interview with kathleen flenniken

by dana guthrie martin

Kathleen Flenniken, a resident of Seattle, Washington, is currently serving a two-year term as Poet Laureate for the state of Washington. Her two poetry collections are Famous and Plume. Plume deals with her experiences growing up in Richland, Washington, and working as an engineer at the Hanford site, as contextualized by research and time, and the perspective both afford. The collection centers on her relationship with her childhood friend Carolyn, whose father died from radiation illness. The book was seven years in the making.

The main interview took place in August 2012 near Flenniken’s home, with a follow-up conversation by way of email.

DGM: Tell me how you came to write this collection. What was your process? How did you know the time was right for this undertaking?

KF: In 1988 when we were in our late twenties, my childhood friend Carolyn lost her father to a radiation illness. That was well before I began writing. (I started writing poetry in my 30s, about five years later.) His death was a huge challenge to my understanding of the site and perhaps the first chink in my solid Richland identity.

Writing the poems came many years later, after my parents were gone. That is, I couldn’t even have conceived of writing them while they were still living. My loyalty to my parents and their generation of friends who gave their careers and lives to Hanford was too inhibiting. And I had to attain a certain skill as a poet. When I was first writing poems, I wasn’t good enough to take on the subject matter of Hanford.

My first Hanford poem, “Bedroom Community,” was written (mostly) in 2005. I was casting about looking for new subjects. (I felt I was rewriting the same poems I’d written in Famous and I remembered the old adage, “Write the poems you’re afraid to write.”) So, those first few were memoir poems and poems to my friend Carolyn. Then I started reading about and researching the site, which led to poems based on my research. At that point I thought I was done. It took me a couple of years and misfires to recognize that I needed to write a few more poems in first person, set in the present. That last dozen or so changed the tone of the collection and deepened it.

DGM: How difficult was it to add those first-person poems to the collection? Or did they come easily once you knew you needed to bring the present and the present perspective into the work?

KF: It was all I could manage. I had to figure out what I thought about all of it. There needed to be some kind of shift in understanding, and therefore I ought to be wise about the whole thing. Except I couldn’t just be wise. I wrote a number of angry poems, taking my cue from lots of people who asked me, “Aren’t you angry?” and after looking at poems by Bill Witherup who had written so passionately and angrily about Hanford for decades. But I ended up taking those poems out. It was borrowed anger. In the end, what I felt was deep sadness and confusion. Confusion doesn’t really feel like it should be a terminal emotion—I’m not even sure it is an emotion. Nevertheless, I belonged to both sides and neither side and so I invited that confusion in. And I allowed myself to feel protective of my community while still trying to be factual. The last three poems were the museum poems (“Museum of Doubt” and “Museum of a Lost America”) and the final poem in the collection, “If You Can Read This.” They’re as dispassionate as I knew how to make them—imagining myself confronting my past as though I were in a museum (which actually happened to me, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History) or reading a sign at the site, 10,000 years in the future.

DGM: The personal and scientific come together here in a very strong way. Did you feel those elements were working together in the creation of the poems for this collection, or was one or the other ever an impediment or hindrance?

KF: The science came in when I started writing poems based in research—which was completely new for me. A poem about testing the water at Richland Dock, for example, or retelling the details of The Green Run. My engineering training and Hanford indoctrination kicked in, and I knew my poems must never exaggerate or play fast and loose with facts. “Lies that tell the truth” is all well and good in art, but in this particular circumstance, the truth had to be scientifically and historically accurate. I used a variety of poetic forms throughout and I suppose I thought of scientific accuracy as part of the “form” I had chosen to follow. So I never saw it as an impediment. It was a constraint.

DGM: Tell me about the redactions in the book and why you presented them the way you did.

KF: I lifted three powerful quotations, two from the Atomic Energy Commission and one from J. Robert Oppenheimer, out of Michele Gerber’s amazing environmental history of the Hanford Site, On the Home Front. All three were warnings that Hanford was too secretive about their operations, that their closed communication actually compromised good science. I was thinking about the way Hanford management so often heard what they wanted to hear or twisted information to align it with their beliefs. It came to me suddenly that Hanford obsessively controlled the message by censoring it. What better way to control criticism than redact the parts you don’t like? So I redacted the quotations so that they said something very different—in one case that “fear could end a critical scientific program”—that is, that free access to information would result in panic and would endanger their mission and our country’s safety.

DGM: Did you ever feel afraid about writing the collection, as if you were divulging things you shouldn’t make public?

KF: I never felt afraid, but I definitely felt I was breaking a taboo—revealing the way we truly thought about our lives and our town and our relationship to the country, the secrecy that was ingrained in our culture, the suspicious health problems and messages from the government. There’s been plenty of “Who do you think you are?” and “Who died and made you the expert?” and that’s just inside my head.

DGM: What about outside your head? Have you had any similar feedback from others who aren’t pleased about what you’ve documented and shared?

KF: Not yet. I’ve had next to no feedback from Richland, other than words from friends. Though I hear from many ex-pats living in other parts of the Northwest. I keep waiting for confrontation and am not quite sure how to interpret silence. Even the Tri-City Herald has stonewalled me. No review or mention, though several other sizeable newspapers in the Northwest have reviewed or featured the book at this point.

DGM: You’ve talk about the Richland identity, the mindset of the city in the past and in the present with regard to the Hanford site. You’ve specifically talked about people not understanding that identity and about having times that you feel angry about that lack of understanding, the complexity of the entire situation. Can you talk about that identity and your feelings around it in more detail?

KF: Richlanders have been—by and large, and for years—tone-deaf. It’s not that we aim to offend and scandalize the rest of the world by choosing an atomic bomb as our high school mascot; we just don’t see why we shouldn’t be proud of our history (and I’m using “we” because I was part of this culture, though I long ago recognized the inappropriateness of the Bomber mushroom cloud).

The Richland identity is based in pride. Richlanders still take pride in their Manhattan Project and Cold War successes. We had a job to do and we did it, not matter how dirty. We kept our country safe and “ended the war.” Whether or not you agree with the use of the bomb at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, whether or not you think we were safer for the 60,000 nuclear warheads Hanford helped fuel, it’s difficult not to admire the sheer ingenuity of the engineers and scientists and workers that kept the plants going for decades beyond their original life expectancy.

Now Hanford is embroiled in the largest environmental cleanup in the world and it’s an inglorious and stultifyingly difficult task. It’s one long exercise in shame—cost overruns and unpleasant discoveries of new contamination and technical issues too difficult to solve. So I don’t think it’s very surprising that the community—even three and four generations beyond that original Manhattan Project generation—takes refuge in “Bomber” pride, no matter how unearned.

I also think it is far too easy to demonize Hanford workers, who were after all my neighbors and friends. I know some of those original workers—they were my parents’ friends and peers and they were often remarkable, incredibly intelligent, socially responsible, ethical, often spiritual people. Over and over again they did the right thing. And yet terrible lies were perpetrated, the public was betrayed, secrets protected the institution of Hanford over the lives of its workers and the innocents downstream. I feel very protective and defensive about the people from my hometown. These were not evil people; they were good people who made tragic errors with the best intentions. This is a human story, and it’s going to happen again and in your town, though maybe not with the same long-term consequences.

DGM: Your President Obama quote at the beginning of the book is amazing, and not in a good way. Why do you think more people, including the leader of our country, don’t know about Hanford—both what went on there and the continued effort to deal with the repercussions of what went on there?

KF: The difficulties at Hanford are technical and complicated and mired in decades of cultural and political history. It’s impossible to summarize them in a sentence or two. This isn’t just a problem for poets and politicians. Hanford has a terrible time attracting young workers to take on this tragedy of highly contaminated waste sites, many of which were insufficiently documented. And anti-Hanford activists are having an equally hard time passing their work down to the next generation. Most young people are turned off by Cold War politics, and then add in radioactive waste. Is it any wonder I’m worried sick that this whole site will be written off and forgotten?

The secrecy ingrained in the Hanford community has come back to haunt them. Hanford supporters never wanted anybody talking about the site that didn’t understand it (which they thought was everybody). Now the Hanford story is rarely even taught in Washington State history—which boggles my mind. We need to educate the next generation of citizens who will, after all, be paying and paying for radioactive waste cleanup for the rest of their lives.

DGM: A poet in my writing group read Plume. She’s lived in Walla Walla for a long time. She was part of the protests of the white trains when they were coming through. She was one of the first people, perhaps one of the only people, from Walla Walla who was involved in protests and discussions about nuclear energy and nuclear waste. She was involved in hearings at Hanford and wrote for the local paper about issues related to the site. Her overriding question after reading your collection is, “How do you cope with being a poet of place, a poet of witness, and balance reality and action without falling into despair or insanity?”

KF: I’ve always approached the poems in Plume as deeply personal explorations of my story—my history, my country, my neighbors and friends. This project was autobiographical. That meant I didn’t need to be an expert that represented the whole Hanford community—which I could never be. Instead, my biggest challenge was to make Hanford interesting for a reader who might be new to the story.

I don’t think of myself as a poet of place or witness. I think my role is to tell a story about the place I grew up. Maybe that’s a fine line between the two, but I really think of those poems as very personal, and that’s the only way that I could write them—to think of them as personal poems.

I never tried to make a political statement. I never thought of the poems as activism. I have never sought to make change. It’s not that I’m not hungry for a changing attitude at Hanford. It’s just that I could never place that kind of pressure on the poems; it would have been deadly and I never could have completed the project. Making these poems about me relieved me of feeling responsible for fixing the situation—which would have been, absolutely, a recipe for despair.

I wrote these poems in large part to try to figure out what I thought about all of it.

DGM: And where did you land? How do you feel in the end, after writing the book, and how is that different from how you felt before? What do you think about all of it?

KF: In some ways, I feel closer to the place than I ever did. I think when you see a place, warts and all, and still feel it, it’s a very honest connection. You see how deeply connected you really are. It would be easy to push away or deny it, but on many levels, I still love my hometown; I love the people that I grew up with; and I still think they did the best they could, but it just wasn’t good enough—and I think that’s really more a story of the human condition than it is of the people there. It’s just being human, and maybe being American.

I’m not as defensive about Hanford as I used to be. I think I’m more open to some of the violent distrust and dislike. I can hear that better now than I used to be able to. In some ways, I feel more porous to the whole subject. I feel like it goes through me and I hear it but I don’t have to take it on the way I did for so long.

DGM: Did you know about the protests that were happening? The kinds of things my friend was involved in, either at the time or as you were doing your research?

KF: The white train is something I’ve heard of, but I’m not sure I know exactly when/what that was.

Here’s a window into my mind: I have always disassociated Hanford with bomb-making and bomb distribution. I know Hanford created the fuel, but somehow I have put the weapons into a separate category. Though I have always conceded that nuclear waste usually reappears at Hanford. So I’m not surprised that I’ve blocked the white trains out of my mind. It’s consistent with my coping mechanisms.

DGM: The trains aren’t specifically Hanford-related, but they did involve the transport of missile heads and waste from those missiles making their way across the country into places like Washington State. The train cars were initially painted white out of fear that they might detonate if they got too hot. They were easy to spot, so protestors could organize and stage protests as the cars moved along the tracks.

KF: So when you were talking earlier, before the interview, about the Cascadia independence movement, which pushes for Cascadia to become a separate country, I was thinking that we’ve been the dumping ground for so long, you can see why people have this desire to cast off the colonial power, right? We’ve been a colony for the East Coast for so long, you can see where that separatist movement comes from.

DGM: At the same time, we’d have to clean up the mess alone, even though we didn’t make it alone. We’ve been the victim of so many endeavors that are aspirational in nature, at least in part, but they have outcomes we don’t anticipate—so something tragic or atrocious comes out of those endeavors. As you mentioned before the interview, Hanford is an extreme example of “disastrous consequences.” It’s one thing to do something knowing the outcomes and another to stumble into those outcomes, ones we aren’t at all prepared for.

KF: And even asking for the waste. People have been so hungry for jobs there for so long, they’re in the habit of asking for anything. “Make us your waste site.” They wanted to be the waste site. It’s jobs. It’s money.

DGM: Look at Roosevelt Regional Landfill in eastern Washington, one of the largest landfills in the country, which is importing trash from other states. Or take Hermiston, Ore., where a new horse rendering plant is going to be built and slaughter 25,000 horses a year. Now we’ve got a paper mill, a horse rendering plant, a landfill, the Hanford site. What other dirty, messy industry do you want to bring to what you still seem to consider “nowhere”?

KF: Right. Where there’s “nothing.” It seems late in the game to think that way, doesn’t it? It’s time to rethink that. It’s so interesting that we have this idea that certain landscapes are more beautiful and therefore more valuable and others are less beautiful and so it doesn’t really matter what we do to them.

And yet, in that Hanford landscape, they’ve discovered all kinds of plants that are medicinal, and there’s that ecosystem that turns out to be quite well-preserved in Hanford because they haven’t done a lot to it, and it’s really an amazingly varied and interesting place for all these plants. And you think, “There are no plants there; it’s just desert.” Well, there are lots of plants; it’s just our eyes becoming more intelligent about what we are seeing. It took us a long, long time to figure that out because it’s not green doesn’t mean it’s not “pretty”; it’s just not pretty in the traditional sense.

Yes, like you were talking about, it’s a hierarchy of regions—that one is a “better” place and one is a “worse” place, and so the people here are more important and those there less important or less intelligent—it’s a mindset that can prevail and cause damage to the people and the place.

DGM: When I was driving here today from eastern Washington, I passed Richland and started thinking about your poem “Coyote.” That poem is powerful because you do physically feel a shift between eastern and western Washington as you move into and out of it along I-90. If you’ve lived on both sides of the Cascades, you feel a difference.

When you say you still think the people in Richland did the best they could, and that you’re less defensive now than you have been, that all seems to speak to both individual identity and group identity, which I think is so nicely expressed in “Coyote.” Who am I? Who have I been? How do I move between these two spaces and states?

Your book invites us to move with you between those spaces and states, to come on that journey with you and move along the same lines of inquiry. There’s a kind of dual lens at work. I don’t know if you would use the term insider-outsider, but that’s what comes to mind for me. How do you grapple with that dual identity?

KF: At heart I will always be of Eastern Washington—the friendly, easy interchanges with strangers, the less prettified, more practical and more egalitarian community, the sky. And I will always feel the landscape and weather of Western Washington in my bones, and be grateful for the open-mindedness I find in Seattle.

When I travel to Eastern Washington I feel in some very basic way like I’m among my people. Which is ironic, since I think most Eastern Washington communities disowned Richland long ago as some kind of social experiment gone wrong. But mostly what I feel is solidarity with the whole Pacific Northwest in all its forms. I am a die-hard PNWer, daughter of Oregonians—and you never, ever get that out of your blood.

But to the point of “Coyote”—being from Richland means a very strong “us” and “them” mentality—an insider/outsider frame of reference. Scoop Jackson was always part of the “us” even though he never lived in the Tri-Cities, because he was a supporter and worked hard to bring jobs and status to Hanford. Mostly though, the “us’s” have come from Richland/Hanford. I think I surrendered my “insider/us” badge when I wrote these poems.

But I don’t think about grappling with it. I’m just confused most of the time. Where do I belong? But I know I belong in this landscape. The trees and the water and the rain. I feel as if I am rooted here in some way because of that landscape. But I feel such a loyalty to the people I grew up with.

DGM: So when you say “here,” do you mean west of the Cascades?

KF: This side. Yes.

DGM: That leads to the question: Do you see Cascadia as a place, or are the two sides of the Cascades so distinct that they feel like they aren’t part of the same place?

KF: My parents preached to me about how superior Oregon was to any other place in the world. Washington was, for them, a mere shadow of Oregon. And of course then I was very protective of Washington because that’s my home. So I’ve always had this sense that I am from the Northwest and I will always be of the Northwest. I can’t ever imagine being of any other place. I feel protective of it, defensive about it, proud of it—and that includes the high desert, and it includes the ocean, and includes all the places that I think of as being “my place,” my Northwest.

DGM: So you see a conjunction then, not a disjunction between the western side of the bioregion and the eastern side?

KF: I do. I absolutely do. I see the connection, and I’ve driven through it so many times. I just love that trip over the mountains, where you can see, tree by tree, it’s changing from firs to pines and then to the shrubs and then going across the state, and then at the very end, seeing the pines coming back in Spokane. I love seeing that.

DGM: You said something earlier about this place being treated like a colony. If you look at the Oregon territory, it’s very similar to the outline of Cascadia. It’s almost like we were left as a wild place for so long because we weren’t reachable by settlers. But once settled, we’ve in some ways suffered because of our wildness. But we’ve also grown out of and around that wildness.

KF: In high school as part of a church group, we traveled up into British Columbia and got to stay in people’s homes. I remember the host in Victoria talked about how people in British Columbia so much more identified with the Pacific Northwest in the United States than with the rest of Canada. “We’re one of you” was her attitude. I thought that was really interesting. I think that goes to the landscape. I think we’re more of our landscape here than probably most places. Or maybe that’s just pride speaking.

DGM: My last question is based on your earlier response of not feeling like a poet of place or witness. What do you consider a poet of place or witness to be?

KF: I think the mantle of “poet of place” or “poet of witness” is bestowed by others. I suppose even obvious poets of witness like Carolyn Forché don’t set out to write Poems of Witness, they just write the poems they need to write. I’m responding in good measure to my own worries: What if readers think I’m claiming to be the official witness to and voice of the Hanford story? That would misrepresent my intentions and my relationship with Richland and its history. I was only writing the (very personal) poems I know how to write. If those poems are rooted in place (and they are) and if they give witness to an era and a mindset (and I think they do, though I’m not sure how universally), that’s all I can do and that has to be enough.

interview with michael mcgriff

by ciara shuttleworth

All last week, Cascadia Review featured poems from Michael McGriff’s collections Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial. This week, we’re featuring an interview I conducted with McGriff on his work, his thoughts about poetry, and his connection with his home in the Cascadia bioregion.

CS: Will you please speak to the importance of place in your work, and how memory shapes that, and how objects (the hip bones of a deer in “New Season,” for example) take on greater meaning?

MM: It would take me a lifetime to answer this question with any clarity—and even then I probably wouldn’t get it right or come any closer to knowing how to answer it. In the simplest terms, I find meaning in the place where I’m from (a rural logging town on the Oregon Coast called Coos Bay)—the people and the landscape seem to be soaked in meaning. I just keep coming back to the same images, the images that haunt me. Charles Simic said somewhere that we all have a set of our own “epic images.” That idea rings true for me. One fact of my life is that I spent my first 21 years in the same town and didn’t really travel much. My imagination was born and ran wild there. I fell in love with writing there. And I suppose my mind just flies back there when I sit down to write.

CS: There are writers whose work builds and shares a family mythology. In many (most) of your poems, you seem to be weaving the actual into a mythology of Coos Bay, of place and its people–both in poems about a specific location (e.g., building, cafe, mill) in Coos Bay, and in poems like “Invocation” where the place is less specific. There is even “My Family History As Explained by the South Fork of the River,” which is a family mythology. There is a mixture of beautiful images molded out of desolate scenes, the speaker half in the moment he lives in now and looking back . . . the other half still there, ghosting the old roads (and, consistently enough, a porch or porches), trying to make sense of it all. Do you feel you are building a mythology of the Coos Bay you grew up in? If so, is this so that it might continue to exist as Coos Bay changes in industry and with the influx of people in and out?

MM: I think that myth-making, at least for me, is the unintended byproduct of writing about the same landscape over and over. The more you write about the same place, the more you have to examine it from new and different angles. I’ve lived in different towns and cities, and I’ve spent time outside the United States, yet I’ve never been compelled to write about any of them. I just wouldn’t feel truthful if I wrote about the great mountain ranges in Utah or the Golden Gate Bridge or pickled Baltic herring. I envy poets who can roam about in their work, writing about wherever the hell they please. I wish I could do that!—but it’s simply not an impulse. I love art that captures the essence of a specific region. I’m absolutely obsessed with Frank Stanford’s poetry, for example. But I also love poetry that’s seemingly placeless, even private—like Vasko Popa’s “The Little Box.” I used to feel more partisan about concrete/personal vs. abstract/private. But I don’t have those feelings anymore—these days, partisan attitudes about poetry bore me. And to answer the second part of your question: No, I haven’t really thought about writing about Coos Bay as a cultural or social preservation project. Really, it’s just that I keep returning to that image source.

CS: Stanford’s life was too short for us to know what he was capable of . . . how he would write and what he would write about as he traveled . . . . Do you feel that limits you—or will eventually limit you—as a poet: only having one place you feel truthful writing about?

MM: Yes, Frank Stanford’s life was tragically short, yet he wrote so much, and so much of it was stunning and transcendent. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is one of the finest books on my bookshelf. It’s amazing. There’s no telling what he would have done or where he would have gone had he chosen to keep living. As far as limits go, I don’t feel limited, at least not in a stifling way; I feel obsessed with one locale, and I just keep following that obsession. But I like the idea of “limits”—I think we all have them, and we are all forced to operate under them. It’s where the art comes from.

CS: The speaker in your poems (or you, whichever you prefer) is often alone or in solitude (even when around others), and yet the introspective moments are weighted with people, with experiences and second-hand experiences simply told, without judgment. Can you speak to this?

MM: I’m not sure I have too much to say—I find virtually everyone to be immensely complicated, contradictory, and inherently interesting. These elements seem worth writing about. And as for being alone, I suppose that, too, harkens back to growing up in the boonies. I spent a lot of time by myself in the woods, traipsing around, following old logging roads. I guess it’s a default setting.

CS: By “default setting,” do you mean setting as a place of solitude?

MM: Yeah, I suppose so. Now that I think more on it, I guess this aloneness and solitude has a great deal to do with writing for myself. That is to say, I’m not writing poems for a community or an audience or with a political agenda in mind; I’m writing poems for myself, in a way that I find interesting. Even though my poems are tempered by social and political concerns, I’m definitely writing for an audience of one. I especially feel this is true for Home Burial. It feels different to me than Dismantling the Hills—the poems in this new book feel more private and inward, more meditative and impulsive.

CS: Perhaps that is why Home Burial hit me with such force, and is why I’ve continued to read it again and again over the summer (and will continue to read it over and over) . . . that I am getting away with something by reading it—or that I am one of the lucky ones who is allowed to, even though it is a book everyone should read. Most writers don’t write with the honesty you do . . . . I think this is why I’ve shied away from asking questions about specific poems . . . that you’ve already given enough and shouldn’t be asked to explain further since you’ve already pulled back enough flesh . . .

MM: That’s nice of you to say.

CS: “Buying and Selling” appeared in The Missouri Review with a number of other poems–and this issue is the only place I’ve seen you use forward slashes. What drove the decision to use them at the time?

MM: I did? I honestly can’t remember why I did that. For a while, I was writing all of these poems using only colons—I was under the spell of A. R. Ammons, whose work I deeply admire. At the time of The Missouri Review‘s publication, I was trying to write a book-length sequential poem. I wrote a whole book manuscript that was really bad called Fog. Then Fog turned into this other book-length thing called Landscape with Origins. Then eventually Home Burial was borne out of the ashes of those two duds. It’s great to have honest friends around to tell you that what you’re writing feels forced and lame.

CS: They may have been colons rather than forward slashes . . . . My copy wandered off some time ago . . . so I didn’t verify—I just remembered some oddity in form I haven’t seen in your work other places. Do a lot of your revisions occur as you are shaping poems into a book?

MM: I don’t really have a method for revision. I just keep hammering on the poems until they reach some kind of completion. Some poems don’t comply, and they just float off into the ether. With both Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial, the poems sort of came together. I didn’t sit down with the thought of writing either of those books—that is to say, I didn’t map them out or have a concept for what might make a book. When you get a stack of poems, certain of them start talking to each other, and others seem like permanent loners. This was the process for both books—just putting poems side by side to see which ones fit together. God, it’s a mystery!

CS: Although Barry McKinnon, Franz Wright, and a few others have been using exploded form for decades, it seems to be very popular among young writers now–I see all different formats of exploded form every time I open a literary journal. Abstractions also seem to be more popular in contemporary poetry than ever before. What has kept you writing solid stanzas and using plain-spoken, image-driven language?

MM: To answer the last part of your question first: I love images. James Wright, John Haines, Pablo Neruda, Tomas Tranströmer, Frank Stanford, Don Domanski, Larry Levis (and so many others). These are some of my personal supergods. I go back to these poets over and over. I love the way they represent deep ideas and emotions through the use of the image. I love Bly’s essay / treatise Leaping Poetry, the idea that the stuff of the world is soaked in the unconscious, that to use the image of, say, a leaf, allows you to tap into something way more complex and meaningful—that the stuff of the universe has inherent meaning! It’s a sentiment bordering on the religious, and for me it holds water. I love film for this reason—one image heaped onto another until you get a whole universe. As far as form or the placement of text on the page, I try to follow my impulses. You can tell when someone is faking it—whether one’s poems are running all over the page or in tight verse stanzas. I think form and sincerity have a lot to do with one another.

CS: Freud’s term, “scopophilia,” that was picked up by the film critics in the 1970s to describe the gaze (or the “male gaze,” since the idea of a separate “female gaze” is still forming) as being an unabashed and childlike voyeurism that the camera gives the watcher/viewer—would you say that your work has an element of that where you, the poet, are the camera?

MM: I don’t think so. As I understand it, the so-called male gaze is the idea that the subject(s) of one’s art become unfairly mythologized, marginalized, or exploited. The idea of the artist as one in power or in a position of dominance isn’t one that holds much water for me. I think of art—of any art—as the manifestation of an individual’s vision. There are artworks I loathe and find distasteful—but even then I’m convinced that the makers of those artworks are engaged in a fundamentally democratic practice.

CS: The poems in Choke were in different form (by and large) when published in Dismantling the Hills, the most significant of which (meaning: beyond cutting/tightening/polishing) was “The Last Temptation of Christ.” While there is consistently an undercurrent of spirituality and religious questioning in your work, the Choke version of this poem is directed at “You” as in God, while the newer version is “you” seemingly as in self or reader. Why the switch? (It dramatically changes the poem.)

MM: Yeah, the work in Choke is definitely an earlier and inferior version of what ended up in Dismantling the Hills—or at least I’d like to think so. I changed the “You” to the more general “you” to address the idea that pops up in both the film and book, that the “last temptation” is simply to exist as a normal, general “you,” a person who goes about their life, makes mistakes, and, for good or ill, does the best they can.

CS: But the man—the other self—is changed by the end of the poem . . . or perhaps realizes his inadequacies . . . but nonetheless is changed. Is “the last temptation” for him then to go back to his life and be happy with it?

MM: You know, I’m not really sure. That’s something I love about the film and the book—this paradox of being both self and other. Are we meant to strive for the normal and fallible life, or are we meant to strive for a selfless and sacrificial life? Which is better, which is worse? I like this idea that we have both things swimming inside us—that our lives constantly change because we struggle with trying to live two lives at the same time.

CS: The strength of place in your work is the muscle and flesh of people, of yourself (or former self), as much as place is driven by the machines, the mill industry, and the bay. These are a people of hard living and hard work. Does this determine the language you use? And the structure/format/form of your poems?

MM: Well, my poems are full of things like choker setters and green chain and crummies. I grew up with these terms and assumed they were universal. I didn’t realize that not all people knew what a slash pile was until I left home and moved to a bigger town. I love writing that’s crammed full of details, so I use the details from my life—these “epic images” Charles Simic talks about. As far as structure and form, I really don’t know where those things come from. I learn by reading other poets, trying out their moves and seeing what feels right. I’m a product of my home library just as much as I am my home town.

CS: And do you find that who you read then from your hometown library still resonates for you today?

MM: The poets and poems I read when I first got interested in writing still excite me. I had a great teacher—John Noland—when I attended community college in Coos Bay. The first poets I read were Charles Simic, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, John Logan, Li Po (Pound’s translation), James Dickey, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, and so many more. Also a lot of sound-based, absurdist performance poetry. It was a really exciting and inviting class, and it’s what got me interested in poetry. Especially the surreal and opaque stuff. Poetry as pure adventure and invention. Neruda’s “Walking Around” is what sold me.

CS: How do spirituality and religion influence your work? What about superstition? (I’m thinking of things like the foxgloves and dead crow hung above the door in “Dead Man’s Bells, Witches’ Gloves” and the horse skull above the door in “Year of the Rat” re: superstition.)

MM: I’m not a religious or superstitious person in any way, or at least not in an institutional way. I didn’t grow up going to church and I don’t have any ties to the superstitious side of my cultural roots or family background (Irish and Swedish). I’m pretty sure we turn into potting soil after it’s all said and done. Carl Sagan is my deity of choice. He has this wonderful line in Cosmos, something along the lines of: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” It’s such a lovely statement. That said, religion—or at least the figure of God—enters my work from all sorts of angles. You can’t be alive and not think about God. Religion deals in great abstractions and tries to find a language for those abstractions—in this way, religion in made for poets. I think of my poem “Invocation” as being addressed to God.

CS: Interesting! I read “Invocation” as a poem about/to a loved one, perhaps one that was dying . . .

MM: I suppose I’m using the word “invocation” in the traditional, religious sense—as a direct address to a higher power.

CS: How has translating Tomas Tranströmer and your work to build Tavern Books informed or detracted from your own work?

MM: Translating Tranströmer has been one of the most transformative events in my life as a poet. He’s one of my poetry heroes, and it’s been a great honor to have gotten to know him and his family, and to have spent hundreds of hours trying to figure out how to bring a voice from one language to another. The same has been true for my work with Tavern Books—it’s been an amazing experience and a privilege to have reintroduced these lost books of poetry to the reading public. Publishing and translating poetry keeps me close to poetry—I’m working on something poetry-related all the time. It keeps the wheels greased.

CS: My painting teacher, Bruce McGaw, used to say, “Painters paint every day. If they cannot paint, they should hold a brush. If they cannot hold a brush, they should be painting in their head.” It seems to me your immersion in poetry is this way. Are you ever able to take a day off from poetry—reading, writing, thinking about, etc.—or is it a part of every day?

MM: It’s definitely a part of my everyday life. I’ve gone through long spells of writing nothing, but it’s never stressed me out. For me it’s about having an active and engaged reading life. If I’m not reading anything exciting then I’m in no mood to write. My life definitely centers on the writing of others. As for my own work, when it comes I’m grateful.