Michael Mlekoday’s first book, The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2014), was chosen by Dorianne Laux as winner of the 2012 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Mlekoday serves as editor and publisher of Button Poetry / Exploding Pinecone Press, is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and has work published or forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Salt Hill, Banango Street, The Pinch, and other venues. His poem “Flood” appeared in The Journal issue 36.3. He recently spoke with poetry editor David Winter about his writing process, rap, race, and what it’s like to write a book-length poem.
David Winter: The Dead Eat Everything includes thirteen “Self-Portrait” poems, each written in a different mode. Your ability to examine the self from so many different angles, to continually mine it for imagery and music, is one of the driving forces of the book. What did the process of writing those poems look like for you?
Michael Mlekoday: At first, I didn’t really know I was writing a series. They were just individual poems, to me, and not all of them were initially called self-portraits. But I had been living in the world of some of these poems for a while, and I started to see that they were all interested in the way the self is constructed—by culture or society or whatever. I liked the idea of self-portraits that begin with the external, the outside world, and work their way back.
DW: That movement is one of the things I love about these poems. The more intimate they become with the self, the more they seem to reflect the neighborhood. It particularly brings to mind “Self Portrait, Fat Tuesday,” where that movement from external to internal isn’t just a shift in perspective; the speaker enacts it by swallowing his landscape and everything in it, from a newspaper to a police officer’s dismantled gun to a cemetery. It’s a brutal poem but also a beautiful one. But I’m still curious to know more about your process. How do you usually begin writing a poem, and how do you revise?
MM: My process is usually two hours on the verge of tears believing I’ve forgotten what a poem is and dozens of deleted first lines, followed, occasionally, by an opening that finally brings me into the sonic world of the poem. If I can’t find a voice I want to work in, I usually can’t even bring myself to write anything. And I don’t like it when artists get all mystical and make grandiose spiritual claims about their process, BUT: when I do find the voice of the poem, the subsequent work often allows me to forget that I exist, that I’m sitting here in an empty pool hall with nothing but coffee in my stomach hours after waking up afraid of job applications and PhD applications, for example, and focus instead on the music of the language and the logics of the poem being constructed. Whether you call it a trance or an ecstasy or a glimpse of the Buddha-nature or whatever, writing is a state of mind that, when I’m lucky, lets me play and free associate and improvise with language inside the logics of the poem.
Ross Gay once showed me a poem of his that had gone through like eleven drafts—I think the second or third draft was where I would’ve stopped—and the final draft wasn’t necessarily better than the third, it was just different. That kind of improvisational and unattached approach to the poem, to revision, is something I admire and am working on.
DW: I think those moments of immersive creativity keep a lot of us coming back to the blank, sometimes terrifying page. I’ve heard that before you wrote poetry you rapped. A lot of people are coming to poetry that way these days, and I’m interested in the different ways rap does and doesn’t influence our poetics. What, if anything, did you learn from rapping that you were able to carry into your practice as a poet? What, if anything, did you find yourself leaving behind as you made that transition?
MM: Well, I definitely learned from rap that I could talk shit and mention forties in my poems. Really. (Though I also learned that from Adrian Matejka.) But ultimately, though I’m sure there are some small poetic craft tricks I learned from rap, it’s mostly the faith behind the practice that’s been significant for me. Rap gave me a dedication to the here-and-now, the belief that a dope enough line can break the necks of my enemies just by making them nod their heads, that poems can riot and kill and resurrect and sweeten and gingerly hold you in hospital rooms as your father is dying in silence—and of course that poems can talk shit, too, because that’s the first way me and my friends learned to express our sense of self-worth, how we learned to articulate our positions in a hostile world. Rap is my ethics and my metaphysics.
DW: I’m really attracted to this idea of talking shit in poems. The first poem in your book is “Self-Portrait With Gunshot Vernacular,” which I think of as a poem about what it means to talk shit. What makes the poem interesting for me is that it’s actually very vulnerable—there’s violent language, but the poem meditates on that violence rather than enacting it.
One of the things I try to teach my students is that poetry doesn’t have to be safe or polite in form or content, and in any case each of us has different ideas about what it means to be safe or polite, because we come from different communities. I usually start that discussion with Etheridge Knight’s poem “Feeling Fucked Up,” but I also see that lesson contained in your line, “If someone flinch at firecrackers / they may as well mispronounce / your name.” Does this shit-talking ethos play a role in your teaching too, or is it something you leave outside the classroom?
MM: That’s a great poem (“Feeling Fucked Up”)! I like that idea too, that politeness and safety mean different things to each of us because of our backgrounds, upbringings, etc. In that sense, the creative writing classroom is (or can be) a multicultural space where we must learn to take care of one another, respect one another, even as we challenge each other’s notions of civility. More generally, I believe that encouraging students to talk shit in their work can demonstrate to them the radical possibilities of the poem, might open them up in a way, though so far my students have politely declined my encouragements.
DW: That vision of the classroom and of poetry more generally as a multicultural space is really important to me too. Speaking of which, you’re a white person who grew up in the inner city, and your poems refer to cultural touchstones often associated with people of color—hip hop, playing the dozens, gang activity, etc.—whether or not those associations are accurate. Race is a subject I’ve struggled with in my own writing, perhaps because white people are often taught that we don’t need to address it directly, or that we shouldn’t. Can you talk a little bit about how you handle race in your writing?
MM: Rule: A white person can never be an expert on race, racism, or white supremacy, since part of white privilege is the ability to decide not to pay attention to race in most situations. Rule: Not being experts doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility to confront problems that impact the lives of our friends, teachers, students, lovers, and community members, especially when we are sometimes the cause of and sometimes the economic or social beneficiaries of these problems—and since we’re writers, writing about these problems is probably how we’re going to confront them. Rule: The responsibility to confront the problem of white supremacy in our work even though we aren’t experts doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility to make sure we’re not doing further damage to our friends, teachers, students, lovers, and community members by our own mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps. Rule: Listen to and trust people of color when they talk about their lived racial realities. I learned all of these rules from people of color who were patient enough to put up with my dumb ass. I contribute nothing new to discussions of race or white supremacy, in poetry or anywhere else—I just try to be responsible to my friends.
DW: I think I try to live by a pretty similar set of rules, although I’m not sure I could have stated them as concisely. I might actually offer that paragraph to my students as a possible framework for thinking about race. So thank you for that.
Getting back to the subject of your own writing, I hear you’re working on a book-length poem about the ocean, which strikes me as an ambitious project. I’m curious what new challenges you might be facing, and I’m also curious what the book is about besides the ocean—since poems are rarely about just one thing, especially when we say they are.
MM: First of all, thank you so much for the interview, the thoughtful questions, and for indulging me as I ramble on. Thank you. But man, a book-length poem is a whole different animal! It’s wild. I used to want to write a novel because the form opens itself to basically any kind of writing you want to include: Moby Dick, for example, has whole chapters dedicated to the science and technology of whaling (funny chapters!). A book-length poem isn’t exactly that, but it still does involve a lot of free invention and genre-bending. This book, currently titled Junk Turquoise, is a kind of queer bildungsroman. The speaker leaves the Midwest to see the ocean for the first time, and on the journey confronts questions of religion, gender, and what it means to be American. There have been so many times during the writing and revising where I’ve considered chopping it up into shorter poems—because it’d be easier or more conventional or whatever—but it’s brought me so much joy to write a book-length poem purely because I wanted to, because I thought it’d be a dope thing to do. It’s reminded me that we write because we want to.
DW: Amen to that! Thanks for talking with us, and I look forward to Junk Turquoise.