Michele Battiste, author of the recently released Ink for an Odd Cartography, (when I first saw it, I had immediate cover envy, but let's not go around judging books by their covers . . .) hails from a place where "To hope for a piece of sausage on Sunday was hubristic." Maybe that explains why one of her poems starts off "I don't believe much in luck unless it's bad and self-generated." And yet, there is enough hope between these two covers to cram a cellar with all order of mortadella and wienerschitzel.
Jim Daniels states "These poems are driven by some super high-octane duende. They spin and spill all over the place with a controlled recklessness and a sustained energy. She's ready to take flight at the smallest provocation, wings oiled up, in tune with the mad universe," and I couldn't agree more. Albert Goldbarth praises her "rollercoastering sensibility," calling her a "brazen-21st-century-chick." Now, that's my kind of gal.
And now, without further adieu, here's what Michele had to say when I interviewed her about Ink for an Odd Cartography, its inception, subject matter, and inspiration . . .
Your new book, Ink for an Odd Cartography, is, among other things, a love story – a celebration of falling and staying in love against all odds, with all of romantic love’s inherent risks. How did you go about assembling the book? Did you have a plan before you began writing, or did it evolve in a more organic way?
The current version of the book evolved over a couple of years. The original version, which I completed somewhere near the end of 2004, was focused even more on people wrangling with their attraction to one another, the choices they make as they negotiate relationships. But I never set out to write a collection of poems so steeped in courtship and mating and their consequences. I actually considered myself more a poet of place and thought that I was, above all else, capturing the influences of landscape and geography. I often set out to write a poem about a neighborhood, a city, a plot of land, but the personal relationships just crept in. I guess I have a hard time separating the space a person inhabits from the space between that person and the other.
The first version of the book was titled A Flawed Topography (Not the best title, I think. I'm glad it never found its way to print) because I figured my poems examined the relationships between people and their environments. I chose the poems that went into the collection based on the "place" they represented for me. As I spent more and more time with the collection, I realized that the book was more about the interactions between people, less about the places where those interactions happen, and I began to pull and replace and shuffle poems to emphasize physicality, which I thought was closer in theme to geography than intention was.
And risk is only scary when you are afraid of loss. The vast potential for loss is part of every action, so I can't really get my head around the idea of risk. I think about the risks my grandfather took when he participated in the Hungarian Revolution (he hoped for a better Hungary), the risk he and his family took sneaking across the border to Austria after the uprising failed (they hoped for a better life). What have I risked in comparison by writing, by creating a writer's life? My mother would probably say a lot. My mother would probably say that I've also suffered a lot of loss as a result. But she also told me that suffering and loss are a part of life, the price I pay for hope. So I pay it in the same spirit as paying a highway toll. And I drive on through, and I continue to hope.
Once place has entered a poem (or served as a catalyst for a poem), I try very hard to understand its relationship to whatever issue it is that I'm grappling with, and that guides me in my choices of what details to include. There's a great literary journal out of the Geography Department at the University of Arizona. It's called you are here: the journal of creative geography. At the back of each issue, they list all the places that are mentioned in the pages, and they also give the latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates for each place. They really get it.
I think it's new because, in my mind, I don't write about love. I write about attraction, interaction, choice, and commitment (or lack thereof). I'm fascinated by the physicality of interaction, from body language at first encounters to sex. I'm not so much interested in the actual people as I am in the space between the two people, where all the interaction takes place, where things can go drastically wrong or just a little bit wrong. Something always goes a little bit wrong. And then people choose. They choose to continue or not. They choose to love or not. Maybe this is not a very romantic view of love, but I think it is. That I choose to love my husband every morning is much more romantic than the idea that I can't help myself.
You're right on. Sexton's Love Poems is a big influence. "I burn the way money burns." Wow. But really, no other conscious models. Maybe Ovid's Heroides, which I may have been reading when I wrote the sequence. The impetus for the series was my boyfriend (at the time) leaving for some work in London. I thought it would be a cool project to document how the space between us changed day to day, so I decided to write a poem every day that he was gone. That was so boring. A total failure at first. Then, when I was thinking about giving up the project, I met the man who became my husband. So the project became really interesting again. The space between me and my (at the time) boyfriend became chaotic and fractured. That's not to say that the series is completely autobiographical, but it is based on truth.
I believe Goldbarth is the greatest living American poet. Reading Popular Culture was a wake-up call for me - I didn't know poetry could DO that - and I spent many many months trying to write like him. I went to Wichita to study with him. His vast knowledge, his humor, the veracity of his speakers, his unapologetic discursiveness - all of it, all of it - amazing. Jeanine Hathaway and Kelly Cherry, both of whom I've studied with, have also been quieter, less chaotic, influences. Their work slows me down, asks much of me as a reader, focuses on the single gesture. They're a great counter to Goldbarth's influence.