In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Michelle Bonczek Evory
Tell us about your poem “Becoming American” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
I was lucky to grow up less than a mile away from both sets of my grandparents. I saw them all the time; they helped raise me. My sister and I spent most of our time with my paternal grandparents who spoke fluid English. In contrast, in my maternal grandparents’ home, everyone spoke Polish—my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and uncle but they never taught it to me. I always found that curious but came to understand it as a decision made by many immigrants at the time that felt to them like a break from the old country and a new beginning for the next generation.
Then in my thirties I found out that my grandfather had been in a Nazi prison camp and my grandmother had been held as a cook for the Germans. No one had ever spoken of it, but the air always had; I could feel its weight. Knowing this made me look at other moments in that house differently. Who knows what else was hidden from me?
So, I grew up around grandparents that in some ways left their past behind. My grandmother cooked all the Polish foods, they went to Polish mass, kept Polish friends and traditions, but planted them new in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In fact, just this past summer I asked my mom if she wanted to visit Krakow, my grandparents’ home city, and she asked “Why would I want to go there?” I guess the longing for roots I feel skipped her generation, as well. That lack of desire to connect to the past creates a vacuum for me, a canyon of space I feel but can’t exactly name because, well, I don’t know what there is to say about it since no one ever told me.
In addition to the language barrier and silence on the war, there were other moments in that house that felt heavy and I wanted to explore them to try and understand or grapple with my experiences. Now that my grandparents have both passed there is much I will never know. For someone like me who is open, curious, wants answers, investigates truth, it is hard to accept. This poem is me trying to make peace with it all somehow.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
When I read poems I am looking to be swept in by the music of the language, held by the concrete detail of imagery, and surprised by new metaphors. Emily Dickinson famously said that she knew when she read a poem because it felt like the top of her head was taken off. Similarly, good poetry creates a physical reaction in my body’s center. I feel it in my belly.
Clichés, wordy syntax, and abstractions are an immediate turn off for me—an indication that the poet has not written a poem for the reader. Poems that are overly abstract remain private. They stimulate only the writer’s memory instead of creating an experience for the reader. They might as well hang a big sign on telling the reader to KEEP OUT.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
As someone who has graduated from an MA, MFA, and PhD program, I have been inspired by and mentored by many writers. They have not only been those who taught courses, but the writers who went through the programs with me, and the writers we read. Inspiration comes from many places and happens on many levels.
I am endlessly inspired by the young Walt Whitman and his perception of poetry. His “Song of Myself” is the quintessential American poem and I would say the quintessential human poem for the 21st century. Every time I teach it I tear up in class and I find that every time I read it I am affected more deeply. As for living poets, I consistently return to Dorianne Laux whose poems are unpretentious, relative to my life, and aesthetically pleasurable. I also love Laura Kasischke, Sharon Olds, and Muriel Rukeyser.
Since I was an undergraduate I have been blessed to have as a friend and mentor William Heyen who I will visit whenever I am in New York. He not only influenced my aesthetics, but more importantly has been to me an example of what it means to live as a writer. His devotion and discipline are inspiring. And he is always working on a new project, collaborating with and supporting visual artists, and forever engaged with the work of those writers who preceded him. His bits of advice echo in my head and I share them now with my own students. Some of these include: “Who cares if it’s true?” “The poem is always smarter than the poet.” And one I maybe haven’t followed so strictly, “Don’t get caught up in politics.” He thought that doing so would distract you from your real work: writing poetry. Of course, once I told him I remembered him saying I should have my kids young to which he replied that he couldn’t remember saying that and he wasn’t sure if that was the best advice—but you know, at the time, that’s what he could offer! So is life. As Whitman said about contradicting himself, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” And I think this is true. Even if our understanding and opinions change due to new experiences it’s good to have a store hold of advice, that like pieces of puzzle, you can apply when it fits.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I do. Poetry and photography are my main art forms for which I have received awards and residencies. In fact, I have a photograph housed at the museum in Gettysburg National Military Park from the time I spent as an AiR [Artist in Residence] there. But as an artist I’ve expressed myself in all sorts of ways throughout the years—acrylic paintings, miniatures and jewelry with Sculpey clay, glass paint, beadwork, pastels. I’ve played piano, flute, drums, guitar. I danced tap, ballet, jazz all my life and minored in dance in college. Nowadays I will sing when my husband pulls out his guitar. I’d also place in this expressive category baking, cooking, and gardening which all contain elements of expression and a creative process.
Currently I am dappling in collage that blends poetry into its form. In terms of poetry, photography and collage are certainly practices that depend on similar approaches—the image, the frame, and the relationships between objects in that frame. So often I will find myself poeming phrases and lines while I take photographs or piece together collages. In fact, I once wrote a poem about taking a photograph of a Swallowtail. Then my dad painted a portrait from my photograph. Then I wrote an essay about the poem-photograph-painting transformation. It’s like an ouroboros!
Aside from photography and collage though, the other art forms, for me, are more removed from the writing process. They offer me another way to release creativity and free up my mind for future writing projects rather than feed them directly.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
As I tend to write poems that are politically aware or comment socially, current events have often influenced my writing by becoming subject or impetus. Lately, however, the opposite is true. Listening to and reading the news has become poison for my creativity—it is overwhelmingly difficult to process the immense irresponsibility and narcissism we as a country are demonstrating in regard to guns, immigration, and especially climate change. The actions by the Trump Administration in regard to all three are heartless, mindless, and embarrassing and I feel such an urgency, a siren blaring, that when I am engaged in reading or thinking about politics all I want to do is act. I begin to feel like these issues—global, neighborly, critically important-for-life issues—eclipse art making, because unless we intercede, we may not have a place to make art at all.
In the human world, art has a place for implementing changes in consciousness. It is indeed an impetus for change but today’s political climate triggers in me a survival impulse rather than a creative impulse. I try to write and instead spin off into contemplating how fragmented we are as a citizenry, how difficult it has become to communicate with each other, and how isolated we have all become in our narrowing identities. Last year I published an article that addressed this—the need for what in his essay “Democratic Vistas” Walt Whitman called our common skeleton and greater morality that comes from a shared sense of history and body of literature written by our “great imaginators.” It is, like during the Civil War in his time, crucial that we individuals who comprise the United States find a way to unite. I agree with Whitman—and Thomas Jefferson for that matter—that we Americans must take pride in our great writers (and artists) and embrace our shared identities sung through their voices. I don’t know…maybe the answer to healing our current political crisis IS art and literature…
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
My collection of poems The Ghosts of Lost Animals is a good representation of the themes that wind their way through my poems. Women’s lives; the body; ecology; the relationship between humans and wilderness; love, marriage, and longing are all themes I frequently explore. The poems I am writing currently are focused on the medical experiences of infertility, environmental deterioration and our Earth’s sixth extinction, as well as American myths and the supernatural. I am interested in the ways individual experiences challenge common knowledge and inform our lives, how we build an understanding of reality. It seems, returning to the ideas of today’s political climate, truth itself is on trial. I am trying to explore what I can of this in concrete ways.
Michelle Bonczek Evory is the author of The Ghosts of Lost Animals, winner of the Barry Spacks Poetry Prize (Gunpowder Press), and a book on craft, Naming the Unnameable: An Approach to Poetry for New Generations (Open SUNY Textbooks). Her poetry has been featured in the Best New Poets anthology and in many journals and magazines. In 2015, she and her husband, poet Rob Evory, were the inaugural Artists in Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park. She teaches in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and mentors poets at The Poet’s Billow.