After twenty-five years of publishing its print journal, Conduit Books & Ephemera launched a book publishing division in 2018. It did so with two book prizes for poetry: the Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize, judged by Bob Hicok, and the Minds On Fire Open Book Prize, judged by Conduit’s editorial board. In the following piece, the authors of the winning books, Michelle Lewis (for Animul/Flame, $16) and Jeffrey Morgan (for The Last Note Becomes Its Listener, $16), interview each other about the unique experiences that shaped their books and the challenges of translating inexpressible moments into language.
Michelle Lewis: Hi Jeff. First, a belated congratulations on winning the Minds On Fire Open Book Prize. I am thrilled about The Last Note Becomes Its Listener. It has given me enormous pleasure to read, and it has made me aware that you are a careful and immensely competent poem-maker. It is also a book that dives headlong into a certain kind of beauty (such a difficult word for a poet) that I am always chasing. I am so pleased to be your press-mate; it enhances my profile, among other things.
Jeffrey Morgan: Hi Michelle. Congratulations to you for an amazing book and for winning the Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize. Bob Hicok is a poetry hero of mine, so knowing he chose Animul/Flame predisposed me to an affection for it, which reading it only enhanced. The opacity that rewards, the traveling and returning, the running away and towards; I was transfixed and read it straight through quickly the first time. Like most good books, subsequently reading it again more slowly revealed myriad pleasures and intricacies of language, loss, and mystery.
ML: I appreciate the kind words. As for The Last Note Becomes Its Listener, as the title puts forth, this book is very much like a note resolving, and I realized as I was reading it that there is an integration being fought for within these poems. There are many opposing forces at play—illness and remedy, brother and brother, calmness and chaos, player and listener, among others. There is also a sense that the book is sipping from the well of the surreal, which occurs to me has been described as a “machine for integration” for how it places diverse elements in concert. We’ve talked a little offline about voice and tone in our work and it’s no accident that tone, a poetic concept that derives from music, is one of the driving forces of these poems as the poet struggles to find harmony among inimical elements. As that struggle becomes apparent to the reader, there is a surge of both joy and disquiet. I wonder if you could tell me what your musical heritage is and what dualisms you felt you were balancing in this book?
JM: Thanks for your thoughtful question. My brother and I grew up playing music. I play the cello and my brother is a violinist. Our mother is a violist and started us on instruments when we were both four. I learned to play music before I could read it (and before I could read anything, really), and I think that has informed my relationship to sound in poetry. The music of language is very important to me, but I also find that the kind of taut, dense syntax that I often enjoy in other people’s verse is not something I practice. I like to write in long lines and long phrasings, and I sort of shy away from pre-determined meters and syllabic compression.
In terms of the book’s dualisms, as you say, there’s the notion that I’m writing about my disabled brother coming to live with us (my wife, our daughter, and me), but, no, I’m really writing about myself. When my brother got encephalitis at eleven, he almost died. After he recovered, he was not the same person. Prior to that, we were remarkably similar, even from a physical perspective—to this day people often ask us if we’re twins, despite the fact that I’m almost seven years older. Music saved my brother because it was one of the only parts of his brain that wasn’t especially affected by his illness, brain scarring, and subsequent epilepsy. Being a violinist is a fundamental part of his identity. It’s also perhaps the only way we relate to each other that is more or less the same as it has always been. All the other dualisms that you mention (and certainly more) stem from there.
The other aspect of this worth mentioning is that my brother has very little short-term memory. If you’ve ever seen Christopher Nolan’s Memento, my brother is a bit like that. He’s often unable to access short-term memories due to scarring on his hippocampus. However, through repetition (as with music) he can turn short-term memory into long-term memory and access it. It’s an interesting situation to say the least, and some of the fundamental obsessions of a writer, memory and identity, are daily practical questions in our household.
ML: What a fascinating backstory to this book and to what informs your daily life, Jeff. Your poetic line and its relationship to music gives me the opportunity to mention how much I admire the formal aspects of your work: the phrasing, the avoidance of compression. The beginning of one of the “Translation” poems, for example, begins with a complex sentence structure, heavy with clauses:
What I love about St. Sebastian is not the colander
the arrows made of his body,
or how he is always shown riddled and tied
to a column, which I should be able to identify
as Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian—
possibly the most pedantic and predictable question
on any art history exam. No. What I love about St. Sebastian . . .
It’s very Shakespearean, and I don’t want to start up that comparison (will an alarm sound), but I keep thinking of the tautology of Polonius’ speeches, for example, and how they are knowing and witty and push seemingly too far on a concept and how that is an important part of his expression. I guess I mention that because as you allude to, that can be wanting in more disciplined forms.
On another note, I have some understanding of what it takes to have a person who has significant challenges in the family and I know that part of that experience is living simultaneously with the ridiculous and the heartbreaking. I see so much of this in your work. The speaker has an acute knowledge that he is a speck on a spinning rock, a natural defense mechanism to pain and chaos, and joins forces with the reader in the wonder of that. It makes so much sense that you would come by this quality honestly. I’m thinking of how these poems grapple with meaning in real time—is that tree a poplar or not (an interjection in one of your poems)? It creates the sense of a joint venture. It is very communal, very inside. For instance, when the speaker observes a breeze that “moves the glistening mane of a willow like jewels around the neck of a woman nodding off,” the joy of that metaphor is in its being stretched. It’s wise and cagey and knowing. I see the affinity with Hicok immediately, a poet that is similarly self-aware, whose poems address ordinary life but end up inevitably touching the sky.
JM: I’m very interested in voice in poetry. I think that accounts for the long lines and my resisting of compression in The Last Note Becomes Its Listener—I’m a long-winded guy. Of course, the voice is more stylized and philosophical than my own. I like the notion of soliloquy that you imply; I think that’s often what I’m trying to do when I write.
In terms of Animul/Flame, it strikes me that the book is at times almost an epistolary, one side of a conversation about loss that is sometimes direct address, sometimes not. There’s a quality of eavesdropping that I love because what’s true about good poems is their ability to precisely describe the unknowable. I’m wondering what you can tell me about the opacity and the rewards of the speaker’s shifting conversation. How did writing this book reveal itself to you, and how did you manage to make such a fractured thing cohere so well? I’m a bit in awe of the balance this book achieves.
ML: I’m glad you found there was an internal coherence to the book. You bring up some things that I struggled with a lot—like why Rivulet poems were alongside the Animul poems, for instance, and what some poems in the chronology had to do with the others. I knew intuitively what the connective tissue was, but to make those teeth sort of interlock for the reader meant doing some difficult work, some of which was external and some internal. Sometimes it meant making some clear assertions about those connections that were uncomfortable to make. Prior to this book, I had been giving myself a lot of linguistic escape hatches so I didn’t have to commit to a single truth—you could see it in my metaphors, even, which would often have two vehicles for one tenor. With some help and anguish, I got to a point where the opacity you mention was not obscurity—I can defend any line in the book, for example, which is significant for me.
Thinking of the book as an epistolary where sometimes there is someone on the other end and sometimes not seems like a very lovely way to think about the poems. It strikes me that returning over and over to that form of address was one way of plugging one of those escape hatches—something real must be expressed if you’re going to the lengths to put pen to paper and address some other.
It’s interesting you mention this sort of tensile strength that holds a book together and how to negotiate that balance—how much can that connective tissue be stretched until it feels light and airy enough to fit one’s sensibility but doesn’t shatter into pieces? It feels very related to the tension I sense in how you balance dualities in The Last Note Becomes Its Listener.
JM: I wonder if you might also talk about voice in your own work. The speaker in Animul/Flame has a self-awareness, almost as if trying to piece together a telling. In the title poem, you write:
I was Flame, a fig wasp hunched in her own
sky. Sunrise tasted of red gums and spittle.
I stood at the bars of night, kneed
the floor, thought that would dismantle it.
Like the recitation of a lot of good stories, there is a tension between trying to make the thing cohere and trying to relay its wildness. The good ones don’t quite obey the storyteller. The pronoun “it” weighs heavy there, perhaps a placeholder for what is not quite knowable or expressible that exists at the center of this story. How do you see the speaker and the speaking in this book, particularly in terms of what is ultimately inexpressible?
ML: I like “piece together a telling”—that summarizes the book accurately to me! The “I” has a journey in this book. I enjoyed playing with the idea of who the “I” is and what the “I’s” identity is, and then questioning that. The “I” is often labeled with being Flame, for example, and there are many characteristics about a flame you can choose from: it’s changeable, susceptible to currents, extinguishable, easily lost or subsumed. But I like to think that there is a reclaiming of the connotations of this label for this “I.” Things like persistence, of being a source, etc. Also, the “I” has truths that change, and I love that about poetry—that it allows the poet to make assertions and commit to them in the isolated moment of the poem.
The idea about speaking the inexpressible is something I was thinking about recently because I just took the Myers-Briggs personality test and found I was an INTJ. It was a little surprising that this is not the type associated with the poet/philosopher career path until I realized that is a fundamental misunderstanding of poetry making—that it is someone engaged in dreamily watching a butterfly. It is much more mathematical than that. The poet is dealing with formal concerns, the intersection of meter, lineation, tone—a lot of data; it’s perfect for data-brain. Anyway, to your point, one of the traits of that the INTJ is that they have trouble explaining concepts to people because they feel like if you can’t brain-meld with me on this concept, forget it, I can’t explain it to you in language. So they shut down, sometimes making communication difficult. That really struck me as a characteristic of mine, and I think that’s what writing poetry can be for me and probably many poets. It’s the result of a desire to zap a current through that complex, fraught, difficult stuff to create a more effective route to expression, one with different rules that will get your closer than the old rules can. Non-poetry readers find this kind of poetry confusing, whereas readers of contemporary poetry sink into it and get a flush of understanding.
In fact, I suspect one of the techniques you’re using to this end in your book is the “Translation” poems. There are thirteen poems titled “Translation.” In them, the poet serves as a type of portal to the ineffable or the misunderstood, or as a broker between the terrestrial world and a world beyond that. But some poems are the inverse, as well, where the poem can be a decoder ring for overwhelming, languageless moments. I love that this “translation” moves fluidly across this sort of blood-brain barrier. It provides such gorgeous, existential moments. What was your intention for these poems? What indicated to you that a poem was destined to be a “Translation” poem?
JM: Hmm, I don’t know what the Myers-Briggs personality test would have to say about a person who didn’t even know there were thirteen of the “Translation” poems in his book, but that’s me apparently. It now makes me think of them in a “thirteen ways of looking” sort of way. Despite my ignorance, I do actually have a theory/methodology for what became a “Translation.” I think of them as me retelling a memory through the lens of that memory’s questionable veracity (because all memory is sketchier than we like to admit), while at the same time acknowledging the memory’s importance in contributing to self-identity. In other words, the “Translation” poems are me puzzling through how I think about complicated aspects of memory and identity. Often they involve/star my brother, but they are not about him as I see it. Rather, they are about me trying to figure out a little bit of who I am. “Translation” as a title was something that came to me as a shorthand for all these things. Within the “Translation” poems I was also able to provide a narrative spine for the book as they function more or less chronologically (with some asides in there for good measure).
All of this reminds me that I want to ask about your “first book process.” First books are this thing that people always talk about in poetryland. Did you think of Animul/Flame in terms of it being a first book, or does that sort of thinking not enter into it? And as a follow up question, do you think of your poetry writing to come differently in the wake of this publication milestone? Do you have the urge to keep writing as you always have, or do you feel the urge to do something “different”? I’m very interested in these questions as I struggle with versions of them myself.
ML: I’m so glad to hear that about the “Translation” poems (you have an undiagnosed triskaidekamania!) and to now read those poems with this in mind. There is something so freeing about this idea of course correcting a memory—Emerson says, “Poets are liberating gods,” and these feel liberating. I can see that wonderful uncertainty, the recalibration, and the digressions that open up to questions. You write, “Thank goodness // for the very dark beers // that pour like night, smell of coal smoke // and once inside us smolder, the process // like a fire in reverse.” Thank goodness indeed!
To your question, at the point of writing Animul/Flame (I had no indication this would be a first book, nor that any of these poems would be published—this has all been a crazy dream for me), I very much felt I was disconnected—also released—from any kind of literary establishment or community; it was sort of like I was putting in the time, why not do it my way, I have nothing to lose. I let go of some of the old workshops saws I was steeped in for decades, stop wondering who might read these poems and what they would think. Then it materialized, and it certainly wasn’t a book until it was—slowly at first, and then all at once, I suppose. Then it had a life of its own. I have recently completed a new book that digs into some topics of class and family that feels similarly dangerous but in a different way, and it’s actually lyric prose with research woven in, so I guess, yes, I did have the urge to do something poetically different! The desire to leave the Animul/Flame characters behind at least in the forms they were in was very powerful.
Tell me about this in terms of your struggle, as you mention. I will say that I read Crying Shame, which came out from BlazeVox in 2011, with delight. That book has this most recent book’s DNA for sure. It also feels very much to me like The Last Note Becomes Its Listener took some of the pulp of Crying Shame and just wrung it out. The Last Note Becomes Its Listener is a very realized version of Crying Shame, I might argue. I can only admire and hope for a publishing trajectory like this, though I don’t know if that’s how you feel about it, especially in terms of what you are doing now.
JM: I’m sort of happily “project-less” at the moment. Both Crying Shame and The Last Note Becomes Its Listener just came from writing a lot of poems before understanding there was a direction. I’m generally more interested in writing a poem than writing a book of poetry, at least for a time. I do like writing personae poems. They can be a little risky in terms of subjectivity, who gets to speak for whom, etc., but I write them anyway, and there’s more or less a pile of them sitting around at this point. What’s recently been hard for me is getting out of writing “Translations” as a mode/process. I had the same problem with continuing to write letter poems after Crying Shame was published. I’m not sure why I should stop, but it feels like time to do something else. Probably it doesn’t matter. The poetry changes but the obsessions stay the same.
Your new manuscript sounds really interesting. Lyric prose with research, issues of class, etc. That sounds like it might be sympathetic with work by Mark Nowak, Brenda Coultas, C.S. Giscombe, and Alice Notley—four of my favorite writers. I’d love to hear more about that if you wouldn’t mind expounding a bit.
ML: Yes, you’re on my wavelength there, but I need to dive in to C.S. Giscombe, so thanks for that. The form for Spare, this new book, came in part from reading Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine; C.D. Wright was also a huge influence. It’s something I’m very excited about; it attempts to explore issues surrounding class and marginalized populations, as I mentioned, and struggles with personal/social accountability through the prism of my own slice of the world. There are formally diverse sections that layer and create a momentum that I hope works to speak to these complex themes in a way straight language that we have at our disposal cannot, to sort of bring it back to our initial discussion. I’m licking the envelope to send it to you right now—kidding! I know we have to wrap, but were there particular writers hanging over your shoulder when you wrote your book, or are there now, maybe more so now that you are not mono focused on a book project?
JM: Please, send me the manuscript! I would love to read it. Hmm, how to answer the anxiety of influence question. I think the honest answer to this question and the answer I want to give are slightly different, so I’m struggling with that. I’ll go with the truth. I’m currently most influenced/delighted by writers who have a persuasive voice in their work. Bob Hicok (who wisely chose your book for publication), Alice Notley, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Erica Hunt, and John Ashbery all come immediately to mind. But also, if I’m being honest, I tend to fall in love with individual poems. At the moment, my favorite John Ashbery poem is “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.” It’s a silly poem that is also profound. I want to write poems like that, but if that’s not possible I just want to write poems.
ML: I want that for you and for the rest of us who can read them, Jeff! What a perfect way to end our conversation. I’m so pleased to have had the chance to learn more about your book and life. Congratulations again on this well-deserved prize.
JM: Congratulations to you too, Michelle. Animul/Flame is a fantastic debut! It’s such a pleasure to be your press-mate.