Dawn Potter on “Sonnets for the Arsonist”
“Sonnets for the Arsonist” had, for me, a very unusual genesis. It arose from an experiment that my friend, the poet Nat Fisher, suggested. For various reasons we had both been struggling to write, so Nat wondered what would happen if we began a back-and-forth draft. He would contribute a handful of lines until he ran out of steam, and then I would toss out a few lines, and then he would, and then I would, and so the experiment began.
Though Nat and I are close friends, we do not have similar writing styles or goals: he has a bent toward surrealism; I have a bent toward narrative; and thus the experiment quickly became peculiar. I kept trying to make a story out of what we were producing, while he kept injecting unnerving imagery and twists of language. The result was strange and bracing and delighted us both, but it was in no way a usable poem. Yet as the experiment petered out, and we moved back into our private work, I found myself unable to keep my hands to myself. I copied out what we’d made, and then I began playing with it. My story urge pressed me forward, and I began unraveling the threads of language in search of a character. And thus the arsonist took shape and his tale assumed the form of four loose American sonnets.
The final version does not much resemble the original experiment, though elements remain: there was always a church, always a fire. If Nat were to write his own poem based on our doodlings, it would be much different from mine . . . but it, too, might have a church, might have a fire. The experiment was revivifying in large part because our imaginations both clashed and intersected. We were surprised and not surprised. In many ways this ambiguity of recognition is the great power of poetry, for both reader and writer. Enacting that dance in tandem with another striving poet was a gift and a lesson.