The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see--it is, rather, a light by which we may see--and what we see is life.

Robert Penn Warren

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interview with Matt Hart

Matt Hart is the author of four books of poems, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012). A fifth collection, Debacle Debacle, is forthcoming from H_NGM_N BKS in 2013. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL. This fall he was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Texas, Austin.


DS: What’s your earliest memory of poetry (either yours or someone else’s)? What do you think led to your strong attraction to poetry, or poetry’s attraction to you?

MH: My earliest memories of poetry are pretty negative actually. Mostly they’re of being told in one setting or another that I’d gotten it wrong. That what I thought the poem was about wasn’t it at all. One particular instance with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” really left a sour taste in my mouth. I just couldn’t relate to the antiqueness of the language, nor the idyllic subject, and while I had pretty good teachers, I was wildly resistant to everything at that point and/or wanted to do things so radically my own way, that it was probably a nightmare trying to teach me anything. I heard what I wanted to hear. And this made interpretation particularly tricky, especially when the teacher clearly had in mind a right answer.

DS: I’ve always thought that the main difference between poetry and prose is that poetry allows for more interpretation. The reader is allowed to incorporate his or her baggage (or perhaps positive energy) into what he or she gets from the poem.

MH: Yeah, of course, right. But I think so many students, especially at the high school level get turned off to poetry early on, because it’s presented like a puzzle, a thing to be solved—rather than as a thing to engage with, to converse with, to sit down at the table and go haywire together. I realize that last part doesn’t make any sense. But yes, poetry allows for a different, more acrobatic, more up close and personal kind of reading. That doesn’t mean there aren’t meanings to get, but that those meanings are nuanced, because poetry activates the connotative associative atmosphere of the language, which allows me and you and everybody we know to collide with that atmosphere and find him or herself THERE! 

What was funny with regard to my high school experience was that I loved song lyrics, especially Bob Dylan and The Dead Kennedys and Hank Williams—protest music, folk and punk and twangy country stuff. I played in punk bands. I wrote my own songs. What changed for me with poetry was getting into college (where I was a philosophy major) and as a Junior taking a poetry workshop with Tom Koontz and being exposed to poems like “Howl” and Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up” and the Charles Bukowski book Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (I loved that one, still do—though I haven’t read it in a long time), “Some people never go crazy/What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

DS: I have probably spent more time with The Essential Etheridge Knight and that orange Bukowski book than I’ve spent with any other poetry books. Initially, I couldn’t think of any overt connection between their poems (style, themes, etc.) and your writing. Those poets seem to infuse their work with authentic raw emotion, though, and you seem to operate that way, too.

MH: Well, Etheridge spent a ton of time in Indiana (including in prison in Michigan City, and then later as a teacher in Indianapolis), so there’s that connection. But yeah, I want to connect viscerally with the poems and hopefully with readers as well. The older I get, the more I think authenticity is a matter of being open to change—maybe on a dime. That it’s a matter of not being static—of staying open to possibility, to poetry as a kind of constant re/activity and a way of being in the world. The Beats and Knight and later the New York School provided me with a way into poetry that made sense to me, because the poetry seemed infused with the life, and the life was infused with the poems.

That said, looking back, I think the poems I loved early on were performative, irreverent, and political—often with surreal elements. I liked William Carlos Williams quite a lot too for what I took then to be a kind of generous simplicity, a concrete plainness, which I now realize isn’t simple at all. As for Keats, of course I love him now. He’s one of my favorites, as are the Romantics in general: Clare, Coleridge, Shelley—some Wordsworth, not so much Byron, but I’m impatient with him. Some day I’ll get with Byron too.

DS: How have you been able to become less “wildly resistant” and relate to the Romantics and others? Or have you changed in ways that welcome poets you might have rejected earlier?

MH: Oh, definitely the latter. I grew up. I became over time less angry. I fell in love and I fell in love with poetry. I encountered the poets/poems mentioned above, along with others like Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, etc. that were resistant in all the ways (and more) that I was. These poetic points of resistance (to the conventions of the tradition, but also to conventional decorum and the status quo) provided me with a window into the art, which I was in some sense waiting for. I needed a portal, a vast void to climb into and GO!

So there were a lot of reasons why poetry struck me when it did. I loved that a poem was in some sense always a song, but one that contained the words AND the music. The words were the music; the music was (the) words. No cantankerous band mates necessary, no heavy lifting, no special equipment. To write a poem, one needed words—something available to all of us. But the poet’s job is to in some significant way misuse and mismanage the language (a kind of resistance) to create aesthetic effects/affect. One didn’t need to be rational all the time (remember I was a philosophy major). One could press one’s face up against the noumenon in poetry, one could taste the meadow, revel in the cool clarity of contradiction, snuggle up to nonsense.  Finally, it was expressive, not overqualified, not a thing to prove. It was a thing to be and to BE in. In a poem one could make and remake the world, vision and re-vision.

DS: When did you first find your own voice as a poet? How have you been able to incorporate other influences while still maintaining that voice?

MH: Gosh. Do I have a voice? It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me. To me it feels like I’m always trying to find my way, like I’m stumbling around in the dark, and every once in a while I trip over something, and for a couple of moments there’s a flash of bright light, a little clarity, and then everything’s plunged back into darkness. Was that the dog or the ottoman? A buttercup or a body? Writing poems is for me always explorative, which is thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and often, too, a bewildering wilderness of doubt—highs and lows and everything in between. So maybe my voice is voices (plural—or just flashes of things against the screen of the ghost in machine). Writing is a process of pitching out beyond me the sounds/images to see if and how they bounce back—I’m sending out a call for a response that I can hopefully shape into something else entirely.

As for the second part of your question, that’s easier. One doesn’t have to try to incorporate one’s influences; that happens automatically, if one pays attention. We’re all constantly filtering everything we’ve read, been told, experienced, or remember through our unique weird brains. You can’t help but be original if you keep your eyes open and avoid being a numbed out, passionless, too cool to feel anything zombie. I truly believe that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different from each other, and yet there’s nothing more strange than any other human being on the planet. On a more practical note, though, if one trusts the writing process and keeps trying things out, resists one’s habits, and continues to explore the possibilities of a practice, the influences get incorporated, mulched up and reintroduced to the soil (whether we want to acknowledge it or not).

DS: How do you think our current culture (including increased availability of information via Internet, reality TV shows, etc.) influences us as writers? Forklift, Ohio, is forward thinking in its content, but it also takes pleasure in throwback-style artwork and tactile elements that wouldn’t be possible online. It seems like Forklift leans toward a future that both celebrates and pokes fun at the past.

MH: Obviously one of the main things that has changed over the last 20 years is the speed at which we can access (though maybe not fully absorb) small and massive chunks of data/information. I think that to be influenced in a really significant way, one had to go to the trouble—one had to do real research, which required going somewhere where the information could be found, or acquiring the resources oneself. It was a more rigorous process. Now one just pulls up the Internet, and there’s almost anything. Of course, the cost of this is that the depth of exposure to the things that influence us may not be quite as great. And the things themselves may be a little more flimsy, e.g., reality TV or an “excerpt” of something I can read online. But hey, there’s give and take to everything. We gain a lot; we lose a lot. I have students now who can’t read the comments I write on their papers if I write them in cursive because they never learned to write in cursive. Of course, they have all sorts of tech skills that I don’t know anything about…. Anyway, the more direct answer to your question is: Speed of access and the quantity of information we can access RIGHT NOW have really impacted contemporary poetry, though I’m not at this point willing to go to the mat and talk about how particularly. I feel it. And I feel like I read it and write it.

Maybe that dissonance you’re feeling with Forklift, Ohio, between looking forward and looking back, has to do with the fact that Eric Appleby (Forklift’s designer/publisher) and I were both born in the late sixties/early seventies, and thus grew up without personal computers, the Internet, cell phones, etc. As a result, we sort of wobble back and forth between embracing technology/contemporary attitudes about it, and having some kind of nostalgia for the world we grew up in—not to mention also an interest in the late 19th and early 20th century avant-garde, engineering manuals, factory parts catalogs, old cookbooks, etc. There’s a sense—maybe one shared by lots of people of my generation, I don’t know—in which I want to live significantly in my own time and be a part of that, and yet I also long for something that seems lost to me now, even if I can’t explicitly say (or don’t want to say?) what that is. Again, it’s a feeling. We definitely aren’t trying to make fun of the past. I’d say we’re trying desperately to hold on to it, while also living in the present and looking to the future. I want all of it at once—which is simultaneity, which is Apollinaire. I want Apollinaire.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jessy Randall interviews me about her book

Injecting Dreams into Cows, Jessy Randall's latest book of poems, is now available from Red Hen Press. I was fortunate to be able to tell her my feelings about the book, and now I pass those feelings on to you. --DMS


Jessy: Dan, is this the best book you have read by me, or what? 

Dan: It is most certainly the best book of yours I’ve read that doesn’t include a fictionalized version of me. It is eclectic, but not in an ill-advised-potluck way. There is no Jell-O mold with bananas in it. It’s more like a mix tape made by someone who really knows what you’re supposed to be listening to.

Jessy: I would say there is a fictionalized version of you in the poem "The Way We Felt Playing Cards." Because I can't know for sure if we really all felt the same way about it. Do you think it's okay that there are two poems in the book about Ms. Pac-Man, and that they appear right next to each other?

Dan: I don’t object to anything about those poems. If you had portrayed Ms. Pac-Man as the sort who would have badmouthed the Donkey Kong gorilla behind his back, that might’ve rubbed me the wrong way. You did no such thing. I like the second poem especially because it’s not about the real Ms. Pac-Man at all.

Jessy: While we're on the topic, do you read poetry books from beginning to end or do you jump around? If you jump around, please describe how. Do you read like Aimee Bender says she reads, showing her eye pattern with this map?

Dan: It depends on whose book I am reading. If it’s a Thomas Lux book, I scan the titles, rank them, and read from highest- to lowest-ranked titles. If the poet is not a deity when it comes to titles, I might read from beginning to end. When I read your book, I used the same method I use to read Lux’s books.

Jessy: Can you make a map like Aimee Bender's for how you read my book? Would that be too much trouble?

Dan: I think it was David Byrne who said, “I ain’t got time for that now.”

Jessy: Oh, all right. Next question: which poem do you feel is the most "me"?

Dan: That seems like a trick question, like, “Why do these pants make me look fat?” But we will assume all the poems are great, and therefore, the most “you” poem shows your specific greatness the most. I suppose I would vote for “Home” because it represents a version of you I remember well: the one that lived near Elmwood Avenue and couldn’t resist quoting “Broadcast News.”

Jessy: Which poem do you think could have been a collaboration between us?

Dan: "Wedding Food." It is the logical companion for our poem "What Is It They’re Supposed to Throw?" We could (should, really) have bookends made with those poems affixed to them.

Jessy: Wow, you are right. I think I will do that right now. 

Jessy: How do you feel about prose poems? Do you feel that they are not actually poems, the way some of the commenters at io9 do?

Dan: I almost feel compelled to answer seriously. Let’s just say I would be a hypocrite to criticize a form that breaks rules, not to mention a form I use regularly. The main reason I write poetry is to break rules. Poetry has less severe consequences than shoplifting.

Jessy: Do you feel that some of these topics are not appropriate for poems? Muppets, Velcro, Pippi Longstocking, bad phone sex, robots, video games, Whac-A-Mole, etc.

Dan: Each of those topics could be a stand-in for more “appropriate” ones: Muppets (puppetry, e.g., lack of freewill or responsibility), Velcro (inability to let go), etc. Of course, you know this is true.

Jessy: If you say so, though I think you are kidding. I hope you are. What do you think is the worst poem in the book? I think it is "Trouble in Pac-Land," because Ms. Pac-Man makes a lame pun on the word "packing."

Dan: ”Something is Chasing You” might be my least favorite because it rhymes, though I believe you rhymed for fun and not to be a snooty smarty pants. You used “pell-mell,” for gosh sakes. What’s more fun to say than “pell-mell”?

Jessy: Maybe "hideous" or "berserk," which also appear in the book. One last question: do you have any memories you would like deleted in the manner of "The Seductiveness of the Memory Hole"?

Dan: Yes. I once had a female friend with long, blond hair. I had told her a story someone had told me about a drunk guy at some advertising conference, and the guy yelled to a woman, “Hey, Blondie: How ‘bout a smile?” Anyhow, I was fond of saying this to my female friend with long, blond hair. One time, I said it while I was behind her, but for whatever reason, she didn’t respond. So I said it again much more loudly. Again, she didn’t respond. Finally, I shouted, “Hey, Blondie: How ‘bout a smile?” so loudly, that she stopped and turned around. The problem was, it wasn’t my friend. It was some other woman with long, blond hair. The End

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interview with Juliet Cook

Juliet Cook's poetry has appeared in Action Yes, Barn Owl Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Diagram, Diode and many more print and online entities. She is the editor/publisher of Blood Pudding Press (print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (online). Juliet’s first full-length poetry book, "Horrific Confection," was published by BlazeVOX. She also has oodles of published poetry chapbooks, most recently including FONDANT PIG ANGST (Slash Pine Press), Tongue Like a Stinger (Wheelhouse), POST-STROKE (Blood Pudding Press for Dusie Kollektiv 5) and Thirteen Designer Vaginas (Hyacinth Girl Press), with another new chapbook, POISONOUS BEAUTY SKULL LOLLIPOP, coming very soon from the new Strange Cage. She is currently submitting her second full-length poetry book. To find out more, visit


Note: I interviewed Juliet via instant messaging because her spirit of spontaneity seemed to lend itself to such a format.

DS: Hello! I assure you I have no written questions or notes.

JC: Haha. Well I am in total PMS mode, so I hope my whole perspective isn't altered by that...

DS: It's actually sort of perfect. I wanted to ask you about honesty, so this will be good.

JC: I'm not a very picky judgmental type, but if there's one thing I can't stand it is fake-ness! So there's really nothing fake about me - but on the other hand, by some people's standards, I am a too-much-information sharer.

DS: You are giving good answers, and I haven't even asked a question yet.

JC: I'm a blabbermouth. Plus which I am brimming with mixed feelings about most things, including myself and relationships and my poetry!

DS: I feel the same way, though I don't know if it helps to mention that.

JC: Sure it helps because I don't understand people who think every little thing is awesomely perfect. I know I have a passion for poetry and I like my poetry, but sometimes I feel like so many of my poems are variations on the same topic.

DS: What topic is that?

JC: Well lately it's my brain wanting to grow stronger; my brain wanting to attack or drown or vomit out weaknesses and exert or empower or rise up strengths? There seems to be a lot of sea creature imagery, water imagery in general, and funereal imagery - so I guess it's semi-related to pieces of me having drowned or died and figuring out what pieces can still swim... and hopefully swim even stronger and more powerfully than the misshapen death sinkings (and also, not in any kind of direct way, but on a side note, maybe lashing out against some of the end of my relationship with my ex-husband and our divorce).

DS: I wondered how much of the horror in your poems--sometimes disturbing, sometimes fun like an "Evil Dead" movie--comes from how you want to deal with pain (physical, emotional, etc.).

JC: I like horror movies and that kind of imagery; I'm also overwhelming over-the-top emotional.

DS: But it doesn't come across as over the top.

JC: Well good. I'm also really bodily oriented in both positive and negative ways - not about other people's bodies, but about mine. Maybe it seems over the top in a way to me, because my family, although very intelligent and loving and caring people, are not as into in-depth conversation as I am - and I think that's part of the reason I often feel compelled to express a lot of my thoughts/feelings through poetry. Plus they think a lot of subject matter is “inappropriate” and I disagree so I'll spew it out if I want to.

DS: One of my favorite horror directors is David Cronenberg, who is so body-obsessed. There's some Cronenberg in your poems, I think. I was thinking of “The Fly,” in particular, because it is about a body rebelling against itself when a person seeks immortality.

JC: I saw “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers” long ago, and I really liked them, especially “Dead Ringers.” I like things that would creep many people out or gross them out (but that's not WHY I like them).

DS: “Dead Ringers” is creepy because the male gynecologist invents tools that are made for how a woman's body is SUPPOSED to be, according to the doctor.

JC: Every time I have a bad dream and tell my mom about it, she tells me it's because I watch too many horror movies.

DS: Some of your poems are more like allegories because they have movie-like images. They might not seem overtly realistic, but the images make me uncomfortable, nonetheless. Your poems in POST-STROKE are more realistic because I picture you telling your true story.

JC: Some of my earlier poems fuse together real-life experiences with non-real life horrific-ness inspired by thoughts/feelings etc... As for POST-STROKE poems, I'm not sure how best to describe them, even though they make sense to me. They're shorter than most of my poems used to be. Another little way in which they differ is some of the word usage. Tons of food words used to infuse my poetry. Oddly, food words are an example of these easy little words that my brain cannot easily think of these days. The part of my brain most affected by my stroke must have been this part of things you learn when you were a kid, because big words still spurt out fine (yay) - but I have serious issues with food words, names, household items, stuff like that... Even colors! I have to concentrate hard to get color words right.

DS: My mother-in-law had a stroke in her early 50s, and she would often substitute words in unusual ways. I related to your poems more because of that. Did you substitute similar-sounding words in your poems before the stroke or just after?

JC: I think most people who talk to me in person would have no idea (at least not quickly) that I'd had a stroke because I've gotten to the point where I am good at substituting some basic word I can't think of with another word - even though sometimes it annoys me that it's not quite the right word. A BIG word to use in a poem will spurt out of my head and FEEL right, but I'm not sure what the word MEANS. I'll have to look it up in, and occasionally it won't make the right kind of sense, but USUALLY it will. Odd, eh? Another odd word-oriented issue with my brain is that oftentimes, I can't think of some easy little word, BUT my brain can visualize its first letter and relative length - and sometimes if I write down that first letter, then the word comes back.

DS: Did you have poetry in your head while you were still in the hospital? Maybe it was there but you couldn't write it down.

JC: I remember when I was still in the hospital telling me mom that I had all these writing projects to work on as soon as I got home, and she got this weird look on her face and made some remark about how my reading was going to be a little slower for a while, and I didn't believe her, and she handed me a magazine, and even the letters made no sense. I couldn't spell my own name. I still had poetry in my head but no way to express it.

DS: I am trying to imagine what that would be like...

JC: It was tough, BUT I honestly think that my passion for reading and writing and poetry is what led to a pretty good recovery. I think a lot of people in a time like that would maybe go to therapy but watch TV at home, whereas I repeatedly worked on trying to read no matter how long it took.

DS: You mentioned that you have mixed feelings about your poetry. How do you decide how/what/where to submit?

JC: I don't dislike my poetry pieces (I just question the semi-repetitive content on a larger scale). If I feel good about a poem, I'll start submitting it right away. However, I don't write as much as I used to (because everything about me is slower), so thus I don't submit as much as I used to.

DS: How has it been to put together your second manuscript?

JC: It's an ongoing process (adding poems, removing poems, changing order etc...). Overall I quite like the manuscript, but I'm a bit nervous it might not be any press’ style. My first manuscript was published back in 2008 - so one thing that means is the content of my second manuscript is both pre-stroke and post-stroke. I don't think that's a huge deal but I recently had an editor suggest that my older work was better (in terms of more HIS style), which is no big deal, which is fine (everyone has their own style) - but I will admit it made the insecure part of my brain wonder if most people might feel that way.

DS: As a publisher, you have found people who are distinctive, but they might not be considered marketable based on a publishing business model. How are you able to put out the chapbooks you produce?

JC: I design the chapbooks on my computer and print them on my printer, one by one - and then do my hand-designing. It's quite time consuming and frankly, the printing/designing expenditures slightly outweigh the money I make selling them.
DS: What got you interested in doing it?

JC: The main reason I started my online lit mag is because I can't afford (money-wise but also time-wise) to create a lot of print chapbooks. One thing that inspired me to start Blood Pudding Press (the print chaps) is because I had created a chapbook and didn't feel like submitting it for years during which it might or might not be accepted, so I decided to publish it myself, BUT even though I was going to start by publishing my first chapbook, I planned to publish others too, but first I wanted to make sure I could do a decent-looking job. I also think it is important for poets to work on not only their own writings, but also reading (and ideally publishing) other poets too.

DS: What do you think will be the “next big thing” in poetry (yours or poetry in general)?

JC: Hmm... I kind of hope poetry doesn't turn into performance art - because even though I like some other people's performance art, it's not MY way of expressing myself - but I guess that's a possibility. I don't think poetry is ever going to be very popular in a mainstream sort of way, and that is FINE WITH ME! It's interesting how it's not very mainstream, yet there are SO MANY different poets - and SO MANY different styles of poetry. As for MY poetry in general, I'm not sure, but I am excited to find out!

DS: I've told my students about getting books or poems published, and they wonder why I still work. I tell them I've made maybe $100 in 10 years.

JC: I know; some people don't understand that! Maybe there will be some type of poetry/horror movies fusion. Or poetry/porn fusion. No, never mind the porn; that would probably be dirty RHYMING poetry. But horror movie/poetry reading fests?! Fun?! Maybe?!

DS: I wrote my first zombie poem recently.

JC: Haha. The word “zombie” appears in several of my semi-recent poems, in relation to my brain feeling zombie-fied. This has been a fun IM session; yay!

DS: It has been fun.

JC: Anyway mister, I'm getting off here for now; talk with you later! P.S.: Only one other guy IM'd me during this process, and he was ignored.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Interview with MRB Chelko

MRB Chelko holds an MFA from The University of New Hampshire and is Assistant Editor of the unbound journal Tuesday; An Art Project. She has two chapbooks: The World after Czeslaw Milosz (Dream Horse Press, 2012) and What to Tell the Sleeping Babies (sunnyoutside, 2010). Her recent work can be found in Indiana Review, Washington Square Review, POOL, Vinyl Poetry, Forklift, Ohio and other journals.


DS: When and why did you decide to write poetry?

MC: One of my poems opens, “Thanks but I prefer to perpetuate a difficult and lonely lifestyle.” That pretty much sums up the why. When? Well, I’ve been writing poetry rather constantly since middle school, but it wasn’t until about my junior year of college that I became very serious about it. I was 21, driving around with my then boyfriend (now husband), whining about how I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and he was like, “Are you kidding me? You’re already doing it!”

DS: What percentage of time are you “in your head,” and what percentage are you “in the real world”?

MC: Um, I think I would say I am “in my head” 95% of the time, and I am in the world 50% of the time.

DS: Please tell me about your revision process. How do you know when a poem is done?

MC: My revision process varies. Sometimes I just keep writing new poems. I don’t try to salvage anything; I just throw it all away until I get to wherever it was I didn’t know I was trying to get. Other times I painstakingly whittle poems. I say whittle because I rarely add—I nearly always subtract as I revise. And I trust that I’ve subtracted the right things when I can’t remember what the poem used to be (I figure if I can’t remember the line I cut, then no one else was going to remember it either). However, if an old version of the poem keeps popping into my head as I revise, I often return to that version. How do I know when a poem is done? I don’t, really. But I’m a fan of brevity. It’s like a game of Jenga minus the last turn. I stop when, if I remove one more piece, the whole thing will fall apart.

DS: You have been a teacher, reader/editor, and writer. How does your approach to poetry change as you take on different roles? How does it stay the same?

MC: While they are quite disparate, for me, the roles of writer, editor, and teacher are unified by a single tool box. For example, if one of those tools were a hammer, as a writer, I am constantly trying to develop my relationship to that hammer—how does it feel in my hand? How many swings does it take me to sink a nail? How can I use the hammer more efficiently, more forcefully… When I am reading or editing, I am analyzing and evaluating other people’s hammer use—what techniques do they have that impress or interest me? Are they particularly strong, agile, etc… And, when I am teaching, it’s more like—This is a hammer. This is why a hammer is useful. This is how fun a hammer can be. How dangerous. Okay, class, now,
swing away.

DS: Please describe your forthcoming chapbook The World, which is a series of responses to poems by Czeslaw Milosz. What did you recognize in Milosz’s work that prompted such a project?

MC: I had, for a long time, a preoccupation with childhood—or, at least, the kind of strange and unbridled imagination that accompanies childhood. Adults are so logical, so weathered, so boring. Milosz’s series “The World” was written in Warsaw in 1943—so you might imagine it would take on the devastation of its time directly, but it doesn’t. Instead, the poems are written from a child’s perspective. The pressures of fear, death, war are felt only indirectly through images like white pickets “sharp, like tiny flames” and “the moons of mountains…visible in spots, / something like goose feathers scattered on the ground.” Anyhow, in December of 2010 two things were happening for me: I was trying to quit smoking, and I was obsessing about these poems. It was the first time, as a reader of poetry, I felt an overwhelming urge to write back—to respond directly to something I’d read. And I needed a distraction from the smoking. So, I locked myself in my tiny office and started rearranging the words in Milosz’s poems, adding some of my own personal experience… and, after a concentrated, but exhaustive, revision process, emerged as a non-smoker with her own version of
“The World.”

DS: When I finished your first chapbook, What to Tell the Sleeping Babies, I came up with this two-sentence description (and if you want to blurb me, please include my middle initial): “Chelko reveals tiny mysteries to us without fanfare or cuteness. Her poems continue to see what we’ve been missing and thoughtfully  let us know.” Do you find these “tiny mysteries,” or do they find you?

MC: I am and was, especially while writing the poems in What to Tell the Sleeping Babies, preoccupied by ways of seeing. For example, the poem “The Orchard Picked Over” imagines the last apple with a man inside it, but inside the man is a cloud, and inside the cloud, a girl. It’s that kind of imaginative sight that interests me—the relentlessly playful kind that reveals “tiny mysteries” in the banal.

DS: What roles do the people around you play in your poetry? How important is it for your non-poet friends and family to “get”
your poems?

MC: The friends and family of any writer are bound to be, at one time or another, literary victims. They never know when, how, or where they might show up as characters in a piece of writing. I write, more lately than ever, from my life. So, the people around me get plugged into poems like it or not. I do have a handful of friends who play an active role in my writing life (most of them are also poets), and they are the people I harass with drafts and ideas and theoretical rants. Other than that, I really don’t show my work to friends and family unless they ask. It is very important to me that readers of poetry find my work accessible—but I am not a fan of poetic evangelism, so I don’t try to convert my non-literary friends and family into an audience.

DS: A poet friend of mine told me, “You’re sane, unlike most poets.” (I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or condemnation.) How do you feel about the notion that people write poetry to search for the solution to a problem or problems? If you aren’t able to find a solution that satisfies you, how would you assess your work? (Say you write brilliant poems about failed relationships but never figure out how to have a successful relationship…)

MC: Grace Paley said, “A writing problem is a life problem.” I believe that our writing lives and our personal lives are hopelessly linked—at least, one always seems to cruelly imitate the other. But I don’t think solutions are found in poetry—at least not more than Frost’s idea that a poem is “a momentary stay against confusion.” Solace is, however, found in poetry—no matter how disturbing the verse, there is comfort in truth telling. And that is what poetry attempts, right? But there is something dangerous about paying attention—allowing your inner life to absorb and weigh and analyze the happenings around you. It can make you cynical. Corroded. Difficult. It can cause you to become an emotional addict, bouncing from one great love to the next. It can drive you to drink. To kill yourself. To hide out on a ranch in the Southwest. It’s risky business. Thinking. But so is living. And I haven’t lived long enough to know if my writing and relationships will ultimately fail… but I am pretty damn hopeful.

DS: A high school English teacher (e.g., I) asks you to help his students write poems. What are the three most important pieces of advice to give them?

  • Learn to write a really good sentence.
  • If you aren’t enjoying yourself when you are writing—no one is going to enjoy reading your work.
  • “But that’s how it really happened!” is no excuse for a bad poem.

DS: What do you consider your place in the “Poetry World”? Describe how your current project (or future ones) may affect
that place.

MC: Let’s define the “Poetry World” as a parade. The parade consists of millions of ghosts, thousands of elaborate floats (most depicting love or sex or death or war or all of the above), some balloons, several hundred people on stilts, several hundred overweight pageant winners creeping by in antique convertibles, and then there are countless exuberant young people running every which way tossing candy into the streets. I am one of the people tossing candy. But all that matters, really, is that the parade exists, and that it keeps moving forward. In all of my current and future work, my only real hope is to be a part of that great bright poetic streak through time.


Read these poems by MRB Chelko:

"The Hairs on My Coat Belong to the Animal I Sleep With" and "Memoir"

"Outside We're All"
Two poems from The World
"Six Recurring Dreams"
from Manhattations
from Manhattations
from December Songs
from December Songs
from December Songs
from December Songs