In the fall of 2012, I had the great fortune of sitting in on one of George Saunders’s fiction-editing classes at Syracuse. I couldn’t believe how much of the Carver story (the letter he wrote Lish before WWTAWWTAL’s release, the extent of his alcoholism, the longer drafts) I didn’t know about until George showed us in class several different versions that Lish had chopped up/shaped. Some stories improved, others dwindled, but it was remarkable to see how the process became, in a way, collaborative. As an assignment in the class, we had to make our own “Lish” on the longer version of Carver’s famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which was originally called “Beginners,” and try to see how many words we could cut.
As a poet, I always pride myself (hubris, maybe?[edit: definitely]) in my ability to cut unnecessary words, and so I bit down hard on the challenge of turning Carver’s masterpiece story into as small a poem as possible. I felt an obligation to maintain the integrity and components of the story, which forced me to make decisions about what dialogue, movements, moments, etc. were absolutely necessary to the story’s heart. After I cut the original story from ~9200 words to about ~360, I felt a new kind of thrill from working with words from other writers, and so about a year and a half later, I wanted to get a better understanding of Carver’s stories: what made them work, what elements in them proved absolutely key, and so I began to take a bunch of Carver’s stories and try to cut them down into poem-sized bits. It’s an interesting exercise. It’s akin to reverse-engineering something, but also kinda shaping it into a different kind of writing. Ultimately, I decided not to submit them (much) because they seemed mostly like exercises, and I had a little bit of guilt from stealing all the words from Carver. But for the sake of sharing something I worked on and enjoy (and in the spirit of paying homage/promoting one of my favorite writers), I’m going to post some of the poems that I made from Carver’s stories.
I’m calling them “Carver Cuts” because I think of them like little wood-block cut-outs of famous paintings. Not the real thing, but a condensed, somewhat simplified version. The first in this series is the poem, “Like We Know What We’re Talking About,” the poem I made from George Saunders’s original “Lish” assignment:
Like We Know What We’re Talking About
after Raymond Carver
The four of us sat around the kitchen table.
Gin and tonic water kept going around.
An ice bucket rested between us. We lived
in Albuquerque, but we were all from some-
where else. Terri said the man she used
to live with loved her so much he tried
to kill her. My God, don’t be silly, Herb
said. That’s not love. She looked around
the table then at her hands on her glass.
What would you call it? Terri said. Sure,
it was abnormal, but he was willing to die
for it. Herb got up from the table and went
to the cupboard. If you call that love,
he said, you can have it. I could feel
my heart beating. Well, Laura said,
Nick and I are in love, aren’t we? She
bumped my knee with hers. Outside,
in the back yard, one of the dogs began
to bark. We’re lucky, I said. Knock on wood.
You’re still on the honeymoon, Terri said.
Wait a while. Herb went around the table
with a new bottle of gin. Jesus, Terri,
he said. You shouldn’t talk like that.
She held her drink and gazed at Laura.
I’m only kidding, she said. The leaves
of the aspen outside the window flickered
in the breeze. Laura raised her eyes
to mine—her look was penetrating, and
my heart slowed. She gazed into my eyes
for what seemed a long time, then she
nodded, as if she were telling me not to
worry, that everything was going to be
all right. That’s how I interpreted it, though
I could be wrong. I put a hand on her thigh
and left it there. Outside, cars moved back
and forth on the interstate connecting us
to El Paso. The wind picked up, and the grass
in the fields bent, then straightened again.
I’ve loved the intimacy of Raymond Carver’s stories since I first picked them up twelve years ago and thought: this is what a story can do! Some of my favorite stories and poems offer a glimpse behind the curtain. Nobody does that better than Carver. His knack for atmospheric tension outpaces the need for big plots of explosive action. Every time I teach “Cathedral” to my students, we all stand back, amazed, and then I point out that it’s a story about a guy coming and spending the night. Just like this is just a story about two couples sitting around and drinking and chatting. Of course the stories are so much more than that. They transformed the way I understood character, motivation, precision, detail, etc. The unease/tension in the air thick enough to breathe in and take hold. But at their core, the stories are about the unnerved parts of us, the moments where nothing can be said, those snapshots of time that seem to freeze and reflect back on us with startling clarity.
I spent a few hours on this poem, but I can hardly take credit. The story is and always will be Carver’s.