M.A. Vizsolyi Interview

M.A. Vizsolyi’s first book of poems, “The Lamp with Wings,” was a winner of the National Poetry Series, and has just been released.  His poems have recently appeared or are scheduled to appear in the journals Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, Poetry International and Epiphany.  He teaches ice hockey and ice skating lessons in Central Park, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the poet Margarita Delcheva.

The Lamp with Wings is a collection of sixty love sonnets, poems that are crafted in fourteen lines.  A traditional sonnet follows a rhyme scheme or meter, and is a form that is not as popularly handled in contemporary poetry. How did you discover the sonnet, and what was your process like in regards to going about what is typically a very strict form?

It’s funny you ask that because I’ve been waiting to be asked something about that.  I feel as if any day now the “formalist” police will knock on my door. (The formalist police do  exist, by the way.  You can spot them wearing windbreakers, which read ‘so on and so forth.’)  I don’t mean to discount formalism.  Some of my favorite poets wrote in strict meter–Roethke, Keats, even Williams.

When I first started writing poetry, all I wrote was formal poetry of the ‘strict’ variety.  I’m thankful for that because it taught me the music of the language.  I believe in forcing one’s self to learn the effects certain rhythms in a line can have.  And I guess that speaks to the first half of your question.  I’ve been reading and admiring sonnets since I first became interested in poetry–Shakespeare’s sonnets, Keats’, and E.E. Cummings’ (all of which are immensely beautiful and important to me) to name but a few.

When I sat down to write the sonnets in the book, however, I found myself unable to generate formally strict sonnets.  I knew I wanted them to be love sonnets, the reason for which I’ll explain later.  So I said ‘to hell with strictness,’ but I always began each poem with a love sonnet in mind.  What I mean is that a sonnet operates not just on the level of meter and rhyme. There’s also the way the poem deals with the subject–the volta or ‘turn’ in a sonnet–which makes it compelling.  In the sonnets I wrote, the volta doesn’t always necessarily come after the eighth line, as in the Petrarchan version.  Sometimes it even comes after the first line.  Those instances for me also seem to be where the poem begins to write itself, or find what it wants to say.   So I’ve got 14 lines, around 10 beats a line, and a volta.  That’s good enough.

As these are love sonnets, there is a notion that they are written for someone. There are odes to lovers and children alike. Particularly, the speaker believes that the children are the future of poetry. Did you ever have a specific person or persons in mind? Would the voice change in regards to the addressee?  And how does the future interact in regards to these loves?

I remember the moment I began to write these sonnets.  I was living in my East Village apartment.  My wife (then my girlfriend) was visiting her family in Bulgaria.  It was during Christmas.  My friends were also away for the holidays.  I was lonely, bored, and missing my wife.  I decided to write these sonnets to fight off all that.  These poems all began as poems to her.  I wanted to give her a large number of these when she came back.  I suppose in some way that is why so many of the poems are in the future tense–as if, when she came back, all of these things would happen to us.

So these are poems for her, but I think they aren’t always necessarily about her.  Again, that would be a kind of strictness, which would hurt the poems and, in my opinion, make them much more boring. I recently heard a friend of mine, Matthew Rohrer, give a talk about something I mentioned earlier– the poem saying what it wants to say.  He was saying that poets should step out of the poem when it begins to move in a direction that wasn’t intended.  Most of the time that will be much more interesting than sticking to a fixed narrative or idea.  I think that was definitely part of what these poems end up addressing in the end.  Things that surprised me and hopefully the reader–the occupation of Budapest, my time working with the mentally handicapped, and, yes, the children.  Children are the perfect readers of poetry because their minds can handle leaps that we’ve been trained to find “wrong” or “confusing.”  I recently heard that someone gave my book to their nine-year-old daughter to read, and said she loved it and keeps rereading it.  She may be my biggest fan.

The speaker seems to be in a constant state of observation of not just his loved ones, but of popular culture as well (you mention McDonalds, Burger King, hint at the vampires of Twilight). Can you discuss the importance of observation, of awareness of not just people but culture, and how they seem to blend into this collection?

It seems there are two opinions on this subject.  One opinion is that writers should never use pop-culture references in their poetry.  They feel that poetry is too sacred, and should cast itself against the quickly changing pop-icons of our time.  The other opinion is–if we are to make poetry relevant to readers who aren’t poets, then we need to make poetry that is relatable to the world around us, all of it, including fast-food and film.  I fall somewhere in between those two.  I think it’s all fair game.  Poets should feel free to respond to anything.

And aren’t poets the ones who should be talking about these phenomena?  As someone who grew up in suburbia, I’ve experienced the weirdness of the fast-food restaurant.  Many families, once a week, will go out dinner.  For some of them that means going to McDonalds.  And McDonalds is weird.  It’s a kind of over-lit, plastic environment where you get your food in one minute.  They are these other worlds, as my poem which mentions Burger King is getting at.  They are beautiful in that way also.  Poets are the ones who should be addressing that.

Ilya Kaminsky said that, “The voice is arrogant and tender, it goes ‘on the nerve,’ as Frank O’Hara told us the poet must.” He also notes the erotic nature these poems entail. I, too, found myself enthralled with the voice of the speaker, who is both blunt in addressing sexuality but tender in his delivery. What was your vision of the speaker? Was there trouble in figuring out when the sexuality would threaten on veering into being too overt? How did you find this balance of voice?

I’m not sure I had a vision of the speaker.  Except in the few instances where the speaker of the poem is obviously not me, like Radko Yakovich, the voice, I think, is mine.   This is also what keeps the erotic nature of the poems from being too overt.  It wouldn’t be natural for me to be any more erotic in the poems then I already am.

Really, the only fear I had was giving the book to my family.  I was worrying too much of course.  My mother said, “These poems are dirty.”  I said, “yes.”  And she said, “okay.”  And that was that.  Actually, my wife was more embarrassed by some of the poems than I was.  I suppose it was the descriptions of her body (and my imagining of her mother’s breasts!) which made her scared to send the book home to Bulgaria.  She did anyway.

The collection seems to reflect a celebration of life through the very physical state of the body, which becomes a sort-of “final destination” in the sense that it is being constantly observed, explored, and returned to by the speaker and addressee alike. How do you see the progression of love in the past century embrace the body and sexuality? And while the poems are essentially body-based, how, again, does that tenderness make its way into your work?

It seems as though poetry is trying to move further and further away from anything that could be considered sentimental, especially concerning love.   I don’t necessarily agree that poetry should be stripped of all sentimentality.  Certainly, it’s good advice for a beginning writer.  There is, however, a way to make the sentimental phrase have a fresh and powerful effect, a way to say it honestly.  This is accomplished, I think, mostly by the combination of what precedes and follows the phrase with the tone of the poem.  The word “love” is an especially contentious one among poets.  I know poets who cringe when it appears in a poem.  In my book, it appears quite often, I hope in a fresh way.  It is abstract of course. I guess when writing the poems, though, I could find no better word for “love” than love.

I think it is this justifiable fear of being too sentimental and abstract that has caused poets over the last century to deal with love by dealing with the body and sexuality–the physical manifestation of the abstract feeling.  Because it is difficult.  Charles Simic has a great poem, which deals with the difficulty of writing a poem to the woman you love.  It is called, “My Beloved.”  He struggles with trying to find a fresh way to flatter her.  He says, “Her eyes are flies in milk,/ her eyes are baby Draculas./ To hell with her eyes.”  The speaker can’t seem to say anything about his love that doesn’t sound a bit off.

As for the tenderness that both you and Ilya found in my poems, I’ve heard that often about my work.  I imagine that’s an aspect of my voice in my poems.  Those features seem to be what allows us to pick up on the author of a poem, even if we are not told who he or she is.  How it operates, I hope, in my poems is to allow me to talk about anything.  If the voice is “tender” it keeps it from sounding gratuitous or too overt as I mentioned earlier.  We aren’t suspicious of the writer’s motives.

What are you currently working on? How are you building on or moving away from The Lamp with Wings?

Currently, I’m at work on a manuscript tentatively entitled, “Case Studies & Notes on Melancholia.” For “Case Studies,” I take on the psychoanalytic case study as a form.  One section is a dialogue between a patient and her therapist.  These are part poem and part play.  The therapist and the patient’s lines interweave in subtle ways.  The therapist will continually complete the patient’s sentences, thus influencing and changing where the conversation ends up.  Another “Case Study” references one of my favorite poets, A.R. Ammons, and is called “The Case of Archie.”  These are descriptions of Archie’s dreams.  There are others as well.  “Notes on Melancholia” are aphoristic poems which are, I think, influenced by my reading of the very long but very wonderful “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton.  I imagine these poems as notes written by a patient, who believes, in a past life, he was a wealthy Roman landowner, a Greek god, among other various personas.

I’m pretty excited about these new poems.  I’ve always been interested in psychoanalysis.  I love reading old case studies such as Freud’s, which are both brilliant and supremely comical.  When I was in college, I originally wanted to go to graduate school for psychoanalysis.  I chose to study literature and writing instead.  I’m happy with that choice (even if my wallet isn’t).  These new poems allow me to blend my interest in psychoanalysis with my poetry.

Thank you M.A. Vizsolyi!
Interview conducted by Carly Miller

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