An Interview with Michael Meyerhofer

Michael MeyerhoferFrequency North graduate assistant and MFA student Jacqueline Kirkpatrick had a chance to recently interview poet Michael Meyerhofer, who will be reading with Darin Strauss at this coming installment of the Frequency North reading series on March 28. Jacqueline’s been enjoying his poems so much she jumped at the chance to ask Meyerhofer questions over email about his poetry, his influences, and of course pajamas. Here’s their conversation.

When did you first start writing poetry and what prompted you to start?

I’m always telling my students that honestly, I didn’t really care for poetry in high school. It wasn’t a quality issue with what we were reading (Shakespeare, the Romantics, etc.), more like I didn’t know at the time how to connect with rhyme and what seemed like “old,” elevated diction. (Hmm, I just realized I internal-rhymed in that last sentence.) Then in college, I was assigned to read “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe and I was floored by the way she uses free verse, line breaks, and stark, fairly plain-spoken imagery to convey an accessible but extremely powerful narrative. I’d always been writing fiction and some creative nonfiction but after that, I delved into contemporary poetry and started reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on. That, in turn, led me to start writing it. I thought, “I want to do this.” Also, this was shortly after my mother had passed away and I found immediacy in poetry that was very cathartic.

What poet or writer from the last ten years are you inspired by?

Actually, I’m an odd duck in that I tend to almost exclusively read the work of living writers. So for me, it’s tough to narrow down the list. But here’s a few, in no particular order: Marie Howe, Stephen Dobyns, Tony Hoagland, George Bilgere, Dorianne Laux, Yusef Komunyakaa, Djelloul Marbrook, Rodney Jones, Allison Joseph, Billy Collins (academics love to hate him but when he’s on, he’s on), James Valvis (his book How to Say Goodbye is an absolute must-have), Sharon Olds, Donald Hall (especially his heart-wrenching book, Without), and a lot more I’ll soon kick myself for not mentioning.

Michael Meyerhofer BookSo much of your work is raw and personal. Do you find the process of poetry therapeutic for you?

Absolutely. As cheesy as this sounds, poetry is the lens through which I see the world. Put another way, I once had a student say during finals week that she’d enjoyed the class but she was frustrated because aside from the basics (practice, reading, revision, critique, etc.) she didn’t know how to improve her writing. The thought that occurred to me then was a talk-off on the phrase, “Pray without ceasing.” Instead, “write without ceasing.” That reminds me of a passage in J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: an Introduction” in which he talks about how, for a writer, writing itself is religion. In other words, by more or less constantly thinking about how I’d describe something–no matter what–in a poem, I end up paying a bit more attention to my surroundings and, hopefully, enjoying them more than I might otherwise. That’s great in terms of the happy stuff, but it also means that the pitfalls are felt a bit more deeply–the consolation prize being that, yeah, poetry allows me to come to terms with grief and disappointment, rather than bottling them up to the point where I’ll liable to end up stumbling down the interstate with pantyhose on my head, screaming Walt Whitman lines and brandishing a chainsaw.

You currently teach creative writing in Indiana. Do you find that teaching your craft and passion keeps you inspired as well? Is teaching something you had planned on pursuing when getting your degree?

My initial goal with grad school was simply to have some extra free time to write, learn what I could, and get some good critiques. Before grad school, I’d never thought of teaching as the right profession for me (probably because I had the world’s worst case of stage fright). But I soon realized that if I look the same approach as I take to writing–i.e. “teach without ceasing”–I was able to not only enjoy the profession by feeling more personally involved but also be so inspired that I often wrap up a semester feeling like I learned as much from my students as I taught them.

Granted, the duel side of that approach is that I probably also feel disappointments a bit more deeply, but it’s a package deal.

I read that you wrote a novel, Wytchfire. How was this transition for you going from poetry into fiction? And besides fiction and poetry, what other creative mediums are you interested in pursuing?

As I said, I was rather indifferent towards poetry until I was about twenty years old. Before that, I’d almost exclusively read and written fiction (which, incidentally, probably made me a better poet). Since I tend to favor a rather accessible, narrative style of poetry, it’s not too tough to switch back and forth from genre to genre. Again, I think that practicing one often simultaneously helps develop skills in another. Aside from poetry and speculative fiction, I’ve also dabbled in “eastern” poetry forms (haiku, tanka, senryu, haibun, etc) and over the past few years, I’m really getting into book reviews, i.e., championing fellow authors that make me feel like the top of my head just flew off.

Francine Prose said in an interview once that in order to write she wears her husband’s “red and black checked flannel pajama pants and a T-shirt.” Is there any pattern, ritual, or routine you have when you write?

I have a lot of friends who have very specific rituals. For me, though, the only real ritual seems to be that when I get an idea, I have to write down IMMEDIATELY (preferably on a computer so I can move lines and edit more quickly), and woe to any animals or small children who happen to get in the way.

What are you currently working on?

In addition to a fine-tuning a fourth, fairly experimental collection of poems, I’m completing the third book in a dark fantasy trilogy. I’m also about 300 pages into another fiction series, though that’s kind of a hot mess at the moment.

What is the best advice you ever received from a teacher or writing mentor?

I believe in pushing the envelope in terms of narrative, really stretching things to see just what is and isn’t “acceptable” subject matter for poetry. I think that requires a purpose, though. I have a strong aversion to anything that ONLY appears to be done for shock value.

For instance, I remember one particular grad school workshop when I got a bit too full of myself and turned in a poem that was edgy but absolutely meaningless. My professor, Rodney Jones, looked me in the eye and said, “I imagine you could publish this… but I’d probably lose respect for you.” Obviously, I was shaken at the time but I thought it over and realized that he was absolutely right and I’m still grateful for that lesson.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Read, write, revise. It’s OK to hate writing sometimes but you have to love it, too. Think of the Walt Whitman line, “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Balance wild energy with humility. Be willing to write about anything, bluntly if necessary, but don’t be heartless. Also, don’t be in a rush to publish. Especially with the near-exponential growth of ezines, simply “getting published” doesn’t necessarily make one a writer. It’s better to really work on the craft, make it something you’ll be proud of. Think of poems as your children. Sure, they need their vegetables, but give them some junk food once in a while.

What would be your favorite interview question to answer?
“Michael, I heard you collect medieval weapons. I really like your poetry and want to reward you for writing it. Could you send me the link for something expensive, along with your mailing address?”

And for the kill: What is the last thing you downloaded onto your computer?

Believe it or not… comic books. Like, several gigs’ worth. I have a weakness for graphic novels.

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