Poet Ange Mlinko has been praised by The New Yorker for writing “intoxicating, cerebral poems [that] display a unique sense of humor and mystery.” She recently caught up with FSG’s Christopher Richards to discuss storytelling, advice for young poets, and just why aging for a poet is like tuberculosis for Keats. Her new collection, Marvelous Things Overheard, is now available.
Christopher Richards: Marvelous Things Overheard feels like a journey through worlds real and unreal. How do you think migration informed these poems? I’m thinking particularly of your background as the child of immigrant parents, and your time living abroad in places like Morocco and Beirut.
Ange Mlinko: What I’m really after is—to borrow Guy Davenport’s phrase—a geography of the imagination. It’s almost a reaction against all this migration—I’m compelled to subsume my autobiography (my parents’ immigration to Brazil, then the U.S., after WWII; my travels abroad) within structures. Baudelaire called the poets our lighthouses, mapping this geography for us. Now, I know many modern poets have an allergy to classical references. But these aren’t merely references. They’re knowledge. For one thing, they provide an account for our relationship with the elemental world. For another, they give depth and resonance to our conception of time. You can’t read the works of the past—Keats, Shakespeare et al.—without this knowledge. And if you can’t imagine the past, if you have no entree to it, your imagination withers. And your pride groweth.
Some of the longer poems here—I’m thinking particularly of “Wingandecoia” and how it unfurls the story of the lost colony of Roanoke—feel tied to a longer tradition of narrative or epic poetry. Where do you think storytelling fits into your poems? Do you think narrative is essential to poetry?
The Homeric epics are bedrock. But I was also reading the Homeric Hymns and Pindar, which recount the myths we often encounter only in Ovid. I love all kinds of stories, and I wish lyric poems were better vehicles for them. I mean, I find it hard to make a narrative poem that satisfies my requirements for what a poem should sound like. For “Wingandecoia” I wanted something of Wallace Stevens’ sound and James Merrill’s narrative sonnets. (Isn’t that a recipe for heaven?) Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s narratives are ravishing too—I’m thinking particularly of “Imaginary Prisons” (from The Lamplit Answer). It’s not that I necessarily think that narrative is essential to poetry, but it makes individual poems memorable.
You mentioned to me once that you thought Marvelous Things Overheard was your most accessible collection. Did you have a conscious desire while writing to create work that readers would find more approachable? Was it pure accident?
Hm, this is a tricky question. I’m a Seven(ty) Types of Ambiguity kind of gal, that’s just inarguable—but in the case of Marvelous Things Overheard I think really clear themes emerge from the book (the mythography of the Eastern Mediterranean; the way the passage of time renders the real unreal and vice versa, for instance). It opens a door.
Do you mean that by having clear, strong themes the reader is able to find a way inside the poetry?
Yes, I think so.
You’ve written before about Frank O’Hara’s manifestos and your attraction to them, and critics have compared your work to his. But much of Marvelous Things Overheard and your last collection, Shoulder Season, feels more omnivorous, more sly like Ashbery to me. You’ve said that “Not ‘getting’ a word, or a line, or a poem at first read was never an obstacle . . . in fact, it was a seduction.” Do you have a sense of these varying impulses in your work—the plainspoken and the opaque, the elusive and the direct—operating like angels on your shoulder, pulling in opposite directions?
Oh, yes! That gets at it, exactly. I love the ornate, but I wonder if age tugs one inevitably toward the plainspoken and direct. Like Stevens, or Yvor Winters’s poem, “On Teaching the Young”: “The young are quick of speech./Grown middle-aged, I teach/Corrosion and distrust,/Exacting what I must.” It ends: “Few minds will come to this./The poet’s only bliss/Is in cold certitude—/Laurel, archaic, rude.”
I would like to be “laurel, archaic, rude.” But not, O Lord, just yet.
You’ve written that aging for a poet is like tuberculosis for Keats—what do you mean by this? You’re so young still! How is getting older changing your work?
Why thank you, kind sir. Yes, aging creates a sense of urgency, a desire to make something durable. But it also hastens the egolessness that Keats insisted upon: “A Poet … has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body.” The older you get, if you’re lucky, the less you focus on yourself.
I had a lovely 40th birthday in Beirut, a city that in itself has been likened to a woman over and over (wasn’t it Jan Morris who referred to it as “the last of the Middle Eastern fleshpots”?) but one with many pasts. What I mean to say is, one can feel the poignant depth of one’s own spent time amid the visible archeology of Lebanon. It is a sensual infusion. Think of it as “the feminine Cavafyesque.”
Do you feel a sort of multiplicity of selves over time? “A woman…with many pasts” makes me wonder if you ever look at your younger writing and think of it as the work of a stranger. Joshua Mehigan (whose collection we’re doing in Summer 2014) was asking about one of his poems recently because he wasn’t sure if it was in his voice. It seemed to me it wasn’t a question of authenticity—what he was getting at was the poem was now legally old enough to drink and seemed distant from his work now.
Yes, I think Joshua is right. But I think “multiplicity of selves” begs the question of improvement. I can’t think of any poet of my generation whose recent work isn’t an improvement on their early work—including me of course.
I hesitate to ask this, because I find the debate around Mark Edmundson’s piece in Harper’s about the insularity and lack of ambition in contemporary poetry to be particularly lazy and exhausting, but I’m curious: did you react to it at all? Do you think American poets are overly concerned with harnessing their own voices?
The essay was muddled; it was unclear who he was speaking to. Urban poets on the coasts? MFA students in the hinterland? African-American poets? All our various poetry constituencies are insular in their own way, and some are obscure (and that’s okay), and yes “voice” is overrated. As with all the arts, a lot of po-biz is just cult of personality. Yet, interestingly, Edmundson is a Romantic, and Romanticism is what got us to this pass. When he came to the University of Houston last year, I was deeply put off by his many quotations of sixties rock lyrics rather than poems—in a lecture about poetry! Like Camille Paglia, he’d clearly rather be listening to Jimi Hendrix.
How long have you been working on the poems in Marvelous Things Overheard? Do you do a lot of revisions? How do you know that a poem is done?
I feel I’ve been working on these poems my whole life: many of them came out almost in one piece, and needed only some tweaking over a period of time (and many re-readings). There comes a point when a poem writes itself, as when a musician’s fingers take over the instrument. Maybe that’s a bad analogy—I would never want to say a poet stops thinking. Great poetry is never automatism. But there are certain muscles that are exercised and they do their job with little interference from the ego when it’s all going well.
But how can you trust anything a poet says about her own work? For myself, I only trust things when they rhyme…
What was the revision process like with Jonathan Galassi?
Jonathan made some editorial suggestions for clarity, which pleased me very much. He read every word—no, every mark. This is great motivation to write well; to write something even better next time. When you have the attention of a master poet and translator, you want to live up to that. The culture at large really wants to convince young writers that the writing itself is the last thing that matters. Don’t believe it.
Christopher Richards works in editorial at FSG. He can be found online at @TopherRichards.