Interview with Malachi Black, by Kerry Shawn Keys

1. You have ancestral roots in Lithuania. And perhaps elsewhere nearby. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Yes, of course. My father’s paternal grandparents were both Litvaks: Morris and Rebecca Black. Morris came to the U.S. from Kovno (Kaunas) in 1904 or 1905, when he changed his surname from Svarts (we think; it could have been Blokh) to Black. Rebecca (nee Kagan), who later joined him in New York City, was from Seduva (Shadova), where we believe her father, Itzak, and other relatives continued to live. Unfortunately, this is almost all of what we know; when Morris and Rebecca died, a great deal of family history was lost with them. Even the Yonkers (N.Y.) synagogue of which they were members has since been destroyed.

2. Did you have much interest in the family history in the past, or is this is a growing preoccupation? And how might this background relate to your poetry and your life in America? On the surface, and perhaps in some deeper, almost unconscious way on how the DNA of your psyche may refract into your writing even if on the surface the narrative and subject matter don’t appear to be the fruit of the family tree?

I have always had an interest in my origins, though it has certainly grown in recent years, perhaps in direct relation to my ever-expanding sense of temporality. And while my work to date bears little on the mundane particulars of my actual biography, I do think that my family’s nomadic history has left an almost epigenetic imprint on me. I myself have spent many years wandering, tracking the incidents of consciousness and circling the seat of identity, as surely my ancestors must have done.

3. Do you ever translate, and if so from what languages to what languages?

I once attempted a version of Georg Trakl’s “Music in Mirabell” with a German-speaking girlfriend of mine, but, regrettably, I am not master enough of any language to translate well.

4. Do you read many poets who write in other languages – in the original language or in English?

I read as widely as I can. However, most of my engagements with non-Anglophone literatures come to me through translation. I do read Spanish reasonably well, but even then I often find myself conferring with the English version. This saddens me, as I know that poetry resides in the original, but I do my best with my own limited means.

5. What weight do you give to melopoeia; phanopoeia (Pound’s terms); and meaning as defined by semantopoeia (my term) when writing or when translating, and why?

I have found that the poems I’m inclined to pursue serve more than one master. In the simplest of terms, these would be sound (melopoeia), sense (semantopoeia), and shape (absent from your list, as from Pound’s). Almost always, I begin with a line or, more likely, a phrase that has fluttered moth-like from what seems like an imponderable, faraway place and lands on a forward branch in my mind. Typically, this creature pulses its wings on a semantically-charged sequence of sounds.

6. Does the globalized world market of poetry where many poems from other languages are being read in translation (English in your case) lead to a certain kind of poetry becoming the standard?

I hesitate to offer too broad a generalization, but I will say that I agree with Donald Hall: too much dependence on works in translation tends to lead a poet down an amusical path. As Frost said, “poetry is what’s lost in translation,” and the masterworks of any language are always embedded in the tongue for which they were composed. Translation is usually a two-dimensional grayscale copy of a brightly colored three-dimensional original; at its best, a work in translation becomes a hallmark of its own tongue, but it remains something of an obstructing imposter even so.

7. How deep is your knowledge of poetry in your own language – far back into the roots of your native language, or are you mostly schooled and therefore influenced by more modern poets, or your contemporaries.

I lay immediate claim to all poets from Chaucer forward. Anglo-Saxon is another tongue, and thus something I can only access in translation. I admire no small number of modern and contemporary poetries, but the majority of my most abiding touchstones predate the modern era. I think of the history of poetry as the history of poems rather than of poets; thus I reserve the right to read selectively.

8. How do you feel about MFA programs in Creative Writing. Are they efficacious? Do they cloud the waters with fry from the hatcheries?

I have varied feelings on the subject. Certainly, a great deal is being written in and around MFA programs, and, insofar as sheer engagement with the art of poetry is concerned, I think our era is unprecedented. It’s true that most people reading poetry also write it, but I regard that less as evidence of poetry’s “institutionalization” as such than of increased access to higher education and a resultant sense of empowerment (granted, these factors can be hard to disentangle). Even still, I doubt that the ratio of interesting to uninteresting work has changed much since the age of Ovid.

Literary technique can be taught, as can close reading, which is foundational—sensitivity to textuality underpins all. However, mastery of “creative writing” and its component parts can’t really be transmitted through instruction; literary accomplishment lies largely in the intuitive application of knowledge. An instructor can delineate the array of literary strategies, devices, and materials that are at any writer’s disposal, but those elements must then be repeatedly considered and variously deployed in order to be acquired. Wide reading, wide practice, and wider reading remain the only real education in writing.

I believe it was Louise Bourgeois who said that bad art isn’t art at all, and I think the same holds true for poetry. If forced to choose between a proliferation of bad poems and the steady decline of a readership, I think the preferred course is unambiguous: poems that offer little reward tend to be forgotten, but even great poetry remains dormant when unread.

9. When did you first start to write poetry in a serious vein – not just because it was an assignment in school?

It sounds apocryphal, I know, but my mother, who’d yet to develop our collection of children’s books, read Milton and Chaucer to me almost as soon as I’d come home from the hospital. Really, that was my introduction to musical, magical language, and, preposterous as it might sound, I think that so early and steady an exposure to cultivated English cadence can only have been formative.

Almost as soon as I could write full sentences, I began keeping journals of mostly nonsense in which I would try to compose rhyming stories, and would once in a while sit at my mother’s electric typewriter to try to write a “real” story. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13, when I encountered Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, that I realized that what I was doing was writing poetry (or some crude approximation thereof). I was probably still too young to “get” Blake, but I was utterly transformed by my reading. Soon thereafter, I discovered Cummings, the Beats, the New York School—I was off and running like a hungry drunk. Many atrocious poems ensued, but by 14 I was taking my vocation seriously.

10. When you read the poetry of others, do you lip read or read it aloud? Or do you visually scan it?

I always “hear” poetry, even when reading silently: I use the mind’s ear. But poetry belongs in the mouth. Poems are songs for the speaking voice, and, like songs, they are most alive when realized aloud.

11. Any special poets for you that you read over and over? If so, do they ghost your own poetry?

Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Eliot, Rilke, Auden. But, as I’ve said, I am more concerned with poems than with poets. Some of my recent enthusiasms include May Swenson, Jay Wright, and Amy Clampitt. If, as I suspect, my sensibility governs those things to which I am attracted both in reading and in writing, then I can have no doubt that the things I love are memorialized within the things I make.

12. Any particular thoughts about the poetry of Czesław Miłosz ? Do you think of him as Polish or Lithuanian? Explain…

I have great admiration for Miłosz, but can only access his work through translation; thus I have the very real sense that I only know some pale combination of his images and his ideas—the whole sensual body of his work remains inaccessible to me. But I agree with Miłosz that a poet’s language is his home, and I think that’s all that need be said on the matter of nationality.

13. What was your immediate reaction on Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize? And did you later reassess your feelings and thoughts on this? Explore this with some detail.

At first, while happy for Dylan himself, I was admittedly displeased, but only because the prize is for Literature. It seems to me that Dylan’s genius lies in songwriting—the collaboration of music and speech—whereas in literature, and poetry especially, the language must make its own music. I still regard the award as something of a category error—it would be akin, perhaps, to the prize in physics going to an engineer—but I have to acknowledge that few American artists of any kind have offered as much to the world as has Dylan. More than anything, I have come to conclude that the Nobel committee should entertain an expansion of its categories (music, cinema, fine arts, social sciences, etc.).

14. Do you ever collaborate with musicians? If so, it is interactive or is the music more of a background sound.

In my youth, I played in various more and less experimental bands for which I sang and wrote lyrics, but I gave that up in my teens. In the years since, I have had a handful of poems set to music, but to date I have not worked in collaboration with a musician. This may soon change, however; one of the composers who took an interest in my work (Ching-chu Hu) recently invited me to collaborate on an opera, and it is a project by which I am quite intrigued.

15. If you were to write a ‘song’, would it tend to be closer to rap or say an Elizabethan lyric, would the beat or the melody dominate?

It would be strung along the vowels.

16. Do you memorize many of your own poems? Poems of others? If you are a teacher of poetry, do you have the students memorize poems? If so, why? How might this relate to the core of poetry – is it the image or rhythm or sound in your native tongue?

Yes, all of the above. My own poems I memorize rather by default, as I tend to work on them aloud for so long that they inevitably inscribe themselves in my hippocampus. I more self-consciously memorize poems I love, and I require all of my writing students to memorize at least one poem per semester. Yeats described art as “the thinking of the body,” and I fervently believe that the internalization of a poem offers a much deeper and more engaged relationship to the text in question—its rhythms and its will are felt. I do believe that the core of poetry, as I have elsewhere implied, resides in the materiality of language as such, which is one part pure sound. (The other part is meaning.)

17. Do you keep a schedule for writing. Can you schedule inspiration, and if so, how?

One cannot schedule inspiration, but one can schedule one’s availability to it. My schedule varies depending on the season—I teach in the fall and spring—but when I am left to my own devices, I tend to arrive at my desk no later than 10 a.m. and leave no earlier than 4 p.m., though I always take an hour for lunch. When things are going well, I might even manage a full 9 to 5.

18. Any advice for young writers or would-be writers?

1) The generative impulse is different from the critical impulse. To the extent possible, try to trust and sustain the psychosocial enclosure that enables you. Writing—or writing well—requires vulnerability, but failure, rejection, and frustration will abound, and our utmost task is to protect and persist in our vulnerability.

2) Be pluralists. By becoming interested in textual diagnosis—in attending to the rhetorical, formal, imagistic, and emotional elements by which a given text is motivated—you become interested in the means by which poems supply poetry, and you thereby open yourself to the brilliance of any number of poets whose impulses might otherwise seem entirely opposed. The sensibility is like Hermes—winged emissary, capricious mediator—and it finds and brings back what it needs in its time. One doesn’t really have to choose as much as remain permeable. Also, it’s enough to love just one verb in a poem, or one line; most poems—by no means exclusive of my own—contain only little bits of poetry.

3) Remember that what we have in common with the future is the past. We live in an unprecedented period of literary richness and activity, and of course one should read and will love any number of works by one’s contemporaries. But, in terms of both one’s writing and one’s “professional” life, I would urge all writers to train their telescopes not at their neighbors’ houses but rather at the stars. How far we see has everything to do with our sense of what’s potential. And we should always remember just how little it matters to us by which printer, say, Blake’s Poetical Sketches was first published. What matters is that they were written at all.

19. Do you relate to the word “Muse” when it comes to poetry? If so, how? If not, why not?

Sure. Where, after all, do ideas come from? Whatever their true source—the Muse, the imagination, the subconscious, God, the oversoul, the collective unconscious, atomic energy, etc.—each aesthetic object is firstly an offering from that source and to that source. Every poem is a temple.

20. And what might be the personal challenge for you to write lyrics for a libretto?

Given the prospect of the aforementioned opera, I have given this some thought, and I can say with confidence that sustaining, structuring, and serving narrative will likely prove to be my primary impediment. I am a lyric poet, after all.

21. Any ritual you try to follow before beginning to write?

I prepare a pot of coffee, ready my nicotine implements, and pour a glass of water. When I get stuck, I read.

22. Do you keep a notebook with you or a tablet during the day to jot down lines or observations?

I always have some means of recording lines, phrases, images, and ideas at my disposal, but the specific media have varied over the years. Sometimes I use receipts, sometimes sheets of paper, sometimes a proper pocket notebook, but these things have various ways of getting destroyed or set aside. When I enter the world, I place less emphasis on the instruments than on my attentiveness, my permeability. I will remember what I am given to remember. When at home, I am much more particular about my tools.

23. If you drink, and we are buying a few at the Little Heart Bar (Širdelė) in Druskininkai, should we go for wine; beer; or vodka? Or something more exotically local?

I drink what the locals drink. In alcohol as in poetry, I am a committed pluralist, and I am always hopeful of being enlarged.

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