Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
NO BODY, NO TOWN
Whiskey, my father said, can live
in an oak barrel for seventy years. As for me,
I shed skin, and every year I am a new
girl. I need no time to marinate.
It is said that I ruined my body with butter,
Midwestern comfort, and boys
who say, “Missour-ah” loud and benevolently
as they knock back a beer with a twang.
They gather me and drink; their hangovers kill.
The cashiers stare when I need soap
and a crate of apples; they forget
to give me change. They fumble,
mistaking a five for a twenty.
Green eyes, my mother said, are a sign
of an incurable meanness. She always knew
this is no country for women.
When making a fruit salad, does he leave you
the mango pit to suck on?
Do the sweet strings get stuck in your teeth
until you swear off palpable love forever
as though it were a bad habit, a perpetual
Do you love a man’s body or do you prefer
the softness of a woman’s, an apricot
that is dull enough to adore, but quickly
tart and sharp in the back of your mouth?
When I say the word “resentment”
who do you think of first?
When I ask you how many times you had
to cut your own hair with a butcher knife
don’t tell me this was done in your sleep.
He hands me the mango pit, but only
as a replacement for his finger tips, which
are unavailable, forlorn and usually out
of reach physically and spiritually.
The only sweet strings are the ones I pull,
a craft learned in college and in bed.
I love how hard a man’s body can be;
it can cut through tomato skins and muffle
screams like chloroform can. A woman’s
body is lethal in different ways,
like how children can pluck legs off unsuspecting
spiders and leave them dying on the playground.
When you say the word “resentment”
I think of my mother, for she only taught
me to love men who didn’t need women.
And I would never deny sheering off
the one thing that made me beautiful;
but the thing about hair, is that the second
time it grows back, it devours.
To kick off our new interview series, “Between the Lines,” we talk to contributing editor Craig Morgan Teicher about the vagaries of the artistic process and the thematic obsessions that ultimately guide its course.
FWR: You’re currently working with prose poems, which also take on a more conversational structure than some of your previous work. In your poem, “Layoff,” from your book To Keep Love Blurry, you write, “It’s not what you say, but / how you say it and why, whom you address / that makes a poem go.” Can you talk a little about the how and why of these new poems?
CMT: Well, I’m not currently working in prose—I’m actually really going on a new heap of poems that I hope will settle into a manuscript soon, and I’m not sure yet whether this group of prose pieces will fall in with them. These prose pieces came about because Rusty Morrisson at Omnidawn was kind enough to ask me for a chapbook, and after writing and turning in and editing and seeing the publication of To Keep Love Blurry, I felt pretty dried out. Good writing just wasn’t coming, though I wanted to be writing very much—there’s no better feeling than words coming out. So I set myself a project—to take “big topics” as my titles and then kinda think my way down a page on the topic. I let myself write in prose because many of the poems in To Keep Love Blurry are in strict forms and rhyme schemes, and I wanted to break my mind out of those habits, or to take some pressure off. As I wrote a few pieces like this, a voice began to emerge and the pieces began talking to each other. Whether or not it seems like it, these pieces were heavily worked over and drafted over months, which is to say, I guess, that they were a lot hairier when they started.
FWR: Your chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums, will be published this fall by Omnidawn. The poems featured here touch briefly on specifics, such as a mother’s death, a father’s alcoholism, the speaker’s wife. In the chapbook, do these pieces combine to create a longer narrative?
CMT: Dang, and I thought I was being veiled and unautobiographical in these pieces. Alas. Those three characters—the mother, the father, the wife—which, er, may or may not have an autobiographical basis, keep coming up. Obviously, aside from their relationship to my lived life, they’re important symbols to me, as I end up writing about the way between being a child and being a parent, how one gets there, what the markers and stepping stones are. The chapbook doesn’t have a narrative, but it’s got plenty of evidence of my same old obsessions, as do the new poems I’m working on.
FWR: Do you feel you tend to address your obsessions directly in much of your writing, or do you find they usually manage to seep in on their own? How have they evolved—whether the obsessions themselves or your approach to them—between books?
CMT: I think there are two kinds of writers: those who repeat themselves a lot and those who repeat themselves a little less. I’m the former rather than the latter, I believe, though I hope I’m finding new ways to say the same things. I don’t mind it when writers obsess over their obsessions for an entire career, as long as they get somewhere with it, which I hope I am/will. I think we’re pretty helpless against our obsessions—mine include fear, guilt, my mother, poetry, fatherhood, son-hood, and thinking on camera, as it were—but I try to find new angles of approach.
FWR: I love this idea of taking these “big topics,” as you mentioned earlier, and writing into them, both intellectually and personally. What was the first “big topic” you chose and how did you begin? Did you discover something new or surprising about your relationship to any of these topics while writing these poems?
CMT: Jeez, I can’t even remember now. It was probably fear…I think the subtitle of all of these pieces is “fear,” if not the actual title. Writing is just an endeavor to keep the inner mouth moving, to fend off silence, which is the element in which fear spins its weird webs, which, in fact, are probably as harmless as real spider webs are (to people), but that doesn’t stop most of us from freaking out whenever we walk into one and feel its invisible chords sticking to our skin. I suppose I was reminded of how susceptible to fear I am while writing these pieces, and how interested I am in it, what a muse fear is.