Friday, July 18, 2014

Please take a look at my review of In the Event of Full Disclosure at The Philadelphia Review of Books
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at The Philadelphia Review of Books

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Interview with Poet Cynthia Atkins

Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Cynthia, for agreeing to an interview.
Many have pointed out that your new collection, In the Event of Full Disclosure, is about a family dealing with mental illness. I was struck by the number of ways the collection connects those familial struggles with larger societal issues as, for instance, the way our tabloid culture wants the dirt on everyone and the idea that completely confessing our mental dysfunctions will somehow lead to a cure. Did you intend such connections and could you comment on them in the larger arc of the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: I guess I see larger societal issues as the threshold I wanted the arc of the book to straddle—that fine line between public and private, the interiors and exteriors. These things interest me and they inevitably lead to a discussion on how we exist in the world as individuals, families and societies, and yet we exist in the world for the most part, alone. We are still seriously stalled in knowing how to deal with the elusive and complex problems that arise when a family member is afflicted with a serious mental derailment. In my case, both my father and my sister had debilitating mental health issues that threatened the health of all of our relationships. Also, the whole mental health system is very broken. I am hoping that my book can help continue the conversation, and help allow some air in the room of stigmas and taboos. I hope the narratives and personas allow the reader to experience from different tones, vantage points, and personas. In our life time, most of us will know someone who is afflicted, or we, ourselves will be dealing with instabilities of our own. Daily life is stressful and complex, which is of course one of the reasons we go to Art, to help us disentangle the morass of life. 
Michael T. Young: The opening poem, “Liturgy,” concludes by saying of the unsayable thing it talks around that “It is the greed inside your prayer.” The complications of desire surface in the collection in various places. What do you see as the issue around desire and greed as it evolves in the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: “Liturgy” was a key poem for me in the book, which is why it is the first poem, and it addresses the first layer—the individual. For me poetry is the place I go to ask the questions. This poem was speaking to the place between carnal and spiritual life—our wants, our needs and our desires. I think being human and growing up is realizing that these dualities are so closely tied together, and sometimes it is hard to separate them out.  The last line in the poem was for me a kind of revelation and it was a shock to me when it came—the truth being that much of what we do in our lives starts from a place of greed, pure human greed.  Again, I think art and literature help us find redemption for this failing. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “Vessels” says, “All I learned and forgot, tallied/and catalogued in the room beyond/the room of knowledge.” And the poem “Birth Right” says, “Born to know that we’ll never settle our accounts.” How much of the cure to anguish these poems seek is in accepting that there is no cure, only a kind of reconciliation to the given? What constitutes that?
Cynthia Atkins:  Interesting that you make the connection between these two poems. I think there is a thread that connects these poems for me in the idea of knowledge—and how much of our knowledge is instinctual, rather than learned. While writing “Born to Know” I was in the throws of watching my son learn how to read and write, and thinking about the things he comprehended while I was reading to him. For instance, when reading him the legendary bedtime book, “Goodnight Moon” (Margaret Wise, Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd 1947), I was always amazed that he understood that symbol of the moon—crescent, full, waning, gibbous, waxing—he understood that they were all the moon. That seemed to me instinctual knowledge, rather than learned, and I thought a lot about this concept while writing that poem. The way in which we take in, learn and process the world around us, as well as the knowledge that we learn to catalog and compartmentalize. “I know trees are meant/to hold the rain.” That image is made from the point where all these things fuse and come together. 
I am curious about how much luggage we come in with and how much is acquired along the way. Of course the ultimate question we ask and wonder—do we come into the world knowing we will die?  I will never forget when my 3 yr. old Eli asked me that, the hardest thing to have to tell your child. I paused and realized that I had to answer and pop the bubble at three, “Yes, you will die.” But at that moment when he asked, I realized that he already knew the answer for himself. I think we all come into the world with the crib-notes on that score: “We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality.” ― Djuna Barnes
Michael T. Young: In “God as a Character in the Room,” it says, “where everything is dated,/nothing is sacred.” The limits of knowledge and of confession are probed throughout the collection. Could you talk about those limits in the context of the collection? How do you see them in relation to the anguish and trying to get at the truth?
Cynthia Atkins:  Our culture is at a strange impasse between commercialism and fast-food religion, in trying to sustain any kind of spiritual life in this climate of superficial hype a la reality TV and the branding of our own images. It is a strange time to be living in the vortex of science, politics and religion. Finding the balance between the material and spiritual realm is a challenge.  We have so many millions of pieces of information coming at us all day long. Not to mention, the cadre of selves we also have to keep up with on social media. In the old days, you were interrupted by a chance phone call, or the UPS truck, maybe a car alarm. Otherwise, one felt truly alone. There is a place of complete solitude that I need to feel to get to mechanisms that allow me to write. Sometimes it is several layers to get to the bone, like the fat of the day that needs to be skimmed off. I feel it is more and more difficult to feel this sense of self and isolation. We are plugged into so many orifices, everything we say is held before a jury and court, and our self-worth is measured by how many ‘likes’ we receive in a day. We are bound to be taking a psychological beating and it is exhausting. Paul Bowles said, “The soul is the weariest part of the body.”
Michael T. Young: A number of poems indicate that language and writing are profoundly important. For instance, “As Seen From Above,” says, “words/were considered monuments.” What is the significance of writing and language in the context of mental illness? How does it help or hurt? Can this be related to the larger societal issues suggested by the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: In working with the subject of family and mental health, I was very interested in looking from completely different aesthetic angles and conceits. For me as a poet, language is my way in—images and words that allow us to perceive an object, let’s say an iron, or a bowl from so many places, depending on the context. Sometimes, I like to jettison narrative and let the language just play itself out. I let myself off the hook, sometimes just wanting to be on the playground with words, getting dirty, taking risks, failing, just having some fun with words. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “In a Parallel Universe,” says, “On the other side of the mirror, we will be stalked/by the lies we told.” The poem “Order/Disorder/Order” says, “Disclose my unbearable/junkyard of mental debris?—No dice.” How do you see balance struck between the need for limits on disclosure and the equally important need for honesty?
Cynthia Atkins:  It interests me that no matter how close or intimate we are with another human being—no one can really know our minds. It might be the last vestige of our privacy. Our lovers, spouses, kids, parents, siblings—as close as we are tied by blood, semen, history and roots—we are not kept privy to the real thoughts of another human psyche. In the end, it makes me wonder what we disclose to each other, and finally, what we really disclose to ourselves. Honesty is a very guarded enterprise and it comes at many costs. Not long ago, I read with my students the essay by Stephanie Ericsson, The Ways We Lie and I found it truly fascinating to see how she disentangled the various ways we lie to each other and ourselves. Striking the balance with my own writing has been a high-wire act. In writing about family or those we know, we have to be careful with the privacies of others in what we disclose. This is why I often write through a persona. Readers may want to see the speaker and writer as one, but this is not always the case.
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purchase In the Event of Full Disclosure
Michael T. Young: Questions of identity, of course, play out in many of the poems. The most obvious is “Google Me,” where the knowledge at our fingertips suggests that we are changing ourselves with every search and with a right to claim any of those identities. What do you see as the nature of identity in this collection?  How does it relate to the other themes of desire, disclosure, and the need to negotiate some way to handle the anguish?
Cynthia Atkins:  Id and ego are such close siblings. I teach a class called “The Ties That Bind” which deals with the roles of family in our lives—the quest of course is to consider all the things that go into the composition of our own identities. For instance, I think it is endlessly fascinating to think about the fact that in a single family, sisters and brothers may be made from the same DNA, yet all turn out so differently, even with similar histories, memories, and experience. Gratuitously, much of the material from class readings, discussions and reflections on these matters has landed in In The Event of Full Disclosure.
As I say in another poem, “anguish is harmful to live with” and “I’m wanting a text book/on the matter.”  These things I say with some dry cynicism, but at the bottom, I feel full of heart about trying to find the balance. Pain is painful, but it is the thing that makes us appreciate happiness and pleasure. I am a strong believer in yin/yang—we can’t know one without the other. Our identities are shaped by the good, bad and ugly of life experiences. I know I am a composite of all of these fragments.
Michael T. Young: What is your favorite poem in the collection? Which is it and why is it significant for you?
Cynthia Atkins:  Family Therapy IV” is a poem that for me has resonance on a few levels. First crafting this poem was a significant turn for me. Having the boundary of the couplets made me reign in and say what I had to say in a more compressed and compact fashion. I felt an affinity for the voice in the poem. I think of it as the voice of ‘the doctor,’ someone who knows us intimately and impersonally—detached indifference. I felt I had achieved what I was after with the poem in music, conceit and subject matter. I still get a faint chill when I read the poem, so it has held up to me in my own readings. I guess I have a few favorite children here.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Cynthia Atkins: In terms of fiction writers that have lit the poetic fuse, I would have to say some of the post-modernists—Luis Borges’ stories, Italo Calvino, Djuna Barnes were writers I was reading while writing In The Event of Full Disclosure (five years!), as well as poets like Amy Gerstler, Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Koch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gertrude Stein—many voices and bats in the belfry no doubt are lurking around. They’ve all taught me something about language and meaning. The best writers make you want to write. Rambling around in the attic of everything we write are these archival ghosts, they leave us such resonant contrails.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Cynthia Atkins: I guess I‘d have to say visual art is my other passion—but maybe that has too much to do with poetry and writing, as it is a great source for me. I think poetry and visual art are much more related than poetry and fiction. There is an immediacy and sense of time that happens when looking at art or reading a poem—a kind of synesthesia that happens as all the elements come together.  So I guess this doesn’t really answer your question, but on the other hand, not much has nothing to do with poetry or writing: “The writer should never be ashamed of starring, there is nothing that doesn’t require her attention,” said Flannery O’Connor. I guess the answer to your question is watching my son Eli play soccer—he plays with such vim and vigor. I have never been anything remotely athletic, so I really enjoy the way he uses his mind and body together to accommodate the mission. It gives me a lot of joy to watch him connect to his passion. But then, I just used a ‘goal post’ as an image in a poem, so nothing escapes a writer’s wrath. 
Thank you for your close and passionate reading, Michael—these questions were seriously penetrating, and they made me do some serious and heartfelt digging!
Michael T. Young:  Thanks for your time, Cynthia.  Let’s close with your favorite poem from In the Event of Full Disclosure.

Family Therapy (IV)

It is the thing we always fail
to mention on all the forms—
the despotic voices dancing off
the charts, and on the trail
of our acrid ancestors, haphazard
and lorn, sniffing us out like cadaver dogs.
Our chromosomes flirting
on the cordless phone—Deceases of the heart
and kidney are just the body’s bric-a-brac.
Incorporeal or obscene?  We are the doctor’s worst
unexplained nightmare. And we never speak
of the Endocrine glands—Unsavory
secretions passed down like the heirloom
nobody even wants.  We are a Rogue nation.
No country or comfort zone.  Inhospitable bedrooms,
where our parents detonated bombs, blamed
the groping in-laws. Our family trait is to remember
only the good times, like a last blown kiss
at the door—But more like a breath
blown over a bottle, forever haunting
the offspring.  Hush, we’ll never tell,
yet deep down we know, the mind’s pain
is the last inconsolable and extra gene.
Rabid dog in the school yard—
Mean and mad and frothing.
Cynthia Atkins
First appeared Harpur Palate

If you would like to read more about Cynthia Atkins and her work, please check our her website:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Remembering Nina Cassian

The news that Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on April 17th has overwhelmed the news—even for those who are likely to know—that another amazing literary figure died only 2 days before: Nina Cassian.  Nina Cassian was the pen name for the Romanian poet born as Renée Annie Katz.  Cassian’s biography is the stuff of Nobel Prize winners, like that of Joseph Brodsky or Czelsaw Milosz.  She grew up primarily in Bucharest, where her family relocated when she was eleven.  Her first collection of poetry was condemned by the Communist authorities.  For a time Cassian tailored her writing to be less controversial, but she was an exuberant personality and secretly wrote satires of the government during the oppressive Ceausescu regime.  In 1985, Cassian was invited to teach at New York University.  While here, her friend, Gheorghe Ursu, was arrested and tortured to death.  The authorities found Ursu’s journals in which he also transcribed Cassian’s unpublished poems lampooning the government.  This resulted in Cassian’s home being seized by the authorities and all her books and papers being confiscated.  Realizing that her life would be in danger if she returned, Cassian appealed to the US Government for asylum and, having it granted, remained here until her death on April 15, 2014.  

I had the good fortune to meet Cassian in the early 90’s.  I was introduced to her by poet Dana Gioia at a reading she was giving in SoHo.  She had a magnificent presence: elegant in the way we think of great Hollywood actresses.  I can still hear her voice in my head, for the way she delivered a line was indelible, as was the power of her poetry, which is really the focus here.  

Cassian was incredibly prolific, publishing over 50 books in her lifetime: poetry, children’s books, fiction, translations, even puppet plays.  She had a playful imagination but also a big heart.  This may account for her poetry being something like surreal love poetry.  But don’t think of her as another Pablo Neruda; her poetry is quite different.  The playfulness of Cassian also accounts for her prolific publication of children’s books, which in turn might give you an inkling of her surreal bent.  Think of fables and fairytales, but those which don’t shy away from the darkness.  For instance her poem “Sand,” 

My hands creep forward on the hot sand
to unknown destinations;
perhaps to the shoreline,
perhaps to the arms from which they are severed
and which lie on the beach
like two decapitated eels.
(translated by Naomi Lazard)
What is remarkable about so much of Cassian’s poetry is that the majority of it seems to lose nothing in translation.  For instance, in the marvelous poem, “Orchestra,” the ethereal quality of the beloved is likened to the elusive emotional force of music as it is played.  Even in English that pursuit of an impossible spirit is perfectly rendered:
Climbing the scales three octaves at a time,
I search for you among the high notes where
the tender flute resides.  But where are your
sweet eyelashes?  Not there.
Then I descend among the sunlit brasses—
there funnels glistening like fountain tips.
I let them splash me with their streaming gold,
but I can’t find your lips.
Then daring ever deeper I explore
the depths the elemental strings command.
Their bows will not create a miracle
without your stroking hand.
The orchestra is still.  The score is blank.
Cold as a slide rule the brasses, strings and flute.
Sonorous lover, when will you return?
The orchestra is mute?
(translated by Dana Gioia)
At times she rendered with perhaps greater clarity than other more celebrated poets the problem of art under tyrannical regimes.  Though one could also see it as a kind of pride, it is a pride born of necessity in the face of oppression:
A clean vowel
is my morning,
Latin pronunciation
in the murmur of confused time.
With rational syllables
I’m trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power.
The enemy is illiterate.
(translated by Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant)
For Cassian, language is sensuous and even sexual.  Reading her poetry one is more inclined to think of poetry as a kind of dance, the movement of a body.
Letters fall from my words
as teeth might fall from my mouth.
Lisping?  Stammering?  Mumbling?
Or the last silence?
Please God take pity
on the roof of my mouth,
on my tongue,
on my glottis,
on the clitoris in my throat
vibrating, sensitive, pulsating,
exploding in the orgasm of Romanian.
(translated by Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant)
Clearly that appeal to God also shows a keen awareness of the danger involved, that one is not only exposed to the single lover as a poet but to the authorities who are in power.  If poetry is a form of lovemaking, it is, once published, also public and, therefore, a terrible kind of vulnerability.  This may also account for why the majority of her poetry is love poetry.  But also Cassian is masterful in her embrace of being fully human.  That may be the core of her poetry.
Her face was striking with its prominent chin and aquiline nose.  And so she made these powerful features the point of her poem “Self-Portrait.”  Perhaps few poems so well exemplify her desire to fully embrace the great range of our humanity.  Pointing out the oddities of her own face, plunging into them, and insisting on them even as others might mock them, results in an enlargement of what we call “human” as so much of her poetry does:
I was given at birth this odd triangular
face, the sugared cone that you see now,
the figurehead jutting from some pirate prow,
framed by trailing strands of moonlike hair.
Disjoined shape I’m destined to carry around
and thrust out steadily through endless days,
wounding the retinas of those who gaze
on the twisted shadow I cast upon the ground.
Disowned by the family from which I came,
who am I?  Earth conspires to turn me back,
the white race and the yellow, the redskin and the black,
till even to the species I lay little claim.
And only when—a self-inflicted woman—
I cry out; only when I face the cold;
and only when by time I’m stained and soiled
do they find me beautiful: and call me human.
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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Interview with Poet Djelloul Marbrook

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Djelloul, for agreeing to an interview.
You were a journalist for many years. Your first collection of poetry came out in 2008. How do you think your many years as a journalist influenced your efforts as a poet?

Djelloul Marbrook: I started out at The Providence Journal-Bulletin as a reporter-photographer, so it heightened my perception of place and circumstance. I had to notice people and their circumstances more closely, not as a matter of survival, in the manner of a battered child, but as a professional observer whose work depended on noticing what others missed. For example, there came a time when a wealthy blue-blood WASP decided to contest our Irish-American governor in a primary. The newspaper was hostile to the governor, as it was to most Democrats, but in my personal encounters with the governor I noticed that he took notice of the ordinary circumstances of ordinary people and interrupted his schedule to engage them, while the patrician noticed only the most important hands extended to him. On another occasion I came late to a horrendous house fire. It was raining. The headlights of the emergency vehicles made each raindrop a kind of candlelight. Under the circumstances a decent photo was almost impossible. But I walked around and saw a man in a bathrobe holding a cat and consoling it. It was the owner of the house. Using the police headlights I photographed him from his starboard stern quarter. The photo ran six columns in the next evening paper and it won an Associated Press prize. So yes, my experiences as a journalist have had a profound influence on me as a poet. But there was more to come. When I went to work as a metro editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette,a heavily unionized newspaper, the composing room people knew I was a sympathizer and they allowed me to hold sticks of type in my hand. There I was among these fellow unionists holding words—words!—in my hand. It was an alchemical experience. By then I was writing headlines and thinking about Walt Whitman working at The Brooklyn Eagle. Headline-writing had a profound effect on me. You need terse, muscular words to convey ideas. You intuitively understand the nature of line break. And you know, if you’re any good, that a good headline has a certain meter. You whisper it to yourself as you compose it. How does it sound? “Yale’s Viking Map Knocks / Wind Out of Columbus’ Sails”—I wrote that two-column 24-point headline for The Baltimore Sun. It won a prize. Or consider this banner headline: “Fleet steams, Qadaffi Fumes.” But there was a downside to journalism that I would have avoided had I remained a sailor. The press composes the authorized version of everything and is insufferably smug and uninquiring where it should be inquiring. The press is a prime conveyor of the dread received idea. Only in old age have I been able to make this understanding work for me as a poet.

Michael T. Young: Brushstrokes and glances opens with the poem “Shabtis,” the Egyptian figurines in funerary rites. Throughout the collection, the dead and ghosts appear. What do you see as the significance of the dead in the collection? What are they to bring our attention to?

Djelloul Marbrook: Death is in some ways incomprehensible to a child. Having said that, let me go back to my infancy. My mother’s story was that my father had been fatally shot in a hunting accident while she was pregnant in Algeria. She later embellished the story to say a cousin may have shot him and called it an accident. But in truth he lived until 1978. So I had to deal with this death myth. When my mother took me to Brooklyn via London in my infancy she left me with her younger sister, Dorothy, and her mother, Hilda. Understandably I bonded with them. Dorothy was my idol. I was crazy about her. She used to take me skating. She made an orange-crate scooter for me. At age five my mother took me away from Dorothy and Hilda, away from my nanny, Peggy O’Connor, whom I also loved dearly, and sent me to boarding school. Nobody explained why. Several years later I was told Dorothy had died. So now I had two deaths to fathom, and I couldn’t.
As for the shabtis, we lived near the Brooklyn Museum, which has a famously good Egyptology department. That’s where I encountered the shabtis. I drove Peggy to distraction with questions about the shabtis. How were they? Did they have enough to eat? Where did they sleep? She and her brother Junior took me again and again to see the shabtis. I dreamed about them. I think in a certain way the people I lost, the people my mother was always separating me from, became shabtis. They guarded me, they accompanied me into the netherworld. As I grew up the list of shabtis became quite long. But I was afraid to go back and visit them because I felt somehow I had betrayed them, I had abandoned them. They had been everything to me and I had failed them. So I was always failing as I grew up. Poems consoled me. I could see loss in them, betrayal, courage.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Francisco de Zurbarán” says, “I mourn for what the dead give up;/they mourn for what I fail to see.” Do you think this failure to see could be corrected? Do you think non-artists could benefit from a basic artistic course in how to see with the focus and precision of an artist? If so, in what way would it help?

Djelloul Marbrook: I’m hot for this question, Michael, because I’m in the midst of a project of learning about poetry from my camera, just as I’ve spent a lifetime learning from paintings. My mother was an artist, and so was my Aunt Irene (I. Rice Pereira, the geometric abstractionist whose painting is on the cover of Brushstrokes and glances). The Navy taught me photography, although it wasn’t my rating. I was first a boatswain’s mate and then a journalist. Recently I bought a compact camera capable of taking RAW images. The RAW image contains thousands of details the photographer doesn’t see in his viewing lens when he clicks. They can be introduced to the final image in computer software. This, for me, is a powerful metaphor. We always take in more than we’re capable of processing at the moment. That’s true of the painter, too. And it’s true of us when we view the painting. There are thousands of recognitions awaiting us. But as we enter into these recognitions, as we engage them, we must also engage the artist, not what we know about him but what we intuit from the work we behold. Did Jan Vermeer love the maid with the pearl earring? Almost certainly, but that over-the-shoulder glance at him, what about it? Is it the very moment at which the girl herself recognizes the artist’s love? Or is it, as someone has suggested, the moment Jan’s wife enters the room? We don’t know. We don’t have to know. But we do have to know something, something we choose to inspire us, to enlighten us, to amuse us. I have always talked to paintings, and they talk to me—some of them, anyway. Some remain mute, perhaps knowing I don’t get them. Historically, especially in the Francophone world, there is a long tradition of artists and poets interacting. But I think poets would benefit incalculably from more contact with musicians, scientists, athletes and others. This was one of the splendors of the Convivencia in Arab Spain. So many of its Arab, Berber and Jewish poets were also astronomers, doctors, mathematicians, because the Arabs tended not to pigeonhole the disciplines the way we do. They saw no reason, for example, to parse alchemy from chemistry; alchemy is merely an adaptation of their word al-khemya for chemistry (khemya) with its article (al). This is why they were able to discover that surgery requires perfect antisepsis—their most brilliant minds spoke with one another, and their most advanced disciplines were often married to poetry in one skull.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Picasso’s bull,” opens with “We need a museum to show us/we can unbind our captive lives.” What do you see as the source of our captivity, what’s its nature and what is the means of our release?

Djelloul Marbrook: I think we live in a world of authorized versions, of Flaubert’s received ideas. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example. We tell the child what to learn, not how to learn. But museums are about how to learn. They open vistas. They’re hospitable laboratories for our own wildest speculations. At least that’s what the best of them are. What is Gauguin doing in Tahiti? Why does Corot return over and over to Ville d’Avray? Is Caravaggio angry, is he mad? Museums are in many ways what our schools ought to be, like the Montessori and Waldorf schools. They guide us. They suggest meanings. They give us history. But we’re on our own when it comes to arranging what we have recognized in our own minds. Increasingly we go to schools to have the furniture bolted to the floor, to have the windows barred. But in museums we rearrange the furniture of our minds. Perhaps more importantly, we are reassured that beauty and the individual’s way of perceiving it is crucial to life. Nothing is dying in a museum—everything is coming to life. But that is not what our pedagogical ideas of education are about. The press and the politicos and the corporados are our captors. They’re invested in our seeing things in certain ways. The museums are invested only in our seeing things. They’re helping us, not pummeling us, not bending us. That’s overstatement, of course. The Museum of Modern Art has often been accused, for example, of diktat.

Michael T. Young: The poems “Manhattan Reef,” and “By the pool of The Frick,” suggest an apocalyptic outcome, such as rising sea levels, if we don’t face what art confronts us with. What do you see as that confrontation? What connects the problems of climate change to the insights of art?

Djelloul Marbrook: I think I’m saying that our greatest treasures must not be taken for granted. They can be swept away; they can be drowned. The earth is always shaking off our ill effects, always trying to repair the damage we have inflicted. I don’t see apocalypse in the end-time context that fundamentalists do. To the Romans their fall to the barbarians was apocalyptic. To the Byzantine and Amazigh cultures the arrival of the Arabs was apocalyptic. To the Arabs the advent of the Mongols was apocalyptic. I see an ongoing alchemical process in which the cosmos tries to ennoble the elements, the species, over and against our childish notions about religion and significance. I look for the elixir, and in that poem, “Manhattan Reef,” I mean like Magritte or, more aptly, de Chirico, to transform the world by turning it on its head and inside out. I don’t mean it as a doomsayer. I don’t mean it as warning. I mean only to say, It happens; how will we be ennobled by it? “We” in this instance becomes a problematical word, because “we” may not survive in our present form. I believe, for example, that “we” are evolving towards androgyny.

Michael T. Young: The poem “Distraction,” in the first section and the poem “A naming spree,” in the second section both address naming as a vital, although perhaps ambiguous act. What do you see as its importance in the collection and how does it relate to art?

Djelloul Marbrook: It was my experience as a journalist that heightened my awareness of naming things. And perhaps it was my own difficult experience of bearing my “foreign” name in our society; it was certainly a trial, and not the trial of a boy named Sue either. It was a standing invitation to be disinvited. I think our culture not only names things, it pigeonholes them, and once a thing is named and pigeonholed it’s as if it had become unimpeachable, inarguable. For example, terrorists belong to Al Qaeda, never mind the Arab meaning of the word (the base) or the fact that reputable intelligence people doubt its existence. The same is true of the national debt; it’s a disgrace, a threat to our peace and security, even if it has been cut in half, even if we did have this debate at our inception and decided we must carry a debt. We are a society that does not choose to revisit what it has decided, what it has named. Americans should look like the Marlboro Man or Marilyn Monroe, and that’s that. That’s what our childish ethnocentrism is about: we have decided how Americans should be named, how they should look and behave. Naming is dangerous business, serious business. We ought to be at least as careful and mindful as the good poet in choosing words. But we have chosen instead Emerson’s bugbear, foolish consistency. That’s why we have entertained the stupid flip-flop debate. Dwight Eisenhower is famous for changing his mind about the military-industrial complex, but we have chosen to forget that in our zeal to label the inquiring mind a threat to society.

As for the place of this consideration in the collection, we’re influenced by the titles of paintings and sculptures, and we’re influenced by the names given by critics, curators and historians. Clement Greenberg says, This is Abstract Expressionism, so it’s no longer allowed to be anything else. Even worse, if the Clement Greenbergs of the world are thwarted in their efforts to categorize a work of art or an oeuvre and it may languish in neglect simply because the hot shot of the moment couldn’t pin it down, like a captured butterfly. We’re reckless namers and categorizers, and we’re always tripping over our own handiwork.

“A naming spree” consists of only three couplets, but it’s an important poem to me. I spend a great deal of time contemplating classical and Islamic containers in museums. The idea of containment is crucial to civilization, and predictably it has a dark side. Without amphorae the Greeks, Romans and others were unable to transport things. The unique shape of the amphora conforms to the curvature of their galleys. The Arabs, whose ship designs foreshadowed modern ships, had to rethink the idea of the container. The Arabs were concerned with elixirs and alchemy, so their containers began to take on strange new shapes. I deal with this at some length in Guest Boy, the first novel in my trilogy, Light Piercing Water.The dark side of containment in metaphorical terms is that it seeks to limit and therefore readily becomes a received and suspect idea. For example, the church may be perceived as the container of religion. It limits, defines and controls, the message on its own being considered volatile and dangerous. This is my view of many Christian churches.

So the idea of containment is crucial to understanding civilization, and the way we look at containers is crucial to the way we allow civilization to develop. The Arab view was wholly different from the classical view. The Arabs sought to ennoble what was contained. It would be facile but tempting to say the Greeks and Romans had a more practical view, but the Arabs were great merchants, travelers and seafarers, so they can hardly be accused of being impractical.

My poetry is rather obsessed with the contemplation of this issue.

Michael T. Young: You are quite politically conscious and I think this shows in the collection. What do you think is the poet’s responsibility to society? Do poets have a political responsibility? If so, what is it?

Djelloul Marbrook: I am politically conscious, but I certainly wouldn’t require that of other poets. I see a lot of writers deploring the lack of political and social engagement among poets and other artists. I think the complaint is as bogus as the many obituaries of poetry I’m always seeing. A poet does what it’s in his or her nature to do. A poet uses the resources he or she chooses to use. It’s a matter of respecting the gift as it was given. To require this or that of a poet or any artist is an ostentatious display of egocentrism on the part of the person requiring it. It’s also intellectual slovenliness. It says, in effect, I will not inquire into the nature of your work unless it conforms to my ideas. It’s akin to No Child Left Behind— intellectual regression. I think growing up in a boarding school and having a badly fractured family made me aware of politics at an early age. I’ve never been politically adept myself, but I am a keen observer. I found much to admire in small-town politics when I was a reporter. I grew up thinking I would be a great traveler. But the truth is I have not traveled well since leaving the Navy, and I find life-sustaining beauty wherever I am, most recently in reflections in manhole covers after storms.

Michael T. Young: What is your favorite poem in the collection? Why is it significant for you?

Djelloul Marbrook: My favorite is “The Fountains,” the last poem. Not because it’s the best, but because it best expresses my sentiments about museums. I’m haunted by what goes on when they close. It would be easy to say “Basquiat,” because then I could talk about how amusing I find it that the New York Police Department formed an entire squad to suppress his work. But “The Fountains” expresses my conviction that nothing is what it seems to be and all settled notions about art are suspect: nothing is settled or ever should be. That’s why the determinism in so much of our art and literary criticism turns me off. The hubris of the critics gives criticism a bad odor. They put on pageants of referential knowledge to make a point that arrogates to them more importance than the art they’re discussing. That isn’t true of all critics, of course. But it’s common enough. “The Fountains” also expresses my whimsical view of life. I like to think of the beasties partying at the urinals and bidets. I like to think of the artists making notes and sketches.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Djelloul Marbrook: Yes, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, for one. As you know, it has recently been filmed. A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Glenway Wescott, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster—all are big influences. I should mention Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven. I’m something of an amateur Alexander scholar, and I find his life haunting in many ways. As a child I suffered from an Alexandrian mindset. I was always asking, Why not? That, and my difficult name, got me in a lot of trouble. I love the story of the Gordian Knot, whether apocryphal or not, because it reflects my own characteristic response to education, which has never served me well in the presence of big egos.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Djelloul Marbrook: Photography, walking, bird-watching, gardening, reading, chatting with my wife, Marilyn. We both used to sail and lived on a sailboat for ten years, but we can’t handle the sail bags anymore.

Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, Djelloul. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Brushstrokes and glances.
The Fountains
What of the urinals at night,
the demons that slurp
at these Alhambras?
What of the books and mannikins,
Spanish dukes and Polish riders,
are we a sub-species annoyance
after their revels and secret rites?
The race of janitors is mute,
as befitting acolytes.
In every painting a green-eyed wolf
whose keen night vision arrests
ghosts we leave behind.
Into the sun we go diminished,
having left behind a self
that chose four legs.
In every painting a twitching snout
parsing our most elusive scent
where we do not doubt.
I dream of beasts and otherlings
cavorting around bidets;
I envy them.

I would highly recommend Djelloul Marbrook's website:  And following him on FaceBook.  He will keep you well informed not only of poetry but give you many alternative perspectives on current political, social and economic events reported in the mass media.