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"I look, and love even harder": an interview with Michael Schmeltzer

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open through March 15th. Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview poets and fiction writers throughout the prize period, in celebration of the art of the book. This week, Michael Schmeltzer discusses storytelling as the art of memory, his preoccupation with shadow and absence, and what writers owe their communities. 

First, I just want to say that having read Blood Song, I feel like I understand what you were saying in your review about us coming from the same poetic and even familial planet. I think we're both engaged in an untangling of family mythos, and a rewriting of family myth. This didn't start as a question, but now I guess I'm wondering—how do you think about storytelling in your work, or as a poetic tool in general?

Storytelling and memory feel like siblings to me (though it’s nearly impossible to tell who is the firstborn.) Both are fundamentally intertwined and essential to what and how I write, but they are constantly interrupting the other to make a point. For me, storytelling is the means by which memory mutates from micro to macro, from the story I tell myself to the story I tell others. I think of how my mother, a native of Okinawa, and my father, born in Minnesota, reveal themselves through anecdotes. It’s a way for many of us to do the work of radical vulnerability while maintaining a sense of safety. There is something beautiful and alchemical about it all. As a tool I believe storytelling is the “show, don’t tell” portion of memory. I can disclose concerns and perceptions, the very nature of how I think, without the focus being strictly on the self.  

And if you imagine storytelling (whether fairytales or myths or oral traditions) as a revelation of collective cultural memory, then it tells the larger narrative of an entire people, a shared history. If there is a better way to show the inherent dignity and humanity of a culture, a family, a person, than through storytelling, I don’t know it. In a time when the NEA is being threatened, we as artists and writers must create and strengthen the connections that are being severed.

Who are your heartpoets or deep influences? (May be poets, may not be)

I tend to follow a book or a single poem rather than poets but there are two lasting exceptions: Li-Young Lee and Louise Glück. I have been reading them for nearly two decades now. Lee’s books (and interviews) taught me as much about writing as any professor. There is also a severity/seriousness to how he views the written word and the life of a poet that I’m absolutely enamored by. Glück’s genius hardly needs explanation. She’s just simply one of the most brilliant poets we have. I relentlessly pursue her craft. If you want to take it even further back, you could say my mother influenced my path toward writing. English is her third language (after Japanese and Okinawan) and in many ways my devotion to poetry is an offering, a means to harness the language she never felt fully capable in.

However, as I get older, as I publish more and embed myself into the literary world, my deep influences become less about the past or who I read and more about who I want to read in my future. There are writers who inspire me with their work and kindness. They are not household names but they are people whose intelligence, humor, and talent influence how I navigate the world. Not only that but who they are–-their loves and frustrations and fears–-makes me want to fight for them, to create something better for them. If I can’t look back on my literary life and say I’ve helped make this space a little nicer for the next wave of writers, then honestly why bother?

I am ambitious; I want to be a great writer and win awards, receive all the usual decorations. I would find it absolutely charming to be someone’s heartpoet, but none of that would mean anything if I didn’t earn it through words and actions. My influences don’t just come from a single direction, it comes from the past, present, and future of the literary community. I may have fallen in love with poetry because of writers like Lee and Glück, but every day some new voice says, “Look, here I am.” So I look, and love even harder.

"Blood Song" is concerned, in part, with the suffering of others, with how to remember it, how to recount it, and what that remembering does. What is the task of memory, in your poems? Has your relationship to memory changed since writing these poems? (I'm thinking of your line that says memory is what "we shackle to the ankle of our futures" p.46)

The more I contemplate the task of memory in my work, the more I am convinced it’s about recognition, the ability to know someone and know oneself. We are the culmination of experiences and memories. By working with my own, I think much of what I ask a reader is the nearly impossible task of seeing me beyond the barriers of distance and time. It isn’t that everything I write is autobiographical, but everything I write is (I hope) a very distinct mode of perception and expression that says something intrinsic about who I am. Through my writing I am introducing myself to a reader. When I speak about the inherent dignity and humanity that is conveyed through storytelling and the examination of memory, it is about being able to recognize people beyond the barriers of the physical, beyond the bias of a hijacked narrative.  

I’ve always had a difficult relationship with memory; the painful ones sting while the happy ones offer the quiet sadness of stored holiday decorations. I will say writing these poems allowed for a greater commitment to the past and a better understanding of who I was/am. Writing that concerns itself with the past must also concern itself with the present for the current moment contains all the potential regrets and triumphs of our future selves. In other words, we are living the past we will recall, and that idea keeps me mindful of how I move through the world.

Is there a key poem in the collection that you always read at readings? Do you like reading?

The poems I pick tend to shift a lot from one reading to the next but there are some clear favorites I have such as “Some Nights the Stars They Sour” and “Kite.” Both mix anxiety and just enough autobiography to feel accurate to my inner life. Lately though I read at least one poem that directly refers to my children. In a time of political despair, I find it difficult to add more elegy into the world so I try to pick poems that, as depressing as the tone may be, can be understood to contain the joy and love I have. There is joy in every poem, even if it is found backstage in the making of them. When I read a poem with my children in it, there is a part of me that thinks of them at home. Part of me calls to them, and that gives me a grand happiness.

I do like readings for the most part but only because I like people; I’m not so interested in my work. Readings deserve more experimentation. I wish there was something more informal and unpredictable about them, a little more interactive. I want there to be a connection between audience and reader, to see the reading experience as a collaboration. I’m honored to read, I truly am, but I know what I wrote, and it’s not nearly as interesting to me as what the person in the audience is wondering or writing or going through. An audience member may have come to hear my poetry but I show up because I want to know who they are.

You have a ton of metaphysical imagery in "Blood Song"--things are soaked in shadow and darkness. Do you have a sense of how much of that is personal language and how much of it comes out of the concerns/subject matter of the poems?

There are images and concepts my mind fixates on. For instance, ever since I was a child I heard stories about permanent or nuclear shadows. These are the imprints of people/objects scarred on the walls and steps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I think about this often, how absence can create such a strong presence. I think about the difference between darkness, which is an absence of light, and a shadow, which is an interruption of light. What does it mean to perceive these two things, and how do we experience their differences? I think about footsteps, the difference between one in cement versus one in snow. Does the fact of its melting make the footstep in snow somehow less than the one in cement? Absence, white space, the rest between notes, those things propel me. It’s in that vacuous space I feel grief and elegy exist and those two things feel so urgent to me. I don’t have much sense of how much personal language informs the poetry or vice versa. All I know is I grapple earnestly with absence, with loss, and hope by some miracle the poems I write can give form to the formless.

Home is very important in the collection. Where is home, now? How do you think about home?

On one hand, home is Seattle, where my two daughters climb over me and bicker about who sat on my lap first, where my wife returns from work, exhausted, and drops her shoes (which always reminds me of the brother in Philip Levine’s poem “You Can Have It.”) On the other hand, home is Japan and the Pacific Ocean, the place of my birth and childhood. I often don’t realize how true that statement is until I hear someone speak Japanese or walk into an Asian market. My body noticeably relaxes. There’s a tension I carry while living in the US. I still haven’t shaken it off, even after nearly 30 years of being here.

The question of home is an important one, especially now as we discuss immigration as a country. What does it mean to leave one behind and what is our responsibility in helping others create new ones? Being half-Japanese, the question of home and identity are linked in very intricate ways; I’ve only begun to explore the idea over the past few years. Home encapsulates so much more than geography. It’s location, sure, but it’s also the slow architecture of family traditions, cultural ritual, a sense of belonging. It’s the ice cube within the water, the same as its surroundings and somehow apart. It is not merely a question of where but whom: my parents, my children and wife, the writing communities I am lucky to be a part of. Who I love is my home, and I hope I love well for the rest of my days.    

Michael Schmeltzer was born in Yokosuka, Japan, and eventually moved to the US. He is the author of Elegy/Elk River (Floating Bridge Press, 2015,) winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, and Blood Song (Two Sylvias Press, 2016) which was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. A debut nonfiction book, A Single Throat Opens, (a lyric exploration of addiction written collaboratively with Meghan McClure) is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press and is now available for presale. His honors include the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. He has been a finalist for the Four Way Books Intro and Levis Prizes, the Zone 3 Press First Book Prize, John Ciardi Prize for Poetry from BkMk Press, as well as the OSU Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He has been published in Black Warrior ReviewPANK, Rattle, The Journal, Mid-American Review, and Water~Stone Review, among others.