Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Make It Matter Again:
An Interview with Michelle Taransky

Michelle Taransky was born in Camden, NJ. Winner of the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Prize for Barn Burned, Then, selected by Marjorie Welish, Taransky lives in Philadelphia where she works at Kelly Writers House, is Reviews Editor for Jacket2, and teaches writing at University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.

GL: I’d like to talk about the epigraphs to your book (or more specifically, to the first half of your book) since these two particular quotations seem to have an especially ars poetical function for your work. One is from George Oppen and one is from Charles Bernstein. Oppen’s goes something like this: I seem to know what I mean to do, and seem to be myself; I would like to get the thing said, I would like rather to get it thought, to grasp it—I look at things and they become large, like barns, I feel lost and yet they are not big enough—merely a little clumsy, reminiscent and clumsy. And Bernstein’s pithier contribution: I care about poetry that disrupts business as usual. The Oppen quotation (an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Frederic Will) seems to position the barn as a figure indicative of potentially visionary perception in your work (perhaps a fundamental aspiration), while the Bernstein quotation obviously has more mischievous and critical implications. In other words, one epigraph is constructive while the other is deconstructive. Could you tell me about these two (conflicting? complimentary?) impulses in your work? And could you also tell me why you selected these two particular quotations to introduce your work?

MT: For me, these epigraphs foregrounded the poems as both processes and events, the materials and the things. They suggest, or introduce, the barn's potential to be both archetype and particular.

Oppen positions the barn as a figure, the barn as many barns, and the barn as a holder of the unknown. To approach the barn like Oppen was, for me, a way to come to know the strange, as well as the stranger. "I never knew any barns," Oppen writes later in the same letter to Will, "If there were any barns in my background it seems to me that I would be writing at this moment about barns--- It occurs to me that many people have."

The Bernstein quotation continues: "I care most for poetry as dissent, including formal dissent, poetry that makes sounds possible to be heard that are otherwise not articulated [...] by form I mean ways of putting things together, or stripping them apart, I mean ways for accounting for what weighs upon any one of us." I wanted to deal with this counting and accounting Bernstein points to by writing without a "predictable measure." It's this choice that continues to disrupt while revealing that thinking and looking closely may be a clumsy business, and that it's ok to care.

GL: In Bob Perlman’s astute and enthusiastic blurb on the back of Barn Burned, Then, he credits your “fluency in frame-scanning, collage, and abstractions to alert readers to the depth of tinder we live amid.” It’s a lovely bit of analysis, but I’d like to hear about the techniques of “frame-scanning and collage.” How did the use of such techniques influence the composition of the poems?

MT: The poems move the barn and the bank from their original locations---- these jumps in frame and context and place ---- they make clear that "techniques" are being used, are a part of this work, are included in these operations. The poems, like barns and banks, are constructed, made things, where thinking through is a visible element like a nail or beam or joint or brace.

GL: Your book, as I alluded to earlier, is split into two sections: “Burn Book” and “Bank Book.” Could you tell me a little bit about the bifurcated structure of the book as a whole? Why did you want to keep the barns and banks (at least partially, nominally) separate from one another?

MT: The thing is: I separated them. But (as you note) they are, at the same time, not separate. Just as a field can flood, a barn can burn, or a calf can get sick, there may be a run on the bank or a robbery. When I started the project, I knew the barn had burned. But, I did not consider the bank then, it wasn't there then.

The bank began to figure itself during an indepentant study I was doing with the amazing Dee Morris at Iowa: "Poetries of the Left." We were reading Cary Nelson's Revolutionary Memory project and I came across this line from Genevieve Taggard: "They sold the calf. That fall the bank took over." That line changed the incomplete narrative implied by the title: "the barn burned, then ..." to "the barn burned, then there was a bank." Grammatically, the "then" in the title is a conjunctive adverb meant to connect: to join words, phrases, clauses and ideas. The Taggard line that repairs the broken speech and moves the narrative forward is among those shifts where the working it out "made the bank take place."

While writing Barn Burned, Then, I discovered all sorts of ways barns and banks may be linked in the poem--- and I discovered all sorts of ways barns and banks are linked in the world, including: there is both a barn swallow and a bank swallow, there is a barn called a bank barn, and there is a bank called Farmer's Bank. I think this means there are more links, in both the poem and the world.

GL: Part of what’s at stake in this fascinating collection is an analysis, or exploration of the dubious and exploitative foundations of our economy—the way we, or those of us complicit in our political and financial power centers look for “A way to get more for less. To stock up on the stolen / For the shortage that is always coming again” (“Theory for Building Where Fault”). There’s a spirit of philosophical and political critique in this book, but at the same time the book is far from polemical, in part, I think, because your poems are skeptical of maintaining any one particular rhetorical strategy for too long. The poems are full of un- or semi-punctuated, enjambed lines and phrases (Perloff’s “floating modifiers”), fragments of language juxtaposed against complete sentences, etc. How do you manage to use language that so complicates our ordinary patterns of speech (which “disrupts business as usual”) as a vehicle of political and philosophical critique?

MT: In a conversation with Sarah Louise Green (The Offending Adam issue 13), we suggest the "the beggar's way of speaking" (from "The Bank Holds") as the book's description of it's method of telling (or not telling). This is the kind of speech that asks with each breath: at what cost? Here, language (like barns and banks), is not safe from disaster and its disruptions. Here, the stutter of saying it (wanting to or having to) and associated anxieties get into the work and the working out it proposes. Like the poems press the impulse to hoard up against an impending loss, the full sentence being beside the fragment might mark the ways language is or is not an available currency.

GL: So what does Michelle Taransky make of the contemporary poetry scene? What kinds of writers, publications and projects are you taken with at present? What trends and tendencies in contemporary poetry do you find most intriguing? Contrarywise, what aspects, if any, of contemporary poetry do you find troubling?

MT: The work CA Conrad is doing in Philadelphia is amazing. His Urchin series, which gathers poets in public places in Philadelphia to read the work of poets like Niedecker, Oppen, O'Hara, and Spicer animates a community of writers as active readers that is continually nourishing and informative. If you haven't read (or tried) his (Soma)tic Exercises, stop reading this interview now and go right now to this (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises page. Send me your poem. Write your own (soma)tic exercise and send it to me. Philadelphia is full of innovative programming: the EMERGENCY reading series curated by Sarah Dowling and Julia Bloch, that engage poets in dialogues about emergence and poetic communities; the New Philadelphia Poets consistent push for poetry to happen in more and more places around the city; as well as Kelly Writers House's energetic revisioning of reading format and what is or is not possible for writing programs. It's a joy to write in this city among so many other poets who love writing.

GL: So what’s new with Michelle Taransky these days? What’s the next great project that your cooking up in your poetry laboratory? Who are you reading these days? Watcha thinkin’ about? Do tell.

MT: I'm working on two series of poems: SORRY WAS IN THE WOODS, and EPHRAIM GOLDBERG.

My father (an architect) and I are at work on a public project: the WPA: Whitman Park Artpsace. To be built adjacent to Walt Whitman's house in Camden, NJ. the WPA's mission includes fostering and supporting the literary arts in and around Camden. We're also working on a series of transcribed walking pieces built around buildings in Philadelphia and Camden.

The books and treasures on my coffee table:
Neighbour by Rachel Levitsky (Ugly Duckling Press), Sarah Dowling's first book Security Posture (Snare Books), Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen edited by Shoemaker (University of Alabama Press), the noulipian analects (Les Figues press), aaaaaaaaaaalice by Jen Karmin (Film Forum Press), HOW by Emily Pettit (Octopus Books).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Three New Poems by Marc Rahe

Mermaid Tank

Their mouths disfigured their faces,
opening. Their black hair about them
in the water. All along

the evening was a leveling
of gazes. We watched each other.
Some of them sang. I could be seen

observing their bubbles
for signs of damage.
I watched their breasts.

More breath was being manufactured.
I was left out being in the plush chair.
I felt, at least, that I was.

The heat in my face. Their tank was lit;
they cast their shadows.
There was no ink clouded in the water.

Theirs was salt water like my tears.
My tears were still in me. Indistinguishable.
Where the singers learned their song

warm winds blow continuously over palms.


My impression of you is so many
commercials. What is a family if not
who does the shopping, who does the buying?

I know you better than that.
You fixed the broken air
when it was so hot in the hospital.
How could that have happened,
if not for you?

That was not your commercial image,
as such. Insurance was always
an issue. The crowding
quote unquote of the room.
Such discomfort in being exposed
to the discomfort of others.

A curtain, at most, two curtains
between my ears and the instruction
of another man on self-catheterization.

And the hours of the days
with—what would you call them?

Roommates? Bed-neighbors?—
one of these guys watching Fox News
all day like white noise making

an argument of shouted interruption?

America, I could find you now
or direct anyone at all,
almost, to think – America
and there you are: some acetylcholine,
some activity in the basolateral amygdala

is you, someone’s experience.

You taught me all I have
to do is dream
. How can I
not know you? You’re so
like make-believe, a story problem.

Given the inalienable, what imagining
is equal to the distance between
the imagined and the unlearned?

Cradle Gave

Cradle gave coffin
respectability, the familiar.

Gave shapeliness to coffin.
Gave a pillow.

Gave mouthfuls of milk,
gave shit and pee to the air

for coffin. Kicking
and sleeping gave, and drool

waking and sleeping for coffin.
For coffin cradle gave

heart and wailing,
gave eight fingers and a thumb.

From coffin cradle kept hush,
kept one pink thumb for suck.

Marc Rahe grew up in Pleasantville, Iowa. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gutcult, Ink node, La Fovea, Notnostrums, Painted Bride Quarterly, Sixth Finch, and other literary journals. Marc lives in Iowa City and works for a human services agency. The Smaller Half from Rescue Press is his first book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Etymology of Spruce: an interview with Joyce WIlson

Joyce Wilson, editor and creator of The Poetry Porch, a literary magazine on the Internet at, teaches English at Suffolk University. Her poems have appeared in literary journals such as Poetry Ireland, Ibbetson Street, and online at Mezzo Cammin ( Her first book of poems The Etymology of Spruce has just been published by Rock Village Publishing, Middleborough, Mass. A chapbook “The Spring House” has been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press, to appear in November 2010.

GL: The title poem for your first book, The Etymology of Spruce, catalogues the definitions and the historical meanings of the word spruce. The poem is, in some ways, the most anti-poetic (it almost acts as a found poem) in the whole collection. The poem’s form, part litany, part lexicography, blends the word’s uses(s) with its beauty—to demonstrate, in other words, how so many histories, cultures and sounds converge and survive in it. Which makes an interesting and challenging choice for an opener since this is such a memoiristic/meditative collection. In Etymology of Spruce “personal” disclosures abound and yet you start with such an impersonal poem. Why? And how did you see the concept and symbol of spruce as interacting with the narrative, meditative and anecdotal poems in this collection?

JW: The preface poem IS a found poem. When I first saw the list of spruce words in the OED, I had already written at least two of the “spruce” poems. I found the list of spellings and changing pronunciations a riveting source of material. I still can’t keep from chuckling with delight every time I see those words on a page. The list I present as an epigraph has been selected. What drew me was the first spelling “sprws,” which doesn’t even have a vowel!, and sounds so earthy and graphic as if out of the granite hills of Great Britain. Then the introduction of “sprusse” transforms to “Prussia,” a fully formed national identity. It all ends with “Sprutia,” which could be a country or, even better, a state of being. This preface poem sets up a pattern in the book, from individual to universal, from the day the couple must deal with the remains of the felled tree to the more challenging demands of impending war, social integration, environmental destruction.

The idea for “spruce” as a symbol suggested itself when I knew I had more than one “spruce” poem that worked. The “etymology” part of the title refers to the definition's “true sense of the word.” In parallel, these poems present the true sense of the life or experience. And I should also say that the poem “Spruce Down” was inspired by an actual tree in our yard, of which there were five, and I’ve written about three.

GL: There are a number of poems in this collection that address/are concerned with personal, emotional and political violence. The sequence of poems at the beginning of the second part of the book charts an interesting and thematically varied line of antagonisms, and I’d like to ask you about how you see these poems working with each other. Could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to place the poems “Fences,” “Brooch,” “One Cow Stands Quietly” and “School Bus” in such close proximity? Was there a larger meditation at work here during the composition of these poems? Or did you simply juxtapose those poems that happened to be thematically similar, thereby allowing the reader to make her own connections?

JW: I tried a number of ways to order these poems. Most were written during or shortly after I was taking classes and poetry workshops as a nontraditional, older student at Harvard (Special Student was the category; Robert Frost was also one), so they were spilling out as a result of many prompts and inspirations. At one point I wanted to make the principle of “etymology” more of an ordering factor, and I had headings according to divisions of etymological study, such as “origins,” “reconstructing roots,” and so on. But after a while I felt that these categories distracted from the poems themselves. So I divided the book into two parts after Blake: the first group presents poems of innocence, the second poems of experience. This more general frame allows the poems to relate to each other more freely on an intuitive level.

GL: You turn to mythological sources of inspiration both at the beginning and at the end of the collection. “Persephone,” the third poem in the book, is a dramatic monologue that recalls the day the titular speaker returned home to see both her vernal welcome and her mother’s lasting grief. “From the Land of the Lotus Eaters,” the final poem in the collection, portrays different facets of the speaker’s travels (along with her companion) toward some nameless sea-side retreat, where she contemplates the relationship of “indolence” to art. Could you tell me about why you chose to use these mythological scenarios as a secondary framing device, in a sense, for your book? And how do you see these mythic themes interacting with the etymological, meditative and memoiristic work in The Etymology of Spruce?

JW: In the poem, “Persephone,” I wanted, first, to write about a moment I experienced with my mother, which I describe in the last line, so I “seized” the Persephone myth to give the moment context. In the case of using mythology, I rely on the details from my own life to give the narrative its uniqueness. Doesn’t every woman write a Persephone poem? The challenge is to write the myth the way no one else has.

Then the notion of joining a colony of pleasure seekers (lotus eaters) and losing one’s way has cautioned me for quite a while. Again, I did not plan to include the final sequence of poems with the rest of the book until two of the poems were accepted for publication. The way a book falls together, for me, has a great deal to do with what happens when a poem seems finished, when it is recognized by an editor who wants to publish it, and when I feel quite sure that I will not revise it again. I have a great many other poems in the works that have to do with this collection, but they just didn’t make it.

I like the way Michelangelo distinguished between the two processes of working with marble: one in which he has an idea of the finished sculpture, takes a solid block, and carves the image; and then another, in which he finds a block of stone that has something in it, a flaw or shape that inspires him, so that the material guides his creation and informs the finished sculpture. You might call this working from the inside out. When I can approach a poem this way, when I find something in the poem itself to guide the process, I usually come up with a better poem.

Looking now at the last sequence of poems, “From the Land of the Lotos Eaters,” I am reminded of the years raising our daughter and how I was tired most of the time. The conflict between being busy and being productive does not bother me so much now as it once did. Yet, I ask my students, isn’t it ironic that in order to read and to write, you are usually sitting still, or even lying down, and for all appearances to those around you who want your attention, you look as though you aren’t doing anything? It seems as if you are not doing anything, yet the work is exhausting.

GL: Let’s talk influences. Who were the writers you were reading while cobbling together The Etymology of Spruce? And how did those influences manifest in your work and/or change during the book’s composition?

JW: I was reading Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and the modern poets covered in Helen Vendler’s class on Modern Contemporary Poetry. I also liked the work of the metaphysical poets, especially George Herbert and his use of symbol and metaphor. Then I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Seamus Heaney. I was completely taken with the concrete element of his writing. After that, I helped a local group bring seven Irish poets to Boston for a series of readings. There I heard Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan, Medbh McGuckian, John Montague, Derek Mahon. And I heard about Thomas Kinsella, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Chris Agee, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley. And I bought all their books. I loved the approach I saw them taking, what Heaney calls putting feelings into words, where individual words resonate the way the hazel stick stirs in the hands of the diviner when held above a hidden source of water. I liked seeing a poem as a thing that is made, rather than an idea that is argued, that puts the thing in the center rather than keeping it as a detail on the periphery. I’m doing a great deal of experimenting with the concrete aspect of words in these poems. My favorite example is “My Father’s Dreams.”

GL: In addition to writing poems, you’re also an editor of Poetry Porch. Could you tell me about the history of that project and how it has impacted your work as a poet?

JW: After I left my position at The Woodberry Poetry Room, where I was also managing editor of Harvard Review, I saw that my husband had a book about designing Web sites. So I set up The Poetry Porch to keep in touch with the many poets I had recently met and to publish those who were having trouble placing their work. I saw the Internet then as a big chaotic library and I wanted to organize a place in it, a journal with cyber extras. I have thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with thematic issues and matching visual with the written works. I thought someone might approach me one day with a reward for all my efforts, a big monetary reward, or a financial commitment of some kind. I’m still waiting.

GL: So what’s next for Joyce Wilson? What kind of poems are you writing these days? How have things changed for you since the publication of The Etymology of Spruce?

JW: I am working on a long version of a chapbook, “The Spring House,” which has been accepted by Finishing Line Press to be published in November 2010. I also have a third manuscript in the works, in which I’m thinking a great deal about the formal and informal ways of presenting verse. This summer I am presenting The Etymology of Spruce on the First Books Panel at the Poetry Conference at West Chester, Pennsylvania, and will take a workshop there to revise my many lumpy, lop-sided sonnets. I also have ideas for some prose pieces. And I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University again in the fall. Since the publication of The Etymology of Spruce, I am busier than ever. But then, I was very busy before.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Poems by Zach Savich

From "The Mountains Overhead"


I sang: Tell me of the heart which exists

in which to continue is not

to confine


Then dreamed I sang so loudly, I woke

myself singing

The cygnets' feet were lost in snow

The cygnets were lovely because footless


Our augurs read their veils

What's sensible isn't seizeable, you said, waking


You may only sing to dedicate a song


You may hang your dresses on the back-

yard's line and you may rest here

You may work in a mine where you see yourself in

the rock and every day remove a piece

as large as your body 


To bring you to this:

We row out now over the lake where stars are

these muscles sobbing makes

Slashed across nightsky like bones

in owl droppings


Star exhaust

Have fun, we said for goodbye


Literally: to found meaning

to founder

Every pause, a cause

Every bow, a vow

At each footfall, landfall 


I sang: You would love it here, because I'm here

You sang: My cheek is softer where it touched your neck

I sang: I will hold you like it is enough

for a singer to hold a single word

You sang: Don't you always hold the door an extra second,


Did you say something?


I walked home—you can see it in my eyes


When the lake froze, I crossed it

To a shore closest in the coldest


Can't say to land: think of me

Or: you held me in place, in places 


Singing: And here you are coming toward me

Everything nearing, blooms

Water cold enough to cut

I could go on


As though the end of harvest were not

farthest from harvest

As though reunion were not so close to ruin


Dawn in the clouds like gold in a tooth 


Then a man we saw at the dance club dressed all

in white and carrying an orange


I could see by your look


I wanted a gentle way of waking you, so I let

So I let a tissue

sift to your face…


Be how you were, be how you were

I mean more 


Or needing to break one's mast on the bridge or

go back to the burning dock

The mast changed to a gnarled desert tree

Sail lifted to a gull 


Afternoons, we watched the benign gags

of silent films…


I drew your picture by holding

my brush over a shaking tray 


If the road is shaped like an S,

you know there were mountains 


And there is a tribe that carries water for months

in their cheeks, their cheeks

hanging to their bellies and they never swallow


Recall: I bent my brow

to the back's small 


Walking, so aware we were touching



To leave being to meet


The creek bed frosted like it isn't dry

The pump in the lawn, a lean dancer

Glove in the road,

sunning lizard

Day diving at me like the winking of a smoke detector's light

Once a minute

I remember love 


Sang: Tell me a secret I don't know I have


So I spend a week here, have been carrying

a Thing so precious any touch dissolves it, but to prove

its worth, meaning, destroy it, now, I need

to go on, so I

hold it against you


We may rest here 


Be how you were, be how you were


Then cut me so I unfold like the sky between

leaves into a string of paper dolls either

holding hands


The dog has worn a circle around its post bare, chain

a clock hand

It is not our dog, we release it 


Dandelions miners' headlamps


I sang: What is love to a fault?


Then second: can the metal melt?


Snow coming now like tissue after tissue from a box 


The plane never lands


Or not draw a small V as though a gull seen

from a distance or a migration

of geese every time

through the day I think of you every



Sang: Outlast this song

Zach Savich's first book, Full Catastrophe Living, won the 2008 Iowa Poetry Prize and received a New American Poet honor from the Poetry Society of America. His second book, Annulments, won the most recent Colorado Prize for Poetry and will be published by the Center for Literary Publishing in November of 2010. His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Kenyon Review, A Public Space, Denver Quarterly, and Pleiades. A recipient of a BA from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Savich has lived and taught in Italy, France, New Zealand, and around the US. He currently teaches and studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he helps organize the jubilat/Jones Reading Series.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

If You Are Reading This You Can’t Be Nearly Close Enough to Me: An interview with Dora Malech

............................Welter swelter

split the deck of cards. Can't predict king
or jack but that you'll pull the black and I

the redder riddles. If you are reading this
you can't be nearly close enough to me.


Dora Malech is the author of two collections of poems: Shore Ordered Ocean published by the Waywiser Press in November 2009, and Say So, forthcoming from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center in October 2010. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Best New Poets, American Letters & Commentary, Poetry London, and elsewhere.

GL: I am fascinated with poetic greetings, how poems and books of poetry welcome us in or warn us away—or both. “Let Me Explain,” the opening poem in your fabulous debut collection, Shore Ordered Ocean, strikes a dire tone: “Spring, and the tulips urged me / to stick to schedule, flower furiously.” These lines offer something of a play on the seduction ploys of male Elizabethan poets who urge their beloveds not to squander their beauty before it’s spent. Still, what’s at stake in this poem isn’t merely beauty, aesthetics, etc, but rather some kind of mortal accounting. The speaker recalls a point in her past when she wanted to cross certain Adamic chores—naming and taking stock of things—off her existential to-do list before it was too late: “I called my eyes near-sighted, / my hands near misses, my arms / close calls…” But the poem’s final lines indicate that a drastic although necessary compromise had to be achieved: “Stars, thanked. Days, numbered. / I wore a coat because you can’t trust / weather and I looked like rain.” If the speaker wants to explain anything, as the title insists, it appears that she wants to explain why, despite her urgency, she has had to resort to certain (regrettable?) outfits, appearances and, perhaps, disguises. In other words, she has had to conceal her nature in order to gain our trust or approval. Why, then, does a speaker with something to hide, her inclement appearance, apologize her way on stage at the very beginning of the book? Is it important for us readers to know that the speakers we will meet herein will likewise define themselves by trying to explain who they are while perhaps failing to do so?

DM: Some part of me really believes that words can do things. I don’t know if it’s a little bit religious or a little bit OCD or both, but when I encounter the “right” (whatever that means) words, something physical happens. That something physical is just in my own body, of course, but I can’t help but hope that one day I’ll write a couplet that causes a small explosion in my yard, or makes a few frogs fall out of the sky, or causes two strangers passing by my window to fall in love. I can’t shake the sense that a poem is still in the same phylum with spells and prayers and incantations. Most of my favorite poems possess a kind of grandeur that casts a swooning spell on me: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Sailing to Byzantium”…the big boys (and girls, of course; many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are visually small and cosmically vast at the same time). The stakes in my favorite poems feel high. Of course, if you decide that you want to write “like that” (aiming for grandeur, etcetera) you run the risk of either sounding affected and anachronistic, or psyching yourself out and never writing anything, or some combination thereof. So I go ahead and read “Sailing to Byzantium” again, and I let myself love Yeats while loathing my own inadequacy in contrast, and then I take the awe and the blah and whatever other emotional, intellectual, or linguistic materials I’ve got lying around in my head and I make a poem. And it is what it is. So for me, the act of writing a poem is always tangled up with the act of confronting my own limitations as a writer and as an individual human being born into a particular consciousness in a particular body in a particular time and place. And of course, I always harbor the hope that our particular limitations can shape (or be) our particular strengths. I think there’s an element of that idea in the title of the collection, Shore Ordered Ocean: this sense of being shaped by our limitations, defined (for better or for worse) by our boundaries and distances. You mentioned the first lines of the first poem in the book, “Spring, and the tulips urged me / stick to schedule, flower furiously,” and later, in the poem “Treasure Hunting”, there are the lines, “The baby bent to an iris and willing / her face to unfurl,” and in the poem “Makeup”, there’s “God, grant me a brighter myself”; I do keep returning to that unfashionable dream of language and imagination as transformative forces, of close observation as a way of becoming, for an instant, the object itself. Of course, this is physically impossible, but I think I’m drawn to this idea that the “surface”, in language and in the physical world, need not always be synonymous with the “superficial”, but can instead be entered as this incredibly dynamic liminal state, a space where the world of the mind and the world of the world (imagination and observation; desire and necessity) can coexist.

GL: Many first books these days take comfort in big themes or over-riding preoccupations. Ask a young poet what his or her manuscript is about and he/she is likely to say, “Well, I’m writing a book of dramatic monologues in the voice of Jean Baudrillard” or something to that extent. Shore Ordered Ocean is full of meditations, odes, elegies and other divergent reactions to sundry poetic occasions. Thus it seems that your book is free of those heavy-handed organizational tactics I alluded to above, but, who knows? I’m usually wrong. Could you tell me how you navigated the process of not only writing this book, but beginning to conceive of it as such? Was there an implicit organizing principle to which you adhered, or did you simply corral the best of your poems from the past several years into this collection?

DM: I certainly don’t write “occasional poetry” in the literary sense of the term (poems written for special occasions), but I admit that I have the urge for a poem I write to feel “occasioned”, necessitated, not necessarily by some “event”, but perhaps by a collision of thoughts and feelings, or an accumulation of mental energy and observation in a particular direction. In graduate school, I churned out poems for the sake of churning out poems, which I believe was totally illuminating and necessary for that brief chunk of time. When I graduated, however, I found that pace unsustainable and ultimately at odds with my sense of why I write poetry at all. I’m a bit jealous of poets who can come up with a “project” and then stick to it for an entire collection, but at this point in my life, it just isn’t how poems happen for me. I wrote each of the poems in Shore Ordered Ocean as an individual poem; I never wrote a poem to serve some kind of function within a collection. This did make it difficult to conceive of a unified book, and the whole idea of crafting a “manuscript” kind of freaked me out. I had a big stack of poems and I’d kind of shuffle them around and send the pile under different titles to various publishers and book contests. I was pretty lost, and I was willing to take advice from anyone who would take the time to tell me to cut poems or rearrange the order. These years of aimless shuffling were a kind of blessing in disguise, since I was writing more poems as I fiddled with the so-called manuscript. Gradually, I began to see my growing stack of poems gravitating in two directions: one direction was more outward-looking, concerned with politics, the natural world, distance and the unfamiliar, while the other direction was more inward-looking, concerned with relationships, interpersonal and private life, speech acts, and the colloquial. Of course, there was a lot of overlap, but the former direction became Shore Ordered Ocean and the latter direction became Say So (my second collection of poems, forthcoming in October). Once I had these gut senses of what each book felt like (not so much what it was “about”, but more of a synesthetic sense of texture/timbre, palette/palate), the individual poems in each collection began to make patterns and talk to each other in more meaningful ways. I hope that this translates into something like a cohesive experience for a reader. Maybe I’ll save myself all of this trouble the next time around and just write a third collection that consists entirely of pantoums about Heidegger from the point of view of my Chihuahua. Now that’s cohesive.

GL: One of my favorite poems in Shore Ordered Ocean is “Makeup” because, among other things, the speaker ultimately sympathizes with the value of expressive fictions as much as or even more than ugly truths. The language at the beginning of the poem indicates a kind of satirical perspective: makeup “Renders the dead living / and the living more alive,” which is creepy…and true. But, in conclusion, you write, “Even the earth claims color / once a year, dressed in red leaves / as the trees play Grieving.” These lines are both illustrative and argumentative…though it appears to me that the argument here happens chiefly for the benefit of the speaker. Which reminds me of the famous quote from Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Yeats’ distinction strikes me especially true for both this poem and your work in general. Could you tell me a little bit about how “the quarrel with” the self functions in both “Makeup” in particular and in the book as a whole?

DM: This gets back to what I was rambling about earlier: appearances and surfaces not simply as façades, but as liminal places where imagination and reality can wrestle. Isn’t that what all art allows, on some level? I would hate to imply that cosmetic surface is simply a stand-in for poetic surface in this poem, since that isn’t the case, but there’s certainly give-and-take between different sorts of hopeful artifice. I love that Yeats quote about the “quarrel with ourselves”, and I like the idea that we don’t just write “about” those inner conflicts in poetry, we enact them in poetry. James Longenbach’s book The Resistance to Poetry is a great investigation of the ways in which the power of poetry lies in its apparent powerlessness and marginality, and it is “a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself.” Poetry’s ability (obligation?) to put pressure on its own materials gives it a potency that the one-way language-as-usual rhetoric of politics, commerce, and the media does not.

GL: More on the argument with the self… your poem “Push, Pull” consists of seventeen musical couplets that force images and contemplations of violence to coexist with or communicate through euphonious language and sound devices. For example, “Baby’s first words were friendly fire. / Chrysanthemums of copper wire.” This poem terminates with these likewise rollicking lines, from which the title of your book is derived:

Couldn’t we call the crash a birdbath?
Couldn’t we call the coffins gift wrap?

Must have been some misunderstanding.
Shore ordered ocean but sent it back.

So okay. Could you tell me how the images/language of violence and war function with or against the music of the poem? What’s the tension you were trying to produce, and why did you feel that this poem, or language from this poem, in some way spoke for the volume as a whole?

DM: I am repelled and fascinated by contemporary public language (politics, commerce, and the media, as I mentioned before). The miasma of euphemisms, willful omissions, hot air, and scare tactics is numbing and enraging and could almost possess a kind of fractal beauty if it weren’t so dangerous. I wanted to write “about” the war in Iraq, but it felt disingenuous; who was I to try to speak to the situation? Just some citizen of the Empire glued to the television and the internet and the newspaper and the radio. So I ended up entering the subject in the same way that it entered me: through the media and that uncanny sense of the public projected into the private, complete with digressions, diversions, distractions, and so on. You’re seeing footage of a bomb blast and then you’re being sold something. You’re hearing a stranger’s tragic testimony and then you’re listening to a pop song. I wanted to write about what I cared about (how human beings treat other human beings), but I didn’t want to bear false witness by creating some knowing persona. I didn’t want to claim answers when I had no answers. Enacting the junctions and disjunctions of public and private life through language was the “truest” way I knew to bear witness to my own citizenship of America and of the larger world.

GL: Let’s talk influences. As I was reading Shore Ordered Ocean I thought I noticed the appropriation/modification of several radically different kinds of poetic modes in your work: metaphysical devices, such as the use of wit and conceit; a Hopkinsesque focus on the ecstasy of sound; use of irony and parable together in the same poem, as in “An Old Story,” which might derive from someone like Mary Ruefle, or even Kafka. Who were some of the writers who preoccupied you while you were writing these poems, and how have those preoccupations and/or influences changed since you finished the book?

DM: You’re so dead on. Thank you for being such a sensitive, attentive reader; all of your questions have really made me think carefully. I am totally obsessed with the Metaphysical poets, especially John Donne. I’m obsessed with Shakespeare on every level, especially the way he works with wit and word play. I’m obsessed with Hopkins and the tension between his reverence and his linguistic sensuality. Donne, Shakespeare, Keats, Hopkins, and Yeats will never not be hugely important to me. When I was writing Shore Ordered Ocean, I was also reading: Mary Ruefle (her book of “prose”, The Most of It, was especially moving to me), Dean Young (Skid, Strike Anywhere), John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Cort Day’s Chime, Mark Strand, Mark Levine, Wallace Stevens, James Wright, Emily Wilson (The Keep is amazing), Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, George Starbuck, Donald Justice (he’s a poetic hero of mine, although it might not show), Denis Johnson (it’s all about The Incognito Lounge), Eugenio Montale, and Jim Galvin, of course. Faulkner was really important to me, as was John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet. And now? Hmmmm… well, all of the above are still very important to me. I’ve still been reading a lot of Montale, and I’ve been reading other Italian poets from that era, like Pavese and Saba. I’m making an effort to read more contemporary poetry too; I have the tendency to end up reading the same “great” poets over and over (see the short list above), but it’s important to me to listen to and enter the contemporary conversation as well. Some contemporary poets I’ve been really excited about lately: Robyn Schiff, Jane Mead, Michael Dumanis, Jericho Brown, Darcie Dennigan, John Murillo, Erica Dawson, and others. I’m also pretty obsessed with the rapper/poet/musician K’naan right now.

GL: So, what’s new with Dora Malech these days? What are you writing, reading, thinking? Are you settling down in one place after years of travel and moving about, or revving up for many more years of peripatetic poeting? What’s doing? What’s the scoop?

DM: I’m copy-editing Say So now, thinking about commas and so forth. I haven’t been writing a whole heck of a lot. Well, actually, I’ve been writing, but I haven’t been finishing anything. I’ve just been scrawling down lines or images or words in my notebook without asking anything of them. I’ve been sort of on-purpose/by-accident letting work (teaching) take up all of the energy that might go into completing a poem. I don’t know if it works this way, but I’m hoping that I’ll come out of this “fallow” spell somehow different on the page, as if the pressure might result in a different kind of energy. Who knows. This summer, I’m going to try to actually make the poems and drawings and paintings that I’ve been thinking about for the past months. We’ll see how that goes. Then, in the Fall, I’ll be a Writer-in-Residence at the Saint Mary’s College of California MFA Program in Creative Writing; I’m really looking forward to working with the MFA students there. I’m also looking forward to being in a different landscape; my poems always end up shaped in some way by the context in which I write them. I’m looking forward to letting California work its way into my writing for a few months. And after that… I have no idea. Iowa City is really “home base” for me now, but my rambling days may not be over yet.