After reading Ange Mlinko’s “Letter from Beirut” in the current issue of Poetry, I was excited to spend time with her new book Shoulder Season (Coffee House Press, $16). Jordan Davis’ clever interview reflects the serious fun contained within Mlinko’s poems, and I’m grateful to Coffee House Press for allowing us to publish it here.
JORDAN DAVIS: With all the life-and-death concerns running through your new book—assassinations, the financial collapse, wars of opportunity, and through it all maintaining a family—it’s understandable that you meditate on the imagination. (It’d be understandable if you advocated for a return to the land, too, but let’s save that for later.) I was pleasantly surprised, though, that after you talk me and the rest of the world into believing that “the mind—it’s a little spa” in your hit poem “Treatment,” in the sequel on the next page, you repeat, “the mind is not a little spa. / The Mind is not a little Spa.” I have to ask, is the ambivalence about the mind, or about the spa?
ANGE MLINKO: A mind is a great thing! And that the mind can make itself uncomfortable, can turn on itself Socratically, is exactly what makes it so great. It would be awful if we could just live in the imagination. The imagination is beautiful and necessary, but to treat it as a windowless spa, a self-enclosed vivarium, is to become a kind of zombie.
A great and terrible thing, indeed. Speaking of zombies, in “A Not Unruffled Surface,” you mention a horror movie about a demonically-possessed wedding dress that “wreaked havoc at the reception, set the hall on fire and dropped a crate of champagne on the string trio.” Great drama! but only one such scene in the poem, which also includes lightning strikes, a walk through a sculpture park (Storm King?*), fluid dynamics and some Sacksian neurobiology. Your poems are positively metaphysically unruly; how do you understand calls for restraint in poetry?
I am such a hopeless Byzantine that I almost believe, contra Steven Pinker, that language structures genetically shape the brain. You see the epicanthal folds in my Americanized family, so why not in our language?
But the imperative to be plainspoken is what unites even the so- called “quietists” and avantists in poetry today, isn’t it? I always felt embarrassed that I didn’t write more like Robert Creeley. And my worst “experiments,” the worst dreck I ever wrote, was in imitation of James Schuyler! And then on the other side you get something like Mary Karr going after the “ornamental” and trying to take down James Merrill a peg or two. I can’t take it seriously. Literary style is the expression of the innate person, not something you buy into with options for future makeovers.
Storm King, you’re right! And Storm King is proof positive that many kinds of things can be accommodated in one space if you give yourself room.
Yes, “accessibility.” (I don’t agree with your judgment on those Schuylerescas, by the way.) It’s not as if the plainspoken has worked, as far as attracting the lost general audience goes. It reminds me of Tom Hanks’s line in Big: “I don’t get it. A robot that turns into a building? Why is that fun?” A poem that you don’t have to think about? Except, of course, that poems are at least as much about feeling as about thinking, don’t you think?
Regarding feeling, I often quote Ashbery’s “Perhaps we should feel with more imagination.”
I think I’m still on guard against an all-too-easy elegiac tone in poems where “feeling” means only one thing—gauzy nostalgia, wistful regret. I like poems where the feeling is not easily pinned down. Or the feeling shifts. I like brassy feeling, I like bitter feeling. Feeling for me is like the timbre of instruments in an orchestra. Now you get a flute, now you get a tuba . . .
Yes. Or colors—Irish cream, cloudy iris, yellow-cake (!), Van Ruisdael brown, Gulf Shrimp. Did you ever study painting?
Through Schuyler’s art writings only.
Nicolas Poussin. I’m feeling about 500 years old right now.
That’d make you older than Poussin! But I can see the affinity—the colors, the complexity. Who’s the painter in “Schilderachtig?” The one who prompts you to ask, “why on earth does the water want / to be mountains?”
A Turner at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA: Rockets and Blue Lights. Darn, I should have used that title! Why didn’t I think of that?
Where do you not get ideas for poems?
On or around my navel (I hope).
What, for you, is the main thing a poem has to do?
I really don’t like to make generalizations. The thing that makes art art is that the minute you draw a line in the sand, somebody comes along and makes you look provincial. That said, I’ll share some of my prejudices: I like poems that engage the world. I love shows of brilliance and virtuosity. I don’t share the American prejudice for modesty in poems, but I do believe in a sense of proportion and elegance, things which give meaning to the idea of virtuosity, I guess. I like skills. I hope someday to be as ample as, say, Kenneth Koch.
I share your admiration for those qualities. Regarding drawing in the sand, I count on the ocean to erase everything. But as for what you say about modesty, is that a hint about
I don’t know. People have different ideas of what constitutes ambition. I think it’s worthwhile, in art, to try to give people some happiness. I want to perform, on the page, the way a dancer performs on stage. Is that modest, or exactly the opposite—showing off?
Nothing wrong with a little showing off. I’m thinking now of your hit poem “Pop Song.” Were you ever a performer, growing up?
Goodness no. I must have taken a couple of dance classes, a couple of stabs at learning instruments, before my parents decided with ruthless economy that their money was better spent elsewhere.
Do you want to say anything about when you first realized you were a poet?
Recently I wrote a piece on Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Poetry Foundation web site; I recounted my sense of discovery when I read his poetry at seventeen. I was sixteen when I read “Prufrock” and wanted to be T.S. Eliot! But to me there’s something a little embarrassing about it all—who doesn’t think they’re a poet at sixteen? I find more poignant the stories of poets who’ve grown old at this. I’m reading Cavafy now, the new Mendelson translation, and he so wanted to finish a clutch of poems before he died of esophageal cancer—25 poems; he knew exactly. But who knows? Maybe when— if—I get to be an old poet I’ll find these stories sentimental too. It’s a privilege to be a poet—but a privilege often abused. Let’s read and praise poems, and leave the poet in the background as best we can.
Fair enough. (I’ve noticed, though, that pointing away from the life and toward the poems tends to lead people to look more closely for biography in the poems.) You’ve borrowed the name of the French theorist Gaston Bachelard for your web site**, and you write a column on language for The Nation, yet the cognitive work in your poems isn’t simply theoretical, it’s always imbricated with sense data, especially touch—gestures, textures, shapes. . . This is turning out to be more of an observation than a question.
Well, it runs counter to a lot of what is deemed avant- garde work. I noticed I couldn’t really write the thinky or conceptual poems that mark their territory through a refusal of sense data, or spatio-temporal conventions. I’ve written a lot on Susan Stewart’s work, which takes as a starting point Marx’s notion that even the five senses are the product of historical forces—they have a history, and for Stewart poetry is a record of that history.
And I have a history, and it is legible in my work both as content and in the development of styles and methods. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The thing you must have noticed in my Nation column is that I ground my pieces in books about empirical linguistics. Not that I’m a trained scientist. I read philosophy as an undergrad. Yet I am less comfortable discoursing, say, on Wittgenstein or Austin than reporting on the findings of field researchers. No one would deem me a mystic.
How about a lightning round. I say a few words, or a name, and you shoot back a quick response, free-associative no-time-to-think-equals-best-thinking style.
First word: Mayakovsky.
A Black square, bald head.
A Spiritual aristocrat.
A Failure to love the people who need you.
Growing roses over what you can’t fix right now.
What Dante said God is.
Life sentence with no parole.
It has angle and gauge in it, which are instruments for measuring; it has gag in it for fun; it has egg in it for possibility; angel which means “messenger” and Ange, for talisman.
So few drink from its fountain!
The main thing.
Making someone happy to be alive.
*The Storm King Art Center in New York
**Ange Mlinko’s web site: bachelardette.blogspot.com
JORDAN DAVIS‘s recent poems appear in Poetry, The Nation and Ploughshares, his prose in the TLS. His first collection of poems appeared in 2003.
Interview published by permission of Coffee House Books.