The best thing about having work that carries a reputation is when so many of those things end up being true. I found myself hip to Michael Mlekoday maybe five or six months before we first actually encountered each other. I stumbled across a couple of poems of his in a journal that I was digging through the archives on. And this drew me to ask people I knew about his work, all of them returning more links to his poems, more kind words, more recommendations. So when I finally met him, last summer, I was hoping to see him read/perform some of the work that I had gotten accustomed to reading. Sometimes heartbreaking, gently paced pieces running fists first into conversations about family, race, and privilege. What TRULY endeared me to Mlekoday, though, was the fact that the first poem I heard him read in person was this poem shit talking Justin Bieber, tongue in cheek, both bold and hilarious. I think turning a mirror on yourself and then writing down what stares back is a really honest and often ugly thing to chase. I really have an admiration for the way Mlekoday attacks race, and privilege, and even family. The way it’s often done without any other device except honesty. The way it arrives at you, says Here I am, and stays with you.
The Justin Bieber poem is also hilarious, though. Can’t take that away either.
I’m really pulled to talk about the way you perform first. Any interaction I have had with you has been a real joy. You are kind, generous, warm, all of those things. What I love the most about the person that you are on stage is that I feel like you take on a completely different side. One that makes me feel like I am truly watching an artist crawl into the body of his work and let it take him over for minutes at a time. You were one of the first poets I watched on stage and said, “Well, I can’t do that myself…but that. THAT is for me. That is the kind of performance I want to watch.” How much attention do you pay to what you put on the stage?
Wow, thank you! I’m surprised and flattered by that description.
For me, there are three components of a successful performer: (1) skill, (2) theatricality, and (3) approach. There are tons of more skilled performers than me, including many of my students—in terms of voice quality and vocal control, bodily control, etc. I’ll never be able to move the way Michael Lee or Alvin Lau do (respectively). There are lots of flashier or more theatrical performers than me, too, performers who can inhabit various personas or do dazzling, stunning things onstage (Airea Dee Mathews, for example). But in terms of how I approach performance, I take great care to let the text of a poem lead me, to try to replicate the tones and cadences and emotions the specific poem is going for. I had that “poet voice” for a really long time, and once I got free of it I vowed to never go back.
Following up with that, I’m interested in how aware you are of audience reaction. Many of us read our poems, finish them, and don’t have that curiosity. But you’ve also read to poets, you’ve read in spaces that are more quiet and intimate, due to the nature of your journey in poetry. How important is feedback to you, and what kind of feedback do you crave?
Because I started out in slam, it’s still sometimes bewildering to read to an audience of polite academics and have no idea how they’re feeling, whether they’re into it or not. Like, “that joke got two laughs. Two!”
But I’ve also been an audience member at readings where a poem blew me away and I didn’t want to make any noise about it at all. Some poems—academic or slam or page or performance or whatever—intentionally demand applause, but some just don’t, and that’s OK.
At the same time, feedback in a more general sense is important, I think. I’m not just writing poems for my own sanity or delight or whatever, though that’s definitely a part of it—I’m writing poems for the communities I’m a part of and that I came from, and I feel a responsibility to get it right.
There’s this idea I get, after taking in your work, that nothing is sacred. I’m not saying that you’ve ruined some idea I have of the world, in fact I love all of the messes that are built into your poems, and often left not cleaned up by the end. Your poems have this way of walking into a room, throwing the clothes everywhere, and then telling all occupants of the room to figure it out. That’s the kind of reading I crave now. Do you see your poems as work that leaves some things beautifully unanswered, or do you feel like the answers are just placed deeper?
If I had the answers, I’d be doing something that made a lot more money than poetry.
For real though, no, poems can do so much more interesting and beautiful and powerful work than simply answering questions. I want poems I can dance to or hold under my breath at a friend’s deathbed, poems as incantations, poems like paint markers.
You have a lot of roots in academia, and you are currently doing a lot of work maneuvering poetry through that lens. I’m wondering what your relationship is, or is becoming with addressing poetry from that angle? One that is academic, at least by the nature of how it is presented to you. What pulled you to go this route, and what joy are you finding in it?
Performance poetry and rap actually brought me to page poetry, once I was finally able to see that all these forms were trying to do similar things. I always loved that De La Soul song, “I Am I Be,” for how it celebrated the individual self, and now I hear it in the back of my head when I’m reading Whitman, nodding to its beat, even.
There are certainly differences between page poems and performance poems—I do believe that they’re different genres with different requirements and forms—but so many of the basics are the same. The classroom and the page taught me, you know, to avoid cliché and abstraction, to think about structure and form, and all these other craft devices that are just as applicable to performance poetry.
My favorite performance poets are ones who are familiar with the page, whether they have fancy degrees or not. And my favorite page poets are ones who are aware of the poem as a bodily fact, as a fact of breath and rhythm—Ross Gay, Adrian Matejka, Nikky Finney, Aracelis Girmay.
There’s a sense of violence, and a thorough examination of poverty in The Dead Eat Everything, at least as I read it. I got almost the voice of a writer distancing themselves from the expectations of what an audience may think of their background. Was there intention in that? How important is it to get that message across?
That’s interesting. I’m not sure about the audience’s “expectations” of my background or whatever. Obviously I’m a poet, and I have (going on) two graduate degrees, and I’m white, so there’s all that. I’m trying to write about those things, and often failing. These days especially, I’m trying to write about race and white privilege and often failing.
But I think it’s deeply important to write about the ways power shapes our lives. I don’t believe that all poems are political poems, as some very smart people do, but I do believe that all persons and identities are shaped by political and cultural forces. So identity poems—like Whitman’s and De La Soul’s—have an opportunity to discuss these forces. Maybe this is how academia has influenced me the most: I’ve been sounding smart and haven’t even come close to answering your question, I think.
I’m a white kid who grew up in diverse, working class neighborhoods. My neighborhoods aren’t The Wire or anything like that, but there are still people shooting each other there, still people starving. And most of all, people feeling like they’re not worth anything, like society doesn’t care about them. So I want to tell those stories. My privilege and hard work and dumb luck got me to a place where dozens of people want to hear or read things I write, and I don’t want to waste that.
Something else I noticed in that gem of a collection is family. Family really shows up in so many of your poems, and in a way that is really heartwarming for me to take in. In pieces like “Home Remedies”, or “Dictator, By Which I Mean the Mother Brandishing a Pistol with a Piñata over Her Head”, or so many others, there is this sense of home and history in your work. It’s always seasoned with a hint of sadness, I think. Of losing touch, in some ways. In what ways do you find portrayal of family/history necessary?
I guess the thing that enabled me to write this book, more than anything else, is my dad’s death. Now that my dad and his mom are gone, I’ve found that so much of our family’s story is gone, too. Nobody even remembers what my great grandmother’s name was, everybody just knows her as Baba.
So for me, writing is a way of making sure the stories I still have don’t get lost the same way, and also an opportunity to invent some kind of legacy.
Because we are friends on Facebook, and social media gives us a weird way to allow us to keep up with everyone’s creative output, I keep reading that you’re working on a book-length poem. Please, please, please enlighten me/the world on that. What does that process look like/when will that be complete?
It’s called I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean. It’s a letter to America that says “I love you, Stupid,” a queer coming-of-age story, a prayer for the land, a 70-page rap song.
I finished the first draft recently, and am shopping it around with publishers right now as I revise it. It was the hardest thing to write, and probably the most fun I’ve ever had, too. It’s not like I knew I was writing a book-length poem when I started, you know? It was one, three-page poem, then another, then a few more fragments, etc.
One thing I figured out, repeatedly, is that not every part of a book-length poem acts like a poem. There are sections of ecological writing, sections of history, sections of narrative. That was something that surprised me.
When I ask people which writers are doing work that push them right now, I’ve been amazed by nearly everyone echoing “Michael Mlekoday”. So, of course, I ask you…who are the writers who you feel give you that permission to exist/create?
I think my favorite thing to do is name-dropping my favorite writers. Obviously there’s those who came before me, who I look to as trailblazers and lock-breakers: Adrian Matejka, Patricia Smith, Karyna McGlynn, Terrance Hayes, Anis Mojgani, Jaylee Alde. In particular, I think Matejka and Jaylee are the first two poets, legitimate poets, who I saw talking shit regularly IN their work.
My three go-to books right now are Ross Gay’s Bringing the Shovel Down, Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now, and Quan Barry’s Water Puppets. I terms of recent or forthcoming first books: Kendra DeColo, Danez Smith, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Oliver Bendorf are all killers.
What I have liked so much about this project is being able to talk about regions, and scenes, and communities that are so far away from mine. Can you talk about the Midwest, specifically Minnesota, and the scene that has been built there? I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of different places and experience how the poetry community flows in those places, but the Minnesota area is somewhere I’ve never made it out to (though soon!), and you were very active out there (among other places) for quite a while. What was that like?
When I was first coming up in the Minneapolis poetry slam scene, we sent one team to the National Poetry Slam every year, and there were just a few folks who dominated the scene. Then us college kids got involved, and everything started changing. Me and Khary Jackson started to figure out what we were doing as poets about the same time that Sam Cook and Guante and Sierra DeMulder all moved to the Twin Cities. We worked together to form a new aesthetic from the various forms and styles we’d grown up with. So the college slams (University of Minnesota, then Macalester, then Hamline and MCTC and others) became a central part of the scene. Because of that, it’s been a really close-knit community dedicated to workshopping and editing and all that stuff college kids do. And it’s that culture of communal learning, even in the midst of the competition, that led to us winning a couple championships, led to Khary and Sierra (and Hieu!) getting Write Bloody books and touring the country, led to me going to graduate school and getting my own book deal, and so forth. I owe basically everything I am to that culture.
August Wilson (who wrote much of his work while living in St. Paul) has this great quote: “Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.” Where we come from, the geographies and flora and fauna and dialects we grow up with, the intersections of power and oppression and privilege we experience—all of that ends up influencing us as people and thus influencing us as artists. So a working class kid from St. Paul has to write like a working class kid from St. Paul, or else they’re just lying. I recently saw that the first sentence of Hieu’s bio in some literary journal was, “Hieu Minh Nguyen is a Minnesotan.” And I was like, yeah, that’s exactly right.
I know you used to rap, so I’m really pushed to end with this question, even though I’ve ended with it once already this month. Top five MCs OR hip-hop albums of all time. If you feel moved to answer both, feel free.
Top 5 MCs
2. Notorious B.I.G.
4. Chuck D
Top 5 Rap Albums
1. Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die
2. Outkast, Aquemini
3. De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising
4. Blu & Exile, Below the Heavens
5. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
MICHAEL MLEKODAY is the author of The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State University Press, 2013), selected by Dorianne Laux as the winner of the 2012 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He won the National Poetry Slam in 2009 as a member of the St. Paul team, and returned the following year to coach the team to its second championship. He serves as Poetry Editor of Indiana Review, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Ninth Letter, RHINO, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Anti-, Muzzle Magazine, and other journals. He has never seen the ocean.