The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Michael Bazzett about his new book, You Must Remember This, the connection between remembering and dismembering, the malleability of memory, and the importance of humor in poetry.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So when you showed the orangutan your watch, did it look at you and react and then walk away? (Lie to me if you must.)
Michael Bazzett: She sat there for a while. Pretty serious eye contact, as only a primate can deliver. Simultaneously bored and penetrating. And yes, it was a her. I only see myself in female orangutans…
Ellen: I feel like it’s a trite question but would love to know inspiration for the orangutan poem
Michael Bazzett: I actually did have a moment with an orangutan, long ago at the National Zoo. I wonder sometimes how we’ll look back on zoos.
Brian S: I was intrigued by the way you so often had people realize they were in the minds of others. How did you come up with that?
Michael Bazzett: Well, in a sense we only exist in the minds of others. Images on their retinas, these words in your mind. I could be a cyborg, or an ape. We only get surfaces, and the important stuff is the invisible within…Technically, though, it’s also a useful framing device. A go-to move, when I need to explode the poem…
Brian S: It struck me as the kind of thing that would be very interesting in a movie as well.
Michael Bazzett: Very true. I like work that has a cinematic aspect. I find it’s a great way to bridge the storytelling impulse with the pungency of poetry.
Ellen: I was thinking that the “Sinclair Gift Emporium” would make an excEllent scene for a movie—I was envisioning it like the PBS series Selfridges.
Michael Bazzett: You know, that’s intriguing Ellen, because there is an independent filmmaker here in MPLS that is working on a short of Sinclair GE…
Ellen: Makes perfect sense to me! I hope I’ll get to see it
Brian S: Refresh my memory—was Elpenor the first Greek killed in the Trojan War? Or no, he was just young and foolish. It’s been a while since I read The Iliad—freshman year undergraduate.
Michael Bazzett: He was the “after-thought” crew-mate of Odysseus who was left behind at Circe’s when they sailed down to the underworld. Sort of like the kid left behind after the field trip…
Mandy: Speaking of surfaces, and with a thought toward “Look, Overlook”…so much is said about the intangible nature of memory, yet this is one example of the way poetry makes physical that which is assumed not to be. What thoughts do you have about memory as real, and perhaps not so absent in the physical world as we assume?
Michael Bazzett: Cool question, Mandy. One idea that undergirds the book for me (and my wife, who ordered the collection and came up with the title) is that the etymological opposite of dismember is remember. I want to evoke that sense of the word, the tactile putting-limbs-back-together sense of it. I think that meaning is still ghosting around inside the more commonplace definition.
Brian S: I’ve long thought that memory is mostly true but almost never accurate, and I felt these poems played around with that as well.
Michael Bazzett: I think re-membering things, in that sense, makes them real. Exactly, Brian. My wife writes fiction, and she was instrumental in making this book a book. I truly struggle with ordering a collection, and I dropped a huge number of pages on her and she was lovingly generous enough to spend 3 days ordering, sectioning and segue-ing…
Camille D.: Please speak more to the work of your wife. I’m always curious how outside vision influences final products. See The Wasteland, for instance. See The Great Gatsby.
Brian S: That’s interesting.
Ellen: Does she edit/comment upon individual poems as well? My husband dreads when I ask him to read—I don’t think he ever knows whether I really want to hear the truth.
Michael Bazzett: The result is that she included poems I never would have included. Things too honest, or too weird, or too revelatory… She is often my first reader. But I don’t show her anything until it’s good and ready, and I’ve made it as good as I can. About once a quarter I drop 20 poems on her, and I return the favor as her line editor.
Brian S: You have a good relationship when you can take criticism from your significant other. I’m still working on it, because I tend to sulk. I want to hear that my poems are done, not that I need to work on them more, even when I obviously do.
Camille D.: What is it about a reader outside your body that you think is useful to you? I feel like that aligns with your poetry in a way.
Michael Bazzett: Good question, Camille. There’s a lot of otherness and estrangement in the book. I guess I’d say the bones of the collection are: • The fragility of identity, manhood in particular. • How little we know ourselves, and the limits on how well we can know other. • The quandary of a mind of moving through time • (Or staying put while time flows around it.) Life is encountering reader’s outside your body, right? Reading you? Plus, as a reader, my wife is ruthlessly smart and laughs out loud at my poems.
Camille D.: I think there’s something in it, too, about the way we dwell in the world. The way in which we are ideas in our heads but also bodies in the world. And the way these two don’t always connect.
Michael Bazzett: Which is why I loved your review, Camille. The pink room is the space, as in Atlas, where someone is inhabiting the architecture of their own mind, cultural signals, etc.
Mandy: Interesting way to put that, about reading. My son used to substitute the word reading for listening and for watching. I never could bring myself to “correct” that.
Camille D.: I was just about to ask about the balance you strike between brutality and generosity. I saw it throughout so much of this book. How conscious was that? Mandy, I love your son already. I have a friend who, when she is listening acutely to something you’ve said says, “I receive that.” I love that.
Michael Bazzett: Exactly, Many. Saul Bellow said the writer was merely the reader moved to emulation. It’s all the same river…
Brian S: “I receive that” sounds like something Sun Ra would have said.
Camille D.: All hail Sun Ra.
Michael Bazzett: I also get your son, 100%, because I’m one of those folks who has to turn down the car radio to read road signs…
Mandy: Camille, he’s easy to love. …and oh yes, to receive.
Michael Bazzett: I think we all do that, and it transfers to my writing as well… in my own work I’m very interested in the thresholds of experience, including the relationships between the senses, likely born of my struggle to integrate them. I guess I hadn’t thought of brutality & generosity in counter-balance, per se. So, unconscious, I guess. The poem is smarter than I am—I follow its tracks into the woods…
Brian S: “The Dark Thing” seems to do that brutality/generosity thing. From “it sounds like my grandmother in her sleep” to the knife to “this is what we would have said / if we had spoken of it again,” which is the perfect ending to that poem.
Ellen: Can you comment on your process for picking titles for the poems?
Michael Bazzett: Hmmm. Titles… I generally like simple titles: evocative, mythic. Sometimes a key, or a discarded line…
Ellen: I had a few that I had questions on but don’t seem to have my list here… so many were very interesting
Michael Bazzett: Yes, Brian. What we do to one another, as humans, is heartbreaking and often unspeakable. Hence the “baby elephant” and the “knife on the stick”….
Brian S: Ha!
Michael Bazzett: I like what you said about thresholds of experience, Mandy. I’m always drawn to work that inhabits liminal spaces…
Camille D.: Lots of animals in this book. And Milkweed chose the book. A press I think is interested in the viability of nonhuman life. What’s your philosophy about the viability of nonhuman life?
Michael Bazzett: Well, we’re losing bio-diversity at an alarming rate, and thus we’re losing strength. That’s a huge question, Camille. A sad one, in its way, given that it needs to be asked, and the answer is not a given. I think the natural world is moving, like so much in the hegemony of corporate accretion of our world, toward more monoculture. On a more basic level, though: Polar bears, rhinos, Siberian tigers, Orangutans… Welcome to the zoo.
Brian S: Yeah, it wouldn’t be so worrisome if we were trading some kinds of life for other new ones. That’s just natural selection. This is something much more extreme.
Camille D.: When you wrote the poems for this book were you thinking about this, or was this something in the air of the now that showed up in your poems?
Michael Bazzett: It was totally a zeitgeist thing. A working title for the collection was Unknown Animals. And I guess that would be us…
Mandy: I feel as if I should be raising my hand; I don’t want to interrupt. With lines like “Perhaps you could loosen your self within your skin” and “I cannot tell you how long,/how many years have passed// since I have been myself” and the juxtaposition of silence vs screaming, I am interested in the relationship between the inner and outer worlds of self and how they are expressed within the poems.
Michael Bazzett: So, Ellen, have you dialed in on a particular poem? Or shall I ask you a question?
Ellen: Ask away!
Michael Bazzett: What poem provided the clearest mental image? Did any make you laugh? Which poem would you set your friend up with, as a blind date?
Ellen: The Emporium took my breath away. The Shop Across the Street and Orangutan also terrific images
Brian S: I’m scanning through the book again and I just hit the poems “Nuns” and “The Shop Across the Street” which make some weird motions on humor. Are you consciously looking to make your poems funny or is that just part of the way your work?
Also Mandy—no hand raising here. Semi-controlled chaos is as good as it gets.
Camille D.: Can you speak directly to the title? I hum every time I see it. Is a kiss really just a kiss? I love that question, Mandy!
Mandy: Michael—I love the question about what poem I would set my friend up with, as a blind date!
Michael Bazzett: I think, Brian, the answer is: both. I consciously employ joke structures (a la James Wright, in “Lying in a Hammock At William Duffy’s Farm”…) and sometimes go for lyric implosion instead of comic explosion. But the reality is too, I like to laugh, both in joy and as a defense… I try to use laughter the way good theater does, to soften the abdominal muscles a little, so the other emotions can go in deeper once they arrive. I also like a joke’s ability to transcend and transgress, to go places where common speech gets in trouble.
Brian S: Huh. I’ve never really thought of that Wright poem as having a joke structure. I have wanted to write a book where every poem ends with “I have wasted my life” though, so maybe I felt it on some unconscious level.
Michael Bazzett: Okay, Mandy, here goes: I see much of the inner worlds as personal, sometimes painfully sincere, and the outer ones as performative. The poem is where they whisper to one another. Or hold hands.
Mandy: Thank you, Michael. I think the relationship between is every bit as intimate as what you point toward in your comment.
Brian S: Also, I’m very much a fan of humor in poetry. I think it’s necessary for the reasons you mention.
Camille D.: It sounds like you are interested in communicating with people in your poetry. Did I make you laugh? Who would you set me up with? Etc. This is a world in which he idea that poetry be “likeable” or “accessible” is often considered slanderous. What are your thoughts on this issue? I really love what you said above: “I try to use laughter the way good theater does, to soften the abdominal muscles a little, so the other emotions can go in deeper once they arrive.” That is all.
Michael Bazzett: I love accessible. I want the work to be read. I write largely as a reader… I just pointed. They were only holding hands when the flashlight beam hit them…
Brian S: I liked the way William Carlos Williams put it: “I wanted to write a poem / that you could understand, / because what good is it to me / if you don’t understand it. / But you got to work hard.”
Mandy: Look, he said, and pointed seems to acknowledge that sometimes the joke is missed, the word play unappreciated. Probably why I should take that poem to dinner.
Michael Bazzett: You know, I think some of the communicative desire stems from existing so utterly outside the academy.
Camille D.: More on that, please.
Mandy: I second Camille.
Michael Bazzett: I’m an inveterate reader: Wislawa Szymborska, José Saramago, Charles Simic, Jamaal May, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kazuo Ishiguro, Homer, Russel Edson, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, Saul Bellow, Patricia Highsmith, Pu Song Ling, Robin Robertson, Sherman Alexie, Tadeusz Dabrowski, Yasmin Reza are all currently on my nightstand. Given that I never did the MFA, etc., I largely consider them my teachers. But that also means: I’m alone in this, with the sound of my own voice.
Camille D.: Oh, sweetie. We’re all alone. And together. And together in alone. Nice stack, by the way.
Michael Bazzett: I’m a high school teacher, too. So I re-read a lot. And the hurly burly of the classroom is not the place for precious or “difficult for the sake of being difficult”…
Brian S: Yeah. I’ve done more reading since I started with The Rumpus 5 years ago than I did in the 8.5 years I was in college.
Michael Bazzett: Thanks. That’s the fastest I’ve ever typed.
Brian S: Are you able to bring much poetry into your classroom?
Ellen: I was in a workshop this past weekend with Erika Meitner (who did last month’s chat) and she spoke at length about the need for more humor in poetry.
Michael Bazzett: You know, it’s been nothing but a good thing: the slowness and living outside the machinery. The poems are better for it… I bring a lot of poems into the classroom. From Homer and Ovid to Jamaal, who’s visiting in February…
Brian S: Reading anything good right now?
Michael Bazzett: Yes, HUMOR. Ellen: I like funny because funny usually means smart, and humor is human. Just two letters away.
Ellen: Love it. and was just looking at the Nuns poem. A little nun humor is always a good thing.
Mandy: “Unspoken” opens with humor “Given the unspeakable nature of their differences,/they decided to settle their divorce in mime court”—I did laugh out loud, and yet by its conclusion, “we missed the nerves wired under the words” I felt fully seated in the gravity of the work. I suppose, before we close, I just want to say how much I enjoyed the humor as both entry to the wound and its defense, without backing away.
Camille D.: Just read at the Dodge Poetry Festival with Gary Whitehead, another high school teacher and excellent poet. Hooray for teacher/poets!
Michael Bazzett: Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio by Pu Songling is wonderful. And fantastic in the 16th century sense of the word.
Brian S: I taught a class on comedy as social criticism a couple of years ago. It’s such a powerful tool.
Michael Bazzett: Louis C.K. influenced the book as much as Robert Hass.
Camille D.: Michael, last thoughts for us? Thank you for this book.
Michael Bazzett: Thanks so much for having me! Huge gratitude.
Brian S: Thanks so much for the book!
Michael Bazzett: Thanks, Mandy. Great closure.
Ellen: Good night all!
Mandy: thank you, Michael! It was so nice to chat with you. I’m so glad to have read this book. Thank you.
Michael Bazzett: It was honestly my pleasure all, Good night.