INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL VANCALBERGH
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: We love how in “The Kitchen Table Makes an Offering,” the kitchen table is portrayed so unconventionally. What brought you to write about something as simple as a table with this kind of depth and resonance?
Michael VanCalbergh: First, thank you for saying that the poem has depth and resonance. My blushing is incredibly deep and red.
This poem is one that is very close to my heart, so I will try to not get too lengthy in my response. “The Kitchen Table Makes an Offering” is inspired by the table that was in my father’s home while I was growing up. It was this large relic from when my parents were still married and constantly had piles of mail and paper that took up much of the space. To eat there, you needed to physically move these heaps of things, creating a kind of center piece of bills and credit card offers.
I always felt like the table was symbolic of the problems we were going through as a family. It’s were all the math was done on which bills could be paid and which could be ignored for another week. It was were we, rarely, ate together. It was this object that meant/means so much to a home that it felt like it needed to be in a poem. I also feel that we often see regular objects, in a home that struggles, as potential for violence or getting in the way, so I wanted to look at the side that provides comfort. Or, at least, tries to.
RR: In “Third Shift Morning,” over the course of the poem, the word “morning” even begins to sound like “mourning,” evoking the possibility of grief, even loss. Would you consider the poem to be a kind of elegy?
MVC: I’ve never thought of it as an elegy, actually. Which sounds like a rude response but I promise I loved it!
You have hit on something that I thought about doing and something that I was going for. I had thought, for some time while working on this poem, that I could use the word “mourning” instead of “morning”. I decided against it because I felt like the repetition of the word did that already (which, yay! it seems like it did), but I did want to invoke a type of sadness.
I wouldn’t say it is an elegy because the sadness here isn’t at the missing of something but the fact that the something is still there. The constant repetition of the same pain in a time of day that isn’t a typical “morning” is what is sad. I can see a reading of it as an elegy towards a life that didn’t consist of the third shift, but I didn’t want to write a poem yearning for a different time of day. I wanted to write a poem where the reality of the shitty (can I say shitty?) situation the subject is in is the focus. The barely getting through is where the sadness centers, not the lack of.
RR: Both poems emit a very lonely, dark tone, and they allude to being dissatisfied with adult life. How do you go about approaching darker tones and subjects without sounding overly dramatic or grim?
MVC: I’m not sure that I don’t sound overly dramatic or grim. Haha.
This is often an issue that I run into. Day to day, I’m a pretty jovial guy (I hope), but I’m prone to fits of deep sadness at the world around me. During those times is when I tend to do most of my writing, so the poems often, to me, come out grim or overly dramatic.
When editing though, I’m often in a jovial space. Creation of work is always super hard for me. But editing my work is pure joy. So, I often think to myself, “Jeez, let’s back away from the darkness for a minute” when I read my first drafts. While I often can see a truth I was trying to get at in the draft, when I revise, I’m always trying to balance the dark with the light. Even when working the third shift, there’s still coffee (an immediate joy) and even when you’re at your worst, the kitchen table will accept your tears and anger.
RR: We see that you’re the co-host of the comedy podcast WordsforDinner. Has working with audio and comedy changed the way you write your poetry?
MVC: It has, but in a more personal way than in a way that I share.
The podcast has allowed an outlet for me that I haven’t always had. Even though we are on a very long hiatus (possibly to return!?), when recording with Max, it allows me to explore the ways that in which I love language in a way that is very me. In my poetry, I’m often driven by idea first and come to the language after revision and many, many mistakes. But, the podcast has allowed me to start with language and just have fun with it.
It’s filled a need I didn’t know I had, which has allowed more space for the poetry to grow.
RR: Do you have a favorite comic book? Is there any connection or inspiration in that genre for your poetry?
MVC: You’ve asked the question that I fear the most: Do you have a favorite comic book? How can I possibly pick!? While I try to avoid that question, let me answer the second part.
I think that poetry and comics can learn a lot from each other. Specifically, in the conversations around panel transitions and what happens between images in a comic. McCloud calls it “closure” but whatever you choose to call it, I think it happens a lot in poetry too. What a reader fills in between images or stanzas, can be directed but there’s no way to completely control it. The experience of a poem (and a comic) are individual to each reader. They can be similar to other, of course, but each reader gets a unique, one of a kind experience that is their own. It’s the beauty of reading.
Thinking about this has allowed me to trust in my reader more by not explaining everything I’m trying to go for. And it has allowed me to trust how I see images/ideas/lines/breaks intertwine while working off each other.
You’ve completely forgotten about the first part now, right? No? Damn. Okay, how about two books I cannot stop thinking about? That sound good? Excellent!
First is On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. Oof, what a masterpiece. The second, equally as masterful, is The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew. I’m happy to talk about either one to anyone who will listen.
Michael VanCalbergh’s work in Issue 7.1: