The Element of Silence: The Millions Interviews N. Scott Momaday


N. Scott Momaday is a novelist and essayist, poet and playwright, visual artist and scholar. He’s the recipient of many awards including the Academy of American Poets Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. For some he is first and foremost the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of A House Made of Dawn, which received the prize in 1969.

In the decades since the publication of A House Made of Dawn, Momaday has written a number of other books including The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Ancient Child. His essays and poems have been widely anthologized. In 2020, Harper released his books The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems and Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land. His new book, Dream Drawings: Configurations of a Timeless Kind, is a book of poetry and poetic writing. I spoke with him recently about that distinction, Emily Dickinson, and bears.

Alex Dueben: Have you always written poetry? One reason I ask is because everyone knows you as novelist and essayist, but poetry feels like something you’ve been writing before you had career, even.

N. Scott Momaday: Pretty much, yes. I started writing poetry fairly early. I often think that I’m not recognized as a poet but as a novelist, and it’s because of the Pulitzer Prize.

AD: It seems like in recent years you have focused more on writing poetry.

NSM: I think that a good statement, yes.

AD: Why is that? Is there any reason or conscious effort behind that?

NSM: I think that my knowledge of the Native American oral tradition leads me in the direction of poetry because it is poetic. It’s not poetry, but it has a great many poetic elements and so I gravitate towards poetry.

AD: You studied writing under the late Yvor Winters as a young man and you have a doctorate and have studied literature, and I’m curious about the role that poetry has played in your life and your life as a writer.

NSM: When I started out writing poetry, or what I thought of as poetry, I was very unschooled in English traditional forms. When I went to Stanford I learned a great deal about those forms and that had some influence upon my writing. I think that’s important. I believe that people should be instructed in the writing of poetry. They should study it. Too many people just write down things in haste that look like poetry, but they’re not. I think it’s good to be educated in that way. I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity to study traditional forms and I incorporate them in my own poetry.

AD: You said you were always writing poetry and how important was understanding formal verse and those traditions for you as a writer?

NSM: They were important to me because I didn’t know anything about them and there’s hundreds of years of poetry in English. I needed to know about that in order to really write what I considered good poetry. I’m pleased that I had that opportunity. I took advantage of it. That and my study of Native American oral tradition, led me to a particular kind of voice, I think, which I maintain.

AD: As you were studying you saw the relationships between oral traditions and the lyric verse traditions, and you have spent your career working in both traditions and finding ways to combine them.

NSM: Yes, exactly. I think even my prose incorporates lyrical elements that I’m glad are there. They come more or less naturally to me now and I think it’s a good thing. I think that my ancestors were conversant with an oral tradition and they perfected their expression in one way. I have that in my background along with the formal study of poetry and those two things I have managed to combine in a way that suits me and gives me an original voice.

AD: Was there anything particular that you saw in reading Emily Dickinson or Frederick Tuckerman or whoever?

NSM: Absolutely. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I was a graduate student and I’m one of the people in the world who has read her in manuscript. And I admire her. I think she is probably among the very greatest of poets in American poetry. You can’t imitate her. She has a voice that is inimitable. It doesn’t do to imitate her, but to look at her and admire her and to understand a little bit about what she’s doing. The same thing may be said for Tuckerman. He had a very original voice. He was an expert in the sonnet, of course, so he represents formality in English poetry that she did not have. She had enough of it to make her voice very distinguished.

AD: I think of both of them, and maybe a lot of poetry, as on the page, but so much of poetry is spoken and about the breath, even in formal verse.

NSM: Yes, and that incorporates the element of silence, which is extremely important in her work and in the oral tradition generally.

AD: Reading Dream Drawings, I kept thinking that whether you thought about each piece as a poem, they felt as if they were meant to read aloud.

NSM: I think so. I think that’s generally true of 90% of what I write now.

AD: So have you not always thought of your work in that way?

NSM: Well, no. I was forming a kind of attitude towards poetry. An understanding of it. I developed ideas as I went along and learned from this experience and that, this poet and that. I shouldn’t say that I restrict my attention to poetry. I have read a good deal of prose that I admire and I think that’s also a big influence, but I find that the prose that I particularly admire has very strong poetic elements. My interest in poetry has always been there, I guess.

AD: There’s always been something poetic about the way you write. There are a lot of elements in this new book that I think have been there from the beginning of your career.

NSM: I would agree with that, yes.

AD: You have a number of pieces in the new book like “The Marrowbone Manuscript” which is this short funny short story. Well, I laughed but some might not find it so funny.

NSM: [laughs] Well, that kind of writing is a kind of story form, but it is also just taken from the oral tradition. The Native American oral tradition is full of short stories with lyrical elements. I guess that’s a good way to define it. I try to duplicate that as much as I can.

AD: This is why when you studied lyric poets and other writers, you could see what they were doing, and saw the similarities.

NSM: I think that’s true. I learned a great deal of course when I was studying the English poets. As I say, that information that education stood me in good stead. It added a dimension to what I was already doing. It had that feeling of growth. I liked that. I think I benefited greatly and my poetry grew and became sharper. More lyrical on the one hand and more oral in its definition on the other hand.

AD: In Dream Drawings you have a lot of artwork and you’ve been a visual artist your whole life, as well. Has painting and drawing, like poetry, always been part of your practice?

NSM: Yes my father was a painter so I learned a great deal from him. I’m glad to incorporate some of that into my work as well. I came to painting rather late. All the time I was watching my father work, for example, I did not aspire to be a visual artist. When I was about 40 years old, I was in the Soviet Union and I was very lonely there. I somehow felt an urge to turn to drawing and so I did. I started drawing things that reminded me of my own homeland. That developed into a whole career of artistic expression. I started drawing seriously and then I started painting and that’s stayed with me all this time.

AD: It’s interesting that it was in another country where you were cut off. I know you’ve traveled a lot, but you’ve spent much of your life in the Southwest.

NSM: Yes. It’s a place to which I always gravitate. I’ve been in and out of Santa Fe all my life. Well, it feels like it’s been all my life; since I was about the age of twelve. I’ve been in and out of it, but I always come back to it. I guess I think of it as my home. It’s an incomparable landscape. Full of color and drama. So I appreciate that very much and take hold of that in my own imagination.

AD: I know that some people who haven’t spent time there may not understand, but Santa Fe is very distinct and different from Tucson or elsewhere in the region.

NSM: Santa Fe has a character all its own. One that I’ve come to know pretty well and appreciate a good deal.

AD: When you write, do you make a conscious choice to write in verse or not?

NSM: I don’t generally approach a piece of writing with an idea of how it’s going to take form. I start something and usually it’s an idea, maybe a picture in my mind, and then I fill it in. Sometimes it seems appropriate to do it with elements of traditional English verse, rhyme and meter, for example, and so on. Other times I want it to be more free flowing and put my expression in a more oral framework.

AD: You start the book with a piece in verse and ended the book with “World Renewal” and organizing the book in this way was conscious but writing each poem was not thought out consciously. You followed the idea.

NSM: I think that’s a fair statement. I’m not altogether conscious of a given poem’s form as I’m writing it. It takes shape on its own, in many ways. Sometimes I have to change course in the middle of the stream and revise a piece of writing, which I’m happy to do because I generally feel that I improve it that way.

AD: I mentioned that the book is funny. You have a number of pieces, “The Dark Amusement of Bears” comes to mind and others that made me laugh.

NSM: I think humor has a real place in literature, in general, and I like to play games with words. I think it’s a good exercise. So when I write something like bears sit around and are thinking about things and laugh a lot—to me that makes a lot of sense. Knowing what I do about bears, I’m sure that’s true. [laughs] By the way, that’s an in-joke in itself. I am a bear. By virtue of my name. My name is based upon a story which has to do about a boy who turns into a bear. I identify myself with that boy in my own mind and so I write out of that as another context.

AD: You’ve written a lot about bears over the years. You write about them as complex beings. Just as we are.

NSM: Yes, exactly. Bears are very complicated animals in spite of their pretense at humor and self amusement. They’re complicated and wonderful creatures.

AD: Knowing you identify as a bear and bears being amused by reality brings to mind the last poem in the book, “World Renewal”. That idea that one world ended and another began at the exact same time. I remember back in 2012 when people talked about this and I think there was a literalness of, the day came and went and nothing happened, so it didn’t happen, but of course that was the point.

NSM: I like that idea. I came upon that and wrote that and I think there may be something to it. I keep thinking about it and maybe I’ll write again about the idea. We have a strong need, I think, to think of renewal. Especially when our planet is so endangered. It’s a good idea to imagine going on in spite of the abuse we’ve shown it. It’s comforting in a way to write about renewal.

AD: I think so. And one theme of the book and in Earth Keeper of course is renewal and an attempt to rethink our relationship with the land. In writing Earth Keeper and other things recently are you consciously trying to push a rethinking our relationship to the land.

NSM: I’ve always had that in mind, at least in the back of my mind. It’s coming to the foreground now. I’m much more conscious about writing about the environment than I was at one time. I must say it’s very gratifying because its such a great subject and one that needs a special kind of expression in our time. I feel that I’m doing what I ought to be doing.

AD: I hesitate to say there’s educational component because that’s not correct and I don’t want to say moral argument either. I’m not quite sure how to describe it.

NSM: I think I do know what you mean, yes. I agree. I’m always reminded of my friend who commented on a particular feature of the landscape and he said, I don’t own it, but it’s mine. [laughs] I’m encouraged by that idea.

AD: I like that. I can relate to that. But you’ve spent the past few years focusing on shorter work. Is that what you prefer and enjoy?

NSM: Pretty much, yes. I’ve been writing shorter pieces because I think it’s in my temperament. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. I enjoy being concise, when I can be. That satisfies my longing for expression. I’m content to write poetry instead of prose. And even in my poetry I’m content to write short pieces. I get out what I wanted to, I think, in writing shorter lengths.

AD: I read that you had been working on a memoir. Are you still writing it?

NSM: I’m still toying with that idea. I’ve got a work in progress in which a large part—all of it in one way—but specifically the last quarter of the book is autobiographical. I’m picking up where I left off in The Names, in a way, writing about not my boyhood, but about my adulthood.

AD: When I asked at the beginning if you were also writing poetry, throughout your career you’ve written novels and plays and The Way to Rainy Mountain, but poetry was always there.

NSM: That’s right. That’s how think of it as well. It’s always there. [laughs] I appreciate other forms of writing, but when it comes right down to it, I think I write poetry. And something like poetry based on oral tradition.

AD: I know other writers who are not necessarily known as poets, but poetry comes closest to them and their expression of things.

NSM: That’s certainly true of myself, I think.

AD: As I said, I really liked the new book, and it feels very much a piece of your recent work.

NSM: I agree. I think it’s in some ways very much a summation of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and finally getting around to putting down on paper.

The Hurting Kind: The Millions Interviews Ada Limón


To read the poetry of Ada Limón is to enter mysteries around life and nature and the world for which she has no answers. She distrusts her own role as an observer and tries to de-emphasize herself, understanding that she cannot truly understand the changing people and creatures around her. As she writes in “Intimacy”:

a clean honestyabout our otherness that feelsnot like the moral, but the story.

Her new book, The Hurting Kind, is her sixth collection of poetry and the titular poem about the death of her grandfather captures a lot of this. It is a poem with multiple registers, that seeks to talk about his life and how he would have wanted to be remembered, talk about her grandmother and her family, about how individuals grieve and how a family grieves. It tries to celebrate him while also understanding that he didn’t want to be celebrated. He saw himself as ordinary and Limón wants to record the moment as something ordinary. Grieving is a common human experience, but that doesn’t mean that it is not sacred and important and powerful. Her grandfather was both ordinary and important, and Limón feels similarly about so many things, seeking to celebrate things even as she acknowledges their ordinariness.
Limón is also the host of the podcast The Slowdown, which comes out five days a week, and we spoke about what a poet does with missing, the human and animal experience, and how her mother paints all her book covers.
Alex Dueben:  Thanks again for doing this. And it’s nice to see you. I listen to you daily on The Slowdown, so it’s odd to see you because I know your voice so well.
Ada Limón:  That’s wonderful! I’m alone a lot and writing these things by myself and then I’m recording in my bedroom and so when people tell me they listen I’m like, Oh good! There is someone out there!
AD:  I’ve never been to one of your readings, but your poems have a musicality. You’ve always seemed very interested in the sound of a poem.
AL:  I am. I want to say the sound is the biggest driver for me because I’m interested in music, but I’m also interested in how the poem really is like music on the page. It really is a whole-body experience. It’s meant to be read out loud. It’s meant to be in the mouth and the ears. Not just the eyes. It’s not really meant to be read in a quiet silence. It’s meant to be heard. Even if you just read it out loud to yourself. I always think of poetry as very close to music.
AD:  Like a piece of music, a poem doesn’t resolve the way a narrative does, but it does conclude.
AL:  That is a great way to put it. I think that one of the most important things about poetry is that it doesn’t provide answers, but it does transform something. Even in the smallest way. The way music does. It can wash over you and you can feel different on the other side of it. It is remarkable to me that I can be a changed person on the other side of one single poem. Not just writing it but reading someone else’s poem. I have experienced something and now I am different. Just from this one page of words. It’s really so remarkable to me.
AD:  On The Slowdown this week you read Shelley Wong’s “Walking Across Fire Island” and in introducing the poem you spoke about walking and you used this phrase that’s been in my head: “You put your body into the world and something happens.” It sounds like you feel that same way about a poem
AL:  I do. I struggle a lot with the idea of inertia. The idea of what it is to be quiet and observe and just watch. When to go into the world and can you be an observer while you’re moving into it—and how those two things collide. I think about that all the time. That’s the way birds experience the world. They’re experiencing it from flight. They’re experiencing it running on the ground. I find that the physicality of both poetry and the experience of the world really interesting. We live so often in the mind. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m that way. I can sit for a long time and just be alone with my thoughts. I’m grateful that I have a little dog next to me that gets me out into the world. Remembering the body, remembering the animalness of me as opposed to that chaos and mayhem and beauty that’s in the brain. I love spending time there. Even gardening. Just doing a simple task like preparing the beds and planting the lettuces feels like almost a spiritual practice.
AD:  It’s a practice, which is true of writing and religion and politics and so many things.
AL:  We often think that poetry is an act of the mind and I find myself fighting against that a lot. I think it’s bigger than that. It’s connected to all the parts of the body. It’s really connected to the breath. It’s made of breath. That space, that cesura, the line breaks, the stanzas—that’s all breath. And that’s one of the most essential movements of the body. I think sometimes we forget that and think that, no, it’s an intellectual act. It’s that, too, but I like thinking of all the elements that go into it.
AD:  As far as organizing the book into these four sections. To everything there is a season, of course. But in writing about nature and family, which I think are the central themes of the book, how does it make sense to organize this book into spring, summer, fall, and winter sections?
AL:  Nature and family, for sure, are the themes. Putting together a book is actually really fun for me. I think that part of it is that it always surprises me. I never try to rush it. I think my publisher was asking for this book for a while and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t have any poems. Of course, I did, but I’m not going to say that. [Laughs.] I like to really feel ready. I was really surprised by the seasons because I’ve never organized a book that way. It’s not something that I was expecting, but I realized that the book has so much to do about time, simultaneity, the non-existence of time. And also cycles. What was wonderful about it when I figured that out, was that it de-centered me in some way. That instead of the narrative being “my” narrative—Ada Limón, the speaker of these poems—it became a larger narrative. A narrative of not just my community, and not just animals, but of the world itself. Even though it’s very much me. I’m in the book. But I wanted a sense of ongoing-ness that didn’t necessarily involve my physical presence in the world. When the seasons came, I thought, that’s it. That’s how it needs to be organized.
AD:  As we were saying earlier, that gives this sense of movement and time passing, but not necessarily a sense of ending.
AL:  The way that “The Hurting Kind,” the titular poem, ends—“Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?”—I think that that’s also part of it. That ongoing-ness. There was a part of me that thought, it would be lovely to finish reading the book of poems—I know most people don’t read a whole book of poems in one sitting, but I do.
AD:  So do I.
AL: [Laughs.] We have that pleasure. We call it “work.” [Laughs.]
But I love the idea of finishing the book and then starting it again. The idea is that it begins again. Because what comes after winter? Spring. That sense of cycles and returning and ongoing-ness and de-centering. It wasn’t something I was planning when I started gathering the poems and seeing what shape it would take.
AD:  Family is central to the book. The titular poem is the center of the book, but in poems like “Joint Custody” and “Sports” and “Runaway Child,” you write about what family means and how it’s understood and how that changes over time.
AL:  I think that’s very true. I really was interrogating the idea of connectedness and how we see ourselves in relationship to the world. I’m always fascinated by that. What we claim as our identity. I was so curious as to what would it look like to ask myself some serious questions about that. Also, lean towards gratitude and appreciation and affection in that interrogation, so that it became a way of really seeing deeply what other people have offered and given in order for me to have this life. I don’t know about you, but I think the last three years with the pandemic and the climate crisis and now the war—not to mention the racial reckoning going through all of that—made me really want to lean into connectedness and the people who have sacrificed and given me permission to do what I do. To live the life that I am living.
I also think that because I was separated from everyone and couldn’t travel and couldn’t see anyone. Now, not all these poems were written during the pandemic. There’s probably five years of poems in this book. But I would wake up and miss my dad. What do I do with that missing? Well, I zoomed with him and we had cocktails and all those fun things, but what does a poet do with missing? We write poems. These are real gifts that I could send and be, Hey, I wrote this poem for you. They weren’t exercises. They were offerings to real people in my life.
AD:  There are a number of poems in the book which on first reading I thought, these are pandemic poems, like “Banished Wonders” and “Blowing on the Wheel” and “Lover.” But on rereading, they’re not necessarily pandemic poems. “Lover” is a winter poem and a pandemic poem—and it’s neither of those things.
AL:  Like I said, there were many poems that were not written in the pandemic, but some were. I wrote “Banished Wonders” over the first summer where it felt like everyone was just, Okay, this is it. Also, I always go to South America during the summer and that idea of the world’s just closed and what does that mean? But also trying to figure out what are the wonders here?
I like that sense that it can be translatable and into different eras and times because this is a unique and tragic time, for sure. Especially if you consider the climate crisis that we’re in. And at the same time, I think about how so many people have lived through so much and to acknowledge that this is a unique time, but every time is a unique time. I want to work against the preciousness of the individual “I” experience. That this moment is all there is. Yes, this breath is all there is. But I want to push against that I’m the only one who’s ever gone through this kind of thing. So many people have gone through so much globally and through history that it feels a little false sometimes to privilege our own suffering in a way that makes it seem more important than other people’s experiences.
AD:  Having so many poems about nature and the way you structured it with the seasons gives that sense of recurrence. Similarly to reading a love poem, poems about isolation and loneliness and death are unique and they’re also very much not unique.
AL:  They’re the human and animal experience.
It’s easy for me to get carried away in my own little world and it’s good for me to place it into the larger context. Larger of all of us. That kind of de-centering is important. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel, that I don’t grieve, and I’m not cheerful and I’m not going through my own thing, but I still remember the first time I realized that everybody lost someone. [Laughs.] I mean I was in my 30s and I was like, Oh, everyone’s going to lose their mom. Everyone! It’s interesting to me that we don’t acknowledge that as much. We feel whatever we’re going through is so deeply personal. We don’t talk about it. Of course, if we do talk about, we realize everyone’s going through this.
AD:  I love how you talk about and use nature throughout the book. You have a line in “Privacy”: “they do not / care to be seen as symbols.” You’re writing about nature not as metaphor but being a witness to nature and being witnessed by the natural world.
AL:  That was really important to me and that’s part of that idea of what it is to really be connected. What it is to not always be the watcher. To not always be, I’m going to look and because I am looking I am the narrator. [Laughs.] That’s part of my work. There’s a part of me that’s like, what does the bird think of me? I always laugh that the birds are thinking, Lady! The feeder’s empty! I think the birds call me lady. I’m an animal moving amongst their space. It’s not “my” backyard. No, my house is in their world. [Laughs.]
AD:  Someone built a house in their field.
AL:  Yeah! [Laughs.] We have a weird ownership of things that doesn’t make sense.
AD:  You make clear that to deal with nature is to encounter and embrace this mystery and magic and an unknowability.
AL:  I’ve been thinking a lot about how I miss knowing things. [Laughs.] I do! I feel like when I was in my 20s, I knew so much. I know it’s cliche, but it’s so true. I don’t know. If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that we know nothing for certain. We don’t know what’s next. I think this book is in some ways a way of coming to terms with that. Finding beauty in that instead of being terrified of that, which is partly the emotion that happens when you realize you know nothing. Just being at peace with that and realizing, Oh, that is part of the human condition. That surrendering. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to figure it out. That doesn’t mean you don’t question and live in wonder and awe. But you’re not always trying to make sense of everything. I found a lot of peace in that. I could roll with that. That was something I could move in the world with.
AD:  I feel like you’ve written a few poems over the years about your husband’s ex’s cat. That strange changing unknowing mystery isn’t just about animals, but people too, and embracing the strangeness.
AL:  And how much we’ll never fully know about one another. I can never not be curious. I’m always going to be curious and want to know more. But I kind of love that I’ll never figure it out. And the changeability of people! I think we sometimes hold people to this fixed-ness. They’re supposed to be this or supposed to be that or that happened and therefore they’re bad. We change all the time. To make space for that is another way of recognizing our animalness. Recognizing our mortality.
I could write a million books and no one’s ever really going to know who I feel myself to be. That inner core. That self underneath the self. I could read a million Audre Lorde poems and a million Lucille Clifton poems and feel like I know them, but there’s still that mysterious human element. Whether you call it a soul or whatever, it is mysterious and unknowable and I love that. It’s another one of those sweet mysteries. I mean wouldn’t it be a bummer if we could figure it out? [Laughs.] If we could go, I know exactly who you are. You will only be that person.
AD:  I did want to mention the cover because your mother paints the cover art for all your books, and it’s such a beautiful way to communicate. Does she read the book and then paint something? Or paints many things and then you pick one? How does it work?
AL:  Thank you for asking that. I think she’s an incredible artist. And of course, the first artist in my life. I feel like our process is really unique in the sense that she reads every single poem and she’s very articulate, but she always says that language is not her medium. She’s visual. I’ll ask, did you like the book? And she’ll say, I love it. But she’s the person who’s going to respond with, Here are 10 paintings I did. That’s our communication about my work. When I saw this one in her studio, I said, that’s it. I like the idea that it’s a gesture of a bird. It’s not really a bird, but the idea of a bird. Also, the bright seam on the horizon. I love that. But it’s a real gift because we don’t collaborate in any other way. Well, we talk every day. We collaborate on our lives.
We always had a relationship through language, but I think she really responds to me in her most big-hearted holistic way with the paintings. And so, to really have those on my covers feels like it completes it. And now it’s done. She gave it its completeness, its wholeness. It’s so beautiful.
AD:  The titular poem is a winter poem about grief, and gray fits with both of those things. And that seam of light is the horizon. Or Leonard Cohen’s crack in everything.
AL:  That’s how the light gets in!
AD:  I wanted to talk about the titular poem, which as someone who has had relatives and friends die, captured some of that experience of grief and grieving. The ways you structured it, using multiple stanzas and registers, felt very true to that experience.
AL:  Thank you. I think of all the poems in the book that took me the longest to write. It took me the longest to finish. I started it in May 2018 and probably finished it in 2021. I think the reason it was so hard to finish was because of that line in the poem, when my mom says you can’t sum it up. I have a moment where I don’t know what she means. She means a life. I’m driving and we’re getting things done and I just had a really hard time getting out of the poem. I’ll just keep writing this poem until I die. [Laughs.] I feel like there could very easily be a poem like “The Hurting Kind 2” in the next book. [Laughs.] It just goes on and on and on. I think the hard part is that there’s a part of us—and I’m very suspicious when I say “us” and “we”—there’s a part of me that feels we want people to see like the heroic parts of our dead. I didn’t want to do that. That felt untrue to my grandfather’s experience. He would have said, I’m no one. When I asked him what kind of horse he had, he said, it was just a horse. I feel like that’s him. That to me was really important. It’s hard to really write an elegy for someone who’s like, I’m just like everybody else. I had to honor that. There were probably 10 poems about him that were very heroic poems and I had to honor him because he would not have liked them. I had to make the poem not only about his passing, but also about my grandmother. He would have been good with that. Also that sense of, this is just the way it goes. That maybe this just continues. It’s living and then the remembering of living.
It was a really hard poem to write only in the sense that I really wanted to get that honoring right. It can feel a little prose-like and I wanted to make sure the music was there and that the tempo changed in different places. There are longer lines and then shorter more staccato lines. I wanted to have that because I think grief moves like that too. Sometimes it’s chatty. You’re getting things done and here are the funeral clothes and then sometimes it’s heavier and somehow rhythmic and formal. I think that that was part of getting the musicality of that poem right. Not making it all prose or one kind of line was important to me. Both formally and emotionally it was a tough poem to get right. And when I finished it, it felt like oh, maybe I have a book coming.
AD:  Also, it captures how we grieve differently and in different stages. Like your mother having this reflective moment while you’re busy getting things done and to do that, you can’t be in your feelings. That feeling gets echoed in the different stanzas and registers and I think that is part of the experience of grieving.
AL:  I think that’s absolutely true. I couldn’t not record all this stuff in my head. I mean I’m the person who drove and did the errands, and the other part of me—or the other part of my job—is that I remember these things. That’s my role.
AD:  I wanted to mention the last few poems that close the book. “Salvage” hit me really hard.
AL:  Me too. [Laughs.]
AD: [Laughs.] All those poems are beautiful and they follow “The Hurting Kind” and there is a flow and movement to them.
AL:  Thank you. I really worked hard at putting the book together. That when you finished it, it would feel like reading one whole poem, even though each individual poem has its own life. Putting it together was very interesting because usually a titular poem is in the beginning or towards the beginning and it wasn’t supposed to be there. It was supposed to be where it was. I had to listen to where it wanted to be.
AD:  You’re very good at concluding your books. There’s that old Stanley Kunitz line about “the dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” In all your books, you have this way with the last poems of almost easing the reader off the page.
AL:  Thank you. I believe so much in the power of poetry and language and what it does to us as humans. And what it can do. I deeply believe in the power of poetry. I take it seriously. There’s this other part of me that really believes in the power of connection. Getting out into the world. Watching things. Breathing. Being alive. I’m just as interested in being a good artist as I am in being a good and whole human being, and I want to offer that to the reader. You’ve lived in this world—now go live in your world. Go live in the natural world. Or in community with whomever you’re with, whether it’s animals or plants or humans. I think someone asked me about [the final poem] “The End of Poetry” and they said, it seems like the last poem you’ll ever write. I said, “No! It’s just the end of poetry for that day.” [Laughs.] Or for that minute. Or for that month. But it’s about setting it down.
AD:  Don’t pick up another book immediately.
AL:  Exactly. Go back in the world.

You Can’t Help Being a Person: The Millions Interviews Maureen McLane


Poet and critic Maureen McLane’s new book More Anon: Selected Poems includes work from her first five collections of poetry including Mz N: the serial and the National Book Award finalist This Blue. In her work, McLane writes a variety of registers and approaches and styles, with as wide a range of subject matter as forms. Her poems range from the political to the erotic to the intellectual. There’s a playfulness to her work that sometimes obscures how detailed and precise that work is. McLane also has two poems in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which includes work by nearly every poet that FSG has ever published, and places her work in conversation with some of the great poets of our time. Both books offer an opportunity to read McLane’s poetry anew, and we spoke recently about how she came to understand her work and about trying to contextualize it for readers old and new.

Alex Dueben:  I’m curious about the process of curating a selected volume of your own work.

Maureen McLane:  It was interesting being an anthologist of my own work. I knew I wanted More Anon to have a representative core from each book, but I also wanted to make sure that through-lines across the books could be signaled in various ways—for example, the various versionings of Sappho which appear in each book. And I wanted this selected poems to reflect the sense of emergent seriality in my work. I have a poem featuring the character or persona of “Mz N” in my first book, Same Life (2008); later on, that character became the basis for a much longer development, in what ultimately became the book Mz N: The Serial (2017). In More Anon I wanted there to be some sense of what persisted or developed over those years of my writing life. I also wanted to preserve the range each book offers: from some very short intense lyrics to some more essayistic poems to longer sustained work.

In selecting the poems for this book, I fortunately didn’t feel like I was going back to a stranger. The book draws on 20 years of a writing life, and sure, you go back with some distance and maybe a slightly different, more dispassionate eye, but I was glad that I didn’t feel estranged or remote from my earlier work. It felt of a piece, even if in some cases I wouldn’t write the same poem now. (Would one ever write precisely the same poem twice? Again?) That was interesting to discover, because it’s not like I sit around rereading my books. [Laughs.] Usually when I give readings, I tend to read from recent work. So it was interesting to go back to the beginning, as it were, and to think about how to shape a book that was alive and not a doorstopper. I mean, this isn’t a collected work: I’m not dead! [Laughs.] And hopefully, too, as the title More Anon suggests, the book welcomes new readers, and points to a horizon of ongoing writing and engagement. I hoped the book might offer something fresh and inviting to people who don’t know my work, and something fresh too to those who might be familiar with my poetry.

AD:  I have Jim Harrison: Complete Poems, which just came out and that’s a massive project where, when you’re dead, someone else can put it together. [Laughs.]

MM:  Exactly! [laughs] I mean, there are some wonderful poets who later in life have done that—and thankfully they are still with us and writing beautiful work. Louise Glück had a collected some years ago that was excellent, and now she’s writing some amazing new work. Fred Seidel had a collected a few years ago. But that’s a very different kind of project and I am hopefully decades away from that!

AD:  So why did you decide on this format and not a new and selected volume?

MM:  Some of those books are really wonderful and I enjoy reading them. For example, Toi Derricote’s I: New and Selected: I really liked that. It offers a survey of her career, obviously, but also a launching pad for the new poems. A couple of years ago, I did a Selected with Penguin U.K., in the spirit of introducing my work to a British audience. This new book for FSG—More Anon—was a slightly different project, because my work already had a presence here in the U.S., and this gave me another and different opportunity to distill the work, and maybe reintroduce it. My last book of poems, Some Say, was published in 2017; I had submitted that manuscript in 2015 alongside Mz N: the serial, and since 2015 I had been doing other kinds of writing, while also writing poems in several different keys. I felt like I didn’t want to include, say, 10 or 12 poems as the “new poems.” I felt I had another kind of manuscript emerging, and that More Anon would be a chance to take stock, to winnow and then frame poems a bit differently—not to introduce wholly new work. Another reason why I called the book More Anon is that, touch wood, there will be more from me anon. [Laughs.] Hopefully not too long from now. So, I didn’t want to dilute what was slowly distilling. Maybe that was stupid, I don’t know. For good or ill, I don’t tend to think about things in terms of “marketing.” I try to follow what feels formally and compositionally true to that moment in my writing life. Jonathan Galassi, my editor, was very on board with that, too—making it a selected, straight up.

AD:  You’re very consciously framing the book and the work with four quotations to open the book, and opening and closing the book with an envoi and envoi eclipse. I loved the envoi, which ends “make her regret everything about her life / that doesn’t include me”. Isn’t that what we all hope for? [Laughs.]

MM:  [Laughs.] These micro decisions carry a lot of weight. All of my books have envois—a kind of gesture sending the book out to the world. I realized that I did not want envois ending the sections from each book; I wanted there to be a sense of a new and  broader unified arc. So I begin and end the book with an envoi. In terms of epigraphs, I undertook a similar kind of selecting—choosing to sound a few notes for the whole collection. One can think about this almost musically: here’s an overture with little provocations and motifs, little sparks that hopefully will fuel a slow burn—or a poetic conflagration!

AD:  The quotations you include from H.D.—“Spare us from loveliness”—and Alice Notley—“Experience is a hoax”—are very intentional.

MM:  [Laughs.] So much of this reflects a kind of both/and, neither/nor quality of my mind. H.D. is a poet who you could argue trafficked ostentatiously in loveliness, even if the content of her verse is often about erotic duress or unlovely conditions. One could say that this line is a bit rich coming from H.D., but it’s a wonderful line and a wonderful note to self—as well as a note to the reader. Ditto with the Notley. These lines grooved themselves on my mind. These meta-poetic moments became wonderful glosses on my experiences of reading and writing—Notley pressing hard on the idea that poetry is “about” “experience,” as if experience were some kind of unmediated obvious thing. I just love that Notley presents this as one gloss on her own work: it’s like, okay, let’s pay attention. [Laughs.] So yes, there’s an intentional spin these epigraphs want to introduce. They certainly have spun in my mind and they became a way of transferring that spin to the reader.

AD:  You also have quotations from Malthus and Blake which push that framing in a more political direction. Which is related to notions of experience and loveliness, especially when we talk about queerness and about what it means to be a woman in the world.

MM:  Definitely. And they point to other trajectories baked into this book—trajectories about modernity, America, prophecy, “identity,” “experience,” after-lives. And the Shelleyan question arises, “What is life?” And for whom? I think the Malthus quotation—“Life is, generally speaking, a blessing independent of a future state”—is highly arguable. All of these epigraphs are meant as goads, not simply as endorsements. They all have an edge, a torque to them, and I would think they would vibrate differently for different readers.

AD:  I also kept thinking of the Malthus quotation in relation to the Notley quotation. From the Buddhist perspective, there is only the present, the past and future are illusions.

MM:  That’s wonderful. Of course Malthus was an Anglican pastor, so he was deeply not a Buddhist, but it is a really interesting philosophical claim he’s making in his famous or infamous essay on the principle of population. Which is an amazing and crazy and still influential document. But also one thinks of Keats—as he wrote in an 1817 letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”  On the one hand, Keats is longing for such a life, but he’s got this existential unavoidable predicament of living via sensation and thought—“where but to think is to be full of sorrow,” as he writes in the Nightingale Ode. I love that the Malthus and the Notley did a two-step for you. [Laughs.]

AD:  As part of going through all the books and selecting representative work in different ways, I kept thinking about how in all your books, you’re not a poet who has a single tone or approach. There’s a way in which you’re playfully looking for an approach in a similar way you’re trying to playfully look at the world. This book tries to represent that.

MM:  That seems to me really on target. For me, certain approaches or tones or phrases tend to determine the path of the poem. A poem like “Excursion Susan Sontag” goes immediately into a kind of strongly voiced mock-professorial key—“Now Susan Sontag was famous / among certain people”—and it’s almost like you’re riding on a different bike or driving a different car, compared to other poems. I have tended to pursue this multiplicity of tones and modes in every book. Some books might be more in a certain key, but certainly my first book Same Life had a real diversity of approaches. I personally don’t see that as a haphazard eclecticism, I see that as almost an effect of sensibility, as you’re suggesting. It’s not the case that I can’t imagine writing a book or ultimately publishing something that is all in one key. I met a poet some years ago and they were surprised because, having read some of my work, they thought I was going to be very grim and dour. [Laughs.] I remember another poet said to me after a reading, I didn’t realize your poems were so funny. I didn’t know what to make of that. [Laughs.]

It’s a funny thing how tone reads to people and how a multiplicity of tones reads. I talk about this a lot with students because I can think of many wonderful books in a profoundly unitary key, or with a common approach throughout—some of Glück’s books, for example, or, to go in a very different direction, David Kirby’s, can be like that. Or think of Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, or Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets. Or Donna Stonecipher’s amazing books. Or consider a poet like H.D. Obviously I feel like there are a lot of instruments to play on, and some people like to play on many and some like to play on one.  I see that this analogy is breaking down pretty quickly, because you can play in a lot of keys or modes on some instruments, if not all. But anyway, it’s also the case that Mz N and Some Say were written during the same period, sort of dividing up the poetic universe in my mind. Some Say is in a focused lyric key, while Mz N tracks an actual character, in looser, more expansive poems, some of which move into essayistic or narrative territory. This was the way I found myself channeling different tendencies in those two books. We’ll see what happens in the future. I have found myself writing more prose poems, which is interesting and a little surprising to me.

AD:  From your first books with poems like “Mz N” and “Saratoga August,” you were interested in longer narrative poems.

MM:  That’s one of the reasons I included “Saratoga August” in More Anon—it’s a multi-part poem which does have story in it, narrative elements, alongside lyric and song: these modalities are not mutually exclusive. At least for me or in me, whether as a reader or a writer. So yes, I think that that’s 100 percent right. In the early 2010s I was writing My Poets, a poeticritical memoir, and that shifted some internal gears. I realized I wanted to do more within poetry “proper” in that essayistic, autobiographical/autofictional key. I found myself going back to the Mz N figure, which I hadn’t expected to do at all. That was a surprise to me. So from this vantage I can see how different kinds of writing opened doors for other kinds of work. At a certain point I’ll likely be able to look back and say, here I came to the end of the line with such and such a thing. I don’t yet know what or when that will be, but certainly one doesn’t want to be repetitive. I haven’t been a poet who’s operated much from a principle of will or decision or program in the sense of: “Now I shall do X,” or “Here is my project book.” Though I suppose we could call Mz N: the serial that. I admire some writers who do proceed that way—Donna Stonecipher, MC Hyland, Cathy Park Hong, Srikanth Reddy, Edgar Garcia—but that’s just not the way I’ve tended to go. I’m usually responding to certain things in the environment, whether it’s ambient stuff or political things or my internal environment. I keep notebooks that are full of jottings and I’ll look back and start to see threads, but I tend to see these threads only later. And out of that gets woven a manuscript.

AD:  Someone asked me to describe your work and I half-joked that you’re a very philosophical poet and you also write about sex, not as a series of metaphors using SAT words.

MM:  That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you. [Laughs.]

AD:  I mean that as a compliment, but you also know exactly what I mean.

MM:  I do. I really do. And we don’t need to name any names. [Laughs.]

AD:  Just as you enjoy playing with style and approach, and I think this was clear from the beginning of your published work, you want to write about life and experience and what that means in ways that don’t always get addressed in poetry.

MM:  That’s true and that leads you into different places. Some poems zoom in intently on the erotic. Some poems focus intently on registering a soundscape or landscape. Or some poems want to be looser, baggier things that pivot among politics, weather, erotics, story. So much is inflected by things I’ve read and heard and admired—and not necessarily in poetry, it might be in essays or fiction or music: works that are capacious, that allow for intensity but also expansiveness of concern, attention, scope. I want to honor all those registers.

AD:  I don’t know what the queer poetic tradition is, to the extent that there is one, but part of queer writing is about trying to encompass many things and address it and look at it and not hide essential things behind metaphor or being an aesthete.

MM:  It’s important that there are many queer genealogies and paths available now, more than there might have been 30 or even 15 years ago. Certainly the emergence of an identifiable queer literary and theoretical tradition opened up a lot for me and many others. Anything from Virginia Woolf to H.D. to Gertrude Stein to Eileen Myles to Frank O’Hara to James Schuyler to Audre Lorde. I remember reading Olga Broumas and Adrienne Rich early on. Foucault’s writing. Eve Sedgwick’s. This is all very ‘90s, a crucial decade for me. Critical theory was a lifeline for me and also a kind of horizon. This was about sexuality, sure, but also more broadly about what constituted my sense of the given, and testing and sounding that out. Not having the luxury of certain assumptions. Or not wanting that luxury. Or not being able to sit with that. So in terms of a “queer poetic tradition,” there was and is for me a socio-psycho-sexual domain and also a stylistic dimension, questions of formalization and style and experiment carried by literature, art, thought: and this has been galvanizing and inspiring. All of this gets reimagined by new and emerging writers, in many languages. The horizon of what queer traditions were circa 1995 versus 2022 is very different, in part because of all the thinking and writing and protesting and grief and tragedy and solidarity and transformation that the past 60 years have wrought in the U.S., but also internationally.

I was saying recently to a friend that before I had any conscious affiliation with “queerness,” I was responding to writers who I later realized or discovered were queer. It is endlessly interesting to see how your unconscious knows more than you do. There were many reasons I was particularly oriented, so to speak, to H.D. and Stein and Virginia Woolf. Also to writers whom I liked couldn’t quite “get,” like Frank O’Hara. As a teenager and in my early 20s I had a very idealized sense of a poem and of poetry, but part of me also had a strong critical debunking impulse, too. Or rather, a critical, analytic impulse. When I was struggling and searching and flailing in my 20s (and beyond!), I found some really good avenues for thinking—if not yet solutions for living—via queer and gender studies. Also via Enlightenment and Romantic-era thought. And I drew on the poets and writers who were vibrating in my mind.

AD:  As you were talking I couldn’t help but think of My Poets, which is a work of criticism and I don’t want to say that it’s not consciously a memoir because you were very conscious of what you were doing, but you weren’t just saying, here are poets I like.

MM:  Exactly! I understood My Poets to be a kind of memoir via a reading life, which in my cases was always feeding back into sexual, erotic, intellectual trajectories. These, for me, are very enmeshed. For other people, eros might be enmeshed with film or music or sports, but for me, these poetic encounters were generative. Marianne Moore has a line in her poem “Picking and Choosing,” “literature is a phase of life.” Which might suggest you outgrow it, but that is not, I think, her point. I think My Poets was testing that out: the relation between literature and life-phase. A chapter like “My Elizabeth Bishop/My Gertrude Stein” offered a way to talk about those writers and their work, but also to talk about gender and sexuality and sexed writing. The book aimed to explore the interpenetration of reading and living.

AD:  Before we ever spoke I remember coming across My Poets and trying to write a different kind of criticism, which doesn’t always show its work. Which isn’t quite what I mean, but you found a different way into talking about the poetry that spoke to the relationship a lot of us have to literature.

MM:  Thank you. I remember that at some point I read Edmund White’s My Lives, which had chapters like “My Hustlers,” “My Friends,” etc.  I was attracted to this way of grouping things, to this alternate way of writing memoir via relationality. In My Poets, the chapter rubrics invoking specific poets (“My Chaucer,” “My Shelley,” “My Fanny Howe”) opened onto other matters too—questions of marriage and erotics and religion and reading itself and being a student. I didn’t go, oh, now I shall hybridize criticism. [Laughs.] I have done a lot of normative critical writing, but by the mid-2000s I was moving towards another key. My Poets was really fun and also hugely challenging to write; there was certainly no one saying, okay, give us 5,000 words on H.D.

AD:  To circle back to the beginning, and the title, which says that there’s more to come, more soon, I know you’ve done a lot of scholarly work on ballads and minstrels and these works which have come down to us anonymously. We don’t know who made them or when, we have vague notions of traditions, and I kept thinking of Mz N, which is a series of poems about someone not unlike you, shall we say?

MM:  That’s a lovely way to phrase it.

AD:  Your name is on the book, obviously, but here are a lot of poems and a lot of different kinds of poems and the title is telling the reader, just go with it.

MM:  You really hit a bunch of nails on their exact heads. After hovering among titles, I went with More Anon, because it ramifies in all these different directions you point out—and also “more anon” suggests “more to come,” and also raises the question, or possibility, of “more anonymity.” That is a thing that I’ve been long interested in. We’re all really preoccupied by our individuality. Or most of us. Certainly I can be! [Laughs.] You can’t help being a person. And then there is your ego and investment in your work, but also you know—or get reminded—that in the longer flow of time, all this is contingent and provisional and erasable. I have for a long time been interested in anonymity and poetry, in ballad traditions in particular. English and Scottish ballads usually entered into print—via broadsides, or anthologies, or other books—without authors. Some so-called traditionary ballads were circulating for decades or centuries, and one reason they survived is that they were so beautifully distilled or memorable that enough people wanted to keep singing or reading them. It’s useful to think about a poetic economy and vitality that’s circulating that way as opposed to the commodity-form of the author and the book. It’s a useful reminder, too.

I think it was the poet Devin Johnston who reminded me that Thom Gunn said he wanted to write with the same anonymity you get in the Elizabethans. I’m sure that’s a paradoxical kind of commitment, and a beautiful aspiration. For me, the Mz N figure  was an enabling device allowing me to do all kinds of things with the figure of autobiography but also to write in a more narrative or dramatic way. “Mz N” points as well to the question of pseudonymity and to “n” as an anonymous or unknown variable. I think of Rimbaud, “Je est un autre” (“I is another” or “I is someone else”). I respond to that non-alignment or self-estrangement, which is certainly a profound experience for me and I think for many people. [Laughs.] I’m enough of an old-school psychoanalytically oriented person that I feel like we’re not in charge of that self-estrangement or non-alignment. That’s our given condition as humans. I always think of a line from the geneticist Richard Dawkins, that a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg. From poetry’s point of view, a poet is simply poetry’s way of making more poetry. If you’re a poet, of course you will likely or even necessarily experience an intense personal engagement or sense of vocation, but from the perspective of poetry out in the world, you’re just a medium for generating more poetry out in the world. [Laughs.]

Maybe the Buddhist ambition—if such a paradox can be held—would be to aim to write poems that travelled widely and not under anyone’s name. I mean, you called me up to interview me, which is lovely, but think of somebody like Robert Burns. He published a book under his own name but he also became a prominent song collector in late 18th century Scotland. When these songs were published by the editor/impresario James Johnson, it was in a multi-volume collection of Scottish songs called The Scots Musical Museum. There were 600 songs published over several years, and at first Burns’s name was nowhere, though he’d contributed or set the words for some 200 songs. Once Burns got famous, the editor wanted to be sure to attribute certain song texts to Burns; hello cultural capital! But Burns was by then dead. RIP Burns! He’s a fascinating example in poetic and musical history: somebody who was a prominent author but also an incredibly important song collector. And his legacy toggles between “Robert Burns,” this supersaturated cultural figure with a proper name, and anonymity—someone who set the words to songs many know, like “Auld Lang Syne,” though few know he was the poet there. This bears on many other traditions too, not least the history of Black song in the Americas, and all kinds of so-called oral traditions.

AD:  You’re also in The FSG Poetry Anthology, which is an incredible book, and maybe especially in the context of the last question, how do you think your two poems in the book read in the context of this broad illustrious company, and just being read as part of this book which is a selection of postwar poetry?

MM:  Isn’t it a great book? If it’s not cheesy to agree. I found it really surprising—lots of discoveries, not least from poets I thought I knew (e.g. Bishop, Heaney, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Katie Peterson, Devin Johnston, August Kleinzahler). The book sets up new resonances and reverb; obviously it’s an honor to be in it, and its establishing of a longer and international reverb is inspiring, as is the longstanding commitment to poetries in translation. How my poems might read in this context: well, that’s probably for others to say—but it is striking to see poems organized by decades. One of my poems appears in the 2000s section, while another appears in the 2010s. I told the editors that I hoped to be one of the poets of the 2020s!  But seeing things this way, you get a slightly different feel for generationality, and also there’s a nice push I think against monumentality: some big monuments are clearly represented (Heaney, Walcott, Bishop, Lowell, Neruda), but not as monuments, rather as poets among a company of poets; and one also encounters poets less hyper-canonical, like Louise Bogan. And to see the array of poets gathered in the past 20 years shows new lines of poetic and cultural force, I think—in the work of the poets I mentioned above, or in, for example, Shane McCrae’s work, or Iman Mersal’s poetry, translated from the Arabic by Robyn Creswell.

It’s interesting; I hadn’t thought of the book as a post-war book until you said so. I guess I also feel that “postwar” might be a kind of historical artifact; it feels very 20th century, very Cold War, and that might be an accurate and striking way to think about a good swath of the anthology. And the historical sweep of FSG’s poetry publishing.

AD:  It’s interesting to read all these poets—the ones I know and those I don’t—and see them in conversation because of how they’re grouped together. Demarcations like when FSG started or even the decades are somewhat arbitrary and vague. When did “the sixties” end and begin, for example? But out of such randomness, relationships emerge. Your editor asked for a selected volume, so you assembled one. Decades from now, will it feel like a natural demarcation or a random one? Who knows? But it’s a nice collection of poems.

MM:  Your thoughts make me think of a hilarious essay by Kay Ryan from some years ago, “I Go to AWP,” in which she casts a gimlet eye on project books, books with “arcs,” all those requirements (and sometimes impositions) of conceptual structure and organization. I suspect “a nice collection of poems” would be a fine gloss on things, in her view. And yes, modes of grouping can be arbitrary or vague, but they can also be enabling, at least sometimes, right? As for my selected, well, as you say, who knows how it will feel decades from now. But I can tell that even now it feels, for me, like a useful, and certainly not random, demarcation. The chance to make More Anon was an occasion for reckoning and taking stock, while allowing me to feel out the intimations of further, as well as returning, commitments as a writer. I’m hoping some of those glimmerings will take worldly form in some collaborative projects and in a forthcoming book, What You Want: we’ll see—more anon!

It’s About Joy: The Millions Interviews Rabih Alameddine


Rabih Alameddine does not write novels about easy topics, but I think that every book of his has made me laugh. At its heart, The Wrong End of the Telescope is about Mina, a Lebanese-American doctor working with refugees in Lesbos—and specifically her relationship with a woman named Samaiya, who’s dying of cancer. That’s not really what the book is about, though. It’s about Mina’s distance from her family when she moved to America and came out as transgender and lesbian, about the relationship that she’s forged with her brother. It’s about Mina’s relationship with her wife. How Sumaiya is preparing her family for life after she dies. The stories of the Syrian refugees who have fled to Lesbos. Stories that might force some readers to rethink queer identity.

A book about so many people fleeing violence and facing an uncertain and uneasy future could easily become despairing, but as in all of his work, Alameddine is driven by a righteous anger. That means refusing to make easy choices, and instead to face trauma, but to also find joy and find hope and fight for that. In life. In art. In Mina, Alameddine has crafted a character who is many things, who has lost so much, but who does not despair and tries to be of use and finds joy. Even if fleeting, her openness to possibility is a wonder. This is a novel about trauma and death, but it is also a novel about possibility and change. And hope.

“Even if there’s no hope—there is hope,” Alameddine said at one point in our conversation. This is perhaps as good a summation of his philosophy as a writer, and perhaps as a person. The Wrong End of the Telescope is possibly his greatest work to date, and he was kind enough to talk with me about the long effort to write about this topic, where the character of Mina came from, and how we see and read people.

Alex Dueben:  The Wrong End of the Telescope, like all your books, is different from your previous book. You’re very restless.

Rabih Alameddine:  Both when it comes to writing and when it comes to reading. I’m teaching now here in Virginia and my graduate class is basically reading one book a week. I assigned books that I love, but it’s fascinating when I reread something I used to be in love with 20 years ago. I still think it’s great; I’m just not as interested anymore. It’s interesting how not just reading habits, but who I am, in many ways, is constantly changing. There are some books that I tried to read, more than once, and just never got into it. Then one day I pick it up and oh my god, this is the most amazing book. It’s essentially change. This constant change.

A friend of mine always says that I get bored easily and I’m not sure that’s true. I just get excited by different things. [Laughs.] It’s not about boredom. What interests me keeps changing. Whatever book I end up writing is the one that has sustained my interest for three or four years.

AD:  It’s interesting you phrase it like that and it’s a good segue into the structure of the book, which is composed of short chapters. The central story is Mina coming to the island and treating Sumaiya, but you keep moving around and did you have that idea of short chapters and that structure early on?

RA:  Partly. It is essential to the book. There are so few of my books that are even close to linear. Probably the closest would be An Unnecessary Woman, which was three days in the life of someone, and my first novel was short vignettes, but this is different. The short chapters was determined by the book. It needed to be that. There were many starts to this book. I tried essays. I tried all kinds of things, and nothing seemed to work. It was only when I realized that so much is happening that you have to look at it piecemeal. The whole idea of the wrong end of the telescope is that it’s difficult to keep everything in context when so much is happening.

I could have had the book be all Mina and Sumaiya. I don’t want to say that the brother is unnecessary, but he’s not central to the plot. But he is. Everything is peripheral to the story of Mina helping Sumaiya. But then you realize that that’s not the story. All of it together is the story. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about for years and like I said, I’m teaching books that I love and one of them is Calvino. In 1976, in If on a Winters Night a Traveler he says that long novels written today are a contradiction because time has exploded. [Laughs.] Whether it’s a contradiction or not, I still enjoy them, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write a novel where time has not exploded. I just can’t. That’s not how my mind works.

AD:  You’ve never written a book with this structure before, but in so many of your novels, the plot as secondary to how the story gets told, how it’s framed, how people understand it as it’s being told.

RA:  It’s not secondary. It’s so weird. Now that I’m teaching for the first time in I don’t know how long, I go into teacher mode, so forgive me. [Laughs.] I don’t see how one is able to separate plot from story from characters from style, etc., etc. But yes. The story has been told before. And has been told many, many times. The only thing that matters, really, is how we tell that story. How can we break through to a listener or a reader or a viewer? It’s how we tell that story. The story will in many ways determine how it is told, whether it’s the plot, structure. If you look at the simplest form of the story, it’s this family who’s had a disaster and they’re migrating and this person is trying to help. That story has been written many, many times. So what makes it different? The current situation. We’re in a new situation with all these migrants coming from the third world. We’re in a new situation in terms of how we tell the story. Then I get into language and my characters are weird. [Laughs.] That determines how the story is being told. I can’t remember the quote from The Hakawati where I say, stories come and go, but there’s more at stake in the telling. How we tell the story is for me what’s important. And maybe this is the reason I get interested in so many things. Whenever I read a book and somebody is telling the story in a different way, my eyes light up. It’s rare these days but it still happens. Oh my god, this is fabulous. In my whole roundabout way, I was agreeing with you. [Laughs.] Yes, I think maybe structure beats everything.

AD:  Talk about Mina because she’s fabulous and I just love her.

RA:  Me too! She is totally fabulous. I have noticed that I have only written short stories and segments or chapters in books in third person. For the most part I write in first person. I do it by inhabiting a character. I become Mina. At the same time—which is weird, but I think all writers do it, I’m almost 100 percent sure—I become the character, but I also see her next to me. Somebody separate from me. Mina and some of the situations are based on a friend of mine. Not me. Like, how she met her first lover. Many things are basically—and I asked permission—plagiarized from another person. But at the same time, I became Mina. And I love her for many reasons. I love all my characters, but Mina saved me. She saved the book. I had spent a couple of years trying to write something and everything sucked. Everything sucked! I cannot begin to describe how horrid the writing was. Because I couldn’t separate myself from telling the story. I was working on this short story that Mina was in. That story was completely different. It was about a trans poet going home to confront her mother, or to make peace with her mother, and her brother was trying to be the in-between. She goes to her mother and her mother doesn’t recognize her and it was a whole different story. But then I was having trouble writing and suddenly, she jumped from that short story into the novel. And everything falls into place. There were many reasons for it. She became a surgeon. In my mind I always see surgeons, more than doctors, have the ability to have emotions but set them aside. And that’s what happened. All these things that I was feeling about the novel and about who I am. Am I Westerner? Am I an Easterner? Am I Lebanese? Am I American? She was able to go through all that without having a nervous breakdown. I’m not silly enough to think that she wrote the novel, but by imagining her, I was able to imagine the right kind of distance from the novel.

AD:  Because of her life and her character, she has a distance. She is separate and feels separate to navigate it.

RA:  I don’t know if you’re going to ask the question that everybody seems to ask, why did you include a writer who’s just like you? Well because in many ways that’s what happened to me. I was interested in that. In the clash of what happens to those who have a foot in different places. Mina would not experience that kind of clash. She would see it, but she would not necessarily be involved. Whereas I am not admitting that I fell apart, but… [Laughs.] Even if I don’t admit that I fell apart in Lesbos, after working for five years with refugees in Lebanon, in Istanbul, Lesbos was such an experience. And writing about Lesbos was traumatic. Until Mina comes in, and I could see what was happening and write about it. Not being too far from it, but not being too close. The goldilocks distance.

AD:  I kept thinking the “you” character was almost on one end of the spectrum and the annoying volunteer tourists on the other end of the spectrum of people who Mina is not dealing with. She’s like, I’m a doctor, I’m busy.

RA:  Exactly. That’s why she was perfect narrator. There’s a crisis and that person—I’m not saying it’s me—is under a duvet and listening to Mahler. There was no need for him to be helping. I thought that this is so stunning. That somebody goes to help and then it becomes all about them. That sort of reverberates with the other volunteers where it’s all about—‚and this actually happened—oh look, a rainbow! And poor Mina in the middle of all that. [Laughs.] There are many reasons why I love Mina. I gave her so much, but one of the things that I really wanted to give her was the ability to love. Her relationship with Francine is almost ideal. Her relationship with her brother is ideal, in some ways, with all the problems. But with all those problems, she’s able to love. That was necessary for me.

AD:  You have so many great characters in the book. Mina is surrounded by her partner, Francine, who’s amazing. The relationship with her brother is great. Her friend Emma who convinces her to come in the first place. Mina is a woman with a large family.

RA:  Which was important. It was truly important. As a gay man, I’m very close with my biological family, but I’m 62 now and I’m looking back, it was essential just how much family I made. How important it was to me. It was essential for Mina to have that and in some ways, that gave the novel hope that some things are salvageable. Even if there’s no hope—there is hope.

AD:  Sumaiya seems to see in Mina what her daughter could be. To be separated from her culture and her home, but also happy and successful and surrounded by a family.

RA:  You noticed that. She wanted to make sure that her daughter had the same family around her. Which is why at the end, Mina sends the writer. I thought about Mina visiting, but it was more important that she enlarges the family.

AD:  The mother is trying to set the family on its path, especially her daughter, and she wants to do that, to have that control, in her last breath.

RA:  Yes. Again, writing the book was emotional on many levels. I had lots of trouble with many things in the book, but Sumaiya and her family was no trouble. Sumaiya was birthed fully formed. Like a horse that comes out of its mother fully formed. I’m a horse just smaller.

AD:  I kept thinking that she sees in Mina a refugee, which I’m sure a lot of queer readers can relate to on different levels.

RA:  I come from a very close family, and they love me and they’ve always known I’m gay and have always loved me, but I couldn’t live there. I needed my independence. I always joke that when I go back home, my mother and her sisters talk on the phone every morning. And every morning it’s like, yes, he did have a bowel movement this morning. [Laughs.] It’s such a close family. I kept thinking that if I’m in Beirut, every time I had sex, the super would call my mom to tell her. [Laughs.]

AD:  Queerness comes up in the book in different ways and often I couldn’t help but think, oh no, this really happened. Like the gay couple from Iraq and teaching them to act more gay so that the immigration officials will let them in.

RA:  Oh, it happened. It wasn’t in Lesbos, it was in Turkey. This academic wrote a paper about it.

AD:  I can only imagine what it’s been like the past few decades being Arab and queer and how those things get understood here in the U.S.

RA:  Or how they are read. That’s one of the things I was interested in with Mina. How she is read. How do people see her? Again, the wrong end of the telescope. How do people see refugees? One of the more surprising things I saw was how many trans refugees I met. I had to change my perception of what that meant. The chapter “How To Trans in Raqqa,” about a trans woman who had her boyfriend killed but the militants did not touch her, is a real story. She just packed her bags and came to Beirut, but she was living in this dinky village as a trans woman. And nobody gave her any problems. All of a sudden you start thinking, what the fuck? Whereas her boyfriend was probably, for them, gay. But anyway how Mina was read, I was fascinated with.

AD:  All your books deal with large topics, but they’re really the stories of individuals and their families.

RA:  The stories of individuals is always the story of people, and the story of people is always the story of individuals. The political is personal. I don’t know if I’m interested in large topics or that it’s just that I look at the world and I react to it. I didn’t go looking to work with refugees. It’s just that suddenly there was a million refugees in Lebanon. I didn’t choose to write about AIDS, it fucking came to us. I’m interested in the story of people, I just think that people live in this world. Not all of us have the privilege of living separately. Not all of us have the privilege of the biggest thing happening to us is cheating on one’s wife. If you engage the world, you see it. In some ways I’m envious of writers who can make such great literature from a place of safety. Unfortunately for a lot of us, safety was never a given.

AD:  For anyone not in the dominant culture, when the winds change, you notice.

RA:  It’s interesting to me the books that come out that prop up the dominant culture and the books that come out that are trying to shift. Or really good books that try to blow it out. It’s not that one is better than the other, but I’m interested as a writer, how can one live as a human being and not be angry at so many things happening? At the same time, we obviously find joy in little things. It’s what we decide to write about. I want to take a machete and go after the dominant culture, but I also see the little joys in it. The little joys in living. This is what I meant by I wanted Mina to know love and to be loved. It was important. That’s why probably my favorite chapter in the book is how Francine and Mina met, with the dance. I wanted that because it brings joy, and the world is about joy. Even though they try to fuck it up for us. It’s about joy. And they can’t take that away from us. No matter what those fascists think. They can’t take it away. We’re still here. I keep thinking as to how many times we’ve been pushed down. How many of my friends didn’t make it. How they’ve tried to crush us—whether it’s the queers or the Arabs. It’s important for me that no matter what is going on, that a part of me still has joy. I wish I was more like Mina than me. [Laughs.]

AD:  That dance chapter where they met stood out, and the chapter where Mina gets her name stood out. Just to avoid spoiling it for people who haven’t read the book. But both are joyous and almost transcendent.

RA:  The dance chapter was pure invention. The orangutan was not. I was there. That’s when Mina took over the book. I was there and I was by myself with a forest guide and the guide tells me, we can’t go this way. I asked why and he said, there is this orangutan named Mina and she attacks all men. I said, Mina? I have a character named Mina? I never met Mina the orangutan, but when he said that, it was like, Mina comes to Indonesia and this is what happens. Like I said, it happens with a lot of writers. There’s a certain point where everything that has been torturing you comes into place. It doesn’t mean that the novel won’t have problems, but that everything begins to make sense. Oh, that’s why I’m writing this. And it starts fitting together like the perfect jigsaw. Then you start to worry! [Laughs.]

AD:  All these threads and thoughts and ideas coalesce and come together beautifully—and then you have to write it down and the true agony begins.

RA:  Exactly! [Laughs.]

I Don’t Have Time for All These Rules: The Millions Interviews Kendra Allen


Kendra Allen’s debut poetry collection, The Collection Plate, was released by Ecco earlier this year and the restless mind, playful sense of language, and concerns with form and structure seen in her first book, the essay collection When You Learn the Alphabet, has grown and changed in interesting ways. In her poems, she crafts a world where her personal life and familial history, patriarchy and religion, sex and death, Super Soakers and the reality show Naked & Afraid intersect and build upon each other in unfamiliar and at times unsettling ways. We spoke recently about music and religion, our grandmothers, and what it meant to call oneself a poet.

The Millions:  I came across an old interview from when When You Learn the Alphabet was released, and you were talking about the essay form and being intimidated by poetry because “in poetry everything has a name.” I wonder if you could talk about what poetry meant and writing the poems that became the book.

Kendra Allen:  Like I said in that quote, I always feared saying that I’m a poet because I didn’t really know the names of those forms and I felt constricted by them. Fearful to even dive into poetry because I’m not trained in this the way. I’ve spent the past years learning the art of essay writing, and narrative essays, in particular. What’s ironic really is that when I started writing the poetry, that fear I had of feeling stuck and strained because of my ignorance of form ended up being the thing that freed me. It made me fearless in terms of form and content—and how form and content coincide with each other. When I sat down and started to actually see these poems go together—these poems could be a collection—it really was freeing because I wrote what I wanted to and how I wanted to. I didn’t have second thoughts about form. I’m studying form now because I want to know, but at that moment of my life, writing The Collection Plate was a moment to be free and figure out my own form in a way that expresses what goes on in my head in the clearest way.

TM:  I understand. You’re busy trying to write and can’t be thinking about counting syllables while you’re doing that.

KA:  Yes! I don’t have time for all these rules! I have a story I’m trying to tell. It’s not even rules, but suggestions of what makes something good craft wise, which I think can lead to same-old same-old if you think about writing in a strictly craft way.

TM:  Form is important to you, though. In your acknowledgements you mention L. Lamar Wilson, who told you that the poems needed to be “put in somebody’s mouth.” Which is such an interesting bit of advice. Where did you take that?

KA:  Lamar single handedly made this collection a collection. I had most of the poems, but they weren’t that good. They were in the first-draft stage. Lamar read them and he said, these are good but you need to put them in somebody’s mouth. I spent a few weeks trying to process what that meant and I sat down on the floor one day and I was looking at the poems and I was listening to a song about how a father was a doctor and all the impatience of this person probably stemmed from their father. I saw that I was talking about religion and church and family and fatherhood, and I just changed the first line of the first poem from whatever it was to “We say Our Father.” I capitalized the O and F and it became like a character and a thread and a recurring character throughout the collection. It can be symbolism but also it can be duality between our father in heaven, which is what I was taught, and my literal father and patriarchy in general. I can talk about all three in conjunction with each other just by creating this character. Once I did that, the collection just started falling into place like puzzle pieces. If Lamar didn’t tell me that, I would have never thought of that. I’m very, very grateful.

TM:  And the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father,” is one of the first, if not the first, prayers we ever learn.

KA:  It’s the first thing I learned. Before I learned to tie my shoes, I learned the Lord’s Prayer.

TM:  As you were rewriting the poems and thinking about how they fit together, how did that idea shape them?

KA:  The short “Our Father’s house” poems were initially one very long trash poem. [Laughs.] It was not good at all. I was so tied to it. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t let it go, but it just didn’t fit. I started breaking it apart and making couplets from it and once I broke that poem down, I was able to make better transitions. I’m very big on transitioning. I think my favorite albums are as good as I think they are because of how each song flows into the next. I think when I broke the “Our Father’s house” poems up they provided the through line and thread that helped me connect them.

TM:  You have two sets of poems that are paired together, though in different ways. One is “Naked & afraid” and “Afraid & naked.” Were they always two poems and was that idea there from the beginning?

KA:  I was taking a documentary poetics course at the time, and I was writing about the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. I started thinking about water in my life. Also, one of the shows that me and my father watched together was Naked and Afraid. [Laughs.] It’s a wild show if you haven’t seen it. I was trying to figure out how to bring journalism into poetry. I thought about how you cannot survive without clean water. A lot of the contestants on the show have to leave because they didn’t pick the right weapon, which is a pot to clean water, and then they get sick and have to leave the show. I started thinking of Flint, Mich. It was a mirroring in terms of capitalism, race, class, and all these factors. I wanted this mirror of how we see this reality show with these mostly white contestants who are able to get help when they run out of clean water. But in actual reality, we see these poor black people who are denied the human right of water for no other reason than they’re poor and black. I really wanted to show that mirroring in a very clear way. Reality show and actual reality. Being seen as human is very different if we’re talking about something that is scripted to an extent, versus something that is lived out and is still going on.

TM:  So you had the idea of two poems that would begin and end much the same, but reframing certain aspects.

KA:  I was writing them both simultaneously while also working on an essay where a portion of it was where I would write about the same thing but from a different point of view. I was like, let me try to do it like this. It wasn’t in the front of my head at first to be the same poem but use different words, but once I did it, I saw it was the poem. It was one of the easiest poems for me to write. I didn’t have to do much revision on it. It’s clear.

TM:  Water is one of the themes of the book, and I’m curious why.

KA:  It’s definitely that class. I was getting my MFA and in my last semester and I was taking that class because there was nothing else to take. You picked a subject and they wanted it to be about where you were. I was in Tuscaloosa, and I picked the desegregation of Alabama swimming pools. Of course, as I was doing my research and trying to write poems, I was getting mad. I didn’t want to read about it because it would just make me angry. So, I pivoted and changed my topic to documenting Lonnie Johnson, who invented the Super Soaker. A lot of the “Super Sadness!” poems were originally about the invention of the Super Soaker. I ended up shifting those and making it more about myself and my mental health issues, but I still wanted water to be a metaphor throughout the collection. I wanted it to not just be about other people. I wanted it to be about what I was going through in my head and blend cultural commentary with personal narrative. I kept changing my topics, but water was always there. Baptism. Getting my hair washed. Learning to swim. All these ways water was in my life.

TM:  The two “Super Sadness!” poems are very different poems and are paired in a very different way.

KA:  That first one was really about Lonnie Johnson inventing the Super Soaker and gatekeeping and racism. I didn’t change that poem a lot to make it fit my life. I just shifted a few words around and I think once I changed the title from “Super Soaker” to “Super Sadness!”, it aligned in a way that made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be writing. When I was talking about Lonnie Johnson, they felt empty. His story is amazing, and I would love to document it, but I couldn’t just make it work. I wrote the second one because I didn’t want to finish the first one. It was a poem about what I was going through at that very moment. I’m not a writer who can write in the moment. I need time to assess what I actually felt, but when I was writing those “Super Sadness!” poems, I was able to write about what I was feeling in the moment, which was brand new for me.

TM:  There were a few poems that really got to me. I’m sure you’ve heard some of this, but “I’m the note held towards the end,” which was a good poem is also brutal and I would imagine not easy to write.

KA:  It’s actually my favorite poem in the collection, along with the last poem. Just because I like how that one looks. [Laughs.] But yes, that poem was brutal, but extremely necessary for me to write. I got to get that out of me through the lens of this song that I love, but I’m writing about something very, very difficult. Also, during this time, I had started therapy and was dealing with repressed memories that I had never talked about. Writing that poem was a brutal and beautiful experience. It also made me realize that I could listen to music and get so many different takeaways from it. On the surface this song is about sex but also the way that she holds the note, it feels like pain and release and banishment. It was very quick to write this poem. I did it in one take. Over time I edited it, but the meat of that poem came out very quickly. I’m learning to trust when that happens. The content made me think, I can’t share this, but also: you have to share this. So yeah, it’s a very special poem to me.

TM:  You said before that you need time and distance to process things and write about them, and there are a few poems like this one that are about the process of stepping back from things.

KA:  And being able to see it clearly for what it is.

TM:  Some of that distance and clarity comes from having the language to understand what happened.

KA:  What you said. Having the language. I wouldn’t have been able to write it without that time where I could access the language. I literally did not have words for these things. Giving yourself time and space to form the language is so, so important.

TM:  I really wanted to talk about “Happy 100th birthday.” My grandmother had dementia for years before she died, but there are lines especially—for example—“All yo history / in rooms with none of you / in it”—that resonated in beautiful and brutal ways.

KA:  Thank you. I came home to Dallas and it was my great-grandmother’s 100th birthday and my granny wanted to go to the gravesite. My family is not the type of family who goes to visit gravesites except after the funeral. So I went with my aunt, my mama, my uncle, and my granny and I realized that we had a lot of dead family members in this graveyard. [Laughs.] I had a realization that I was so thankful to have been able to spend time with my great-grandmother, because she lived into her 90s. She died of Alzheimer’s and one of my biggest fears is forgetting my life or losing myself, because I saw that happen to her. When I started writing that poem, I wanted to document the times I remembered her on the decline of her memory. I felt like I had to write it for my granny, as well. She never really talked about losing her mother. It had to be hard to see the way that she went. I really just wanted to show those memories in the midst of her losing her memories. Because it is terrifying.

TM:  You mentioned loving the last poem, “Gifting back bread & barren land,” which is a very ominous title, especially as a final poem.

KA:  That wasn’t the last poem at first. It was the opening poem. I had a few people tell me, no, but I couldn’t let it go. I was just so married to this poem. I think because I felt like a poet for the first time when I wrote it.

TM:  What did it mean for you to feel like a poet?

KA:  It was scary! [Laughs.] It was a happy scared. I was excited but also, oh shit. You work towards something and you’re happy that its done but also, you’re fearful because you’ve got to do it again. [Laughs.] It was the first poem I wrote that I was super proud of. Before I wasn’t sure if my poems were poems, if that makes sense? But with that one I knew, this is it. I wanted it to open the book. I feel like it encompasses a lot of those underlying messages. I’m not 100 percent happy with it at the end, but I know it makes more sense at the end than at the beginning.

TM:  Was part of feeling like a poet is just feeling out this structure and the voice and the themes—and making it feel like you?

KA:  It was that. I really took my time on it. I felt like a poet because I felt like myself. I didn’t feel like I was trying to mimic the poets I love and am inspired by. I took time to figure out the language. I always think about rhythm. I felt victorious writing that poem. That’s dramatic to say. [Laughs.] I felt like myself and that made me say, you are a poet. There’s not one way to be a poet. Poets don’t all fit the same aesthetic or idea. Writing that poem felt like me and the way that I talk and how my mind shifts from subject to subject in the middle of a sentence. It felt peaceful.

TM:  In your poetry and essays your language has this musicality, and there is this restlessness in terms of moving from one topic to another and making connections between them.

KA:  You’re saying the perfect words. Restlessness. And recklessness! [Laughs.] And rhythm. All R words! That’s something I don’t want to lose. I think that’s why I feared saying I’m a poet. I felt like I might lose that urgency that makes me want to keep writing. Which is crazy, because poetry is the greatest genre of writing ever.

TM:  Music is so important for you. Was finding a way to bring musicality to your language, and finding a way for that to work on the page, the big challenge for you as a poet?

KA:  My biggest writing inspirations are people who write songs. I’ve always been a person who studies lyrics. When I listen to a new album, I’m going to listen to it the first time and read the lyrics alongside. If I don’t like what you’re saying, it’s hard for me to care about the music. When I first started taking writing seriously, I really just wanted to mirror songwriters that I like. I wanted to write like Amy Winehouse, who is an amazing songwriter with an amazing voice. I think about people I obsess over and how can I insert myself into the conversation. I hear certain phrases from certain songs, and I will want to write around those phrases. I’ll create prompts like that. Musicality has always been the thing that I feel like I’m reaching toward in my work and I want to honor how much music in my life has saved me.

TM:  Do you enjoy giving readings?

KA:  I’m learning to. I’m learning to love reading poetry aloud because I’m learning my own flow and my own rhythm of how I want it to come out versus how it looks. That’s why I like points like Danez Smith because Danez is one of those rare talents who is just as effective on the page as they are on the stage. You don’t see that a lot. Sometimes something will hit when you read it, but when you hear it, it’s all right. I’m learning to like reading, but I’m one of those people who can’t concentrate at readings ‘cause I get stuck on some punctuation. [Laughs.] So yes and no.

Pause is the thing I want in my work. In music something can hit so hard and so viciously because there’s silence between the words and that’s where the music comes in. I want to be able, as a reader, to honor those pauses and that silence because that’s what I do with my line breaks. To explore those pauses. I’m learning. But I’m getting better.

TM:  Now that you think of yourself as a poet, are you writing more poems? What are you writing now or thinking about next?

KA:  I haven’t really been writing poetry, but I know it’s coming. I’ve been working on essays and I’m working on how to make the essay as imaginative as possible. I don’t like being bored when I’m reading or writing. I’m taking a lot of the things that I learned from writing this collection and trying to bring it to essay writing. I’m trying to figure out how we can bring lies into creative nonfiction—and how it can still be the truth. [Laughs.] So I’m experimenting with that in terms of form and content.

Bonus Link:
Into the Liner Notes with Kendra Allen

Celebrating What Defines Us: The Millions Interviews Joshua Bennett


2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.

The Millions:  Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?

Joshua Bennett:  My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.

TM:  There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.

JB:  Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.

TM:  People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.

JB:  I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.

TM:  I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.

JB:  I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.

TM:  As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.

JB:  That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.

TM:  An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.

JB:  Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.

TM:  They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.

JB:  Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?

TM:  My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.

JB:  I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.

TM:  The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.

JB:  I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?

TM:  It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.

JB:  It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.

In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.

TM:  As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?

JB:  You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.

TM:  Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.

JB:  For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.

TM:  You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]

JB:  “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.

Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?

TM:  It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.

JB:  My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.

Always Make it Personal: The Millions Interviews Adrian Tomine

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Adrian Tomine was a teenager when his self-published comic Optic Nerve first received attention, and in the years since he’s carved out a career as an illustrator, occasional New Yorker cover artist, and one of the great cartoonists of his generation. So much of his work revolves around silence, unexpected encounters, characters grappling with time and change. Tomine has made short nonfiction projects before, but his new book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, which is designed to look like a journal, with pages in a simple grid layout, is as revelatory and complex as anything he’s ever made.

The book consists primarily of awkward moments, slights, humiliations, uncomfortable scenes that have stayed with him over the years. At the same time, Tomine drops the reader into each scene, jumping ahead months or years, his circumstances changing sometimes radically with few clues as to the details. The book, like in all his work, focuses on small moments and interactions that so often define our lives, and we see in these pages how Tomine thinks about and sees the world. It’s a moving portrait of the passage of time, the struggles of the artistic life, and the joys of fatherhood.

The Millions: You’ve made nonfiction comics before, but this is a very different kind of book for you. What made you interested in making something so different?

Adrian Tomine: For that very reason. Since around the time of my book Shortcomings I started trying to make each subsequent book in response to the previous one. Not wanting to repeat myself, at least in terms of form or tone. I felt like after finishing Killing and Dying—which was fiction, full color, short stories—this seemed like the natural alternative to that.

TM: In the final scene of the book you depict yourself getting this idea and starting to make the book. Was that how it started? Did you have this rough idea of the book more or less when you first sat down?

AT: I started an early version of it in a sketchbook and later realized that that might be my next book. Because I’ve had this job since I was a kid basically, whenever something negative happens in my life there’s some well-meaning person who says, it’s all good material. Usually it annoys me at the time, but I have to play along gamely. This book is a case of trying to make that true. Accumulating memories and experiences that might have been painful or annoying at the time, and trying to take control of them and make them into something that might be enjoyable or entertaining to other people. Including myself.

TM: Do most of your projects start in your sketchbook?

AT: To a degree. If you look at some other cartoonists’ sketchbooks you see that it’s their subconscious put down on paper. They’re compulsive in their sketchbook work, and they just open up their brain on the paper. Over the years I’ve moved away from that. Partly for practical reasons. I’ve got two young daughters I’m spending a lot of my days with, so I don’t have the time to mindlessly doodle the way I used to. But you can find evidence of all the books and stories in my sketchbooks. It’s not so much I stumbled upon it in the sketchbook and turned it into a book, but a lot of the work was done in my mind and getting it down in a sketchbook was a way of not forgetting it.

TM: You’re not making a whole book or even necessarily stories in the sketchbook, it’s just where they start.

AT: This one was different because I did start to sketch out very rough versions of some of the incidents that I described in the book. But it was much more rough than the printed version.

TM: The design of the book resembles a sketchbook or diary. And maybe this is obvious because its nonfiction, but it felt like it was your most personal book.

AT: It is. I think people will pick up on that right off the bat, as you said, because of the format and the main character is supposed to be me. The challenge for me with this book was to make an explicitly autobiographical story try to approach the level of revelation or confession that I’ve embedded in my fictional books. I feel like for my personality and my style of art that maybe these fictional stories like Shortcomings or Killing and Dying are the best way for me to express myself. When I took up the challenge to do an autobiographical book I didn’t want it to be like the Scenes from an Impending Marriage book, which was autobiographical but very lightweight and maybe a little bit generic in terms of how deep in delved. If I was going to attempt this, I wanted to get into a deeper level of introspection.

TM: I was thinking about how I know many cartoonists have similar stories. In thinking about what stories to include and how to approach it, were you thinking about not just how personal you wanted it to be, but how relatable?

AT: The first priority for me is to always make it personal—and make it true to my own experiences. With an autobiographical book like this I almost have to trick my mind into not thinking about an audience much and not worry about how it’s going to be received. Along with that, not worry about who’s going to relate to it. I’ve always said that I’m constantly trying to trick myself into the mindset of when I first started making comics as a teenager. I was making them purely for myself and when they ended up getting published, it was an extra bonus on top of the pleasure of having created them. Now that this book is going out in the world it’s interesting to hear from people who have had similar experiences or can relate to it. It’s really nice to hear from other artists of any kind that there’s something they found in common with these experiences. That’s a real reward for me.

TM: The book collects moments that are painful and awkward as you said, but they take a lot of different forms. There are moments of awkwardness, uncomfortable scenes of tour. There are moments of casual condescension towards comics. Odd moments of racism.

AT: Right now people are seeing excerpts from the story and it’s important to read it in full and get the context. A pretty long span of time progresses over the course of the book. There’s a lot of threads that keep coming up, but some of those things like the condescension towards comics is more in the earlier section of the book. Later on I’m at a New Yorker staff party. Hopefully when people read the whole book they’ll see there’s a primary action that’s happening in these very specific anecdotes, but with the passage of time there are background stories about the way that comics and cartoonists are treated. The fact that I go from sleeping on comic shop owners’ floors on tour to staying in hotels. You see my personal life evolve in the background. Suddenly there’s a kid—and then another kid. I hope that people will read an excerpt and think it’s funny but then get a little more out of it when they read it in the context of the full book.

TM: Narratively speaking, I couldn’t help but think that is one of the things that attracted you to this book and this idea. Getting to tell a story and depict time in a different way.

AT: I definitely started with the idea of all the anecdotes of being a professional cartoonist and then almost by default when you tell those stories in chronological order you have to show where you were living at the time or what the circumstances were. I started to see that it was hinting at other stories beyond the specifics of the personal embarrassments.

TM: The moment that really got to me was at the end. Where you imagined you were going to die but you weren’t thinking of work but of your family and that line “I guess I’m not as much of an ‘artist’ as I thought I was.” I’m sure you’ve heard this from others, but that was gutting.

AT: I’m flattered that people take that in an emotional way, but I wanted to present it as something of a relief. Something that might inspire people to give themselves some leeway. Especially among the cartoonists and artists I know, there’s such a pressure to be a great artist. And to be an artist above all else. When I had that experience, in a way, it was a pleasant thing. I took it as a positive thought to come to terms with who I really was and what my priorities are.

TM: Obviously having kids changed your life. Do you think it changed your work?

AT: I think so. Of course there’s no way to see the alternate path and see what the work would have been like otherwise, but my suspicion is yes. I was working on the book Killing and Dying over the course of both my kids’ births. It took me that long. I don’t think that the book would exist the way we know it if it weren’t for those experiences. Obviously the new book ends up being very explicitly connected to being a parent and being a husband.

I am totally open to the idea that some people might find it changed my work in a direction that isn’t to their taste. I think that the longing and loneliness of being a single guy in the Bay Area was really tied into the early years of my work. As a fan of other works of art, sometimes you want an artist to stay the same and keep delivering what you fell in love with about their work in the first place. I’m hoping there are some people who have aged and evolved alongside me and can still find something to enjoy now in my work. I can definitely understand if someone was just discovering my early work, they might be perplexed to see what I’m doing now.

TM: I understand that. I haven’t read 32 Stories in years, but I know I wouldn’t respond to it now like I did when I first read it in my early 20s.

AT: I sure don’t. [Laughs.]

TM: I know the film and story The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, but where did your title come from?

AT: That’s a good question. I think people would be shocked to know how much time and energy I waste on my titles. It’s not like they’re that exciting or explosive, but for some reason I fret over them a lot. The other autobiographical book that I’ve done was the wedding book and the title was based on the Bergman film Scenes from a Marriage. I thought, maybe my autobiographical books will take their title from a much grander and more respected work of art and pervert it for my own uses. That helped narrow it down for me. In the end I found the title that I settled on was the best description of what was inside the covers for me.

TM: Do you like the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?

AT: Yes. The funny thing is sometimes people will assume that those allusions are done in tribute to my favorite works of art. It’s not the case. I definitely am a fan of the things I’m riffing on, but I don’t know that that would be my favorite Bergman film—and I would be stretching the truth to say the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is something I watch on a regular basis. The author of the source material, Alan Sillitoe, is great as well. A lot of times it’s just a balance of what’s something I can use that works best with my material. If the reference was something I really didn’t like, I probably would shy away from that.

TM: The story and the film were about running to find this physical and emotional escape from life. Being out there alone. It is the perfect metaphor.

AT: I feel a kinship with those themes. I’m sure actual athletes would scoff at the idea of comparing drawing comics to what they do. While I was working on the book I was thinking about cartoonist friends of mine who are older than me and have devoted their life to this. Trying to sort out the different feelings I had of admiration and thinking of them as role models, but at the same time feeling a little conflicted about whether I wanted to spend the next chunk of my life as devoted to the work as some of them had been. I think the loneliness aspect is open to interpretation. Especially now. I miss the solitary aspect of sitting in a room all day by myself and drawing. But I also would not want to miss out on a lot of the other aspects of my life that that might get in the way of that.

TM: The simple fact is that your life has changed, and your relationship to your work and to loneliness has changed.

AT: Now it’s a struggle to find alone time. I don’t have a separate studio. I’ve always worked from home. People will have their own opinions about it, but like I said it’s a bit of a relief when you can let yourself off the hook to a degree. “My friend did three graphic novels in one year and I didn’t do anything!” You can really drive yourself crazy sometimes.

TM: At end of the book, you’re questioning: Should I have spent my life on this? Do I want to keep doing it? It sounds like you’ve found an understanding and a balance.

AT: Yeah. I don’t know why it is exactly, but making these books is not easy for me. I’ve talked to other cartoonists and some feel the same way, but some have no idea what my problem is and don’t know why I can’t bash them out faster. Every time I’ve finished a book—probably going back to Shortcomings—there’s a part of me that thinks, this might be it. Maybe this is the last one. The idea of getting from that point to the finish point of another book just seems so daunting. I guess I’m in that same phase again where I finished this book—which in my mind was going to be a quick and easy one. I would make it sketchbook style, it would be autobiographical, and all these things that I thought would make it easier, but it still consumed my life more than I expected and took longer than I expected. It might be that I’m forcing myself to do something I’m not very suited to. But then I’m once again in this position of finishing another book somehow.

TM: Have you started thinking about or working on other ideas since?

AT: I have been. If I’m honest, the quarantine ended up falling at a fairly convenient time in my life. The book was done and was in the process of being printed. I gave me the opportunity to put being an artist on hold and assume the full-time responsibility of homeschool teacher–full-time playmate–personal cook–butler, all the jobs I’m doing for my kids every day. But I have a little bit of time here and there to do things. It’s nice to have this parallel career as an illustrator where I can take an assignment and be done with it in a week or two. I’m grateful that a few of those opportunities have popped up. Also I haven’t talked about it too much, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few years screenwriting, which is another daunting and slow process. Over the last few years, there have been projects where someone else was adapting my work. Stuff where I’ve adapted my own work. Stuff with me generating something completely original. It’s been a little bit of everything. I should mention that none of it has come to fruition yet, so it’s possible that this will be the only record of that work!

TM: I’m glad all this happened at a moment where you could catch your breath.

AT: I’m grateful for that. My children don’t know it, but they are benefitting from the timing of this. I’ve always been in a bit of a bind about juggling my work and my parental obligations—especially since I work from home. I think this would have been a lot tougher if I was just finishing this book or trying to make a deadline on a book. Who knows what it will mean for my career or my income, but I’m trying to enjoy being a full-time parent as much as possible.

It’s Our Time: Cave Canem’s Founder on the Power of Poetry

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In her five books of poetry, Toi Derricotte has joined a generation of writers who have picked up the mantle of the confessional poet, seeking to blend personal experience with larger questions around race, gender, sex and identity. There is a specificity and an unflinching candor that runs through Derricotte’s work, incisive and unsparing toward everything and everyone—especially herself. This could seem cruel, but it’s tempered by what I called, in our conversation, a spiritual quality—she uses her poems to understand herself and to be understood by others, viewing self-knowledge and communication as vital, life-affirming acts.

Derricotte has received many award—including the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 2012 and three Pushcart Prizes—and is a Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh. Derricotte is also the co-founder of Cave Canem, which has become one of the nation’s great literary organizations, receiving the Literian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2016 by the National Book Award Foundation.

Derricotte’s new book is “I”: New and Selected Poems. We spoke recently about her work, career, and being hopeful at this moment.

The Millions: What was it like to assemble a new and selected volume of your poetry? Because this is your chance to define yourself and your work.

Toi Derricotte: My editor suggested I do a new and collected. When I started putting the book together I realized that it was an opportunity to think about all of my work as one long project. I have always thought of every book as its own project. How many writers get to look at 50 years of their writing in one book? I think that’s rare and I feel really good about it.

TM: You open the book with a quotation from Czeslaw Milosz: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” I keep thinking about how much of your work has this almost spiritual element, interrogating your own life because you are seeking to understand and be understood and through that to find connection with others.

TD: I didn’t used to call my writing process “spiritual.” I don’t know what I called it. I thought of it as purely artistic. I knew that in my life I didn’t want to do harm to others the way I had experienced harm in my childhood. I wanted to find ways to be myself and to express myself without harming people. Putting difficult feelings into poems seemed a perfect way to do that. My mother was not happy about a lot of my work because I said things about my childhood that she considered to be untrue. She actually had a totally different memory of my childhood than I did. She didn’t believe she or my father had done physical or psychological damage to me, so in that way my writing opposed her belief and did harm to her. It’s difficult to sort out your truth from others’ truths, especially if your truth is not a truth that makes the ones you love comfortable. I grew up with a violent father and I had to be silent about my feelings. I had to figure out how to have power and how to express that power—and even figure out what power is, a different power than the one used against me as a child. As a black woman, there are so many layers to figure out—not only who you are and how you can be yourself in a racist world, but what is a self that is your own and not a response to someone else’s idea. It’s been a long journey. Now I think that journey has been about connecting to a deeper power, which is, I guess, what I would call a spiritual power.

TM: As you were talking about violence—I’m not religious though I was raised in the church—I was reminded of a quotation about hell being the absence of God.

TD: It’s funny you should say that because early on, that’s the way I was taught to believe in hell. In Catholic school we were taught that hell is a place in which you are out of communication with God forever, isolated from God. The most terrifying idea for me is to be someplace where I can’t be in touch with what I feel is the most beautiful and powerful part of myself, which is the way I think of God. Maybe that’s what depression felt like for me, being out of touch with the most beloved part of myself. Now I don’t think of God as something out there that I pray to. I think of God as working through me, and as a part of all of us. So yes, that belief is deeply at the root of my need to express myself and to be connected to others.

TM: I remember your poem “Speculations about ‘I’” when it was published a few years ago. Why did you decide to call the book I?

TD: My son came up with the name. I was going to call it Speculations about I and he said, mom, that’s boring, you should just call it I. Recently I have been thinking about how all of our life we’re in communication with our teachers—and we’re still learning from them, and arguing with them, too. In the book, I mentioned some of my teachers—Ruth Stone, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Galway Kinnell—but one of my teachers was M.L. Rosenthal. When I was in his graduate class at NYU in the late ’70s, we never read a woman writer in his class on Modern American Poetry. I remember questioning him, “Why aren’t we reading any women writers?” He said, condescendingly, one day, “We’re going to read Sylvia Plath because Toi has brought this up as something we must do.” Then he gave this brilliant talk about Plath’s work. He was the one who coined the term “confessional” about the work of Sylvia Plath, Lowell, and Sexton. He was a great critic at the time and when he used the word “confessional,” he meant it pejoratively. I think autobiographical writing has always had that tinge of, “Oh it’s just people talking about their feelings.” The poem “Speculations about ‘I’” was written 40 years later. In a way it is an argument with M.L. Rosenthal, but really it’s my defense of myself to myself because all along I was my own worst critic.

TM: What’s the earliest poem in the book?

TD: Probably “the mirror poems.” Those poems happened at the same time I started writing The Black Notebooks. I was in a suicidal depression, the worst one of my life, after my husband, son, and I had moved into an all-white area 10 miles from New York City, Upper Montclair, N.J.. We were the first black family. Three months after we moved in I remember just sitting at the dining room table scribbling on a piece of paper. Just recently I found that piece of paper. I had scribbled, “The Black Notebooks,” which was the beginning of the book I didn’t finish until almost 30 years later. “The mirror poems” happened just as I was coming out of that depression. They’re such strange poems. They’re not autobiographical. In some ways I think they mirror the voice in “Speculations about ‘I.’” They kind of bookend each other. In both poems there is an external voice, as if it’s not the person, but a voice from somewhere else, a kind of mirror voice that is speaking about the person writing.

TM: The Black Notebooks is a truly great portrait of depression and the way you wrote about your illness and self-loathing really resonated with me and has stuck with me over the years.

TD: I’ve heard that from a lot of people. But of course I hope it’s much more than a book about depression. I meant it to interrogate aspects of the self through the lens of race. In my interactions with people, because of my light skin, I’m not recognized as black, so there is a lot of emphasis in that book on the dangers and internal conflicts around visibility and invisibility.

How do you come out of silence, which is so terrifying, and make a real connection unless you face the thing that makes you most fearful? For me, it was rejection, by isolation and alienation from my “family,” from my deepest roots, from other black people. As a matter of fact, when that book was published I got a phone call from a man at the Black Caucus of the American Library Association who told me that The Black Notebooks had just won the award for the book of the year. I said, “No, it didn’t.” [Laughs.] He said, “Yes, it did.” I said, “No, it didn’t.” I had prepared myself for the worst thing I could imagine: to be hated by the people that I most wanted to be accepted by, to be hated for having conflicted feelings about being visible as a black person. It was a great gift. I realize now that it was a message from the universe that I was on the right track: that being vulnerable, telling the truth about myself was helpful to others.

TM: There are many reasons why I can’t imagine what it was like to be at NYU back then, but you also came up at a time when Plath and Lowell had done important work, but they were also dismissed, and they had difficult lives. It feels like it was harder to have a model about how to write and live.

TD: Every writer has to speak for the time. The important work that Lowell and Plath were doing was breaking open some things that were stuck. Certainly ideas about what it was to be a woman. Plath didn’t have a community in which she was accepted and understood. I think that was a big problem. Lowell was stuck in this weird aristocracy, but he was also mentally ill. They were doing very important work as poets and I identified with that work. I too wanted to write about parts of my experience that were damaging. When I was looking for a community for support, for other writers I could identify with, I found myself among feminist and lesbian women writers, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, where I felt safe to explore aspects of my life that weren’t “pretty.” In some ways I think I was afraid that some of the poets I admired in the Black Arts Movement would feel that my poems betrayed blackness, because I talked about internal doubt and problems. Over the years, I have not found that to be the case. I have been loved and supported by many writers who were major poets within the Black Arts Movement. My advice to a new writer is go where you need to go to get the support you need to write. You have to find the cracks where you can get a little juice and live on that.

TM: I was thinking about that, in part, because one of your newer poems is “As my writing changes I think with sorrow of those who couldn’t change.”

TD: That’s so true. That’s what can happen, I think, with success, you’re appreciated for a certain kind of work and you get stuck; you’re afraid to change. It’s scary to change.  That could happen to me. I don’t know. Success is hard for a writer.

TM: Has how you write changed over time?

TD: It’s certainly easier for me now. Every book is formally very different. I’ve always had to find a formal way to handle the new material I needed to write about. Bringing content and form together has meant that every book looks different—and I can see that in the new and collected—because the content is always different. I had to find ways to formally express that difference, though I always felt at war with form. I saw form as an expression of the dangerous aesthetics that had demeaned and excluded black poets.  I had to find ways to both contain the poem and, at the same time, explode form. I think it was good because it produced the tension that holds the poems together; but I don’t feel that same tension in my writing now. I feel like the work just flows from a place that feels more me, me in a bigger way. I don’t know. I just feel more in the center and in control right now.

TM: I wanted to close by asking about Cave Canem, whose motto is “a home for black poetry.” I feel like almost every African-American poet I know or have interviewed has some relationship to Cave Canem. I interviewed Kwame Dawes a few years ago and he said something that I feel like you can relate to, “We are not inventing a community. What we are doing, though, is adding to the community’s ability to communicate.”

TD: Yes, it’s all of these places where energy is being connected. Cave Canem starts each year with the opening circle. All 50 or so fellows, faculty, and staff sit around in a circle on opening night and talk. There are so many things that happen at Cave Canem, and not because Cornelius Eady and I sat down and thought, we want this. I’m not saying we didn’t have a plan or we didn’t work for it, but a lot of things happened just as a result of us figuring things out in the moment. Like, the first night of Cave Canem, I’m not sure why we moved the chairs into a circle. I remember the room being set up in a traditional way with all the chairs facing the front. I’d been working in the Poets-in-the-School program for 20 years and I always had the teachers arrange the chairs in a circle and I knew the advantage of this. It’s not that it was an accident that the chairs were set up in a circle at Cave Canem, but the way that happened is like so many things that are central to why Cave Canem works. The idea of a circle is that there’s no real leader and everybody’s an equal part of the way we’re all connected.

I think it’s an expression of something bigger too. This is a hard thing to talk about, but I visited a lot of white homes when I was a child. I could visit white homes because I think the white parents didn’t know I was black, and so I had a few white playmates that I’d leave Conant Gardens to go and visit. Both blacks and white weren’t supposed to cross the dividing line. Our parents said that cars would hit us if we crossed Ryan Road, which was a busy street, but I think we all knew that the real reason was the dividing line between whites and blacks. However, the black people in my neighborhood didn’t stop me and I was curious. This was in the days when kids just went out and played. They weren’t watched that much. I’d go to the visit white friends, but I never wanted to be white. There was something that I did not feel was happening over there that was happening in my neighborhood, and among my own people. It’s true it was terrible in my home, much sadness, anger, and depression, but there was also vitality and joy and love. I have no idea where it comes from or why it’s there, but I think it’s a way of connecting. I think the power of Cave Canem is in the ways of connecting that are becoming more and more available now. It’s like coming home and finding all of the people we were separated from in the Diaspora. It’s like heaven.

TM: I think it’s impossible to talk about 21st-century American poetry without talking about the people who have been a part of Cave Canem: Tracy K. Smith and Terrance Hayes and Patricia Smith and Major Jackson and Elizabeth Alexander and Claudia Rankine and Natasha Trethewey and Yusef Komunyakaa and others.

TD: That is really, really true. Of course Cornelius and I did not have this in mind when Cave Canem began.

TM: So, you did not intend to transform American literature? I’m making a note of that for the record.

TD: [Laughs.] We were hoping to make it from one day to the next! But I do remember when we started saying things like, “That guy will be getting the Pulitzer Prize.” We started thinking this way probably six or seven years into it. But we knew it was a powerful thing on the very first night. It was beyond anything we could have imagined. From the first night, we knew how powerful it was.

You and I talked about spirituality. Some people don’t want to use this word but I really see Cave Canem as evidence of something at work beyond us. We had a closing circle at our first retreat and I remember this huge gold moon shining over us. I really felt it was the universe saying, “This is your time.” It’s our time. It’s something to do with change—with changing literature and maybe changing the way we see our country, and even the world. Tracy K. Smith organized an event at Princeton a couple months ago, a coming together of African-American poets and scholars, and it was wonderful. People were saying, “Is it possible to think that poetry can change the world? Can poetry make change happen?” People are starting to ask this. Not saying that poetry makes nothing happen, as the line in Auden’s poem suggests, but that poetry can make something big happen. This is a fragile, scary, but actual thought being spoken.

Writing Has to Have an Edge: The Millions Interviews John Edgar Wideman


For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships.

The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal.

I began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers.

The Millions:  Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way?

John Edgar Wideman:  I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me.

TM:  You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing.

JW:  I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while.

TM:  As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working.

JW:  Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition.

TM:  You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you.

JW:  Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there.

I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories.

TM:  That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms.

JW:  I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history.

TM:  You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way.

JW:  Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books.

TM:  American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches.

JW:  One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself.

TM:  Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that?

JW:  I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before.

TM:  As you were saying that, I thought of your story “Writing Teacher“where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things.

JW:  Whatever voice is telling the story of “Writing Teacher”—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple.

TM:  I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard.

JW:  Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you!

TM:  There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason?

JW:  Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now.

TM:  One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone.

JW:  I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.

Words Can Sustain and Save Us: The Millions Interviews Marie Howe

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Over the course of three books, Marie Howe has established herself as one of the great poets of her generation. Her first book, The Good Thief, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Margaret Atwood, and awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Prize by Stanley Kunitz. Her second book, What the Living Do, is about her brother’s death from an AIDS-related illness, and it marked a shift both in what she wrote and how. Since then, Howe has published the poetry collection The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and edited the anthology In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.

In her new book, Magdalene, Howe writes about Mary Magdalene, but she’s also writing about all women. The seven devils that plague Mary are devils common to us all and the book depicts Mary raising a child, listening to the news, missing her teacher. She is struggling to be fully alive and to be a spiritual being. Howe writes about growing up in the Catholic tradition, about family, but also about words and the ways that they shape us, sustain us, and can save us. We spoke recently about these issues, The Lives of the Saints, public art, listening in the contemporary world, and how they play out in her new collection of poetry.

The Millions: Where did this idea for a series of poems about Mary Magdalene come from?

Marie Howe: I was raised in the Catholic tradition, and grew up with the stories and images of what we called the Old and New Testament. As a young girl growing up into a patriarchal world the female archetypes I absorbed weren’t the Greek gods and goddesses but were Mary and Mary Magdalene and the other saints: women who seemed to be the subjects of their own lives. They weren’t defined by a  prescribed plot. They were struggling to understand who they were, what they were here for, trying to reach through the muddle of whatever it is we live in to touch something authentic.

Like so many young women growing up in this tradition I was presented with two deep  archetypes: Mary the Virgin Mother and Magdalene the Repentant Prostitute. The early church fathers had created these myths. They manifest this intended split between the spirit and the body, the sacred from the sensual. Women have been wounded by them for  a long time. The wife and the whore—the subject and the object. How can a woman integrate her sexuality and her spirituality in such a culture? Magdalene has carried the burden of shame for the sensuality of women. I feel like I’ve been trying to write through her all my life. Failing—and failing and failing and failing. And then one day several years ago I was walking along the sidewalk and I remembered that she had been possessed by devils. I went back to the gospels and read Luke—Mary called Magdalene from whom seven devils had been cast out. I got to thinking what those devils might have been. That really opened this version of her. For years I’ve trying to write these poems and throwing them out, throwing them out. So many. And suddenly there she was. Well—she, me, who knows—but a voice came. And the devils of course were the devils that beset us all. They’re internal, they’re psychological, they don’t have to be blargh.

TM: I remember reading “Magdalene–The Seven Devils” a few years back before the book came out. It opens “The first was that I was very busy” and then you go through these devils and keep revising them. I kept wondering how autobiographical the poem is, which is a question I hate, to be honest.

MH: The whole book of course is autobiographical–and yet, not. In writing you use your life like wood and you burn it up to make the heat and the energy for the poem. To point out the details of the wood seems not as interesting as that. The wood is used to transform something into something else. What I can say is that when I read “The Seven Devils,” or many of the poems in the book, people come up to me and say, I know about that. My hope is that people feel more liberated and more identified with each other. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book from the Gospel of Thomas: “When will you be visible to us? and when will we see you? He said, When you undress and are not ashamed.” What a thing to say? When you undress and are not ashamed. I wanted Mary–a woman–who lives throughout time. Not just back then, but alive now. I wanted her to be able to undress and not be ashamed. Undress her consciousness, if you will.

TM: One reason I phrased it that way is that in this poem specifically you manage to be so very specific but in a way that so many people can see themselves in it, like a mirror. Stanley Kunitz had a line about art so transparent that you could see the world.

MH: “The dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” My whole life changed when my brother John grew ill and then died with AIDS because that transparency became really important to me. Because the thing as it was was enough. It doesn’t have to be a simile or a metaphor. The thing as it is. The ice water next to his bed, the glass shining in the shaft of sunlight, John’s hand. That’s enough. It didn’t have to be anything more than that. In fact to make more of it was to diminish it

TM: I was raised Protestant–and I’m a guy–so I only know The Lives of the Saints through women who were raised Catholic and obsessed over the book.

MH: And I bet you loved those women, Alex. [Laughs.]

TM: Well, yes. [Laughs.]

MH: Perhaps women were looking for lives of women who led passionate lives and acted on that passion. The truth of the inner lives of women wasn’t available to me growing up. In 1980 Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds and Audre Lorde began to open the door to poetry. The real stories of women’s lives. In the 1950s, in the early 1960s, I was looking and looking for stories of how women searched for God or searched for meaning. My mother had nine children. All of her sisters had nine or 10 children, so I had 100 first cousins. Their lives were–god bless them–given over to this. The saints weren’t necessarily mothers, they had chosen another way. They had chosen a life that wasn’t necessarily in the service of others–although sometimes it was. There was an excitement in reading about these people who might have entered a monastery or led an army of France and also they were the only stories I had ever read that were about women’s psychological and spiritual development.

TM: In your previous book you wrote a series of poems about Mary, before she was a mother. Did this book grow out of a similar impulse?

MH: I used to write Christmas plays we kids would put  for our parents  My brothers and sisters did not always enjoy this. They grew increasingly alternative. By 1968 the angel carried a machine gun. [Laughs.] The Jewish tradition of midrash, which is imagining your way into the silences of the stories of the Torah–what we call the Old Testament–has existed for centuries. You could actually imagine what Eve and Adam did on the first day out of paradise—did they have sex? did they not? That tradition has long existed and I didn’t know it until I was older, but I feel that the imagination is a way into truth. Wallace Stevens said, “God and the imagination are one.” There are so many silences in the stories and for me, they carry archetypal values. So Mary Magdalene who was in all the paintings the repentant woman in red–that’s nonsense. I wanted to write about a woman’s real life–her sexual life, her psychological life, her interior life, her desire for a teacher, her desire for meaning and peace. The dualism that we all live with in this culture is so much rougher on women. Men suffer, too, but women suffer terribly from objectified dualism: virgins or whores, sexual or sacred.

TM: One poem that jumped out at me was “The Girl at 3” and the line “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.”

MH: We chose logos over image–word over image–long ago, and there are those who suggest that’s what separates us from ourselves and from reality. I think I was reading into that and at the same time my daughter was learning to recognize letters. And of course I was thinking about the paintings where Mary, the soon to be mother, is reading something in the painting and the angel appears and she holds her place in the book to receive the angel. We know that when  any annunciation occurs–no matter what it is–you’re not the same person after it happens. Maybe it’s I no longer love my husband, maybe it’s I no longer believe in God, maybe it’s I’m going to adopt a child. After any kind of annunciation we’re not the same.

The notion of Mary reading at all is of course a fiction. Meister Eckhart says that perhaps Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. Isn’t that radical? Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s enlightenment. I love that. He goes onto say that each of us can become the mother of God. And he means that in an almost Buddhist sense. That we are that which we seek.

 TM: One writer I’ve talked with has pointed out that grimoire, the old word for spellbook, has the same etymological root as grammar. That to write and read and name things is a form of magic.

MH: In the beginning was the word and the word was made flesh.

TM: The word preceded the world.

MH: Or as Meister Eckhart said in his first sermon, every creature is a word of God. The word of God–whatever God is, I don’t presume. When I say God, I wish there was another word. This energy or whatever–every creature is an expression of that. Yes, a spell. But poetry is a spell, isn’t it? That’s what one hopes. A spell that returns us to ourselves. Not that it bewitches us, but I feel like the poetry that I love is the poetry that returns me to myself whole for a minute. It’s so rare to feel that way.

TM: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core?

MH: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as a good as that. Being there and disappearing–being possessed by something else. Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few other things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self–and yet the self has to be utterly there.

TM: People have talked about the relationship between poetry and prayer and how do you think of that relationship?

MH: As Bob Dylan says, you’ve got to serve somebody. [Laughs.] Might be the devil or might be the lord. I feel like poetry for me is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is greater than myself. [Laughs.] But [in service] to the great mystery of being alive. So many people I have loved are dead now. And I will be dead one day. How strange is that? To know that we’re alive and that we’re going to die. Poetry can hold that. It holds that knowledge and it holds that dialectical energy field–we’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a minute it will be past but it will still be now. All of that that occurs when we read a poem.

TM: Writing is its own thing, but to read poetry, to recite it, definitely has some of the quality of prayer.

MH: I’ve been thinking about the word sacrament lately and what is sacred in our culture. I think poetry is one of the last places where the inner life of someone is held sacred. How it feels to be alive is held sacred. That reading it is a sacrament. Writing it–when one is in the right attitude and position, whether it fails or succeeds–is a kind of sacrament.

I studied with Joseph Brodsky the great Russian poet and how do I say this, he thought we were lazy American students. We had to memorize 500 lines a week and come in and write them out for him. He said, you Americans are so naive. He said, you think that evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots and climb up the stairs–it begins in the language. Look to the language. He said, in the Soviet Union, nothing is permitted and everything is important. In the United States, everything is permitted and nothing is important.

What is important? Especially now that so much is externalized through social media. The inner life, where we actually live most of our minutes of our days, is still a sacred place. That’s where transformation occurs, where all sorts of things occur, but it has to be nurtured. My concern is that with externalizing of experience many, many young people are not nourishing that inner space. It hurts to do so. It hurts to read a poem sometimes. It’s demanding in a way. It calls you to yourself and it’s sometimes difficult.

TM: Speaking of language, your last book was titled The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, which is a phrase with religious meaning. Today people talk about real life and real time in a way no one did just 15 or 20 years ago.

MH: Remember how it started, when things began to be in quotes? Like “home made” food or “natural” food. When people began to put those words in quotes, what does that mean? Now the quotes are gone. It’s real life, real time. There’s no way we can stop this, but we can drag our inner lives along with it and try to make sense of it. I feel like people are hungry. People my age want to be together and read books and talk. I wish we could spend days talking about what we’re losing with all of this speed. People are lonely. We want to be in the same room with each other. We want to talk and hang out and we’re just so busy. It’s consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism has stolen our sense of time–that truth that time belongs to us.

TM: You were the Poet Laureate of New York state, you did a lot of public events, and when you first got the post, you said that you wanted poetry to be as ubiquitous as Gap ads. Which I love. I think that’s my fantasy of a city.

MH: Wouldn’t it be great? The Poetry Society of course puts poems on buses and we need more and more and more. People are hungry for it. We just did a huge event called The Poet Is In at Grand Central Terminal. We’ve done this three times now but this one was the biggest. At Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Hall, right next to that clock, from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, there were six desks beautifully produced by the MTA art and design people and a production company called Wizard.

There were six poets that changed every hour so you could come and sit down and talk with the poet and the poet would write you a poem after talking to you. Forty-eight poets participated in the course of a day and the line of people waiting for a poem was an hour and a half long. And people waited. An hour and a half. It was so amazing. You would ask a lot of questions and then you would take their answers and transform them and give it back. You would type it out on the typewriter with carbon paper, stamp it, sign it, separate it and you would read it to the person. People cried all the time. The person cried, the poet cried, and then you would give them poem to them–free. I want to do this all over the country. I think we’re not used to being heard. We’re not used to someone listening to us. And somehow transforming what we said to them and giving it back in a way that only poetry can do. It’s so startling.

TM: Right now we’re at a moment where rapacious capitalism is running the government and they don’t believe in arts funding among other things, and people are now asking in a very fundamental way about what is important and what do we value.

MH: I was just outside Chicago and in Indiana and the world is so big, the country is so big, but everybody wants to read a poem when their father dies. Everybody wants to read a poem at their wedding. Everybody wants to read a poem at these crucial moments in their life. When there’s a ritual. When there’s a sacrament, essentially. They want something that can hold the moment. If people don’t turn to art and they don’t turn to religion, we’re left with consumerism.

After September 11th in New York these big sheets of paper would go up and people would write on them. Like by the arch in Washington Square Park. People were reading what other people had written. It was so amazing. People would crowd in and read all sorts of things that other people had written. We need public squares.

TM: We need moments where we stop and listen to each other.

MH: Poetry stops us and gives us something in common. I still believe that we could get poetry more into the public world. Unfortunately a lot of people believe they can’t read poetry because they were taught in school that it was difficult. Some poems are difficult, but many are not and so people are afraid–they don’t know where to go they don’t know what to do. I feel like we have to ambush them with something to realize that they don’t need to do anything more than just read and they’ll receive it.

TM: The last line in your book is “the moonlit path over the un-walkable water.” It’s a beautiful line and I feel like moonlight is an image that comes up a lot in your poetry.

MH: I’m in love with the moon. I mean, who’s not? It’s so amazing. To me, what we’ll call the divine is unseeable, unknowable. But we can see a reflection of it. We see it reflected in each other’s faces, we see it reflected in art, we see it reflected in the beauty of the world, the sorrow of the world. My friends actually mock me about this. We spend time in Provincetown every summer and the moonlight across the ocean makes that path, that wide amazing radiant path. It looks as if you could walk upon it to whatever is next. But of course you can’t walk on the water. I was also thinking of Peter who walks on the water when Jesus says, you can do it. Jesus walks across the water to the boat in the storm and he tells Peter, come on, and he starts to, but then Peter says, I can’t walk on water, and falls.

It is un-walkable for most of us, and yet it’s so compelling. The sun is the source of life and everything that is, but we can’t look at it. We can only look at it indirectly. The beauty of that indirectness is also the moon and how it falls onto the ground and onto us. I just love the whole physicality of it. What Mary is facing is human limitation, sensing that there’s energies that are beyond us and yet seemingly known, but not being able to utterly participate. It’s what you said early, just there but not quite.

TM: I guess in some sense that’s poetry. It’s the word describing something, a reflection of the thing itself.

MH: Beautifully said. The word isn’t the thing itself and yet it can be close enough because we have this imagination and we can say apple and we can picture an apple.  And the apple is there.