Late Night Interview
Fierce is the word that first comes to my mind when I think of Meghan Privitello. Not fierce in a way that’s off-putting or isolating, but rather a way that gives you the sense that she is deeply focused, that her thought is somehow sharper or more accurate than most other thought. Whenever I read one of her poems, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve just watched a torpedo launch somewhere deep into the ocean. When Meghan’s book, A New Language for Falling out of Love, was picked up for publication by YesYes books, she agreed to tell me more about her process and obsessions via an email exchange.
Where did the idea for the title, A New Language for Falling out of Love, come from?
The title was not so much an idea as it was a very happy accident. I am terrible at title-making in every way. The title is the last thing I do when writing a poem, and I always dread it. The book was probably 95% finished before I had any idea what to call it. I kept thinking the title would have “house” in it, because the poems felt very domestic to me, and since they were all squares they seemed like crude drawings of houses. But then I found a stray, unfinished poem that I didn’t even remember writing and saw part of a line that said something blah blah “a new language for falling out of love.” It just clicked and felt right and I held onto it for dear life.
I love that in “Again, Let’s Do it Again,” you ask, “how can we love each other with so much skin in the way?” Especially considering the shape of the poems, it feels like the notions of containment and boundaries are important here, as if you’re tempting us to work against them but simultaneously proving how that struggle is futile. Is this something that you considered deliberately when writing, or something that just seemed to be part of the lifeblood of these poems?
The first of these poems came out of a frustration with line-breaks. I had been trying, without any feeling of success, to write poems in stanzas, in couplets, with short lines, with long lines, but all of it felt constricting to me. It felt so antithetical to the poetic voice I was trying to deliver—one that was conversational and fascinated with the mundane while having a deep desire to speak about what is often unspoken in the mundane. To write this kind of poem with line breaks seemed fraudulent. So, it’s interesting when you talk about the notions of containment and boundaries. The shape of these poems was actually an attempt to work against containment, even though on the page, they have very distinct boundaries. It became impossible for me to write these poems unless the page indents were set at the precise number and everything was squared. It became a space that felt very safe, and the poems just rushed forth from there. They suddenly became living objects to me, with stories they needed to tell, as if they’d been waiting for these blocks all along.
How did you generally start writing each poem? Would they come to you in one sitting or would you have to let them accrue onto themselves?
I had a routine that started every day at 5pm-ish. I developed this weird thing where, as the day went on, I would physically feel like I HAD to get a poem out or else I’d explode. It felt like when you are a smoker and haven’t had a cigarette in a few hours, and you become overwhelmed with need. So, I guess it became a kind of addiction. I had a few swigs of whiskey and went straight to my study where I’d stay until 7ish. I rarely started with a specific idea for a poem. If anything, I might have had a phrase that I wanted to get out, or a word that kept repeating itself in my head. I was not writing with an endpoint in mind, but rather as an exploration to see where the hell I’d end up. The poem would come out quickly, and sometimes a second one would spill out right after I finished the first, followed by a tremendous feeling of relief and emptiness. I don’t think I ever left any of the poems unfinished to accrue onto themselves over the span of days. If they weren’t done in one sitting (except, of course, for tinkerings here and there with word choice, small grammar edits, etc.), I abandoned them. I am not a good or patient poetry mother.
With poems that came out so naturally and sometimes even in the same sitting, how do you like to think of their relationship to each other? Do they reflect each other in some specific ways or do you feel they’re very different from each other?
I haven’t really thought about this before now, but in my head all of the poems have the same speaker. Besides that, I don’t know that they reflect each other in very specific ways or have a clear relationship. And this certainly isn’t a book that’s held together by any kind of narrative. I do think most of the poems deal with the same things—love, death, identity, loneliness. I’m almost sure every poem deals with each of those issues. In that way they reflect and bounce off of each other and belong together in an un-extraordinary way. But doesn’t all poetry deal with those things? Isn’t that just what everything is about?
I hadn’t really thought about it but I think you could be right. Do you feel like you’d been thinking about those big four things (love, death, identity, and loneliness) in relation to each other for a long time before these poems started being born? Or is it more of a recent preoccupation, the urgency of which led to the creation of the book out of a kind of necessity to think about them on paper?
I’m pretty sure I started thinking about those four things when I was being born. These have been my life obsessions (as well as god, which is what the new poems I’m writing are about), and probably will be forever. I don’t think I’ll ever feel “done” with them. And I’m pretty sure every poem I’ve written up to this point was an attempt to figure these things out, and to understand them, and accept them, and fear them a little bit less. I can honestly say that none of the poems I’ve written up until the poems from this book have worked for me. These poems are the first ones I’ve written that have felt really real to me, like I wasn’t trying to be a poet that I was not. When you go to school for creative writing, you have that battle of writing for yourself and writing for your classmates. It wasn’t until I had the time away from all of those pressures and structures that I started to slip into a writing space that felt honest on every level. The book was an absolute urgency in that it had been building for years and years and finally figured out who it was.
Can you say a little more about what the process of writing privately, or for yourself, feels like compared to writing for a particular audience (i.e. classmates)? Did you begin to create an imagined audience because of this audience or did the thought of who would read these poems not cross your mind while writing? Is there anyone who you did turn these poems over to for feedback before you made them into a manuscript?
Well, writing for a particular audience (classmates) usually means you’re writing from an assigned prompt. Although prompts can be wonderful opportunities to surprise yourself, they started to become a major crutch for me. I felt like a little kid that wants to draw a picture but is always yelling “Tell me what to draw!”, not being able to imagine anything on their own. This scared me. A lot. When I started writing privately, there were no safety nets. There was no professor to give me a list of things that I must include in this week’s poem. It was the sudden realization that I had to write what mattered to me, which made me almost physically ill, because I’m pretty expert at pretending like nothing matters. And when I say “what matters” I don’t necessarily mean writing about family sagas or tragedies, because I don’t have much to say about those things. “What matters” could mean an old sweater I saw in the street or Cary Grant, and then figuring out why those things mattered through the writing of the poem.
I didn’t create an imagined audience, at least not consciously. It was not something I thought about when I sat down to write. As the book neared completion, and I saw the poems becoming part of a whole, I started to think more about who the audience might be, but I never tailored the work to/for them. There were only two people that read the poems. One was my wonderful poet friend, Kimberly Grey. I would send them to her in clumps, but not for any feedback. It was just an act of sharing work. The other person who read them was my husband. He read every poem as I finished them, and would write a few notes in the margin or make a few underlines, and say “just some things to think about.” I know this goes against what so many people think about writing and reading and revising poems, but I wanted as little feedback as possible. I just wanted to get this mother out.
I think that you can sense that in these poems, but not in a way that seems rough unpolished. To me at least, it feels like we’re not quite in the real world but rather in a place where familiar things are distilled down to what their essence is in the mind of the speaker, even if that essence is very complicated. Your husband is a philosopher, correct? How do you feel poetry and philosophy are intertwined, if at all? In what ways have you witnessed this, especially by having your husband be one of the two sole readers of your poems before they were published?
Yes! My husband is a philosopher. Oh man, this is a big question. This might sound really crass, but I’ve always thought that poetry is the dumb start to philosophy. I think they both start in the same place, but philosophy ultimately gets further in its quest(ions) and answers. Philosophy is a science and poetry is not a science. Poetry is not concerned with truth and is allowed to feign emotion and get away with it, while philosophy is all about truth. Philosophy cannot exist in an imagined construct, which is what a poem is. Philosophy works against the subjective, while poetry identifies itself so much with the “I”. Poetry as an art allows for feelings, although, as Eliot said, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” That Eliot quote has always seemed to me to dip its toe into what the work of philosophy means and I think the greatest poets eventually become philosophers in that they are able to escape the self and speak from the not-I. Ok, I’m on a ramble here. I’ll stop right there with that!
With my husband, and in the philosophical writing he does, it can and does contain the poetic, mostly as a style of language. And, in my writing, I hope, in moments, to have philosophical insights or moments that approach philosophical questions. In that way, I think they are always Venn diagram-ing themselves. He is very considerate as a reader of my work, because he tries to leave philosophy (mostly) behind. If he read my poems always a philosopher, he’d lose his marbles. The structure is so loose, the leaps are often random and far, so anti-philosophical in that way. His greatest service as a reader is when he points something out like, “This poem is very Leibnizian” and then he will tell me the reasons why, and give me passages to read that prove what he’s talking about, and that learning usually forms the bud of a new poem. So, for me, the intertwining of poetry and philosophy becomes a hopeful exercise in finding connections between the imaginary and the real, to find where philosophy and poetry hold each other and write from there.
Are there moments in the book where you feel you are the most in tune with the philosophical? Where you feel the greatest distance from the I?
I usually feel most in tune with the philosophical before I actually write anything down. I’m not sure that I ever really get to the philosophical in the writing itself, because I don’t know that I’m ever telling the truth. The poem might start as an attempt to get to the truth of an idea, but I can only try to get there by being a liar, and no philosopher can be a liar. It would be a meaningless philosophy. I also don’t know how distant I ever feel from the “I”. I feel a distance from the autobiographical “I” because I almost never write from my real life (which is super boring). Besides that, I don’t know if I’ve ever accomplished that distance. It makes my brain hurt thinking about it.
Do you believe you must be obsessed with an idea to produce quality work about it? What would you say to those writers who are struggling to find what interests them enough to be able to hold a steady and interesting dialogue about it through a body of work?
I don’t think that being obsessed with an idea has a direct correlation to the quality of the work that comes from it, but I do think obsession is necessary to sustain the writer’s interest through the process of making a larger body or work. I think it can be easy to write a poem here, a poem there—pieces that aren’t related to each other by obsession or the working through of particular ideas. But if you are putting together a manuscript in that way, it will certainly feel disjointed and random, almost like a book of exercises. Pieces like that might be useful to publish on a smaller scale, like journals, rather than compiling them into a book to send to presses. Now that I say it, I guess obsession does have a connection to quality in that obsession makes a more compelling full-length manuscript. To writers who are struggling to find what interests them: Just because you don’t have an all-consuming interest in a particular subject/theme/etc., don’t use that as an excuse to not write. Don’t wait around for an obsession to come. You have obsessions. You are full of them. It’s just a matter of excavating them from wherever they are stuck in you. And writing will be your great pick-ax. I might tell those struggling writers to look back at their work and try to find re-occurring themes or images. Write them down. While you’re walking the dog or washing the dishes, think about those things you wrote down. Think about why they keep coming up, what you love or hate about them. Let your obsessions crystallize. And don’t discriminate against your obsessions. You might not like whatever they may be, but they’re yours. Write the shit out of them.
Meghan Privitello is the author of A New Language for Falling out of Love (YesYes Books, Fall 2014). Work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2012 and elsewhere. She currently serves as co-editor of The New Megaphone.