Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Interview with Poet Micah Towery

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Micah, for agreeing to an interview.  
Your new collection of poems, Whale of Desire, has such a wonderfully provocative title.  I wondered if you could comment on the title itself and the significance it has for the collection.  What is it meant to suggest? 
Micah Towery: I misremembered a line from my own poem, but it stuck. It also seemed to evoke the whole gist of the book, the idea of largeness, the appetites. Also, I like whales. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “It’s Not That I Don’t Like Charlton Heston,” says, “who among you/would rather be understood than//thrown over my shoulder/and hoisted to/the highest point in the city/with the thrilling fire of bullets/from jealous fellows following?”  This suggests that being desired is greater than being understood.  Do you feel this is true?  How do you see this as significant in the collection?
Micah Towery: Well, certainly that line tugs at those two possibilities. I want to say that what we often desire when we desire is to be known. One could differentiate mere understanding from fuller knowledge. In that sense, desire is bound up with true knowledge. In most theistic traditions, bliss is the fulfillment of the desire to know, to be mystically unified with the source of being.
Michael T. Young:   Your poem “On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant in Binghamton, NY,” seems central to the collection, bringing together both spiritual and economic realities.  In fact, the end of the second section where the milk men say, “You Coke guys eat more shit//than my dog,” made me think of near the end of “To Elsie,” where Williams says that we are “degraded prisoners/destined/to hunger until we eat filth.”  Your poem somehow seems to be the belly of the whale: where we descend into the murkiest depths to recover that little bit of light.  Could you comment on its place in the collection and its importance: what it addresses in the arc of the book?
Micah Towery: Those 5 poems took me several years to write—most of which was not spent writing but processing those feelings and experiences. In one sense, they layer together various parts of my life and unify them in a way that I can’t do outside of poetry. It catches the kind of strange feelings of how I related to the other men at the Coke plant and how, in them, I saw the ghosts of my family history. The connection with “To Elsie” is perceptive because the whole series is unified around working with America’s best known “pure products”: Coca-Cola. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “Poem in Honor of My Own Birthday,” says, “I think it’s clear I like/cold things, like the chilly offices/of love.”  There is also a series of love poems in the collection.  What do you see as love’s place in the collection’s progress and development?  
Micah Towery: Most of the love poems are pretty personal in the sense that they arise out of personal experience. Because the book spans some 10 years, it’s hard for me to not feel there is some deepening/development of my idea of love in the book itself. Yet on the more ‘cosmic scale’ of love, as a Christian, I believe that “God is love” and, therefore, love animates the universe itself: the awe of being, the unfathomable diversity of it and the almost terrible creativity—unaccountable and unable to be accounted for—the kind of thing that mystics speak of as both God’s darkness and light. I hope there is an arc in the book in which the personal experiences and that cosmic sense begin to meet.
Michael T. Young: Roethke said, “I believe that the spiritual man must go back in order to go forward.”  I was reminded of this because so much of your work engages the past.  I wondered if you could comment on the importance of engaging the past within the collection, referencing or engaging everything from Psalm 39 to Miles Davis.  Do you feel a spiritual journey must engage the past in this way?  If so, why is it important?
Micah Towery: I think it was Faulkner who said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I am a little obsessed with understanding how different peoples conceive of time and what that says about their aspirations, their sense of history and memory. We use the past, in combination with our aspirations for the future, to construct our present. And poems are nothing if not an attempt to be present, to present and make living a self for the world. This is a spiritual act, a tradition of speech you learn from other poets. The biblical Psalm writers, as well as contemporary writers like Michael S. Harper, are powerful models for these modes of poetry.
Michael T. Young: Your poem “Image of a snake striking the eagle while being carried away,” ends saying “In this way/we rescue the light/from the darkness.”  Much of the collection seems to be an effort to do just that, dive into the dark areas where light has been stolen away and bring it out.  It reminded me of the old Gnostic view that the serpent was the true god who stole into Eden to free Adam and Eve from the false god that kept them enslaved.  Do you see this as an element in the arc of the collection?  What do you see as its significance in the collection or in a spiritual journey?
Micah Towery: The telling and retelling of stories creates an interesting space for the exploration of truth and human recognition of it. What I think is interesting about the Genesis accounts is that, taken on their own terms (literally), they are pretty clearly redacted versions of polytheistic creation accounts. In it, the divine figures are petty, jealous of their prerogatives. Yet, at some later point, they became the cornerstone of the major monotheistic religions. In that sense, the redactions are not a flaw, but rather the very integrity of the text: evidence that people over time have ‘sat with’ the elements in the text and tested them against collective knowledge and experience, recognizing what they saw as truths. I reject gnosticism generally, but insofar as I think humans generally seek the truth, there must be some genuine truth. I do think the ‘slow emergence’ of truth is a theme in the series you mention.

Click image to be taken to Amazon.com
to order Whale of Desire
Michael T. Young: The spiritual yearning of the collection takes place in contemporary America with gas stations, a Coca-Cola factory, Jazz, etc.  What do you see as a particularly contemporary problem in man’s spiritual needs?  What do you see as the solution to that problem?
Micah Towery: For some time, art denied the spiritual aspirations of ‘low’ art, art that didn’t fit class or race assumptions. Now we tend to embrace low art but deny spiritual aspirations. I see this true in a broader sense as well: the inability to recognize something as a spiritual need, generally. So, for example, we look at unemployment as a social or economic problem, but we don’t recognize that it’s also a spiritual problem. I think our common discourse suffers from this flattening. We live in “a secular age,” it’s true, but I believe we need to find a way to bring spiritual needs back into the discussion. We can probably start by acknowledging that even in our diverse and divided society we hold a lot more in common than we acknowledge. 
Michael T. Young: This may seem a rather pedestrian question, but what American poets are most significant for you?  I’m curious especially because of the spiritual engagement in your poetry.  What American poets do you find important for that spiritual engagement?—maybe poets you feel are important not just for you but perhaps for our larger cultural growth.
Micah Towery: It’s a really important question to me, actually. I have to acknowledge some of my teachers--Joe Weil and Tom Sleigh, as well as Christine Gelineau, Donna Masini, Jan Heller Levi--these folks put a mark on my poetry because they actually explored it with me line-by-line. They also had a profound impact on my spiritual outlook. In the scope of larger American poetry, though, Eliot, Williams, Bishop, Lowell, and O’Hara, as well as Michael S. Harper, Allen Grossman (at least as a poetry ‘theorist’), and Frank Bidart. Anyone with a knowledge of American poetry will see a pretty clear lineage in that list. I can’t deny it. To me, these poets model not just voice and style that I find engaging, but also a way of being in the world and manifesting that presence through poetry. Eliot really sparked my love of poetry. For a while I drifted away from him, but after many years I’m coming back to him as a touchstone. He expressed such strong critical opinions, and I suspect that people assume a similar stance underneath his poetry (especially his post-conversion stuff). But I find a profound ambiguity in a poem like “Ash Wednesday” that doesn’t cut corners.
Michael T. Young: What is your favorite poem in the collection?  Which is it and why is it significant for you?
Micah Towery: I’m really proud of some of my poems--like my Horace translation--as personal poetic accomplishments. But the poems I enjoy returning to are some of the love poems to Jill. In my humble opinion (!), the second is probably one of the best poems I’ve written.
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?  
Micah Towery: Definitely Augustine’s Confessions. That sense of inwardness, but also his willingness to use personal events to explore profound philosophical issues. I love that he shifts from his last memories of his mother into his deep meditation on the nature of memory, time, and creation. When I first read these sections of Confessions, I felt like I was seeing into the heart of the universe itself. Further, Augustine is such an amazing writer that his ability to craft a sentence comes through even in translation! I think his prose style probably did impact my poetry on a stylistic level as well.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Micah Towery: I enjoy fantasy baseball. I also like to make wine & beer and roast my own coffee. Cheese making is next on my list.
Michael T. Young:  Thanks for your time, Micah.  Let’s close with your favorite poem from Whale of Desire.
Second Love Poem for Jill
. . . . . . . . . . . In Idaho

Down at the boat launch, on the river that feeds
. . . . . . . into Lake Pend Oreille,
the slanted concrete slab still warmed us where
we sat, and the mountains faded into the sky
. . . . . . . as the train went by
. . . . . . . to Coeur D'Alene.

I stared into the clear and moving water
. . . . . . . at the rocks
until I saw how full the water was of fish--so full--
such as the light--after a while I saw only
. . . . . . . the fish after the rumble
. . . . . . . passed away.

On that evening when we'd spent the day
. . . . . . . negotiating, careful,
you said to me, I'm figuring out marriage
and you and figuring out me, and the river
. . . . . . . in its wisdom
. . . . . . . said nothing wise.

And the water glinted with the last light of the bugs
. . . . . . . that broke
the surface, and it sounded with the fish that ate them.
And the mountains kept fading into the sky.
. . . . . . . Then you said,
. . . . . . . I love. . .

and didn't finish.  So we left the launch
. . . . . . . and drove
away, and the river echoed that I love.  And
afterwards, a moose began to wade across
. . . . . . . the water
. . . . . . . slowly.

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