

To finish on a lighter note, I wanted to ask if you have a favorite memory connected to the natural world. 

I learned to swim in a pond, with milk jugs tied to my back.