Ace Boggess

A List of Gratitude


Wassily Kandinsky. 1923. Composition VIII

Gratitude List #8

Forgive me when I praise my wealth 
of strange good fortune: 

slept through a power outage, 
woke to flashing numbers
echoing please reset, reset, reset;

got up in time to brew a pot of coffee
an hour before a water-main break
emptied pipes, denied the flow. 

cable & internet still worked
although the line, encased in ice,
resembled a sagging bow
carved out of diamonds. 

I praise the utilities though I often curse them
for rate hikes & inconvenient shutoffs,
blackouts, trucks blocking
the narrow road I travel off this hill—

they've done well
in frigid air of recent storms.
I praise them for their preparations, 

as committed to their craft as I to mine—
I praise that, too, 
not questioning its utility
in the dark & the dry & the warm. 

Gratitude List #9

Forgive me when I praise my wealth
of misinterpretations: 

I write a poem about what few possessions
I keep in a bag in my prison cell, & 
strangers take comfort in this
as my response
to a latest shooting & grief of losing;

write about a broken fence & 
am lauded for astute observations
on the politics of now.

Stories about drug abuse
express collective unrest,
or overcoming struggles with identity.

It's not for me to disabuse readers
of their knights errant—

I find comfort in their finding comfort
in my words. Sure,

sometimes a kissed stone is just a stone I kissed
to feel it cool and smooth against my lips;

a favorite song is just a favorite song; 

the word 'calm' means calm,
not love or god or afterglow— 

I praise visions superimposed on mine
like a mustache drawn on the face 
on a candidate's sign. 

Gratitude List #10

Forgive me when I praise my wealth
of literary memories: 

read Burroughs
mistaking his novel for fantasy,
& discovered there's much in the world 
to disturb, unsettle, rattle, stun;

read Neruda & decided
everything must be beautiful,
from broken glass & shoelaces
to war, death, & loss;

read Camus & felt a kinship
with detachment; 

read Ashbery & was confused; 

read Hesse & wanted to follow 
the path of Siddhartha,
learning what I can, then moving on; 

read Hugo & wept,
squeezed all the juices out
so I would never have to cry again.  

Ace Boggess is author of six books of poetry, most recently Escape Envy (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2021). His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Harvard Review, and other journals. An ex-con, he lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where he writes and tries to stay out of trouble.

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Interview with Ace Boggess

Why Poetry?

Crazy story, but one I’ve told often. I didn’t choose poetry. I always called myself a novelist. I wrote 15 novels in 15 years. I had an agent for some of them (some were terrible). I believed that was my place in the world. Problem is, they didn’t sell. I was writing them and sending them out, and my agent was sending some of them out, and … nothing. Meanwhile, I was having success publishing poems in journals (and a lot of zines and e-zines) for more than a decade. Just these little things I was writing on a lark after I finished my allotted prose for the day. Then everyone started calling me a poet. I still said novelist. So, while I was going slightly off the deep end because of my failures as a novelist, I was building a reputation as a poet, and it kind of bothered me. I didn’t really embrace it until prison, when I basically had to start my entire career over from nothing and poetry was the way I went. I wrote from prison with great success and have focused primarily on that ever since. I write short stories now, too, but the novel is like an ex that I have good and bad memories about but hesitate to ever see again. My life is poetry now, and I cherish it. In fact, I never feel completely at home except when I’m on stage reading poems to an audience.

How long do you usually spend with a single poem? 

It varies. Some of my best poems I get right straight off the pen (yes, I write longhand). I don’t change a word and those poems never know rejection. My favorite poem, “Watching the Wizard of Oz in Prison,” which you can find on the Rattle site, is one of those. Barely any changes from the way it was written to the way it exists in the journal and later one of my books. Other poems take years to get right. I typically edit my work every time it gets rejected, so in a sense I never send the same poem out twice. I keep doing this after every rejection, always trying to fix a poem, tightening and tightening. I keep tightening until I get the poem right or it breaks, and if it breaks I scrap it. I think I said once that the poem eventually gets a medal or a firing squad.

Is this Gratitude List a part of a whole series of poems? 

Yes, I often have a series of poems going at any given time. Whenever I feel like my work is getting stale, I start a new one. Except for question poems. I’ve been writing the question poems for twenty years and it really is sort of what I’m known for, I guess. With the Gratitude List poems, I wanted to write something more positive (while still plundering the dark depths a bit). It was inspired by a friend from rehab fifteen years ago (has it been that long? Jeez) who used to write actual gratitude lists every day. Not in a literary sense, but just to add positivity to his day. It helped him in his life and recovery. I thought I’d give it a shot in poetry (again, to change things up and push myself in a new direction). As with most times starting a new series, I figured I’d write five or six, getting maybe one keeper out of it, then move on to something else. Occasionally, though, things stick, and this one did. I’m still working on them. I’m up to 34, I think. I’ll keep going as long as the results feel right to me. 

Where does a poem start for you? 

Again, it varies. Sometimes a poem is the result of a new experience. Everything new I see with this weird childlike fascination. Even prison. It’s just the way I react to things. But other poems begin with a title (I’m known for my question poems that use questions for titles–in those, I answer the question and never know what direction the poem will take). I read before writing, too, so sometimes what I’m reading inspires me. Psychological studies I saw a while back said poetry points the brain toward nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator for poetry. There are other ways, too, but those are three big ones.

I love the theme, and the image of a poet, a person, sitting down and spending time doing the work of being grateful, which almost goes against the flow of most modern poems. Is this practice a part of writing poems for you?

It is hard to be grateful. I think we’re inclined to focus on our own miseries.

 

And we lives in times of misery, so that makes it harder, especially when everyone around us is miserable too. So, yeah, it was a challenge, but that was what I wanted and why I started doing these. I like the results. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them yet.Maybe I’ll take the best ones and splice them into a book, or maybe I’ll combine them into one long book-length poem. That’s for later, though. For now, I’m just feeling the good vibes.

Who are you currently reading? Are there any poets/authors that you find yourself going back to when looking for inspiration? 

A book I just finished that I absolutely loved is Joan Kwon Glass’s Night Swim, which I’ll be reviewing in The Adirondack Review whenever our much delayed spring issue comes out. As for the books I go back to most often, I’ve mentioned them in so many interviews: The Evening Sun by David Lehman and Without End by Adam Zagajewski. Two of my favorite books. They change my way of thinking poetically as I’m reading them. Every time. A recent addition to that list is Reginald Dwayne Betts’s book Felon, which is beautiful and powerful and something I can relate to on a deeply personal level.

In what ways has your work evolved most significantly? 

Oh wow. I wish I could just show you all my published poems from the 1990s, and then I wouldn’t have to answer this question. I spent the decade trying so hard to write poetry, or maybe that should be capital-P Poetry. I had a lot of success with it, but it really wasn’t good. It wasn’t honest writing. Over time I’ve learned to just write and not worry too much about what the thing will be when it’s done. I let my thoughts loose and, somehow, they turn into poetry.

What poem should I read to my daughter tonight?

Keep in mind that I don’t have kids, and my way of looking at the world is rather twisted, so asking me that is a risky move. That said, look up Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Dog.” She should have fun with it, even if she doesn’t understand all of it. You’ve got to do the Beat poet voice though.