is the author of Visiting Her in Queens is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet which won the Rattle Chapbook prize and will be published in 2022. His poetry has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Arkansas International, Copper Nickel, Grist, Michigan Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, Poetry Daily, Poetry Northwest, Rattle, River Styx, The Southern Review, The New York Times, The Sun, Verse Daily, Waxwing, The Poetry Foundation’s American Life in Poetry and other places. He was the recipient of the Anthony Hecht Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He’s the author of two books of stories, Toba and At the Hands of a Thief (Atheneum). He lives with his wife, Lois, a journalist, in San Diego. Visit him at michaeljmark.com
1. When and why did you start writing poetry?
I was born with a significant hearing loss (65% each ear) that wasn’t operated on until I was 11. I couldn’t hear others so I told myself stories – some were songs, some poems, though I didn’t know it then. Just keeping myself company. That, to a great extent hasn’t changed. It’s mostly why I write. Later I wrote love poems to my girlfriend in college, now she’s my wife. Pretty good feedback.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
Formally, my college roommate, Kevin was the first one to really introduce me to poetry – Walt Whitman, Blake, Dickenson, Bob Dylan, Ginsberg, tons. He’d yell, “Check this out” and he’d read me some. And he could dance, man he could dance. Thanks, Quigley.
3. What is your daily writing routine?
Round the clock factory. I have a strong work ethic deep-rooted in fear I won’t ever get it right, I won’t fulfil the poem’s potential, I’ll miss another flitting by. I will track them wherever, play dead, bribe them, anything to be with those that hold that vibration that tells me this is vital, what I sense as “true” – a possible poem. So many fakers, decoys out there and I’m a sucker, fool myself a lot – half convinced I got a live one when it’s a gussied-up figment.
4. What subjects motivate you to write?
I work from innocence, unknowing, so curiosity is my engine, my headlamp. Words, syntax, diction, music, image, idea, lineation are the beams to explore with. I’m always open – object, nature, action, human beings – “what’s that?” The chapbook Visiting Her in Queens is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet explores my mother’s Alzheimer’s so it’s about unknowing: who is this person, my mother – who is she now, and now? Change, mystery. This helps my work have many voices – as the speaker absorbs, engages with different states, worlds. I have heard that as a compliment and also an issue: “this is so different from other work – like, who are you?” I am just the radio receiver, if you like, no control over what’s coming over the airwaves, just an amplifier. I can hear the deli guy slicing meat say, “spicy mustard on that?” and be inspired, I can see my father dance to Sinatra or I could – though less likely, I could read a poem and be set off. I’m not very discriminating. It just has to have that buzz, that color, burnt taste of authenticity.
5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?
Writers are not my great influences though they do, mostly in form. Often, it’s what’s happening at the moment on the street, the radio, under the couch, in the trees, a blister on my toe. When I was young I listened to Dylan a great deal and his lyrics – well he’s Bob friggin’ Dylan – but I think of myself as a recorder, maybe a documentarian – as with this chapbook. I just watched my mom and our family and myself and took notes in lyric, formed them, listened to them again, reformed them, reformed them until what I ended up with might or might not be what happened. That doesn’t make them untrue.
6. Whom of writers do you admire the most and why?
Tony Hoagland who passed away a few years ago. He was a great, great master of voice, and brave and funny in a barely bearable way. I like Jayne Kenyon, Linda Gregg. Mark Doty’s a jeweller – I try to emulate his work but I can’t afford that Tiffany stuff. James Davis May – his book, Unquiet Things is so beautiful and honest – a new one is coming. Christian Winman, Mark Strand, the wizard Charlie Simic, Kathleen McGookey – wonderful prose poem writer. Russell Edson. Stephen Dunn. Mary Szybist how careful, gentle. Adam Zagajewski. Szymborska’s mystical everydayness. Sharon Olds’ effortless magical metaphors. Li-Young Lee, Bob Hicock, Mark Halliday. Claudia Emerson. Jane Hershfield. Mary Rufle. I got more if you have the time. I think I underestimated the influence of writers – thanks for helping me see that. I didn’t know.
7. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
I tried and I can’t do other stuff. I was told I was good at it when I was young and I hung on – and I love the relationship between my imagination and the other world – when they rub, clash, light a scented candle and leave the door open a crack. It’s the most exciting part of my day, except for pie.
8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Write, listen, write, watch, do physical labor, get hurt – not to bad, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – say No to anything else, almost anything. Look under the hood of the writing that makes you high – learn the machinery – the craft. Keep your enthusiasm as you realize you’re not there yet. Keep your innocence as you learn the transaction knowledge for inspiration might or might not be worth it. Write of yourself, that means how you hear it which will not be how others hear it and they will tell you to change it and sometimes you should. Rewrite it this way that way this way. Confuse yourself. Find honest good, really good, dedicated readers – listen to ½ maybe 1/3 of what they say.
9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
Now that Visiting Her in Queens is More Enlightening than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet is out, I have started three other projects – one is about the pilgrimage in Spain, Camino de Santiago that I have walked three times. It has a family aspect, too as I have walked it twice with my children at different times. Another project is a thing project, a refining of objects that we think we know but maybe not. Maybe not seems to be my thing. Thanks for asking me these questions.
10. How did you decide on the order of the poems in your book?
I was going for: order meets chaos and decide they might like each other, maybe have a future- so a hopefulness in catastrophe, that last scene in the movie, Thelma and Louise. The first poem in the book is expository, introduces the “her” in the book’s title by name and relation, and the speaker who is “visiting” her, also from the very, very long book title. That sets the sturdiness that’s birthed from the convolution of the book’s title. The chaos comes within the poems that were written as individuals, without a notion of being collected, over 5 years – and how they harmonize and clash with their neighbors. I wanted them in some chronology but not always linear. They are different glimpses of the same characters as they grasp at control through imagination and memory and the guts to get through the minute. The ending poems are about beginnings. I wanted to have some lightness, a melancholy magic.
11. What is the purpose of the precise domestic detail in the poems, such as opening a can?
Grounding, I think. The physicality of opening a can, cleaning an oven, is in argument with the emotional and psychological upheaval of the dementia. Drama.
12. How important is form to you in this collection?
Form is intrinsic to all matters to me. It goes to voice in the poems, and I hear that as authenticity. Critical to me. The look of the poem is a voice, and how that look works on this page and in conversation with the others creates more voices or blend to make another voice or clashes to make others. The line lengths, even or jagged, the syllables: metered or random-seeming, the rhymes, repetition – all go to content, believability of the story, the dream which I want to be vivid, continuous until I want at the right moment to snap my fingers and bring readers out of it. I don’t work in received form. Free verse is not without rules, however unwritten.
13. In my own experience of my stepmom’s Alzheimer’s her responses bring a sense of the fantastic, the absurd. How does this relate your notion of “chaos”?
The “fantastic, absurd” you mention requires the ordinary, the rational to work to counterpoint. And I hope is within the poems. The “chaos” I refer to also is the conflict between the disease and the person with the disease and the person before they showed symptoms and the family members who remember that person and hold onto them while still “dealing” with that person during the progression of the disease and so the changing relationships are tumultuous. That shows up within the poems and between them, I hope. After, too.
14. The two poems about dance seem to bookend the collection. How intentional was this?
Interesting – I was not conscious of this. I was more aware of movements – of the flux in everything for assorted reasons. But now that you point that out I can see the varying strategies in the changings. Estelle, before the disease was always mercurial – this was her nature as the son understood it, and when the disease started showing up it was not easy for the son to tell if this was one of her games, dances. It was in part – she was aware of something wrong and was covering as she was covering the poor grades for her son. This dance or balancing act is, as I see it, a way of dealing with the world and later her destabilized mental condition until she couldn’t. And in the final poem, that dance is one of balance, too but with a sense of acceptance and perhaps a new perspective, a humor.
15. With phrases like ” there’s no reaching her” and “trying to catch them” there’s a sense of unbridgeable space. How important was it to give this sense of the unattainable?
I think that’s why we write in poetry and not prose – to use language that is inherently inefficient to capture what we believe is essential. We want to see it clearer so we put it down but the sentence and conventions of grammar are the wrong tools to examine it and are surely going to fail us. So, we break the rules with syntax, metaphors, lineation and more – all to reach out and connect with the ineffable, perhaps the unknowable but no, it must be knowable, right? To have your mother not know you, to no longer know her as she was for so long in great part – to long for her, the only one who can give you what she gave you – yes, that was what I was reaching for as she was with me and at the same time, gone.
16. Once they have read your book what do you wish the reader to leave with?
Oh, I don’t know that. Better off asking my poems. On second thought, I hope they see my mom, my dad, my family, and themselves in some of the situations. The pain and the beauty, and something of a connection happens. Maybe I should have stuck with my first answer?