"I am an optimist in spite of myself, and as I learn what human matter is capable of, I continue to be seduced by the world."

More Perihelion:

Bob Sward's Writer's Friendship Series

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Issue 13: Free Form

Issue 12: The Necessary Ear

Issue 11: The Necessary Eye

Issue 10: Out on a Limb

Issue 9: The Missing Body

Issue 8: The Lily

Issue 7: Passages

Issue 6: No More Tears

Featured Poet:
Michelle Mitchell-Foust

Michelle Mitchell-Foust is a Poet in Residence at the Poets' House in Ireland and a teacher of writing in California. Her book Circassain Girl was the winner of the Elixir Prize. Her chapbook Poets at Seven was published by Sutton Hoo Press, and her chapbook Exile was published by Sangha Press. She is a winner of the NATION/Discovery award, the Columbia Poetry Prize, the Missouri Arts Council Award, and her work has appeared in The Nation, Antioch Review, Colorado Review, Columbia, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, Interim, Black Warrior Review, and Rain Taxi. Her book of poems Imago Mundi is forthcoming from Elixir Press.

Allyson Shaw: Many poems in Circassian Girl read as jewel-like fictions. You write poems with a story-teller's impulse, taking a grain of the real, and matching it with myth to make a poem, as in "Fire Loves a Circus," where the motley imagery of the circus museum's fire becomes loaded with the speaker's survival of a childhood fire. There's a roving wonder in these poems. Where do you find inspiration?

I am inspired by love and other writing. My first book manuscript The Five Dreams of the Body was a book of love poetry, and while Circassian Girl has a circus theme, and while the new book Imago Mundi seems to be about ghosts and travel, I still think the books are books of love poems.

The “other writing” comes in all forms. I read everything. During my work on Circassian Girl I read every book I could find on the circus, mostly non-fiction. Lately, I've been reading quite a bit of contemporary fiction: Stewart O'Nan, Elizabeth McCracken, David Means, and Frank Huyler. I always read Franz Kafka and Marguerite Duras. And I never leave the house without a poetry book in my purse. Alice Notley's poetry goes with me everywhere these days. Reading her work is teaching me about what poetry can do.

I should add that the work of artists Anselm Kiefer, Hugo Simberg, Rosamond Purcell, and Joseph Cornell inspired much of the poetry of Imago Mundi, along with Greek and Italian mythology and the films of Zhang Yimou and Mark and Michael Polish. The art, mythology, and films could account for the illusory quality of the characters in some of my poems. Certainly, the characters in my poems are both real and imaginary, taken from circuses and ghost stories, and the famous mythologies, but I consider them to exist on the real side of the imagination, the way I consider the actions in books to be real as the reader encounters them. In the mind, the actions are real. Dangerously speaking, the mind is where I live, in the line of poets from Keats to Stevens and on down. As T. S. Eliot said, there is just so much reality one can stand. Something like that. And maybe this is where Myth is always created, in the interstices between reality and imagination. Myth is the bridge that gives us the prophesy, and sometimes poetry. In my life, as in most writers' lives, there is what is happening, and what is happening, the world behind the world. We are at a period in time when people crave “reality” in their art and entertainment, but I can never allow the larger symbolic significances of real events to go by the wayside. As in Chaos Theory, I look for the patterns only visible when the viewer stands back. These patterns are sometimes best manifested in characters who exist in literary time and space.

AS: As poets our obsessions become our fabric-- you weave in circuses, freakshows, the performative and aberrant, and even have a sonnet to Mrs. Thom Thumb, but never fall prey sensationalism, sentimentality, or indulging in another's suffering. How do you think you've managed this tight rope walk so successfully?

The question of What is Appropriate Appropriation? has come up a number of times down the road, especially in terms of the circus book. And I've asked myself about my place in the material of Circassian Girl as an intellectual project, too. I was first inspired to write Circassian Girl when I read an illustrated biography of P.T. Barnum. I saw a picture of the elephant Jumbo, after his death by train, and after he'd been taxidermied into the “double-jumbo” of hide and bones, one trophy for each biological material. The photograph was absolutely haunting, breathtaking, the way all imagery surrounding performance is breathtaking. So it was the imagery that got me first, not the wish to tell the stories, and then when I read the stories, I was captivated and wanted to tell them in my own voice. I have to say that the poems are not a plea for understanding as much as they are a bow toward the sublime. I'm interested in Possibility, and the sideshow is all about biological possibility. I am an optimist in spite of myself, and as I learn what human matter is capable of, I continue to be seduced by the world.

AS: Acrobatics are at the mythopoetic center of the book, and seem a metaphor for the process of writing. In "Wronski and Marciniate, The Ecology of the Eye", you write that the acrobats in the Duo Design Strength Act, "...demonstrate a bias with their skin/in the old argument over image over word:" You are able to capture image in word with graceful precision. What kind of "athletic" training is necessary for one to be a good poet? Who are your influences or teachers?

I've had so many wonderful teachers: Bruce Guernsey at Eastern Illinois University, Sherod Santos and Donald Revell at University of Missouri-Columbia. I count myself very lucky on that account. I believe in what Pasteur said, that chance favors the prepared mind, and I was prepared by these poets.

As for necessary training, it may be different for different poets. I have always kept a journal, which works for me because I am busy and can jot lines or phrases wherever I am. And I write best when I am reading most. I recently started a new project for my latest manuscript called Sadorus, a book named after a small town in Illinois. I started a reader response “journal” based on Alice Notley's book Disobedience. I read one poem from the book a day, and I write a “poem” in response, or, I should say, I write a poem from whatever is going on in my head after I read Notley's poem, which may or may not have to do with her content. I write the “poem” in the margin of her poem. So I am using her book as a journal. I love doing this. I have created a character for the newest manuscript called “Hurry” and she has adventures in Sadorus, in the margins of Disobedience. I hope that Sadorus will be a verse novel (Thanks, Alice N. for the boost!). I actually don't know what will happen with these glosses, but they work my poetry muscles. (I learned in Ireland, at the Poets' House where I teach in the summers, that monks who were copying out manuscripts in olden times would write their own poems in the margins, too. These poems were called “glosses”.)

There's a great deal of physicality in the circus book because of the nature of the project, but the athleticism, or describing the athleticism, was a great task I set for myself. As a poet, I had never tried to describe the body in motion, which I had done as a novel writer, and I wanted to try my hand, a nice exercise for any poet. I have been an aerobics instructor for the past twenty years, so I am constantly aware of the rigors of physical fitness. This is where my line “the body's as humbling as the word” comes from.

AS: Floods also appear throughout the book. One can't help but see these poems, especially the "Marriage Bed of Chang and Eng," as a kind of alluvial two-by-two record, a stay against the flood of forgetting, a record of unrecorded lives. How do you see your poems as affecting memory, either personally or collectively?

The most interesting accusation I've ever had to do with memory was that I was remembering things that never happened (this from my family, upon reading a poem I had written about a tree from my childhood. I maintain this tree did exist, for the record.) I think poets/writers/filmmakers are all experts in remembering things that never happened. I myself have an excellent memory for things that actually happened as well, but I am not as interested in the chronicle of my life as I am interested in chronicling, as you say, “two-by-two,” my life as it rubs up against other past lives or the lives of art objects. I am interested in the conversations that my brain drums up during sleep. Call it dreaming, if you wish, but sometimes it seems I'm leading two separate lives, one waking and one sleeping. I DO want to remember my dreams. Dreams are the product of my brain doing the work it needs to do, when I deprive it of reverie by “making a living,”driving, cooking, etc. As for my work affecting memory… . I'm hoping for a primal response. I'm hoping for the kind of response that horror writers hope for. I want my poems to tap at the reader's body memory. This includes the heart's memory. When the reader was only a ghost. Periphery. Living a life and watching herself live it. When the reader was in love. And energized and afraid. I would like for the poems to speak to the proprioceptive memory, if such a thing is possible. Perhaps all art should strive for this.

AS: You are also a novelist-- it is easy to see your story telling impulse wanting more room to roam, but can poetry do things that prose can't? Also, do you find you can write both at the same time, or do they require different "muscles"?

The process of writing a novel and the process of writing a poem are definitely different from one another. When I wrote Wet Collection, I wrote every day, requiring myself to write at least one page a day while I ate my lunch. It's all the time I had. The fiction pages built up in my head until I wrote them out daily, in long hand. I always write first drafts out by hand, whatever the genre. I didn't write any poetry while I was writing the novel. It was as if that part of my brain had shut off. I found the novel writing much easier than the poetry writing. I had a lot of fun. I could put more of my day-to-day life into the novel, which never finds its way into the poetry, and I could be funnier. I guess that's why I am trying my hand at co-writing a situation comedy, which is another process altogether. I like being funny on the page, and I haven't really succeeded in doing this in poetry. I have managed the grotesque in both genres, but not comedy.

Writing the novel and writing the sit com have had an effect on my poetry, I have to say. I wanted to experiment with dialogue in poetry, so I wrote the verse play Hologram, which shows up in Imago Mundi.

As for the poem process, I can carry it around, live inside it. It's like being in a trance. And because I tend to write long poems, I carry them around for a long time. “Chang and Eng” was a five-year project, longer than writing the novel. The poem never wanted to be finished. And with the novel, I wrote associatively, letting the characters do what they were going to, never knowing the whole story. I guess that's where the poem process and the novel process are similar. I suppose I knew that the latest manuscript Sadorus was going to be a verse novel because the poetry was arriving the way the novel did, daily, a page a day. It's very unformed at the moment, and I supposed the revision process will resemble more the novel revision process. I will revise Sadorus as a whole, because I have a number of requirements/philosophies that I want to play out in the whole manuscript. I was a mathematician as an undergraduate (Secretary/Treasurer of the Math Club, Calculator for a Halloween Costume, volleyball against the Biology Club, the whole thing), and I want Sadorus to reflect Newtonian and Cartesian ideas. Sadorus is on a grid or an axis. Moreover, I was using a bit of number theory in Imago Mundi, the theories of non-letter language and the idea of infinity as a mathematical and philosophical concept. I was practicing mathematicism.

What can a poem do? That a novel cannot? A poem speaks for the soul to the soul. A novel speaks for the brain and the heart.

(When novels are at their best, they have moments of poetry.)

The reader can have a more profound visceral response to a poem because the poem arrives and withdraws in a fleeting space of time. And it's always a matter of music, negotiating silence.

Thanks, Michelle, for sharing your experience and insights with Perihelion.

Michelle Mitchell-Foust's poetry can be found here.