Interview with Malachi Black

Malachi Black is the 23rd recipient of the Amy Clampitt residency. For over a decade, 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.

Black is the author of “Storm Toward Morning,” as well as two limited-edition chapbooks: “Quarantine” and “Echolocation.” His poems appear or are forthcoming in the Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day series,  AGNI, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review and Southwest Review, among other journals, and in a number of recent and forthcoming anthologies, including “Before the Door of God,” “Discoveries: New Writing from The Iowa Review” and “The Poet’s Quest for God.”

How are you finding life in the Berkshires?

It’s been enveloping. It’s in a space entirely to itself. I guess this is some of the oldest exposed earth on the planet, these mountains, and you can feel that emanation from their silhouettes. The blue distance is pretty magical.

As it happens, I have ancestors who are of the Tyer line, on my mother’s side. The mayor of Pittsfield is now a Tyer, as I understand it, and my mother came to visit us and we went to visit our shared ancestor, Peter Tyer, and some of his family members in Lee Cemetery. So in the circuitous and unlikely structures of fate and generational distance, here I am in this space where some of my early Irish ancestors came almost as soon as they arrived in the country. It has been maybe a cosmic nostalgia that influences some of my relationship to the space.

I don’t know that I even knew as fully as I do now just what that genealogical tree looked like and how close I am physically to it, but being here, I have felt a little bit of a homecoming.

So you’re working on a second collection but not necessarily giving yourself a deadline while you’re here?

Yeah. I wanted to establish a very modest but achievable goal for myself when I arrived, and I had a discreet set of plans which were, in fact, part of my application packet which I submitted to the committee, and those were my primary objects to pursue — a lyric sequence that I expect to be at the center, really the spinal cord of my next collection, and that’s something I’ve been working on diligently.
 
I’m a little superstitious about this stuff because, as an old mentor of mine used to say, “Some days are rocks and some days are diamonds.” I do stay in the office with the internet shut off for a lot of hours each day, and I do that largely because of how hard it is to do anything at all interestingly or well on the page. An average day involves a lot of failure. That’s most of the day, but you get a couple of wonderful moments or you forget who you are for a second and then come out of the trance and realize that something interesting has happened, and you have to structure your luck in that respect.

I’m curious for your perspective on how a residency like this supports your writing life, and especially one in which you’re immersed in the home and life of another poet.

The sense of space sanctified by creative endeavor and exertion is an inspiration in itself, to enter a space in which one knows a fabulous poet like Amy Clampitt had spent time condensing the world into those gem-like poems. It’s an invitation, and I wouldn’t call it a challenge, but it’s a provocation in the most positive sense of that word to make excellent use of every day. And I think it’s particularly inviting here because it was her home. It’s just a really warm home, and knowing that families have been here, Amy’s family and a series of families since, creates an atmosphere of permission and support, and that’s really rare in the context of residencies. It’s exceptional to be here.

I’d love to hear just a little bit about when you knew you were a poet or how it entered your life, and how poetry became your focus.

Well, I will begin with a story my mother likes to tell. It seems apocryphal and kind of silly. In a way, it is, but I really believe that it was influential on my later interest in language, and the magical playfulness with words, and the surprising ways they can be concatenated or fastened together, and their rhythm.

I wasn’t really a colicky baby, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable existentially, I guess. I was squirmy and I would be ill at ease even when I was well fed and cleanly clothed. My mother  started to think of entertainment, ways to pass the time or try to sooth me, and she would sing.

And one day in exasperation, after several weeks, she, as a college-educated woman, thought that she could try to read poems, and she had enjoyed her Chaucer class. I think of poems as songs for the speaking voice, and so this would be a mitigated way between singing and yapping at me, and so she went for the book she was forced to buy in college, Chaucer and Milton, and she read to me. I shut up instantly, so she just kept doing it.

There was something in the rhythms of that language that I found pacifying and engrossing. In the genetic imprint of my throbbing heart, there’s something that pulses in the pentameter vicinity and that could be why I was pacified by it, just a natively attractive rhythm. But that was the first exposure I had to the driving pleasure of lyrical language, and I do believe that that’s something I carried with me.

I’d say by the time I was 13 or 14 years old, I would have been comfortable identifying myself as a poet, and with the great blessing of a dear friend of mine at the time, a man named Alex Rosenberg — we were in a band together and I called him on the phone one day and I said, “Alex, I’m a poet.” And God bless him, he said, “I know.” And that was all the affirmation I needed.

How would you assess the state of the art, and what the role of poetry can play for people? How do we get people interested and connected to poetry?

Well, I’ll say firstly that I think of poetry as one of the highest pleasures on earth, with love, and Mozart, and fine chocolate. It really is one of the most invigorating, nourishing and exciting spaces created by man, and in a way its constant homage to humanity, because as far as we know, we’re the only creatures who have developed this really systematized symbolic means of communication. To enter the space of a poem is to be heightened naturally and immediately, and I think that’s what it offers to all souls all the time. A poem can provide any number of discrete sensations within that heightened space, and I do view it as a space for companionship.

I think that’s above all why many turn to poetry, and companionship can be consoling. It can be inspiring. It can be challenging. It can be infuriating. A good interlocutor, a good friend, a good romantic partner is someone with whom you can share all kinds of feelings and experiences, and literature provides for that entire spectrum as well.

The current state of the art, it’s a trickier thing to assess. We live in a nation-state now that has the most heterogeneous, the most diverse and richly differentiated strains of poetry that has ever existed. I don’t think there’s any question about that, and that’s thrilling to be in a space where so much is happening in so many exciting and inimitable ways.

I think poetry creates its own community, and that’s a way of compounding our physical communities. It’s a way of extending our spiritual, psychological, emotional, familial communities. It is unified by providing common experience and it unifies by expanding our sense of compassionate engagement with the world. It enhances our self-knowledge by illuminating ways we perceive through articulating ways we don’t.

What can we do for poetry and communities? I think firstly, we can help people know that it’s OK to dislike it. I think that we have the sense that it’s an either/or, that you love all poetry or you don’t, but my favorite poets, my favorite people, have discerning taste. I don’t know anybody who would just buy any car if they had their choice. I wouldn’t order anything on the menu. Very few people are just willing to go without discernment, and poetry is the same.

If you read a poem and it speaks to you in the way that the best poems can speak to us, there’s no replacement for that pleasure and you become hungry for it. You starve for that enrichment. Poetry is about multiplicity. It’s about the pregnancy of our world with itself and potentiality. It isn’t about limitation, and I think it gives possibility and promise to the people who love it.

Black

Malachi Black is finding inspiration for his poetry in the Berkshires.