An Interview with Dora Malech

Joan Hanna: I so enjoyed both poetry selections, “God Bless Our Mess” and “Cold Weather” in our current issue of r.kv.r.y. “Cold Weather” was more of a prose poem while “GodBless this Mess” used a more traditional poetic line break. Can you tell us a little about how you choose form in your poetry?

Dora Malech:
I’m glad that you liked those poems. I suppose the short answer is that the form chooses the poem. The longer answer is as follows: when I think about “form” and “content” in my poetry and in the poetry that means the most to me as a reader and writer, I can’t help but put quotation marks around those terms because (and I’m certainly not the first nor the last to take this approach) I find it most fruitful to think of them as inseparable, symbiotic elements that create the thing we call the poem. I think that whatever anxieties, confusions, obsessions, and so forth necessitate a poem in the first place also necessitate its formal shape and movements. I like to think of form as a poem’s vital structure, its very body, not the outfit it wears, a decorative afterthought. As such, there’s a lot of give and take between what the poem “is” in my mind and what it “does” on the page and in my mouth and ears and heart throughout my writing process.

There’s a wonderful essay by the poet Kathleen Jamie (“Holding Fast – Truth and Change in Poetry”) in which she talks about the shape-shifting that happens as a poet looks and listens and attempts to let the poem find its “true” form. I love that writing a poem feels like a conversation with the poem itself. With a bit of distance from the poem “Cold Weather,” I can say that perhaps the prose form works for “Cold Weather” because the poem’s materials are so strange and dream-like that a more “out there” form might spiral the poem into a kind of three-ring circus, and perhaps the couplets and long lines of “God Bless Our Mess” reinforce the sense of a routine in which one moves forward but gets nowhere. These comments are, however, as much the comments of a reader as “the writer,” since in the act of writing the poem I move more intuitively. I suppose it’s like dancing or a sport; you learn the moves and practice the moves so that they can be a kind of second nature when you need them.

 

JH: One of the techniques that really jumps out in your poetry is a delightful use of wordplay. Can you share with us a little about how these word and image connections
make their way into your poetry?

DM: My poems often “accumulate” in my notebook as a jumble of observations, linguistic fragments, and so forth. As the poem starts to find an intuitive kind of shape, those pieces begin to cohere, and the cohesion is initially as much about “senses” (feeling and hearing) as about “sense” (enforcing a meaning). I think that this element of play frees my critical mind somewhat; without it, I would probably browbeat myself out of the poem before it even had a chance to get going. Once a poem gets going, however, it’s really important to me to put pressure on it and make sure that the play isn’t “just” play. I do worry that my own love of language and sound will carry me away, and I’ll end up with a poem that’s falling-down-drunk and can’t form a coherent thought. I think this is why that “sober” revision process is important to me. I kind of have to write on instinct and then step back and let my conscious and critical mind have a go at the poem and then perhaps re-immerse myself. And so on.

JH: I was so excited to review your poetry collection, Say So published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center, for our current issue. Can you tell us how this book came together? And along a similar line, can you tell us how this differed from your first collection, Shore Ordered Ocean, published by Waywiser Press in 2009?

DM: Your review was an honor. Thank you. Say So and my first collection, Shore Ordered Ocean, are kind of like fraternal twins, in the sense that they’re books with quite different personalities and interests that gestated together. I kept trying to work poems from Say So into earlier drafts of Shore Ordered Ocean, but they wouldn’t play well with the Shore Ordered Ocean poems. They felt more irreverent and playful, more fidgety and wild. At a certain point, I realized I was writing two books. Shore Ordered Ocean was more outward-looking, concerned more with politics and distance of all kinds, whereas Say So was more inward-looking, concerned with language, the mind, the heart, the body, origins, and relationships. These differing thematic concerns naturally manifested in different formal concerns as well. Say So is pretty obsessed with form and a relationship with “the tradition,” but it’s also obsessed with axiom and cliché, the kind of “pre-packaged” language with which we’re bombarded daily. These two push up against each other in Say So, the friction sparking.

 

JH: Thank you so much for sharing your poetry and giving us a chance to review your book for our readers. Can you share with us what recovery means to you?

DM: I know that my definition of or relationship with any word, let alone a word as packed with cultural significance as “recovery,” will change as my life changes. It will probably change from day to day, even. At this point in history, I hear the word and immediately think of the “economic recovery” we’re in, and the irony of how this “recovery” seems to be shifting into a willful forgetting of lessons learned. It makes the word start to come loose in my mind, as if perhaps this vicious cycle is hidden in plain view in the word itself, contradicting itself: as we “recover” (get better) we “re-cover,” (cover over whatever truths on which we shone some light along the way). Perhaps this is part of why one must call oneself a “recovering” addict, not “recovered.” We must never have the blind hubris to display the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the deck of the aircraft carrier, so to speak. I suppose we are always doing, never done.

To learn more about Dora Malech and her exquisite poetry, visit the following links:

An excellent video of Dora reading at Prarie Lights.

Purchase her book Say So.

Visit her website.

PBS Art Beat

And read a brand new poem here.

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  1. Pingback: God Bless Our Mess | Rkvry Quarterly Literary Journal