The Poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: “The Lave” and “Fog in Michigan” are both grounded in discussions of loss or grief, although they seem to approach them in slightly different ways. In particular, “The Lave” seems to offer moments of laughter as a form of coping with loss. What do you feel is the importance of allowing for two seemingly separate emotions to occupy the same poem?
Michael Lauchlan: The poems I return to again and again have a texture (think of the elegiac wit of Larry Levis) which calls to mind the kind of conversation I might have with my wife or another long-time friend– where we might literally be laughing and crying in close proximity, where we might be so unguarded that we allow entry to thoughts we hadn’t ever intended to entertain. Osip Mandelstam spoke of “the interlocutor” or best reader, an intimate for whom poems are intended. I’m not on my best behavior with my intimates. I should be at least as careless (artfully so, I hope) in my poems. If I drain all of the grief from a poem in order to let in an image of my grandchild, I am reducing it to saccharine. If I refuse to admit the joy that rises from the love I’ve known, I may be bowing to some grim convention– cynicism disguised as vision.
RR: In “Fog in Michigan,” the narrator says, “you invent / what you miss when you can,” when describing the recollection of a conversation with his wife. Is it necessary to, at times, sacrifice “truth” or what may have actually occurred in order to write a better poem? Do you see the invention of these missing parts as a foundational aspect of writing?
ML: Absolutely. In our closest relationships, we only partially understand each other. We construct inner images that are (hopefully) somewhat related to the mysterious reality. In poems and stories, we frame imperfect lyrical realms which hope to invite a reader closer to the mysterious. As you suggest, writing becomes more liberating at the moment when we depart from the immediate circumstances of the poem via exaggeration (I’m only a little deaf!), selection, amalgams, etc. We go beyond and through the surface of things. Of course, I am terribly invested in faithfully reflecting a sense of place, so one must resist appropriating and misrepresenting. Again, we are talking about relational authenticity and authorial integrity.
RR: The epigraph of the Robert Burns quote works to set the foundational theme of “The Lave.” How much of a role did the epigraph play in the formation of the poem itself?
ML: I’ve taught “To a Mouse” for twenty years, and its lines are among those that spring unbidden to mind. Whenever I really screw something up, I am tempted to note (between profanities) that my schemes “gang aft agley.” The central narrative is taken from our wedding night over 30 years ago. I still remember being absolutely convulsed by laughter. I’m hard pressed to think of a time that undid me so completely, and I was ideally positioned to appreciate it. I’ve been thinking of Burns lately, of his poems’ simple radical compassion– a spirit badly needed in our communities today. I wonder whether laughter– the kind that comes from a Chaplinesque recognition of our mortality and human frailty– might provide a key.
RR: Many of your poems are centered around Michigan, specifically Detroit. Places with such storied pasts are often politicized in poetry. How have you navigated the character and history of your hometown without becoming burdened by dense, ongoing political debates?
ML: In a lovely interview with Bill Moyers, Sherman Alexie discussed living “in between”– claiming the full complexity of his identity and owning his complex relationship with all of it. That is very liberating for me. I am a white man from a black town. I am a Detroiter who now lives in a suburb. I work in and care about the core of Detroit– in all its beautiful complexity. I’ve been gently shaped by coaches, neighbors, and jazz musicians, by plumbers, teachers, and activists. I would be beyond pretentious to claim to speak for anyone else. Still, I carry my eyes into every home, every neighborhood I visit. If I fail to carry back something real and alive, it means that part of me has gone dead.
Osip Mandelstam’s “interlocutor” becomes important here as well. If I’m speaking in my poems to an intimate reader, I can’t wag my finger. My real intimates are all wiser than I am about the politics. If I get rhetorical now and then, those poems generally land in the trash. I do have some rage mixed in with my love, but I hope to turn the anger into craft, to work by evocation rather than bombast.
RR: Both poems have elements of urban pastoralism. In what ways do the natural world and urban
or peopled narratives occupy your interest?
ML: The truth is that I am so far off the end of the extrovert scale that even when I am alone I am in conversation. Perhaps that accounts for the “peopled narratives.” I am also a city kid. Only in adulthood have I discovered a hunger for quiet, for all manner of greenspace and its attendant bustling animal life. Perhaps I discovered what Wallace Stevens called “the voluptuousness of looking.” Whatever moves me to wonder moves me to write. So biking my way to relative sanity (and a modicum of health), I encountered one spring morning a shrieking white beech at a bend in the road. I haven’t yet known what to do with this image, but I often visit that memory when I needed to untangle some inner argument. Your lovely question serves as an invitation to attend even more carefully to such evocations.
“The Lave” and “Fog in Michigan” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.2