Wednesday Feb 28

Mahagin-Poetry Dennis Mahagin is a poet from Washington state. His work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Exquisite Corpse, 3 A.M., 42opus, Stirring, Juked, Evergreen Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Verse Wisconsin, Night Train, PANK, Thrush Poetry Journal, and The Nervous Breakdown. He's also an editor of fiction and poetry for the magazine FRiGG.
Dennis Mahagin interview, with JP Reese
Dennis, I have read your poetry at other venues and know you are a fan of form, especially the ghazal, albeit yours are often loosely based on the rules.  Your poem here this month, “Repetitive is the New Novena,” is a villanelle.  What is it about form that attracts you?

As a reader, I'm drawn to the villanelle for its song-like qualities. This could well derive from my background in music.

When rendered just right, it seems to me that the villanelle form has all the impact of incantation, with a strange momentum, or power, gathering relentlessly across stanzas, a kind of call-and-response, which rises above mere refrain. I remember the first villanelle that really blew me away: "The Freaks at Spurgin Road Field." At the time I experienced the poem, I wasn't even aware it was a villanelle; yet here was a piece of writing that completely spoke to me:  

      "... I've left more wreckage than a quake / Isn't it wrong the way the mind moves back? ..."

No doubt. Thank you, Mr. Hugo.

As a writer, I find the villanelle a real challenge: The kick is to make something new while still following the rules (albeit loosely, as is the case with the Hugo poem.) When it comes off right, I suppose it's about as close to pure lyric-writing as I ever get.

Well, you've opened yourself up now.  What is your background in music?
I studied music in college. Later I became a bassist, performing in the club circuit around Portland Oregon in the 80's and 90's. Mostly Top 40, R&B. Classic rock.

I guess you could say I was a fair-to-middling bass player, and for a time was able to make a marginal living, playing in nightclubs. I was a frustrated lyricist, too: always trying to write songs back then. Chasing the brass ring. Now, I settle for ghazals and villanelles! Plus I still play a little bass and acoustic guitar, for my own enjoyment. I've always loved music. It's in the blood, both blessing and curse. Like poetry.

I do see music in a lot of your work, Dennis, so your youth wasn't misspent! I also notice how you often choose unusual narratives around which to build your poems. For example, the poem published here, "Confundida," has as its subject matter something most people would NOT associate with poetry, but somehow it works. Do you take ideas from stories you read about or hear on the news for some of your poems and then just run with them?

It's pretty mysterious to me, the way a poem arrives. More often than not I'm working from an image, or feeling, and the process is simply fragmentary at first. A line might come through, but no other clues. Sometimes a narrative can coalesce purely out of intuition, imagination and rhythm. It's a matter of staying out of the way of the flow, at first, until a draft is arrived at. At that point the critical faculties can certainly come into play. I'm a huge fan of Stephen Dobyns. His narrative poems are especially amazing. So memorable, and influential. I like to imagine his process as being similarly intuitive.

It has been the case that I've made poems out real life: either stuff that's happened to me, or that I read about, or see. But this "outside-in" process is the exception to the rule, for me. At this point in my development, anyway.

A couple questions: What was the subject of the first poem you ever wrote and how old were you, and which of your own poems do you like the best and why?

I remember writing a poem when I was 15, a shameless knock-off of the motif employed by John Fogerty in the CCR song "Someday Never Comes." It was a saccharine "sins of the father" sort of ballad, and I remember showing the poem to a few girls (who gave rave reviews!) not realizing right away that I'd "borrowed" pretty heavily from Mr. Fogerty! I think I tried to claim a kind of "artistic synchronicity." The cosmic genius of coincidence. ;)  Ah, kids.

In terms of my mature stuff, I like the poem "Abduction," first published in Rumble Magazine, and also a more recent effort called "Doctor Dre In Passing Bedside Manor," appearing over at The Nervous Breakdown. In these verses, I'm more or less successful at marrying emotion with mystery, in unexpected ways.

Also I'm quite partial to the poem "Billy, Ray and Melvin Have Their Say" because it appeared in the inaugural issue of Frigg Magazine; and through it, I met my friends Ellen Parker and Sean Farragher.

I can relate.  I'm sure all my adolescent efforts at verse were transparent thefts of one Joni Mitchell tune or another.  It is nice to see you have a number of mature favorites.  Looks like "Billy Ray and Melvin Have Their Say" got you into an editing gig, too, yes?  As an editor for FRiGG, is there a style you look for in a submission, or do you just wait for the muse to tap you on the shoulder as you read through the slush pile?

Not necessarily a particular style; but a voice, certainly. An original voice is the one quality that standout submissions always have in common. When the writing seems to "jump off the page," it does feel to me, as a reader, like a tap on the shoulder, as you mentioned: It's the old "I know it when I see it" effect. As opposed to "I've seen it before." Reading the slush, as you know, can be wearying; but also rewarding, when you come across unique and engaging work which you feel is good enough to be sent "up the chain" for further consideration.

Of course, Ellen and Sean have the final say, on what gets into the magazine. Sometimes their tastes are totally in line with mine. And sometimes not! It reminds me, as a writer, just how hard it is to publish anything. ;)  This insight has led me to be a bit more patient, in terms sitting on work. Revising it.  And being more selective as to what I do send out.

I suspect no one will ever accuse you of having a commonplace or predictable voice, Dennis. I think I could pick out an original Mahagin anywhere! Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts with Connotation Press, and good writing to you.

Repetitive Is The New Novena

Hope is accommodation
an hour before the dawn is long:
I have my reservations.
Past sorrow and constellations
of dog stars, homeless throngs
know hope is an accommodation
arrived at by echolocation
flashing neon arrows, whale song:
So long, I've had my reservations.
Prayer is a pure negotiation
with angels in the right, so headstrong
touting hope as an accommodation
to replace stroke: tintinnabulation
of one billion clocks stopped by a gong
of long-held reservations.
In a blazing motel of confabulation
one vacancy: it's been here all along
though I've had my reservations,
hope is an accommodation.


It was a few minutes before dark
when the electric can opener mishap
cut off his buzz, hacked into the wrist
of Ralph. Red rivulets and spatter,
an arterial fountain he stared at
as if dumbfounded to read time
inside out, a Fellini in his own newsreel
miming about absurdity. He waved
as if to shoo it away; his curses bled
instead, a din into pallor, the truest kind
of babble: "Oh it's the quicker picker
upper mother fucker quicker
upper..." Ralph shaking off
the wine, running a roll of paper towels
which he pressed as Thalidomide into
the underbelly of a trout, yet quickly
darkening, the dangling
fin he clutched as a bridesmaid's bouquet
muttering "it's gone to be okay, it's gone
to be..." Ralph reached for a cell, any bloody
thing, hopped around on a Pogo stick of rising
shock; he stared out the kitchen window
at a luminescent strip of cul de sac
sidewalk, chalk-white and pole axed
til a paramedic came, and talked to Ralph
in a calm tourniquet of Spanish that even
shame could understand: "Sir you've lost
a lot of blood I need you to hold your head
up now oh my god how the fuck did you
manage this?"
The medic's voice, only in some
fantastical translation from the foot of a gurney,
and a doughnut hole of mush where the face
ought to be, incinerated pixels used by TV
censors to preserve identity. "It's so good
to meet you too," slurred Ralph, going
south, no clue, waving with his brain
while one hand clutched the other boo boo
wrist; some incipient Latin came to him
tart-sweet as sacramental Gallo burgundy he
remembered topping off a glass, "Just a splash,"
he said before starting in on the can of beets
pushing, then leaning on the tin lip that wouldn't
cooperate. He'd only wanted to whip up
something quick to eat before the
befuddlement, and rust mist inevitable as any
mayhem. "Hold it like I showed you sir," the
corpsman said in urgent Sicilian, "pressure
between your legs stay with me understand?"
Moments later, high above his sight in the meat
cathedral van, a clean recessed light sang in
perfect time with a siren, darkness and steel
belted radial thrum. Ralph heard them
come, so many tongues that for once in his
life he was not perplexed, knowing they arrive
only to beckon, with plain, succinct and sober
directions, repetitious across
spheres while other human fools deign
to drive. Closing down his eyes, Ralph
listened, intent on the light, wanting
in his soul to get this
one thing right.