Are you ready for 88 pages of poetry that, according to Larissa Szporluk (author of Traffic with Macbeth), captures the “darkest and lightest aspects of being alive”?
Well ready or not, here it comes. In the fall of 2016, Modlin’s debut book Everyone at This Party Has Two Names will be available. His work has made him the Cowles Poetry Prize Winner. His previous works of writing have been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.
You can read Modlin’s poetry that was published in Issue 8 of Superstition Reviewby clicking here.
Here’s some exciting news for all you poetry fans out there. Robert Wrigley, SR contributor from Issue 7, has a new book called Box coming out in March 2017. This will be the tenth published collection of poems from the acclaimed, award-winning poet.
To purchase or read more information about Box, click here.
To read Robert’s poems that were published in Superstition Review, click here.
First, let me tell you about the room I don’t have, the one at home. I’m the mother of a son with autism, now 32, and my work space is a corner of the dining room, where I can be at the computer and still see the short bus when it arrives. My “desk” is a book bag, highly portable. My actual books are in book cases scattered throughout the house. And my work day is fragmented, too—we have to provide transportation for him now that he’s out of school, plus there are household tasks, doctor appointments, trips to the gym. . . .I’ve got a yard full of perennials and a vegetable garden which need my attention. My work day is also rife with interruptions—the doorbell, the phone, my beloved husband wandering in to read me items from the newspaper (which I’ve already read). And there are the other parts of caregiving: making up med sets, running a behavior modification program, cooking gluten and dairy-free meals; in general, I “run” things— But I also try to engage in the written word, even if it’s just reading, every day. I find it a small miracle that I’ve actually written anything at all, even though at this point I’ve published close to 900 poems. . . .
So, every eighteen months, I try to go away to a colony, specifically The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts http://www.vcca.com/main/index.php, in Amherst, VA. It’s competitive; I don’t always get in, plus sometimes there are things “in real life” that make getting away impossible. But right now, here I am, in sweet Virginia, on a May morning; paradise restored. It’s nothing fancy; the studios are basic, austere, even, in a repurposed dairy farm. I believe my room formerly housed cows. The outside is cinder block; the floors are poured cement. But there’s a twin bed (you can sleep in your studio, but I prefer to walk back to the residence at night); a “distressed” (many writers have put butt to chair here) but comfortable leather arm chair and ottoman; a large desk, big enough to hold my printer, laptop, slant desk, and then some; two small tables; a book case; and two lamps. And four big windows with a view of the hedgerow, the dirt road that winds through the campus, a meadow of wild grasses and daisies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching beyond.
Lately, I’ve been reading blogs about “how to keep going after the MFA,” which leave me puzzled. We’re writers; writers write. Or they construct manuscripts, which is going to be my primary task here, to put, not as Coleridge said, “Best words, best order” (his definition of a poem), but “best poem, best order” for two book length manuscripts. If I finish these projects, I plan to take a look at where the poems that don’t fit in either of these manuscripts are going, what the themes are, etc., with an eye to another book down the road. And I’d like to write some new poems, as well.
All these days, stretching out before me. It’s amazing, when you take food prep (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up afterward) out of the equation how many hours there are in a day. I could hardly wait to get here. I roll up my sleeves and begin.
Here’s a poem I wrote after a previous residency:
Wrapping up a residency, new work done,
car packed with poems, computer, books.
There’s a bluebird on the tree limb over my head,
white belly, orange throat, blue back.
His only job is to be beautiful.
For weeks here, there’s been nothing but work,
no jobs or families or domestic duties, not a pan
to wash or a meal to prepare. We have reverted
to childhood, trade items from our lunchboxes.
Play Truth or Dare at night. Put on plays,
read each other stories. On warm days,
we sit in the sun and drink lemonade.
No one tells us to clean up our rooms or our prose.
We write more and more. Whole forests have died
for our work. Each day, we are closer to capturing
beauty, though it flies out of reach.
I’d like to sit here forever, on the Pasternak bench,
Compression is achieved by leaving things out — useless details, obvious emotions. This is why I prefer espresso. Its blackness tells me there is just enough water. Consider the following maxims and observations on writing to be fifty cups of espresso:
On the need to write every day: No one can shoot a nickel off the back of a galloping ox with just one bullet. The most one bullet will get you is a dead ox.
On mistakes: There is a kind of progress we make when we trip and fall forward.
The eye can see only by continuing to blink. This is an argument for stopping work when a poem gets stubborn and ceases to improve. Time in a dark drawer is always time well-spent.
The critic has the blueprints, but the poet builds the palace.
On my former aversion to prose poems: I used to think of them as mules — sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena — that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.
There are works that I’m ashamed to have not read, and there are those that merely embarrass me. This is the difference between the greatness of the past and the enthusiasm of the present.
Certain scenes are awkward because the characters don’t play well together — they are like dolls of different scales pushed into the same tea party.
The painter with chopped-off hands will learn to sing better than the writer with inherited pitch.
A good book should stay with you at least as long as your average tick bite. Reading it should make you itch.
In a forest, the best poets think of axe handles and violins.
On revisions: Don’t treat first drafts too preciously. Nobody carves a log before pushing it into the fireplace.
Distancing yourself emotionally from the subject matter of your stories is important. But there’s a point at which the faces grow indistinct and we cease to have any stake in who dies or falls in love.
On the popularity of confessional poems: The mirror always answers.
The painter would make different choices if he began instead with a black canvas.
On poems that refuse to get finished: It can be like carving your initials into the sea or digging up the shadow of your favorite spruce.
I’m the kind of person who takes more pleasure in the novel he burned than he does in the novel he’s trying to finish. The former, at least, provides a good anecdote at a cocktail party.
On the critic who tries to advance the careers of his friends by writing favorable reviews they don’t deserve: The dog is the planet to his fleas.
On the charge of strangeness: The world is my materials. I won’t apologize for my materials.
On ambition: Climbing the mountain doesn’t bring the stars any closer.
Extra syllables at the end of a poem are like a squeaky piano stool as the final notes of a symphony try to evaporate.
The dictionary is an anthology of one-word poems, footnotes included.
A sonnet is a jail that lets us in.
On the influence of dead poets: The wake of a swan continues long after it has taken flight.
Trusting a poem is our first mistake. Living as if we had not read it is our second.
That a poem means is more important than what a poem means.
On obscurity: Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everyone’s night vision has been ruined by sitcoms and football.
On the growing number of people claiming to be poets: The tiniest flowers have no fragrance; America is full of tiny flowers.
When I was young, if a poem wasn’t about being with a woman, it was about being apart from a woman — and all the great merits of either circumstance.
On writer’s block: We need not fret about our occasional lack of inspiration. The guitar player needs to take a day off to let his calluses thicken and heal. A man needs a nap before screwing his woman a second time.
On reading the lines I wrote when I was high: After the sunset, the pollution goes back to looking ordinary.
Stories either start stable and become strange, or start strange and become stable. The ice is always melting or hardening.
In defense of sonnets: The piano is an old instrument, but we can play new songs on it.
On the charge of prettiness: Yes, the bell of the tulip is pretty, but it cannot rise without some dirt beneath it.
The critic concerns himself with the parts of a poem the way a disreputable mechanic wants every piece to shine and be new. The poet simply wants the goddamned car to move.
Nature poetry should be more than verbal postcards. In any glorious arrangement of mountains, we must find at least the shadow of a man.
The poet transmutes the world into sound the way a bluejay turns trash into a nest.
Don’t let your admiration of traditional forms override the notion of suitability. If the form doesn’t correspond to the subject, the poet will be accused of trying to fit a puppy inside a ringbox, of delivering a diamond inside an aircraft carrier.
The will to criticism: It’s just the urge to have answers at a particularly severe cocktail party.
We like listening to known liars. It’s the pleasure of hoping they’ll trip themselves up. A poem must proceed with the liar’s bravado. In this sense, a poem should leave the reader frustrated.
On failed poems we can’t stop revising: There’s nothing so steady as a half-sunk canoe.
On finding no one to publish a poem: It feels like a five-dollar bill with too much taped and missing.
The worst poets treat their poems like puzzles — something merely to be figured out. In the most dire cases, they withhold several pieces, hiding them in their breast pockets, forcing us to come to them with questions we would rather not ask.
Poems can fail in two ways: boredom or confusion. Boredom stems from too small a grasp — the ordinary sand grain in the palm of a hand. Confusion stems from extravagance — the attempt to palm a city. Given the choice, I prefer my poems to fail always by confusion.
On self-promotion: A car can rev its engine just as loud whether the trunk is full of gold or horse shit.
We are awestruck by actual sunsets, but embarrassed by their photographs. This is a proof that some beauty defies translation.
On the need to take a break from the daily routine of writing: If a garden goes untended long enough, even the weeds come into flower.
During the initial draft of a poem, when we are knocking on every door we come across, there is that moment when a peephole goes dark, and we know that the door must be kicked in.
On inspiration: Sometimes, the girl is brought out of the marble by a single hammer tap.
On our steadily fragmenting culture: At the rate things are going, someday even Jesus will require a footnote in the Norton Anthology.
On ambition: I won’t be content to be called the American Shakespeare. I won’t be satisfied until Shakespeare is known as the English Rafferty.
I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry. The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.
Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic. A poet sees through words and thinks in song. To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat. What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?
I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.
I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.
A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.
 See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder; http://webh01.ua.ac.be/apil/apil101/deroder.pdf).
 On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.
When I’m not writing I go through phases. Vague uneasiness. Mild anxiety. Crankiness. Nasty beating up of my vulnerable self. Days of brooding.
It won’t take much to get me writing again—it can happen any moment. Whatever it is that snaps me back into what I consider my true and best self is almost always random. Past experience has taught me that the solution is just to try to pay attention to the ten thousand things. So I take a lot of walks. In the City Market parking lot I’ll overhear a girl telling a guy to “Shut up!” in a flirtatious way. That afternoon I’ll have a poem I’m just itching to read aloud to somebody.
In the cemetery through which I frequently walk, I’ll notice for the first time a small stone that says “Ida Grace / Born & Died / October 3, 1935.” For decades Ida’s been down there urgently whispering, Ampersand, ampersand! In a lucky instant my ears will pick it up.
On a road trip I’ll notice lines of a Delbert McClinton song on my iPod—“She’s 19 years old / and already she’s lonely.” Shazam! I’ll have a character in my head–a half pretty and brooding kind of young woman—who’s definitely worthy of a short story and maybe even a novel.
These gifts won’t come along because I’m anxious or cranky or brutally self-critical. They will arrive because the world is generous and our lives in it are infinitely worthy of attention. The best of what I see sometimes comes catty-corner–from off to the side of where I’ve been looking.
But time is stretching out. The last piece I drafted all the way to the end was back in July, and now October’s started saying its goodbyes. I’ve gone through worse stretches, but this is extreme. Last week I decided I had no choice. I have to embrace Not Writing, make her my girlfriend, tell her that in spite of my moodiness I really, actually like her. So I’m taking her on my walks, reading to her in bed, bringing her coffee in the morning. She’s not much for talking, but now and then I get a quick grimace that could be her version of a smile.
Now that Not Writing is my girlfriend, everything I see and hear and smell and taste is intense and radiant. The mockingbirds aren’t just flying and singing–they’re gliding through my dreams. The traffic on Madison Street isn’t just noise and speed, it’s an atrocity that prophesies a future full of rage. This world wants an Old Testament prophet. Out there in the middle of the street, I’ll shake my fist and scream at the cars. They’ll swerve around me and won’t slow down. Out there in the street I’ll be crazy alive.
My girl? For a few days now she’s been making plans to leave town. Having bitten the inside of her lip until it’s sore, now she’s thinking maybe she needs to start smoking. She’s never liked the smell of cigarettes, but she already likes whiskey, and she wants to taste bourbon and smoke simultaneously. She takes a sip, then a drag, inhales, exhales. I’m still lonely, she says and hangs her pretty head. Oh I can tell you this! If I weren’t a writer–if I didn’t believe that I’m on the verge of drafting up something that’s bound to be really good–I’d be a dead guy.
Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.
SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.
Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.
This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.
SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?
MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.
I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.
SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?
MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.
Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.
SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?
MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?
MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”
It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.
So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters. One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.
SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?
MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”
I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.
SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?
MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.
Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.
If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.
When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing. Take notes in vocables.
Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.
In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal. One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.
Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.
No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.