Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bones That Looked Like Me: an interview w/ Leslie Anne Mcilroy

I dreamed last night
that your face pressed
against the skin of my belly
and I could see your eyes
wide open, bones
that looked like me.

(from “Surrender”)

GL: Your second full-length collection of poems, Liquid Like This, begins with an epigraph from Carole Maso: “Of course she goes too far. / There’s nowhere else for her to go.” This notion of being forced by circumstance to go too far seems essential to your work. In what ways does your poetry respond to having “nowhere else to go” but “too far”? And to what extent do you think people and poets find or define themselves in moments of exaggeration, desperation, extremis?

LM: I don’t think of going too far in terms of exaggeration/drama as much as a kind of learned internal truth — something that intrinsically works. It is what is known about the self and the struggle to be present in the world. I’m not saying it is smart or good or right — always. In fact, it can be sad, come from a place of desperation, as you note. On the other hand, for me it feels mostly bold and honest and uncompromising — risk taking. The speaker, to be true to herself, cannot go halfway or even just all the way. She has to give everything to feel alive and true — jump in with two feet. This is a way I try to write — and live. It’s not pretty and I am often disappointed when I find myself writing around something that I am maybe afraid or unable to say out loud. I know I have to go further. The poems I admire most take that step.

It is not that I disdain modesty and decency and sound judgment. I like to think I have those, too, just that this tactic doesn’t often serve me well in my creative/relational life. I value it and would never intentionally hurt another in the name of pushing through, but I am also deaf to polite and pretty poems/people. They don’t enter in/make a mark.

The poems/poets that stick with me aren’t extreme (in some cases I wish they were) as much as they are willing to say what needs to/can’t be said. I always go back to Lucille Clifton’s “Moonchild”: “jay johnson is teaching/me to french kiss, ella bragged, who/
is teaching you? how do you say; my father?” It kills me that she can say this so simply and beautifully and that the moon is the poem’s metaphor and it shines so pure and bright through all this ugly. It goes so very far.

If you go too far, you can always come back (at least in a poem); if you don’t go out there, you’ll never know.

GL: There’s a terrific and ghoulish poem, “Dismember,” near the beginning of the book that provides an eerie counterpoint for the way the body is often treated in Liquid Like This. Many poems in this collection portray the body as a kind of magnificent but doomed device that offers fleeting promises to satisfy desires while simultaneously altering or frustrating those desires. In “Dismember,” on the other hand, the speaker contemplates the way the body is severed, appropriated, and/or destroyed for perverse, malicious or tragic reasons. The poem features a litany of gothic scenarios, including images of amputees, a “hooded captor” beheading a hostage, a serial killer collecting trophies in a box, and other nightmarish but realistic predicaments. What I’d like to know is: Why is this dark and somewhat atypical poem of yours featured so prominently and close to the beginning of the book? And how does “Dismember” inform the book’s more erotically focused exploration of the body?

LM: I love this poem: the images, the rawness, the ugliness. I think it is a good poem — my simple explanation for its prominent positioning in the book. I love it because it comes from my longtime, graphic fear of dismembered body parts, which began when I was a child and remains long after I discovered my erotic self. What I found as I wrote the images that haunt me (I slept with the light on for months during the Jeffrey Dahmer case) was that in a textbook psychology way, it has to do with a fear of not being whole or connected, an exploration of the many ways people are damaged by separation — how identities are formed in pieces that don’t talk to each other — how we can be so distant from ourselves.

Or worse yet, how two parts of the self can be so contradictory and still exist in the same space. Identities are complex but we often reduce them to a simple character we can hold on to — and then they change.

I feel like the graphic, “gothic,” violent images of tearing/cutting the body apart are significant in that they speak to the real atrocities/horrors that take place every day. People DO THIS to one another. There is the doing and the done to and they are equally terrifying. It surpasses everything I know, except what I might do if someone tried to hurt my daughter. That’s another poem.

I have taken some crap for the last line, “the nanny who pays good money for a soup bone,” but I believe that if we thought about the daily massacre of animals — what it is we really do to a cow — if we looked in that beautiful animal’s eyes as we chopped off its head — we would be forced to see that every time we ate a piece of beef, and feel it. Yes, I am a vegetarian.

Finally, I am very close to my body — it is central to the way I live. I don’t understand it sometimes, but I am uniquely focused on it because I am a Type 1 diabetic, which means I have been monitoring my health, diet, weight and blood sugars for 30 years now. I don’t get to escape my body and all the variables that affect it. I pay consequences for ignoring it. I struggle. The body is a beautiful and terrifying thing — the things it does, the things we do to it, the things we do to each other. Pleasure and pain walk together in much of what I know and express — very much so erotically. I don’t really know how else to explain that.

GL: Your poem “Sexicon” investigates the words and expressions we use to build a language of love and lust. After first mentioning some conventional phrases for orgasms, like “the small death” and “angels flying,” the speaker searches “for something better to explain/the panic/calm, fierce/sweet, fire/ash of us,” a word that can not only call to mind, but even achieve sexual consummation, with its mere utterance. Why is this ambition, finding language sufficient to the task of representing or even reenacting sexuality, of such crucial importance to your work?

LM: For me “Sexicon” is about a universal call to love explored through the power of unrestrained sex — it is hyperbolic, but need not be. It was informed, in part, by these back-and-forths I have with my daughter: “I love you,” “I love you more,” “I love you bigger than the world,” “I love you bigger than the sky,” and one day she countered, “I love you 140 universes.” It stayed. And for me (though one might not believe it) the best of our sexual beings is always brought forth by love — and trust, and vulnerability. How much would you give for your partner to look at you wide-eyed and say without abandon, “I love you 140 universes,” and mean it?

Something Bigger than Love. This is a phrase from “Sexicon”, that my lover, Don Bertschman, and I have adopted as our code. It is a reaching, a calling, a truth that can only be found if you are open and honest and seeking and desirous and willing. I wear a ring with SBtL engraved on it, a tattoo on my back, and now, a necklace. It is something I believe in — that we can give one another a consciousness and break old patterns (love the Andrea Gibson poem, “Stay” about this), which have held us captive. We can choose one another without anyone telling us what form that needs to take, AND we can trust one another in a way that challenges our very core. Trust is hugely important. When you give yourself wholly to another person you need to know that you are safe in that giving. It comes back to the “too far.” You have to take risks, be present, be honest to love — physically, emotionally and spiritually — that big. If you, like I, want to experience love at that level, I believe you have to go that far.

GL: Many poems in Liquid Like This use the second person or use the second person address at some point. Why do those moments happen in your poems (when you turn to a specific “you”) and which would you say is the greater motivation for you as a poet: to address others or yourself: Examples of this can be found in "Heart Time" (at the conclusion), "Best Fuck II," (great titles), "One Blue Second" (in the middle), "Headed South," "Winner Takes All," (the “you” who's kissed), "Surrender," "How Did it End," "I Don't Want to Write about You Anymore," "Gone Missing," "Keep Breathing" (at the end), "Nothing's free about Verse," "The Poem in You," "I Wasn't Surprised at All," and "Again."

LM: The audience is always a big factor for me. I write for myself, yes, but the only reason to share this is that it might make another feel/see/engage/change. It’s a form of connecting that is hugely important to me. If I can’t talk to YOU, who am I talking to? When I write, it is almost embarrassingly autobiographical. I lack the leap of imagination to walk outside myself, which is central to a lot of poems I love. I try and almost always fail.

Still, within the autobiographical, there is an energy that forces me to address the other, to acknowledge that I am not here alone in this and someone has brought me/come along with me to this experience or way of thinking, and because my “I” is very much MY “I,” I want them to hear me. I want them to LISTEN — even if they never read the poem. I feel the need to address/invite/engage the other as part of the narrative, to help inform the whole picture. Often the “you” is easily identifiable. In most cases, it a partner/lover, who can then be extrapolated to the universal “you” depending on the experience of the reader.

I try to write from what I know and the “you” is always part of that. This might explain why I rarely write in the third person …

GL: The last poem in the book, “Heart Time,” the speaker tells us she has been “hearing [her] heartbeat…[i]n [her] dreams, in the city wind, on the radio,” which prompts her to count everything, and then claim “…I can measure beauty this way, / by counting my presence in this final world.” These are fabulous lines, and I wonder if they provide us with an ars poetical account of your core aesthetics. How does your poetry attempt count your presence into this world?

LM: It’s funny that you ask that. I perform “Heart Time” and in rehearsing, asked my musical collaborators if in hindsight, that line, “I can measure beauty this way, / by counting my presence in this final world,” sounded egotistical. I worried that I did not really think it through when I wrote it. What I meant was not that beauty is only measured by how much I count in this world, but that how much beauty I leave IS how much I count — it’s what I’ve given, what I’ve left after I go. I love that it is pretty, but if you really think it through, it’s semantically unclear. I have a wild need to leave something beautiful — to add to the beauty in this world, to be a part of it — I want to be that beautiful thing.

GL: When I was an undergrad at Pitt, I was introduced to poetry by writers like Jeff Oaks and Jan Beatty, whose work displayed a fierce attachment to Pittsburgh. I came to think of them, and several other (otherwise rather diverse) writers, like Judith Vollmer, Terrance Hayes, Jim Daniels, and Sharon McDermott, as being a part of a regional literature. The tenets of this literature, I would argue, include: locating the reader in very specific places of interest, like the Cage, the Pegasus, on Forbes Avenue, waiting for the 61C bus, etc; using river and bridge imagery; both celebrating and mourning the city’s gothic, post-industrial architecture and atmosphere; bars; music, specifically blues and erotic rock lyrics; and exploring sexual and sensual imagery. To what extent you 1) believe there is such a Pittsburgh aesthetic? 2) locate yourself within that aesthetic or 3) try to complicate and/or write away from that aesthetic? (Sorry about all the aesthetics!!)

LM: OOOOOOOH — I LOVE Pittsburgh. It is so rich to me, but I feel like I am faking it when I try to adopt the working-class, steel mill history, the industrial meat of it. I come from a middle-class family, though I am a third-generation immigrant, my grandfather (on my mother’s side) was a draftsman and my grandmother a writer. I have nothing but love for the work ethic of Pittsburgh, having been employed since I was 12 (at Fox’s Pizza Den, Burger Chef, some crazy Elaine Powers exercise place, selling magazines on the phone for a lunatic, babysitting — it seems fitting now that I bartended for 10 years with my three Carnegie Mellon degrees).

I like the brutal determination of Pittsburgh, the skylines and the hills — the weather. I love the poetry of the landscape — the bridges and rivers. I love the parks (I run in Frick nearly every day with my dog), and the way, when people say we are pedestrian, I get to point to the exact same people you note as counterpoints: Jan Beatty, Terrance Hayes, Jeff Oaks and Jim Daniels, whom I studied under as an undergraduate at CMU. They are in my blood. They are a pulsing part of Pittsburgh. I am happy here.

And yes, there is a Pittsburgh aesthetic and I hope I am a part of it. I don’t feel a need to distance it. I don’t care for the Steelers /Pirates/Penguins, I don’t eat pierogies or kielbasa. I don’t dine at the Dirty O or Pramanti’s, but it is in Pittsburgh where I have met the most beautiful, creative, artistic, energizing people in my life. I raise my daughter here in hopes that this energy finds her. And I know it will.

GL: So what’s been new with you since Liquid Like This appeared two years ago? Are you writing away from those poems? Or has your work since been a continuation of the poems in that book? What are you reading, writing, thinking?

What is new? Performance, I guess. I have begun memorizing my poems so that I can deliver them in a way that focuses on emotional connection rather than simply transference of ideas, words, images, feelings. If I KNOW a poem, I can emote, use my body (back to the body), think about timing and effect. I can fully realize what I am trying to say and share that.

LM: I have been lucky enough to work with musicians (Don Bertschman, Danny Morrow) who add a new dimension to my work. It is so freeing to collaborate with artists who share an aesthetic and then raise the bar with musical influences that take the poem to another level. Sometimes I rework the poem for a performance — add things, repeat things, accentuate the melody of the words. Mostly I concentrate on making sure my poems work as hard on the stage as they do on the page. I still want them to stand up to academic scrutiny/poetic craft, but I want to deliver them the way you would to a friend over a glass of wine, from the heart — passionate and true.

Last year I took on the challenge of writing a poem a day for National Poetry month in April. That exercise lead to a lot more writing (not all good), and a devotion to the process I was lacking. Since, I have been working on those poems and others (I am a big believer I revision) to compile a new book, sending out a lot more (getting a lot more rejections) and am writing grants to fund a larger project that has been in my mind for more than five years now: a performance piece dealing with diabetes, bulimia and motherhood. It has yet to get funded, but I know if it does, I can write/perform a piece that will be powerful in the way that Sekou Sundiata’s “Blessing the Boats” or Caroline Rothstein’s “Faith” promises to be.

I speak from my heart and rarely from intellect (I suck at arguing politics, but swear to god I know what is right and wrong). I don’t read as much as I’d like, but in the last years have been given the gift of Jeannette Winterson and Carole Maso. I always return to Lucille Clifton, Terrance Hayes, Tim Seibles, Sekou Sundiata, Martín Espada, Linda McCarriston, Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin. Most recently, I have discovered Ada Limon, Erika Meitner and Cheryl Dumesnil.

Each morning I read “Verse Daily” and “Poetry Daily,” giving me a poetic jumpstart to foil my retail, copywriting world. I have explored the slam scene and don’t do so well there — I think my material is not a good fit for the audience — but that, too, has greatly informed my presentation. I think a lot about what it is I want to achieve with my writing and what devotion/sacrifice it will take me to get there.

Sometimes I regret not getting my MFA/Ph.D. and being an active part of the academic/poetry world. Other times I regret not being the soul artist that puts her art first. Then I remember that I have 3 books and a daughter and a home and a lover, my family and my beautiful friends. I remember I have made choices that came from my own truth, my own needs, my desires and limitations. I think a lot about mortality and take comfort in knowing that no matter what happens, I have lived as true and whole as I know how to be. I pray that it gets truer and wholer each day.

Leslie Anne Mcilroy won the 2001 Word Press Poetry Prize for her full-length collection Rare Space and the 1997 Slipstream Poetry Chapbook Prize for her chapbook Gravel. She also took first place in the 1997 Chicago Literary Awards Competition judged by Gerald Stern. Her second full-length book, Liquid Like This, was published by Word Press in 2008. Leslie’s work appears in numerous publications including American Poetry: The Next Generation, Dogwood, The Emily Dickinson Award Anthology, The Mississippi Review, Nimrod International Journal of Prose & Poetry and Pearl. Leslie works as a copywriter in Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her daughter Silas, and writer/guitarist, Don Bertschman, with whom she performs her poetry.