Christopher Salerno interviewed by Nancy Mitchell

Christopher Salerno interviewed by Nancy Mitchell
March 25, 2020 Mitchell Nancy

NM:  I’m struck by the shifts of perspective within these featured poems, including human to non-human— in “SPORTS NO ONE FOLLOWS” we see the shift from the them of the bumblebees to the some of us, the distance between collapsed by the image of big as eyeballs; in “DAYLIGHT SAVINGS” We put mud on our faces, got beyond/being human, said “this makes what used to be/in me shine,” the retrospective shift to used to be is triggered by putting mud on our faces; in ‘AN OLD MAN CURSING A FOX,” we are first located in the I of I can’t tell you how vivid/the sorrow of a whole life/ then shift to the you of Today you see him dragging a pair/of antlers over your far meadow.

 

In our prior e-mails you write: “In my therapy I have come to consider the evolution of the human brain up to this point. How the brain we have now evolved from the earliest reptilian complex (giving us fight-or-flight), and later we layered onto that the mammal brain (giving us the emotional center), and then we added the human brain (giving us the center for language and reason and abstract thought). This complex model helps me understand myself better. Relying on whatever is most animal in me/us is on most days the best thing I can do to understand being human.” Does this relate to these shifts of perspectives?

 

CS: First, thank you for this generous and close reading. I take your question to be one about perspective, and the shifts that can happen organically when we get going in a poem. To some degree, I wonder if my recent efforts to hold more empathy affect the sense of perspective in my poems. I try to invite shifts in point of view. And I don’t think the poems are what one would call “conceptual,” but the process is probably similar to a director switching between multiple camera angles on a film shoot, perhaps.

 

NM: I can see that; I’ve assisted my husband on a number of feature films, and although the two-camera switch is incredibly time consuming, even tedious, it’s essential to the director’s intention to create the texture, nuance and suspension, and to facilitate shifts in perspective.

 

CS:  That, and, often the lyric moment for me is punctuated by a series of turns, corrections, diversions, within the frame of the poetic situation—perhaps parts of a poem are better seen as bumps in the road which have the effect of jostling, rearranging the cargo. Contents may have shifted in transit, in flight. This is what I adore about poetry. I can’t find this kind of freedom anywhere else. Also, I think I am allegiant to my three patron saints of poetry. I’m thinking of the oft-quoted idea of multiplicities, which I first discovered in Whitman, and then the possibilities of various perspectives or “ways of looking” at a thing, which I found in Stevens. And I would add to that a popular sentiment found in the work of my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, who said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / success in circuit lies.” When we ride it, that circuit is often what gives poetry its magic and complexity of perspective.

 

NM: Well, it seems I am in the best company here, as they are my three patron poets as well. Perhaps we could form a society and shut the door?  Back to “the lyric moment;” can you talk more about this?

 

CS: So, a poem for me is a negotiation between what I know and what I don’t know. And between lyric impulses and narrative impulses. And so what plays out over the course of the poem is often a series of those negotiations. On display, in the end, is the nature of my ATTENTION as I shuttle between whatever I’m figuring out in one line and casting about for in the next line. Sometimes there’s a moment of intense or complex imagery or a figure that rises up, pirouettes, and then burns itself out (or gives way) in a line or two, and then what follows is a narrative thrust that moves us somewhere else. These leaps, for me, are a natural part of how the poem moves itself forward. Maybe it’s the lizard brain leading me this way or that. This is the license the poem gives itself to rise out of chronological narrative as it moves forward, how it may allow itself to step sideways, backwards, or up in the air. Anyway, I really try to honor the original magic of the writing process, and preserve that as best as I can when I’m revising.

 

These poems I’m writing now are stylistically my most conventional to date—or at least I think they are because they have a kind of topical coherence my older poems haven’t had. “THE MAN GRAVE” will be my fifth book of poems, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve started feeling more of a desire, these days, to commune with an audience beyond only other poets. Not that I’ve ever made that choice, or that I really have much of choice what I write. But I’ve stood and read poems in public for a few decades now, and I’ve never really felt all that confident that the non-poets in the audience were accessing my poems in the moment, that they weren’t doubting themselves or my poems. I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun writing what I’ve written, but in the very end I’m usually disappointed with the result. I want people who have NOT already been baptized by poetry to be able to find salvation. All of which is to say I’m okay allowing my poems “to come a little closer to the language of the tribe,” as Robert Lowell once put it.

 

Now, that’s not to say I’m consciously writing in some OTHER way (I really have little choice), but I’ve been noticing that, somewhere in my fourth or fifth revision of a poem, far after the original experience, I do think differently about what my poems are SAYING, and if they are doing more than simply conveying the complexity of a world or mood only. It may also be that I’m writing poems now that carry, I guess, a bit more social relevance in ways that my earlier poems did not. That probably helps the poems SAY more, whatever that’s worth.

 

NM: That’s interesting; do you feel it’s poetry’s job to be socially relevant?

 

CS: Nah. But I do believe in Rilke’s ideas about “the need to speak,” and right now I need to speak about “manliness,” and that happens to be socially relevant.

 

NM: Why do you feel this “need to speak?”

 

CS: Because I’m so disappointed in “manliness,” in prescriptive gender constructs, and in my own participation in the standard. I feel like I was sold a bad bill of goods, and it took me well into my 30s to figure it out. We live in a country where, when asked what the opposite of “a man” is, most men would answer with “a little girl.” And that is profoundly terrible. I see most boys, myself included, leaving their mothers, the mother, or the feminine behind during puberty in an effort to become more acceptable socially—but most of these boys turn into men who never return to what they’ve left behind early on. And therefore a lot of guys just move forward in life with this imbalance inside them. Or else they only show this side to their partner, which can put a real strain on a relationship. This imbalance seems like the source of so many of our problems as a society.

 

I grew up in a mostly working class family during the 1980s, at a time when men and boys around me seemed to reign unchecked and uncontested in their pursuit of women and power. At the same time, my family was a real mess, and I didn’t have a whole lot of real or sincere communication with the men in my family who themselves were struggling from a lack of real or sincere communication with their own fathers and elders. I spent a lot of my childhood and young adulthood playing sports, passing through locker rooms, or watching my father and grandfather hanging around the VFW halls and Elks lodges, sitting for long stretches in quiet, smoky barrooms, or watching the guys a few years ahead of me scheming to get into strip clubs. And on top of that there was always violence. And so I really didn’t want anything to do with manliness, but I followed along like a good little soldier. Now I realize now that many of these men, the men in my family included, had just given up. At least the men in my family—they didn’t seem willing to try to grow or compromise with people. And some of them were like animals, basically. Conquerors and hell-raisers of the highest order. They’d roll in on their motorcycles and say something slick, drink a bunch, act a little dangerous, and then vanish. I grew up in a house with maybe a handful of books. I was the first person in the whole of my family, on both sides, to go away to college. In my family there are still more mug-shots of men than there are college degrees to hang on a wall. New Jersey in the 1980s was a hard place to learn empathy on your own, if no one was modeling it for you. It was very segregated by ethnicity and race. Whole towns full of Polish, Italian, Black, Latinx, with little mixing. That, and what we now call “toxic masculinity” today seemed to thrive in the neighborhoods where I lived and played with other boys. So, all of this is to say that I haven’t had many good male role models in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of men, some of them in my own family, do a lot of shit that now makes me ill. But it didn’t always make me ill, because I wasn’t conscious of it until maybe the last ten years of my life. It wasn’t until I moved away that I started to learn.  And so I atone by trying to be more empathetic, and by trying to do the right thing.

 

NM: I’m curious about your “to some degree, my recent efforts to hold more empathy probably affect the sense of perspective in my poems.”

 

CS: This is the big question for me, and, ultimately, for our country as we head into the next election, and as we battle this virus. How far does your empathy extend? To your partner? To the end of your driveway? To your neighborhood? Your community at work? Your own race or gender? Could you ever see yourself caring about people you will never meet? Would you vote to secure a stranger’s needs if it might mean sacrificing something of your own? If you are man, can you empathize with the struggles of women to gain equality in the workplace, reproductive rights, freedom from rape culture and misogyny?

 

NM: Yet, one’s empathy can only extend as far one is able to experience another’s life, right? I think of poems that had had that effect on me, like “Work” by Yusef Komunyakka, for one. And in literature the empathetic experience is the real catalyst for change in a character.

 

CS: Funny you mention that. This is precisely how I teach literature (to non majors) these days—through the lens of empathy. I often give freshmen a few short stories and have them compare the protagonists for how much empathy and growth each one achieves in the end. For instance, here’s James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” Of these, which protagonists grow the most empathetic by the end and of their stories and why?

 

NM: Can you talk about experiences in the last ten years that have made you more conscious of “the shit that makes me ill” that have triggered an empathetic experience? And are you atoning” in proxy, for, say, the actions of men in your family, or for yourself when “it didn’t always make me ill?”

 

CS: Oh, man, this is tough talk to about. Let’s just say there were men in my family who did so much harm to themselves and their families that their adult children are now walking around broken. There were men in my family who put violence first. And there are men who still put violence first, and some who have ended up locked up because they came from such trouble and have kept on living that trouble. And all of this takes quite a bit of growing up to understand, of course, when you are born into it. The more distance I’ve gotten from it, the more I understand. Now I realize, yeah, the world is run by men who can’t cry.

 

NM: …and it turn make women cry.

 

CS: Right. Patriarchy sucks for everyone. But it can obviously take awhile to realize this, as a man. You might have to have great women in your life to show you. I know I did. They’ll show you all the ways you get and have gotten a leg up (you should compare my teaching evaluations to those of my women colleagues—I can guarantee you they are held to a different standard). But then, also, men themselves are suffering from their own power-system here because of the parts of themselves they’ve cast off or given up on. It’s so stupid. No men are really winning here in this system.

 

NM: How does “doing the right thing” manifest in your poetry?

 

CS: “Doing the right thing” means trying to push myself to be more honest in the poems. I’m not trying to be didactic, however, and so I let the art do what it wants, mostly. The art wants what the art wants! In the world, well, “doing the right thing” means trying to “own my shit,” so to speak. Honestly, women have taught me nearly everything I know about who I am as a man. And let me be the first to say: that should NOT have been the way. It was not their work to do, and yet in relationship after relationship I’ve had the luxury of growing and learning because of challenges I myself have helped to create. I’ve also grown tremendously from leaving home, from a lot of personal heartache, from divorce and loss. I’m lucky, though. And so this book I’ve just finished, “THE MAN GRAVE,” is a bit of my wrestling with this ridiculous brand of “masculinity” I was handed as a boy, and questioning, I suppose, what it means to “be a man.” Personally, when I look back on the language I used when I was kid, I’m so ashamed. And I think of how unconscious I was. Beyond that, I’m particularly ashamed about having had to learn on the job as a romantic partner because I didn’t have the tools to communicate or understand how I might have been hurting other people. When you come from a broken family where a lot of people are struggling just to keep it together, this can happen. But there are no excuses. Ultimately, poetry doesn’t have to be a place of reckoning, but it can be a wonderful place for asking questions about one’s wounds, one’s garbage, one’s shame.

 

 

MEN WHO WON’T TRAVEL

 

Snowplows
smack the manhole
all morning long.
Inconsolable crows
rise and reset. What
we have memorized
is moving again:
winter sun hitting
the substation fence—
a rubric for evening
as December strains after
its own vanishment.
Once the pigeons return
to the rooftops at dusk
having proven their part
in the natural history
of distance, I will eat
a pink grapefruit
from a faraway place,
pinch the little wooden
seed and whisper to it
the word, Tallahassee,
which is the name of
the city where they
discovered the sun.
I would like to go there
but I am impossible
to move, like a canoe
packed with snow,
a thing you only row
with your eyes.

 

 

LATE STAGE CAPITAL

 

An uncle who used to dig graves
says the soil must be ideal
for you to find a steady rhythm.
Some men let the day do all
the talking like the maintenance
man who mows our local
cemetery lawn. He must by late
afternoon fall in a kind of love
with that phantom hour after
a burial when reverence builds
out of ceremony a cloud of
dignified silence in the cemetery
where occasionally he leans to twist
the white head of a dandelion
from its stem, hundreds of them
fed from below by the cells
of the newly buried fathers
which continue for days to divide
and divide, nothing being ever
itself only, and suddenly his
mower rig spasms, spits a black
walnut over the avenue.

 

 

SPORTS NO ONE FOLLOWS

 

Standing in the septic field I fire
the .45 into the woodpile that runs

 

along the tree line like a train
then come bumblebees as big

 

as eyeballs and my grandfather whacks
six with a badminton racket

 

down they go into the wet crabgrass
me too young to reload the gun

 

I don’t know who invented violence
but how’s this for manly: a long

 

drawn out war during which some of
us die with our eyes open.

 

 

AN OLD MAN CURSING A FOX

I can’t tell you how vivid
the sorrow of a whole life
seems moments after seeing
a fox gnaw a young groundhog
stomach full of sour cherries.
Better if the Bobwhites do
not call faintly to each other
in the underbrush, be wary of
the trotting fox who guide
books say will never relax. Today
you see him dragging a pair
of antlers over your far meadow.
In the sun one antler is glistening
with sap. You hold at the tree
line, watch this illicit fox-task
unfold. You try shouting at him
to stop. You whip your wet scarf
against an oak and still
the fox does not look up.
You shout at him with all
you’ve got, your terrible dream
from last night about what
this world cannot afford.

 

 

TEN WAYS TO KNOW HOW HE FEELS ABOUT YOU

 

When a man loves an omen
nothing can be done. You wait
all day to hear your name,
for the sentence and its syntax
to lie down together.

 

***

 

Your man puts a noun
where there is none. Animal
mineral vegetable sex. He takes
you to the river, makes a flat pebble
skip across the water.

 

***

 

Says he’s living in an allegory, asks
that you wait for it to play out,
for the limits of his luck to take hold.
He hands you an afghan and a dented canteen
full of gin chilled to zero degrees.

 

***

 

While he’s off buying stamps
you study the wallpaper:
faraway windmills rotating shyly
in a countryside. You rise,
try leaving, but the Victorian doorknob
comes away in your hand.

 

***

 

Everything is a piece
of something else. The clothes
you remove like chaff, trying to hang up
your hang ups. A body is for
forming or for going,
he says, on a spree.

 

***

 

Takes a girl by surprise. Using your wrist
as a hinge he spins you
on your heels, his leather cuff smudging
your smokey eye. You both
pitch south.

 

***

 

But the era of omens isn’t over.
All day he dreams of oxblood, runes,
Homeric doves flying
to the right. You say only in music
are there such heavy rests.
He hands you the hands of a clock
which you press into a book.

 

***

 

Here is your lover in a larger pattern:
late-afternoon shadows on a sheet. The space
between clouds. The fluid
sky fat with joy
and also blue beyond reason.

 

***

 

He renames you thee,
asks aren’t we sparks? At the dive
bar he sticks his finger
in your beer foam, dares you
to take him home.

 

***

 
The love leap, you think,
leaving your axis like you’re in a ballet.
Perhaps tonight he will say your name.
But he comes riding a piano
into the room, begs you to listen
to his baritone vow.

 

 

DAYLIGHT SAVINGS

 

The extra hour’s for eating old burdens up.
Through a funnel or with forager’s teeth.
To grieve what you haven’t grieved,
cumbersome as a meal swallowed whole.
After hunger drove us down a deep ravine
to where chanterelles grow wild
in the shade, it took headlamps pointing north
to see. We put mud on our faces, got beyond
being human, said this makes what used to be
in me shine. The rest of the story
is boring: breathable air, red wine inside
the dome tent, then neither one of us
could sleep. We wandered in bathrobes around
the campground. Black bears watched
us comb each other’s hair. The owls were
too loud to be wise. When we heard
the woods start falling apart we got lower
than ferns beneath liminal trees.

 

 

IN MEMORIAM

 

An only boy may have
had to play with god.
Both of them beings
as quiet as glue. I put
my nose to the sound
hole in a mahogany guitar
inhale the wood which
never really dies. Like violets
pressed in a hymnal
never die. Count me
among those mourners
singing all the wrong songs.

Nancy Mitchell, a 2012 Pushcart Prize recipient, is the author The Near Surround, Grief Hut and The Out-of-Body Shop.  Her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, and Green Mountains Review. She is the Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland and hosts the reading series Poets on the Plaza.