Typecaster Julie Lamb has a few questions for author M. Bartley Seigel on his debut collection of poems, This Is What They Say. Full of songs straight from the rust belt, this painfully beautiful collection of prose poems explores the stories and voices that haunt the upper Midwest, which faced an economic boom and bust long before the rest of America felt the effects of a weakened industrial economy.
Q: In This Is What They Say, you mention this book is “for the people and places in Montcalm County, Michigan, from a time when I called it home.” How has your relationship with this former home changed since the time in which you did call it home? How has that affected the way in which you approached the subject matter? Was it cathartic for you to touch base with your formative years in your hometown or was it difficult to revisit?
A: My parents still live there, but I haven’t in almost 20 years. I visit often, but have probably become something of an outsider, if not a stranger. Of course, I hated the place when I was a kid, but circumspection comes with a little age and experience. That’s probably why it took so long to produce these poems. I needed to mellow a bit so I could see clearly, recognize love and respect where before I saw only anger. Once I was able to finally put the angst to bed, the poems were able to stand up, breathe, be themselves. It was a long, slow process, but not a particularly difficult one for me. It was cathartic to get to that point where the words and stories could take care of themselves without me getting in the way any longer.
Q: Along the same lines, you chose to frame these poems from the perspective of someone outside of Montcalm County exploring what “they say.” Was this a conscious choice, to label these stories as an other, and if so, why?
A: I’m deeply conscious of having left. Coming back then as an artist and working with that place, those characters, those themes, from memory, felt fraught and I wanted that acknowledged up front. Likewise, I’m writing for and about people who are often discussed by the various talking heads that plague our contemporary moment, but who are seldom offered the opportunity to speak for themselves. I want that interrogated. Who’s speaking. Who’s speaking for whom? Why?
Q: How did growing up in a ‘first-world wasteland’ impact your relationship with words? What about your childhood led you to become a writer, and why was poetry, and even more specifically prose poetry, the best medium for this particular project?
A: My family was solidly, comfortably working class, meaning we were going to be OK even if we had to make hard choices to stay that way. Many couldn’t say that. They weren’t safe, weren’t fed, weren’t wanted, and it didn’t really matter what choices they made to the contrary. It can force a certain kind of articulation in a kid, the need to find words to describe what in hell is going on around you. Then there’s the saw about the retreat into books, into words, that is the hallmark of many who feel out of place, but can’t afford to act, and that was certainly the case for me (both my parents were/are avid readers, too, I’d point out). Finally, there was the simple fact that many around me could and were quick to throw a fist and take a punch, but few could throw around language, let alone take it. That was an early epiphany.
As for this project being one of prose poems, I wanted the language to be simple, readable, and lyric. I wanted poems that anyone could read, even when the writing contains the possibility for complexity, even should the reader not possess an MFA in poetry, even should the reader recoil at the very notion of poetry. For the readers I imagined, who are in many cases the characters I imagined, the conversation about genre, prosody, etc. is a nonstarter anyway. They know a poem when they see one and it has little to do with enjambment. For everyone else, there’s something in there for you, too.
Q: Did the economic strife present today in America have any bearing on your decision to pursue the idea behind writing This Is What They Say?
A: I’ve never liked the way the media discuss the poor and working classes. I’ve never liked the way our politicians and our upper classes pit the middle classes against the working classes and the poor. And it’s worse than I’ve ever seen it. But what much of middle class America experienced economically in the last four years is just status quo for the people downstairs.
Q: You’re a founding editor of the literary magazine [PANK]. How has your experience as an editor affected the way you approach writing poetry, if at all?
A: The third best school of writing is reading. The second best school of writing is writing. But the very best school of writing is combining two and three with the act of sifting through thousands of submissions for a literary magazine. If you want to learn what it takes to make a manuscript tick, if you want to learn what ticks and mistakes to avoid, spend some time reading in the slush pile, baby. It gets real in there real quick.
Q: You’re also a professor of creative writing. Has teaching young writers influenced your own process at all, and if so, how? And while we’ve got you on the line, what’s the best advice on writing you give to your students?
A: Emerging writers keep things exciting and fresh. Their perspectives constantly challenge my own and that’s very valuable as a writer. The best advice on writing, as it is for life, is from a Zach Schomburg poem, “If you jump / you will live a full life / while falling.”
Q: This is your debut book-length collection of poems. Tell us about that experience. What was the most difficult part and what was the most rewarding?
A: I feel old for a debut collection, so there’s that. The most difficult part is always the writing, the drafting, the editing, all the difficult little choices, all the little murders, staying humble, taking your medicine. The most rewarding part is listening to readers talk about what I’ve written. They’re always so much smarter than me.
Q: Any plans to explore the topic of Montcalm County further in future writing projects? If not, what’s on the horizon for M. Bartley Seigel?
I have a collection of short essays I’m working on right now. More poems. Some include stories from when I was a kid and that time and place remain fertile ground. But no promises. I didn’t set out to write the last book I ended up with so who’s to say what’s up over the rise?