A Lot of My ‘Process’ is Just Mucking About
Poet Ange Mlinko in Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installment of an interview series with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Ange Mlinko. Mlinko is the author of several critically acclaimed books of poetry, including Shoulder Season, which was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award, and Starred Wire, a National Poetry Series pick and finalist for the James Laughlin Award. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Randall Jarrell Award for Criticism, and served as Poetry Editor for The Nation. Her essays and reviews have been published in The Nation, The London Review of Books, Poetry, and Parnassus. Educated at St. John’s College and Brown University, she has lived abroad in Morocco and Lebanon, and is currently Associate Professor of English at the University of Florida. She lives in Gainesville.
Her newest collection Distant Mandate is out in paperback from FSG on July 24th.
Peter Mishler: Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing as it relates to your development as a writer?
Ange Mlinko: I grew up in and around Philadelphia. My parents had come to the US with their parents not many years before I was born, so my early upbringing was a bit insular, and that insularity was bred by language barriers. The extended family was a little gated community, and yet even within it there were languages that weren’t mutually understood. My father’s family was from Hungary, my mother’s from Belorussia, and they all had passed through Brazil after the Second World War, so intra-family communication happened in Portuguese, and they spoke their hearth language amongst themselves. I understood very little. I had to manage meanings through tone, as Robert Frost says voices through walls carry meanings even when you can’t quite hear the words. I watched my grandfather assiduously perfect his English by underlining words he didn’t know in his religious reading of Newsweek magazine. He’d keep lists of words in a pocket notebook, then look them up in his dictionary. He was a great model of diligence.
And then my mother had some pride about this entity called “Russian literature,” so I did the reading very early on—Chekhov at eleven, say, and War and Peace by fifteen. I always had a sense of history and otherness and the absolute importance of the literary.
PM: Could you say more about your upbringing as it relates specifically to writing poems?
AM: I’m probably just drawn to difficult things. I liked “solving” a stanza or resolving it from lines back into sentences, fragments back into wholes. There’s something mathematical about poetry—Pound and Frost point to this—that make it more beautiful, potentially, than any prose. So, drawn to both difficulty and beauty, what else could I do? I was a teenager when I started reading Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Plath—no doubt being an adolescent, with all those over-exercised emotions, had something to do with it.
PM: I read in the notes for your newest collection Distant Mandate that the poem “Epic” is indebted to a mathematical concept. Would you be willing to share your experience with writing this poem in the context of that concept, forbidden symmetry?
AM: Yes, it really strikes at the heart of the book, hence the title, “Distant Mandate,” after the chapter in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below which turns around a description of the Alhambra. It’s there that I first read about the Arab geometers’ discovery of “forbidden symmetry,” a pattern of asymmetry which works out mathematically but was thought never to occur in nature. Illustrations of it can be found in Islamic tile.
I could not have seized on this concept if I hadn’t, myself, gone to the Alhambra and experienced exactly what the narrator in that story experiences—an existential vertigo, probably caused by all this infinite patterning. There is no beginning to it, and no end, and this relates to the idea of a “distant mandate” for the palace which is lost to time. No one really knows what the palace is for or how it came about. I was obsessed with that story.
And then when I was writing the poem a few years ago, I was living alone in Brooklyn for a few weeks and began noticing the patterns of hexagons in the pavement and even in ceilings. I was in some emotional distress, and my solitude was such that the cityscape became hallucinogenic, and Brooklyn became a stand-in for the Alhambra—full of potential hidden geometries. Of course, the stanza became a stand-in for tiles, the poem a stand-in for a geometric architecture. So the stanza can be said to harbor forbidden symmetries—likewise an artifice not found in “nature.”
The poem is also underlain by the Cupid and Psyche myth, and is in part an homage to Merrill’s Psyche in “Under the Cupola.” The “forbidden geometry” is then related to the concept of forbidden love. So there’s a clandestine relationship both erotic and mathematical, one mirroring the other.
PM: Your poems are often influenced by other artists’ work in ways that range from glancing—the influence of another writer’s line or gesture—to something larger. What do you know to be true about the art and experience of reading from the perspective of a poet?
AM: Reading is absolutely vital. It’s simply naive to think that any good writing is sui generis. The connection between poiesis and imitation goes back to Aristotle, and poets throughout history have raided the same hoard of myths and stories. One ideally weaves oneself into a larger tapestry (textile = text). I’m at the point of actually believing there’s no poetry that is not tangential to Ovid’s Metamorphoses! You start out believing that poetry is either self-expression or memoir (not to denigrate personal experience—our individual lives are of monumental importance to each of us). But gradually you end up knowing that the great texts issue from a larger, deeper, more communal body of—well, “knowledge” is a puny word to describe it. It’s a kind of transpersonal experience. And you can’t get there without a slow, laborious, time-consuming effort of reading and re-reading. It’s the re-reading that has mattered most to me—realizing that things I read in school 20 or 30 years ago are only now making sense to me.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
AM: That when you are writing within constraints, the poem writes itself.
PM: Could you talk about some of the constraints that perhaps helped generate the poems of Distant Mandate?
AM: Writing stanzaically, of course; writing sonnets; writing that (I think) Icelandic couplet form that Auden imported, where the rhyme happens in the penultimate syllable (“Dentro de la Tormenta”). My sense of metrics (and rhyme) is rather loose, but that’s just Modernist vers libre; you see it in contemporary British and Irish verse too. In fact, I probably gave over completely to rhyme about ten years ago when I read Paul Muldoon’s Moy Sand and Gravel; aha, I thought, it’s possible after all. It taught me that rhyme is an engine, an impersonal self-driving mechanism deep in the language, that I could learn to manage and adapt to my own ends.
PM: What is the truest observation you can make about rhyme as a phenomenon experienced by a reader?
AM: As a reader, I’m always struck by how easily I’m carried along by it, and how little I care whether it’s easy or “ornamental” in the ways that practitioners worry about. For instance: I took my eleven-year-old son to Sea World, and we stumbled upon a Christmas play in verse, starring two sea lions, a mischievous otter, and an enormous pink walrus. The rhyming and punning were totally corny and groan-y, but it was all in good fun, and it wouldn’t have been half as entertaining without the language play. There’s an inherent comedy in rhyme that calls attention to words as things, just as in comedy persons become funnier when they are confused with things—things that bounce and fall and knock about. By definition, it can’t be rule-bound.
PM: What about from the perspective of a poet who is creating rhyme?
AM: From the point of view of a poet, I’m always trying to balance conspicuousness and invisibility—I love anagrams and sight rhymes, I love using a sight rhyme and then embedding a perfect rhyme in a surprising place. I love a witty, Byronic rhyme much more than an orthodox rhyme. I let the rhyme have its way with me, because a more interesting stanza will come about that way, one I could never have planned with my rational brain. I believe in pattern, if nothing else, as an antidote to garrulousness.
PM: Do you collect the various language that appears in your poems in a sort of personal lexicon, prior to drafting poems? And does your use of such various levels of diction emerge through play, or through precise, conscious selection in the process of drafting poems?
AM: I find this a hard question to answer, because I still find my own process mysterious, and partly just uninteresting—I think perhaps process is overrated.
PM: Do you mean overrated in the sense that it’s limiting to articulate something that’s perhaps meant to remain mysterious?
AM: I don’t mean to tout “mystery” here. But perhaps I think that a great deal of process is just mucking around while you’re waiting for the rogue wave that brings everything to bear all at once, and which is impossible to generate at will. But if I were to say what underlies my process, regardless of the diction/lexicon/stanza organization, it would be the desire to please an interlocutor, so the gambit would usually involve something funny, punny, surprising, or catchy. Just as in conversation, really. And I do collect words and rhymes, yes. I make lists of them and then they amount to nothing. I can’t write down “candles/endless” and then expect that that will generate a poem. I will, however, be deep in a stanza and staring at the word “candles” and then think of a phrase that ends with “endless.” The lexicon is never the skeleton for a poem—experience is.