September 30, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiamsReadingRemembrancesWriting

VERVE {IN} VERSE: IN CONVERSATION WITH Michael Wasson

 

Note: Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. It’s such a pleasure to bring Michael Wasson to the series. From the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, Michael is a 2019 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow and a 2018 NACF National Artist Fellow in Literature. He also is the author of the forthcoming collection Swallowed Light (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) and This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), the latter which we discussed here. From its opening poem “The Confession,” This American Ghost is one of the most incredible texts I’ve ever read, and I really enjoyed talking to him about languages, being “an inherited body of the Americas” and that particular “aching for something that continues to vanish from present hands.”  -Rosebud Ben-Oni 

 

Rosebud Ben-Oni: Michael, the poem “The Confession” which opens your collection This American Ghost ripped me apart. (Well, the entire book ripped me apart, but I had to take a break after reading this poem the first few times.) The hanging, giving-all-the-space-they-need lines that swerve between slow tenderness and “hard-edged” desire, being reborn and dying again, taking a breath and needing that moment before taking the breath. Can you tell us why you chose to open the book with this poem?

Michael Wasson: My dear teacher in grad school, Jen Richter, gifted me some advice when I wrote what, years later, became “The Confession.” While advising my old thesis, she would say the reader should, at the very start, face the heft of everything that the rest of the project bears: the weapon, history, hurt, life and its loss.

The book, I feel, isn’t the same until that poem swallows you. The space opens, and you must watch a history and its damage, as one does—defenseless. The weapon speaks, and you are to carry its language and its directions. Hold steady, as I will erase you. Here’s the moment before the ghost flickers into being, and here are the most human words: héetewise, I love you—split between an ancestral tongue and the tongue of American conquest which then reveals this space of both departure and entry. It seems I didn’t have much choice.

RB: You have a horse poem entitled “Appaloosa”, and you know with me we have to talk about it here. What inspired the images of this “ghost horse” that the speakers says “will be my bones: refusing/ my skin/ to burn.”?

MW: The area north of my hometown is called The Palouse, or in my language, palúucpe. The appaloosa and us nimíipuu people developed a beautiful, renowned, and historical bond since the 18th century when we acquired our first appaloosas from the Shoshone. My grandfather has raised horses and appaloosas for decades, and I remember helping out with the horses when I was young. We held great pride and fellowship in these new animal-relatives. I wonder if that poem turns the ghosts of a past—from European contact to how the U.S. government tried to eliminate the appaloosa from us after the War of 1877—into a source of strength and resilience, of beauty.

RB: So much of the book explores self-discovery through connecting with others, particularly the motion of love and speaking as a form of seeing, and how both of these actions can be there and not there— present and reimagined— at the same time. For example, in “Another Confession” the speaker calls “to you / ’ahímkasayqsa in that/ you are in the motion now—// our blossoms torn—of being/ so beautiful in the mouth.” Too, “In Winter, as Ghosts” the speaker makes another attempt at connection by dipping between the yearnings of body and mind: “come father me/again the body begs// I’m dreaming of you/ shredding your/ c’ic’ál’ into a single/ metal jacket that is// your eyelids unblinking.” Is the ghost itself a desire of speaking by seeing to you as a poet?

MW: What a beautiful illumination you’ve made, Rosebud. Often, the poems in the book tend to witness images like portals to a world earlier centuries have smeared from our collective knowledge. At once, the light in a window becomes a fire, which then turns into our word for February (’alatam’áal), meaning the time of many fires in the winter. The word delicious (an adjective that comes from Old French and Late Latin for pleasure, delight, delicate, and al/lure away) becomes ’ahímkasaqca (a verb that means beauty occurring in the mouth but gets translated as ‘delicious’). Maybe there is a desire to speak these back into being.

There also remains an aching for something that continues to vanish from present hands. Perhaps the ghost is this felt presence that consoles and/or haunts, depending on where you stand, whose grave you fall apart over, and whose language you speak. I’m not entirely sure.

RB: What does the word “languages” mean to you? How do you move through them both on and off the page?

MW: I wonder. Is language what you take into your body to recreate the world? Are languages prayers we build of each other? A puzzling nourishment? A beautiful failure to flesh our collected, arranged fragments? And what is language but the unearthing of histories and severed memories and then being insisted to explain all these flowers around us? Gosh, I wonder.

In my daily life, I enter a language not mine. I speak Nihongo (language of the sun’s source/Japanese) everyday. I work with teachers and Japanese staff, so even though I’m not educated or trained in Japanese, I translate and use this language that the people around me continue to weave into me.

But by and large, I am an inherited body of the Americas, of my family, and the history stranded through my DNA. I’m nimíipuu. A sentence enters—in all its breath and bone—and I give what I can.

RB: What does community mean to you? How do you balance it with the solitary nature of writing?

MW: It is a gentle, assuring hand holding me in the dark. It is a lighthouse. I remain thankful for it, despite my tendency to hide away in my distant, little turtle shell.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

MW: Oh, so many lovely books. I live abroad, and I’m often limited to what bookstores in Fukuoka City offer, but these have left their teeth marks inside me recently: Pachinko, Museum of the Americas, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, Bluets, Convenience Store Woman, and I have bōru no you na kotoba (link is here, if you want to check it out), HHhH, On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Enigma Variations, and The Condition of Secrecy lined up.

Some lovely wonders who are giving me life: Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Leila Chatti, Xandria Phillips, Jake Skeets, Keith S. Wilson, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Jenny Xie, Alison C. Rollins, and more, more, etc.

RB: Congrats on your Ruth Lilly Fellowship, by the way! So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?

MW: Thank you so much for your warm words, Rosebud. My first full book, Swallowed Light, was picked up through Copper Canyon Press. I’ve been working on a longer prose project this year, but I don’t know where that will take me. Long form writing leaves me spent when I gather enough time to chip away at it.

Anyway, we’ll see—and thank you for you and your beautiful questions, Rosebud.