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The Rumpus Interview With M. Bartley Seigel

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M. Bartley Seigel has a presence that fills a room. It is no surprise, then, that the prose poems in his debut collection, This Is What They Say, fill the page with a raw sense of place and longing, an undercurrent of anger and adulation, and a richly textured articulation of the place the poet once called home. Seigel’s work has appeared in Forklift, Ohio, Bateau, DIAGRAM, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many others. He is a professor at Michigan Technological University, a husband, and father; he is a friend and extraordinarily generous collaborator—together we co-edit PANK, the literary magazine he founded in 2006.

While Seigel’s poetry is excellent on the page and has a truly captivating quality, to see him perform his work is to truly fall in love with his words. He towers over the microphone, one leg slightly in front of the other, practically leaning into the audience as he tells of the rust of forgotten places, the frenetic energy of children running wild and free, wounds that won’t stop weeping.

We had a long e-mail conversation about This Is What They Say, the place from whence he writes, the magazine he founded, and much more.

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The Rumpus: One of the most compelling themes in This Is What They Say is how you evoke both texture and a sense of place. How did this book come about? Why do you write, in these poems, about these gritty rural places?

M. Bartley Seigel: I grew up in Lakeview, Michigan, which is about a fifty miles drive northeast of Grand Rapids, up in Montcalm County, if you’re familiar with that neck of the woods. It’s approximately dead center of the mitten if you do that thing with your right hand. Like many Michigan towns, and as its name suggests, Lakeview overlooks a small inland lake, Tamarac Lake. It has two little islands out in the middle. Back in the early 1900s Lakeview was that quaint little slice of mid-western Americana we know from legend: sandstone facades in a bustling little downtown, lots of pretty picket-fenced houses, Protestant churches on every corner, quaint little family farms dotting the rolling country side between woods and water. They even had a little park out on one of those islands in Tamarac Lake where they’d have music and dancing on Saturday nights. Doesn’t that sound idyllic? They had their problems, I’m sure.

It’s a pretty enough spot to look at, still, but by the time I was growing up in the ’80s, Lakeview had gone the way of many little midwestern towns. Businesses closed. Those family farms were either abandoned or swallowed up by larger, more industrially-minded operations. Neglect took over. The standard story. And Tamarac Lake? That had been poisoned by an old pickle packaging operation that had sat on the shore decades before. No dances on the lake for me and mine, thank you very much.

My dad was a tool and die maker in a little mill town to the south, Greenville. Most of the mills are shut down now, but it was a little better when I was a kid. There were jobs for people with little education, you know? Kids ran a little feral. I spent my afternoons rummaging around in old barns and derelict buildings, building forts in abandoned woodlots, dodging rusty nails and throwing things into rivers and lakes, or later smoking cigarettes in the old cemetery. I have burned into my core this image of a place dominated by rust and abandonment, poverty and the particular kind of hoarding that accompanies it, scarred people and houses and machinery, broken glass, fetid water, brush, wood smoke, and ashes. It’s a hard place to escape for a writer, or at least it has been for me.

I should note here, for my parents sake and for everyone I know that still calls that place home, I had a pretty easy time of it as a kid. I acknowledge that. My folks made a living. They kept a neat and tidy house. I didn’t want for much. There’s still a lot of bucolic beauty to be had in Montcalm County and good people there in spades. The poems in This Is What They Say aren’t the whole story, by any means.

Rumpus: Did you succeed in letting the people from these poems speak for themselves?

Seigel: I have no idea. I hope I did. I tried. But it’s probably not for me to decide. We’ll see.

Rumpus: You said this place where you’re from is a hard place to escape as a writer. I can really relate to that with certain themes in my own writing that I cannot escape. Do you want to escape or have you made your peace with where your writing wants to be?

Seigel: No matter where we go, there we are, right? I am haunted by many ghosts. At a certain point, I think I hoped This Is What They Say would exorcise some of them, but instead the book taught me (a) my ghosts are here to stay, (b) they have stories to tell, and (c) I need to be more attentive to their voices. I mean that in a totally metaphorical kind of way. Which is to say, yes, I’ve accepted and made a certain kind of peace.

Rumpus: I notice, in many of these poems, this juxtaposition of the concrete and the abstract. “We are all paper dolls. We are all scroll work and the creative use of light.” These moments, these unexpected pairings of things and ideas, are just gorgeous. How do you compose a poem? How do you think through language and rhythm?

Seigel: I don’t have a set way of composing, per se. Rather, individual projects seem to develop processes of their own. For this collection, most of the poems started out as very short essays and stories. I liked starting out big, expansive, to get the ideas worked out, articulated. Then I would contract, cut, weave, whittle, and repeat. Over and over again. The density and intensity, the eccentricities of the language, are a product of that time on the page, I think. I spent a lot of time with those pieces, sentences, words, connotation and metaphor, sound, rhythm, years in some cases. And then, of course, there were my readers and my editor, helping push things toward their end.

Rumpus: The title works so well as a refrain. As I read each poem, I said the title aloud before each one and it really brought an exciting energy to the book. How did you settle on the title?

Seigel: See, you’ve heard me perform these pieces at readings and I always use the title as a refrain during performance because that’s how I hear the song in my head! That’s what I always intended, but it didn’t work on the page so well. But do you think the book invites that from the reader? I hope so, but I’m dubious. For here on out, dear reader, do that thing. I love that thing. Do it.

The title has its very earliest origin in a kids’ song:

“When pigs get up in the morning, they always say g’day.
Oink oink oink oink, that is what they say.”

By the time I was working on this project in earnest I’d had a daughter, now nine-years-old, but she was a baby at the time. It was one of the songs my wife and I always sang to her. So I had this absurd song stuck in my head at the time and I started to apply it to my life on a daily basis. For instance, I’m at the grocery store and the clerk puts my eggs under a gallon of milk, and while they’re replacing my broken eggs, I’m singing in my head:

“When clerks gets up in the morning, they always breaks my eggs.
Broken eggs, broken eggs, that is what they say.”

Beyond dorky, but there you have it. So this was stuck in my head and I was writing those poems and the refrain “that is what they say” kept creeping in until it eventually became this leitmotif directing the project.

Then, of course, once it was articulated it started to evolve and complicate the work and I had to start interrogating it. As the project developed I started thinking about things like identity, about exodus, about carpet bagging as an artist and what it meant to be working with that place, those characters, those themes from memory. It was all so fraught and I wanted that acknowledged up front and the title was a way of exploring that. I was also writing for and about characters who are so often discussed by the various talking heads that plague our contemporary moment, but who are seldom offered the opportunity to speak for themselves. I wanted that interrogated, too. Who’s speaking in these poems? Who’s speaking for whom? Why? Etc. By the time I was done writing everything, the title was written in stone and there wasn’t much I could do about it.

Rumpus: Are there other ways in which your children have influenced your writing?

Seigel: Absolutely. Children realign and refocus our lives in interesting, surprising, and utterly unique ways, for better and for worse. They make us see things differently. They make us say things we’d never otherwise say in ways we’d otherwise never say them. Children bend our perception of time and space. They force us to expose and interrogate aspects of our own lives that we might otherwise manage to evade as adults. If that doesn’t influence my writing, I don’t know what else would.

Rumpus: Throughout This Is What They Say, there’s this undercurrent of anger. There’s an edge, giving these poems a satisfying, hard shape. “They die and we want to put our anger in a pill we can pull open at will, snort or cook for a needle. We want to take over, but we’re too busy smashing and peppering, too busy burning and punching out teeth–what the fuck are you looking at?” How is writing a useful place for anger?

Seigel: It has its limits. That said, I find anger to be as transformative as it is destructive. It’s a very immediate, very focused, very efficient, emotion. It cuts through intellectual pretense and ceremony like little else. Like fear, it’s also an emotion carved from different kinds of desperation. Insofar as I believe poetry, and maybe good writing in general, to be about saying what is true and necessary in desperate moments, I think anger has a place and use on the page.

What’s the line? If you’re not mad, you’re not paying close enough attention?

But I hope there’s more than just rage in my work. There’s love there, too, and beauty. There’s endurance. There’s even hope if you’re looking in the right places.

Rumpus: What kind of editorial relationship did you develop with Jen Woods?

Seigel: I found Woodsy through Lumberyard Magazine in 2010. I’d been following Lumberyard closely for a few issues, just loved their whole deal, their editorial aesthetic, the design and letterpress thing they do with collaborator Firecracker Press. I loved that they were from Louisville, Kentucky and not one of the poles. Anyway, they were closed for submissions in 2010 and had been forever and a day. I finally e-mailed them and said, “What’s up? I want to submit.” Woodsy emailed back almost immediately and said, “I’m finalizing Lumberyard 5 and have a blank spot. It has to be short and it has to be relevant to truckers.”

I could do that weirdly specific thing! She and I had never met, she’d never heard of me, and it was so perfect, just this truly magical submission moment. She published three of the prose poems I submitted in that issue, and those three then went on to form the backbone of the book.

Woodsy is tough. I wanted an editor, not just someone who was going to slap my poems on the page and hit print. I mean, it’s exciting that editors like me and my work as is, but sometimes my poems and I aren’t as good as they could be. Sometimes we need some real intervention and that’s supposed to be the editor’s job. Woodsy got out her machete. She said, “this is going to sting a little,” and she went to work on my manuscript. What came out the other end was a much leaner, much more raw, but also much kinder and more emotionally intense and honest collection than I could have produced on my own.

One of the first things she said to me was, “There are two writers in your poems: a poet with wisdom and perspective, and one who’s a petulant teenage asshole; we’ve got to kill that second poet.” I didn’t like that at the time, of course, but it was really good medicine. I just wish we lived closer to each other so we could drink together occasionally. She’s pretty rad.

Rumpus: It’s exciting to hear that Woods(y) was an editor who edits. That seems to be something that happens less and less. Typecast has such an interesting outlook. They say, “Typecast considers the publication of a book a fantastic event to be celebrated, and the role of publisher most sacred.” It’s interesting to see a publisher come out and say that and it’s even more interesting to see how that translates into the books they produce, always a unique design, letter press covers and the like. When you finally held your book in your hands, did it feel like a sacred object? Are you happy with how it has turned out?

Seigel: To be perfectly honest, my initial reaction when I first held that book in my hands was one of mild loathing. I held this inside for a couple of weeks after the book’s release. I finally mentioned it to my wife one day, but she’s the only one, and this is the first time I’ve discussed this publicly. I want to stress that it had nothing to do with Woodsy, or the press, or even the book product itself. It was, instead, me, my control issues. It was some kind of weird postpartum depression I was suffering from. I’d spent so much time with that book in my belly, so much focus and obsession on an abstraction so deeply personal and particular to me, that when I first beheld its artifactuality, its undeniability, its exhibitionism, it felt both foreign and somewhat monstrous to me. That passed, thankfully.

I can see the book clearly now, touch it, smell it, watch as others read it and make meaning from it, watch readers love it or hate it themselves, and it grows more sacred to me every day. It’s a beautiful, weird, complicated thing, that book. It’s a beautiful artifact. The poems are full of snakes and black magic. I love it so hard.

Rumpus: As a writer, reader, and editor, do you worry about the future of print artifacts?

Seigel: No, I don’t. To be human is to live through and within story—always has been since we became human, always will be until we become something other than human. Whether story is conveyed by sound or symbolic language, on parchment, on paper, or via electricity seems largely irrelevant to me. Storytellers, for their part, will continue to use the tools at their disposal, as they always have, and audiences will continue to seek them out.

Rumpus: You went on a tour all over the damn place. Where did you go, what were some of the highlights (or lowlights) as the case may be? Is touring worth the time and energy you put into it?

Seigel: I toured the Midwest in October, a bunch of stops, bars, reading series, a university symposium, a book festival. I love touring, though I get lonely on the road. That’s the short of it.

The long version is that writing poems, reading poems, performing poems, talking about poems, watching people react to poems, answering questions about poems, those are all radically different things requiring radically different skill sets, none of which come naturally to me. Comics and musicians know this. Performance poets know it. Anything that forces an artist to articulate the method behind his madness, anything that forces him to put his money where his mouth is, anything that forces him to answer for his work, that has to be a good thing. Touring can force that interogation in spades.

Contemporary American poetry, the page based stuff in particular, the academic stuff, is an oddly myopic space. It talks mostly to itself. It preaches mostly to its own choirs. It’s self congratulating and profoundly smug. These are just a few of the key reasons why poetry is largely so irrelevant to many people. It doesn’t reach out. It’s unnecessarily convoluted and obfuscating. Can you only perform for other poets or can you perform to audiences radically far afeild? Touring will lay open your limitations and delusions of grandeur like little else. It’s good to sing for your supper now and again.

Rumpus: You live in what might generously be called the middle of nowhere—beautiful but remote. Do you feel connected to the literary community from that distance? Is a connection to a literary community something you need?

Seigel: I live in Houghton, Michigan, which is in the Keweenaw Peninsula in the far northwestern Upper Peninsula. For those looking at a map, the Keweenaw is that little thumb of land that sticks up into the middle of Lake Superior. We have a puddle-jumper flight that connects us to Chicago, but otherwise it’s a ten-hour drive, eight hours to the Twin Cities, ten hours to Detroit, etc. It’s some of the most remote and sparsely populated country anywhere in the eastern contiguous United States. Lots of forest and swamp, deer, black bear, mountain lions, and wolves. Big snow in the winter. Hardy, self-reliant people. And there’s the big lake, Lake Superior, which is more of an inland fresh-water ship-sinking sea than a lake. It’s a very cool place to live, a very awe-inspiring and physically demanding landscape.

True, I don’t get to eat Thai food unless I cook it, which you should read both literally and as a broader metaphor for where I’m at. True, my literary community is largely elsewhere, via [PANK], via readings I give around the country, via the magical interwebs, etc. But I’m okay with this. I personally find too much community of a certain kind to be stultifying to my art. Too much community, much like too much isolation, leads to people talking too much to themselves or to their hive selves. Too much community means you don’t have to try anymore, as true of large city scenes as it is of MFA programs or social media. I’m in a little bit of a catbird seat. I live in this stunningly beautiful place where there aren’t a lot of other writers and readers, but I get to travel a lot and spend a lot of time with other writers and readers, I run a magazine that reaches thousands of writers and readers, but I’m not beholden to any scene or program making decisions by committee. I teach at a university, but there’s only a very tiny English program, no MFA, and I’m the only creative writer on faculty. I get a lot of perks with very little of the bullshit, interference, or art by consensus. It isn’t that I don’t have my crosses to bear, but I wouldn’t trade my remoteness for another’s connection.

Rumpus: You started a literary magazine up in the U.P. How has the magazine evolved? Has your vision for the magazine been realized?

Seigel: I feel really weird answering questions from you about [PANK], but it’s for the readers, right? Yes, I moved to the U.P. in 2005 when my wife took a job at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. I got a small adjunct gig at the time as part of her deal. In short, her department had $500 dedicated to a defunct in-house lit mag, gave it to me, and told me to do something with it, no strings attached. I cobbled together another $2,500 and the first print issue of [PANK] was born. I shopped the first print issue around AWP in Atlanta in 2007 and got the stink-eye from all the card carrying “writers.” You came on in 2008 and we launched the web magazine. We had the present print/digital/press platform more or less in place by 2010, and we landed a nod this year in the New York Times, who named us one of the heirs to avant-garde pioneers like the Dial. In six years we took it from 250 print copies from Michigan’s U.P. to a respected international literary platform with over 300,000 readers in over 150 countries. This year alone, there are seventy-seven countries in which more than 100 people read [PANK]. It’s not the Huffington Post or anything, but I think it’s still pretty sweet. Now, show me how to monetize the thing, pay my writers what they deserve, and I’ll call myself happy.

Seriously, though, my work as an editor and publisher is dedicated to creating an original and vibrant publishing platform for the kind of literary diversity that others can’t or won’t pursue, and for a real and meaningful audience for those writers. I’m still sick of reading the same story and poem over and over again in the pages of pedigreed magazines.Where are the women writers, the black, the Hispanic writers, the queer writers, the literature in translation, where is the avant-garde? Where’s the writing that doesn’t put me to sleep after the second line? I know we’re not alone, but hopefully these things are reliably present in [PANK].

Rumpus: We hear a lot of talk these days about writers and the necessity of an online presence. You’re one of the writers I know who doesn’t have a huge Internet presence. You’re there, but you don’t have a website or a blog. Why do you stay away from that?

Seigel: So much of the internet is noise, a distraction, even a nuisance. I have enough of that in my meatspace life. I also have a lot of issues with crowd sourcing. Online, you can always find someone to agree with you and you’re seldom challenged in productive ways. The anonymity of online environments gives critique a decidedly lowbrow, and for the most part pointless, affect. That said, I like the digital, find it to be an incredibly useful tool. But it’s just a tool, one of many.

Rumpus: What are you working on now? What’s next?

Seigel: At this precise moment, I’m spending virtually all of my writing time on tenure documents, grading, and keeping the boat from sinking. So it goes. PANK, as you know, always takes up an enormous amount of time. And I have two writing projects in the beginning stages, a new poetry collection and one of short lyric essays, but both are far too young to speculate on.

Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?

Seigel: I’m more articulate on the page than in person, less scattered, more collected, more coherent, smarter. I can say what I mean.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →