Poetry Spotlight: Michele Battiste

Michele Battiste’s Waiting for the Wreck to Burn explores themes of murder, ruin, and redemption. The narrator navigates two towns—one called Ruination, one unnamed—split by a river that threatens to flood. Poems border the land between life and death and, though haunting, invite the reader on a journey to a new start.

In addition to Waiting for the Wreck to Burn, published March 2019 by Trio House Press, Michele Battiste is the author of two other books of poetry: Ink for an Odd Cartography and Uprising, both from Black Lawrence Press. Her work can be found in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, The RumpusMemorious, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. Michele has taught poetry workshops for Wichita State University, the Prison Arts Program in Hutchinson, Kansas, and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series.

Waiting for the Wreck reads like part biblical or mythical narrative, true-crime novel, and a hazy fever dream where people live on the border of life and death. How long did it take to pull this book together? Did it come fully formed, or did it unveil itself as you went along?

The idea of a book arriving fully-formed sounds miraculous to me, though I know it happens. I’m thinking of Simonetta Hornby’s The Almond Picker. She said that the entire narrative arrived in a vision while she was at an airport. It played out in her mind like a film. She is a lawyer and had not written any fiction prior to that moment, but she was compelled to write the story down. It won several awards and was translated into many languages. It’s hard not to be envious of that!

The poems in Wreck span eight years. The earliest poems are about my mother-in-law’s death in 2010. She was murdered by a colleague in her kitchen. Much later, I wrote poems confronting my friend’s death in 2002. Poems about the dissolution of relationships, the failure to connect, and the vulnerability of family and nature were written throughout that eight-year period. While there were no intentional connections as I wrote the poems, a narrative arc emerged. Or maybe I wrestled them into a narrative arc. 

The death of a woman, the death of a town, and the death of a marriage are all forms of ruination in your book. What is the nature of ruination? Is it complete sorrow or is there rebirth and renewal in your book? 

The initial sequence in the book—about a town called Ruination—begins to ask that question. When I first started writing about Ruination, the people who lived there never left. There was a wall that kept others out. All the poems were about life in Ruination, and a person was either ruined or not ruined. But as the poems developed, I became interested in the town next to Ruination, and the river that separates them. The narrator (I think of her more as a narrator than a speaker) began to move between the towns. And I think most of us do that regularly, move between sorrow and contentment, or at least between sorrow and not-sorrow. And when we are not living in a state of sorrow, we are aware of its proximity, its parallel existence.

Many of the poems later in the book deal with starting over, often irreverently or with a bit of dark humor. I think the title, Waiting for the Wreck to Burn, suggests that, at some point, we can abandon the wreckage. But none of the poems suggest rebirth or renewal—a fresh start. We carry the damage with us—the ashes of the wreck—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In the poem “A Mechanistic Understanding of the Systems in Which It Works” you write, “To never leave / the river is to be in / between always. / Maybe this / is what you thought / and maybe you weren’t / wrong. / But even a child knows / what it means / to cross / over.” What does it mean to cross over? 

In this book, it means to make a decision. To choose. I realize that I’m playing with a loaded metaphor, that for many readers it has a spiritual meaning, crossing the boundary between living and the afterlife. But I wanted to complicate that trope, to explore the idea that not everything is as clearly delineated as life and death. The narrator has a friend who chose not to enter the town of Ruination, even though he showed her how to get there. But to choose sorrow and suffering can sometimes also mean to choose life, to choose continuing. Later poems in the book that deal with separation and divorce investigate the choice of cheating or not, leaving or not, connecting or not, knowing that no choice is all right or all wrong. But all choices create change and movement. All choices take us someplace different from where we were.

Many of the poems visually represent their subjects. “A Mechanistic Understanding of the Systems in Which It Works” looks as though it has a river running down it with a bridge in the middle, and “Once more, With Feeling” looks like the chaos and anxiety that the characters are facing as they take cover from a shooter. Can you speak a little about your formal choices? Are these deliberate formal decisions to reflect the content?

I am fascinated by form’s ability to be content, to shape the tone or direction or meaning of a poem just as a title or an image can. I love how form can slow a poem down or speed it up, how breaking a line here can disrupt a reader’s expectations but breaking the line there skirts hackneyed phrasing. 

I learn so much from other poets’ transformative use of form. “Once More, With Feeling”—which uses staggered, stuttered lines of six syllables each—borrows heavily from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Overwinter” in the anthology Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. Aimee takes on the persona of an insect emerging after a long winter, and the lines mimic an insect’s staccato and frenetic energy while also slowing down the poem. I wanted to try a similar form to capture a similar energy, but darker, more disjointed and jagged. 

Concrete poetry is more challenging, and I like to play with the shape of white space. When I fail, I fail spectacularly. The form is redundant or pat or didactic. But good concrete poetry can be beautiful and evocative, and that’s what I try to achieve.

“AMERICAN PROVERB: What a Woman Doesn’t Know, She Imagines” ends with “One thing she knows though no / one told her. What we’ve lost is also / what we desire.” Would you say this is one overarching theme of the book? What do the poems say about the desires of women? 

I do think desire and loss are two sides of the same coin. As themes, they intersect, merge and collide throughout the book. In the poem “One Method of Avoidance,” I explore the idea that making a baby is one way to deal with the death of a loved one. I would never suggest this strategy in real life! But the poem gave me the chance to put sex and death right up against one another, to investigate that relationship.

There is a lot of mourning in the book, and I think I mean mourning when I say we desire what we’ve lost. That’s a very specific kind of desire, one that isn’t relegated to women. While some of the poems deal directly with women’s challenges—such as traditional domestic roles and historically-entrenched stereotypes, I believe many of the desires (and sorrows) in the book are universal. 

What were you reading while you were writing this book, and what are you reading now?

It’s hard to identify standout poets and authors over the eight years I was writing this book. There are so many who were influential. It’s easier to talk about what I’m reading right now. I’m a little obsessed with imaginary landscapes in poetry, especially dystopian or post-apocalyptic ones. I’m wondering if this will grow into a sub-genre of poetry, like sci-fi or fantasy in fiction. I have recently read/am currently reading/plan on reading: Katie Jean Shinkle’s Ruination, Rebecca Gayle Howell’s American Purgatory, Jennifer Foerster’s Leaving Tulsa, Claire Wahmanholm’s Wilder, Srikanth Reddy’s Underworld Lit; Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City, and Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies.

Erin Carlyle’s work has been featured in literary magazines such as Ruminate, Driftwood Press, and forthcoming in Prairie Schooner. Her chapbook, You Spit Hills and My Body, is published with Dancing Girl Press. She holds a MA in Literary and Textual Studies and an MFA in Poetry from Bowling Green State University.


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