Barnstorm and a Bullet: An Interview with Rachel Mindell

12 mins read

By Jon RiccioRachel Mindell Author Photo

Rachel Mindell is a writer and teacher from Tucson, Arizona. She works for the Montana Book Festival, the Missoula Writing Collaborative and Submittable. Individual poems have appeared in Diagram, Pool, BOAAT, Horse Less Review, DESTROYER, and elsewhere.

JR: Like a Teardrop and a Bullet opens with a ten-line poem, “Chile Ancho,” that commences at “4:30 p.m. Friday.” Do time and dimensionality set the tone for what’s to follow?  

Rachel Mindell: Interesting question. I think I began with “Chile Ancho” hoping it would embrace what follows: small instants, loss, heat. So in a way, yes, perhaps a tone is set for one moment being all moments, one door being all doors. These poems are a couple years old now – what I sense in the writing retrospectively is a willful push towards the precipice, something my friend Crystal Hartman intuited through her cover art. 4:30 p.m. Friday is what we jump off of.

JR: “Diamond City Ghost” explores the brittle courtship between outlook and environment –

Need brought us
this collapsing mine, rising dust and an aerial photograph
of what never was thrive, who’s to say
faith we haven’t and we won’t.

followed by “What luxury to simply up and leave our specter/ there’s so much cheap land still permissible.” How did moving from Tucson to Missoula change your definition of the word thrive?

RM: Well, it certainly changed my outlook on the word drive. Montana is huge and I travel often. There’s all this wide space, the so-called “big sky,” wild expanse, much abandoned and never returned for. Without being too personal, I’ll say that I was lucky to leave Tucson so I could focus on who I was there – maybe these poems get close to that and maybe they don’t. MFAs are such a ridiculous privilege and I was graced – more mental space here and fewer diving boards maybe. Thrive keeps getting bigger though. Dammit.

JR: Thank you for the following lines from “Again this meteor shower of children’s meatballs” –

Again this mediocre tower of canned dinners.
Again this melancholy vower to grand sinners.
Again this mouthful, again this mackerel.

Power of twinkling: kissed falls.
Grower of inklings: twist, drawl.
Vower to kinking: dish dolls.

Do we as a poetocracy place too little or too many expectations on rhyme?

RM: I feel pretty removed from the poetocracy these days so I don’t know. I can say that as a poet working with young students, rhyme is high potency. You can either reach kids through its sound pleasure (since they’ve experienced music and kids books and memorization) or you can alienate them from poetry forever (you can be that scarring event) by pushing too hard. They don’t get it, it sounds childish, they can hear it but can’t replicate it, or they can’t stop using it. I don’t have answers for this but I’m watching more and more closely how it influences young writers. I don’t use rhyme very much myself but in drafting poems, I sometimes like to start with a single line and then distort it again and again until it becomes unrecognizable. That’s how this poem’s meatball was formed.

I sometimes like to start with a single line and then distort it again and again until it becomes unrecognizable. That’s how this poem’s meatball was formed.

JR: “Sluice” is a field day for language and language games alike – “Boy spouts hot gibberish/ like preggers in the mayonnaise.” “You invite him home for moonlight terrycloth Scrabble./ You nail your fixtures to the wall and jelly up.” What’s the key to a successful poem whose density is matched by its diction?

RM: Rescue Press’ Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, The New Census, includes twenty questions anthology writers responded to like, what’s your shoe size and name your favorite teacher of all time. #9 is a list of words they love and #10 includes those they hate. I used words from both lists to create this poem, hence poppycock, mayonnaise, samurai etc. I love startling language – the best contemporary poets (I think first of D.A. Powell) stretch and sublimate our vocabularies.

JR: “It’s the goatsucker, homes” features a chupacabra joke “whose initiating query has been siphoned from/ popular memory.” Have we reached a culture of mnemonics?

Oh my. No. Yes. I love that turn of phrase – culture of mnemonics. The memory device moving closer to the memory.

RM: Oh my. No. Yes. I love that turn of phrase – culture of mnemonics. The memory device moving closer to the memory. We could feel doom and gloomy about the clipping of language via acronym proliferation and texting etc. but doesn’t that just open new space for play? I don’t think I’m attending to your question – the ultimate mnemonic dodge. See Anne Carson on the poetics of interviews.

JR: “Cafe Poca” is a poem set in the service industry, albeit one with a more mind-opened menu – “I might explain/ huitlacoche or quantum free-range organics memorize balance count cash light/ candles answer reservation phones fill waters horchata serve pitchers chips…” Why is the meta-restaurant genre in such a constant state of flourish?

RM: Simple answer: because so many writers work or have worked in the service industry. Longer answer: restaurants are hyper-fertile ground, often literally. I could say way too much about this topic because I’m obsessed, and if you give me a beer and a cigarette and we sit on the Club Congress patio I will talk to you for three years straight. Maybe more than one cigarette. Summary: restaurant work encompasses all levels of human experience, with tons of highness, sensual overload, human drama, communal stress, and foible. Plus cash. Delish.

JR: How did your past work on the journal CutBank inform your current role as Director of the Montana Book Festival (MBF), next occurring September 27 – October 1, 2017?

RM: I loved working on CutBank – what an amazing legacy it has. There’s been a ton of crossover that continues to exist (CutBank and its editors are vital to the book festival). Editing an MFA journal is a puzzle because your team (volunteer almost always) is also your workshop group – the book festival relies on volunteers also (this year we had over 50), many of whom are friends and leaders in their own right. Without those passionate individuals (and wildly generous authors and publishers and booksellers and sponsors), literary organizations would disappear. My biggest lesson in both capacities has been gratitude for the people that dedicate themselves to this difficult path – it’s worth it.

Without those passionate individuals (and wildly generous authors and publishers and booksellers and sponsors), literary organizations would disappear.

JR: I love that MBF had a panel called “Building a Literary Organization Without All the Bull$&#*.” What were some of the takeaways?

RM: We have so many inspiring women writers in Montana and Chelsia Rice, who proposed this panel, is one of them. She recently organized the group Helena Area Literary Arts (H.A.L.A.). She was joined on the panel by Corrie Willimason, a poet who works with the group, and Sarah Kahn, who founded Free Verse. Free Verse leads writing workshops for youth in juvenile detention centers across Montana. These women are powerhouses. They demonstrated on this panel (and show in everyday life) that there’s no single model for literary leadership – that the same creativity and fearlessness we bring to our writing can (and should) apply to business.

JR: Could you tell us about the Missoula Writing Collective and its work on the Flathead Indian Reservation?

RM: The Missoula Writing Collaborative (MWC) is a non-profit putting poets in the schools, founded by Sheryl Noethe and directed by Caroline Patterson. More great women. Through funding from the NEA, district Indian Education Councils’ and others, MWC now offers poetry education in five schools on the Flathead Reservation. This is my third year working with 4th and 5th graders in St. Ignatius. I get to design my own curriculum in line with Core standards, and focus on poems by Montana Indian writers – Birthright is a great resource. I’ve been blessed with such great employment here, from the book fest to MWC to Submittable. Missoula is a small but robust community for literary empowerment, outreach, and tech innovation.

JR: “I sense scope and whim/ in our next barnstorm” (from “The Fighting Season”) is my new maxim for beginning a poem. What’s yours?

RM:  Leonard Cohen has been on my heart and mind so:

Oh Teachers are my lessons done/ I cannot do another one/ They laughed and laughed and said well child / are your lessons done? / Are your lessons done? / Are your lessons done?

I appreciate this opportunity, Jon. You’re a true hero for literature. Thanks for all you do.

Jon Riccio (U of A MFA 2015) is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, and was a past staff reader for Sonora Review.