Interview with Michael Lauchlan
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Just Imagine How,” we were struck by the emotional nuance in the relationship between the speaker and the subject. How do you approach thinking about character and story in your poems?
Michael Lauchlan: After Felon was released, I read an interview with Reginald Dwayne Betts. He warned against making yourself the hero of your poem. Even in poems drawing deeply on personal experience, I’m creating a character from the material of that memory. Perhaps the writer is never quite fully the “I” for more than a passing phrase. That allows for a bit of freedom and brings us closer to confronting real motivations. In “Just Imagine How,” the speaker (a somewhat familiar character) fibs a bit and sees himself getting caught. He’s clearly not the hero and his remembered “journey” is a pitiful circle, from which habit (or the ghost of a sheep dog) leads him home.
RR: What was your process in crafting this poem; were you inspired by individual images or a larger vision?
ML: Something gave me the opening. I’d been rereading Jim Harrison’s “Theory and Practice of Rivers” and, from that poem’s wildness, the word “imagine” jumped out. I started fantastically at first (having never tried to fly a plane, etc.), and then drawing on “actualities.” I was struck by moments when we are almost blown by the wind or by unacknowledged currents within the self. My wife claims that she went to nursing school after seeing a uniform on a mannequin. She was an amazing nurse for forty years, the last twenty in oncology. The oddest part of the poem, the middle of the night meander to the river, was based on an uncomfortable memory of a night in which I was quite wrought. I wasn’t writing much and wasn’t on good terms with myself at all, but the strange light and the river wind got my attention. I included those images almost against my will, following them as far as I could, then trying to cut back the resulting overgrowth.
RR: The final line feels surprising and poignant after the fraught questions in the latter half of the poem. How do you think about suspense and momentum when you write?
ML: Fraught questions, indeed! In the midst of COVID, my wife and I decided to look over our advanced directives and (given our ages and the deadly prospect that so many faced much more directly) to take steps toward making wills. I have quite an aversion to forms, plans, etc. I actually began the first draft of the poem after I had abandoned the project for the night. The prospect of death provides a stark angle from which to view four decades of marriage, an angle that can induce a nostalgic trance. Perhaps the poem’s turn begins when the speaker (and now I, as writer, am fully on stage in the poem) awakens to how much his lover has taught him about the nature of love, partly by the way she’s loved others, but also by the way she has put up with (oh God!) me. Maybe this is the humbling moment Crane called “Chaplinesque.” Who wants to hear the answer to the imagined question?
RR : We see you teach at the University of Detroit Mercy. How has teaching affected your own writing?
ML: Recently, I was able to read with colleagues Stacy Gnall and Cal Freeman. At UDM, I’m constantly being mentored by friends who are decades younger than I. And I take pleasure in being able to bring new (and freshly discovered) work to students, who often open new doorways into old poems. Even poems I’ve taught many times–from Ross Gay to Komunyakaa, Szymborska, Trethewey, and Boland—continue to astound me and shape me.
RR: The speaker in “Just Imagine How” claims to hate movies; do you share this sentiment? Is there any movie that has positively impacted your writing?
ML: The speaker is really wrestling with the kind of fantasies that characterize old movies. Unlike my character, I don’t hate movies—though I am unable to watch them frequently enough to please my wife! I have strong idiosyncratic reactions. I cringe at stagey dialogue and elements that seem to diminish folks, or to elevate power and wealth. The great cinematic images get under our skins. I think of Chaplin’s The Kid. I’ve loved the grit of John Sayles’ films. And a film like The Lunchbox offers the tenuousness, the evanescence of its literary romance.
Michael Lauchlan’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here: