“Letting Ambiguity Have Its Way with Me”: An Interview with Mark Yakich

INTRODUCTION

Spiritual Exercises (Penguin, 2019) is the latest collection of poetry from Mark Yakich, author of The Dangerous Book of Poetry for Planes (Eyewear Publishing, 2017), A Meaning for Wife (Ig Publishing, 2011), The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin, 2008), Green Zone New Orleans (Press Street, 2008), The Making of Collateral Beauty (Tupelo Press, 2006), Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (Penguin, 2004), and Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide (Bloomsbury, 2016), an unconventional guide to reading and writing poems. Spiritual Exercises explores the poet’s unlikely origin story: “AfterfortyyearsIdiscover/ I am the son of a nun,” opens the book’s bombshell first poem, “Sister Christopher.” This poem, like so many in this collection, siphons its subject into a formal objet d’art as the physicality of its stele shape evokes both an arched church window and a gravestone. Yakich excels at such blending the divine and ethereal with the vulgar, quotidian stuff of life; this skill produces a book that can accommodate such questions as, “What does the arc of your life resemble?/ I’ve forgotten” and “What’s the point of history?/ Today,” and fire back, “What in the world do you want?/ Tomorrow.” Yakich’s observations and meditations on the immediate, carnal world of the present are beautiful, and his musings on the ineffable, divine; and both are inextricably tethered to his process: “And my work is still to try// To beat myself up/ And make the pain last.”

 

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Jacqueline Kari: Your newest book is titled Spiritual Exercises and includes an epigraph from St. Ignatius of Loyola (whose own book of devotions is also titled Spiritual Exercises). St. Ignatius’s book offers sequences including reflection, meditation, and confession that are designed to take place over the course of four weeks: is the three-section structure of your book at all to be graphed on St. Ignatius’s own spiritual exercises? Or more broadly: how do you envision this collection as participating in the generative, somatic nature of such devotional work?

Mark Yakich: I’d never heard of the Spiritual Exercises until I began teaching at Loyola University here in New Orleans. And when I did hear the phrase, I didn’t quite understand it. I’d done various exercises and sports my whole life and had assumed exercise was a body-only thing. While I could understand a figurative sense of the phrase “spiritual exercises,” the whole concept still seemed (and still sometimes seems) paradoxical. That is, spirit is something you can’t touch, something ineffable, while exercise is something you do at the gym or the yoga studio or on a field or in bed. For years, I purposefully didn’t look at Ignatius’ tract because I didn’t really want someone else’s system imposing on one I could perhaps devise. It was a kind of William Blake “create your own system or be imprisoned by another’s.” In other words, prison—spiritual or not—terrifies me. Which is odd perhaps, because in a real prison, the only thing to do is to exercise—pull-ups, push-ups, etc.—in order to keep one’s spirits up, emotionally and psychically.

JK: These poems draw from similarly thoughtful, meditative forbears’ work, namely the metaphysical poets. T.S. Eliot famously wrote that the metaphysical poets not only think but feel their thoughts, which then modifies their sensibilities in their poems. How does that map onto poem-writing, for you? Would you say that poesis is about making (and being remade)? Or is the poem a place to record what’s happened? Or something else?

MY: I do love the metaphysical poets. As far as poesis, I think a poem can be both a made thing and a record of what’s happened. Or neither. In other words, I’ve never really understood all the kerfuffle some folks make over whether this or that is a poem. As for thinking versus feeling, I find it a false dichotomy. Unless one does not have language (for some reason), all emotions seem to be linked to words, even tenuously. The issue is that words never do (due) the emotions justice. That’s what some say. I get it…and yet, justice to what exactly? Feelings? Feelings just want to be felt. Human existence, then? Too ridiculous. The universe? Too universal. My old friend Mathias Svalina wrote something recently about the mystics: “the world is little & the self is big.” And what is that bigness? Yes, feelings. The poor things.

JK: Eliot’s assessment of George Herbert—who seems an important influence for your work—is that he escapes the “pious insincerity” of many writers tackling religious themes (the “danger” being “setting down what he would like to feel rather than be faithful to the expression of what he really feels”). Your work often feels irreverent—but never insincere; honest, but never imperiled by the naiveté of earnestness. How do you tackle such big, well-worn themes (religion! family! lineage! mortality!) without falling prey to the “pious insincerity” Eliot condemns?

MY: I appreciate the kind words, and I adore Herbert. That said, I don’t know how to tell anyone how to tackle big themes. I’ve never worked from a top-down approach, as in, I think I’ll write a poem about my birthmother or Time to write a mortality poem. I realize that’s not exactly what you’re saying…. But what happens from working bottom-up, that is, just playing with words and phrases over a very long time (the poems in Spiritual Exercises were written over 12 or more years) is that large concepts and issues arise no matter what one does, or in spite of what one does or would like to do. If I remember correctly, for example, the first poem in Spiritual Exercises, “Sister Christopher,” originated out of my playing with a guide to gardening.

Perhaps my whole process just boils down to writing a million words and combing them for the lice with Hemingway’s “shit-detector.” (I have a 994-page memoir in the closet.)

JK: You’re admirably good at endings, and your poems seem to end up somewhere both inevitable and unexpected. “Forms of Love,” for instance, praises a Hopkins-esque gamut of selves—from “Mother’s Milk” and “Baby Daddy” to synecdochic parts (“the metaphoric/ Heart, the genitalia—”) of “the body that goes.” The poem first understands each of us as part of a collective, “all our soft animals piecing/ Together can-do truths,” finally concluding that these piecemeal, improvisatory efforts are both insufficient and holy: “…Be unashamed.// Those selves we are/ So full of are full of holes.” “Forms of Love” challenges the singularity of the self and instead praises the continuum of selves (ours and others’) that contribute to who we are and what we do. With that view, how do you conceive of endings? How do you know when you’re finished (with a poem, with a project)?

MY: I make innumerable versions of a poem. Some of those versions turn into other poems. Some just sit and ferment in the electronic dross bin. I have a few Word docs that are 2,000 pages each. When I get stuck for what to do in a particular poem, I scan back over one of those documents until I find something that intuitively works in what I’m working on. Then, later—that same day, days later, weeks, perhaps months—I’ll re-read that poem (I work on 20 or so at a time) and often chuck that line or some part of that line or a stanza or a word. It’s a messy process. I have a messy desk. My mind is a mess when I write. It’s evolved that way. But the thing is, messes have parameters. There are “rules” and patterns in what I describe above. It’s not arbitrary though it can and may look so. One’s mind wants to make sense and order, no matter what one puts in front of it. Here are three arbitrary things that off the top of my head: porcupine, tea cup, justice. Isn’t your mind trying to fit them together despite their apparent randomness? Does the porcupine drink from the tea cup? Or break it? Which act would be more or less “just”?

JK: “To Dream”, features another gorgeous ending:

To see the dead girl’s ear
As an embryo
And her lungs as

The gates of clouds.
To get so tired of breathing
It’s breathtaking.

That poem’s opening stanza decries the virtues of taking “a very good shit.” How do you handle such dramatic tonal shifts? Put differently, how do you balance the sacred and the profane—always managing, it seems, to draw sacred truths out of the profane/vulgar?

MY: The origins of my cross-cutting of, with, and against “tone” began with the Marx Brother’s movie Duck Soup. I was about nine when my dad let me stay up one night and watch that movie with him. Maybe it was because I was nine or that it was midnight or it was the movie itself (probably a combination of all three), but I began to understand that comedy and seriousness walk a tightrope together. In that very same family room in the house I grew up in, I witnessed my dad starve to death due to rectal cancer. We didn’t watch any Marx Brothers’ movies (I don’t think I could have borne it); the last movie we watched was Braveheart.

I think I learned the most about playing one emotion against another from reading Frank O’Hara’s poems. His Collected was a bible for me for many years. People think of him as the I-do-this-I-do-that poet, the let’s-stroll-around-the-city-at-lunchtime-and-jot-down-thoughts poet. But he’s much more than that. I would argue he is the greatest love poet of the 20th century. He’s writes a particular kind of love poem. Here’s the beginning of his poem “My Heart”:

I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar . . .  

JK: I have to ask about the visual poems. They feel more iconic (in the truest sense of that word), à la Herbert, than illustrative, as with Apollinaire’s Caligrammes. I think my favorite is “You See What You Want to See,” which changes depending on your perspective as a reader—which lines you read first, and the ordering/hierarchy of thought that develops subsequently. Why visual poems? They’re not unique to this collection—“Please Present This Card…” and “Panopticon” from The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in the Ukraine are sort of “gently shaped” poems—but the shapes are most pronounced in Spiritual Exercises. What draws you to them, and what work do they do that’s different from a left-justified, lineated poem?

MY: There’s also a large section of The Dangerous Book of Poetry for Planes that is made up of visual poems. That section is called “Experiments with Air,” which is how I most like to think of the visual or concrete poems: I’m playing with the air or space between letters and words, and not simply line breaks. In doing so, there’s another strategy at my disposal…somewhat like having a melodic line or setting words to melody. Or somewhat not. I suppose now at nearly fifty years old, I’ve settled into a kind of thinking that wants things two ways, always not-reaching for one or the other—letting ambiguity have its way with me. I may have picked this up from Montaigne’s essays—he’ll say one thing, Figs are detestable especially when desiccated, and then a paragraph or page later say, There is nothing as glorious as the skin of a dried fig, and he’ll put his lips to one as though it’s his wife’s glabella.

JK: You mentioned that you’re drawn to visual poetry because of the air/space between words and letters—where they reside on the page, how much space they take up, what’s next to them, what the reader’s bird’s-eye view sees. In your 2013 essay, “What Is a Poem?”, you call the visual form of Herbert’s “Easter Wings” a lagniappe (a little bonus or gift, for the non-Louisianians)—as it draws focus to the shape the poem cuts on the page, reminding us that this materiality, how the poem stakes out its place, is also important. You also live in New Orleans—how does that place matter in your poetry? Where are poems, for you?

MY: After Katrina, I wrote a poem for nine voices called “Green Zone New Orleans,” though I didn’t set out to write a “place” or a poem about post-storm New Orleans. As I was admonishing my students last week, if you play with words and phrases and their juxtapositions long enough and not worry about the “idea” for a poem, the idea will come out organically from that play. The trouble is, I think, that most young writers and perhaps many older ones aren’t willing to play and play and play over months and years. Most people want more instant-type gratification from working on and making something. It’s understandable. But if one wants understandable, one might head into a different kind of work, a work that doesn’t require hours upon hours of alone time, away from all others, all readers, all children, all friends, all poets. There’s a poetry festival each year in April in New Orleans, which is run by good people, but I can’t get myself to attend. I like poetry, but I don’t really want to consort with poets any longer except through their poems. Perhaps that’s odd. It is, without a doubt, a privilege.

JK: Gerard Manley Hopkins burned his poems in 1868, grimly (cheekily?) noting the act in his diary as a “slaughter of the innocents.” What’s your relationship to revision, to revisiting your work? Your first book—Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross—is “glossed,” providing additional information but also actually rewriting several pieces into prose poems, in your next book, The Making of Collateral Beauty. How has your relationship to your own writing changed, if it has? Spiritual Exercises suggest a revisiting, a ritual repetition, as with any exercise. Do you repeat to exercise or exorcise?

MY: Thank you for looking at the previous work and projects.           

I think I try to imitate others work—famous, not famous, good, bad, mediocre—but can never quite do it right, and what results becomes something I didn’t plan on. In The Making of Collateral Beauty, which I’d wanted to title simply Collateral Beauty but the editor at Tupelo didn’t want, I was really trying to play (my default mode of understanding the world) with what’s “real” and what’s not. After Unrelated Individuals came out, my brother-in-law read the book and asked me, “So who’s The Invisible Man’s Daughter?” I said I didn’t know what he meant. He said, “Really, is it your sister, my wife, because your dad is so very introverted and quiet and essentially ‘invisible’?” He kept wanting to know who characters in the poems really were, and didn’t understand when I replied that I made them up. But the interchange got me to thinking who the characters could be from my life. So I began writing the poems for Collateral Beauty with the same titles and using real-life names and real-life stories and memories. The Invisible Man’s Daughter, for instance, turned out to be my 3rd grade-7th grade crush named Stephanie Gottschalk.

As far as repetition, I am a self-quoter and a self-plagiarizer, meaning that if there’s a good line or phrase in one poem or book of mine, it might appear in another book. Why? Because probably very few have read my work anyway, and a good line deserves to be repeated wherever it can find a use.

JK: You’re working on a new project, Little Data, co-authored with Christopher Schaberg. As a self-described serial self-plagiarizer, how do you negotiate collaboration? Reworking and quoting your earlier work is a kind of collaboration with who you were when you wrote those things initially, but these new poems are actually co-authored. How does collaboration shape this work?

MY: I have always loved collaborating on works—texts and art—with others. There seems to be both less and more at stake. Less, because the person I’m working with can “fix” my screw-ups or make what I’ve made better. More, for exactly the same reason. A month ago I went to Tuscaloosa to visit an old friend who recently got divorced. He likes to paint and so do I. (Somehow the divorce seems important to mention; maybe because he’d not have had the time to paint.) We set about working on two canvases. One a portrait after Schiele, and one a figure after Uglow. We went back and forth. When I got stuck on painting, say, a shoulder, he stepped in, and I went over to his painting and did the same. The key, to me, is to work back and forth, not getting too precious with a particular creation, as well as being bold in altering someone else’s work. If your collaborator cops to this same premise, you are bound to discover new territory. As for Little Data, Chris and I are having a grand time skewering all kinds of meaty contemporary memes—bulletproof backpacks, vacations at the beach, mindfulness—and as we do it we are understanding those memes more fully.

JK: These poems have a sense of urgency, folding in climate change, the decline of the Anthropocene, the global hunger crisis, domestic violence, social anxieties. . . and feature prosaic, index-style titles like “Forests,” “House,” and “Yoga.” Are you conceiving of this collection as a sort of grammar for the 21st-century American, and if so, how so? What do you hope to achieve with these poems?

MY: I don’t know if we hope to achieve anything in particular with these poems, which in fact we think of as miniature essays—the old assay into a topic. Our poem-essays are brief—a page or less. I do like the idea of grammar, and I suppose what we are trying to do is make ourselves re-see the diction of this century—diction that keeps getting encapsulated in specific narratives or with specific characters, e.g., “fake news” is all Trumparian, even if it’s been around plenty in the previous century. I suppose, too, that I still adhere to my heroine’s words—“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”—and writing for me isn’t about expressing myself, per se, it’s about making myself re-see what I think I know. If I do have a hope for the book that we are making of LD—little data, which, by the way, is what Chris and I call our respective children (his three little data and my three little data), it’s that we’ll finish the manuscript and be able to say what another hero once said, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”

 

Mark Yakich’s most recent book is Spiritual Exercises (Penguin Poets, 2019). He lives in New Orleans.

Jacqueline Kari is a doctoral candidate in contemporary American poetry and international Modernism at the University of Georgia. She is the author of several chapbooks of poetry and translations and is the creator of theannotatedsongs.com, an ongoing, NEH-funded annotation of the Modernist poet Mina Loy’s “Songs to Joannes.” Her creative work has appeared in the Chicago ReviewCambridge Literary ReviewLana TurnerAction, Yes; and elsewhere.