The High Window Journal’s Featured American Poet: December 2016

Michalle Gould’s first full-length collection of poetry, Resurrection Party, published by Silver Birch Press, was a finalist in the Writers League of Texas Book Awards in poetry (and you can purchase a copy here.) Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, New England Review, The Texas Observer, The Toast, The Nervous Breakdown, The Awl, and others. Her poem, ‘How not to Need Resurrection’, has recently been adapted into a short film for the Motionpoems webseries (www.motionpoems.com) and other work has been set to music by the founder of the Washington Women in Jazz festival. She currently lives in Hollywood, where she works as an academic librarian. In her free time she is learning to play the accordion, collaborating on an opera, and writing a novel set in the north of England in the 1930s.

michalle

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The ConversationThe PoemsA Review

Previous American Poets

THW3: September 1, 2016   THW2:  June 1, 2016    THW1: March 1, 2016

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The High Window is pleased to introduce Michalle Gould, one of the poets included in our recent anthology, Four American Poets. Here she is in conversation with Anthony Costello:

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This email conversation took place on Friday 7th, Oct at 10.30pm Luddendenfoot time, 3.30pm in Los Angelos. The editor had first come across Michalle Gould’s work in 2014 when he reviewed her first poetry collection, published below with thanks to Sabotage Reviews.

Anthony Costello (AC)
Michalle Gould (MG)

Dear Michalle,

Thank you for agreeing to be the American Feature Poet for December, 2016. I first came across your work when I reviewed your book Resurrection Party for Sabotage Reviews. I rated your book highly. We kept in sporadic Facebook contact regarding literary matters and I asked you to be one of the four poets in the anthology Four American Poets recently published to good reviews by The High Window Press. I know little else about you except that you are a librarian working and living in LA. More of that later, perhaps? Why don’t we start nearer the beginning? Where were you born? Where did you go to school and at what age did poetry first come into your life? AC

I was born in Ohio while my father was in rabbinical school and lived there until I was about five, when we moved to Illinois so that my father could take a position as a Rabbi there.  When I was seven or eight, he left the rabbinate and we moved to another town in Illinois – I mention this just because I think that background shows up a lot in my writing, but not in obvious ways – I rarely use Jewish terminology or references, but I do write a lot about the larger issues confronted by religion.

When I was fourteen, I actually left home to go to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, which was a state-funded school with dormitories, so like a boarding school, but not quite what people think of when they think of boarding schools. It’s hard enough to explain within the American system and probably completely confusing from an English perspective.  Ironically, I was never really that great at math and science so I’m not quite sure how I fooled them into letting me in, but that is where I first got back into poetry after a brief flirtation with writing these sort of bizarre political satire poems in sixth grade!

I used to love memorizing poems and I also, at that young age, probably liked showing off a bit more than I should have, so I went for long ones like ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.  TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath are the first poets I remember really loving, which is a sort of funny pair, and I wrote lots of angst-filled rhyming poetry, which I’m pretty sure has all been fortunately lost. The clash between being drawn to traditional forms and at the same time trying to slip their constraints has been a part of my writing from the beginning and also probably my life. MG

These are really rich and interesting early years. Exposure to politics, science, religion and poetry comes along by accident, a discovery? (Perhaps poetry can contain all subject matter?) You came early to Eliot. In England students normally study and read him at undergraduate level, as young adults. You talk of memorising poetry which I do, too. Once something is memorised and recited it has a powerful hypnotising effect. I can see how Eliot’s incantatory rhythms were important here. One of your early influences was Anglo-American and another famously married Ted Hughes, and lived and died in England. Did England have a special place in your imagination at this time? Are you an Anglophile? AC

I think there have been stages of Anglophilia in my life, so I was really interested in England, definitely, at the time when I first became most interested in Eliot.  I had probably some very unrealistic ideas about England at the time, and was really drawn to the Jane Austen and Downton Abbey side of things (not to say those are quite the same but…), to big stately houses and lords and ladies and country dances and charming accents.  When I was nineteen, I spent the summer in England as an intern in the House of Lords, which is sort of a strange place to be an American intern interested in politics, since realistically it’s not quite where all the action is.

It was an exciting summer, with a leadership election (between Major and John Redwood – I had to google it) and a trip to Belgium for something European Union-related, the purpose of which I no longer even remotely remember, and lots of sandwiches in little shops, and a shared apartment with a bunch of other American interns in Little Venice.  However, I think by the end, I was a bit homesick and ready to get back to the US and it was such an extreme experience that it was hard to imagine anything England-related that could quite top it, so I sort of fell away from my interest in English things for awhile.

A few years ago though, I became interested in the idea of writing a novel inspired by the Kinder Scout trespass and did a lot of research and wrote about 5/12ths of a draft, but as discussion in the literary world around issues of cultural appropriation has increased, I’ve started wondering a bit whether that is quite my novel to write. I might still write my English novel but it might not be about such a specific bit of history; for now I’m taking a little break from it while I think about what shape I want it to take.  MG

What an experience! But, of course, it is a London England experience but fascinating nevertheless. (There are no charming accents in my neck of English woods!) You seem to give yourself big ambitious targets. An English-based novel written from the States. Perhaps the book can appear first as a short story and, yes, with a broader subject matter? Peter Riley, an excellent English poet, has written a poetry pamphlet about Kinder Scout. I will aim to send you a copy. Before your trip to England, where did you do your graduate work? Did you see yourself as a poet when you were studying at university? Which poets featured on the syllabus, and who were you influenced by? AC

Well I did go in 2013 for a week to Manchester and Edale to do some research but that was hardly long enough!  But I thought at the time that I would try to write a draft of the novel first and then go back to do a lot more research afterward.  Now I’m not sure, we’ll see what happens. I’d love a copy of the pamphlet, absolutely.  As far as my academic training is concerned, I did my undergraduate work at the University of Illinois.  I took a poetry workshop my first semester there, but then I decided that I should study something more practical instead and focused on preparing to go to law school.  In my very last year, I sort of gorged on creative writing and took a fiction workshop that fall and then advanced fiction and poetry workshops in the spring.  I think at that point I became interested in pursuing creative writing at the graduate level but I had already been accepted into law school and wasn’t really aware of the variety of MFA programs in creative writing out there so I just kept on going down the track I was already on.

During my first year in law school though, I decided I would much rather be studying creative writing instead, so I took a leave of absence after that first year was over and spent the fall applying to MFA programs.  I ended up in the Michener program at the University of Texas, which suited me since it was a multi-genre program, and studied both fiction and poetry there before getting my MFA in 2001.  While I was there, I was first exposed to a broader range of international poetry, including Zbigniew Herbert, Paul Celan, and Mahmoud Darwish, among many others.  A book that I really loved and still highly recommend was J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, which introduced me to so many new writers.  I didn’t really feel that my writing was consistent with the style of American poetry that appeared to me to be popular at the time, so reading poets from other countries was really helpful to me.  One American poet I did really love was Lucille Clifton, especially her poems dealing with Biblical stories and her superman poems in The Book of Light.  MG

Again your varied life continues with the study of Law and the move from Chicago to Texas. It feels like you decided to be a writer there? Interesting how we look outside of our country (and ourselves) at times for identification, as a means to understanding and progress. There is a little pattern developing in the AFP interviews. Joanna Solfrian mentioned the McClatchey book as an important book, and Philip Fried mentioned Herbert as an influence and Nicole Callihan mentioned Paul Celan. Is this just damn good collective taste or representative of some of the Syllabuses in the States? In this feature we look to America and you guys look to Europe, this is a salutary exchange. I don’t know Lucille Clifton’s work. I will read her. How would she compare to Rita Dove or Claudia Rankine? So far the exposure to poetry has seemed to centre on academic study, but how would, say, the suburbs of Chicago or the freeways of Texas affect one’s writing or ideas, if at all? AC

I’m not sure geography has actually affected my poetry much, I tend to return to the same obsessions that I’ve had since I was a moody goth teenager, namely death, death, and more death!  I did while in Texas write a novel about German immigrants to Texas and their descendants, so in that way I was much more influenced by my surroundings when it came to my fiction.  But a lot of my ideas tend to come more from what I’m reading or even the movies I’m watching (less so now than when I was in my MFA program) – my idea for the Kinder Scout novel actually come from a small footnote in an art catalog that referenced it, and many of my short stories were sparked by articles about little incidents in the news.

As for Clifton, she is well worth reading, but I haven’t studied her from an academic perspective; I am more a fan of her poetry than knowledgeable about her own influences or inheritors.  As for the other references mentioned above, I’m actually a little surprised to see them come up quite so repeatedly, although certainly Celan and Herbert are both very well-known poets obviously.  Maybe as a European yourself (I guess now this is a potentially controversial designation for an Englishman!), you connect to American poets who are themselves drawn to Europe?  Another four American poets might mention a wholly different constellation of influences.  The anthology is an introduction to particular American poets but of course there is a whole lot more out there and I hope it will encourage people to keep exploring and reading. MG

I thought you still were a moody goth! What you say about America and Europe is right, of course, (but I am still a ‘citizen of the world’ despite our current PM’s misgivings regarding that phrase) and it is refreshing about what you say about place in poetry. There is a lot of pressure on poets to be poets of place or landscape poets or political poets. I don’t tick any of those boxes. I don’t have moody Gothdom to fall back on, but I do have the literature of ideas (which can appear even in footnotes, like John Major and John Redwood!), but people don’t like it when I use literary references! Let’s shift time zones. And time travel. You live in LA now. You are a librarian, I know, and a published poet and writer. Tell us about the life you live today, your interests and your writing practices? AC

Being a full-time librarian has definitely changed my life and my writing practices a lot.  Prior to that, for around ten years, I worked as an adjunct writing professor, so although I struggled financially, in my particular case, which is not necessarily typical, I did end up with a more flexible schedule which enabled me to spend a lot of time writing.  Transitioning to working full-time has definitely been an adjustment as far as making time to write is concerned.  One thing that I’ve found is that I’ve grown a lot more interested in using scraps of found language in my poems; I wrote an entire sonnet sequence based on and incorporating fragments from a book I found in the library about Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, which try to interrogate the contrast between the stated scientific purpose of his trip and its unstated purpose of searching for the ‘Continent or Land of great extent’ which was thought to lie Southward in order to colonize it, with the well-known far-reaching consequences for the peoples that already lived there.

I am interested in continuing to try to expand my poetic range, writing more about history and science.  Since moving to LA in 2013, I have also done a lot more exploration of collaboration, especially with musicians and visual artists.  My friend Amy Bormet, the founder of the Washington Women in Jazz festival, has set a few of my poems to music, and one of my poems was adapted into a short film for the Motionpoems webseries.  I also just collaborated with a photographer in a game of Exquisite Corpse, in which he sent me a photograph and then I sent him a short text to which he responded with a photograph and so forth for seven ‘turns’ each.  I’ve always been sort of a control freak when it comes to my writing, so this is a big step for me in terms of trying to loosen up and be a little more free and experimental!  As for the future, hopefully I’ll get back to that novel set in the north of England sometime, even if its plot ends up being a lot different than what I originally intended! MG

For someone who purports to be (poetically) concerned with the subject of death, you are so full of life! I knew a little of your range of creative interests (including worked on ideas for an opera), but now it is proven. The subject matter in your poems are always original and wide-ranging, fearless and skillful…those are not my words, but Thomas Lux’s reviewing your work in Four American Poets.  Yes, I think that north of England novel will be written, but whatever form your writing takes we at The High Window have faith in your writing and wish you well.

It is 1.25 am here and (missing my usual afternoon nap yesterday) I am ready for snoozeland! It has been a pleasure sharing transatlantic thoughts about poetry. Perhaps you could leave us with some lines of poetry that are on your mind now, late afternoon in LA. AC

I don’t know if you can use the whole thing because of copyright but this blog has the text of my favorite Lucille Clifton poem: http://enothingblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/poem-of-day-note-passed-to-superman-by.html?m=1 MG

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And here are four poems by Michalle Gould

JOAN

The man who was commissioned to collect testimony said he had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister.   

The stake struck terror by its height alone.
It took two ladders to get her up, ten men
to tie her: four to work the ropes and six
to hold the others down.     “We’    ll need no stars
to light the sky tonight,”     one said; he brushed
her breast with a crude careless hand.  After
such company, to find herself once more untouched,
though trussed –   like Odysseus to his own mast –
must have been a relief.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxYet, unlike him, she’   d feared
at first to listen.  She’   d stuck her fingers
in her ears to stop the angel  ’s tonguing speech –
but still she’   d seen his lips shaping her name.
This was only a recapitulation.  Her fate
was now but the song was heard years earlier.
(The voice was seldom heard without a light.
She leapt –   and commended herself to God.)

COASTAL SCENE WITH SHIPPING AND CATTLE

(by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1781 – 1784)

A simple scene, though strangely cramped.
The canvas scarcely holds the two sailed crafts
That skim its surface.  Rub    them out and what is left
Would be two rowboats – one inhabited,
The other empty; two women and their washing;
And above, a handsome group of cattle, five
in semblance of formation, while the other
stands apart, its head and horns thrust out
To watch the larger ships (put back again)
Unload their freight, as Athens’   King Aegeus
watched once over the sea then not yet named
For him.  Now here this single cattle stands,
Gives meaning to the larger ships’    inclusion
By the way it waits to see what goods come
Off their planks –    just another father hoping to see
His son, praying that he  ’s come home again.

WHEN I AWOKE IT WAS NOON *

When I awoke it was noon.
There was white on the floor of the world.
The great machines were sat back on their haunches,
not traveling, iced in.
There was cold in the bones of the world.

There was cold in the bones of the world.
Like Termites in the walls of a house,
The sky like a ceiling yet unaware
of how much it had fallen, the continents
froze like a lark on a branch.

Froze like a lark on a branch,
I lay newborn on the floor of the world.
There were seas at my feet;
There were stars at my head.
When I awoke it was noon.

* The title is a line from Rimbaud

NETHER AGAIN

will we wither to giver that storm;
nor be feather and monster to gather;
neither again will be leave hers;
no, for of her will not be for either,

but there is a bather in parting,
to save her a bond is a sadness;
love-ending is fickle as love-making
better loaf badly than leaf too hastily

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A Review of Resurrection Party by Anthony Costello

michalle-book

On the front cover of Resurrection Party there is a detail from Michael Wolgemut’s ‘Danse Macabre’ and the poems within are illustrated with six plates of skeletons in various states of wild relief at being alive, or resurrected. When I chose to review this book (based on the title and cover art alone) I expected something dark, ghoulish and harrowing; drawn, despite my scaredy-cat everyday existence, to the subconscious, the bad dream, the other, the bad spirit…in a word, the ‘macabre’. How relieved I was to find that the book was less macabre than I had anticipated; relieved, but not disappointed as Michalle Gould’s book is much deeper, philosophical, truthful and profound for avoiding the macabre route into the readers’ imagination. But then, why the title? I hope I am not being pedantic, but there is neither a party atmosphere, nor a wholesale interest in the theme of resurrection. Perhaps the title stuck after the author published a chapbook in 2007 with the same title. This book is more about metamorphosis, transmogrification, transmigration or metempsychosis and more fascinating for it.

Resurrection Party begins with the reality of death in ‘How Not to Need Resurrection’ where “children like to play at death/they hold their breath/and cross their arms and shut their eyes”. As Wordsworth felt the child was the father of the man because of the child’s effortless insight into things, Gould has children as “the first resurrectionists” as they know “that once you believe in death, you must surely die”. But this is about as morbid as it gets until we reach the end of the the book in part six and the wonderfully ghoulish and exquisitely titled ‘Self-Portrait as an Ampoule of Martyr’s Blood Buried with Them in Their Tomb’ where

Any heart is an ampoule of blood
Entombed inside a human body,
A vial, a closed coffin made of glass.
To open us, you must snap our necks

What comes between the beginning and end of this 74-page book is a variety of experiences of transfiguration and, perhaps, even a sub-conscious yearning for some kind of conversion, a turning toward, in the latin sense, a belief system that can make sense of the challenges of being mortal. These transfigurative experiences occur at the philosophical level (there are poems about absolution and revelation, what it means to be alive and a poem titled ‘Hamlet’), the physical level (there are poems about chastity, and wild things and landscapes full of wild animals), and the aesthetic (there are poems about museums and rare books and paintings and seven poems that begin with ‘Self-Portrait…’).

The self-portraits are interesting for their shifting perspectives. In ‘Self-Portrait as a Rare Book Exhibited in a Museum in England’ the narrator is the eponymous rare book, owned by a mysterious ‘He’, at his home dwelling “…on a shelf in his own library/where only his hand could open me”, in ‘Self-Portrait as a Series of Preparatory Studies for a Nude by Matisse’ the narrator is the model telling us “the artist scrapes my flesh on to his brush/but cannot touch what lies beneath”. In another lovers are depicted as hungry birds, in another the narrator is a feminised Rapunzel. These self-portraits are a way of interpreting different experiences of the same world, and when the world is not enough the world of myth from Medusa to the Minotaur.

There are many poems that are rooted in the physical world of matter, and not all of the decaying kind! The whimsical weighing of the body in ‘Words from a Pound of Flesh’, both the ‘scraps and ounces’ of all the body parts or ‘the pulse as a single heaving mass’ to the physical (both human and animal) and erotic charges of the needy body in ‘Wild Things’:

My bed is warm tonight.
And spare. A length of wood.
A mat of grass. And hair.
Some animal is bare,
Tonight, under my bed.
Its fur embraces my
Body. I arch my back
And sigh. It licks its lips.
The skin slips off my toes.
Tonight, are you hungry?
Nibble away, oh monster.
My dreams await. meet me there

There are more erotic shocks of physical pleasure in other poems where the notion of a sexual other being part human, part animal: ‘a chill creeps through my open window/life a thief, to pick my pocket/leaving a trail of wet behind it’. Yet these physical moment of wonder are often dreamlike and imagined, and no matter how many times the narrator in these poems tries to attach her self to the physical… ‘I was the dune… I was the Mississippi…I was the lake”, it is to the heavens, and the ethereal and the need to transform oneself in order to understand or reach a spiritual realm that this book is concerned with.

Gould has angels discussing Michaelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ questioning ‘Who is the master of this landscape?’ And concludes the man is ‘but the mere image of a man’. Angels in ‘We were never angels’ question whether they were ever angels (‘we just looked the part. Taller. Bigger. Stronger’). Doubt prevails, heaven itself an egg ‘lying broken in half there (‘Revelation by Fire’).The Fall is visceral in ‘When I Fell to Earth’…’a chewed up piece of planet…a damaged star…a meteor’; in ‘Signs’ Gould poignantly ends the poem with the line ‘perhaps the end is already here’.

However, there is acceptance, pantheistic at first with the narrator’s identification with the physical phenomena of the earth, and then spiritual, a spirituality that has its source in the recurring motifs of love and longing. ‘And each time I fell, I wept, I said my God…’ (‘When I Fell to Earth’). Skies will fall but they will be born again. There is ultimately an identification with a creator in the moving and questioning poem ‘Untitled’, the subtle undercurrent of homilies for homecoming in other poems like ‘On the Potential Appearance of Resurection’ and a poem called ‘Spring Awakening’.

Some of the poems in in part four like ‘Rectangle’ and ‘Square’ detract from, and are an intellectual detour from, the book’s main message, how human beings are a part of a whole which by its very nature is difficult to comprehend or tangibly locate. Gould sums up this dilemma brilliantly in ‘Dirge for a Dinosaur by its Bones’:

Longing impresses itself
Into the form of the world
That surrounds it; replicating
Itself physically, in the image
Of the objects found nearest it.
We are haunted not by a ghost,
But its corporal incarnation,
As a wound sometimes reminds us
By its shape of the very instrument
Of its creation. As, yesterday,
During installation at the museum,
Our shadow grew up on the wall,
Until we seem for a moment to be
(Reassembled at last after such long separation)
Joined once more to that same flesh
Which failed to prevent our extinction

A powerful poem that somehow manages to exist at a viable point between Plato’s Cave and Holy Communion. Despite a reasonably steady dose of glass coffins and amputated arms Resurrection Party is always looking for a way out of the dark premise, the claustrophobic impasse. There is more air than dark, more beautiful poetry than negatively spiralling enquiry.

I am particulary pleased to see that Michalle Gould didn’t overuse metaphor in the course of her endeavour, which would have been forgivable given the subject matter. Many critics and poets feel that metaphor recreates the world. It can, but overuse can render poetry a cliche. Here, metaphors just running the length of a phrase or a line suffice, like “snow is a country doctor” or “leaves as hands” in ‘New England Boarding School:Winter’ and ‘Signs’, respectively.

These are accomplished poems in a range of forms – free verse, rhyming quatrains, couplets – full of intelligence and lyricism. Don’t be put off by the surname Gould (a weak pun on ghoul I have avoided so far) as this collection shows Michalle to be a sensitive soul, even sensitive to the plight of clouds:

Tonight, the clouds
Are tired of flying
Above the earth

Like hostages,
Suspended by chains
They long for rest

They long for the day
When the ground
Will accept them

They will sleep
On its surface
In pools of puddled white

In their place
The heavens will be strewn
With lawns of grass

(‘Tonight, the clouds’)

You can purchase of copy of Resurrection Party here.

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