BY DOYALI ISLAM
Michael Bazzett is an NEA fellow & the author of three books of poetry: You Must Remember This, (Winner of the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry); Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books); and The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and The Iowa Review, among others. His translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. He lives in Minneapolis. You can find out more at www.michaelbazzett.com.
On April 12th, 2018, poet Michael Bazzett and I had this conversation over Skype—him in Minneapolis, me in Toronto. We discussed his latest book, The Interrogation (Milkweed, 2017), as well as his work as a whole. The following is a transcription.
Doyali Islam: Hello! We made it!
Michael Bazzett: [Laughs] We did! I’m very impressed that I figured this out.
DI: How’s your morning going?
MB: So far so good. We’re having coffee together. I stopped at a café on my way in to work. I’m one of those bike commuter people. Are you familiar with Minneapolis at all? I’m at The Lynhall; it’s a nice place.
DI: So let’s jump in. I really enjoyed The Interrogation. It wasn’t what I expected from the title and the cover. It felt wider and more capacious, which I loved. There are so many facets to it, and I liked that you explored the idea of ‘interrogation’ in different ways.
MB: That’s neat to hear. I love the cover because it’s so arresting. And captures the idea of interrogating the self.
The cover’s actually an Alec Soth photograph, and I believe that’s his face that’s been digitized. So the photographer is photographing himself, and, of course, given the fact that it was used as a target, it all seemed to fit metaphorically. It’s striking how many people, when they first hold it, they put a finger—they reach toward the bullet holes, so there’s something tactile and almost three-dimensional about them where they want to go into the book.
I’m a huge fan of his work. My first book, You Must Remember This, has a photo from him as well, which was a project where he was trying to capture—essentially—men who go off the grid, men who disappear. So he was trying to photograph the unphotographable. And the image was just a simple knife that someone had fixed using wire. Rather than going in to buy a new one… So almost like a natural history of all of this guy’s possessions that had been retooled and fixed and rehashed... But a friend of mine said they weren’t sure it was a knife; they thought it was a whaler’s harpoon dipped in ink, and I was like, “Okay.” I definitely judge my book by its cover, if that’s the case.
I was really excited to go with Alec Soth again, but I do think the book maybe has a range. I think that there’s a masculine energy it brings, and also a kind of… I mean, there is a fair amount of brutality, and it’s looking at cruelty and violence and our capacity for that, but I think there’s also a lot of tenderness in the book.
DI: Yeah! I was just going to say that I did sort of feel the masculine energies from it, but also these lovely little moments of tenderness. That was exactly the word I was thinking about. It’s funny that you mention the debut cover with the knife, because one of my questions about this book was the recurring images of knives, in different ways.
DI: Sometimes women are cutting carrots or cucumber, or knives are used to kill pigs. And then the poem about the light, with the wound, and the interrogation, how did this happen? The speaker’s saying, “It was the light.” I was wondering, what is your preoccupation with knives?
MB: I think, well, poems can serve as blades, yeah? And I like the fact that you’re looking at the duality; the knife’s not always an agent of violence there; it’s also used to cut bread; we don’t just tear it off in hunks with our hands. And I’m thinking a blade is something that opens up. I remember being really young when I first encountered that Emily Dickinson quote where she’s reading poetry and feels the top of her head has been taken off. And I do love when poetry does that, opens you up without surgery [laughs], and I think that duality and also humor—which is a technique I enjoy, and sometimes I’ll employ joke structures in poems that aren’t even funny— almost always has a blade in it; it’s got an edge. And so much of how the knife is used depends on… I mean, I think you can extend the metaphor: a really well-honed blade hurts less, goes deeper, can perhaps be more useful but also more deadly, and I think that idea of craft as opposed to the dull blade when you’re reading just flabby prose [laughs] doesn’t do quite as much. I’m one of those people that’s acutely aware that the surfaces of things aren’t real; they’re just the surfaces of things. So that desire to get into the depth, I think, is probably muddied a lot by… I almost think of it as ‘blade’ as opposed to ‘knife.’ Because that’s what needs to be honed and have the edge.
But it was interesting when I saw that catalogue of references. You’d run through the quotes you noticed, and I was like, “Oh my goodness; it’s strong.” I wasn’t even totally aware of the pattern.
DI: Yeah, I guess it’s sometimes easier as a reader, because one is completely new to the work.
MB: I’m still carrying around the 60-80 pages of poems that were cut, so the book still has the nimbus of that energy a little bit.
DI: I was thinking about that yesterday, because I’m working on a book of poems that comes out next year, and I’ve cut a lot of poems as well, and a lot of verses from certain poems. And I was thinking that, in the end, it’s not necessary to have certain things, because I think every poet has a different energy—almost this tangible thing that, even if certain diction doesn’t get into the text proper, I feel almost like it still carries forward from the work as a whole.
MB: It somehow maintains that energy. Like the last thing you cut, you know, it’s like the pit of the peach. You know you’re not going to eat it, but it needs to be there for the fruit to grow. And you see that concavity and that redness that’s bled into the flesh that’s often the sweetest part of the fruit. No, I completely agree with that. Poems are like little bodies. They carry energy with them.
DI: That’s beautiful. I like what you said about ‘surfaces’ just now. I can’t remember the name of the poem, but there’s a poem where you say that we are human, but we all think we’re individual…
MB: “The Fact.”
DI: That was an interesting poem for me, because I do feel that we’re all interconnected in so many ways—like our physicality, what we’re made of… We eat something, and it’s true, we do become it. But then, also, I have chronic/recurrent pain, and for me at this stage… Like, maybe there are some mindfulness techniques or something to think about pain differently or experience it differently, but I feel like that pain is mine—so, again, it’s a weird tension where we’re all connected, and yet we still have to bear these individual sufferings. So that poem made me think a lot.
MB: Yeah. Well, I think, too, of that line, “What arises from the body is irrefutable.” And the fact that I think so much of the individual agency we have in the world really is an extension of social constructs and post-enlightenment thinking where the smallest possible unit of human society became the individual. But for, what, a quarter of a million years, homo sapiens have been around, and, generally speaking, the smallest viable unit has been a family, a tribe, a collective—some gathering. At the very least, our identities have always been relational. So this is the new aberration, thinking of ourselves as these autonomous atoms and forgetting that there’s gravity, that there are forces that are always at play on us. So, it’s an idea that I’m really very fascinated with.
An editor, I think it was Melissa Crowe at Beloit Poetry Journal, said that poem was my accidental ars poetica. And I think it’s kind of true. I wasn’t thinking about it in that way at all, because it’s kind of like Philip K. Dick-replicant Blade Runner territory. I am also fascinated with artificial intelligences—Plato’s allegory of the cave and all of that epistemological stuff, too—so if you think you’re an individual, you’re an individual, in your mind, and of course you might not be at all. It would be a great way to program clones. [Laughs]
DI: [Laughs] So how do you think that might play out in your future poetic endeavors? Do you think you might move toward collaboration, or what might it mean?
MB: That’s a good question. These first three books, they feel like siblings to me. And they’re of a piece. I was 48 when my first book came out, so I’d been writing solidly and seriously for more than two decades. And Our Lands Are Not So Different is very much the companion book to You Must Remember This. But The Interrogation contains the poems that were made in the flush of those books landing in the world and my seeing a poetry audience for the first time, and realizing that it was this animal that actually exists; it’s not one of Borges’s imaginary creatures. And also hearing responses. Because I do have a storytelling bent, and I will use humor. I was kind of writing on my own. I didn’t get an MFA. I didn’t really have a community. So my first reading in Minneapolis at the book launch was one of the first poetry readings I’d ever done in my life, so I’d truly never met eyes with a poetry audience. And I didn’t go to a lot: I’m a high school teacher. I’m busy. I’ve got a full-time job. I have two young children.
DI: Yeah, you have a family!
MB: Yeah. When Seamus Heaney was in town I would go see him, but it often took someone of that stature to kind of penetrate the stupor, the busyness of having kids. Now I’m suddenly at this point where I’m like, “What’s next?”—but in a good way. It seems plausible that there will be another book. I’m intrigued by the idea of collaboration, but I also just finished a translation project that was really ten years in the making: The Popul Vuh is the Mayan creation epic. It was a book-length project. It’s gonna be coming out in September from Milkweed as well. I’m really fascinated with mythology.
I don’t know why, but I’ve been doing a ton of re-tellings and refractions of the myth of Echo and Narcissus which seems to me just perfect for 20th century late-stage capitalist culture. But I think I’m gonna just take my time with that. I have that kind of restlessness… that all my poems don’t sound the same. And letting something be polyphonic, where I can be inside Echo’s voice and inside Narcissus’s voice. I think it would be very fascinating to tell that story in a 21st century context, so we’ll see.
DI: I really look forward to hearing more about how that progresses! It sounds great.
MB: I look forward to reading your book, too!
DI: Thank you. I’ve been working on it since 2010, so it’s been a long time, and I feel like I’ve been very patient with it—letting it unfold slowly, and I’m okay with that.
You mentioned your family, which reminds me of that poem, “The Meat of It.” [Laughs]
DI: Because you mention—or, the speaker mentions a son, and so I don’t want to assume that that exact moment happened in real life, but it was such a great poem for the humor and metadiscursive aspects of it, and also it made me kind of hungry. [Laughs] This is such a random question, but what’s the best burger you’ve ever eaten?
MB: I love that question and, I think, coming up in the context of the poem it makes me think of a moment I had with my son, almost ten years ago now. We were playing pond hockey on a Saturday afternoon. He was very young—probably six or seven. It was about the first time he could go out and be in the mix and not get run over, you know. And we ran into some folks who were very good, including a couple of Swedish women. I don’t know who they were. They were speaking Swedish, and they were ridiculously skilled players, and they had Bruno, my son, on their team and they kind of adopted him. They kept setting him up for these beautiful tap-in goals. It was this amazing moment for him as a little boy. And afterward, we kind of had that glow, and I said, “Let’s go get a burger.” I took him to a place in Minneapolis called Matt’s, which is really kind of a dive bar, not really where you take a six, seven year-old boy. But they make a burger called the “Jucy Lucy,” where it’s two patties, and they put American cheese on the inside, and then they crimp the edges. So the cheese is melted on the inside of the burger—
MB:—and there’s a griddle that I don’t know has ever been properly cleaned in the last 40 years, with that kind of accumulation of chopped onions… And you have to be careful when you bite into the burger, ‘cause it’s this molten experience. It is a great burger, but the look on his face—[laughs]—was remarkable. They don’t even have dishes. They serve it in a basket of wax paper, and if you order a drink, you get a can of root beer, you know. It’s a kind of dive-y place. It just comes with onions on it, and it’s got the cheese on the inside of it. There’s no frills, but it’s a remarkable burger. It was a nice kind of almost-accidental ending to a perfect day.
DI: Oh, that’s lovely. I think soda always tastes better straight from the can. I don’t know why. It’s like a weird—
MB: Yeah. Well, he was pretty excited about it.
DI: [Laughs] That grill is well-seasoned. [Laughs]
MB: [Laughs] Exactly. Seasoned. That’s such a lovely word. [Laughs] Or, hasn’t been properly cleaned. [Laughs]
DI: [Laughs] Trust a poet to have all of the euphemisms.
What else shall we talk about? What do you wish somebody would ask you in an interview that you’ve never been asked? Is there something that always seems missing that you’re sort of hoping an interview approaches?
MB: Well, I think you touched upon it with the cover, and maybe it’s… I just feel there’s poems in the collection that I felt quite vulnerable about, in terms of how they take risks with points of view. A poem like “They,” for instance, that is thinking of whiteness as absence or being drained. Or “Miles,” where the speaker is kind of inside this—not liberal guilt exactly, but it’s in that voice, where it’s like, “Oh I get to meet Miles Davis,” sort of missing the entire racial context. Or “On the Subway,” where there’s this voice that’s using a sort of humor, but what’s happening is creepy. You’re giving something to someone that they don’t want, which made me re-think that poem a little bit in the context of #MeToo. But I think the reality of the book is that it’s polyphonic enough that that element, generally speaking, people don’t comment on. It doesn’t come out.
One of the main things the book is interrogating is a certain version of masculinity that I grew up inside. Someone who is straight, who is white—that cis-gendered football-playing poster boy for privilege, in some respects. And I think the ways in which poetry is trying to address and question and sometimes dismantle that, to me, right now, in the poetics of the 21st century, is really intriguing.
Many people are confronting this idea of how we—I’m almost tempted to use the word ‘perform’—perform race. We assert and recognize race as a social construct, sure. But it’s also profoundly real, with profoundly real consequences—i.e., that assertion doesn’t undercut it. And in some demographics, in the zeitgeist—you see white people becoming aware of the fact that they’re performing race, too; they’re not the default. But it’s a slowly creeping, quiet thing, and some of the poems inhabit voices or explore liminal spaces where those ideas are stirring…. That was kind of a wayward answer, but does that make sense?
DI: Yeah, for sure. It’s reminding me of two things: first, your e-mail comment. We were talking about how the book went missing—[laughs]—twice in transit, and you said something like, “The border is a construct,” or, “Borders are constructs, but they’re also a pain in the ass because the construct does have real effects on bodies and whole communities.” But the other thing I was thinking of was, I always think it’s so funny how, in an interview situation, it always seems the burden of a person of color to talk about oppression—
DI:—and how their ‘heritage’ has affected their writing.
MB: [Laughs] Yeah, and if you’re writing a poem about gardening, everyone’s like, “When’s the rest of it going to arrive?” and you’re like, “No, I’m writing a poem about gardening.”
DI: [Laughs] Right. And you’re always, I feel, called upon to talk about race and other things, and I always think, maybe able-bodied, white, cis-gendered men don’t get asked these questions. So that’s an interesting dynamic. It’s like, I don’t think the interviewers should be asking me; I think the questions should go somewhere else.
MB: I think that’s well-said. In a way, your question’s saying, what’s the absence in the book? It’s not like that’s necessarily the predominant thread in the book, but it’s certainly present, and I think once it’s pointed out, people are like, “Oh yeah, I see it there.” But they see the funny stuff, or they see the human cruelty and brutality… They see the themes that are present in the book that almost always come up. Surrealism comes up every time. I mean, obviously, that’s one of my defaults.
DI: I was wondering if maybe we could turn there, just to go back to the poem “Rain” and to your use of surrealism. What I love about “Rain” is, first, the music. It’s almost intuitive the way I read a poem. Even if I’m not reading it aloud, which usually I do, I can instantly hear when there’s music there. It always feels like a current that’s pulling me under the surface of the text, and in “Rain” I really feel that prominently. And the imagery is beautiful. There is such a gentleness in that poem, and then its audacious ending, “like a lover”—I was like, “Whoa, who does that?!” [Laughs]
DI: Could you talk a bit about why you use surrealism? Was it conscious, or did you start to do it and then sort of interrogate the turn toward it?
MB: It was integral to me finding my voice as a poet. Because I think everyone is profoundly a weirdo. It’s that paradox that unites us all, because we’re so utterly our own weirdos. Yet the world will assign that much more readily to some people than to others. I think that notion of the inner weird, of carrying that around inside… The way we experience the world is so utterly internal. And it’s filtered almost immediately through all sorts of lenses, but also the imagination. So for me, surrealism is a way toward honesty. The way some of Russell Edson’s fables sometimes read like beautiful little dreams that reveal something very profound—about family or gender or about suburban life in late 20th century America—that well-observed lyric poems couldn’t achieve.
I think my poems didn’t fully start to sound like me until they became weird. And my imagination is a huge part of how I experience and interpret the world. And so then you take a poem like “Rain,” where the rhyme became internal and the music’s there, because it had a different line length…
A lot of my poems I will write formally and then they shift, or, I loved how you said ‘a current that pulls you under,’ because that’s what happens with a lot of my poems. I don’t feel fully comfortable with the formal chops, or I’ll run into some kind of issue with prosody and I feel like I can’t solve it, so I’ll let the poem melt out of that form, but it will hold the husk of it. And with that one, I think it’s still quite strong where the rhyme starts to be a little syncopated as opposed to regular.
So on the one hand, I am sometimes really driven by music and sound, but then there’s that pull toward the one weird element that gets to the truth. ‘Cause once I find that, I usually tell everything very straight. French surrealism will sometimes lose me, because it’s so out there. It’s so out there. It’s so anarchic. I think I still probably have a bit of faith in language to convey a story and to build bridges between people, and I understand how power and authority intersect with that, but that’s just me being an artist looking at poetry almost as a form of prayer among people, not to any sort of divine.
DI: That’s beautiful.
MB: [Laughs] Oh, it was your question! [Laughs]
DI: [Laughs] This is so great; I’m having such a lovely time talking with you.
MB: I’ve not done a ton of interviews face to face. It’s so nice. It’s better—as opposed to me just staring at questions and generating a paragraph for each one, which feels perilously close to writing an essay; it’s like someone’s tricked you into writing an essay. [Laughs]
DI: For sure. Well, I’ve been thinking more and more about the times we’re living in, and how it’s more urgent for us to figure out how to come together in various ways, and I just think that being together and, like, being in somebody’s presence as fully as you can be, is important—so Skype if we’re not in the same city, but you know, trying to get out, and being together with humans. There’s something deeply nourishing and… I want to say it’s an act of resistance, I guess. Like, the most basic kind. [Laughs]
MB: Yeah, yeah.
DI: What else…? You mentioned that you feel like your books are all siblings to one another.
MB: The first three? Yeah.
DI: So I had asked you, do you perceive each of your books as a kind of person that you encounter every time you pick that book up? And are you still happy with your debut? I know a lot of authors ‘get over’ their debut—[laughs]—maybe within a year. They’re just over it; they want to move on to the next thing. So how do you feel about all of these works?
MB: I love the idea of the book as a person. You know, when I think of books that I return to again and again, it’s like they’re old friends. Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, or The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, or Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, or Lucille Clifton’s Selected Poems…
DI: Book of Light?!
MB: Yeah… Where you can just go into it like, “[sigh of relief] I’m home.” It’s like those friends you get back together with and you don’t catch up with them in the interim, and you’re immediately talking about the light coming through the window, and what’s happened. You’re just present. You’re in the now. And then there are those books that could be really marvelous, and you’re in the moment, and then sometimes they’ll evaporate for a while, and it takes you a long time to rediscover them.
There are times when you’re in conversation with somebody, and it’s just marvelous. It’s magic, and it is the light through the window, and the coffee you’re drinking, and there’s Thelonious Monk in the background, and it’s all kind of perfect. And then there are other times when you’ve got a slight headache from looking at a screen too long, you pick the book up, something’s pulsing behind your left eye. It’s the same poem. [Laughs] I like that way of thinking about it.
I’m lucky. I didn’t feel this way at the time, but not having a book come out until you’re 48, I think helps. If I had what I had thought was my first book come out so long ago, I might feel a little estranged from it. There’s still some proximity, because it only was, what, four years ago, but, honestly, I feel gratitude and a lot of affection [laughs], you know, for the fact that this was the little book that finally broke through somehow, and connected with Kevin Prufer as a judge, and suddenly I was a writer. It was coming out. It had won [the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry]. And it was interesting because my wife assembled the manuscript.
MB: Yes. she’s really a partner in all these endeavors. It’s a funny story, but I guess we’ve got time.
DI: Yeah! Please.
MB: I’d been a finalist the year before; it was the only time I’d ever been a finalist for anything, and the prize at that time—this is no longer true—demanded exclusivity. And the majority of what eventually became Our Lands Are Not So Different had been a finalist before. So I had submitted it to like 8 or 10 places, which is you know, that’s like $250-300 in submission fees and 6-8 months of waiting, sometimes.
DI: Yep. [Laughs]
MB: So, the deadline rolled around for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize, and I wanted to act with integrity. They’d been good to me, I’d come close. I had about 200 pages either that were new or that I felt were good… And she offered to do it—she took some of those favorite collections and read them and said, “Okay, I’ll put together a book for you.”
MB: She came up with the title, You Must Remember This. It actually came out of a conversation we had a couple of days prior, when... I’d been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with my students, and I just said [to her], “You know, it occurred to me today in class that the opposite—the etymological opposite—of the word remember is dis-member. It’s not forget. So when we’re remembering something, we assemble it; we’re making it whole again.” It just made the word more tactile.
It was one of those cool things where you realize there’s this profound truth inside a word you’ve said 10,000 times, and you’re hearing it for the first time. It was the convergence of that little moment of us having a drink in the evening and me sharing a little anecdote, and then she did: she put the book together. She sectioned it, she ordered it, and that’s the manuscript I took literally through the snow to deliver to Milkweed by hand, you know, on the day that it was due. She included poems in there that I felt really vulnerable about or that I hadn’t submitted. I’d put them in there because I’d somewhat wanted to make her laugh, or—I don’t know. She was my only audience.
MB: And so my first emotion was utter delight—but my second one was kind of terror, like, “Oh my god, I’m being honest, and this is what’s going to go into the world.” [Laughs]
DI: I totally understand that.
MB: I think there was a profound lesson in it, though, that you have to go to that place, even if it frightens you.
DI: Yeah, I’m at that place now, ‘cause I’ve started writing about my body and chronic pain and just… My first book, which was in 2011, was a little too ethereal and not grounded enough, and this one is so much more personal, and it’s very scary, because basically every night I go to sleep thinking, “Oh my god, this is what’s going to go out into the world, and you can’t take it back; it’s irretrievable at that point,” but I have to do it, so I just block it out and I’m like, “These poems are meant to go in this direction.” So yeah. That’s wonderful.
MB: Yeah, yeah. And when you’re really following the work, it is a little scary. I always have this idea of, like, you know, seeing footprints in the snow. You don’t quite know what it is. You see the tracks of something you don’t fully recognize. Those are good poems.
DI: Yeah. It’s funny, with this manuscript I’m doing now, I feel like… I don’t know if you felt like this, but, I felt like the manuscript, up until recently, was within my control, and that I could see almost the whole of it as like a broad cloth or something that I could hold up, and now it almost feels like it’s passed beyond, um, my… I don’t know… My sense of it as a whole. Like it’s become so large it’s impossible to hold it all in my mind. And I like that. I’ve never had that before. I wonder if you experienced that with your manuscript.
MB: That’s a good question, but I almost feel like, in some ways, because Leslie writes fiction—she’s a novelist—so she’s got that gift of seeing the big narrative arc and holding it together, so I’m really blessed to be in the partnership. It’s a fantasy to bring 200 pages to someone, and then they hand you a book 3 days later, like, “Oh! Here it is.” I have folders that are usually titled with preoccupations; I don’t really compose books, per se, and that was really true of the first one. This new project—the Echo and Narcissus thing—might look different because it has a narrative shape already, but often when I read books—especially initially—I start in the middle. I move around. I must be a little maddening, because people spend all this time ordering to get this beautiful narrative arc. It is a box of chocolates, and if I’ve read seven or eight and say these are all really good, then I’ll sometimes go back and say, “Okay, I’m gonna read the book, you know, and see them in their context, in their natural habitat.” I’m that same way with journals when I’m composing.
MB: Someone will give me a beautiful bound journal, and I start writing in the middle and the back and sometimes it’s upside down. I just am not a linear person in that sense. And I think it’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward poetry. So for me, I write poems more than books. But I think people being who they are, you’re still always probably writing books. You just sort of gather them.
DI: The word ‘preoccupation’ made me think of my first question [when I formed them], about truth and the limits of knowing. What do you teach in high school?
MB: Eleventh- to twelfth-grade English. The kids are 16, 17, 18 years old.
DI: Uh-huh… I was just thinking back to my favorite class in high school, which was a Philosophy class, and how we talked about metaphysics, epistemology… But I was wondering about these wonderful lines like, “Scent / cannot lie” in the poem “Lazarus,” or “It was the first handshake of my life / that did not feel contrived” in the poem “Confessions.” And so, how do you think these preoccupations began? Maybe that’s a hard question, I don’t know!
MB: That’s a good one. I mean I think some of it is an awareness of one of my favorite ways to access the world. I was a big reader as a kid. The illusions contained truth. That right there is already a riddle, right? Sitting in the cool of my basement on a hot summer day, completely lost in another world… I read pretty widely and idiosyncratically: the magazines that my parents had, a lot of science fiction. I was a big Ray Bradbury fan. I remember finding all of these late Leo Tolstoy fables that he wrote after he renounced the aristocracy and went back to the land. Robinson Crusoe. It totally took off the top of my head. I read whatever was around. Reader’s Digest books. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan. It’s unbelievable how racist that book is, but it’s something I didn’t see at the time, because I was inside of reading these amazing adventure stories.
All the reading created this buried awareness that you make stuff up and put it in a story and that’s somehow going to access deeper things. And then, there’s the fact that I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic schools for twelve years. The Nicene Creed, “All things seen and unseen”—you have an entire religion based on the idea that what you see is not what you get. You know, the real world is beyond this one. That’s just the price of admission. If the real world is beyond this one, you’ve got to get good at looking. [Laughs]
MB: I think that leads me to that place that you’re talking about, all those epistemological moments—whether it’s The Matrix or the Allegory of the Cave or The Tempest—that’s just the same story in different clothing, you know, again and again. And it’s a story that I like, just because there’s that sense of being always at the limits of our knowledge, right? We’re always like, “We know now more than we ever have.” That’s the human condition. That was the truth 20,000 years ago. The fact of what really matters is probably just beyond the horizon—I mean, in 300 years, god knows what people will be, but I’m sure there will be a lot that we look back upon and realize how wrong we were.
DI: This is a terrible analogy, but it makes me think of shampoo commercials—
DI:—or, you know, like skin-care products. They’re always, like, “New and improved!” And you’re like, “So you were trying to sell me the crappier version, and now you’re telling me this is the one.” Anyway, I sometimes think about scientific knowledge like that.
DI: You mentioned a lot of authors. One was Lucille Clifton. For me, if I had to choose one poem only that I could only live with forever and remember forever, it would be Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” and I wonder if you have one. If you had to only keep one poem.
MB: It’s funny, I just re-read that poem a few days ago and pulled out that chunk about the bridge, that section…
DI: “starshine and clay”
MB: Yeah… That one would be in my top ten.
I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. As an undergrad, I went to Carleton College, and I encountered “A Blessing” by James Wright in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and he name-checks Rochester, Minnesota in the first line. I didn’t know you could be a poet from there. And that ending, “I would break / into blossom,” I think I may have re-written that poem in different ways for, like, the first ten years of being a poet, again and again and again. That would be a big one for me.
DI: I don’t know that poem!
MB: “A Blessing.” James Wright.
DI: I’ll have to look it up.
MB: That would be a big one for me. And probably closest to my poetic heart. Well, I have a picture of Wislawa Szymborska on the buffet in my house, and another of Saramago—kind of in the hopes that people will mistake them for my grandparents—[Laughs]
MB: Saramago, I just loved his novels. I think I’ve started off every summer—and you know how important summers are to teachers—maybe for the last ten or 11 years reading a Saramago novel in my hammock. And Szymborska, it would be very very hard to bring it down to one poem, but I’m tempted to say “The People on the Bridge.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?
MB: It’s an ekphrastic poem where she’s looking at a wood carving by Hiroshige Utagawa from 19th century Japan, and it’s got this framing device, where this person is looking at other people looking at this painting. And as they’re looking at it, there’s this sudden downpour. All the laws of physics have been broken. Time has been stopped. They’re actually feeling raindrops, even though they’re in a museum. It captures a lot of what we’ve been talking about in all of 30 lines. The whole body of her work—her sardonic sense of humor, the fact that she had such a twinkle in her eye when you think about what it means to live in Poland during her lifetime. What she saw, what she lived. And the persistence and endurance and liveliness. Her work just seems so deeply human to me.
And I think her approach appealed to me as a mid-westerner. You know, Minnesota… Wisconsin… the Dakotas... where it’s not ‘the’ mid-west; it’s more of this northern thing—particularly in Minnesota, there’s this Scandinavian reticence. There’s a lot more implied than is ever said. So the late 20th century Cold War poets…The Polish poets, folks like Simic—I get them completely. You can’t say it straight. It has to be buried, or come out sideways. So in a weird way, I feel very at home in that aesthetic. When I discovered those poems, I was like, “I’m home,” which is weird, but, you know, it just shows what poems can do.
DI: For sure. Yeah. I forget where I was reading it—it might have been another interview—but you mentioned Zbigniew Herbert, and I love his work. In Against Forgetting, there’s a beautiful poem called “The Wall.” (It’s very short.) And I love how he works with time in the poem, and it’s such an enduring poem. And so I think I understand what you mean about feeling at home, even though you’re crossing cultures and time. I don’t know… I mean, I guess we can’t think—I won’t go there. Never mind. [Laughs]
MB: Yeah this could crack wide open. [Laughs]
DI: [Laughs] Yeah. …Okay, checking the time. We have ten minutes. Do your children write poetry? Are they drawn toward any artistic discipline?
MB: No, not in an extended way, although I think they both have their own lovely relationship with language. My oldest, definitely, has written some poetry and gravitates toward, really, like, Victorian, Lord Byron-type stuff. And my youngest, he just turned 15, so writing, with him, right now, is very much associated with schoolwork, yet when he has a chance to… I’m trying to think… They were doing a poetry thing a year or two ago. I remember he came home and told me he referred to fire as “the Devil’s shag carpeting,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty good,” and was delighted that he felt like he wanted to share that with me. But they’re both creative in their own ways. I think given that my wife, too, is a writer—that’s a lot of people scribbling and staring at screens and talking about books in our house. [Laughs] It’s sunk into them somehow. The meat always takes on the flavor of the marinade. [Laughs]
DI: Did any of your ancestors write? Do you have anyone in your lineage?
MB: My grandmother was an English teacher. My father was one of six kids, so she was only an English teacher for a year or two. Because she married my grandfather, and they had this enormous family—a good share of it was on a farm on upstate Michigan in a small town. But one of my father’s brothers began writing when he retired. Three or four novels by now. Yet it was always kind of post-retirement. So there are inklings of it, but I think, for the most part, there was, I guess, a sense of work getting in the way. Does that make sense?
DI: Yeah. For sure.
MB: Yeah. Like, “Oh, well, that would be nice, but I have to go, you know, hoe beans,” or whatever. What I do come from, though, is big readers: all of my uncles and aunts, my mom and dad. The fact that there were just books littering the house… Saul Bellow has this quote that I love: “the writer is a reader who is moved to emulation,” and I love that. The river’s always flowing, the current just changes direction. So I think if you really raise someone who’s reading—especially in the non-distracted way—to sit down with a book and have that feeling of looking up when the sun is setting, and it feels as if you’ve been hit by a frying pan and you forgot you had a body, and you’re like, “How did it become 5:30?” That, I think is a gift.
DI: That’s beautiful. I liked how you said [in your e-mail] that you don’t have a cell phone. I was like, “You’re so cool!” [Laughs]
MB: [Laughs] For a long time people didn’t think that was cool. It’s started to come out the other end now. It’s not really as much as an ideological move as I was just lazy. [Laughs]
MB: I was a late adopter. Like, “Oh, I have a landline. It works!” My teaching persona and working at school takes a lot of work and energy. So I’m kind of a closet introvert, you know, in the sense that there are times when it’s nice not to be reached.
DI: Oh, yeah!
MB: I have two teenagers. I do have an iPod, so I get on the wi-fi and I can text them, you know, but I only have three contacts: it’s my wife and my two kids. [Laughs]
I bike pretty much year-round. In Minnesota that means a lot of snow biking, winter biking. It’s certainly better than taking the bus. From the outside, this stuff can look sort of ideological, but so much of it is accidental, organic. It’s what happens. But I’m very happy not to have a phone now.
DI: I’m thinking about how I always turn my phone on silent when I’m working on poems. It’s just so intrusive to have something pinging. I’m glad we managed to Skype successfully.
MB: Yeah, this was very fun! I enjoyed the conversation immensely. It felt really organic and easy. Your questions were wonderful. You’re so thoughtful. You’ve clearly given the book such a generous reading. I was just happy to hand myself over to them.
DI: Well, have a wonderful day!
MB: Thanks again for the lovely questions and the kind, generous reading, and I’ll hope for our paths to meet finally in the flesh, and then I can buy you a cup of coffee. [Laughs]
DI: [Laughs] That would be cool. Maybe I’ll make it to Minnesota one day.
MB: [Laughs] Well, it was very nice to meet you.
DI: You too! Take care. Bye!
Doyali Islam’s second poetry book is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Poems from this collection can be found in Kenyon Review Online; CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition; and The Best Canadian Poetry in English: 2018. Doyali is an award-winning poet, a 2017 National Magazine Award finalist, a Chalmers Arts Fellow, and the poetry editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. She lives in Toronto, Canada. Hear some poems at www.doyalifarahislam.com.