A Conversation with David Milch

I expect that most of the human journey is involved with figuring out what the borders are and determining which one to cross and which ones to stay away from and things like that.

This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011. The full text is not currently available online.

The Songs of the Maniacs: Four Books on Madness and Creativity

Includes reviews of:

  • Manic Depression and Creativity. D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb. Prometheus Books, 1998, 230 pp., $24 (paper).
  • Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Mind. Kay Redfield Jamison. Free Press, 1996, 384 pp., $16 (paper).
  • The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Alice Weaver Flaherty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004, 320 pp., $15 (paper).
  • Poets on Prozac. Richard M. Berlin. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 200 pp., $24.

"If Ever I Cease to Love": The Pageantry of Carnival Costume Designs

The text of this feature is not currently available online.

Poetry Feature: Mark Wunderlich

Poems included in this feature:

  • Stone Arabia
  • A Servant’s Prayer [Poem of the Week June 11, 2012]
  • Sand Shark
  • Opening the Hive
  • Prayer for a Journey by Sea
  • Cat Lying in the Grass

Meet the Author:

Two of the poems here are in the form of prayers. A couple of years ago, while visiting my family in Wisconsin, I came across an old Lutheran prayer book, written in German and published in St. Louis in 1876. The book was small, meant to be carried in a pocket or reticule and consulted during times of need. The prayers are notably specific: prayer to be said before setting off on a journey by sea, prayer to be said in the first hour of a deathbed watch, prayer for a birthday, prayer to be said during a time of drought. I found these pleas addressing mostly harrowing circumstances to be psychologically compelling. By begging for the attention of an all-knowing, distant father, they seemed to me an interesting model for poems, but quickly my own versions took on new and contemporary contexts.

I began writing these poems some time ago, and resisted showing them to anyone or sending them out to journals. I felt embarrassed to be writing poems with religious underpinnings, and, as queer agnostic, I felt exposed. Of all the poems I have written, these—mostly devoid of autobiographical detail—are the most personal.

The other poems here have animals as their subjects. Having grown up on a farm and having been around various domestic and wild animals my whole life, I developed a particular aversion to the sentimentalization of animal life and the morally specious mistake of equating animal deaths to those of humans. The relationship between domestic animal species and humans is long, complex, intertwined. They are, quite literally, a part of our biological makeup, and we owe our survival as a species to them—and they owe theirs to us. The poems are my way of thinking about some of these complexities.

Poetry Feature: Steve Gehrke

Poem included in this feature:

Meet the Author:

Funny, how certain things lie untouched in us for years, how we learn to evade them, like stones tossed in the hopscotch box of memory. In some ways, I think these evasions, these buried parts of ourselves we’ve learned to walk around, wedge us into a certain way of being or at least limit our understanding of who we are.

For instance, when I was fourteen, I started hearing scraps of music in the air. Little meaningless fragments: commercial jingles, the refrains of popular songs repeated endlessly. Driving with my mother once, I heard “We Are the World” playing faintly on the radio, but when I reached to turn the dial up, the radio clicked on beneath my fingertips. I guess I could have told my mother what was happening, and maybe she would have driven me to the hospital right then, found me some specialist or psychologist or maybe just told me that it was no big deal, that it would go away eventually. But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I locked away that bit of information about myself in the same place where I’ve locked away so many other fragments of myself. I don’t mean to pathologize myself or to suggest that I’m any more or less disturbed than anybody else. We all have these pieces of ourselves that we haven’t completely integrated into who we think we are. What I mean to suggest is that one thing poetry can do is turn the most secret self into a kind of muse, or at least open a space where strangenesses and darknesses can be admitted to, examined and maybe even reintegrated into a more wholly coagulated self.

I suppose this smacks of confessionalism and all its connotations (is there a poet who is more out-of-fashion than Robert Lowell?), but I do think that poetry can help us understand the oddities of our own minds. And maybe one reason so many poets write about mental illness is that both poetry and psychosis have a way of rubbing away the boundary between the actual and the invented worlds. In a way, hallucination and delusion literalizes what only seems metaphorical or surreal in the poem. Lowell, Plath, Sexton, and Berryman were far from the first poets to suffer from mental illness, but what makes their poems so powerful for me is that they aim their lens at the peculiarity of their own minds, and in this way the subject of their poems is united with its source.

The Essentials of Acceleration

I’m a good driver, and by this I don’t just mean safe. Like a good runner who doesn’t waste motion in her stride, I maneuver my car with dexterity and precision. I merge smoothly and without braking. In three moves, I can parallel park on both sides of the street. One of my friends is the mechanic at the corner garage. He respects my studious approach to the art of driving, and I admire his work. He’s honest and his hours are reliable, unlike the dry cleaner up the street who repeatedly closes at ten to seven and will not open the door even if you point out the time. Leo, the mechanic, is Mexican. His family also owns Guadalajara, across the street, where I occasionally have a burrito.

This story is not currently available online.

Grasshopper Kings

His son flings the stick behind the hedges when he spots the car approaching. Flynn is home late again. The boy is on the front lawn in a shirt with the sleeves cut off, his wiry arms behind his back now. Even from a distance, Flynn saw the flames eating the end of the stick. The smoke hovers around his son’s head like an apparition as Flynn steps toward him. Ryan, my sweet boy, he says, I thought we’d put this fire business behind us.

This story is not currently available online.

Leftovers, 1993

Interstate 64 from Richmond, Virginia, to Newport News tunnels through thick and silent stands of pitch pines. Occasionally there are breaks in the trees, and the traveler glimpses a farmhouse, peanut fields or a swampy depression in the landscape where cypress knees swim in brackish lagoons. But mostly it’s just pine trees and pine trees. They crowd the interstate and block the view on both sides of the highway. At night—when I do most of my driving—the moonlight pools on the pavement. Stars appear in the narrow cut of sky above.

This essay is not currently available online.

My Father’s Women

When I drove my sisters back to town from the lawyer’s three days after our father’s death, it took a while for us to arrive at the subject of his women.  The lawyer had given us a rundown on the will—no surprises, 20 percent to each of us, a little more to his final companion and a little less to his two stepdaughters from his second marriage.  We knew that his estate, which included a parking lot in a commercial district in Tokyo as well as a summer house near Mount Fuji, was considerable.  Yet none of us had any idea where the right documents were, and for some time our conversation shuttled from where to look for them to what kind of service to hold to how to clear the house of its clutter to when to see the body and how best to lay it to rest.

This essay is not currently available online.

Poetry Feature: David Kirby

Winner of the 2012 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Poetry.

Poems in this feature:

  • Siberia
  • The Hate Poem
  • If Any Man Have an Ear, Let Him Listen [Poem of the Week April 29, 2012]
  • Senior Coffee

Meet the Author:

Some months after finishing the poems that became Talking About Movies With Jesus, I began to miss Jesus. Really, I began to miss all my pals from “the other side,” so I decided to get in contact again. In rapid succession, I wrote about an encounter with the Devil in the Atlanta airport, a trip to hell with Jesus and his dog and a talk on a beach in Hawai’i with the Antichrist. As is always the case, I never know what I’m going to say when I begin a poem. Then again, do you know what you’re going to say when you start any conversation? If you did, I can’t imagine you conversing very long. Or very happily, either.

“here are two Antichrists, one who looks just like Jesus and then the other who has all the heads and crowns, and it’s this second one that was the obvious choice for me. Now make no mistake: Kirby is a man of peace and wishes no harm to any creature great or small. But as you’ll see, after a vigorous chat with the Antichrist, I kind of admired him. That is, I admired his voice. I wanted to sound like him. I’d like to think that if I had all those heads and crowns I’d be a force for good, not ill. The main thing, though, is that I was fascinated by the thing that every poet wants more than anything else, which is a voice that no ear can resist.

I use my other poems as well as little problem-solving machines, mechanisms to help me figure stuff out: what Russia’s like, what’s it like to get older, how I really feel about my friends.  And, sure, that first-person pronoun pops up a lot, but, hey—as Borges says, “I am ashamed to have spoken of my own personal case, except for the fact that people always hope for confessions and I have no reason to deny them mine.”