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.