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.
In truth, however, when I asked Michele what her favorite amusement park ride was, she replied "Then (and now), I loved (love) the swings. I think it's the closest thing we can come to flying. It's such a peaceful, windy ride." After reading her poem "Like a Sine Curve," where the speaker confesses "I am not whale skin / I am the water that moves with the muscle," I'm not a bit surprised she would prefer the swings to the bumper cars,the ferris wheel, or even the rollercoaster.
Speaking of amusement parks, cotton candy trumped red licorice every time. "No contest," insists Michele.
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.
More than anything, it’s the voice of your poems that pulls me in and keeps me reading. It’s seductive, a little breathless, as if your speaker is trying to cram in every image and experience into each excited inhalation. Could you share about your writing and editing process with regard to voice?
I am smitten with narrative. No matter how unfashionable and unsophisticated it may be considered at times, I remain faithful to narrative. The poem's story is paramount to me, and character development is a large part of the story in a poem. I want readers to "get" my speakers, to believe they understand the speakers' motives and struggles, to guess at their histories and influences, to judge them. Yet there is no room in a poem for an explication of the speaker, so I have to depend on voice to do the work. For a poem to be successful, I need a clear idea of the speaker. I need to know her mood, her energy level, the clarity of her thought process, her level of self-involvement, her need to convince, her mental quirks and vulnerabilities and morality and strengths. And I have to hear her speak. My background is in performance poetry, and while not all my poems are successful as spoken pieces, and while I now rarely write for performance, I work very hard to capture the spoken quality of my speakers' voices.
Naughty bridges, raw fish, naked neighbors, “a warning, shoulder, a camisole strap”: these, along with sine curves and elemental physics, inhabit your poems. It’s a risky world your speaker lives in, yet there’s great hope and buoyancy in these poems. Author Rebecca Solnit argues that “to hope is to gamble . . . to hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.” How do hope and risk figure into your creative spirit, and in regards to the crafting of this book?
I was raised to believe that hope itself is a risk. My mother is old-school Hungarian. She spent the first eleven years of her life ('45-'56) living in a foreign-occupied country where the use of domestic terrorism, secret police, economic sanctions, threat of expulsion to Siberia and work camps kept the citizens frightened of their neighbors, secretive, and, well, hopeless. My grandfather wouldn't/couldn't/didn't join the communist party, and so they were very poor. To hope for a piece of sausage on Sunday was hubristic. When she came with her parents and sister to this country, the first years were a struggle. She grew up, and I grew up, believing that life is difficult and full of disappointment, and to expect differently, to hope for better, is to set yourself for a big fall. That may seem harsh and maybe stultifying, but in fact, I think it has had the opposite affect on me. I find it freeing creatively. Rejection and other disappointments rarely affect me negatively, as they are what I expect. I mean, of course I may have a good cry now and again because of a missed fellowship or residency, but it doesn't change how I perceive my writing, and it doesn't keep me from submitting and applying and working.
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.
Place plays a major role in your book. It definitely adds to the poems to have the Arkansas River, Wichita, and other specific geographical locations described. How do you decide which places need to be in a poem, and what makes you decide to leave out specifics?
Place is my prompt and my muse. If place isn't explicitly mentioned in a poem, it is still there as an influence. I usually only write about places where I've lived, however, and then it takes me a while to just let the place inform the poetry instead of writing a poem about the place. If a place is too new to me, I spend more time trying to document it than exploring its role and influence in the lives of the people who live there (I initially typed "love there." Maybe I should have left it). Some places naturally lend themselves to great poems. Wichita was one of those places. So was San Francisco. The too muchness of New York is very hard for me to get a handle on, and I find the poems riffing on NYC aren't the best.
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.
Girl meets boy is one of the most revisited stories out there, and yet you manage to successfully take on a subject that most writing instructors would discourage against writing about. How do you write about love without falling into the moon/June syndrome? How do you make it new?
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.
Missing-the-lover-who’s-away poems are full of potential for lapsing into cliché, and yet your poem sequence on that very subject is delightfully fresh. How did you pull this off? Are there any models out there for poems on the same topic that you referred to as models? (I’m thinking of Anne Sexton’s poem sequence on the same subject).
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.
Who are you reading these days? What poets did you grow up on? Whose work do you admire most and why?
In high school, the poets I read were varied. My approach was scattershot. I remember reading a lot of Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lyn Lyfshin. No one I knew read poetry, so my interests were mostly self-guided. My 10th grade English teacher tried to get me interested in Walt Whitman, but I thought he just went on and on! As I got older, Gertrude Stein became a big influence (funny for an narrative poet, right?). I thought she was a magician with language. Currently, I just finished Leslie McIlroy's Liquid Like This. She's an incredibly sensual poet, and each of her poems sets me on sensory overload in a just-got-a-therapeutic-massage kind of way. I also haven't yet put away Peter Markus' Bob, or Man on Boat, which is ostensibly a novel, but I think the work transcends labeling. I'm waiting to receive Albert Goldbarth's To Be Read in 500 Years.
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.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the first draft of a book-length series of linked, narrative poems about life in post-WWII Budapest during the Soviet occupation. Surprise, surprise.
Thanks for your time, Michele. I look forward to reading your next book!
Michele Battiste lives in New York City where she teaches poetry for Gotham Writers' Workshops and raises money for Helen Keller International, a global nonprofit that fights blindness and malnutrition. Her next book, Slow the Appetite Down, will be released this summer by Spire Press. In the fall, she's moving to Boulder, CO with her husband and son to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature.
I'm a bit jealous that Michele got to study with Albert Goldbarth. She may just be right that he's the best thing going.
I'm envious too. He's at PLU, so several folks I know have studied with him . . . the lucky ducks!
Martha, this is completely off topic, but i just tagged you for a meme. You can read my post to get more info if you're interested in doing it, but obviously there is no pressure at all to do it. And you can certainly change it to suit your needs as well, which I did.
(Mine's long, but you can make it a lot more concise than that.
So kind of you to meme me; I am flattered! Unfortunately, I won't be around to answer the questions . . . am off on a summer odyssey that will provide limited and intermittent ethernet . . . thanks again for tagging me!
No problem, Martha. I hooked two of my other unsuspecting victims, which is more than I hoped for.
Where are you headed, if that's not too personal? If you already posted about it, I apologize in advance for my lapse of attention.
Hither and yon, mostly in these western United States.
Have a great time.
word verifier asks for 'chintint', which I thought some around here might find amusing.
I wasn't sure on a good place to leave this, but I appreciate your thoughts and useful links that you provide on your site. Congratulations to your success. Since you seem pretty connected to the poetry community, I wanted to share one of my favorite sites, Narrative Magazine, www.narrativemagazine.com. It's an online literary magazine that publishes a lot of great poetry. If you like it, perhaps add it as a link so others may find it as well. Thank you.
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