Michelle Bitting, with Kaite Hillenbrand
I love these poems. I especially love the way visual imagery is interwoven with the workings of the mind. In “Portrait of Café With Young Schizophrenic Couple”, the visual imagery is like a kind of surreal film – we get to see the landscape created by schizophrenic minds (or at least an interpretation of what that might look like). I am awed by this poem, the imaginative imagery, and the protective love the young couple show each other. I have a couple of questions stemming from this: first, what influences your poetry? Where does this amazing psychiatric journey come from?
Well, it really is more fun to read poetry that’s a little psycho, don’t you think? I know that sounds extreme, and it is, but I kind of mean it in terms of coming upon a turn, a line, an image, in a poem that is TOTALLY surprising and knocks you off balance, flips some surreal switch of perception. I think it’s crucial to try and get inside other people’s skin. I’m working on that. Also, my brother was diagnosed schizophrenic in his twenties. He was an artist and a very brilliant but tragic person. And then he died and I was devastated. So, needing to address that is endless and sometimes creeps in via the obliques. I often write at the local Starbucks and there’s a young couple who come in regularly and I’ve been watching them for a while. They break my heart and I think they are totally heroic, what they must endure, what I watched my brother go through, that perpetual hell. In terms of literary construction, it’s about attempting to set enough scene or landscape to keep the reader fastened in, but then letting the subject imagine itself out from there. That’s the trick. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times. It helps to have the inspirational work of other poets nearby for reference, to help orient my writing mind, the tone—kind of like vocal warm-ups.
Second, I see that you have created poem-films. Does the strong visual component of films influence your poetry? Is it the other way around (does the visual element of poetry influence your films)? Or is it both? Or that you’re (like me) a very visual person?
I made the poem-films in much the same way I believe I want to make poems. Going intuitively on what I want it to feel and look like and then seeing what actually falls in my path as I go along. So, the illusion of control and then surrender to what’s happening. That’s a truly fun tight-rope to walk. I try to be willing to fall, meaning fail, and I do, a lot. Sometimes the chemistry just ain’t happening and sometimes it’s an alchemical triumph. To me, the films are poems made out of images and sound. Then, informed by the text, another new kind of poem is made. When it’s working right, it’s all poetry.
On the subject of poem-films, how do you approach and understand them? Do you have expectations for them?
I’m pretty much called to create a visual text for a particular poem and then I just start to see it and keep following the thread that spins out of whatever I’ve begun. I let what naturally falls into my lap (or lens) enter into the conversation. For instance, in the film I did for my poem “In Praise of my Brother, the Painter”, at one point, I took photos and filmed bits of an exhibit on Houdini that was showing in my city (Los Angeles) at the time. Later I wanted a particular person to be in the film as a kind of muse-slash-nod to Houdini. Eventually, I realized I was supposed to wear the top hat and so the configuration of Brother, Houdini, Me and the final images led me to a new understanding of what the piece was trying to tell me, or I was trying to tell myself, in the first place. I could never arrive at that stage of revelation without just simply putting one creative step in front of another into the unknown.
Your poetry makes me think that you are fascinated by the workings of the human mind. I am, too – I love it when I figure out something about how my own brain works. Once you figure that out, you can start to change or control it, or at least use that information to your advantage. What especially interests you about how the mind works?
I like introspection in poetry, or self-analysis—sure—watching yourself figure through something can be very interesting, I mean, writing is all about that, to a certain extent. I admire people who do it well; it’s not so easy to accomplish without everything falling into indulgent confession or flat story. There needs to be invention and inclusion of whatever outside the self is buzzing around and flying against it. I mean, that’s sort of my mode of operation. And I actually like “no control” and prefer content change itself without my imposition. So says me, the control freak. In terms of poetics and modes of mind machination, there are poets who write from a more interior, lyrical place or conversely, as straight story tellers and both are totally successful. I think I’m more inclined to parlay back and forth and somewhere in-between.
I saw online that you have begun a Ph.D. program in Mythological Studies. That sounds amazing! It seems to me that you must be learning so much about the brain, the world, and the art of stories. Would you share with us some (or one) of the most interesting things you’ve learned so far?
Well, it’s funny you keep mentioning the brain, which is, of course, very important but I would add that there are powerful fields of energy at work in the writing of a poem or creation of any artwork that are not so easy to pinpoint or define. In fact, they would not be the mysterious, numinous and absolutely essential forces they are if we could. And yes, this is why I’m pursuing an intense course of study in Mythology. Writing poems is a sort of drawing out and reconfiguring of personal myth with a heightened awareness and sensitivity to shared, historical mythologies. When a poem is really working, it’s fastening—onto and—into things that are primitive, archetypal, communal. You can’t consciously TRY to do that. Either you are working from a place of instinct with a measure of clever manipulation (the conscious, revising mind) figured in, or you’re not. The idea of being able to immerse myself in recurring mythic themes in religion, as well as classic and contemporary literature, theater, art, and film, and to be able to explore that in an environment with inspired masters of the material who foster both scholarship and imagination...Well...I find that irresistible.
I see myths entering your prose poems, aligning with your own stories. To me at least, it seems like your stories and the myths break down and reinvent each other and give each other more depth. How beautiful. Can you say how you make these connections – your life (or the narrator’s life) to the myths – in a way that not only uses the myth for what it is, but deepens its meaning?
Well, thank you so much! You know, there is nothing more fun or exciting or imperative(!) in making art and writing poems than reinvention because it implies introspection and breaking apart what’s old and dead and reviving it, reconfiguring it, into something that helps shed some light on who we are and what we’re doing here. This process entails awareness of each other and a coming together to communicate. The embrace of Otherness. Also, personal “home” (aka soul) improvement, right? The saddest thing to witness is stagnation in oneself or another and that feeling inevitably requires some kind of breakage through, either in a negative, or hopefully, positive direction of epiphany and understanding. That’s what art and making poetry is—finding those knots of energy and unbinding them. That’s how myths are made. And there’s plenty of ugly that goes into making the shape of beauty sing.
Along that line, and because we just survived December 21, 2012, what is your understanding of all of the predictions that the world was going to end – or that we have just entered a new era?
Well, my nephew likes to remind that the monks who created the calendar we use today were about four years off so really all this drama should have gone down a while ago. Certainly there’s an enormous leaning into end-times ethos right now, but this isn’t the first time that’s been true in the history of human existence. The stakes seem awfully high, but they did for other civilizations as well. As a poet, my job is to report, mourn, conjure, praise and envision something new, among other things, including finding the best cup of coffee in town. Like The Boss says: “It’s hard to be a saint in the city.” And “There’s no coming to consciousness without pain.” (Jung) I’m thinking this is a good time to rent some Peter Weir movies. The Last Wave riding top of the list.
Portrait of Café With Young Schizophrenic Couple
They enter,and the customers in line step back,
the human chain yielding, almost imperceptibly,
to the heat of walking insanity. As if for royalty.
As if for senators, or chain-saw carrying
maniacs, for Jesus and Mary in tee shirts,
their stringy, unwashed hair and sweaty cheeks
doomed to roam each waking day, freak-shows
flashed randomly across the mind’s twisted, funhouse
screen. There ought to be a law. They ought
to get a medal. I think they are in love. Steamed milk
froths in baristas’ hands, machines blasting clouds
as blades grind another pound of Ecuadorian
French Roast to a fine drinkable dust. A flock
of ghost birds flushes up to a crack in the ceiling
the girl’s gaze follows, trailing cockeyed until it rests
on the spot where a bulbous fixture has come unslung
from its stucco roost. For her skinny, grimacing regard
this might be like watching a cow give birth to a miniature
calf in clown face. You make it up. Your worst dream
come to life. I think her boyfriend understands, sometimes
giggling together at telepathic cartoons, connected
by current, the dark rope taut between. See how his eyes
pulse, his mouth twitches in response to her moment’s
distress, so he leans a little closer, silently taking
her nightmare in, as the normal world circles
on its bored, ambitious waves. And the beasts of delusion,
their gnashing, imaginary teeth, tearing apart real flesh,
making it bleed.
Some Things I Can’t Stop Thinking About
Like Gold Silk Spiders from Madagascar so fond of spinning, humidity, heat—how they crave open spaces and southern arboreal, swampy roots. What’s inside is what everyone wants: a purely treasured, coiled interior. Sometimes females bodies, silver carapaces, millions of them, fastened in place with intricate machinery coughed up strands of silk for weaving into cloth—high prices sought on fashion blocks for sticky orb-woven robes. I saw a program about it, watched a model draped in folds of the spider-finery float down a runway, her arms outstretched like a sun, Christ-like. Sunday nights gathered for dinner, the family locked around the table, he’d grill us, questions meant to draw out moneyed answers and better manners. Whose face is on the hundred-dollar bill? he’d ask, clenching teeth and fork, his fist set firmly down while beneath pink napkins, something tensed to spring: Ben Franklin! from the glowing lap of myself—I Heimliched that shit right up, my jellied innards trembling like a new, wet pony and imagine father’s shock handing over the championed green! Imagine the skill required, imagine skeins of spooled history spilling, arachnid shells crumbled across fine, metallic tables. In Marin, California, women kill themselves having run out of what keeps machinery humming before husbands throw it over for younger clones. More than a few melancholy moms hunkered over porcelain, uncoiling their insides to better fit a daughter’s designer jeans. I open my mouth and yellow songs fall out. Calls of salvation, emaciated praise. The skill required to pull it out of yourself, chameleons crawling, bug-eyed in the grass beside. And that banana-hued beauty, Nephila Clavipes, on her eight evil legs, the Midas center streaming, screaming to be touched: holy, golden and killer strong, surpassing even Kelvin, material used in the making of bullet-proof vests.
Resentment is a Hard Habit to Break
To cast off, finally, all that anguish about the father, corners of the mouth slunk down, the mind turned seaward, nowhere but south. To beg pardon, break the scathing, critical seals. What is freedom? A forehead caressed, fingers oiled, touched to clove, lavender, ash, the self marked one’s own forever. Remember that kindergarten class where you subbed and a girl with gold curls and maniac’s laugh pressed her drawing to your face—some weird lopsided caftan scribbled in green: It’s so evil you can’t even get into it! She cackled and tore off. The door to this church is heavy and hard to enter. The arms of certain loved ones, hard to enter. What happened in paradise when the father refused you now commands a common misery. Christmas mornings moping under tinsel, unhappy manic on his sofa as you tore red ribbons off Bullocks-Wilshire boxes, the havoc of never enough. When font water burns, nails and wood will sing relief. Everything turned on its head, feet crested, un-rooted up. Best to reckon how a house divided against itself and falling unfolds a warped radiance, wings of a shiny beast stomping off, circled in smoke. Time to sweep the burnt parts and head home, make some twirling mobile of it. The lark, her numbers drilled down, still terribly bright—gorgeous stories wrested from wreaked disaster. Like dazzling Aphrodite divined spells to turn a lover’s hair to snakes, or a daughter into a harlot hell bent on sleeping with the man most resembles her father.
I’m walking with Dorianne on Michigan Ave.
and it’s February and Chicago but not so freezing
as when life-size sculptures kept a frozen camp
along this stretch of Grant Park. We need food
and warmth, maybe just a sandwich and cup
of turkey soup to divvy up. We can’t eat much anyway
now the metabolic whip’s come down. It happened
at forty-eight, suddenly the cells moving
glacier-like through our sluggish blue rivers, the body
deciding some days to hang a sign on the door
and chug home. There was a time I’d spend an afternoon
digging the bitter green sliver from a fair garlic thumb,
seed mountains of weeping Heirlooms, thread hunks
of yellow dough through a roller’s metal teeth,
the long Rapunzel locks strung from one end
of a tiny kitchen to the other, then snipped off
into boiling water. Meanwhile my baby suckled,
siphoning fuel from the oiled furnace of my chest,
sheen of buttery nipple stars poking through
my shirt’s thin firmament, child I’d soon nurse to bed
only to get up three times in the night and knowing
that, I still had the juice to be cheerful, to lift high
the steaming nest of noodles, to center that tangled gold
on my husband’s everyday plate and everything
about the moment slow motion focus on his face:
grateful, love rising through the numb ice of his skin,
melting the day’s cold cares, he’d look up at me,
at his food, leaning into that delicious heat,
his mouth a flower flamed open by the sun.
In the beginning was the word,
when winter light was almost gone
and it was time for homework at the library.
Into that warm cathedral
I’d fling myself,
soaked tennies and satchel,
willing pilgrim of the page,
the sweet smell of old books
made of tree molecules similar to vanillin
swirled in with the oily aroma
of budding adolescence, snack chips
and bananas, my deepest hungers
stroked for knowledge. Whatever
storm whipped itself silly
in the sky above those brick walls,
nothing could touch the electric charge
served up on our hallowed shelves.
How I loved
the glossy picture books: castle ruins
and California missions,
neon rings of Saturn and Comanche teepees
soon duplicated for school dioramas.
On one raw dark and stormy dusk,
a scratched recording of The Monkey’s Paw
made my bones giddy with fright.
Sometimes when no one was looking
I’d loiter by the adult novel rack,
spin the wheel of beat-up paperbacks
until it landed on a juicy slot:
Go Ask Alice, Fear of Flying,
forbidden fare for my innocence,
might set the blue fluorescents
flashing as lightning threatened
the ionized roof. Then I would kneel
on starry linoleum
under a neat row of shelved spines,
my feet gone numb in their soggy boats
and touch each title,
each humble flower crying to be picked.
I could lift one from its numbered plot,
run the leathered edge under my nose:
Bronte, Whitman, Hemingway, Dickens,
a little dizzy from the smell
like something ancient plucked from its crypt
and notice how the pages
had gone soft at the corners
like fur or dust,
so many fingers feeling their devotion,
the creamy surfaces worn down,
kissed with lips and eyes of the multitudes.