November 17, 2011KR BlogBlog

When a village is surrounded on all sides by fire: An interview with Daniel Khalastchi

Daniel Khalastchi is the author of Manoleria (Tupelo Press, 2011), and his poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in a variety of journals including MAKE Magazine; 1913: A Journal of Forms; jubilat; Forklift, Ohio; Court Green; Columbia Poetry Review; Denver Quarterly; and iO: A Journal of New American Poetry. Daniel is a co-founder/editor of Rescue Press, and he currently lives in Iowa City, where he is the Assistant Director of the University of Iowa’s Undergraduate Certificate in Writing Program.

Two poems from Manoleria, “The Maturation of Man:” and “I Wait, There is Chatter” appeared in the Kenyon Review Online in Fall 2009.

HP: There seemed to me to be many elements of fairy tale in the poems in Manoleria. Often the speakers are in fantastic situations, the terror and brutality of which seems in conversation with the terror and brutality of fairy- and folktales. In the manner of fairy tales, the collection calls up and works through what I’d describe as a series of symbols, all figures from everyday American life or traditions: apple, horse, motor oil, salesman, commercial flight, lawnmower. And as in fairy tales, the human body is subject to metamorphosis, and the distinction between human and animal (or even human and simple machine?) is fragile. These poems also have a sense of timelessness; they are somehow in a recognizable landscape but a mythic time. Have fairy tales and the fantastic been a conscious influence on your work? And/or, do you think the logic of these poems has something to do with the logic and tradition of fairy tales?

DK: This is a very intriguing question, Hilary, and before I begin my attempt to answer it I just want to thank you and all of your peers at the Kenyon Review for the work you are doing. This site is a fantastic resource for writers, one I know I will continue to engage with long into the future.

I can’t say with any certainty that the idea of fairy/folktales were  on my mind when constructing Manoleria. That said, I was certainly drawn toward the “fantastic”/preposterous as the poems began to take shape. I’ll touch on this more a bit later, but at the time these poems were being written (mid 2007) we (as a country) were faced with what still seems to me to be largely absurd and incredible realities (at least given the nature of our perceived good-natured democracy): bankers had fooled their neighbors with subprime mortgage loans, we were fighting potentially aimless wars on multiple fronts, word was spreading that our government was guilty of heinous torture and human rights violations, and Wall Street was beginning to show signs of just how risky their trading habits had become. In truth, it all seemed so outrageous to me that I felt (as a poet, and more importantly as a person living in the world) there was no rational way to view this landscape.

With that in mind, I was quite conscious of a certain unfortunate “agelessness” to these problems—it was not the first time our country felt so regrettably unstable, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last (right?). Like many writers, I knew I wanted to call attention to this feeling—to the shaky hands directing all these leather-wrapped steering wheels—but I wasn’t sure how exactly to do it. As I wrote, I kept coming back to a nameless narrator in an indefinable world that luxuriously wasted itself in the absurd and grotesque. I wouldn’t have recognized it during the writing process, but it seems clear to me now that the poems that make up Manoleria attempt to inhabit this “timeless” but “recognizable” geography because that’s the sad truth of how everything felt: this never was perfect, it won’t get much better, birds of some kind will always be pecking our wounds in the garden.

Fairy tales (in my mind) seem to usually have a lesson or moral attached to their narrative arc. While one could surely argue that Manoleria is a giant flare gun pointing at a crater, I’m more likely to argue that the book is just standing in the rain along with everyone else.

I’d like to talk briefly about the “logic of fairy tales” idea you brought up. There seems to be many ways to answer the question you raised, but the more I think about it the more I begin to question the concept of genres and what convention brings to the conversation between form and content. I guess all of this is to say that maybe these poems move in narrative measure so that the hiccups/breaks (in syntax, punctuation, etc.) become more punched and messy. If that’s what fairy tales end up doing, then yes: these poems definitely connect to that form of logic.

HP: The speakers in these poems are often in the midst of or on the verge of a terrible act—most often with an audience, making it a terrible performance. Usually they are, if not simply passive, then minimally resisting the horrific role they have been called on to perform. I have been thinking about these ideas of performance: the (existential? Beckettian?) horror of the individual at performing any social role; and the poem as itself a performance. That is, these poems seem like missives from within these minds, this recognizable but brutal world, and each knows exactly where to begin and when to end, and moves through a series of beautiful turns. Could you talk about ideas of “performance,” how they may be at work in this book?    

DK: All art is on a stage. Whether we are in a too-cold movie theatre or a dark alley staring at graffiti, it seems that every creative act is itself a type of performance. For me, every poem I’ve ever written only wants to add to a larger conversation—to step up to the bullhorn and have something worthwhile to say. The problem, however, is that most of the time no one wants to listen (if you’ve ever been a teacher you likely know this feeling quite well). As mentioned above, one way the poems in Manoleria potentially gain an audience is in part thanks to their “absurd” landscapes. I can’t say whether or not I was ultimately successful, but while writing/revising the pieces that made it into the collection I desperately wanted to avoid the potential response that the “surreal” (man, how I dislike that word) nature of the work would appear “gimmicky.” Hopefully the awareness of the audience (both as readers engage with the text in their hand and as the characters watching and encouraging/forcing our narrator to act within the absurdity they appear all too calm when surrounded by) allows for a kind of distance. Hopefully the stage on the stage—the play within the larger high school musical at work here—is enough to suggest that with regard to the scenes being acted out around us we either take work as extras or we strip down the set and direct it all ourselves. There is a car outside my window. Be honest: is this making any sense?

HP: One of the most moving things to me about this collection was its sense of the body, the body as the most intimate traitor. In these poems the body is constituted and transformed through appalling but mundane violence. Disease and death are always at hand. How did you come to this poetics of disease, of the diseased body? And, to make perhaps too big a leap, how does this sense of the human body relate to the animals that also populate this collection?

DK: Arda Collins, the brilliant and stunning poet, begins her collection It Is Daylight with the line, “At last, the terror has arrived.” I think of these words often when describing Manoleria specifically because of something you mentioned above: the mundane. The varieties of graphic, desperate violence we as consumers/citizens/etc. are exposed to daily is in itself violently desperate and graphic. News outlets, banks, movie studios, (sadly) our own government (to name a few) all seem to prey on our basic human fear of complete destruction and disorder. This constant panic has then led (for many people) to a disturbing sense of immunity or desensitization to dramatic and explosive events. We see enough homes flooded, we feel less the flooded home; a string of men gun down their families, we feel that much less gunned down.

I think what I mean to say is that the appalling, mundane violence you speak of is (are you ready for this?) the way of our world. Like most people, I see and feel this in everything I do/eat/read/watch/purchase, and maybe that in-and-of itself is how the body relates to this collection. It’s easy, unfortunately, to see something horrible (a village surrounded on all sides by fire) and simply turn away because it’s not happening to us (what else is on the television?). The body in Manoleria is intended to feel personal—by providing a speaker who uses a first person “distanced” voice (there’s no panic, no frustration), the poems seem to simply want to say: you are here. This is happening. Look around.

Perhaps one final thing worth mentioning here is health care. While I was writing this book, I was living on Cape Cod being paid to write by the wonderful and supportive Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I was aware that I would not have health insurance for the following year if I didn’t get a job, and at the same time I was very intimately watching my father struggle with a debilitating disease that left him without a colon but with wonderful medical care. Large scale wars and disasters often make headlines, but the fact that some people in this country are afforded the opportunity to tend to their personal health in a financially economical and progressive way while others are not is one of the most mundanely violent crimes of our time. My father was lucky. It seemed sad to have to think like that.

HP: Reading Manoleria in the midst of the protests on Wall Street, the aftermath of the deficit crisis, the health insurance debacle, escalating drone attacks throughout the Middle East and Central Asia (unmanned airplanes killing US citizens abroad…?), I felt that the collection was politically prescient, that the plagues that live in its pages will continue to resemble the plagues of American life. I was wondering how it felt to have written this several years ago, and written it somewhat quickly, as I understand, in one particular moment, and then to think of the book as document that continues to be encountered? And also, how its concerns relate to those of your present work?

DK: Yes, this is a strange thing indeed. As mentioned above, I wrote the poems in Manoleria during a very odd and pulsating time. While 2007 seemed obviously unique in many ways (it was that specific administration, fighting that specific war, talking themselves out of that specific scandal), I was aware (like many people were/are) that our country’s physical, social, and economic frustrations would likely never go away.  In your question you called these illnesses—these less than healthy national endowments—“the plagues of American life,” and I find this phrase fascinating. Looking at Manoleria now from some distance, I can’t help but feel like I’m holding a stained and cracked mirror that is still somehow able to display a discernible reflection. This protesting against big business, this rise of potential military strikes across the globe, disagreements over religious rights/state rights/gender equality/cultural equality, the embarrassing conversation about who owes what to whom, none of it is new. While this itself is not a novel statement, I say it here because it’s important to recognize that at least the conversation is still being had—that at least people are saying we are still watching, a simple idea that is at the heart of Manoleria and is hopefully felt by those who read the poems it contains.

I am not the one to say if it hums at every turn, but I’m excited to see that you picked up on the political undertones (overtones?) in the collection. I do indeed hope that as a document the poems allow for continued confrontation, and that in the end the isolating directions the collection seems to be presenting lead us all to a field of backpacks where if nothing else we can together stand up and look back at the night.

Since writing Manoleria I’ve tried to step away from certain poetic devices (less narrative, more space, a rhythm that beats closer home to our speech), but I’ve yet to find a way to turn off certain noises. I have a feeling that my poems will always carry with them at least a small sense of how we are living with the lives around us.  Maybe that’s how everyone writes? Maybe what I meant to say was I will always be concerned.