Within the poems of Michael Bazzett’s new collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief), you may find yourself in conversation with a man who “specialized in enslaving the wind” or watching a bison leap a fence. You might observe a woman slipping into another woman’s life—“an older version of herself”—as she tries on a coat in a second-hand store, or arrive in a paradise, where “the work week is fixed at thirty hours.” What all of these scenarios have in common is a storyteller’s wit and alertness to the surreal and mundane truths and coincidences of human interaction. The wind-enslaver falls in love with his listener because she begins “repeating back the last three words of / every phrase he uttered” (what woman doesn’t know that trick?), and the extra hours of leisure in Paradise are spent, in Beckettian fashion, waiting for a no-show God. The woman with the coat luxuriates in the “cool silk lining” of her fate, while the bison inspires awe with its leap because it seems to have momentarily “torn itself loose from the earth.” But Bazzett is advocating for connection, not departure, in his poems. His tales ask us to look intently at the many “lands” in which we live—historical, mythological, physical, imagined—and to wrap these “well-wrought layers” around ourselves as if each were a coat we could try on, catching sight of a “different” person in the mirror, to whom we say “Yes.”
Michael Bazzett is a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. His work has appeared in Issue 23 of Memorious, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review, among others. His debut collection, You Must Remember This, received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions, and his second poetry collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different, was recently released from Horsethief Books. His third collection, The Interrogation, is forthcoming from Milkweed, as is his verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.
As I read through the book, I was struck not only by the many stories contained within the poems but perhaps even more by the different types of stories you tell. Poems such as the title poem and “The Problem of Measurement” seem to present a sort of alternative reality or history, others could be fables (“The Anecdotalist,” “Hedgehog,” “Verisimilitude”), and still others present a realism that is both terrifying and deliberate (“Coming Home” and “There Is Nothing”). And, of course, you include an actual “Parable” and a retelling of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Do you consider yourself a storyteller, and can you discuss your approach to narrative in the book?
I do consider myself a storyteller. Absolutely. I think the impulse runs deep in us—as both tellers and listeners. It’s one of my pet theories that what primarily distinguishes humans from other high-level primates is our ability to inhabit symbolic frameworks—in short, to live inside of narrative. So the words “Tell me a story” have a sort of yearning spell inside them. We’re looking to belong, to feel the invisible syntax of connection. No four-year-old ever climbed into someone’s lap and said, “Deconstruct my narrative.”
I probably read as many novelists as I do poets—I love to get lost in the dream, transported—particularly with someone like Ishiguro or Saramago, where one fantastical element is introduced, and the rest of it is played very straight. Part of the reason I gravitate toward poetry is that I can actually finish poems. Even when I’m not working in a straight narrative mode, I often idly wander, like a dog nosing the grass—it’s just my restless aesthetic at work. And I like to delight, to amuse, to be amused, to feel—stories are a good way to spur that.
Many of these poem stories, different in approach though they are, contain recurring images—wind, pianos, “hair,” to name a few. I thought of the natural world, which can be quite threatening in the “lands” of this book, and perhaps music as an attempt at organizing or playing back to that threat. Hair seems to implicate the human as animal, messy and chaotic. Do you see these recurring images as being connected to or signaling particular themes throughout the book? Are my interpretations anywhere near what you’re hoping to evoke?
You’re dead-on. And I love that observation about music serving as an ordering impulse.
Confession time: I wrote poetry for many years (my first book wasn’t published until I was 47) in the thrall of the idea of the reverential observer, cultivating this chiseled aesthetic that was part Basho, part Mary Oliver, part someone in a robe proclaiming, “We cannot see the wind, only its evidence.” As if one could just be a transparent eyeball strolling around, busting epiphanies. Tiresome stuff. But the poems kept offering these sardonic reminders that we’re not just heads floating above it all, we’re hugely destructive and implicated in this time where being alive means being at odds with nature, with our own bodies—and the work became more fraught and complex and weirdly funny as it mirrored that.
We’re imagining animals. We don’t need to transcend that. We need to own that, mine that, relax things with a little humor or absurdity, then prod a little deeper once those abdominal muscles relax. Because that’s authentic to the moment we find ourselves in—where our impoverished relationship with the natural worlds stems, at least in part, from the fact that we literally can’t imagine things otherwise.
I was struck by your focus on the human body, and in particular its potential mutilation—for example, the three poems in response to the car accident of “Coming Home,” the figurative “shrapnel” lodged in the brain in “Thought Grenade,” or the man who “unzipped himself from navel to sternum” in “The Dinner Party.” To me, these images sound a warning, reminding us of the damage humans can do to one another and to ourselves. How are you thinking about the body in these poems and throughout the book?
Slamming into a concrete divider at 70 mph is certainly instructive in teaching one about the fragility of meat and bone. The poems gained a sense of the body’s vulnerability from that moment out on the interstate, which was unfortunately an all-too-real occurrence. Yet we’re reminded everyday that our limbs can be awkward and imperfect and broken. We need to be careful with one another. As every year slips by, I value intelligence less and kindness much more. Kindness is the best way to liberate the wonderful stuff inside us without breaking the vessel open.
The title Our Lands Are Not So Different obviously has resonance in the current political climate of exclusion and division. How did you come to choose it, and how would you describe its reflection throughout the book? Has it changed at all in the months since you chose it?
I wrote that poem and chose the title nearly a decade ago, in the wake of a year where I lived with my family in central Mexico. It was a place where I spent a lot of time inside a new language and I was certainly culturally dislocated—yet I also felt inside my skin there and at home in a deep way. A lot of the work came out of the space, that straddling of home/not home, where it becomes clear that lines on a map are essentially false, arbitrary projections, yet they have utterly real consequences. We live in palpable unrealities.
Which is why in this current moment I think certain elements of our cultural mythology are in the midst of being resuscitated, interrogated and—perhaps—rewritten somewhat. It’s perhaps fitting the book’s coming out in this particular now, where for a lot of people what once felt like home has come to feel like an alternative reality or history, yet on the other hand we’re simply confronting things we should have always known about our country.
I see that you have a translation of the Mayan creation epic The Popul Vul coming out with Milkweed Editions. Did this project change your approach to your own work at all, particularly with respect to this book? If so, how?
That was a wild, wonderful, unexpected project that took me the better part of six years. I’ve always had a fondness for work in translation, the slight strangeness one can sometimes sense in the syntax or the language. Yet until I started doing it, I had no inkling of what I was getting into. I simply wanted a lucid verse translation of the myth that I could teach to my high school students. Immersing myself in it became a real joy, a slight obsession, and a total education—I ended up taking an unpaid leave from my teaching job for a semester to finish it.
One way I think the project did influence me is in how comfortable the myth is with burrowing back through time. It has no interest in being overly linear; instead it offers a sort of Russian-nesting-doll sort of structure, implying that straight-linear narrative structure is just false. Instead, you’ve got to find the beast, track it, and follow its print as it doubles back and perhaps begins stalking you…
The book ends with the poem “June,” which describes a woman trying on a coat in a second-hand shop (after first removing a stray hair belonging to the previous owner from its lapel) and imagining “an older version of herself walking through a park—.” The narrator of the poem provides a parallel description of the woman who last wore the coat before it came to the shop—“the face with the furrowed brow / that could fold and break into a lightning smile.” This seems to me to be a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship? What were your thoughts regarding ending the collection with this poem, and does the book’s ending point you toward a new project?
“…a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship.”
What an absolutely lovely reading! Slipping into a coat someone else has worn. Inhabiting it. Making it one’s own. Knowing it hasn’t always been so, knowing that it can’t be forever…
Your insight makes me feel like maybe the book has done its work. I won’t spoil the moment by saying more…
Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions!
Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.
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