Michael S. Begnal has published the collections Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, 2012) and Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), as well as the chapbook Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in journals such as Notre Dame Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Natural Bridge, The Otter, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has an MFA from North Carolina State University and teaches at Ball State University (Indiana). He can be found online at www.mikebegnal.blogspot.com and @Michael_Begnal
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I spent years just trying to get into journals, and then a couple more years trying to get a book manuscript accepted, so the first book (with Six Gallery Press) felt great. I had also at that time had a book accepted by Salmon Poetry, a somewhat bigger press (though really, what poetry press is all that “big”?), and when that one came out I have to say it felt even better. At the time when I was struggling even to break into print, I thought that having a book out would mean I had finally “made it” as a poet. But now even with a few collections out I don’t really feel like I’ve made it, since, as it happens, not a whole lot of people care all that much about poetry anyway, and the poetry world itself is so diffuse. So while of course I still want to get my work out there and have more books published, I’ve kind of gone back to the early, early feelings I had about poetry, before I even got to the point where I thought anyone would ever put out a book of mine, where I was first of all just concerned about writing the poem, and the words on the paper, and the intensity of that. Again, don’t get me wrong, I still send out work and so on, but I suppose I have to say that having books published was not as transformative as I used to think it would be. It’s still better than not having books, though, obviously.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I always thought it would be a great thing to be a poet. I read poetry and fiction more or less equally, but poetry was the form that I felt was really me; I just inherently felt that, that it was a field in which I could do something. For that matter, even my favorite novelists are ones who write “poetic prose,” Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Kerouac. I’m not really into plot, I must admit. It’s more about the language for me, and ideas.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
If I have an idea, it will eventually find its way, if I can do the writing. Usually an initial draft comes out quickly, and then I probably keep shaping it, to some extent or another, but the basic form is there. If I don’t have the right idea (or any idea), I’ve learned stop forcing things, and I don’t even try to write. I don’t mean I have to have a fully realized idea to begin with, but if I’ve got nothing at all, then there’s no point. On the other hand, maybe an “idea” can just be: let the unconscious do its thing, and then something comes out that you didn’t expect. I honestly don’t have a particular method.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
It’s been both at different times. At first I just wrote individual poems that after a while accrued into a book-length manuscript. Then when I was writing what became my collection Ancestor Worship, I realized I was writing to a particular theme, which had to do with Irish and Irish American identity, and so I kept going with it until it was done. Same with the following collection, Future Blues, which was written around the idea of death (yeah, grandiose or whatever, I know). More recently I’ve written longer, chapbook-length sequences, where each is more or less a whole long poem in itself, and where I pretty much knew from the start that that was what I was trying to do.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yeah, I love doing readings, for the most part. There’s a lot to be said for the rhythm of spoken language, a whole lot, and when I read poems out loud, I’m trying to tune into that rhythm, and if I can’t find it then maybe I need to rethink it or rewrite it. I don’t know. When I do have it, I can usually tell from some kind of audience response, and/or the feeling it gives me when I’m reading it. So it can definitely be a part of the process. Even if I don’t have a public reading going on, I’ll read a poem out loud to myself or whoever, so I can hear it outside of my own head. Sometimes, though, there are certain pieces that are designed more for the page, and make use of space or other visual cues, and so don’t work as well orally. That’s okay too.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In Ancestor Worship, and to a lesser extent in Future Blues, I was definitely concerned with identity politics and cultural nationalism, and was trying to work out those kinds of questions. But after that, I felt I needed to do something else. I didn’t want to keep doing it over and over. Lately, I’ve focused more on things like, I guess you could call it ecopoetics, or the intersection of natural, urban, personal, even subconscious spaces. Again, that sounds kind of grandiose. I’m just trying to give a name to something that feels like it happens more or less instinctually. But all writing is rhetorical, whether we’re conscious of it in the moment or not.
7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Even though it wasn’t Claudia Rankine herself doing this, I thought it was great when a person in the crowd of a recent speech by a right-wing U.S. presidential candidate was shown on camera ignoring said speech by reading Rankine’s Citizen instead. I’d like to see poets be relevant figures in this or similar ways in contemporary cultural/social/political discourse. But, in an often anti-intellectual society, that’s hard to effect. So, I don’t know, just do your thing regardless.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In my experience so far, editors have been largely hands-off. For poetry, I think that’s mostly a good thing. I wouldn’t want an editor to ask me to radically rework my poems, though at the same time I’m open to a level of feedback or suggestions. But it’s really never happened, so far. In academic prose writing, I’ve had some pretty tough comments from outside readers in regard to articles I’ve sent out to peer-reviewed journals. In this case, I’ve found that the suggestions, while tough to deal with at first, ultimately made the piece better. These are different modes of writing, however.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In James Liddy’s poem “Photo,” from his collection I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (2003), he recalls the admonition given to him, “The world is straighter and more Protestant / than you imagine.” Whether literal or metaphorical, it’s a dose of reality worth remembering if you’re trying to be an artist.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I tend to write poetry in the evening and late at night.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
You know, I used to worry about this, but now when it happens I just try to forget about it altogether and do something else, and not even care if it inspires me to write or not. Basically, if I never write again, it doesn’t matter.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I honestly don’t know what I would call “home” anymore, so I can’t say. The idea of home is an illusion.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Film and visual art for sure. For film I especially like Stan Brakhage, and lately in painting, Walton Ford. But music more than anything else, and in particular the Stooges have been a big influence on my writing, especially their album Fun House (1970). I’ve written poems that respond directly to their music, and at other times their modes or methods have been in my mind or ears as I write. I really like how Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Kalamu ya Salaam, and others have responded to jazz, and I’ve written about jazz myself, or really just the free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock. But if I’m going to say what music honestly speaks the most to my individual position in the world, it’s got to be the Stooges.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
My favorite poets are Baraka, Bernadette Mayer, Helene Johnson, Thomas MacGreevy, James Liddy, Maurice Scully, Catherine Walsh, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Haniel Long, Witter Bynner, Muriel Rukeyser, André Breton, Philip Lamantia, Li Po, and that’s just at the moment off the top of my head.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
I don’t know. Just keep pushing past where I’m at, in poetry and just in life.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was younger, I was in bands myself, of the punk and rock’n’roll varieties. I played drums, which actually I think has fed into how I approach poetry in many ways. But it didn’t turn into a viable career. My job now is teaching writing at the university level, both composition and creative writing. Beyond those, I don’t know offhand.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For better or worse, I’ve always had to do something else at the same time. It’s an extremely rare poet who can survive on poetry alone. But I did it because that’s what I wanted to do, so I guess I’ve had to have a degree of persistence. You have to work hard, or work hard at not working hard (ha ha), in order to be able to carve out enough space in your life to keep writing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
In the last number of years, the greatest book I’ve read was Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935). The greatest film of the recent era (for me) is Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008). I could mention a number of other, also great works, but I’ve already done a lot of listing, so I’ll leave it at that.
19 - What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned earlier, in the last couple years I’ve been writing in the longer, serial mode, and recently finished a chapbook-length manuscript of linked poems. Now that that’s done, I’m not working on anything. Thank you for asking me these questions, by the way.