“Language comes to life when we let our bodies sync up with a poem:” An Interview with Derek Mong

Derek Mong’s The Identity Thief

You write a lot about nature and the environment, both its beauty and the tragedy humans have wrought on it. How do you see poetry both as a means of warning and mourning for readers and as an avenue toward better futures? 

I’m afraid that environmental poetry is more an act of mourning than warning right now, to borrow your lovely rhyme. This has everything to do with poetry’s slowness and the urgency of the climate crisis. As a recent United Nations panel on climate change put it, humans have just 11 years left before they irrevocably alter their planet. That’s less than a generation, and at a moment like this—when time is limited, when inertia remains—journalism, activism, and politics serve us better than poetry.

Don’t get me wrong, though: poetry’s important. I don’t buy W.H. Auden’s famous line, written on the eve of another crisis, that poetry “makes nothing happen.” Or I don’t buy it in the literal way that it’s often quoted. Poetry makes a lot happen, but it takes decades to see the results. Look at the National Park System. I’m not the first person to say this, but those are a result of poetry. The British Romantics influenced Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau influenced John Muir; Muir influenced Teddy Roosevelt. And it was Roosevelt who, in 1906, established the first National Monuments—Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Petrified Forest in Arizona—which formed the core of the NPS.

So Shelley’s right: poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” They’re just really slow legislators. And today we need real ones to act swiftly and decisively in the planet’s best interests. As another Romantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote, nature’s “serene order is inviolable by us” (“Nature,” 1836). That’s no longer the case.

Many of your poems seem informed by ancient religious figures and practices, such as the precatio terrae, the Roman prayer of praise to the earth goddess and your inspiration for “Litany,” the elusive Christ in “Hide and Seek,” and your “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt.” What is your connection with these older expressions of faith? Why do you find them so ripe for your writing? 

It’s a great question, and as an atheist, I don’t have an easy answer. Let me say this, though: it’s not faith so much as faith’s trapping that I find appealing. I’m drawn to prayer as a rhetorical form. I find the imbalance of its direct address so compelling. And I envy poets like Gerard Manly Hopkins or George Herbert who have, in Helen Vendler’s great phrase, an “invisible listener.” Whitman found that listener in the reader. John Ashbery found it in a painter, Francesco Parmigianino (“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”). Berryman found it in another poet, Anne Bradstreet (“Homage to Mistress Bradstreet”).

In The Identity Thief, I borrow the voices of various Jesuits or Romans—in poems adapted, not translated, from Latin—to reimagine their invisible listener. Sometimes it’s Christ; sometimes it’s not. In “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt,” I address Mary, a mostly forgotten desert saint. With her comes narrative, a rich symbology, and the pleasure of retelling a life that’s so often altered as it’s retold. This is all to say that my connection to this faith tradition is appropriative. It’s another of my thefts.   

Speaking of St. Mary, what’s the story behind your interest in her? How did a historically questionable prostitute-turned-saint become a personal symbol of the tension between reality and imagination’s freedom? 

Isn’t she amazing? An ascetic who, in some sources, began her life by indulging in appetites; a penitent who got her start in sex work. And then there’s her burial by a lion; her floating on the Jordan; and this passing monk, Zosimas—as if monks routinely strolled the desert, talking up strangers—who becomes her amanuensis. For me, her two lives offered twin virtues that I, a new parent, newly desired: erotic freedom and extended solitude. I still keep an icon of her over my writing desk.

I met her, as it were, in the manner described in the poem’s first section: “A man whom I made speak had made you speak / till we three fled      that tattered crime scene.” That man was Jacob Balde; the crime scene was my apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. An ice storm had knocked out the power. With my laptop battery drained, I spent three days translating Balde by hand into notebooks. He had a poem, “Maria Aegyptica Poenitens” (“Mary of Egypt Repentant”), that I toyed with and then forgot.

Years later, after my son was born, I returned to it, finding Balde’s subject matter more engaging than his language. I needed something, in those early years, when fatherhood hit like a hurricane, to jumpstart my poetry. Mary became that. I liked talking to her. I liked how I could—through her voice—harangue my then-fragile self.

In “The Second Year,” you write of how passing time allows the distortion of memory to replace the present reality, and “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt” explores your connection to your representation of a person remembered within a cultural consciousness. How can poetry, like memory, both preserve and distort a moment? 

There’s this marvelous Wallace Stevens poem—that’s almost redundant, “marvelous” + “Wallace Stevens”—that I adore: “A Postcard from the Volcano.” It opens with kids, which always surprises me because I forget that Stevens was a dad:

            Children picking up our bones

            Will never know that these were once

            As quick as foxes on the hill

The poem maintains that posthumous voice, noting what else our children will miss about our lives when we’re dead. They’ll miss “what we felt // At what we saw” and how—this is my favorite line in the poem—what we saw “became // A part of what it is.” That’s a lot of pronouns, a lot of “what” and “it,” but the message spears me in the gut: we see the world, and, in seeing it, change it in our minds. Then we write it down.

I suppose that is the point I’m getting at—that and a big bolus of paternal guilt—in “The Second Year.” In a way, I’m trying to get at it in everything I write. Poems preserve us and distort us. To write one is to cry “out in literate despair,” as Stevens says in that same poem. To write one is to shake your fist at the abyss and say, “you don’t get this memory—this memory is locked here for good.” Ovid says as much in the last word in his Metamorphoses: “vivam,” which translates as both “let me live” (first person subjunctive) and“I shall live (first person future). Both become true. 

You and your wife, Anne O. Fisher, translated the poems of Russian poet Maxim Amelin together and have separately translated several other works. In what ways has your work as a translator influenced your relationship with writing? 

It taught me to distrust originality. It taught me that poems inspire other poems. It taught me to reimagine what counts as a good day of work. It taught me that there’s a selfishness implicit in trying to write a great lyric poem. We tell ourselves, as poets, that poetry “helps people to live their lives,” to quote Stevens again (The Necessary Angel). I still believe that’s true, but I’m aware enough of my own ambitions to know that my primary reason for writing a poem is to help me live my own. Translation brought me that realization, and though translation isn’t self-less—my wife and I are proud as hell that we won the Cliff Becker Translation Prize for The Joyous Science—it does serve others. That’s particularly true for those of us in the Anglophone world. As I recently wrote at the Kenyon Review Online, translation can “deepen one’s reading, diversify it,” while also benefiting the marginalized voices of the world’s 6000+ languages.    

In “The First Heartbeat,” you write of your son, “Your broadcast broadens/our tiny/kingdom” and, in “Letter in a Bottle for When the Seas Rise,” you address him and his role in the Earth’s care. How has being a parent broadened your understanding of poetry and the interconnectedness of generations and of all life? 

Nothing changed my writing more than becoming a parent. Initially, fatherhood brought with it silence—I didn’t write anything for, what, nine months? A year? I can barely remember. In the months that followed, I had to relearn how to write, sneaking in thoughts or lines in the margins of my life. Most of it amounted to nothing. Much of it felt rehabilitative, like a gradual reacquaintance with a shocked limb. Perhaps that’s because my real body had turned to the care of another. I felt needed as both a dad and a partner. My bodywent elsewhere. Poems were a luxury that simply had to wait.

But when they returned, they returned with a thirst. Kids dislodge you from your generational primacy. They remind you—particularly while your own parents live—that you’re just an integer, one person keeping it together between infant and elders. That thought always puts me in an elegiac mood, and many of the poems in The Identity Thief have an elegiac air, even if they’re born from new life. That sense of loss and longing remains a great motivator for poems. You mention “Letter in a Bottle”: that’s one of the few poems, at readings, that has a laugh line in it. Or half a laugh line: “your parents have retired to a garbage flotilla.” But even that image is black humor. The garbage, as I describe it, is the only island that’ll rise “above the high tide we’ve made.”

Speaking of human interconnectedness, you discuss the isolation people often create or pretend to have in “The Identity Thief.” Elsewhere, you refer to the things that draw us out that isolation: mortal tragedy, environmental tragedy and family, for example. Can you speak to the ways poetry both affirms isolation and creates connection — and to the necessity of balance between these? 

Ah, that’s a lovely question, premised on a keen insight. Poetry does affirm isolation while also forging connections. In that regard—and very few others—it’s quite like social media. Meanwhile, I adore poetry and loathe social media, even as I find myself spending more time with the latter than the former. So: contradictions abound. Still, I’ll stand by this: poetry affirms isolation, but so does any reading. There’s the reader; there’s the author. The reader accepts the author as an ersatz companion. He forsakes the company of others for the comforts of the book. That isolation is lonelier still when reading lyric poetry. With a lyric, one voice usually holds you in its sway. Novels gang up on you—they populate, they swarm. That’s what heteroglossia is all about, as my grad school cohort, mostly novel scholars, tried to teach me. I’m not sure it stuck.

And yet poetry does connect us over space and time, using the body as a conduit. “It is you talking just as much as myself,” Walt Whitman writes, “I act as the tongue of you” (“Song of Myself”). I love those lines because they’re figuratively and literally true. Speak them out loud and you prove Whitman right. Say them just once and your tongue mimics his circa 1855. Your lips move like his lips. That creates a connection. That language comes to life, almost magically, when we let our bodies sync up with a poem.

To balance these opposite impulses—toward isolation, toward connection—we must reach out to others after we read. Is there anything more lovely than talking about a favorite poem with a friend? I’m incredibly lucky in my occupation; as a poet and professor I’m surrounded by colleagues who care about poems. We gush over Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” We squabble over Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. (I’m against.) And then I’ve got my students, who are generally eager to read new poems. Again: I’m really lucky. I find some of that balance at work.

Derek Mong’s Other Romes

You studied Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in your doctoral work. How have each of their lives and writings shaped your creative work? What other authors have influenced you? 

They’re foundational to most of what I do. I write about Whitman constantly. He’s an instrumental part of my criticism, how I think about poetry, and simply how I navigate the 19th century. I gauge dates based on his birthday: May 31, 1819. I’ve got a penny in my house—it gets misplaced constantly—that was minted in 1892, the year he died. Right now I’m writing about the new beers that Bell’s Brewery is releasing to celebrate his 200th birthday. I love to explore how he intersects with consumer culture. His poems teach me to take risks, be generous, and write long (when appropriate).  

Dickinson is equally profound. Her irreverence and skepticism sustain me. I envy her experimentalism. I admire her foresight. About a year ago, I taught our senior seminar for English majors, calling it “Emily Dickinson & Lyric Theory.” I finally finished all 1789 of her poems and came to the conclusion that she saw us all coming—by us I mean readers, scholars, critics—and prepared accordingly. Thus all the mysteries in her life. Why the white dress? Why the late-life seclusion? Who’s the Master? I had an exquisite time with that class, reveling in our uniqueness. My institution, Wabash College is one of just three all-male colleges in the U.S. Who better for us these young men to read than Dickinson, this feminist icon? What other American classroom looked like ours?

To these titans, I’d add many others, writing today or since passed: Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Bradstreet, Deborah Landau, Frank Bidart, Philip Larkin, and plenty more.

Derek Mong is a poet, essayist, and translator whose books include Other Romes (2011), The Identity Thief (2018), The Ego and the Empiricist (2017), and The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (with Anne O. Fisher, 2018). The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Denison University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford. He has held poetry fellowships at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Louisville. His work appears widely: the Kenyon ReviewBlackbird, Pleiades, Two Lines, Poetry Northwest, and in the recent anthology, Writers Resist: Hoosier Writers Unite. He blogs at the Kenyon Review Online and can be reached at www.derekmong.com or @derek_mong. 

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