At the yard sale, I saw that they were selling all my stuff. It was flattering to see so many people grabbing at my past, traffic blocked in both directions, strangers stopping and parking and leaving doors ajar. I was actually proud until I noticed how much haggling was going on: a quarter for my Mardi Gras beads, two bucks for my hunting permit, fifty cents for my whole hip-hop collection. This is a joke, I think I thought. All night, I sat in someone else’s yard, watching the slow erosion of my own existence. When a single mom bought my body, I objected, but my eyes, by that time, were cloudy marbles.
To make up for their bad behavior,
they bought me an Atari cartridge.
In Megalomania, you get to
design your own government—
purple for pseudodemocracy
and violet for totalitarianism.
The people flicker in predictable patterns.
Give the music a minute to sink in—
it has no beginning or end.
I’m not winning. It’s a 1-player game.
In the ad, it seemed so much more
exciting, so much less predestined.
They say I can stop playing
as soon as everyone is happy.
GL: Your terrific manuscript in progress, Situation Normal, features poems that often recount bizarre and disturbing events in a “normal” voice, that is, a kind of eerie deadpan that tries but fails to enforce normality (control, order, stability) through its tone. Thus the normal, in this sense, functions to keep strange phenomena from spiraling apart, but it also (often) signals an emotional disconnect between the speaker and the churning world at hand. He talks, in other words, like everything is fine, normal, etc., even when it’s not. This mode creates both disturbing and hilarious results, but I’m more curious about the disturbing in these poems. What, then, are some ideas or manifestations of “the normal” from the world/country/mediascape that inspire/scare you into writing these not-so-normal poems?
RB: I feel like the real world is full of scary stuff that somehow becomes part of the backdrop of everyday life. We’ve got climate change and disease and egomaniacal dictators all lurking around the corner—I don’t think there’s any shortage of signs that things are seriously broken. Hollywood keeps making apocalyptic films, and zombies never seem to get old. It’s a strange dynamic, because we’re fascinated with fictional disasters, but in order to get through each day of showering and going to work and buying groceries, we’ve got to turn a blind eye to the real, looming disasters. And, of course, the corporate machine has plenty of incentive to condition us to either ignore impending doom or view it as entertainment. Romans and lions all over again, I guess.
GL: The first poem in SN, “Bucket Sort,” is a wonderful ars poetica in which the speaker imagines being “buried under” the weight of his life/words; beneath that shattering but inevitable burden he finds “the darkness beautiful, / the view peculiar, / the weight of it awful.” Could you tell me why the simultaneous presence of these three things is so important to your poetry?
RB: The relationships among those three elements make life interesting, right? We’ve got to accept mortality and find some way to enjoy the ride. Appreciate the little things while atrocities are being committed. Live as if we have all the answers, even though none of the big mysteries have been solved. Every single time I stop to think about it, I’m overwhelmed and terrified and grateful all at once. In terms of the poetry, I guess I’m constantly trying to make sense of things, and I hope that even when I admit to a reader that I’m feeling lost and small, we can take a deep breath together and enjoy some of the strange magic that’s way beyond our comprehension.
GL: In the poem “Shame,” you write, “Privacy is exquisite / because none of us / wish our flaws public.” But your poem moves from this playfully cynical axiom to a more cryptic and creative reformulation of the problem of privacy in the final stanzas:
We can’t bear to see
in a soup spoon
at a sidewalk café.
This is why Halloween
is sacred: none of us
wish our privacy
confined to phantasm.
RB: It’s mostly a call to honesty—let your monsters loose, turn yourself inside out and wear your ugliness. We’re all broken and in over our heads, but we’re supposed to fake it most of the time and act like we’ve got our shit together. It’s exhausting to hide all your flaws, though, so I love the idea of taking a day, as a society, to be collectively and brutally honest with one another. That’s not exactly what Halloween’s about, but it could be—a day to make sure that we don’t die without letting the world know who we really are.
I’m not really looking at “privacy” in the wiretapping sense of the word. In the poem, I’m thinking more about the tension between how we feel and what we say. You’re not going to find a lot of poetry in prepared statements from politicians or post-game interviews with athletes. It’s awful to hear language used in those ways, right? That sort of contrived, stock-phrase bullshit shows up in poetry, too, unfortunately. The stuff that I enjoy reading is like the opposite of a press conference. It’s more like a conversation with someone who’s falling asleep at the wheel—all surprise, no filter.
GL: Many of your poems are concerned in complex, ironic ways with authentic, or “real” experiences. Your speakers don’t always know what aspects of subjective experience they should count as truly belonging to them. For example, the speaker of “Where the Self Resides” says this in the final lines: “Tell me again / how nearly alive I really am.” What prevents this speaker, or the other voices in your MS, from realizing (in all senses) how alive they really are? What makes it so difficult for them to answer this question from themselves?
RB: About a third of the poems in Situation Normal are about the process of searching for identity, and different poems deal with different parts of that process. Some of the characters are just opening their eyes, while others are confronting big doubts at the end of life. I’m not sure that there’s one answer to your question, but you’re right that I’m interested in the impossible task of understanding where each of us fits into a world that, ultimately, is a total mystery. In the particular poem you mention, it’s a matter of facing death and saying, “I know I wasn’t perfect, but how did I do?” I guess I worry that I won’t be able to answer that question for myself. And, despite my best efforts at anything resembling religious faith, I’m not convinced that anyone will be there to answer it for me.
GL: You are editor of Sixth Finch, which has quickly become an essential presence in the poetry world. How have the goals, reach, and content of SF changed since you smashed a champagne bottle against its hull just a few years ago?
RB: (Your question makes me think of the scene in Caddyshack where Mrs. Smails christens The Flying Wasp, but I’ll try to get beyond that and give you a real answer.)
I hope that the goals for Sixth Finch haven’t changed—I still want to bring great work to a new audience, and I still want to build stronger connections between poets and artists. The reach, thanks to lots of amazing people, has definitely changed. Our readership has grown exponentially, and it’s nearly all due to word-of-mouth. In terms of the content, I’m sure that the aesthetic is constantly shifting—people are sending us a lot of work that takes risks, and the submissions that get me most excited are often the ones that remind me of nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’d love to keep publishing brave work that really stands out.
GL: So what’s new with Rob MacDonald these days? What are you writing, reading and thinking about? What new projects are in the offing?
RB: Recently, I’ve been reading stuff from Heather Christle, Jordan Stempleman, Matt Hart, Emily Pettit, Zach Schomburg, Timothy Donnelly, Leigh Stein, Dan Magers…too many to list. I read a ton of different journals, too, and I’m always excited to discover poets—Chelsea Whitton and Meghan Privitello are just a couple of new favorites. I’m good at reading, writing and thinking, but probably not as good at projects. (Dottie Lasky’s great essay, “Poetry Is Not a Project,” helps me feel slightly less inadequate about that.) My approach to the business of poetry has been ridiculously passive. When an editor of a journal asks for some poems, I send some over. When someone asks me to be part of their reading series, I give a reading. I have this crazy idea that if I just keep writing good poems, I’ll eventually get an email from one of my favorite presses saying, “Hey, can we put out your book?” Writing is so much more interesting than submitting, but I’m working toward a healthy balance. And while I’m finding a home for Situation Normal, I’m happy to just keep writing new poems.
Rob MacDonald lives in Boston and is the editor of Sixth Finch. His poems can be found in Octopus, notnostrums, Sink Review, esque, H_NGM_N and other journals.