Michele Poulos interview with John Hoppenthaler
Michele, two of your poems represented in this month’s Congeries are epistolary poems, one addressed to the Athenian poet Titos Patrikios, and the other to another Greek poet, Tryfon Tolides. What attracts you to the epistle (not many poets write them these days), and what is your relationship to these two poets?
The two epistolary poems that appear in Congeries are, oddly enough, the only epistolary poems that appear in the manuscript I’m circulating right now. When I was writing those poems, I had just returned from spending two months in Greece where I had been on a writing fellowship from Arizona State University to attend a workshop on the island of Serifos. My husband and I had also spent a few weeks with my relatives in northern Greece. At that time, many Greeks were protesting severe austerity measures that included plans to cut wages and lay off thousands of civil service workers. It seemed like everyone was on strike: cab drivers, bus drivers, teachers, janitors. The pictures of Athens seen around the world were of a city on fire. Needless to say, the climate was politically volatile. Both poems were a response to being immersed in that climate, and the epistolary form, the direct address, seemed like the most intimate and urgent way to explore those responses. In writing, in essence, a letter, I was able to express more openly my concerns for a country that is struggling not only economically, but also psychologically.
I met Tryfon Tolides on Serifos when he gave a reading to our group. Tolides is an award-winning poet who spends his time divided between Connecticut and Korifi Voiou in northern Greece, the same small village where my family originated. In fact, he was one of five children born the same year as my own cousin, so he knows my family pretty well. When my husband and I travelled to Korifi, Tryfon invited us over to his family home for plums, cheese, and wine. His mother had died not long before, and his home was still alive with her presence. At one point, he showed me the view from her window and we stood gazing out at the same hills that she no doubt had looked upon her whole life. I believe there was, in that moment, a haunted longing for the past that not only emanated from him, but from the entire country.
I’ve never met the poet Titos Patrikios; however, one of my friends and mentors, Christopher Bakken, had interviewed Patrikios for an article he had written for Parnassus called “At the Wall with Titos.” While we were in Athens, Bakken gave my husband and me a tour of an area called Monastiraki. It was there in September 1944, in front of an old church across from the Gate of Athena Archegetis that Patrikios faced a band of German soldiers aiming rifles at him. He would have been shot except that a young girl he’d met only once before rode up on a bicycle, threw her arms around him, pretending to be his girlfriend, and saved him. It was a story that resonated deeply with me. I had heard stories about the occupation from my family, and I’ve written quite a few poems inspired by those stories, but to be standing across the street from ruins that had been financed by Julius Cesear in 11 BCE and beneath the gleaming rocks of the Parthenon, I was overwhelmed by a sense of historical continuity. There is a personal history, of course, as well as a public history that I feel very close to in Greece.
All of these poems seem enveloped in a drapery of melancholy—you set that sort of mood extraordinarily well.
Thank you—I think. It’s funny, but I began my writing “career” as a songwriter, and I would inevitably hear that my songs were full of melancholy. Though I might resist it, I think that observation is true. I’m sure my husband would agree that there seems to be a touch of melancholia in my genetic make-up. I’m in agreement with Pierre-Jean Jouve when he states that “Poetry is a soul inaugurating a form.” I don’t intentionally write melancholic poetry. Larry Levis once responded to the question, “Are you an elegiac poet?” by saying, “That’s what I am as a human.”
Besides your work as a poet, you are also a filmmaker. Mule Bone Blues is an award-winning screenplay that won the 2010 Virginia Screenwriting Competition, and a film about the poet Larry Levis, My Story in a Late Style of Fire, is currently in production. What does one skill set bring to the other? Do you consciously employ filmic techniques in your poems and poetic ones in your films?
My reactions and experiences when watching great films or reading great poems are often quite similar in that I am taken on journeys that enlarge my perspective, moved by foreign landscapes and arresting imagery, so that I am haunted by some emotional core or current running through the work. Film continues to employ a number of techniques that I can find in poems that are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old. For example, I was recently reading a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost (originally published in 1667). In Book IX, there is a passage where the serpent approaches Eve. The syntax embodies the divided mind of the serpent as well as the process of the mind as it experiences division, and this effect is created not only by word choice, but also in the way the words are placed vertically up and down the page. That combined effect creates a lot of tension that is similar to editing in filmmaking, where one can experience quick cuts between scenes that ratchet up the emotional impact. In addition, punctuation acts like the focusing mechanism of a camera: commas and semi-colons create anticipation and suspend action and tension as the serpent moves through the grass, and the focus of the “lens” moves up and down the serpent’s body, from his “circular base of rising folds” to his carbuncle-colored eyes. It’s a wonderful poem to study as a filmmaker; it instructs as well as entertains. One of my favorite filmmakers, Werner Herzog, creates films that strike me as visually realized poems, exhibiting the same sort of psychological sensitivity, instinctive intelligence, aesthetic sophistication, informing insight, and casual genius that I find in the poetry of Larry Levis. Great art inspires great art, and all great works of art have common characteristics that result in our being fascinated, delighted, assaulted, and amazed.
You’ve had editorial experience at the journal Blackbird. How, if at all, did that experience affect your poetry writing or your way of approaching the business end of being a writer?
My editorial experience at Blackbird was invaluable in that it exposed me to new writers and broadened my reading tastes. At that time, I was working toward my MFA in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University with a concentration in fiction, but I was reading both fiction and poetry for the journal. In a sense, it was my first real exposure to the excitement and incitement of contemporary poetry. In addition, it broadened my sense of community by introducing me to other creative and like-minded individuals. Blackbird is a journal that I still read regularly, and though my husband is one of the senior editors there, I promise that this is not a paid political announcement. Blackbird is among the select group of publications that have set the standard for online literary journals.
Your first collection, A Disturbance in the Air, won the 2012 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition, and you are working on a full-length collection that you’ve said has at its center poems that reveal and explore issues related to your identity as a Greek-American and that often work as a quest to recover identity. How is that collection coming, and why is this identity of such importance to you? Many Americans give their heritage little consideration beyond surface identification.
My manuscript is presently titled Black Laurel and I am sending it out now, though it is in a constant state of revision. The more I write, the more interested I am in trying to introduce the personal and/or confessional into a larger structure involving other threads/styles/tones. Lately, I have been reading about Greece, both present and past, and since I have family there, I have tried to incorporate my family history alongside the cultural history of Greece during WWII, but also present-day Greece as well. It is important to locate myself within these worlds and piece together the fragments of my experience, as in the words of H.D., “not in order to create a wholly integrated persona . . . but in order to see the lines of patterning and stress more clearly.” The quest, then, is to achieve an expanded and enlarged vision.
In an interview with Angela Apte for Devil’s Lake, David Wojahn talks about the issue of a personal and public history. He states, “the poets who have most inspired me . . . always find ways to make the past and present somehow commingle, and the fact that their poems make little distinction between personal memory and public memory is something that always instructs me.” Like Wojahn, I hope that my own poems might reveal an ongoing spectrum of shared understanding that bridges the time bands of history and in that way creates a sense of community that is timeless.
Augury of Innocence
Because bones are stamped with hours, sky.
Because bones are ice, wing, pearl.
Because we are tethered to the ground.
Because our daughters are harbingers of dusk.
Because the spine is chambered and ancestral.
Because bones weather and migrate to surface.
Because bones are mineral within the catacombs,
there is wind inside the bone.
Letter to Titos Patrikios
And the echo that was sent out of the past
all of us heard and knew
If, standing before a band of soldiers, the open
mouths of their guns infinite as night, you saw
the Gate of Athena Archegetis surrender its marble
to the sky, who would blame you for believing?
At sixteen, you understand that beauty is the ruin
a city no longer witnesses, or the heat the bodies
in your home accumulate. Once,
your mother’s blouse, dusted with cinnamon
and clove, burned against your skin
red with fever. Cities are like this: they offer
us the world before they finally let go.
The fog in the harbor knows this, perhaps
has known it all along, yet returns—as if not
returning would mean there could be nothing
left to see. Here you are, trembling
at the western gate of the agora, a soldier’s
cough haunting your ears. You won’t cry.
To cry is to erase a fallen whitewashed
stair. If you must gaze unflinchingly
down the well of a gun, you’ll do it.
We hear the shot ring out, if only
in your dreams. Titos, let me tell you a secret.
The dead don’t care if the wind is absent
from the mountain or if the sea holds another
bronze head. The world is softly breaking.
We know your story of how a girl rode up
on a bicycle, stopped the bullets in their casings.
You came to believe then in the wonder
of a peach dress, which is the same belief
that now keeps your feet dipping in the surf.
A boy will do everything he can for his country.
The whole place every day gasping when it can.
Letter to Tryfon Tolides
—Korifi Voiou, Greece
You might wish a little to be carried off.
A silver cup in the cupboard
mirrors your mother’s gray face, vacant
as the bombed field around a village.
If a shrine is what you need to bring her back
every day, who can blame you for trying?
If sleeping in her nightgown brings the scent
of custard into your dreams, and running
barefoot in the snow seizes your body
into memory, who among us can say
anything and not turn quietly away. Linens
just as she left them pressed and folded.
A needle upright in a drift of stiff lace.
What I know of your mother I know
of a bear, thieving and brown, we once searched
for in the hills behind your house, followed
the newly-ripped branch until the path
no longer parted and became even more itself.
Black laurel will do this under a lonesome moon.
Tonight there is frost on the ground—the earth
no longer able to muster the energy to care.
Winter intends to neglect you.
The room in which she washed her feet
means to lock you outside its heavy door.
There’s nothing wrong with slipping
through the house at night with her ring
tucked inside your mouth, the taste
of metal the same copper as blood.
Even calling a stray dog Filos won’t keep
the black plums from rotting. It’s easy to say
all this to you after whiskey, a hard-slung year.
Easy to mistake the sound of an almond tossed
into a well for what follows weeping.
Every day I am forgotten a little more,
driving home beneath the cloak
of a desert mountain when the heat
pauses like a stilled hand over the valley.
I am reminded again how sadness accumulates
in the shuffle of red dust
beading the summer, as if each thing
were too intensely itself, needing to soften.
And when the earth is red, it seems
it has always been this way, a loose powder
dusted over surfaces, familiar as a stair
before the front door. Red in the attic, red clinging
to toaster and air vents, red nesting
in my lungs. There is a peacefulness
in its being everywhere, and I begin to forget
how it was and fall into this new hushed
swath of color that ends
as all things must
beyond the sliver of sight.
I can see my friend’s mother who died only yesterday,
at what must have been flickering in the corner
until the dim bud in her eyes faded. A last breath,
he’d said, so strong it could have sucked
leaves from a gutter. And if you had a choice,
wouldn’t you, too, want your last breath
to drink the creosote from the night?
A woman once asked about my spiritual color. Green,
I’d said, recalling my childhood room
where the walls were painted that secret
of new grass, and in its brightness I was taught
how to be at home outdoors,
where I learned consistency from the timpani
of rain and from the yellow heart
of a willow, kindness. She had answered red,
because it is impenetrable.
And if you ask me right now,
I would say it’s easy to mistake
regret for the ash beneath this hard pan
that longs for a rain to release it.
And what would the rain do anyway
except pound craters to craters in the dust.
Either way, it will come.
We’ll take from it what we can.
He has done
all he can: emptied half
the closet, moved his razor
to another shelf.
He’s hidden the photos
of the first wife in the attic
beside the fishing rod
and the box of lures
in their lichen
of seawater patina.
He’s done everything
that he knows to do.
Still, he’ll hear the hours
through the floorboards,
the ache that will marry
and marry him
to your old city: the diner
with its brick walls, dog
statue in the cemetery,
the man who summoned you
with his warm hand.
At night the woods twill
the clapboard siding.
Such long winter months.
All the owls starving.