Alexander: You made allusions in your earlier message, but what are the areas of experience through which you engage in order to fertilize poetic instinct?

Legris: Often I find that merely moving through the world fertilizes poetic instinct, walking around and being open to discovery or to seeing things in ways I haven’t previously. I’ve been a big walker for a lot of years and I’m always paying keen attention to everything—people, the natural world, stuff on the street. 

The areas of study that inform my work are, at least in the early stages of a project, less deliberate than a reader of my poetry might assume. Every poem in Garden Physic refers to botany in some way; my reading for this collection is wide ranging and includes technical books about plants, as well as literary or visual art-related works that touch on plants, either directly or obliquely. Some of the anatomical poems in The Hideous Hidden sent out shoots and suckers into botany; so even when I was working on that book I was already doing some research about plants, if only tangentially. (It’s impossible to do in-depth reading about glands and not notice the places where glandular terminology parallels that of botany.) The realization that my collection following The Hideous Hidden would focus on botany happened not while I was reading or writing—or even thinking—but while my hands were deep in earth, wrestling with an impossible tangle of volunteer elm roots and daylily rhizomes. My first attempts at gardening, outdoors as opposed to indoors in pots, happened while I was finishing The Hideous Hidden and was still immersed in the history of anatomy and dissection. The formidable task of trying to eradicate a sorely neglected flower bed of roots so tenacious they were causing a driveway curb to buckle and crumble felt like something closer to surgery than to gardening. And I imagined I was doing surgery, my hands working their way through the muddy tendons and intestines of a huge body. My poem “Pedanius Dioscorides in His Backyard Plot” contains the line “The limb-sized roots.” In the section of the yard dedicated to vegetables, there was one area where nothing would grow. I thought I’d dug up this area thoroughly and removed all the crap, but apparently not. I dug deeper and hit something hard—what I first worried might be water pipes turned out to be the roots of a blue spruce that had been cut down years earlier. And limb-sized these roots were. I felt like I’d unearthed human remains, some of these roots the length and diameter of an adult’s legs and arms, their surfaces pulpy—flesh-like—from decay. The more I dug, the more I wanted to know about plants and gardens. As I roamed around in books about gardening and horticulture, I was amazed at how many plant names contain anatomical references: bladderwort, kidney vetch, boneset, liverweed, lung moss… this is just a sample. My long poem “The Garden Body,” which went through several incarnations over three years, was sparked by my thinking about how cool it would be if you could arrange a garden anatomically—bloodwort interspersed throughout, the “organ” plants occupying the central “torso,” lungwort and heart trefoil surrounded by ribwort, lady’s fingers at the extremities.

The finished poem is very different from how I first envisioned it, yet now I can’t imagine it being anything other than what it is. The poem that emerged from this lengthy germination, starting and stopping and restarting from scratch, is a concoction of instinct and association, sparks flying back and forth between garden and page, doing and pondering, plodding and plotting. Of course, there’s also an element of serendipity in the mix; what poems might have emerged if I’d started with a pristine patch of earth? What you say about language being “not unlike foliage, it accrues simultaneously like a magically lit vapor” seems apt to me. My poems seem to develop organically and unpredictably, music, meaning, and texture unfolding with what seems like synchronicity. Just as I always find it magical that a flower I’ve planted blooms or that my peas look like real peas, the process that results in a finished poem also seems magical and mysterious. . .

To read this piece in its entirety, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.