Luke Rolfes: Writer Michael Mark is out with a new chapbook from RATTLE. This book, a lovely and unflinchingly human look at caring for elderly parents called VISITING HER IN QUEENS IS MORE ENLIGHTENING THAN A MONTH IN A MONASTERY IN TIBET, is part of the annual RATTLE Chapbook Series. Thanks for taking some time with us today, Michael! I’d like to start broadly with this chapbook. Clearly, this is a deeply personal book. Can you walk us through how this project came to be?
Michael Mark: Thanks for poking around with me, Luke. I write poem by poem – each, to me, is a little world, however complete or imperfect. I had no intentions of building a project. It happened in part because there was a Rattle chapbook contest and I thought I’ll try. Oh, and my wife insisted. I looked at a stack of my poems that shared a theme and the deadline and the stack and the deadline. I have several themes I tend to work on so I had some choice. It was kinda like driving and noticing in the rearview mirror all this stuff I loaded up over the years falling out of the trunk, and thinking, “Should I just keep going or…?” I pulled a U-ie and scooped up the stuff. The other answer is I wanted to understand what was happening in our lives during the years of my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease – to her, my dad, my brother, all of us. Writing helps me see – sometimes understand.
LR: Why did you decide that poetry was the best genre to encapsulate this experience with your mother and father?
MM: Poetry, for me, arrives from not knowing – the sudden shifts, crashes, rises, clear away the fogginess of everyday. Due to the zig-zaggy nature of dementia, in general, poetry, I felt, was a solid path into all the uncertainty of the relationships: for my mother and for us who knew my mother and who she was unbecoming so rapidly. Poetry seemed the most suitable medium for its ability to hold doubt and hope, pain and peace so comfortably.
LR: One of the techniques you utilize in this book, to my ear, is subtext. I don’t recall many times in the text itself where you say that you are in pain or dealing with sorrow and grief. Yet, throughout the experience of reading this book, I feel your pain and grief beneath the words. Can you talk a little bit about your process in these poems, specifically dealing with subtext?
MM: I deeply appreciate this comment within your question: to bear witness is what I believe was one of my key intentions with the poems (recognizing that intentions are often poison to poems). It’s like when an actor cries: there is a release for the character, maybe the performer, and the audience with that dripping tear but when the tear shivers on the lid, resists, holds back, I think we feel something deeper – something’s about to happen. That’s the drama I’m often interested in. These poems, I hope, are not all about the speaker – of course, some are – but it’s my hope they are present yet not intrusive to the moments. We know the challenges writing a poem about family matters without sinking into sentimentality. I do risk going to the edge like the tear.
LR: You offer us a variety of stanza length in this book. Sometimes couplets. Sometimes tercets. Sometimes more free verse. As well, your line length varies throughout the collection. Can you speak on your selection of formal/stylistic elements such as line and stanza length?
MM: The varying forms and shapes of the poems reflect or are in conversation with the constant changes of the subjects. My poems tend to be voice led - some stories require the breathlessness of the long line, trying to carry, balance so much life-colliding. The long line and deeper stanzas challenge grammar and syntax and, importantly, breath – struggling to handle it all. Some poems strain to be more measured in an effort to order the chaos: so couplets go to work as a point/counterpoint. Tercets, for me, offer lightness, a bit of a wink – the tipsy, oddness of three highlight the optimism in the face of the daunting. When curating the poems, it struck me that this was a positive for doing the chapbook. As single worlds, they offer one general or lead voice but when shuffling the poems they have a more chaotic and perhaps more honest choral-like energy. I think they closer represent the actual experiences.
LR: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia touches so many people. It’s one of the most difficult ailments to endure for loved ones, and sometimes people describe this affliction as “dying twice”---once mentally and then once physically. In your poems, I never got the sense that you felt your mother was “no longer there.” True, she would get confused and make mistakes, but she still seemed like she held her identity for you. Can you talk about writing your mother’s identity in this book?
MM: Another question I love because it touches on an essential part for me about writing these poems to, for and about my mom and our family, and also the disease. I wanted to respect my mother in all her changes, stages. As she did me growing up. And I believe the relationship has not ended. Memory has a flesh. I still write about her and learn what I feel and think about her, us, and listen to her and believe it is her in some form. Like the poem at the end of the book about impermanence, I believe there is no end to anything: no complete stop without some trace left. In that poem it is dance, art. There is change, yes, there is difference, there are the thinnest threads that connect then and now and after. My mother in all her states was my mother. I would be writing and think, feel, “This is my mother now, this is my mother now, this is my mother who is and always will be my mother.” I find that comforting and if that’s all it is – a coping mechanism – I’m good with that.
LR: A poem that was especially moving to me was “The Wish,” in which you, at your mother’s suggestion, purchase turtles. Can you walk us through this poem and what inspired you to follow through with your mother’s wish?
MM: My mother never asked me to get my father a turtle - sorry. But I’m thrilled that you might have thought it possible. The poem emerged from what I heard my father say to her in the hospital: “I need you! Get up!” So simple, dramatic, selfish and vulnerable. But to leave it like that, I don’t think would have had the resonance for me. So naturally I brought in a turtle. The imagination helped me fill in the context in a way that allowed my Dad’s demand to hopefully come off with the emotions that I felt being in the hospital room. I will tell you, my father did read that poem and said to me, “This never happened!” My answer was, “Are you sure?” I have worked on that poem so long I’m not even sure. J
LR: Another favorite of mine is “First Date” in which your father nearly gets into a fender-bender in the parking lot, loses his temper, and then realizes that his grief is the thing that is making him angry. At the end of the poem, he is speaking honestly to the woman in the other car about his loss. How do you identify experiences (such as this one) that make for good poems? Is there an indicator that perks your ears up---something that says “here is a moment worth exploring and remembering”?
MM: Nothing of real life is in this poem except the dates of my parents’ marriage. Doesn’t make it false, to me. My father was driving regularly until 97. This one came from what could happen if my father drives and has an accident – which is what he and I had debated for years. This was a very serious matter where I felt helpless. So, to deal, I suppose, I asked what could happen if he drives and something good happens? Maybe he meets a new love? I am relieved that he is no longer driving and he never hurt or got hurt when he did.
LR: Was there a poem in here that was the most difficult to write? On the flip side, did one come easier than the rest?
MM: "What are the Odds" was likely the toughest because of the anaphora. It’s very enticing to start a poem using that technique but it can wear out fast as a whiny parrot – so keeping the poem going into hopefully fresh, engaging places was the challenge. The easiest was "Dancing with My Father at My Son’s Wedding," which I wrote on the plane back from the kids’ wedding. I was regretting that I hadn’t asked Dad to dance. He and Mom were fairytale magic on the dance floor, and she was gone and I should have thought to do what I wrote I did. So it was an act of asking for forgiveness from myself. I so wanted that grace that, at 30,000 feet, it flowed.
LR: I know a lot of people who write to process grief and pain. Oftentimes the writing is only for the self. What made you decide that this particular writing project should be for the community? How does one know what writing is for the self and what writing is to be shared?
MM: It’s about stages. We know about the stages of grief. What I’m referring to are the stages of creation and who is useful at each phase. The first moments of a poem, before a word is put down, is maybe the most critical for me. It’s all me and, woo-woo as it sounds, there is no me – only the emergence of a vibration and that is thrilling but very, very quiet. Like coming up on something unexpectedly beautiful that could disappear if it sensed your presence. Then there’s the following of the scent, the shape, like a ghost butterfly (Ugh, this is sounding too poetic – feel free to cut). I am present for that, tracking and taking down the words, listening for the form, shape – still, that’s just me and the poem. Then there is the editing where often others, as you ask about, come to mind. I might call on a particular poet I think might help me bring forth the poem – imagine Larkin as a midwife. Then there’s the finer tuning that deals with waiting to see if this is fool’s gold or something’s really living there. During that time I start hearing who this poem is also for, besides me. I will share it with my few readers. Many times, I never get to this stage. If I like the poem, I’ll submit it without a clear vision of who might read or care for it.
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Any new projects on the horizon?
MM: Well, we have our first grandbaby – so everything’s up in the goofy air! I’d like to create a full length further exploring the subject of dementia and how it affects the family. I have enough of those poems that work different angles and voices and perspectives to make a worthy book, I believe. I also have been writing and publishing poems about walking the Camino de Santiago with my children. And these oddities keep appearing about the hysterical nature and somberness of human existence. I’m excited about those – they have a Buddhist bow with a buzz of electricity.
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. VISITING HER IN QUEENS IS MORE ENLIGHTENING THAN A MONTH IN A MONASTERY IN TIBET is a lovely book.
MM: Great questions! I learned from them. Thank you, Luke!
Michael Mark has walked the Himalayas, Wales, Portugal, and Spain with his two children. He’s the author of two collections of stories, Toba and Toba at the Hands of a Thief (Atheneum). He follows his wife, Lois, a travel writer, around the world but can always be found in Queens in his head.