The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: As a classically trained musician, what inspired you to write about something, such as silence, that we traditionally view as being so opposite from music?
Rebecca Macijeski: Works of music and language are composed, while silence is not. Silence is something I often seek, because it has no agenda. Unlike the melodies and conversations that often fill our minds, silence never tries to argue or convince us of anything. Silence is a kind of respite from the tendency life has to want to work its way into meaning something, the tendency for ideas or thoughts or works of art to become singular and limited. Silence allows a moment to unfold for the sake of itself, and when we give over to moments of silence we begin to feel and celebrate all kinds of energy that have nothing directly to do with us. The “quantum” part of “Quantum Silence” is a gesture back to when I first heard the analogy that the vast macroscopic distances between pieces of the universe–planets, stars, and so on–relate to the vast microscopic distances between bits of atoms. The power of that realization stays with me when I write, and helps me recognize moments of stillness or silence as rich with energy that leads and builds toward those louder moments like symphonies or planets or poems. It becomes strangely comforting to experience the world as a place of endless possibilities of energy; I can become an anonymous but still powerful element of a grander existence.
RR: You have a teaching philosophy called “embracing your authentic weirdness.” How does this influence your own writing?
RM: A danger among poets is the temptation to write something that’s strange for the sake of being strange. I ask myself and my students to “embrace authentic weirdness” as a way of accessing what is truly surprising or unique about our particular points of view. It’s too easy to write an abstract or affected poem that would merely startle or disrupt a reader; it’s another thing entirely to create a poem out of unexpected materials that remains true to the sensibilities and aesthetics of the poet. When I describe myself as “weird,” I don’t mean that I wear velvet cloaks or speak only in iambic pentameter–that wouldn’t be a useful kind of “weird” because it is artificially applied, as well as defined by my relationship to society. “Authentic weirdness” shows itself in the quirky practices that all creative types organically adopt but only sometimes become aware of. The other day I caught myself sharing over the phone that I collect my cat’s shed whiskers in a little pile on a bookshelf next to a phrenology head. I had never consciously acknowledged the practice before, but my initial embarrassment quickly turned to a kind of delight. This is, of course, weird. What’s useful is that collecting whiskers this way is something only I would do. I further realized that this behavior, oddly enough, reflects my approach toward writing. I view my poems as gathered naturally from passing moments in my life, and set in contrast against more artificially constructed notions of the world. That clarity about my own point of view, along with comfort in my particular strangeness, subconsciously permeates my poems.
RR: What has working on American Life in Poetry taught you about poetry?
RM: My work on the American Life in Poetry column has taught me that it is more important for poetry to communicate something true and real than to innovate or be clever. Originality is certainly important, but the more memorable and powerful poems I read gain their energy through clarity of focus and genuine feeling rather than linguistic gymnastics. I hold the strong personal belief that poetry can be forward-thinking and imaginative and meaningful while also remaining conscious of the primary goal of sharing human experience. Readability and shared expression are also things the column values. Poetry should strive to be as meaningful for the reader as for the writer, otherwise it will be lost to the realms of the obsolete and esoteric.
RR: You are one of the Assistant Poetry Editors at Prairie Schooner. How has working as an Assistant Poetry Editor impacted your own poetry?
RM: I would say that working as an Assistant Editor has impacted my poetry on a practical level. Through observing my experience reading through a high volume of poetry submissions to the journal, I’ve learned a number of intangible things such as: what it feels like to read a poem that demonstrates competent use of language and line but doesn’t fire on an emotional or visceral level, and how my reading experience is skewed when the best poem in a group is buried inside other less effective ones. I’ve learned about how to present my poetry to publishers, how to package it, and (hopefully) how to avoid the pitfalls I’ve mentioned. I’m also continually reminded in reading for Prairie Schooner how profoundly subjective and random the publishing world often feels. I’ll read submissions from poets who cite a litany of impressive publishing credits in their cover letters but whose work doesn’t come alive for me, while I’ll read work from poets with no credits whose work practically lifts me out of myself in surprise. This reality helps keep me grounded, both as an editor and as a poet.
RR: As a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, you teach introductory composition and creative writing classes. How does your own work as a writer impact the way you teach these classes?
RM: My work as a writer is very exploratory. I like to let myself wander through many possibilities before I settle on what a poem, an essay, or an undergraduate course wants to be. I strive to support this same kind of exploration and inquiry with my students, in both my critical and creative writing classes. The distinction between critical and creative work feels problematic to me, since everything we write is creative by its very nature, just as everything we create should be approached with some sort of critical eye. I approach each course I teach by considering how I can present the material–both texts and assignments–as invitations for students to explore something meaningful to them as individuals. I know that I require flexibility in my own writing projects, so I do my best to provide that flexibility to students whenever possible. It’s clear to me that my approach to teaching is quite a bit like my approach to writing poetry; my job is never to dazzle students or readers with my supposed intellect, or to impart information along a one-way street. Instead, I craft poems and courses with attention to the shared experiences I hope they will create. I hope that my work will in some way invite readers and students to ask themselves new questions about how and who they are in the world.
Rebecca Macijeski’s work in Issue 2.3: