blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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MICHAEL MCGRIFF | Levis Remembered

A Conversation with Michael McGriff
captured September 25, 2013

David Wojahn: Well, welcome, Michael McGriff, our sixteenth winner of the Larry Levis Prize, to Richmond, and welcome to our Q&A, we’ve got a lot of people here who have read Home Burial and Dismantling the Hills and have probably a lot of really good and articulate questions to ask you. So, with that I’m just going to throw open the floor and see what people have to say.

Michael McGriff: Great, I’m happy to be here, thank you.

Gregory Donovan: I’ll start in. One of my favorite poems in your book is “The Cow,” a poem that you must have willfully named this unassuming title that people would be, I think, wonderfully deceived by, because it turns out to be quite an ambitious poem. And in it, it not only brings in the conventions of an ekphrastic poem, but also brings in the conventions of a dream poem, and then it turns out it’s also an elegy. And all of those are familiar forms to all of us, but because you mixed them together in the particular way you did, it refreshed all of them, and I was wondering about how you had conceived of that, or is that something that just developed along the way, or serendipitous—what was going on with that?

MM: I wrote that poem after a long time of not writing anything at all, and I remember reading of this poet, Andrew Grace. He wrote this poem after the painting “Dinner with Threshers” [Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, oil on wood, 1934] and we were talking about these sort of folk traditions in painting, and these great, strange, two-dimensional depictions of landscape and people, the farm and all that. He’s from Illinois, from Champaign, grew up on a family farm, so we were just talking about being from a place, and those images, and the art that depicts it and what that may or may not mean, and then, that was kind of the leaping off point, just thinking about that tradition of two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional scenery, which doesn’t have much to do with the poem in the end, but that was just the interest to see if I could explore some of that. Then I was thinking about, who are the people? What are the animals, or the land?  Being from a logging and fishing town that those narratives seem built into, imagining a made-up painting that’s in the poem. Who’s in the house, you know, all the family, what’s outside, the work and whatnot. And then, the structure of the poem, since it was all imagined, it seemed that I could just keep imagining away. And then eventually the narrative of the father and the grandfather who, you know, one is dispossessed from the other, and it’s the son writing the poem, that’s the big part of the poem, for me anyway. And that kind of came late I guess in the process, but that’s what made it a poem, that’s what grounded it I think, and where I went from there, but I’d never written a poem like that, so long and tortuous, I guess like you’re saying it’s got all these components that kind of are forced into one container. But yeah, I love that “Dinner with Threshers” painting, it kind of spawned me imagining something just like that, but from my landscape, not from, I imagine that painting’s from the Midwest, “Dinner with Threshers,” but I’m not sure. It’s a great painting, all the guys are sitting at the table, a long table, and there’s all the wheat threshing going on outside, it’s all two-dimensionally set up, there’s no vanishing point or anything like that. Great painting, as far as I’m remembering it, maybe it’s a totally different painting, I don’t know.

Audience: I have a question about poem length. I guess there seemed to be a poem that’s either a page and a half long or these short, short poems, I mean I love short poems too, and it seems like in the book those two types of poems work, I think, much differently, aside from one being longer and one being shorter, I see the long poems being much more, I don’t want to say narrative-driven, but I guess I do, and the short poems are these kind of really quick, visceral, image-driven poems. I guess the difference between the way you see a short poem and a long poem working, especially in . . . 

MM: That’s a good question. I suppose, like lots of writers, I sort of romanticize about one type of poem more than another, and the short poem is the one I have a high romantic feeling about, and Charles Simic has this great description, it’s in one of these Oberlin, one of these field translation series, I think it’s in the Novica Tadić book, he’s got this wonderful introduction where he talks about the religion of the short poem, and that being the thing in literary arts that goes back, at least in our psyche, you know, to the dawn of man. I mean, we would think it would be the epic, but Simic is arguing that it’s the short poem. And I’ve always found that to be true, I love, um, I’ve got this Yannis Ritsos book that I carry around with me every day that I totally worship at the altar, this little Ritsos book, and for me that’s the gold standard, the brilliant, short lyric poem. So every once in a while I get lucky I feel like, and I can write a small poem. But the long poems are, I don’t know if it’s the length thing, but for me it seems like more narrative can go into a poem of that length, whereas you get a short poem, it’s a place for narrative tension. Or a suggestion, you know. I don’t know, that’s a good question, I don’t know if I ever think about it when I’m writing, but some poems just get long and some get small. When they get small, I feel lucky. I feel like it’s a lucky break or something, but it’s like being a poet and wishing you were a novelist, or being a banker and wishing you were a rock star, I just feel that way about the short poem, I’m really quite obsessed with the short poem.

Audience: So, just thinking about process, when you talk about [how] you feel lucky when you get a short poem, does it start big, or does it present itself whole? Do you whittle it away, I guess?

MM: I don’t know, I’m going to answer this question by not answering it. But Larry Levis has this great thing in The Gazer Within where he's asked this question about, “Where does a poem start?” and he says, very tricksterly, “Well, it starts with the sound kuh.” Which, it’s got to be a lie, but for me I’m totally obsessed with description, just metaphors and similes and physical descriptions of moons and trees and things like that, so usually my poems start out with describing something, an image that’s presented itself as interesting to me, and then sometimes a story gets attached to that, or a suggestion of a story, sometimes not, sometimes it just goes to a shorter place, but that’s a good question, I don’t really know, but it’s usually all through description, it’s not through thinking of, “Oh, my dad did this and this might be a poem,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if my book had this sort of theme in it,” or those sorts of things, it’s usually just landscape description. I was saying at lunch earlier, having grown up in one place and lived there for twenty-some years, and not really traveling outside of the county much, those were my images, and those seem to be the things that keep coming back into the poems, so when I go to think about writing a poem, I usually get excited by remembering a certain image and then trying to figure out how to use it in a different way than a previous poem about the same exact place about the same people.

Audience: It kind of reminds me of how Native Americans tell stories where, here’s big rock, and they have a story associated to that so each time you pass it you remember that story. Is that almost kind of what it is for you, where you see the image and link a memory to it?

MM: Maybe, I think so, all of my coming-of-age-ness happened in, I’m telling you man, in the middle of nowhere, so you know, seeing logging trucks, or seeing all the ferns on the side of the road, or my dad’s pickup in the driveway, these are just the images that I have associated with all my memories, and all my emotions and all that stuff, so going home still, and seeing all those things triggers that flashback of emotions and memories, I think. So. For sure, landscape markers and all that stuff. Of course my wife, who’s also a poet, she grew up in ten different states basically, so she doesn’t have those ties to that one fence post, or you know, you take a right at the unmarked gravel road, those aren’t her emotional landscapes.

Audience: I was thinking as I was reading Home Burial, as you said to have grown up in one place, and so you see the symbols that you grew up with as a child, the logging trucks and this and that, and you’re reflecting on them as an adult, as a fairly mature poet, is that something you are very conscious of in why you felt like you wound up writing Home Burial? Is this kind of looking on the childhood, you’re an adult now, in this kind of having made that transition but letting that reflection . . . 

MM: I think so, I mean they’re the poems that end up in the book, and when I read books I always think, well maybe the poet meant to do it that way, or had an idea for a book and then wrote toward that, but these poems are just sort of what ended up at the top of the pile, and those things that I am most excited about in my own work are things that keep going back to the same place. And that’s not by design, but it’s sort of a default setting . . . and sort of troubling. You can only describe a red Chevy so many ways. I don’t know, I always think about Charles Wright, the poet who I love, sitting in the backyard and looking out at the cosmos and thinking about his favorite Chinese philosophers and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are in every poem, but it’s always different, it’s always so inventive, and feels so authentic and necessary for him, and, I don’t know, I hope that happens for me, we’ll see.

DW: Well, Michael, that brings me to a question, and it’s probably a question that’s gonna be interesting to people in this room because they’re putting together their theses, they’re putting together their first books, and I just wanted to get a sense of how you felt the process of writing Dismantling the Hills was different from the process of writing Home Burial, because one of the things that I find really astonishing about those two books is, in some ways Dismantling the Hills seems like you visit in both books almost exactly the same landscape, but in the first one very grounded, narrative sort of poetry, and in the second it’s kind of hallucinated and haunted. And so I just would be really interested in hearing you talk about the differences and similarities between the two books.

MM: Well the difference—I think the main differences with Dismantling the Hills, the first book, that’s my poetry history, from whenever I first had an inkling about what art was—whenever that happened in my childhood—to publishing the book, that’s everything. And the second book is only those five years after that. And with the first book, when I read the poems now, I think of all the poets who I hadn’t read yet, and become under the spell of, like Vasko Popa, and Ferenc Juhász. So I think that’s a major difference, but also, in the first book, I remember as an undergraduate student—and maybe five or seven or so poems started when I was an undergraduate student that ended up in Dismantling the Hills, and those were the first poems I ever wrote where I felt like I had written something beyond myself. And those were poems about my folks, about growing up in a place, and before then I’d only written these sort of watered down Neruda imitations, because I love Neruda, I wanted to be a Chilean communist so bad, but I couldn’t be one. And I remember writing that poem about my dad working, and that poem feeling so significant, and such a breakthrough, just looking into your backyard, so to say. I think those themes, all the people and landscape happen in Home Burial, but that book is more a reflection of being a different poet, having read all those books. I had a real partisan, political feeling a lot of the times writing Dismantling the Hills. I was really class conscious, and you know, sort of discovering your own political place in the universe and giving a voice to that with language. That’s really Dismantling the Hills, and then, in Home Burial, I felt like—I mean in a way in Dismantling the Hills I felt like I was writing that for someone else, whoever that person was. In Home Burial, I felt like I wrote it for myself, and the things that I love in Neruda’s work, or Vicente Huidobro, or Tranströmer, the poets that really get my imagination firing. I just allowed myself to write in a way that triggered those same responses of reading those poets that I love. So I think they’re the same book, maybe different chapters in the same book, I’m not sure how to look at them. I wasn’t worried about writing a different book at all with the second book, but I just feel like a different poet wrote those poems. It had to have been the poets who I hadn’t read who are now my favorite poets, didn’t exist for me then, in that first book.

Audience: That’s a tremendously hopeful thing to say, I mean, I think for someone who’s just beginning to write, to think about what is distilled in your first work. Because I think a lot of us feel like maybe we just have one story to tell or one poem to write, and that the idea that you’re going on and living, not only are you experiencing personal things, but you’re also, you know, drinking in the work of other writers. So I think it really just gives hope that the creative process goes on and on.

MM: Well, yeah, maybe it’s the same poem written by a different poet, in the same body or something, I don’t know, not to get too weird about it. But I don’t know, I just think all of the—I really started watching lots of films, you know, seriously watching and learning about films, and discovering Bergman and Tarkovsky, who are some of my favorite artists, and whose work I turn to for meaning and images and to learn how to make narrative and image. And those people didn’t exist to me in Dismantling the Hills. I had Philip Levine, who I still have, but I didn’t have Philip Levine and Tarkovsky.

Audience: You said watching those films to pick up how to tell narrative seriously—how did that translate in your work, what did you gain from that, how did it change the way you write narrative?

MM: I think it’s just with reading more poets, or watching more films, or seeing more art, every time you have an experience like that your definition for art gets different, it gets bigger, or it moves in a lateral way, or becomes redefined. When I think of Tarkovsky telling his own narrative in The Mirror, which is one of my favorite films—that’s all jumbled up, and goes in and out, perspectives are here and there and everywhere, and yet it’s a personal, intimate sort of film. If I would have watched that as an undergrad, I think I would have thrown my arms up in the air and said, “What the hell is this?” How is this possibly a film of intimacy, or of narrative, or of talking about one’s place? You know, geography. So it’s just redefining what’s possible by keeping going and reading more books. It sounds simple to say, but I know a lot of people who only go one way, only read a certain kind of book, or only think a poem can be a certain thing, and you could probably get good at that thing, but it might not be the most interesting way to keep going on.

Audience: So you work a lot in translation, specifically translating Tranströmer, and I was wondering how the process of translating another work and thinking about the process of translating impacted your own writing process.

MM: Oh, a whole lot, in a million ways. One was just living with the work. I’m not a fluent Swedish speaker, I work with Mikaela Grassl, Maria Sandberg, both native Swedes, they live in the United States, one’s an architect and ski racer, the other one’s a software developer, who have unbiased literary eyes. So I lived with this little book—The Sorrow Gondola I translated with Mikaela, and it took about five years to get those seventeen poems right, and just that patience of being with the work, and really thinking about what is it that Tomas is trying to say, how is he trying to mean and is this image—what’s the tone of this one image, or why is this couplet with eight syllables, you know, why is this image in the middle of a line. It’s infinite, it’s just a disaster. The more you go you realize there’s no way to do it. There’s no one way to do it. And I think the other thing is this sort of autotune culture we live in, where thinking things can be made perfect, you know, with autotune you take the voice out of the voice, and it becomes what? I don’t know. A robot. So thinking about, am I trying to make this poet, who I think is the best poet of the twentieth century, am I trying to make this line more lyrical, because I think lyricism is important, and I think Tomas is important? Therefore, am I screwing the poem up by, you know, turning up the heat where it shouldn’t be, or if a line feels clunky in the Swedish, do I let it be clunky? Of course. But having those conversations was really amazing. It was really amazing to me to think about my own work, it’s like learning a foreign language. You don’t learn about what the subjunctive is until you try to learn Spanish, like, what the hell, do we have that in English? Turns out we do. So just that careful consideration of language I think is the main thing, and then all of the problems of translation that people talk about: literal, figurative, transliteral, where do you take your liberties? That’s just poem to poem, but I can’t tell you—it’s been the biggest life-changing experience I’ve had as a writer, working on these Tranströmer translations. And getting to meet a poet who I really admire, thinking about, what is it in his work that makes everyone around the world want to translate it? Why is he so special? I love thinking about his work, he’s a great poet.

GD: When you were backed into a corner and you had to make a choice between the imagery in the poem that you’re translating versus the sonic effects, or something like that, did you find yourself making characteristic decisions, or did it vary?

MM: It varied, but I will say that Tranströmer’s idiom belongs to the Swedes of his generation, which are in touch with a way more formal Swedish than Swedes of my age, so he’s got those back and forth movements from the very plainspoken to something that’s maybe a little more indicative of a certain age group. And then he’s also obsessed with form. He’s got a lot of traditional forms in his poems—haikus—but also, within that, he’ll just throw in a couple of perfectly rhymed iambic couplets in the middle of a free verse poem, and I always found myself . . . because it’s my own bias, I always landed on the side of music and image, and I battled for months and months on this rhymed couplet. There was no way, there was no way I could see, to take it to its metrical end. So my lines are really long, they don’t rhyme, they’re unmetrically sound, but to me, it was the image that was the most important. To me, that’s what makes his poems so interesting—the bridge between psychology and imagery and maybe our sort of protomemories, or whatever. He’s a trained clinical psychologist. Those are the things that I value in his poetry, so they’re the things that I tried to value in my translations. But it’s amazing to see the translations. You see the way everyone else goes. You look at your own decision-making process using everyone else’s translations—Robert Bly on one end, very loose, very in his own image, Robin Fulton on the other end, extremely literal, extremely formal, extremely good at being both. Which one is better? Both and neither. But for me, I mean, I don’t write formal poems, so. That’s a great question, though. I mean, it’s just so endlessly amazing. It’s like getting a big, messed up ball of fishing twine and knowing when to stop pulling on it. There’s no answer. I love it, I think it’s a great exercise. I would encourage anyone to try their hand at translation, even if they don’t know a language. Find a native speaker and just really investigate what it is that makes a poem.

Audience: Going back to “The Cow,” we were talking about in our workshop the other night—and I’m probably stealing language from my peers—but the poem gets to a point where the cow cries, and we were talking about how that’s a moment in the poem where literally anything could happen after that, and you had mentioned how the poem progressed—it was all from imagination, so it was just as long as you could keep on imagining, it could go anywhere. And I was wondering if you have any practical advice for—as far as process goes or exercises—for getting the imagination to reach that point?

MM: I mean, just for me, I’ve always found imitating the poets I love to be the most educational exercise. But I’m not sure. It’s such a hard thing to know. When is a poem done, when is it not? When is ten lines better than four hundred? When is it the other way around? Jeez, I don’t know. I like this idea, just as an exercise, that the poem could be twice as long if it needs to be and not being happy with the first draft or something—just trying on a different set of clothes for the poem, trying to make it twice as long, trying to take out the metrics, trying to put them in. That cow poem was in a million different forms— it was way longer, it was way shorter, there was other characters in there that came in, and I think it was just a matter of keeping going until the real poem presented itself, and then revising based off that, which, to me, is the narrative of the three generations of men in the speaker, the father, the grandfather. The place. But that wasn’t . . . that’s not where it started. It started in just an exercise in imagery and sort of that metastructure, and that’s something I really like. Great question, I don’t know. It’s different for everyone. I mean, some people get really particular and don’t write drafts and they just do one line at a time and get really methodical about it. I write lots of . . . I just try to get it out there, see what happens.

Audience: I have a question. So I’ve seen some of your prose poems now, and I was curious, especially after you talked about how you really start from description and you really have this love affair with the short poem, and how the short line really does hold your images in such, an almost perfect way. What do you find happens to your images in a form like a prose block of text, and what spurred that?

MM: I think, initially, it was reading Russell Edson, Morton Marcus, Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, these great prose poets. Tomas Tranströmer’s got a bunch of . . . it’s just being infatuated with a different kind of form and thinking about it as that. Like, why is it that the parable always seems to come up in the prose poem? I don’t know. I’m sure that has some roots somewhere. It just seems, to me different. It’s the place, for whatever reason, whether it’s irrational thinking or not, that I can do something differently. I don’t have the same self-imposed bogeyman telling me “that’s not a poem” in my head when I have a prose poem. The poems you have for Blackbird are from this larger book that I wrote with Josh [Tyree] where we watched forty-three art films and wrote an autobiographical prose poem, short fiction sketch for each one, so that form was sort of predetermined for some of those pieces. It was prose, or whatever the term of the day is. Short lyric fiction. Prose poetry. But I don’t know, I think it just—I feel like I have a different set of different permissions. I don’t know, I see what you—we’re so funny. I feel like I can do whatever in the prose poem, and in poetry, I get hung up on it.

Audience: But for like, images, has it changed the way you look at your images or think about them, with not having as much white space around them?

MM: I don’t think so, but it’s changed—there’s this amazing thing fiction writers do which is horrifying to me. People talk. People move in and out of rooms. You know, it’s amazing. Scene development. These sorts of things—I’ve totally . . . I love novels and short stories. I really wish I could write a novel. But to try to see how my own images can work within short fiction like that, you know, it feels very liberating. It feels very avant-garde, even though there’s nothing avant-garde about that writing, in any way. Personally, I just feel, like, so liberated to be able to work in the short form like that.

Audience: You don’t feel like you could write a novel?

MM: Oh, no. I’m secretly trying to write one, but we’ll see what happens with that.

Audience: On the surface, why do you think you could write poetry and not a novel?

MM: Oh, that’s a great question. Poetry’s the genre that I discovered my own love for literature in. It’s the first thing I wrote where I wrote something that made me think, “Oh my God, this is so great. I can use language in this way.” That didn’t happen for me with the short story or writing a play, so it’s just kind of . . . it’s the thing that tripped me into reading Neruda and then trying to be a Neruda copycat. That was the poem. If Neruda was a novelist, I would have probably written novels, for sure. If Julio Cortázar was the first person I ever read, and I read Hopscotch, this great novel, there’s no doubt I would have tried to have been a novelist. It’s just falling in love with someone who shows you a way into an art form, I think, just by accident.

Audience: Do you find the attempt to write a novel advancing your poetry?

MM: No. I find it . . . this is a way to think about how people do what they do. It’s amazing, I just reread the Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s three great novels, and I love reading novels now and thinking about how they’re put together and how things work and where dialogue works and how you pace it or structure a novel. It’s just a mental exercise more than anything else. And I have this secret little file where I’m writing this little pile of pages. I feel no pressure to ever make it a book. If it turns into one, that’d be great, but it’s just kind of a writing experiment. It’s quite fun. I have a friend, Skip Horack, who’s a novelist and short story writer, and we were having a beer one evening, and he was saying something which, to me, sounds so profound, and he was like, “The great thing about being a writer is that you can just kind of write whatever you want.” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” And he was like, “Well, maybe I’ll just write a book every year, and maybe whatever that is will be my book.” He was like, “Maybe I’ll become a journalist or a war correspondent.” And he would be the type to do something like that. And it seems so liberating. This was just a couple years ago, and I thought, “Oh my God, that’s amazing! I love novels! Why couldn’t I write one?” Maybe it was the beer. I don’t know. I felt like that conversation gave me some sort of permission to do something. You know, ‘cause you take these separate genres in grad school. They think, you’re the poet, you’re the fiction writer. But how does Michael Ondaatje work? I don’t know. He certainly doesn’t divide himself into two. Good question.

Audience: When I first came across your book last year, when we were reading for the prize, actually, I see Home Burial and I see the cover, and I’m thinking, “Okay, we’re gonna be in New England, and we’re alluding to the Frost, right?” But then, you know, I open it up, and I’m like, “Oh, we’re in Oregon.” And I think the book owns its title. At no point did I really feel like, “Oh, this is completely derivative.” It works. But I’m wondering, how did you come to that decision when you have Robert Frost, who is this huge looming American figure, and yet the landscapes are very different in a lot of ways—and yet, like I said, I think it works out—but how did you kind of come to the decision to name it after this very famous poem?

MM: Late in the game. It had lots of titles, and the last one, which I can’t repeat, my editor was kind enough to say, “I’m not telling you to change your title, but everyone in the office thinks it would be a great name for a Bee Gees album,” which made me think, “Maybe there’s a different title!” Titles are really hard. Titles for poems seem quite organic, but the title for a book is pressure. What’s the roof of the house? I was reading through the book with some friends, other poets, and we were looking through it to see if there were any lines, and the thing about getting a permit for home burials seems like that captured a certain sense of rural landscape, for sure, just the act of being out in the land and doing something like burying your own dead on your own property. Private property’s a big theme in the book. But the Frost thing, I mean, I gotta say, I love that Frost monologue, it’s amazing, but that totally didn’t even occur to me that there was a crossover until a couple minutes after that, and I was like, “Oh God. This is horrible.” Because I was so happy with the title. But then I thought, “This is fine.” Maybe that echo, though accidental, is just fine. I love that monologue, it’s just so great. The husband comes home after burying the kid, and the wife basically interrogates him and accuses him and insinuates that it was his fault, the whole damn mess, on the land, and I thought, “If that’s an echo, that’s great. Why not?” Maybe some people think that’s bad. I could see that as being a criticism, for sure. I was very, very hesitant to use that as a title for that very reason because it’s such a heavy—it’s such a famous poem—and it’s such a heavy allusion in some ways. But I thought, “Well, that’s fine.”

Audience: I wasn’t criticizing.

MM: No, no, no. I think titles are really tough.

Audience: Well, going off of that, then, you said something last night about the architecture of the book. So when you’re putting this book together—so maybe you weren’t thinking so consciously about what each poem is supposed to be about or “I’m gonna write a poem like this,” but after you had all these poems, you said, “These are just the ones that kind of came to the top,” and I was thinking about kind of what Jack was asking about, long and short poems. How did you put it together? How did you decide on it?

MM: Well, I think after getting all the poems that I thought could be a book, then you start putting them in different orders. Then you see how many times you’ve used the same exact phrase in a poem, or how many times the river comes in, which is a whole lot in this book. But I think those concerns come after. I know a lot of people who get an idea for a book and sit down and write toward it, which, great, if that’s your process. For me, I can’t—that’s so stressful to even think about, coming up with the book first, plotting it out, and writing toward that. These poems just piled up. And then I thought, “Okay. Now, this is the book. Oh, this is something that seems to be different.” Stylistically, these poems are so . . . they could do this, and these could do that. So then, what are the long poems and short poems? How do those go side by side? What’s the rhythm of reading the book? Gosh, there’s a million ways to stress yourself out about how that works, but I do feel . . . I was talking to a student the other day, and he was saying, “Oh, I just open up books and flip them open and read a poem out of them.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s so strange!” We would never fast-forward ten minutes into a film and do that, or open up to the fourth chapter of a novel. You know what I mean? So I really think a book is a book. A book is one unit and it has all sorts of things in between. This is why I hate the selected poems. I don’t know why we like that so much as a culture.

Audience: So you’d rather see each book . . . 

MM: Oh, yeah. Oh, totally. Absolutely. So much of the work talks to the other work. The order’s so important.

Audience: Like an album?

MM: Absolutely. Totally. In fact, I was listening to David Bazan’s album, his last album that came out. I went to an audio screening of the album, and the guy was playing it off his MacBook, and in iTunes, it swapped all the tracks to go alphabetically. And we listened to the album alphabetically, and it seemed fine. Then he’d realized what he’d done, and we listened to it again in the order that they were on the album. It was a totally different listening experience. And we talked about that for hours, like, “That’s amazing!” And I think of a book of poems being that same thing. And you can see the ways they go wrong, too. I mean, art is jagged and clunky and human. I like to see that in a book. I just think of all these selected Ted Hughes poems—he’s got a bajillion poems—and how you miss out on all those great poems. You know? They’re just, orphaned. You get the Philip Levine selected, so many great poems are orphaned. Or the Levis selected. God, why isn’t that just all the poems? I really value that in a book, you know, how it’s made, that experience. It’s the way the author wanted you to do it.

Audience: To go off that, I thought the first poem in the book was, by far, the most . . .  it felt like the most straightforwardly narrative poem in the book. Was that intended? ‘Cause I read that one, and I was like, “Oh, you know, the book will be this!” and then I kept going, and I was like, “Nope, no.”

MM: Yeah, that’s a good question. I originally had the poem “Invocation” as the first poem, which is a poem I really liked. But then it’s so literary, “Invocation.” That poem, it’s like a sort of . . . you know, it’s a religious poem. It’s an invocation in the devotional sense. And it just seemed to make the tone of the book something so different, even though I liked so much of how that poem is tonally. And I remember trying to switch around to see what would work, and I settled on “Kissing Hitler” for the first poem—one, ‘cause it has the title that’s so disruptive in it, and I think it kind of shows you—it’s like the overture, kind of shows you all the pieces you’re gonna get in the music—you know, you get the narrative world, the world of place, and this, sort of, the big, abusive language, with calling something “Kissing Hitler” nonchalantly, and then this sort of in-and-out of the dreaminess and the literal. So I thought that might be a good way to set the logic of the book, which I think is kind of . . . you have to do in a book. What’s the poem logic? What is the world of this book? I think of Frank Stanford’s [The] Singing Knives, his first book of poems, and in that, he’s got all of the book . . . it’s the skeleton key for the book. It teaches you how to read the book. It’s got Jimmy and Baby Gauge and Born In The Camp With Six Toes, these great mythic characters, he’s got these Greek allusions that he brings up, he’s got the knives, he’s got all the blood and guts, and he’s got the place, and he’s got himself, and he’s got the looking out at the river. It’s just a great poem. And it comes up with this image of the dragonflies toward the end of it, and then the last poem of the book, I think it’s called “The Snake Doctors,” which is a colloquial term for “dragonflies.” So the book has got this great pendulum swing of images that seem—Stanford seems like a messy, crazy lunatic, but that book is so brilliantly constructed. I remember noticing that for the first time and just being blown away, thinking, “I thought he was just this poet who pours himself out,” but really it’s so, so structured. You know, you get to take advantage of that when you’re putting your book together. You don’t get to think about those things when you’re writing a poem. That’s a great question.

DW: A lot of people, when they’re putting together their theses or their first books, they just agonize over the title, one, but they also agonize over whether to put it in sections—if so, how many sections? And you lose sleep over it, you really do. How and when did you come to the decision to just dispense with section breaks? ‘Cause it’s such a convention now.

MM: Yeah, I did that . . . I just couldn’t figure out why I would need them. And I remember reading lots of books that have section breaks in them. I remember Dismantling the Hills had all sorts of sections in it in some earlier draft, and I just couldn’t figure out why they were there. They just made no sense. Why? Maybe for some poets it’s a mark of punctuation or marks a difference in tone. But I just thought, “Well, for me that’s not the case.” And then the second book was the same way. It just, I couldn’t understand why I would need to break it up. Maybe the next book will be different. I’m not sure. That’s a great question, though. That’s another thing—that power of suggestion is really real, seeing what other poets do, and feeling like maybe, “Well, they’re poets. Maybe I should do that.”  It’s like, that stuff is there. Our own brains are so messy that way, you know. That’s a good question. Both books had section breaks in them, in some draft.

Audience: Do you find, in other ways, in the process of writing Home Burial specifically, that there were other ways that you had to kind of dispense with your notions of what other poets were doing, in order to kind of . . . ?

MM: I don’t know. I didn’t even really think about it. You know, some poems seem—you know, that didn’t end up in there—seem really derivative of other poets I liked, you know, or exercises in copying someone’s, you know, style or something. But, not really. I’m not too worried about that in general. But I can’t write without reading poets. I got ten books open, and it’s like, if I get stuck I go read some Charles Wright, or, you know, read some Tranströmer or Marianne Moore or somebody. I need all those voices.

Audience: How true is that? I mean, there’s like a legit . . . I was reading on Psychology Today, they say people stuck in a situation of their own tend to have trouble solving a problem by looking at it from their perspective, but as soon as you ask them to think of it as like, a fictional character, or somebody else, they can solve the problem in ten minutes. You know, I think in the same way for poetry.

MM: For me, I’ve learned—everything about writing, I’ve learned it from another poet’s book. For sure. You know, how to make an image, or what the possibilities of a simile are. I mean, I definitely read books just for my own pleasure, but I also take them—take the poems all apart and see how they go. Larry Levis, a huge poetry hero of mine, for sure, I just love the way he uses that, you know, the woman walked into the room, and coughed, and the cough floated out the window, and into another person’s room, and that person, you know, turned to the fridge and was reminded of their mother, and it was like this, and it’s like twenty-five metaphors of one single thing piled up on each other to make this vast landscape of emotion and narrative and memory and whatever. But it’s all just really one description of one thing, and he’s so great at that. It’s amazing. That’s something I totally admire and copy in my own poems. I just think that that way of making a, you know, using an image or a simile as a leaping off point into a narrative. So, you know, he’s the master, so why not look at what he does. Or Charles Wright’s got twenty thousand similes for a mountain. Great. How does he do it? I don’t know, I feel totally unafraid to copy other people. I think that’s how you learn how to do things. Copy in the artsy sense.

Audience: If you copy from one person, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from twenty people it’s really a piece of art.

DW: Michael, could you talk a little bit about—you know, you’ve done a lot of like—when you talk about these poets who are your heroes, you’ve done a lot of, I guess what I’d call, like, good civic stuff for poetry, like you did that David Wevill selected poems, and I’d never heard of him, and I just found him a terrific poet, but I really want to hear you talk about Tavern Books, because that seems like a completely unique sort of publishing project, and how it came about and what you’re doing with it now.

MM: Sure. Well, I think Tavern Books came out of the same place that the Wevill selected came out of, and that was looking at work that I thought was brilliant and knowing that it had no readership or home, or was so out of print it may as well never have been printed in the first place. And after I made that Wevill book for Truman State, I thought, well, this is fantastic. I got a whole shelf—I’m a book collector, so I have thousands of poetry books. And I was so tired of calling my poetry friends and saying, “Oh, listen to this Thomas James poem!” And, you know, if you’re not willing to spend three hundred dollars on a Thomas James book, you don’t get to read those poems. And that was the impetus for starting Tavern Books, was reprinting books that I thought were amazing. My friend Carl Adamshick and I started the press—another poet—and we just made a list. What are the best poetry books that are out of print? You know, Killarney Clary’s Who Whispered Near Me, Tranströmer’s Baltics and the Charters translations. Those are all books that were on our list from the get-go. So we’re just working down it, trying to figure out a way to get these books back in print. The great thing about poets is that all their books go out of print almost immediately. So you call up Peter Everwine, really nervous, and say, “We really would like to republish your Natan Zach translation.” And he’s like, “Great!” And that’s it, you know. I thought I had to convince him it was a good idea. And so really, Tavern Books is a reflection of the books that Carl and myself love, just some of our favorite books that are completely obscure and out of print. And a lot of those books happen to be in translation, so a lot of the reprints we do are in translation. And so really it’s just kind of a reader’s—it’s a reflection of the reading, the home library. And it doesn’t—it doesn’t have an aesthetic agenda. The books are all over the map that way. I don’t know. We’re just going down the list. We just reprinted Gary Miranda’s Duino Elegies translation, which is just a fantastic translation. Again, printed by two very small presses, out of print for years and years. So that’s a way to sum it up, I guess. It’s just trying to figure out how to do it, you know—how to get these books back.

Audience: I was struck by something you said earlier about this—that need to kind of bridge the psychological component with the image. And I was thinking just about my own background, and how, coming from hardworking people, sometimes writing seems like such a kind of frivolous thing to do. Sometimes I think I get the same satisfaction from writing that, you know, my grandmother got from putting in a garden or making a dress. Do you feel like the writing of the poem has the same kind of—is it the same sort of experience for you as seeing a writer who’s out of print being reprinted?

MM: I think so. I think publishing those books is—you know, I’m publishing the books that I think are the best. I’m only writing the poems as good as I can get them. So, on the scale, you know, Who Whispered Near Me is way better than Home Burial, in my mind. You know, I’d be publishing myself if I thought I was the best. But I don’t feel that way. But no, I take immense pleasure in it, and you know, we also offset print our books, which, you know, costs a fortune. We make hardbacks, which is a fool’s errand, from a business model. But I love it. I’ll do it until it blows up. Which it may, or may not. Tomorrow. But I think it’s a great endeavor. I really believe in it. I believe in the book. I believe in the book. You ask people what they’re reading now, and it’s like, “Oh, I downloaded a couple things with typos in it from the internet.” I love Carolyn Forché’s typo–ridden download. That’s a really shortsighted reading experience. And I feel—I feel so connected to the book as an art object, and the history of offset printing and all that. So it’s kind of a—the press also has those sorts of entrenched views with it as well. Short run digital printing, this is the death and the great liberation of contemporary poetry. You know, it’s a conundrum. You know, what do you do? I’m not sure. So I take great pleasure—I take a lot of pride in the premise of the press, and especially the books we publish. And then, you know, you get an email from someone saying, “I’ve never heard of Nelly Sachs, and I just read Glowing Enigmas.” Now, that’s amazing. That’s our bestselling book. You know, that’s one of the most significant pieces of Holocaust literature written. It didn’t exist four months ago. So, it’s great. It’s way more important than my own work. I feel, honestly, that way. I hope the press can keep going. We’ll see.

Audience: One question I kind of had is maybe a more practical question about, how do you manage yourself as a writer, and the work? You know, what does that kind of look like for you? Do you go about your daily life and daily errands and the images intrigue you? Or, what is that balance?

MM: It really depends on how busy life is, I guess. I mean I have my notebook, and I don’t have any religious sort of views on writing. Or, I don’t get up at, like William Stafford, at five and write five poems. I wish I did, but I don’t. I don’t know. I just try to—some days are busier than others. Sometimes the poems don’t get written. That’s how it goes.

Audience: So your process is fairly integrated into your life?

MM: Oh, it’s just a mess.

Audience: If you’ve got a napkin, you’re gonna write on it.

MM: Yeah, it’s just a total mess. But I do feel all out of sorts when I’m not getting work done. So that keeps me going back to trying to get more work done. For sure. It makes life much better when you’re not worried about whether or not you’re writing, if you’re actually getting some work done. So, I don’t know. It’s hard.

Audience: Who’s your best first reader?

MM: Oh, my wife. She’s also a poet, and she’s an amazing first reader, and extremely honest. So she’s a great asset. I have very close friends, all down the line, who read my work, but she’s my first reader. And we share a lot of—we share our reading experiences, so we’ve read a lot of the same books and talk about a lot of the same poets, so the conversation is kind of built in, like “You’re just ripping off James Wright!” You know, that conversation happens a lot faster with my wife than it does Michael Dickman, you know, for example, who’s a good friend who reads my work. So, she’s great. I couldn’t do it without these people. I couldn’t make it. I could never get any work done.

Audience: How soon do you show her a draft?

MM: Oh, right away. Yeah, it feels like such an accomplishment to get some work done. Like, “Oh hey, look what I made!” Some macaroni on the paper plate, the glue, you know. It’s kind of that experience.

DW: Folks, I think we’ve got time for one more question.

MM: Oh man, pressure.

Audience: So I mean, you do talk a lot about your work through your friends. That’s an interesting kind of issue I’ve thought about, is, you know, what is the value of art? I guess Warhol’s got this kind of quote, I mean, art being this entirely useless thing, that you give it away. It’s something people don’t need that you give away. But, this value of art almost being to, you know, unite communities, whether it’s a friendly community, or something like that.

MM: Good ques—that’s a good, nebulous thing. I’m not sure. I don’t write poems for anyone but myself. I don’t. I used to feel like I did, and now I feel like I’m completely just doing it because I’m interested to see how I can make something meaningful.

Audience: It’s kind of a very altruistic form of selfishness.

McGriff: I think, yeah, I guess I’m not sure. I mean I think we—sometimes we make up these narratives about other artists and what they do. I don’t really think Philip Levine writes for the people of Detroit in some sort of socialist way. I don’t think so. People like to say that he does. It seems maybe that’s an easy narrative leap, but I think he writes poems for himself. Trying to get at those things that make him who he is. Even people who write commercially successful novels, I really don’t think they write them to get paid. Unless they did. But I’m not sure. It’s a good question. I used to think about that. I’m used to thinking about my poetry heroes, like “Oh, Neruda would like this poem.” Or, “I don’t feel that way at all now.” That’s why there’s so many different kinds of books, I think. And so many similar books, and those become boring, I think, to read. Great question.

Audience: I know you said only one more, but I’m going to ask one more. I’m just curious, given your dedication to the book, which I really admire, do you have a reaction to poets and Facebook?

MM: Oh, not at all. I don’t know. I think…

Audience: Just a reaction to it.

MM: Yeah, to Facebook. I just got on Facebook. So, maybe your question is, you know, being publicly present in some digital way, you know. I’m not really sure. I think it’s . . . some people get driven mad by it. It’s really interesting that people are expected to be publicly present in a way that is totally not conducive to getting anything done, artistically. There’s no way. You can’t be watching a great movie if you’re saying what you had at McDonald’s. And I’m not a Luddite at all, but for me, I just can’t—I’m not too—I feel no pressure to be on there, or to have a public persona. People say you have to be on there to get a job, you know, yada yada yada. People say all sorts of things. Thanks, you guys.

Audience: Thank you.  end

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