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Sunday, April 15, 2012

mini-interview: jory m. mickelson

Photo by Melissa Hartley, University of Idaho

In this mini-interview I talk to Jory M. Mickelson about his first chapbook: Slow Depth. Enjoy!

In "Elk Woman Comes Singing" the speaker and an elk cross paths. The speaker can see "each brindled hair," which so startles him he steps away "from the surprise of it." I'm curious about your relationship with the natural world. Did you grow up in a rural setting? Does the natural world still "surprise" you?

I grew up in a small town in rural Montana. There were perhaps 2,500 residents within the city limits and 400 students in my high school. At the time, my graduating class was the largest in the school’s history—a whopping 98 seniors. That is big for Montana. I knew some students who only had eight students in their senior class, forty students in their entire high school.

Even though I was a “townie”, I grew up close to nature. My father took me hiking and fishing from an early age. I spent a large portion of my childhood learning the names of the plants and animals around me, in part thanks to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge right next to town. As a child, it wasn’t unusual for me to see a deer, a muskrat, or an eagle as a child. I was lucky. The barrier between the natural world and me was about a fifteen-minute bike ride on my hand-me-down BMX.

When I first went to college, I thought I might want to be a wildlife biologist. I won a small scholarship writing about whirling disease in trout. However, I wouldn’t consider myself an amateur naturalist by any means. The natural world continues to surprise and center me. Whenever I return from a hike or trip to my partner’s family cabin, I find that I am always more at ease with myself and my thinking is clearer. How that works, I don’t know. The natural world works on the deepest parts of me, in the same way that great paintings or music may on others.

I know you adore chapbooks, Jory. Both as literary instrument and as art object. When did this fascination begin? Name some of your favorite chapbooks.

I have loved ephemera for most of my adult life, whether “How to Keep a Better Home” circa 1941, or “The Blood of the Lamb!” circa 2011. I think ephemera is captivating for its transitory and insubstantial nature—just like chapbooks. An author may publish a collection of poems that will live in a library for fifty years, but chapbooks disappear after a year or two. Only readers who really love those poets hang onto them. Otherwise, chapbooks are eventually the provenance of the garage sale and the library cast-off.

I also love chapbooks as contained pieces of art, both conceptually and in execution. Many chapbooks are small projects that may not be able to sustain themselves at the book length. A chapbook can create a miniature world for a reader, almost an extension of the suspended moment found in a single poem.

In addition, a chapbook holds a particular beauty if lovingly made. Many chapbooks I have encountered over the years are hand bound and feature small detailing that the publisher of a regular book could never afford to do. One I saw this spring in Canada, used embroidery to map out the constellations; it was stunning.

Some of my favorite chapbooks are A Classic Game of Murder by Katie Cappello (Dancing Girl Press) centered on the board game CLUE, A Commonplace Book of Pie by Kate Lebo having both prose poems and recipes, Men in Groups by Aaron Smith (Winged City Chapbooks), and on every station, someone else’s heartache by Bren Simmers (Rubber Boot Press).

"Half the Ticket's Length" begins with this epigraph from the AP: Police say the frozen body of a man found in a snowbank near the Montana town of Essex appears to have been there for months.

Did you immediately know you would write a poem after reading this language? What specifically triggered the urge to write a poem?

When I saw this story, it was a fragmentary news brief. I gathered every scrap of information I could about it for weeks. Not much else was released to the public about the man’s identity, but the snippets worked on my mind. I didn’t know this would become a poem, but it did become an obsession for me. So little was known, it allowed me to summon the details.

Many of my poems begin with obsessions. Something will begin work on me emotionally or imagistically and a few days or weeks later, it will surface in a poem. Most recently, I wondered what Dorthea Lange and Georgia O’Keeffe would have to say to one another and found myself immersed in a new poem.

You recently posted a clip of yourself reading The Old Payette Barn on YouTube. Talk about your efforts to raise awareness about the chapbook. How hard is it these days to draw attention to a chapbook?

As I said, chapbooks are a kind of ephemera. One of the big obstacles for chapbooks is that they are generally low in price and therefore impossible to sell on Big A’s website. There is no profit in it for a publisher after the Big A takes their cut. Major bookstore chains won’t touch them either. Most chapbook publishers have to sell directly from their own websites. This isolation makes it extremely difficult for a poet to get his or her work out to the public.

There is also a resistance to chapbooks from the academic world. Chapbooks aren’t considered “real” books by academia. Publishing five chapbooks doesn’t carry the same weight for a poet as a single full-length book. I am not sure this will ever change.

I sell my chapbooks when I read. If someone likes my work, it provides him or her an inexpensive way to take some of my poems home with them. I have also promoted my chapbook by sending out review copies, and through doing online interviews. Then, there is always social media: Facebook, Twitter, and the like. I will be the first to admit that it is a great deal of hustle. Such is the business end of the writing stick.

It’s unclear if I am a spokesperson for the chapbook or not, but I find myself constantly bringing them to the attention of other writers and readers of poems.

“Divination” is my favorite poem in the chapbook. The last two stanzas are beautiful and moving, but I don’t think the first stanza is necessary. Convince me, Jory, that the first stanza is an essential part of the poem.

Eduardo, in all honesty, you make a great point. Reexamining “Divination”, I think the poem could exist without the first stanza. The real movement in the poem happens in the two latter stanzas. Perhaps in another revision of that poem, that stanza will cease to be. That said, the first stanza does serve an important function within the world of the chapbook.

The first stanza of “Divination” highlights that there is a barrier between the speaker and his father. This comes up again more explicitly in the poem “Rising.” I believe the strain of the father-son dynamic is an essential layer of Slow Depth. There are all kinds of tensions coming to light in these poems for the speaker and the audience: that of the natural vs. manmade world, the idea of making a home within a region and abandoning that place, also the struggle between psychic and emotional landscapes.

I don’t know if it is within my power to convince you or anyone of the necessity of particular stanzas or even whole poems. A successful poem makes its own argument, without needing the voice of the author to prop it up. However, I do welcome feedback about my work. I’ve heard all sorts of fascinating readings of my poems from people since Slow Depth was published and I am really pleased by that. After writing and revising these poems, I have a pretty good idea of what I wanted to say with them, and I am thrilled readers find ways to identify with these poems as their own experiences. What more could a writer ask for?

Thank you for the interview and the excellent questions. It’s been a pleasure.

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