Laura McCullough’s The Wild Night Dress, selected by Billy Collins in the Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series, was published by University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Her other books of poems include Jersey Mercy, Black Lawrence Press, Rigger Death & Hoist Another (BLP), Panic (winner of the Kinereth Genseler Award, Alice James Books), Speech Acts (BLP), What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press). She conceived of and curated two anthologies of essays on poetry, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, University of Georgia Press and The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn, University of Syracuse Press. Her prose and poetry have appeared widely in places such as Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, Pank, Gulf Coast, The Writer’s Chronicle, Best American Poetry, and others. She has had fellowships or scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee Writers Conference, the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference, the Virginia Center for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, Marble House, and the New Jersey State Arts Council, among others. She teaches full time at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey and is on the faculty of the Sierra Nevada low-res MFA and has taught for Ramapo College and the Stockton University Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations.
Jon Riccio: Two Bladerunner-infused poems—“Soliloquy with Honey: Time to Die” and “Saved from the Fall by Roy Batty”—usher us in and out of The Wild Night Dress. You juxtapose Batty’s essence: “Intelligent, handsome, struggling with emerging emotion, / he is real, yet temporary, despised,” with the properties that define his existence:
What a strange love story, Batty and Deckard,
and the writer, director, actor, co-creators of Batty,
making me think of sparticles, superpartners
in physics, bosons and fermions, the way
relationship forms a kind of supersymmetry.
How is Bladerunner a mirror for your writing process?
Laura McCullough: I love that you gave such attention to these two poems and their placement. One of them will appear in an anthology on film and poetry next year, and I’m really excited about that anthology since the new Bladerunner will be out, but also because I love cinematic ekphrasis. Yet your question is leading: does the film mirror my process? A film is a confluence of the creative, interpretive, and a variety of executed craft and skill. The idea must be ignited, the writers—screenplay requires both creativity and a technical skill set—the actors interpret and make manifest, the varieties of crews before, during, and post filming, editors, makeup, lighting, set design, costume, sound, and so on and on: I almost always stay for the credits after a film, which usually amount to hundreds of names, right?
In one sense, then, the poet is not like that at all—we work in often very deep solitude (I’ve wondered at times whether the solitude of poetry was an escape, a defense, or a necessary state, maybe all three)—yet the poet might also represent a mind in relation to and refracting many other beings and knowings. When I sit to write, maybe everyone I’ve ever known, everything I’ve read, experienced, and so on, is present and colluding. I love the DH Lawrence quote, “Not I, not I, but the wind that moves through me.”
But I am waffling, Jon. Here’s what I really think: increasingly I think less and feel more, and when I “think” of Bladerunner, it is about feelings: Roy and Deckard’s existential aloneness and sorrows, their struggle toward ethics and internal moral agency. They make me weep with tenderness and curiosity and admiration. Those three things are how I come to poetry, as well, as a reader and as a writer.
JR: “Libretto of Myrrh” references Jesus Christ Superstar, The King and I, and an end-of-life Yul Brenner. The poem segues into a theatre of your making in which the narrator “performed / being a daughter / whose mother is dying.” What permissions did you give yourself as the writer of a dying mother?
LM: That is a funny, disturbing, and insightful question. I suppose you may mean in relation to writing about her dying, as well as her living, and the issues of appropriation of others’ into our work, which is an interesting ethical concern in relation to art, but not what I immediately think about. I had permission to do things during her death: on the table next to her bed, I set one of her favorite books, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, a book she read to me from when I was a child, The Golden Treasury of Poetry, the bottle of myrrh noted in the poem, and a candle.
I read to her for a while. As a ritual. My mother’s and my relationship had reading as a core aspect from beginning to end. She read to me each night when I was a girl.
The day after her death, I got my first tattoo: a swallow from the children’s poetry collection she read to me from, the poem, “Who Killed Cock Robin,” author, anonymous. The collection was edited by Louis Untermeyer, mid-century poet and editor who also edited a softback collection of poetry for soldiers to carry to war. It was illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund. And her dying had many players, medical personnel, family: I begin to draw an analogy to filmmaking. That’s my permission: to be alert to patterns, but that came from her living, not her dying.
JR: You mention that rare job gem—ocean bio-acoustician—in “Mystery and Frequency.” Piqued interest led me to Australian scientist Dr. Monica Gagliano who argues in favor of plant bio-acoustics. I’ll advocate for poetry bio-acoustics if you can summarize what it is readers, writers, and reciters should be mindful of . . .
LM: Readers, writers, reciters, what lovely sonics in that: those R and D/T sounds. The pattern only takes form when you, Jon, added the third word to an old phrase; the duo of “reader and writer” is far less compelling than the triplet you “heard” into being. The phrase “mindful” is enough, don’t you think? We could recall Frost’s admonition that those who read with their eyes are barbarians; you must learn to read with your ears. We could devolve into craft and strategy and technique for writers, performative skills for reciters, but readers, in the middle, that’s I suppose what I think is most interesting, the reader/listener, acutely receptive, the holder of the bowl into which meaning gets poured. I think we desperately need a sense of the archetypically sacred again in secular society, and poetry has been the way to that for me. Mindful of the essential; I wonder if poetry is one of the best ways to distillation of that.
JR: You teach on the East coast (Brookdale Community College) and in the American Southwest at Sierra Nevada’s low-residency MFA program. Still you find time to write about the Pacific Ocean and the Kickstarter campaign to save it (“A Thousand Acres of Whale-thought”). The poem ends on an admission: “I might swim into the wide open mouth of this life / if I wasn’t so afraid of being swallowed.” How do you help your poetry students navigate the fears that hold them back?
LM: Fear of life isn’t peculiar to students of poetry. Fear and self loathing are pervasive; very hard for people to find meaning and self-direction in our culture if you’ve been raised without received wisdom of the meta-narratives of the world, rightly stepped away from due to their proscriptions beyond the mystical and ways they oppressed non-centered beings (generally cis-het males), yet one result has been this polarized culture, retrenchment into fundamentalism or this free humanism, which, in its “freedom” has left many of us with only the surfaces of the world and no roots, no sense of belonging to the great web of existence. Art is a way to connect, create new synaptic energetic fibers in one’s life, across time and space, too, I might posit. Poetry is a lineage, and being a practitioner, a devotee, an acolyte, is a calling, I think, of both spirit and vocation.
Once, a student coming into my office, blurted out, “Why do you have so many books?” Without thought, I responded, “They saved my life.” And I suspect a lot of people feel that way.
Life is a terrifying. We suffer. In many ways. If we are aware, we suffer even when we individually are not suffering because we have cultivated empathy, sympathy, and compassion, and the suffering of others matters to us, cannot be ignored. Others forget themselves in this outward awareness, and compassion for the little self needs to be honored, as well. But here, I wonder, seems the most fearsome thing of all: looking at the little self.
It was the poet, Dave Smith, who asked me to start to confront that. It was a dozen years ago at the now defunct Catskill Poetry Workshop run by poet Carol Frost. Dave and I were sitting on some rocks, and instead of discussing the poem of mine up for critique, he asked me to close my eyes and recount what the physical surroundings within the poem were. Then he asked me to step back and look at myself inside the poem and recount that.
I began to tremble and shake. I told him I felt afraid. He said—and I will never forget this—“That’s okay. When you are in the act of observing, there is nothing more terrifying than observing the self.” He then sent me away with the prescription to go reread the poems of Stephen Dunn, the oeuvre to that date, from start to finish, to be alert to Dunn’s development of mind and aesthetic maneuvering on the page.
It was an astonishing experience. Smith had then a reputation as a brutal mentor. I found him to be acutely kind.
Fear is the little death that must be gone through to move from being a little self to the larger self, which is, I think part of the great-all-there-is. We know it in art when we feel it. Jack Gilbert’s poems for example. Larry Levis. Perhaps Marie Howe’s new work in Magdalene. A singularity that is both profoundly authoritative in its aloneness and seems saturated in connectedness.
What the student is most afraid of is where her central wound is. As Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow suggests, in that wound is her power and destiny.
If I bring anything to a student, it might be that they are not alone in their effort to navigate in the darkness.
JR: My hat’s off to any poet who successfully verbs their nouns, and vice versa, as you do in the closing couplet—“if rain loves the sky it falls from / Now i ask, does love sky the rain?”—of “Negatively Charged.” Is it habit of chemistry or luck of chance that makes the occasional reversal of word function a craft asset everyone should have in their writers’ toolkit?
LM: I can’t speak for what everyone should have in their poems. Language thrills me though. I make up words or word forms all the time. I love Bob Hicok’s sentence play, how often he employs zeugma, syllepsis, for example. The brain is plastic; why wouldn’t language be?
JR: Prologue to coda, The Wild Night Dress is 100 pages. How does this length compare to your other collections, Panic, Jersey Mercy, and Speech Acts, among them? Are some subjects more “at home” in the confines of a longer project?
LM: I was pretty startled at the length, but, hey, my mother died, and my marriage blew up. Crawling through the rubble on hands and knees was slow. The next manuscript in the making, Fallen Kingdoms, is about economic collapse, marriage dissolution, and my heart attack. Right now it’s an unmanageable hundred and twenty-seven pages. There are a lot of merely competent poems, as Stephen Dunn might say, and one poem I am proud of. Maybe the only poem I’ve ever written that I am proud of. Ten lines, so small. I’m not a poet who aspires to greatness—to my mind that is rather wrongheaded actually—I aspire to aspire. If I only was willing to send out perfected poems, I’d be gardening instead. To me it is a practice, a process, about perception and curation. So I’ll try to get Fallen Kingdoms down to something less indulgent in scope.
JR: Your website says your first book, The Dancing Bear, is out of print. Do those three words carry any weight at this stage of your career, or is this something writers find themselves accustomed to? I suppose with libraries, digital archives, and Amazon, it seems like a moot question, but as an early-level poet, I wonder about the resonance of this publishing-industry fact.
LM: It’s hard to think of myself as having a writing career or a stage. Perhaps that’s what others think for us? I don’t know. Here’s what I think about that book: it has one poem, “Radiation” that matters to me. It was drafted sitting on a step outside a café in Provincetown, when I was given a week at the FAWC (Fine Arts Work Center) right at the start of my serious entering of the tradition of poetry. It’s about sorrow, sorrow I knew was deep inside my husband, the poet Michael Broek. A gorgeous sorrow. The book was published by a graphic novel and comic book press. It was so surprising, and now, I think, such a gift. I wonder what happened to those guys.
JR: Your line break from penultimate to ultimate in “Composition of Body : : Water Glass” slays me:
of multi-bridity of sight: multiple-hybridity,
the only surrender possible for me in my glass
of water trembling on the edge of a universe
we made together. In this way, I might float.
Image, placement, execution. Strike, strike, strike. What’s your criteria for stellar line breaks? How does one cultivate a line-break mindset?
LM: You are very gracious, and there is no greater honor than to be read so closely by someone as astute and alert as you. Thank you. Prayer hands emoticon. Happy face with little blush at cheeks and closed eyes. Maybe I’m being a bit cheeky, but really, we do do this alone, and what I have found at this “stage” in my writing is that when work comes out, people—fellow writers mostly—give your work back to you. An email about a poem, a review/essay someone writes, my god, it’s not just that they took the time, for which I am grateful, not just that when we write about fellow writers’ work, we give other readers a way into the work, but that my work is given to me in new ways.
Once, someone came up to me and recited a few lines of poetry. “Wow,” I said, “ Who wrote that?” They told me I did. “Nope,” I said. “That’s not me.” I had to look up the poem to discover it was in fact mine. That’s so silly, and not even what I mean. What I mean is: we help each other go more deeply into this living.
Line breaks: I spend a lot of time thinking about them in other people’s work and in my own. How they create rhythm, direct perception, offer multiplicity of meanings, the line as a unit of— often strange—attention, as a function of the nexus between breath and music and meaning. And my training in prose and fiction, which is what my MFA was in, figures in and complicates my relationship to line and stanza.
JR: “Toward Something Larger” offers an “under-water waterfall,” a beauty-penance after the ominous allusion to “our age of surveillance” preceded by “connected yet singular / which TV sometimes makes us feel, / before making us feel very afraid.” Which is worse: a social-media apocalypse or an eye-in-the-sky apocalypse?
LM: Uncertain how to answer this question, I’ll return to the idea of fear: when alone in a dark wood, it is likely you are half-way out, and so should keep moving in the direction you feel has the most likelihood of light.
JR: The Wild Night Dress was a 2017 finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize. It received a four-page preface from Billy Collins. The epigraphs by Rumi, Lawrence Bragg, and Louise Glück speak of particles, suffering, and waves. I’ll revisit the particles, which brings us back to “Saved from the Fall by Roy Batty” and the
potential answer to why the fundamental forces
of the universe don’t send us spinning
away from each other or collapsing inward,
instead holding on.
How did science aid in the realization of the book’s darkest, and lightest, passages?
LM: For me, the effort toward the numinous, the mystery, the opening to something I can only call divine has absolutely required science. I began my studies as a girl in marine biology and in primatology. Whales and apes. But I have studied cognitive and brain science, genetics and epigenetics, various cosmologies—physical and theological—science and the sacred, how they inform each other. I recently finished a memoir that took six or so years, My Life in Other People’s Clothes, in part about this, and am close to finishing a second one, The Drummer & the Whale. Reason and Knowing. Thinking and Sensing. Service and Love. Suffering and Transcendence. Consequence and Compassion. I’m afraid I have been rather a simplistic and dualistic person so far. This or that. Poetry, writing, is a way toward synthesis . . . and communion.
Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate and composition instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Permafrost, Pouch, Random Sample, Visitant, and others. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he is an incoming associate editor at Mississippi Review. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona, where he served as a poetry reader for Sonora Review.