by Annie Kim
Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 40 journals and magazines, including Grist, Kenning Journal, Pank, and Smartish Pace. His first chapbook, How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water, won the Exact Change Press Chapbook Contest in 2014. A full-length collection, Psalmandala, was published later that year. Another chapbook, Harbor Mandala, is forthcoming in July of 2015.
Annie Kim: Psalmandala is the title of your first full-length collection. Is this a portmanteau word, kenning, mystical relic, or something else entirely?
MC: It’s a portmanteau by definition, but I think kenning is an exact fit. However, this all makes me sound like I’m some person who didn’t just Google those words to make sure I was using them correctly. To me, the title makes more sense within the context of the book’s process –and the process of writing the title poem itself. At the point when the title came to me, portmanteaus, kennings, and other neologisms, coinages, and archaisms were a staple of the poems that had been more or less completed.
The poem began as a free write on a 6:30 train to an 8 am class in the winter, a morning on which I was feeling decidedly un-psalm23-ish. That sat in a notebook being half-baked, until I realized that, like a lot of these poems, it wanted to live in the overlap between creative and religious mystery. Then the first line arrived from whatever line stork delivers them, and, as I was revising, following its lead, I started spreading the poem out on the page more to heighten various tensions, dualities, whatnot.
AK: Here are those opening lines of “Psalmandala” for those who haven’t read it:
MC: Then during the process of realizing and revising into this pattern, the emphasis on physical presentation on the page reminded me of mandalas, which I’m obsessed with anyway, and I think you can see where it goes from there. My point in this probably too long answer is that, first and foremost, it was a word that arose out of the organic process of writing the poem and book long before I realized it was the title. It’s a word from the book’s language that describes the book.
AK: Re-reading your book, I’m struck by the sheer conflict experienced by the speaker. Sometimes the conflicts are funny, as in “Ravensong,” where the speaker gets side-swiped by a stroller in the subway, then muses:
And I couldn’t devise the right counter-attack.
What psycho fights moms with strollers, right?
I think one way in which the book helps the reader to visualize these conflicts is through serialization. In particular, I’m thinking of the six poems that either are framed as monologues by the speaker’s soul or use the word “soul” in their titles. Was this in fact a strategy you used?
MC: I don’t know if it was a strategy so much as the necessity of poems ending – and creating space for new poems when they do so. I do tend to work in sequences, the poems pushing one another to explore different aspect of or perspectives on their subjects. My process with this book was to figure out all of the kinds of poems it needed, and then figure out which form worked best for the various seed drafts, and then revise each one individually. Actually, those three things were kind of braided together.
MC: Sure. Poems on/with/within soul will probably be the easiest here. At one point, a friend actually counted and the word appeared something like 50 times – I think that was in a chapbook version – so hopefully there is something other than sheer repetition going on with that. Poems like “Shards for Sophia” and “My Soul Delivers a Eulogy for My Grandfather” involve learning to live with – or within – soul, focusing primarily on the ways in which it is a source of strength and connectedness. “Portrait of My Soul in Trees,” “My Soul’s Self-Portrait,” and “My Soul’s Music Lesson,” on the other hand, deal with more complicated aspects of the relationship between ego and soul, soul projection for example.
AK: “My Soul’s Self-Portrait,” for instance, starts out with a description of the soul as a female figure—her face, her hair. Then the speaker starts talking to the soul: “You want me/to draw the body, but it’s/ the eyes with their centers of mid-/ night dark as/ the future. . .” Before we know it, the speaker, soul and reader start to fuse together:
You are rolling down a grass hill in fresh dew. You are
a monk, a whore, a troubadour, a widower. She is
your citadel, your onlylove, your other name. . .
MC: Yes, that’s one way of thinking about both the mystery and the pathos of soul projection.
AK: So what are some of the craft considerations you made in deciding how to sequence these poems exploring the soul?
MC: Psalmandala has a couple overlapping structures. The most obvious is the journey implied by beginning the book with “Dear Reader” and ending with a metaphorical awakening. But there is also the spatial structure, four sections centered around “Shards for Sophia.” Here I was thinking about actual mandalas and their geometric (sometimes) arrangement of images. I tried to give each section its own spiral of themes, styles, and tones, privileging cycling through them over a clear narrative or logical, linear development. This seems true to the subject matter, to me; the soul is in constant flux, continually encountered uniquely in different experiences and from different perspectives, and “captured” only in a Cubist sense.
AK: That’s interesting. Do you view the making of poems as a kind of soul-making? I take it you’re not talking about the soul as a strictly personal thing—something you get to take with you, after death, for all of eternity.
MC: Yes to the first question, and you’re correct in the assumption that follows as well. The idea of the soul as immortality of the personal consciousness and/or physical body negates most of its mystery. To say that the soul is “something you get to take with you, after death, for all of eternity” implies possession of the soul by the ego. By comparison, if I say I was speaking with “my friend,” I may mean someone whose voice has been heard enough that I can hear it “in my head,” but this in no way implies that the person I’m having lunch with is my psychic property (not if I want to have fulfilling friendships anyway). In both cases the “other” exists as a dialogue partner who also transforms through the dialogue.
To me, conceiving, writing, and revising poems is one such process of dialogue with the soul. It is “soul making” in that one makes something out of the dialogue, a product, a thing. In my experience, poesis – making poems – is a process of surprise and re-surprise, frustration and compounded frustration, which are often paradoxical synonyms for and by-products of the dialogue with the soul from which the work arises.
AK: I like that take on poesis. Can you give us an example or two from the collection where that dialogue led to surprise/re-surprise or frustration/compounded frustration?
MC: Quite a few poems at various points had two of their pieces and needed a third to be complete – or three and needed four. For instance, I was reading a book about integrating anger when I had the experience of a guy kicking my bag across a coffee shop. I knew those two went together somehow, but a few years passed before I had a dream that seemed related, and I remembered the title “Don’t get mad at me Jesus,” which was from a random free write I did in undergrad. That was the missing ingredient that added both humor and a larger context. Here’s the opening of the poem:
Don’t get mad at me, Jesus.
You know how lots of people scream your name when they’re angry. I don’t do that. Well, not every time. And I listen to that thing you said about turning the other cheek. I just turned it again when this jackass kicked my bag halfway across this coffee shop. Then yelled at me for using it to trip him.
So there is a lot of conscious “work” involved to craft a poem, in my experience, but a lot of that time is also wasted until that other part of me decides to tell me what the poem really wants in various ways.
Similarly, “Yantranelle” was originally a laborious narrative poem about rediscovering my fascination with Hebrew by grasping bits and fragments of a Passover Seder. It wasn’t until the part of me I was ignoring pointed out that the poem was really about the relationship between soul and new languages (and not really about me at all) that it could really take shape.
AK: Lovely: a form and content dialogue. I’d like to close our interview with a few lines from “Yantranelle” that speak to that dialogue:
Visit Michael Collins’ website,notthatmichaelcollins.com.
Read some of Michael Collins’ poems online: