Sometimes we meet a poet, or a poem, or a line of verse that changes our lives. Sometimes it is simply a word. We meet a word. For after all, we as humans—among others in the animal kingdom—have a language that our animal sisters and brothers do not. We have a word. If we’re lucky we have many words. We spend our lives in or with or outside those words. We say them. We hear them. We taste them. We almost touch. We talk to the talking that talks us whole or apart. If we’re the least bit awake we search for the word for happiness or joy or loneliness or love. Perhaps we search for the word for everything.
The Word for Everything. This phrase not only serves as the title of one of Roger Mitchell’s most important collections of poetry (BkMk Press, 1996) but acts as a core metaphor for how his poems operate, their various themes and evocations made manifest throughout his large body of published work. Mitchell, author of eleven books of poetry and numerous prestigious awards, is a profoundly sensual poet. He lives in upstate New York in the town of Jay but spent a large part of his working life—thirty-five years—in southern Indiana where he directed the Creative Writing Program at Indiana University and for a time held the Ruth Lilly Chair of Poetry. But actually, it’s as if he has spent his life tending the physicality of the tongue, searching, that is, for the word for everything. He has made poetry a vocation, a practice of making daily meaning come awake in this word or that. For after all, in the title poem of The Word for Everything, Mitchell tells us: “There is the word for you / and beside it the word for me, / though neither of us knows which they are.” This is the great paradox Mitchell’s poems explore, interrogate, and eventually dissolve—the thin membrane not only between the false dichotomy of this and that, but also between constructions of I and thou, of you and me. In the words of Walt Whitman, where in “Song of Myself” he echoes Wordsworth: “There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he looked upon . . . that object he became” (emphasis added).
Roger Mitchell, keen observer of the world that he is, takes up this charge of “looking” and “becoming” seriously. His poems demonstrate again and again that the act of looking, of perceiving the world with tenderness and intimacy, even critique, helps dissolve the border between seer and seen. In his poem, “Four Hundredth Mile” (The Word for Everything) the poem’s speaker “83 miles north of Indianapolis on I-65” is driving in the darkness (both a literal and metaphorical darkness), and observes: “How many times have I been here and not seen / the width of the sky, the slow curve of the landscape / going away, the tiny wire trailing after?” Ultimately, by poem’s end, Mitchell discovers redemption in this self-reflective account of previous failures in “being present.” With precision, his details are simultaneously literal and metaphorical. “I am somewhere between exits,” he tells us, “The promising sign, / ‘Vacancy,’ flashes above trees in the distance. / I am in no hurry. The only thing in front of me / is home, a few stars, and another night.” It is the act of acknowledging where one is at on the road of life, so to speak, of loving not some predetermined idea of how the world or one’s life should be, but the world as it is—even of absence or “vacancy” or the various entrances and exits of our lives—that is redemptive. Thus, he concludes, “I have tried to love what I thought was the world, / but the world moved. I will love the move instead.”
Roger Mitchell’s poems are full of this love of the ebb and flow of the world. Whether—as elsewhere in his work—he is writing about his father leaving the body, or the shrinking Florida wetlands, or the Arctic landscape he so loves, his poems indeed love the world by “loving the move,” the mysterious ways in which the world works.
On a personal note, let me say that I would be hard-pressed to find a more genuine and generous person than Roger Mitchell. He was one of my first poetry teachers, thirty-five years ago. He was even present at the very first poetry reading that I ever gave, going out of his way (as he so typically has) to support poets—no matter what stage of development. They say that we as professors often model ourselves after the most inspiring teachers we ourselves have had, almost like donning a familiar old overcoat of who and what that teacher was to us. Roger Mitchell has certainly been that for me—though he’s far from being an “old overcoat”!—a true role model of what it means to love poetry with all the mind and heart, to take up poetry not as a profession or career, but as a daily discipline or spiritual practice. After all, as Mitchell himself has said in one of my favorite poems of his, quoted earlier, “There is the word for you, / and beside it the word for me, / though neither of us knows which they are.”
I am honored to have this remarkable group of previously unpublished poems, along with an interview, for this month’s feature in The Wabash Watershed, as we track Roger’s own tracking of “the word for everything.”
Roger Mitchell lives in upstate New York in the town of Jay. He spent a large part of his working life in southern Indiana where he directed the Creative Writing Program at Indiana University and for a time held the Ruth Lilly Chair of Poetry. He is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant (Natural Dam Publishing, 2010). His new and selected poems, Lemon Peeled the Moment Before (Ausable Press, 2008) received the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Book of 2008 at the following year’s Adirondack Literary Festival. His two previous books, both published by the University of Akron Press, are Half/Mask (2007) and Delicate Bait (2003), which Charles Simic chose for the Akron Prize. Other recognition for his writing includes the Midland Poetry Award, the John Ben Snow Award for Clear Pond, a work of non-fiction, two fellowships each from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the River Styx International Poetry Award, Ren Hen Press’s Ruskin Art Club Award, and others. He was a 2005 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He edited The Minnesota Review for many years, turning into a cutting-edge journal devoted to art, politics, and culture. He has recently completed a biography of the Indiana Years of the poet, Jean Garrigue. See his article in the Fall 2013 issue of Traces, the journal of the Indiana Historical Society, titled “Jean Garrigue: A Dream from the Heartland,” which previews his book on Garrigue’s life.
———-“’Tis certain, that the mind, in its perceptions, must begin somewhere.”
The mere presence of a book of philosophy
makes me lean toward it. I grip the squared block
of reason in one hand, and it settles me.
As the cowboy settles the straddled bull
between his legs. I know what you’re thinking,
and you may be right, but we have to begin
somewhere, even if it means a trapped
animal has to throw us to the ground.
Since you can’t seem to avoid it, you submit
to being seen in a long plaid skirt and stockings
and low-heeled goatskin tan leather shoes.
And hair. An effusion of thick growth cropped
just below the ears, with a gaze that goes
all the way back to the back of the camera,
into the future. That’s me, over there
(you can’t see me), pretending to look at,
let’s say roses, pinks, maybe daffodils,
anything to make it seem possible
to have been there when you let the mask
fall away for a moment and be the dream
dreamt so far back words stumble catching up.
She’s thin. Eating disorder she’d tell me
years later. This, the woman I would wed
years later, standing on some grass, a lawn
in Austria. A village near the border
with Hungary. You can’t see Hungary.
Or Austria, either. Only the grass
at her feet, that and something I’d call mist,
if I didn’t know better. There’s a word for it
in German, stuff that’s neither cloud nor smoke,
that burrs the view, softens what you look at.
Distance, maybe. Time, certainly. She looks
at the camera as though it were a confidant,
someone she could trust with a secret.
Not the one she knows already, that he
will leave, the man behind the camera.
She will want that later. In fact, may now.
The secret she confides in us, the one
she doesn’t know herself, but senses, is,
is the one given her at birth, the self
that gets to be the perfect thing it is
for the short time its aura burns around her.
It weighs nothing. It is nothing. But she
holds it in her gaze, knowing without knowing
that this would be what she came here for, here
being a small village on the downward slope
of history, mysterious origin
and fate. I stand outside the picture. I wait.
Twice a day the coal train slides through town.
I like to count the cars, but after fifty,
lose my place, then give it up, happy
just to listen to the clip and clank the coal cars make,
each coal car topped with nineteen tons of black
bituminous debris. I’m only guessing
at the tonnage. It doesn’t matter if I’m off.
It looks like nineteen tons and sounds like more,
like someone turned the earth on, told it, Roll
that buried thunder, shake those aching bones.
At 3 a.m., again, my pituitary
starts to vibrate. Sleep slips off the shelf.
They thought they’d sneak it past as dream stuck
on replay, as mountains turning over
in their sleep, as a hum heard only by bats
hanging by their wing claws in a cave
too deep to spelunk, too close to magma.
This sluggish worm, segmented, in a gastric
rattle, rumbles down the valley to feed
the tall stacks of the generating plant.
The dinosaurs staggered to their death
not far from here. Something must have watched it, too.
Though what? A mountain melt into the sea?
A drained ocean give up its eyeless jellies?
Or just the stumble and collapse of bodies?
What form the watcher took, rodent or bird,
serpent or mole, maybe it, too, stood here
dreaming, trying not to see what it saw.
It’s likely I came from a place like this.
The silken muck at the bottom of it
feels like an early attempt at skin
along the inner arm. The tiny bugs
on the water’s surface flash like a thing
about to break into thinking. The tufts
of last year’s grasses, cattails blown apart,
I know that raspy clatter of wisdom.
It looks good on the page but tastes like dust
if you utter it. I’ll take the moss
that curls to itself and never leaves home,
lichens that grow on rocks. And, of course, rocks.
Broad, level, still, this place gives water
a break from all that rushing out to sea.
In Place of Thinking
Was it in high school, college, dream
I saw the frog’s leg muscle twitch?
That’s all there was, the muscle flayed,
tacked to a board, so that a few
cc’s of acid dropped on it brought
it back to what the teacher called
——— I wish I had a more exact
memory. Or a memory
that wouldn’t interfere with things.
A mind that didn’t need to think
it was a mind to be a mind.
A twitch in place of thinking. Thought
that could throw rocks across the room
at the drop of a cloud’s shadow.
Pretty Good Day
Turned the compost in the compost pile,
broke back the creepers threading
the rusted chickenwire fence. Took out
the garbage and the year’s first leaves.
Split wood and dusted the whole inside
of the car, deciding now was the time,
this year, to take it as far back as I could
to the way it was the day I saw it first.
Then eating in the Deli with the sweatered
Homecoming crowd and flipping through the paper
and the ads. I felt like I wanted to
come home, too, like I wanted to buy something.
I wanted to go somewhere, Indianapolis,
Chicago. I wanted to be in the biggest store
around, and look at things I couldn’t afford.
I wanted to be left alone to make up
my own mind or talk with a friendly clerk
about things we don’t know very much about.
And the clerk would be called away just
as we were beginning to wonder how much
cheese goes into a Chicago deep-dish pizza.
We would part, wishing the other the kind
of day you’d remember years from now
as the day you decided to live forever.
Later I would call a friend on the phone
and get his advice, something purely
mechanical, the thread on a bolt,
and thank him and hang up, and stand there thinking
of the friends I’ve dropped and not picked up,
the life I’ve come so close to, the life
I’ve ambled down the middle of in May.
Then, as the afternoon began to stir,
sun spilling lazily out of the trees,
going upstairs to take a nap, but instead
lying there thinking these things,
the words appearing suddenly and slow,
and the quiet of the evening coming on.
I put a bag of ice under my knee
and think about the rest of my life
(no less), that is, what I am
to fill it with, or, possibly,
what I am to jettison from its
baggy volubility. Ho hum,
says the white-throated sparrow
pecking the miserable scratch
out front which we flatter ourselves
by calling it lawn. A lawn
is meant to lie there, glamorous
and dense with unrestrained but clipped
growth. I think the point may be, one,
stay alert to subtle movements
in the trees, slight breathy airs, taps
from passing woodpeckers,
plus the emergence, often in May,
of leaves. They come forth from the ends
of branches, as though leaving
the theatre after a long
opera having to do with snow
and her (or his, it’s not clear which)
love affair with repeated loss.
There was supposed to be a two,
I know, but I’ve decided, no,
I’d rather look at old leather.
As at the back of ancient tomes
gilded with cryptic alphabets.
That kind of leather. Once a sheep
or the outer layer thereof,
now binding indecipherable
imprecations cast as warnings
against the use of astrolabes.
It may not be clear here, but once
I had a reliable knee,
and I knew that I wanted something.
It’s when the wanting separates
from the object of its focus
that life becomes approximate,
the weather of the weather. Whoa,
we say, when things get out of hand.
Excesses of delight distend
a sky already filled with air.
———–“the omniscience which is now fashionable”
I wanted to understand something, something
as simple as rain or what the people
who live next door did in the afternoon.
For a while I bathed in “the omniscience
which is now [or was then] fashionable,”
but gave it up for biography, that,
and short trips into the city to sit
for hours in light thrown down from low lamps
onto the papers placed in front of me.
Later, to walk out into the city
just after sunset when the lights come up
as in an opera, the set inflating
a superhuman force brought down daily
on a milling crowd, each of whom
might sing the monster into submission.
An aria in the middle of which the singer
decides to leave the key behind, that making
a thing that won’t go into the bottle
without a lot of tight strapping loses its
fascination and lustre, and so she sings
of going into a store and buying nothing
while doing it. Lights left on for cleaning crews,
forty or so floors to a stack, everyone
speaking at will lines they needn’t memorize
cued by hunger and proximity to sleep.
Is it any wonder we like to nap
or at least drift away from all that stuff
we haven’t any room to display or unpack?
A tone has taken hold of this poem
which I would like to take note of.
It’s as though I were my own ventriloquist,
mouthing phrases invented by someone else,
that I am inside a meaning or thought
trying to get out. I like to think
that everything belongs on its own shelf.
The foreign policy of such a concept
seeks, however, total capitulation.
Its drones are headed to your barbecue
from somewhere in the Poconos. I wish
you whatever you are doing right now.
Preserving the Ideals of Revolution: An Interview with Roger Mitchell
By George Kalamaras
George Kalamaras: Why don’t we begin by mapping some of your points of influence? I’m always curious from where a poet’s poems grow, and your work suggests to me various points of contact. Could you talk a little about those influences and in what way certain poets, writers, and/or books have affected you?
Roger Mitchell: I started writing poems in college, junior year as I recall. I was a biochemistry major and a pre-med student, so I knew very little about poetry until I took a lecture course in poetry. We read a poem a week by a different author every week. This was the heyday of New Criticism, so close reading was the chosen way to go about it. It appealed to the scientific, you might say microscopic, tendencies science had already given me. The poets we read were quite canonical: Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, and the slightly risky Ezra Pound. This was when Pound was still in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington.
The university introduced poetry to me, so my first strong influences were Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. “Prufrock” still resonates with me, though the ineffectual, sensitive male (“Do I dare,” etc.) does not. Eliot also had convincing things to say about what it took to be a poet—reading as much as you could so as to know where you came from and to what you intended to contribute. I remember taking him so seriously that for years I would not call myself a poet. I said, “I write poems.” It was a relief when I finally gave that little drama up.
Pound was important for me, too. Both he and Eliot believed that literature could transform society, a transformation little short of revolutionary. Their work as poets was supplemented by their work as critics. This was the era of the poet-critic, and to a small degree, I’ve made myself in that image. Unfortunately, the work of both was tainted by their conservative—and in Pound’s case, fascist—leanings. Marianne Moore fit right in with my “scientific” inclinations (which I was happily leaving behind).
The year I’m talking about was also the year Howl came out. Frank O’Hara, I now know, was a student at the same college I was going to, etc. Something else was around, and I could sense it now and then when I started looking seriously at poets’ books and the growing array of little magazines. This other, newer, and only emerging world of poetry eventually gave us Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Creeley, Duncan, and many more people working to a degree in Pound’s shadow. I had a serious interest in Levertov for a number of years and even took on the job of teaching Olson. I went to hear him read when he was at Beloit College. The canonical side of our poetry continued cranking out serious good poets—Robert Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Bishop, but I came to be more interested in Williams and Stevens. I wrote a biochemist’s dissertation on the latter, convinced that prolonged focus on the poem would make sense of the Supreme Fiction. O’Hara was a wonderful discovery once his poetry began appearing. I’ve been reading a lot of Ashbery in the last year or two. His resolute daffiness can surprise. His prose is quite readable and informative. But, I just look across the valley at him, wave, and go back to whatever it is I do.
Bishop is a strange force in my field. Almost as soon as I’d read my first Bishop poems, I felt the tug. I love being influenced. It’s how I underpin my work.
GK: That’s quite a map, Roger. I see Williams and Stevens so clearly in your poems, though never in a derivative way, and so it thrills me to learn that you wrote a dissertation on Stevens. And I can see the influence of Black Mountain and the New American Poetics (Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Olson, et al.) in a less obvious way, though it’s there deep within your work. It comes most clearly for me, perhaps, in your book Braid (The Figures Press, 1997). What remains consistent for me throughout your books is what you say about poetry as social engagement and as an agent for change (as you say, “literature can transform society”), even when your poems are not explicitly political. A poet you and I have talked about over the years and whom we both love is Thomas McGrath, a poet too-often forgotten. Can you say a bit more about the role of social engagement and perhaps also describe your relationship with the poems of Tom McGrath?
RM: This is an issue that I have been back and forth with for forty years or more, which I think means I’m awfully close to, if not right on, the fence. Of course, we need to have a sense of social responsibility, not just as individuals but also as a culture, by which I mean knit into our laws. I would prefer a democratic socialism, not an imposed one, as in the Soviet Union and in Germany under Hitler. We forget that Nazism was also a socialism, national rather than international. McGrath is right to say that it would require a revolution in this country’s thinking just to raise the subject, to say nothing of making it a political reality. We’re deep in another bad phase of our national life where greed is looked on favorably. Despite this, I can’t imagine coercion being used here, other than the coercion that happens to all losers in a democracy.
The world we found ourselves in very soon after WWII, beginning truly with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a world deeply divided. It took us forty years to find out that the people who authorized dropping those two bombs were doing it mostly to show the Soviet Union we meant business. In ending one war, we started another. Public life was in our face, a lot of it not very pretty. A great many people, I think, felt that humanity had to make some adjustments. The gifts to these sentiments, aside from the Holocaust, showed up in the fifties and sixties. In truth, the Holocaust wasn’t defined as such till the Eichmann trial, in 1961 I think. But there were Rosa Parks and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), the Anti-War Movement. You know it all. Auden may have told us right at the beginning of WWII in his elegy for Yeats that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but a great many wanted to believe otherwise. A number of mid-generation poets, Lowell, Wright, Bly, Merwin, Levertov, Rukeyser, and Rich began writing poems of protest, some of them still quite remarkable.
In this climate, though not till the mid-seventies, I took over a magazine that was about to fold and tried to base it, none too strictly, on literary theories derived from Marx. We stirred up a little dust but, of course, made nothing happen. The only time I ever came close to feeling politically consequential on any scale was when LBJ announced he would not run in ‘68. I was one of millions who called for his political head. Other than that, I’ve had to satisfy myself with small gestures like teaching Black Literature a few times, recycling, riding a bicycle to work instead of driving, signing petitions, etc. I’ve had to accept a conflicted condition, saying first, that Marx was right about socio-economic arrangements and second, that too many people prefer, accept, or see no way around the inequities for his theories to be taken seriously in our national politics.
What we can do, and here is where McGrath holds the torch out to us, is preserve the ideals of revolution in the form of a dream. McGrath was one of the best and smartest poets we’ve had, and he came from and clung to a truly revolutionary heritage, briefly a member of the Communist party, father a Wobbly, English-hating Potato Famine Irish ancestors, and a man who lost his job to the HUAC witch-hunt of the fifties. You might think of these as credentials. I had none of them, though I was somewhat relieved to read what Marx said once: “Je ne suis pas un Marxist” (“I am not a Marxist”). So deep was the experience of injustice in McGrath’s life that he knew the only and best thing he could do was preserve the memory of his and his family’s struggles and from that, fashion the dream of a humane world for the future. See his epic, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, which I’m tempted to call America’s best epic. It reminds me of one of Eliot’s mantras: redeem the time. Eliot, of course, was trying to steer his community in a different direction, back toward Christian Culture.
GK: First, The Minnesota Review (the magazine I’m guessing you just alluded to?) was an immensely important journal for me when I first cut my teeth in poetry. It showed me that poetry—political or not—could (and should) move beyond the individual ego. That inspired me to consider the possibilities of our practice, even in subtle ways not always even overtly “political,” so I suppose—forgive me!—that I would not agree with you that “of course, [it] made nothing happen.” Also, like you, I’m in awe of McGrath’s courage. My dear friends, Alvaro Cardona-Hine and the late Gene Frumkin, were both either in or closely associated with McGrath’s “Marsh Street Irregulars,” so I’ve heard stories about the heavy price he paid for his commitments.
In a sense, we as poets are always paying a price—by virtue of our marginalization in culture and the social inscriptions that come with the perception of who and what a poet is, even when the poet is not overtly political.
But I don’t mean to suggest too much loss or even imply martyrdom, as both of those seem too simple, given that being a poet—to my mind—is a gift to be cherished and a practice in which we are privileged enough to participate. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about what you think you’ve gained over the years in taking up the practice of poetry (and I don’t mean “gain” in a materialistic sense). In other words, as poets we spend a great deal of time doing what we do—mostly in solitude. What has this given you? How has this practice of making poetry changed or shaped you?
RM: Yes, I was alluding to The Minnesota Review, and I’m grateful for your kind comment and a little embarrassed at my grumbling. As I used to say to Auden’s comment now and then, not of course to Auden, “Well, Mr. Auden, if poetry makes nothing happen, why write it?” Auden, of course, was referring to the decade he and others spent trying to move the people of Europe away from starting another war, a hope that came tumbling down on September 1, 1939, only a few months after Yeats’s death. It was a bleak time for him and the world.
What has poetry given me? The chance to be a self, a way to find out what that could mean, especially in regard to others, to creation itself, to what we seem still to be learning about where we came from, as well as why and how. The latest news on that front, as you know, is star dust. Wouldn’t Hoagy Carmichael be tickled? Poetry has become for me a kind of practice in no known theology or one made up on the spot from what lay nearby. A little left-over Puritanism here, especially around environmental and social democratic issues, a little Tibetan Buddhism there. I think Americans are children of the Enlightenment, descendants of the people who challenged official knowledge and official culture across Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. It’s like the Enlightenment gave the world the idea of choice. Whether Americans or the world want that any more seems, incredibly to me, under review. Science and philosophy started this whole, if I may say so, revolutionary process going.
GK: I want to shift gears a moment, Roger. You’re obviously an Indiana poet, having spent several decades fostering poetry in our state, teaching at Indiana University, shepherding the IU Writers’ Conference. At the same time, you’ve returned, in a sense, to your earlier roots now in the Adirondacks. Can you talk a little about the role of “place” in your poetry? How or in what ways has place figured in your poetic sensibility and/or in your making of poems? (I’m thinking here as well—even—of your life-long fascination with the cold reaches of the Arctic and your grant a few years back to travel north to the Arctic to conduct research for a series of poems.)
RM: First, when I was young, my family moved a good bit, and when I began teaching, I continued the practice till I finally landed in Indiana (Bloomington). I lived there for thirty-three years, by far the longest settled period in my life. I think I could still show you the best birding spots in Monroe and Brown counties. At the same time, I lived long enough in Bloomington to watch it change a great deal.
I also love to travel. More than travel, I love to go to a different place and live for a while. The first time I did that was in the early sixties when I lived for two years in Manchester, England. Another was Cracow, Poland, where I lived for a whole year. In both cases, it was something like an awakening to be in places so different from what I’d known. I came by the feeling of belonging by proxy, you might say. These experiences made me realize that I knew very little about the place where I had grown up, the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York, which is why I set about writing books about it to see what I’d missed. What I hadn’t missed (but what I hadn’t realized as a child) was the huge presence of the mountainous northern forest with its long winters and short summers. I think this may be why the places that move me the most are large natural expanses, i.e., deserts, oceans, tundra, sky. At the same time, I love large, charged, densely crammed cities and would probably live in one could I afford it.
So, I’ve come to have a sense of there being many kinds of place, some intimate, some vast, and of our living simultaneously in a number of them. I love Thoreau’s saying, “I have travelled much in Concord,” a small poke at the railroad that was built too close to his cabin on Walden, as well as a poke at people’s love of traveling. This from a citizen of the United States which is made up entirely of travelers and their descendants. We humans are a nomadic animal. The other place I live in, at the other end of the spectrum of places, is the universe, this one, not the universe next door. I’ve gotten interested in space exploration recently, in fact. In both places, I travel, and in that, I join both, neighborhood and galaxy, in our most fundamental activity, since they, too, are never at rest.
GK: I think your relationship with place is powerful, in both your explicit address of it (writing about the Adirondack mountains, for example) and in the implicit ways you describe (in terms of how living in other cultures has shaped you). I sense “place” throughout your work also in your embrace of history (as if certain histories remain and permeate a place—and I’m thinking here of an early book, Letters from Siberia, although this sensibility is present elsewhere in your poems as well) and simply in your desire in some recent poems to be “present” or “rooted” in the moment. In fact, as the years pass, your poems seem more and more to explore moments of rootedness in what surrounds you, as well as offer powerful reflections and transformations of your personal history. What evolutions and developments do you notice in your recent work? Have your concerns shifted from those in your earlier poems? Or have they remained steady and simply deepened?
RM: I neglected to mention that a large number of my poems could not have happened without my living forty-five years in the Midwest, most of them in Indiana.
Funny you should mention Letters from Siberia. That sequence of, I think, thirteen poems came suddenly out of all the Russian literature I had read, mostly in college, plus the opportunity to travel briefly to Moscow and Leningrad the year I lived in Poland. Its real subject, though, was the Vietnam War and what it was doing to the country. The speaker wanted to know the truth about his country’s misguided policies, as evidenced in the huge prison on Sakhalin Island off the eastern coast of Siberia, so he went out there to look into those policies. In that sense, the poem was for me a sort of symbolic drama where one place stood in for another. By the time I wrote Half/Mask (2007), a book that looked at tundra from as many angles as I could find, involving a trip to the Canadian Arctic, thirty-six years had passed, and I had different needs or uses to make of the extremes of the north, though there, too, I discovered that the Canadian government had sent people against their will to live on Ellesmere Island. That place, too, turned into a kind of prison.
I don’t have much sense of development in my work, or rather, I’m the kind of writer who moves on to whatever it is that calls. There are probably common interests in my work, as there are in anybody’s work, or maybe an overriding sense of place, but the poems feel to me like individual pieces when I’m writing them, unless of course I’m working on a sequence of some kind. As you might guess, I’m not a very good critic of my poems. Poets generally don’t like to use their minds that way on their own work, even when they are good critics of the work of others.
GK: Those are some powerful reflections of your process, Roger. Besides focusing on your own writing, you spent decades teaching, hosting the IU Writers’ Conference, and mentoring writers. I’m wondering, before we close, if you have any advice or insights for poets who are positioned earlier in their development? I know the poetic life is unique for everyone, but is there something essential about the practice you’d care to share?
RM: “Ars longa, vita brevis,” as Horace said. Frankly, I’m glad art is long, since I want it to last as long as I live. The point Horace was making, though, was that art takes a long time to grasp and perfect. But who would want it to be easy?
The big surprise to me, when I finally realized it, was that poets are self-taught. Poets are hungry to learn, they like to congregate in various ways so they can see what passes for poetry in their time and place, and they want and need to have a proven master look at their work. They might even go to school to learn something of the craft. Some avoid the schools, of course. The secret is that they take away from these social situations what seems right for them, ignoring what isn’t, and move forward into their own writing life, eyes and ears always open, finding what sort of tradition in poetry they belong to (and what traditions they don’t belong to) until they finally begin making the work that is theirs.
The backbone of this process is reading, widely and omnivorously, and of course writing. A poet’s education never ends. Thankfully. The point of writing poems is to make poems, the best you can. If you’re doing it for any other reason—fame being the principle distraction—the work will wither away.