Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Chris Bullard. Chris lives in Collingswood, New Jersey and works for the federal government as an administrative law judge. His first chapbook You Must Not Know Too Much came out in 2009, followed by O Brilliant Kids in 2011. His poetry book Back is scheduled for a November 2013 release.

We published his poem “O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here he is reading that poem and other pieces at our launch event:

And here he is discussing how he came to write the poem:

“O’Connor’s Misfit Addresses Schrödinger’s Cat” is a free verse sonnet. I’ve written many sonnets, some in meter and rhyme and others in free verse. I enjoy the form because it provides a two-part division with a turn in thought, a volta, usually between the octave and the sestet. The volta allows the poem to look at itself by commenting on or changing the meaning of the first section of the poem. This permits irony but also allows for a juncture of two disparate subjects.

I also like using pre-existing characters in my poems. Perhaps this is the consequence of my love for the pop art of the Sixties and Seventies. For me, it is a way to collage backstories and references without taking up extra space for explanation. This use of popular icons results in the combination of low culture and high culture references. Some think that I take this too far. After all, I have written a poem in which Sigmund Freud analyzes one of the characters from the movie The Astounding She-Monster.

I brought together Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit and the Schrödinger’s cat though experiment because both concern the resolution of doubt. The Misfit lacks faith; the cat is in an indeterminate state. The Misfit has no practical way of resolving his doubt; observation will establish whether the cat is alive or not, but only by killing him or allowing him to live. These parallel lives made an interesting pair for a poem, and I thought the sonnet was the appropriate place for them to meet.

For The Misfit, morality is an either/or matter determined by whether or not Christ was resurrected. If he was, we should lead moral lives. If not, we’re free to murder and rob. The Misfit needs the act of observation. He wants to have seen whether Christ came down from the cross.

We cannot know whether we should sin
like pagans or pray like abbots
unless the rock is moved aside
and Christ found breathing (or not).
The possibilities are superposed.

For Schrödinger’s cat, observation determines whether he lives or dies. Opening the lid of his box determines whether cyanide gas is released.

Just as observation will determine,
friend cat, whether you emerge from the box
a feline corpus, or live to slaughter more rats . . .

My craft problem was limiting exposition. There is a difference between how a poem and, say, a novel function. Too much exposition and you get a novel instead of a poem. I wanted to move the poem forward with parallel images: the cat in his box, Christ in the tomb, the prisoner behind bars, the cyanide gas that the box releases, the cyanide gas that the executioner releases. I tried to restrict my lines to the length of traditional pentameter and use pairs or triplets of similar end sounds for cohesiveness (abbots/aside/lips, sin/determine, not/box/not, measured/served).

The Misfit has taken his name because he claims that his punishment never fit his crimes. The turn in the poem comes when The Misfit demands or accepts a judgment that may be based on either morality or chance because he prefers to risk death and damnation rather than exist in a quantum state of not knowing.

so punishment cannot be measured
as fit (or not) until the time is served,
the seal is broken and the prisoner
strolls out the gate into heaven (or not).
Pop the lid, brother, I prefer knowing
if chance has blessed me, or left me blue at the lips.

O’Connor included Gothic elements in her fiction that seem simultaneously appalling and funny. I wanted to keep those elements in my poem, so I was relieved when people laughed when I read it. This meant that they not only caught the cultural references but also found the humor in the poem. There are some similarities between reading a poem aloud and doing stand-up comedy.

I get nervous before I read my poetry in public, but I always accept any invitation to read. I assure myself that I do so for reasons other than mere egotism. I need to hear whether an audience responds or fails to respond because then I’ll see whether the poem works and at what level it works. Like The Misfit, I need to know.

The Misfit appears in one of the most famous of O’Connor’s stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since many of you, like Chris, encounter literature in both written and spoken forms (see “There’s Reading, Then There’s the Reading”) and some serve as both author and audience, you might enjoy comparing the text of O’Connor’s story, a transcript of O’Connor’s own remarks on the story and a rare recording of her reading the story.

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6 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard

  1. A wonderfully useful craft piece. I feel seriously validated by Bullard’s idea of “free verse sonnet,” which many would call an oxymoron, since I have, of late, been rather loudly promulgating the notion that the essence of the sonnet is NOT the exact line count or the traditional meter but rather is the volta–the “turn” within the confines of a short piece. I lean toward assymetry–how good that Petrarch got us started on the idea of the 8-6 split rather than 7-7; I lean toward 13 or 15 line sonnets since they make sure the volta will not be right in the middle.

    That said, Moira Egan and I, when selecting the inclusions for our anthology of 20th-21st c. erotic sonnets, HOT SONNETS, decided to favor those using traditional rhyme and metric schemes to prove two of our points, which are that traditional form and verbal sex-heat are by no means mutually exclusive; and that the sonnet form, in all its formality, is still alive and well.

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  2. Thanks so much for your comments. I agree with you that the volta is the central concept of the sonnet although it has application outside of the sonnet form. As someone said, “..what romance lacks a volta, vital/ or fatal?” Come to think of it, that was you. I loved Hot Sonnets and I think that Moira’s Bar Napkin Sonnets is one of the best collection of formal sonnets, ever.

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  3. You made my day, Chris!

    A colleague is using The Hots in her 300-level intro to the English Major course at Towson U, and I am going to recommend strongly that she link the online part of the course to your great article .

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  4. Pingback: Concerning Craft: Emily Rich | Little Patuxent Review

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