May 20, 2019KR Conversations

Dora Malech

Photo of Dora MalechDora Malech’s most recent book of poetry is Stet (Princeton University Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in publications that include the New Yorker, Poetry, and Tin House. She is an assistant professor in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her poem “Running in Autumn” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Running in Autumn”?

The moment that served directly as the catalyst for writing “Running in Autumn” appears in the first line of the poem itself: “Here is where I saw a fox in August.” I was running a lot in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, one of America’s first big public parks, having opened in 1860. It is described as a “745-acre urban oasis” in the middle of northwest Baltimore, including a lot of wooded terrain with paths accessible to foot and bicycle traffic only. You can feel quite alone there, even in the middle of a city. One of the pleasures of having an ongoing running practice was an acquired familiarity with the area traversed, which yielded a heightened attention to seasonal changes in that landscape. Since running is rhythmic and in some ways monotonous (in a pleasurable sense, I think), it turns seemingly small moments—like rounding a bend and seeing the bright flash of a fox—into events. I literally stopped in my tracks to watch the fox pass by. That physical stopping in a particular location, and the beauty of the animal, the contrast between its reddish-orange fur and the surrounding lush green of August in Baltimore burned the moment into my mind, and each time I rounded that bend, I hoped to see the fox again. Instead, a few months later, I was struck by the sudden blaze of fox-colored fall foliage. This sent my mind off on the “what if” process that often leads to poems, imagining cause and effect between the animal’s passing in one season and the colors of the next season, while knowing that the real connectivity was my own attention, not some outside order.

The speaker of your poem encounters a fox in August and then sees that fox’s color spread across a forest, comparing the sudden “red and rust” in the trees to a fire. In this way, the color of an animal becomes a form of predicting future seasons and environments. How do you feel color works in a poem printed in black ink on a white page? How does your language encourage a reader to access the sensation of these colors?

I knew I wanted the poem to feel infused with the progression of colors but I also wanted it to be quite spare, to happen quickly on the page. I wanted the deictic word “here” to point toward two contexts and implications, establishing an intimate sense of presence as though the reader and I were in Druid Hill Park together, while allowing for a secondary reading that invited the reader to consider “here” as referring to the page or the mind or a shared room, if the poem were being read aloud. In the colorless context of black ink on a white page, the reader really has to participate, to take a leap of faith to agree to see and experience with me. Some of my favorite poems ask me to experience color—Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” or Lorca’s “Romance Sonámbulo,” for example. To encourage a reader to access the sensation of colors informing each other and bleeding into each other, I tried to link them not only through imagery, but also through phonic echoes of alliteration, assonance, and slant rhyme.

This piece is composed in relatively short lines and small couplets. Can you talk a bit about what the use of form and the minimalism of these lines contributes to the message or meaning of your piece?

I said that I wanted the poem to “happen quickly,” but a poem on the page exists to be read and reread at whatever pace a given reader desires. That said, I hoped that the short lines and couplets would give the sensation of a compression of time across three seasons, looking backward to summer and forward to winter almost simultaneously. The poem also foregrounds the physical motion of turning a corner or rounding a bend; I thought the formal focus on brevity would allow the reader to remain connected with that sense of turning and returning, a motion long connected with the movements of poetry in the very etymology of “verse.”

Your poem concludes rather powerfully with the lines “A small fire is still fire. / No telling what it can consume.” This final couplet seems to open the end of the poem up to possibility rather than close it into self containment; it seems to want to ignite something, or at least, to encourage a way of seeing that cares for small fires. Can you talk a bit about these lines and how you see them working?

Thank you. This ending remains multivalent for me. Part of me wants to invite a positive reading about the power of imagination and attention and commitment in both artistic practice and in social practice, but another part of me recognizes the ways in which the poem’s imagery and diction become ominous, opening up to conversation about the darker modes of being “consumed,” the way angers or fears or ideologies can metastasize, spiraling out of control under certain conditions. I’m not sure I’ve written many endings to be taken so positively and so negatively at the same time.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

My teaching and my visual art practice both inform and influence my writing, but those are so writing-adjacent that they don’t feel like real answers to the question. In thinking about this poem, “Running in Autumn,” I realize that exercise and physical motion in general, and specifically outside, would probably be a more meaningful answer. Spending time outdoors and in motion, whether that’s breaking a sweat, or walking to work, or just following my daughter around at her pace reminds me to pay attention and be in my body, while also enabling my mind to wander and associate, opening up the possibilities of poetry. It is a “simple” pleasure, shadowed by the realities of what our own consumption has done and is doing to our environment.