Poet Michael Wasson: From Kurt Cobain to Village Life in Japan
The Author of This American Ghost Talks to Peter Mishler
For this installment in an interview series with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Michael Wasson. Wasson is the author of This American Ghost. He is the recipient of a 2018 NACF National Artist Fellowship in Literature and The Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry from Beloit Poetry Journal. His poems appear in American Poets, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, Narrative, Bettering American Poetry, and Best New Poets. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho.
Peter Mishler: I’d like to start by asking if you’d be willing to share some moments from your childhood that resonate for you as far as how they might have contributed to or influenced your becoming a poet.
Michael Wasson: What a beautiful place to start, Peter—somewhere back toward the beginning. Before moving around a lot to and from the reservation, I remember ochre-bright mornings with my grandfather. We lived on a mountain in a yellow house that stared over the yard at the wheat field dipping into a ravine. Nights I heard the Clearwater River below echoing up towards us. We saw such clear stars almost every night that I swear my grandfather could pluck them and put them in my palm. The gravel roads were lined with apple and cherry trees. Raspberry and blackberry bushes. Brambles ribbed with cockle burrs. But it was that landscape and its wide-throated silence that gave me a bored-out space that could echo every word my grandfather spoke.
My grandfather is quite quiet. Almost severe in how he carries himself. I usually played alone, pine trees towering all around, and I’d explore and entertain myself or stare off at the sky. I think this initial plethora of given silence carved something into me. It made language textured, heavy, and charged. It reminded us of the ghosts (our graves are up in those mountains) we are to look after. It was common to hear things like coyotes cracking jokes in the field or an owl who’ing at the ghosts in the trees—this is how we described the world around us.
PM: I understand you are now living in Japan. Would you care to talk a little bit about your sense of home and your experience of traveling, and its relationship to your art?
MW: I’ve been hiding on a small island in southwestern Japan since I finished graduate school in 2014. It’s a blessing to live here. Village life. Tiny island vibe. Everybody knows everybody. Limited access to most everything. It’s wonderful. Rodney Mullen explained his creative peak was alone on a patch of concrete in a barn when his family moved to the boonies when he was in his teens. He learned about his body in relation to his craft and the vast opportunities to create by pushing himself against the quiet. He called it controlled isolation. I find something similar here.
“Back home, our stories are part of our land. The stories tell us where we are and who we are. In a way, our literature is in the landscape and in the language of our ghosts.”
But you’re spot on—my sense of home is complicated, always in flux. I’m guilty I’ve never felt wholeheartedly homesick. But I long to earn my way towards some sense of home. I just don’t know where that is. When I imagine my grandfather’s house, there are doors upon doors leading to forests and winters, faces in portraits of family who’ve outgrown me, my fingerprints erased from the walls. Perhaps for the better. In a sense, it’s as though I’ve been running farther away only to find my way back again—whatever that might mean. But this all gives me a double view when my writing lurches toward that house, that land I’ve disappeared from, those mountains that span the inside of my skull like wallpaper: one of cold collective distance, and one of warm comfort and touch.
PM: Could you talk a little bit about this “carving into” or “boring out you” mention and its relationship to when you started to make poems and/or your process of composition now?
MW: Post-grad school, when I was rutted in relentless, dull poems, I kept telling myself, Keep waiting. Listen for the ghosts to speak. Silence is a necessary space not simply for the quiet, as if to subdue the noise of our lives, but of opportunity. I’ve always tried to listen more than I could ever speak. I tend to start with the survivable fragments I discover by being an opened vessel. I don’t know. As someone carved of silences, I came to understand that patience is a slow light that has always helped to open myself up to discovery.
PM: Could you share a little bit about your process or rituals or routines of writing?
MW: I can share some of my quirks, sure. I write in my notebook at an angle. And when I work on putting the handwritten into a document, my little Mac is always at an angle. I’ve never been good at keeping order of my notes, too. I always take a break to stare out a window. That comforts me. Also, the writing is most forgettable when I try to conjure it, force it to grow. I end up drowning it. The writing that stays and stares back—that comes from those unexpected discoveries, when I’m slower to touch it, when I lose myself for several hours, when my tea gets cold and the clock goes blank. Don’t be afraid to surrender yourself to the undertow of language. It’s really saying, I love you. Trust me.
PM: Could you talk about your experience of starting to make poems? Do you recognize anything that has remained consistent, however small, starting with your earliest work until now?
MW: Oh, my gosh. I’ve always liked to write little vignettes and notes in margins. As a teenager, I wasn’t good at thinking linearly. But I remember I found an old red spiral-bound notebook when I was about 13 or 14, and I started to just write little notes, quotes, and lyrics from songs. Often those little scattered strands of language would lead me somewhere outside of myself. Or closer inside myself. I’d listen to a lot of Nirvana, Sabbath, Doors, Jimi, Janis, and Queen, etc., and I would write one or two influenced lines here and there. Those turned to silly terrible poems. But they turned to unexpected roads.
The one thread is always the joy of sudden image—that iridescent flash—and language. Back then being way confused, I gravitated to Nirvana or Jimi (also, I’m left-handed). I saw gut instinct, sketches in journals, and lyrical juxtapositions. Kurt drew anatomy and turtles. I loved “Drain You.” In it, there is a baby speaking unabashedly to another baby about gratitude. As if saying, I’m so glad I was alive to meet you. Or in Hendrix’s “1983… A Merman I Should Turn To Be,” there are images of war, nature, love, and rebirth. These unique images carried me through. They gave me hope. A lifeboat. A safety valve when the world seemed too much.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
MW: The strangest thing for me about poetry is the line. The line as an agent of friction, of tension, of something that takes and gives life to the poem’s momentum. It’s almost as if the line gives us the power to totally erase everything we knew before or totally propel us forward—to resurrect and breathe energy into some forward motion. It’s strange because the line on the page can be read in so many different ways. For instance, I’ve reread Crush by Richard Siken many times, but once I heard him read aloud, it all changed again. The relationship between sight on the page and the uniqueness of our breaths alters the pace and emotion in the line. That is a real gift in poetry. A real strangeness in decision-making when we figure, how might this line break or collapse? How might this line move forward? Where is this line headed? Where am I?
PM: A few of the poems in the collection begin with “&.” Although this gesture has its tradition as a way of situating the narrative of a poem in the middle of things, I wonder if you can imagine or articulate what you think exists prior to these poems?
MW: I have notes of fractured language, things I hear or read, or little lines that echo in my head, and I wonder if these poems find their ignition in the flash between those notes and the image that starts to take on flesh and color. I often think of poems as a palpitation to carry on from something—some image or sound or flash felt in the body. The “&” is the smallest vertebra connecting one moment to another. It’s the nub of the umbilical cord. In all honesty, every poem has its ghosts. An “&” is between looking and looking away. These poems are trying to gather themselves from what they ended up facing—exile, loss, terror, and the realm of all the figures who came before to move the poems into their own directions. What exists before is an important question for every poem. Thank you for that reminder, Peter.
PM: To what extent are your poems spaces where you can interact with certain figures and subjects with whom you couldn’t otherwise interact within your lived experience now? Or do you more often see your poems as addresses that can be spoken to, for, and about your lived experience? What do you as a poet tend to lean toward or favor of these two artistic gestures?
“The writing is most forgettable when I try to conjure it, force it to grow. I end up drowning it.”
MW: A poem can be a space to carry figures on your back into. Figures of the dead. Figures of the living. Figures lost or erased. It’s a clearing to resurrect what was thought extinct or never there. A poem says píips, and it could be a single bone on the page. As soon as I give píips that space, some Ezekiel-like things could happen. Poems may be a chance to say, yes, yes, these bones can live. Treat that space with gentle urgency. It’s terrifying—to be face-to-face with those ghosts and loved ones. Sometimes they don’t speak your language. But even so, the page is there to carve out that one eyehole from the imaginative into the possible. To bring them into your breath and breathe. The light and dark into the flesh. I lean toward this—this entering back to flesh from light and dark.
PM: Could you talk about the relationship between nimipuutímt stories and your poems?
MW: nimipuutímt titwáatit (stories) are some of the most fundamental aspects of my life not only as a writer but also as an nimíipuu person. Without them, without their language, without their strangenesses and imagery, without their continued breathing, who am I anymore? I’m so glad you asked this question, Peter. Back home, our stories are part of our land. The stories tell us where we are and who we are. In a way, our literature is in the landscape and in the language of our ghosts. My creation is inside these stories. My body is a result of ‘iceyéeye washing monster’s blood from his hands by the river and saying these will be the nimíipuu people. I now realize my little poems might act as washing the blood from the hands and then creating—giving body to something emerging out (another name for nimíipuu is cúupn’itpel’uu, meaning “the emerging out people”).
PM: In one of your poems’ epigraphs, you present a recollection from a Nez Perce elder who was told not to use his native language at a boarding school in the 1920s, indicating—I think—the erosion of nimipuutímt, and this made me wonder about how you see yourself as a poet in relation to that recollection.
MW: That poem, “The Exile,” started in one of those flashes after reading about boarding school experiences from my tribe—I whispered to myself kál’a sáw (just in sudden silence), which became the first few lines. In graduate school, my friend, writer Afsheen Farhadi, and I were slated on the same reading showcase. He said that we should say something about why we write before we read. I’m super shy, so I was afraid, but before going up to read, I finally thought about my reason. I looked at everyone, mumbled a bit, and said, I write because all my storytellers are dead. Of course, we have storytellers back home. But it was a lament, that statement, for a time before getting language and worldview struck from our bodies, before the assimilation of the mind. Afsheen helped me realize then how urgent the indigenous body can be. How beautiful and heavy this living can be in this skin and skeleton.
PM: Could you talk about your experience of writing poems into which you’ve incorporated both English and nimipuutímt? What has been a significant experience for you in crafting this work?
MW: It’s a visceral experience. I remember particular words from nimipuutímt as they suddenly blossom out—like cracks in concrete. But especially onomatopoetic words—like in the book I use c’álalal c’álalal or sáw sáw because of their relationship to story. Take for example, sáw. In the story “kiyéewkiyew/katydid,” to repeat sáw several times (sáw sáw sáw) means the chorus of the katydids. It’s a collective, pulsating sound of all the katydids in the forest singing in unison. It almost means: I am not alone. I am surrounded by other katydids as we harmoniously call out “sáw sáw sáw.” But when we say sáw once, it means loneliness, a disappearance, a vanishing away. It means something isn’t there. It means silence.
In the story, the old woman who suddenly turns into a katydid and leaps away into the forest can’t pronounce sáw sáw sáw with the other katydids that are among the branches surrounding her. Suddenly, the chorus quiets, with a single sáw, and the old woman tries to call out but instead says c’álalal c’álalal, which translates eerily to “the sound of the lone katydid.” It’s a story-specific piece of language. It’s her own exiled loneliness. She continues trying to sing and call out and ends up dying via bottomless singing and “not catching up/harmonizing” to the chorus. It’s gorgeous, haunting, and important to understand the difference of one sáw from saying sáw in succession.
For a long time, I didn’t have the confidence or the mapping of a way towards incorporating nimipuutímt. But Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning and Sherwin Bitsui’s poems were very important guides to understanding how I might keep those little blossoms on the page. For some, it’s mysterious. Others, it could be a hindrance—like I’m hiding something away. But for me, it’s how my lexicon was shaped growing up and learning from my elders. It’s the most charged and electric version of a ghost’s vibration inside a lexicon my body carries. It’s a history that I’m to hold, and when it emerges to let others experience its presence, I let it live.