Interview with Mike Bagwell

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the dream-like imagery in “Nightmoves.” How do you approach combining reality and surrealism in a way that allows readers to understand the poem’s world?

Mike Bagwell: Surrealism acts to destabilize and disassociate from our normal linguistic context to explore the relationships that exist under and outside of our understanding, encouraging us to alter our subjectivity and redefine the boundaries we’ve erected around our thinking. That being said, world-building is incredibly important in poetry. Every poem, regardless of its relation to the surreal, creates a consistent universe with laws of physics and metaphor, and then expects the reader to step into it. Even if those laws are strange or if encoded into those laws is the fact that they can mutate or disappear, they still scaffold the poem and must adhere to themselves. I don’t know if that answers the “how” much, but I can say that I approach every poem’s world with the seriousness and attention of fantasy and sci-fi writers. The way in for a reader is the same as for a good work of that genre, letting the world unfurl naturally without bludgeoning the reader with proper nouns or exposition, and having action and emotion expand from and mirror the environments.

RR: We saw on your website you produce music in addition to writing—are there any musical influences within “Nightmoves”?

MB: My first serious art was music. I studied percussion in particular with a religious fervor, playing every free moment, playing until my fingers bled. This interest in rhythm doesn’t transfer over for me the way one might expect, to scansion and formal meter. Instead, I’ve always followed Frank Zappa’s thinking that speech features more interesting, irregular rhythmic groupings: quintuplets and polyrhythms, odd time signatures and fluid tempos. I also find that music theory informs my work: the tension and release inherent in certain notes and words, or how a melodic phrase or image appears, then mutates, and then appears again. “Nightmoves” has a lot of this musicality.

On a funnier note, although the title refers to the mechanisms of the unconscious and the Hegelian dark night of the soul, it’s also a nod to the classic Bob Segar song. The subway conductor plays a punned dual role announcing the music and I hear the song as a kind of tinny elevator music on the subway in the background with its “blues” and “feedback” sublimating to the poem.

RR: This poem evokes a sense of loss with not only the death of the conductor’s son but also a sense of ego death, and it goes on to explore the afterlife that follows that experience. As such an overwhelming subject, how do you approach loss in your creative endeavors?

MB: These are such great questions. The poem evokes loss and grief in ways I don’t think I’d fully processed when writing it. The tree poking through the sky of ourselves can function as a reference to unknowable violence, to intravenous drugs, to the impossible demands of capital. I lost some friends over the years to drug addiction and often felt hopeless in the face of it as if I was just waiting around for grief. Some of the same feeling arrives as we watch conflicts and genocides erupt around the world. As a parent, I can feel these kinds of loss and grief from another perspective even more clearly than I had, a transition more acute than I would have expected. Loss too is a mechanism for approaching presence, to understand what’s here by removal.

RR: You mentioned to us that this poem is part of a larger collection you’re working on, The Skypenis Sagas. How does “Nightmoves” fit into that, and can you tell us anything more about that project?

MB: The Skypenis Sagas is a collection of persona poems that harbor an antagonism for the sky. They hold monotheism, phallocentrism, and clouds generally as the greatest of frenemies, constantly bickering and defining themselves against that strife. A wide cast of characters—Skypenis, Mechaskypenis, The Cumulus Kid, and Mr. Kolaptō, among others—speak from the poems while intentionally blending into and interrupting one another. They rejoice in and poke fun at Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular, thrashing around in theories of the unconscious and metaphysics while also targeting similar projects like Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus for their repetition-via-negation of the same inherent problems and magic of the text.

Each section of The Skypenis Sagas is structured around the four incredibly phallic ‘Graphs of Desire’ Lacan created to explain his theories of the architecture of thought, unconscious, and language. I can picture him drawing these giant penises on a double-stacked blackboard in front of a very serious lecture hall filled with French students, Lacan gesturing wildly as he steps through these pseudo-mathematical (read mostly-bullshit) diagrams to elucidate the ridiculous and sublime—the whole thing is wildly funny to me. “Nightmoves” is drawn from the fourth section, Skypenis at Large, which follows the fourth graph where a double articulation emerges. The poem itself exists at the point where the unknowable demands of the Other become constitutive of the symbolic chain. All of which is of course just something for me to feel smart and give a little structure to the progression. Hopefully, they’re enjoyable and relatable without any of that reference.

RR: From the outside looking in, it seems you have some contrasting interests, including working in software engineering as well as an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. How do you see your other interests influencing your work as a writer?

MB: I answer this question in reverse in just about every job interview: “How’d you get from poetry to software?” The answer is that they aren’t so different. I found programming while launching a website for my (currently defunct) press and found myself obsessed. Code is a form of living poetry, one that interacts with the computer and the Other in strange and marvelous ways. I’m less sure of how that affects my poetry in the other direction. I’ve tried my hand at a few interactive poems with no success, though there’s certainly great work in the space. I’ve also tried adding some code syntax to poems and found that hard to navigate or add much meaning for a reader unfamiliar with the context. Maybe it’s only the use of the poem that is influenced, a renewed understanding of the ways the reader interacts with the exposed interface and code structures the poem builds, and the way it utilizes whole libraries that remain mostly unseen.


Read “Nightmoves” by Mike Bagwell in Issue 11.2