The image on the cover of this new collection is called ‘Panel Parrot’, and it’s a response from 13-year-old Abe Baillie to the title phrase. I wanted something that fused the childlike with the futuristic; and I love the way it manages to suggest something animal and something manufactured.
To my own mind, Tender Machines refers to the cogs and pistons of a poem: a machine that helps us with the psychological work of surviving ourselves. Tender Machines are also the tools of our digital age; devices that help to keep us alive; they are also vulnerable physical human forms we love. I hope the phrase also suggests the repetitions we have to shoulder as caregivers.
Although the two small epigraphs quote William Carlos Williams and Don Patterson, who both refer to poems as machines, the title was seeded by a phrase of Annie Dillard’s. In her work The Writing Life, there is a passage about a writer’s routine, so resonant because it distills the grit and commitment any large task demands.
Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of the maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.
Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.
The Writing Life, HarperCollins, 1989.