Writer in the Spotlight
2010 Winter 2011
Seth Michelson lives in Los Angeles. He holds degrees in poetry from Johns Hopkins University and Sarah Lawrence College, and a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from USC, where he is currently pursuing a PhD by reading poetry in relation to political violence in Latin America, the US, and Spain. He also runs the Fringe Poets Reading Series. His English translation of the internationally acclaimed book of poetry El ghetto, by the Argentine poet Tamara Kamenszain, is forthcoming in 2011.
Seth, you had I have been friends for less than two years, but it seems like we've known each other forever! I met you when we worked on House in a Hurricane, but you have two other chaps: Maestro of Brutal Splendor (Jeanne Duval Editions, 2005) and Kaddish for my Unborn Son (Pudding House Chapbook Series, 2009.)
Hi, Robin. First, thanks for inviting me to this interview. Itís a special pleasure for me as youíre right: We were instant pals! Poetry can do that sometimes.
Well, good poetry Ė like yours! I have a habit of assuming that most first person poetry is autobiographical. Is that the case with yours?
It certainly can be. A part of my obsession with poetic form, and especially its structuring of sounds and rhythms, involves its use to explore baffling, astonishing, and/or inarticulable experiences in my life, which I do write about in first-person at times.
But Iíd also like to add that I think all autobiography is fictive in that itís always already selected, edited, reductive, falsely coherent and legibleÖ.. So, in short, I like your question a lot. Autobiography is a troubled category for me, and I very much enjoy thinking about it, both in relation to my own work and, more interestingly, that of others.
Did the accident you described in ďThe Daily GrindĒ really happen?
Unfortunately for the victim, it did. I was rushing down the road, late for work, and BOOM! It was very sad, very sudden and disturbing. And that death, like others Iíve witnessed—an unhelmeted motorcyclist with a crushed skull, a convenience store clerk shot in the gut—remains emblazoned lucidly in my memory. And those deaths often reappear unexpectedly at the most inopportune moments in my day, not to mention at night, agitating my dreams and disturbing me out of sleep, and, of course, surfacing in too many poems of mine.
You're a master at capturing the deepest emotions, that's for sure. Maestro and Kaddish were so sorrowful; there is so much sadness here, and what I felt was an early wisdom... I mean, let's face, it you were just a kid in '05 when Maestro came out, and yet your writing is so mature and already has a ďseen it allĒ vibe.
Well, thanks for reading the books so closely, especially with all of the sadness. And I hope thereís some beauty, some encouragement, in there, too. As Taha Muhammad Ali wrote, ďart is worthless / unless it plants / a measure of splendor in peopleís hearts,Ē and I think thatís mostly true, even if the splendor originates in extreme grief or violence or terror.
And Iím certainly flattered that you see a kind of ďwisdomĒ in there, although I might balk at that noun myself, and not out of a sense of feigned humility but out of intimidation! (Laughing) Seriously, though, I appreciate your comment, and I hope that the exploration of sadness yields a sort of discovery of beauty amidst destruction, of a burning radiance in human resilience.
And, to try to get at an answer to your question, I think that aspect of my work is born partly of my congenital hip disease, which attuned me as a young child to the ways that the body can fail from within, die, and crumble into itself, leaving little more than pain and evacuated space, which itís up to us to reinvest with meaning.
I'm sure you're right... over at my chapbook publishing company Big Table, I've had quite a few clients who wrote out of a wisdom earned from physical issues. As you say, you can choose to feel sorry for yourself, or ďreinvest with meaning.Ē I like that!
Well, in concert with that, perhaps another factor in that ďvibeĒ might derive from me being extremely fortunate to have lived in many amazing places around the world, including Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, New York City, Baltimore, Helsinki, Sydney, MontevideoÖ.
And a third aspect of what youíre sensing might come from the many different jobs Iíve worked. They range, for example, from teaching in fancy colleges to cleaning public restrooms to being a bouncer in a bar to editing books to driving limos, which I especially loved for paying me to read in an air-conditioned car with cushy leather seats while waiting for clients to reemerge from meetings! (Laughing)
Yeah, tough gig! Now, the book we worked on, House in a Hurricane, struck me as more ironic, at times amusing—a sense of having achieved the ability to grieve with humor.
Oh, I wish! (Laughing) Sometimes I feel like I canít manage to find even the tiniest crumb of the humor that I could so desperately use to get me by. So I appreciate you thinking that of House; itís a long aspired to condition, although I wonder how well Iíve developed it, and not only in my poetry?
In any case, Iím grateful that you see it in there. I certainly labor to explore moments of the inexpressibly staggering beauty that we all experience amidst the abundance of excruciating, daily violence of life on personal, familial, professional, local, national, and international levels. And humor can sometimes help with that.
What was it like to teach poetry in a maximum-security federal penitentiary?
I really enjoyed it, and I think the rest of the men in the group did, too. And itís funny that youíre asking about it now as Iím currently working to get it going again, but here in Los Angeles. I really miss it. In New York, I was so grateful for each visit. I really enjoyed each opportunity to share time and writing with the men, who were often famished for the exchange, perhaps even dying from a lack of whatís found there, if youíll permit the piracy. I guess Iím simply trying to say that we encouraged and inspired one another to live more focused, intense, open, and articulated lives, which can be transformative.
And, more broadly, if prison is to be anything more than merely punitive, then these sorts of humanizing opportunities within an often dehumanizing institution are important. In a small way, they might even contribute to prison reform. Or maybe theyíre merely perpetuating the dysfunction?
No, I think you're right, I think it could be cathartic, build self esteem, and promote a sense of feeling that one is more than one's crime... and that could lead to a better attitude about one's place in the world and relationship with others.
Iíd like to think so, but, still, Iím not sure. Either way, in more radical and polemical terms, one could say that if the purpose of purely punitive imprisonment is the annihilation of the subjectivtity of the imprisoned, then the sociopolitical space of a writersí group within prison has the potential to offer a crucial alternative to that subjective destruction, which, as we know, is highly racialized and class-biased in the United States right now.
Maestro and Kaddish were written while you lived in NY but you've been a resident of California since I've known you. Did the move from one coast to the other affect your writing?
Thatís a great question. I havenít reflected on it sufficiently, but I will offer two provisional comments.First the negative: In New York I was an avid subway and train reader, and I really miss that extra time to read. And, tangentially, the commuter culture on the roads here is so violent! And it actually impinges directly on the poetry community. For example, through the reading series that I created—The Fringe Poets Reading Series—I learned not to schedule readings that would require people to commute through rush-hour traffic, unless you wanted a paltry and/or irritated audience! (Laughing).
Second, on the positive side, Iíll add that in LA, Spanish is everywhere. So I speak it throughout the day: at home, at work, the market, the coffeeshop, the bookstore. In New York, Spanish for me was mostly confined to the home and to certain neighborhoods. Plus my sons Ilan and JoaquŪn were born here in LA, and I try to speak only in Spanish with them, so that adds to the Spanish-language reconquest of our social spaces (laughing). So, to get back to your question in a roundabout way, as a result of that, Iím writing more bilingual Spanish-English poetry.
How has being married and having kids influenced how and what you write about?
My poems have become a lot shorter! (Laughing)
But, seriously, as paradoxical as it might initially sound, Iíve had to develop greater flexibility and discipline as a writer. For example, before becoming a parent, I used to work on poetry every morning in the same quiet place from 6am-10am, and I loved that. I went to bed looking forward to it, and I woke each morning excited to get to work. But now I write and revise whenever and wherever possible, including writing and revising more in my head. With two babies in the house, sometimes thatís the only quiet space to be found! (Laughing).
What are you working on now?
Right now Iím sending around a full-length poetry manuscript, which is titled American Clichť. I think itís really strong and necessary, even though Iím biased by being its author! (Laughing). So Iím looking to find a publisher for that.
And I have a chapbook manuscript titled A Crown for Sonia, which is a bilingual heroic crown of sonnets challenging the formal constraints of the crown so as to entangle and explore my time living with a war criminal in Argentina, the life of a young woman he murdered, and my wifeís emigration from Argentina to the United States during that genocide. And itís been well received at readings around the country, even by audiences of predominantly English-only speakers, so I think itíll make a beautiful chapbook that many readers would enjoy.
And, of course, Iím writing new poems, too, and reading a ton. And Iím translating, too, although Iíll keep the translation projects under wraps for now.
I'm looking forward to reading more by you. Your writing dazzles me, and did right from the start. And I want to say that you are not just a great poet, but a great friend, too. You and I bonded while both our dads were battling cancer, and I found such comfort in talking to someone who was going through what I was going through. I guess we've both learned that taking care of our parents is part of our own process of growing up. Maybe it will give us material for some new poems!
Thanks for saying that, Robin. Youíre too kind. Really. And thatís what I admire most about you: your interpersonal generosity. Without wanting to embarrass you, Iíll say that I think itís a form of deep compassion for the suffering, and itís as evident in your prose and poetry—which I find wonderfully wacky, endearing, plangent, and addictive—as it is in your work as an editor and publisher.
Thank you, Seth! Whenever you review one of my books I'm always flattered that you comment on how many genres I attempt... it means so much to me that someone like you sees that about my writing.
Well I think I speak for many of your readers in saying that. Youíre an admirably flexible writer.
Tangentially, Iím sure I speak for all of your poets and readers in taking this chance to thank you for all of your work on our behalf, especially amidst all of your personal struggles with your parentsí health.
Thanks! It really helps to keep busy, and working with the best poets out there is so rewarding. Having a magazine and a publishing company is a ton of work, but it's been a real blast!
Iím glad to hear itís ďa blastĒ as I do know how hard you work, both as a publisher/writer and as a supportive daughter helping her ailing folks. And, like you said, keeping busy can help to ease some of the difficulty of the latter. Although where youíve gained insight and compassion through that strenuous process, Iíll only say that I mightíve aged, but Iíll never grow up! (Laughing) Like Neruda said, age is a function of chronology, not maturityÖ.
And far be it from us to disagree with Neruda! Hey, Seth, thanks for spending some time with us—it's been great talking to you!
Thank you, Robin. Itís been a pleasure.