INTERVIEW WITH DORA MALECH

Dora Malech has been named the 22nd recipient of the Amy Clampitt residency. For 15 years, the program has provided poets and literary scholars a paid six- or 12-month stay at Clampitt's former residence near Lenox, Mass., where they can focus exclusively on their work.


Start by telling us a little bit about yourself. Were you born in Maryland? Did you move there? What were you up to before this residency?

I grew up in Maryland, so to be back in Baltimore is like coming home. When I was growing up, I lived in Bethesda, right outside of Washington, D.C., so Baltimore in a lot of ways is a new experience. It's a very different place, and a place that I'm really excited to be living in now.

I earned my undergraduate degree at Yale, and then I spent 11 years in Iowa. I went to graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, got my M.F.A., and the Midwest became home base for a while. I taught in other places, in other countries, actually, at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters in New Zealand. I was also a poet-in-residence at St. Mary's College in California. But in between those, I always returned to Iowa. 

What drew you to Iowa for your M.F.A.?

Having grown up on the East Coast, I feel like the Midwest was somewhat unknown. I guess that's a bias of either coast, but I ended up really, really loving it there—loving the cultural character and warmth of the Midwest, the pace of Iowa in particular. The choice to move there was solely based on the graduate program because it’s the oldest degree-granting program for creative writing in the country. 

Will you talk about your involvement in youth arts programs?

I would love to. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop was wonderful in many different ways and very community-focused. However, after living in Iowa City for a long period, I started to do some soul searching about what might be missing in terms of the community there. I saw a gap between youth and the larger community, so I, along with some other folks, founded the Iowa Youth Writing Project, which is a language arts outreach and engagement program for children and teens in Iowa City and the surrounding communities. The program, I'm happy to say, is still up and running. As you know working with nonprofit organizations, it's one thing to start something new, but it's another thing to make something sustainable and ongoing. There's an irony to it because for me, the greatest success of starting that program is that it can keep going without me. 

When I moved to Baltimore, I wanted to find similar work to invest in here. I didn't want to start from scratch, and I thought that would actually be counterproductive because this was a new community to me. I didn't want to presume to think that something that worked in Iowa would work in Baltimore. Instead, I got involved in a program called Writers in Baltimore Schools, which has a very similar vision, and I can be involved as a board member, as a partner from Hopkins, and as an instructor. I give of myself what I can give, but I do a lot more listening and supporting, instead of having that leadership role like I did in Iowa.

In your opinion, what kind of impact do the arts have on young kids? Why do you think it's important for them?

That is a good question and it's something that I wish were easier to quantify. If we could answer that definitively, I think the funding would be rolling in and we'd all have sustainable arts programs for youth. I have seen the huge impact of empowering young people to think creatively and use their voices. To be able to express yourself in a poem or a story is not that far removed from building confidence, from expressing yourself politically or advocating for yourself on a personal level. I really do believe I have seen in action the ways in which building that creative community and those creative skills empowers children and teenagers within their larger communities, whether it’s on the page, on the stage or however that arts engagement is manifesting itself. And it’s also just fun.

Do you feel like poetry comes naturally to you?

My love of poetry comes naturally but the writing of poetry takes work and the reading of poetry takes work, too. I think it takes a kind of attention that historically has always been a challenge for people. It’s a kind of focused attention that is also a freeing of the mind. We're so trained in school to reach after fact and reason to explain things. It’s challenging to be both attentive in the way that poetry requires but also not look for answers. 

You've written two collections so far and you're working on your third. Will you provide an overview of all three? What are they about and what inspired you to write them? 

Absolutely. I would love to be a more linear writer of poetry. I'd love to work on one thing at a time and have that be that and know when it's the beginning and when it's the end. But I always have many different projects going on at the same time. I thought my first two books were going to be one book, and then as I got frustrated I thought maybe there were no books at all. Then I let them separate out into two different strands. So in a way, even though my first two books were published chronologically apart they’re kind of like fraternal twins. They came out of the same chunk of years. 

Shore Ordered Ocean
, published as the first book, is a book that I think of as outward looking. There's a lot of observation of the natural world in it, poems from my time in New Zealand. There is a focus on distance. America was engaged in war and there were all kinds of policy decisions on the part of the administration, and America’s policy was being questioned on a global scale. It was a really interesting time to be abroad looking at the country from a distance, and so a lot of that worked its way into Shore Ordered Ocean.

Say So
is the flip side of that. It's a book that, for me, is very internal. It's focused a lot on relationships and language. I'm always really driven by sound in my writing, and that book is particularly sound driven. The poems create their own little worlds of sound play and word play. 

Are you working on your third collection during this residency? 

I'm working on a couple of different things. I'm definitely working on my third book, but this one, like the first two, is uncertain. I can't be 100 percent sure which of the things I'm working on right now will literally be the next book to be published. If I had to guess, the collection that's feeling closest to complete and out in the world is a collection called
Flourish, which is a book that plays off of the multiple meanings of the word. 

I'm also working on a book called
Stet. The word “stet” is a proofreaders’ term for “leave it how it was before.” You know, edit something out and then decide to put it back in the way it was. And so the idea of “stet,” or changing things and then putting them back together and even changing them again, becomes a figure for all of those other reverbs in our lives. The way that we remake and piece things together and reinvent ourselves in these different stages, or different relationships, or different phases, or places of our lives.

Who are your poetry influencers?

There are many poets who I love: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course, Amy Clampitt. They are on my list of matriarchs. I also love many poets who are engaged in sound and language, including John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I’ve been reading a lot of Amy’s work, as I’m sure every poet-resident does when they come to live in her house. When I’m thinking about influencers, there are sweeping bodies of work from Emily Dickinson or Amy Clampitt that I think about, but often that sense of influence comes from bearing down on the techniques of a particular poem. They are certainly influential people, but for me it’s as much about that attention to particular poems, particular books or particular lines at any given time. 

How does it feel to be in this house?

On a personal level, there is a communal feeling. There's this wonderful, paradoxical sense that I have this solitary time and space in the house itself, but then I also feel connected to the other poets who have lived here. I'm trying not to spend too much time on social media, but I mentioned that I was staying here and many past residents commented on the post—Cody Walker and Tess Taylor saying, "Oh, enjoy this," or James Arthur asking, "Is my son's baby sock still there?"
[laughter]

That has less to do with the writing that happens on the page and more to do with literary community, but it all kind of feeds into itself.

In terms of what it's affording me as a writer, I mean it's so significant—and it's hard to even explain how significant it is—to have this time and space to be able to dignify my own work. I'm definitely somebody who, in a positive way, is engaged with my community—it’s nourishing for me as a person, as a writer, as a community member—but it also means that my own writing can be the first thing to be put on the back burner. Here, I can hold myself accountable for creating my own work, and I have the time and space to make mistakes, to follow ideas down roads that either lead to dead ends or open up in really great ways. That is something very different from only taking an hour a day to write. This stretch of time allows me to engage, play, experiment, read, be inspired, make mistakes, and try new things. 

What do you love most about being in the Berkshires?

I think this time of year is such an interesting kind of stark, beautiful time to be here, and I'm looking forward to spending more time outside and seeing the surrounding towns. I can't draw a direct line between the experiences I will have here and poems that will necessarily be written. But these small moments, like going to Joe's Diner in Lee or talking to someone whose cousin sat for a Norman Rockwell painting as a little kid, will continue to inspire me. Learning a little bit about the history of the area, and exploring and soaking it all in is going to seep into the work that I'm doing in a lot of ways.


Residents are selected by a committee that includes prize-winning poet Mary Jo Salter; Clampitt’s editor at Knopf, Ann Close; and Massachusetts-based poets Karen Chase, of Lenox, and John Hennessy, a past residency recipient currently on the faculty at UMass Amherst. 

This one-of-a-kind award was established through the generosity of Clampitt's late husband, Harold Korn, who made provisions for it in his will before his death in 2001.
DoraMalech
DoraMalech

Dora Malech, the 22nd recipient of the Amy Clampitt residency.