My guest today is poet Michelle Gottschlich. In 2015, Michelle released “Void Sets,” her debut collection, through Monster House Press, a publisher based in Bloomington, Indiana, which is also the author’s hometown. On Valentine’s Day Michelle will release a chapbook of new poetry titled How to keep full in February.
Zac: Michelle, welcome to Zac Swann Blog.Thank you for being here.
Michelle: Hi Zac. Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog.
Z: Upon first reading these poems, a reader may notice the abundance of language revolving around fruit and, concomitantly, fertility and decay. How did you come to use this language, and when did you begin to see a pattern developing between these passages about fruit?
M: I found the language on wikipedia actually (haha). It was really kind of an accident—I was feeling stuck and went searching for new vocab on the wikipedia page for pomegranates, which my boyfriend would eat for breakfast a lot at the time. The page was stacked with really great, specific, surreal, and helplessly anthropomorphized imagery, so after writing “Pomegranate,” I kept going back to wikipedia pages on food whenever I felt stuck again. That’s how I wrote ”Grapefruit”, “A riddle (an egg)”, and “Avocado.” So that prompt was pretty intentional, but it wasn’t really until later that I noticed and wanted to lean into certain themes like the ones you mentioned. I grew up in the Catholic church and “women = fruit bearers” is part and parcel of church doctrine, so that kind of language, if nothing else, definitely ingrained itself in me. Of course now I recognize it as a really sort of silly, old fashioned, pastoral trope that spans across Christian art and traditional ideology in general. I wanted to try writing that trope in more contemporary contexts, like bizarre commercial farming practices or modern relationships, and also be inclusive of all feminine-identifying folks.
Z: I’d like you to do a reading from your upcoming release. Could you share the “Orchard” with us and then tell us a bit about how this poem came to be.
M: This past Fall I went apple picking with my roommate Kate. Just like how the poem starts, it was fairly late in the season, so there weren’t that many strains of apples left on the trees. The woman working at the orchard gave us a list of all the apples grown in the orchard and then, like really aggressively, crossed out all of the strains that were by then out of season. I thought it was funny and weird that all the early apples we missed had cute, girly names and the only ones left were long-holding Jonathans and Granny Smiths. I wrote this piece soon after, but it went through a lot of different drafts, most of which included a cliche turn about how Fall reminds us of aging and mortality, you know like that Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall”, Márgarét, áre you gríeving / Over Goldengrove unleaving? But it didn’t feel good enough or like something I cared very much about. Fall doesn’t make me think of dying any more than other seasons and spring doesn’t really make me think of sex or new life either. I just kept reworking the poem until I found a turn that felt right, and then it wasn’t about aging or mortality anymore to me, but something about Midwestern gender politics and violence.
Z: Yes, let’s talk about the Midwest a little bit. You are in corn country, some would say; and certainly Indiana is fairly agriculturally focused. When you reflect on farming practices, food production, and these kind of political undertones, how do you feel your region and community informing you?
M: Northwest Indiana where I grew up is extremely industrial, rather than rural, and historically blue-leaning. A lot of people commute to Chicago. So growing up there’s always been a lot of poking fun at Indiana’s “backward ways” and a lot of bemoaning that we’re surrounded by the religious right and conservative farmers who rule the state. Now I live in Bloomington, Indiana, which isn’t just blue, but wonderfully liberal and progressive compared to all the rural surrounding areas of central and southern Indiana. I think that’s why Midwestern rural politics and practices tend to show up in my writing as some sort of ominous thing. But the truth is I really love the Midwest. Southern Indiana is really very beautiful and the people here are so earnestly nice, hard-working, creative, and community-minded. I think that growing up and living in blue bubbles where my and my community’s beliefs are always totally quashed and spat on by the state, where white supremacist groups form in neighboring towns, and the governor is now the VP, I have a creepy sense of being utterly surrounded by a closing-in all-encompassing evil. But I also assume that’s probably how everyone feels everywhere now, on either side.
Z: In ‘the saint of auscultation’ you write, “i’ve noticed my body, it prefaces itself so often. and even i myself i’m ashamed how often i hail it down in my writing.” I am interested if you could share what it means to notice this tendency of your body to preface itself. How are you aware of the presence of your body, in regard to your poetry?
M: Identifying as female can be a very confusing and painful thing because you internalize (young girls in particular) so many negative and disempowering characterizations that are associated with femininity. And self-identification is only part of the game, because others also identify me as female and their expectations, ideologies, and at times accession of male privilege falsely acknowledge certain “feminine” characteristics as reality and then enforce my behavior through social etiquette and public policy. So the first part of this poem (the second is a dream sequence about killing Mike Pence) meditates on that interplay—I talk about how my body prefaces itself, meaning that I can’t really help being identified as female and then becoming a sound board of expectations. I point to being a woman very often in my writing, partly because it feels really empowering to do so under my own terms, but also partly because I’m not entirely sure how not to. In life, I never not notice my body, at work or walking in the grocery store, how I talk to people; it all feels tempered by the sense that I am being sexualized, not necessarily erotically, but qualified in some way. I imagine that this is a very weighted experience and one that I’m not sure able-bodied men (more so white, cis-men) are very often burdened with. And likewise in their writing, I also imagine they can start a poem without having to pass through that moment of decision, do I deal with this part of the perspective or not?
Z: A few times now these poems have passages that dip into violent imagery; reading each of these gave me a little shock, I must say. Did these passages, e.g. eating your children in “daydream”, Mike Pence, indiana police, did these passages surprise you when you first wrote them? When you look over this collection, do they feel connected or disparate?
M: I’ve been told that I’m a gentle person, and I think that’s generally true. I have a soft voice and I’m shy. If ever I have the courage to burn someone, I’m the kind of person who gets big kicks out of others, not because the joke was funny but because it came unexpectedly and out of my tiny voice. I think maybe my writing reflects that sometimes. I like to write a lot of a poem’s setting and atmosphere first before finally letting the underlying source of tension out of the box. That’s when the poem snaps. To me, those moments you pointed out feel connected, but I hope that there’s also a disparate sense because that’s necessary to create a blow. I can tell you that those pieces and a few others have real rage in them, but they’re also delicate, guarded, and timed. It did surprise me in “daydream” and “orchard” when I dug around, writing and re-writing, and found that aggression waiting for me at the bottom. And it felt really good to write it.
Z: A handful of poems in this collection talk about longing for someone from a distance. From “jupiter”: “Hey, I’ll show you, here’s me eating a lavender cupcake and wiggling around the quiet kitchen, stepping on a grape, freezing a mouse mid-nibble. Here’s me, tactile, sweaty, in an over-now-gesture, in a message body, in a text to you, far away, again.” What can you tell us about these more conversational poems? Would you care to consider these love poems?
M: Definitely I would. When I was in college, professors always dissuaded students from writing love poems. Then I dissuaded myself from writing love poems because I guess I thought they would be fundamentally tacky or that I might seem dull spending my creative time thinking about my boyfriend. But then in November 2015, my boyfriend went on a tour for two months and instead of ignoring that all I could do when I sat still was think about how badly missing him sucked, I wrote about it. I didn’t really expect to share any of those poems, I thought if I just exhausted myself of love poems I’d be able to move on to something else. But I ended up appreciating some of them and wanting to put them somewhere. How to keep full in February was actually all love poems to begin, but then I wrote the fruit poems and liked how those fit too within a broader theme of hunger and keeping full. “Jupiter” is a poem about maintaining a relationship across distance and trying to figure out how to store a person and a love when they’re away.
Z: I’d love to know about a few folks whose writing has been pivotal to your development as a poet? I gather that you are a Murakami fan, or at least a Murakami reader. Is his writing the kind that filters into your poetic voice?
M: I have to admit I’m not a huge Murakami fan! Despite mentioning him in that poem, haha. I read most of 1Q84, but I felt chucked out about 600 pages through. I’ve been told I’d really like some of his other novels though, and I bet I would because I do like fiction that passes in and out of impossible realities, and I think Murakami does that in a really interesting, almost like modernist-sci-fi way. I love magical realism and was deeply affected by the characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My favorite poetry tends to make personal or historical events seem surreal or like fiction’s magical realism. I adore Gabrielle Calvocressi for that talent. Her book The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart is my favorite collection of poetry now, if not for a very long time. I think I’ve been most influenced by Alice Notley and Anne Sexton, which seems now extra obvious by the end of this interview (haha). A book I recently read/loved/highly recommend is Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall. I know there are other big poets for me, but it feels like such a risk to start listing and then realize later I forgot some. Like Charles Simic. It’s really a very hard question to start answering.
Title Illustration of Michelle Gottschlich by Mariel Swann