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, 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