Meghan Privitello is the author of A New Language for Falling Out of Love (YesYes Books, 2015). Poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, A Public Space, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2014 NJ State Council of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her chapbook, Notes on the End of the World, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in fall 2016.
Wale: Let’s start with the last poem ‘Last Bird’, in your book, A New Language for Falling Out of Love. In the poem, you said ‘I have been running around pulling weeds from the ground calling myself a saviour’, ‘I want to marry the man who owns the most feathers. I want to marry the man who can hold me on his outstretched hand’. In this poem, like others, I meet someone trying to create a new world away from the reality, a new world that keeps changing from poem to poem. It’s amazing how you do that. How do you make your poems ‘temperamental’?
Meghan: That these poems are temperamental is not a conscious choice, but rather how my exhausting mind works. When I’m thinking through something, whether poetry-related or not, I think by quick and random associations. When I look at the open tabs on my computer or phone, I can see the process unfold: I can start wanting to know about the habitat of a certain bird and I end up, somehow, searching for posters of David Hasselhoff. I think this has to do, somehow, with the idea, or my idea, of interconnectedness between all things – ideas, people, objects, etc.
I will admit that I think all things have feelings and life. For instance, if I’m throwing away an old VHS tape, I can’t bear to throw it out with regular trash. Something about it doesn’t seem right. And I will thank the object for what it did and how it served. And I think I’m starting to get away from the question, but to get back to it as best I can, I think I start with one facet of reality, and then twist that diamond around and around until I see more possibilities that live within that space. This, I think, is why the realities in the poems are never static. There is so much to reveal, and I want every little thing, in its absolute worthiness, to have its chance to shine.
Wale: Amazing! Looking at the philosophical nature of your poems, I would love to also hear your view on the interconnectedness of ‘love’, ‘loss’ and ‘loneliness’ and how poetry is confirming and reaffirming that bond, specifically, your poetry.
Meghan: Love, loss, and loneliness are conjoined triplets. I can’t imagine any one of them without the presence of the others. They are also a cycle. I hate to say this, because it seems so fatalistic, but all love will be lost. If not through some kind of betrayal, or an amiable agreement to separate, death will end it. And no matter how love ends, it ends. There, in that break, is the space of loss.
The space where the other once was, now gaping and full of echo. And the absence of love leads to loneliness, which sparks the desire to find love again, and on and on we tremble towards something lasting (we are so exhausting in our wants). I am pretty obsessed with this triad, and I feel like it tries to make its way into as many of my poems as it can.
Poetry, or any kind of writing, is terribly lonely. A complicated loneliness. It’s not that poetry does not reciprocate with some kind of pleasure, because I think it does. I don’t think writing is entirely masochistic. But the act itself, the moments of writer and page and/or screen, can ache. Sometimes I think I try and trick myself into thinking that if I write about this enough, it will unlock a code, a key, something that will make it all untrue, or reversible, or preventable, an incantation that will make this life into anything but the tragedy it wants to be.
Wale: ‘The past is always riding towards us in its armoured truck. I’ve shot at it with guns that haven’t been invented yet and nothing made it cry.’ This is from your poem ‘Passive Drowning’. Also in ‘The Keeping’, you said ‘The past is wearing a sheep’s mask thinking that is enough for forgiveness’. For most of your speakers, the past is a wolf, it appears arrogant and unapologetic. I find the speakers’ almost successful attempts to tame and control it daring, amusing and unnatural altogether. This feeling is new to me and I deeply appreciate that gift. Amending the past may not be realistically possible but the feeling that one can try is helpful. I believe I feel so because I am ‘anti-natural’ and your poems are too.
Meghan: I never noticed this pattern about my treatment of the past and I am so thankful that you noticed this in the reading. It is such a gift when readers point out things that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by the writer. There are so many unconscious choices and I love when others can help me mine my mind. I would say that, for the most part, I am grateful for the past in its entirety, all of its bullshit and love and horror and beauty. I have found that tragedy and pain from the past can give gifts of creativity and art, the only kind of reproduction I can advocate for myself.
For me, the only way to survive the horrific is the promise that it can be transformed, remembered as we choose – fragmented, rearranged, whatever we find necessary in order to live. What agency! Once the past has passed, it is ours to control. I could choose to remember my life with an entirely different narrative, as a survival skill, and I think this is a beautiful choice of our consciousness and will (while a psychiatrist might have me committed for thinking this way). As you said, amending the past may not end up being realistically possible, but pretending can be so wonderfully convincing. I also love that you say you are “anti-natural”. That’s a term I would like to sit and think about for a while.
Wale: You should.
I have been unable to select my favourite poems from your book, this is because I am in love with every word in it. Which is your favourite poem? This also brings me to the question, what is your definition of a great poem?
Meghan: Oh god, questions like these are always the hardest. I am always drawn to the poem ‘Jesse’s Girl’ and ‘Interpretation’. Whenever I do a reading, I almost always include these two in the set. ‘Jesse’s Girl’ was one of the first poems I wrote for this book, and just felt complete after the first draft. It’s weird and has dry humour, and talks about and questions god and love, which I think represents much of my poetry-soul. ‘Interpretation’ just always felt very true to me. I don’t mean that the other poems in the book don’t feel honest, but something about ‘Interpretation’ feels especially forthright and real.
As for my definition of a great poem? Yikes. For me, a great poem is one that makes me feel scared, scared about the power of language and the ways in which it can create and destroy worlds in a string of syllables. A great poem is one that makes me want to give up language and live in silence. A great poem shows flashes of bone behind the meat of the world, like looking at your lover and, for a brief second, they are stripped of their skin and entirely skeleton, and a second later, are back in their flesh. Great poems don’t use magic but become magic, the simple combination of image and line and space that has the power to fool us into thinking rabbits really can come out of hats.
Wale: You don’t know how I feel to know I have guessed right about your taste. I love ‘Jesse’s Girl’ too and thank you for bringing this up. It’s clear you have a ‘problem’ with God in most of your poems and then the language, Oh God! I remember reading one of your poems to a friend some couple of months ago and he said, ‘did I just hear, Dear God, fuck me harder?’ Almost all your poems have the name of God in them. How did God piss you off?
Meghan: I actually laughed out loud when I read this, especially the part about reading one of the poems to your friend! I’m laughing at myself, and the liberties I take when using God in poems – about fucking him, being fucked by him, killing him, insulting him, etc. This most definitely makes it seem like I have a problem with God, and to some extent I do, but not completely. It’s mostly a fascination with Jesus, God and gods, especially the absolutely ridiculous way I was taught about Jesus and God and religion as a child.
I was raised Catholic and the way church teachers showed Jesus as this cartoon heartthrob was totally absurd! Jesus was the first person I had a sex-crush on. I mean, this sounds so crass, but when he’s on the crucifix, his abs are so well-defined! And that’s what I looked at every Sunday morning. How could I not fall in love with such a beautiful, hurting man? I’m also playing a lot with gender roles, the way, in western cultures, it is always a male god who is worshipped. What happens when no language is off limits, when a woman, after submitting to god can retaliate through language? I’m also trying to disorient the narrative between women and men, to give absolute power to the female voice. And in a really simple way, I’m fascinated by people who are religious and believe in God. Sometimes, I’m jealous. I still don’t know how to pin down my spirituality, still have nothing certain I can say I believe in. At times, this is a great sadness.
There must be such comfort in the certainty of God’s existence. I suppose I’m hoping if I hash this out enough through poetry, I might have some kind of ‘awakening’, something that will fill in parts of all my empty spaces. My second full-length manuscript, which I finished up recently, is called One God at a Time. Every poem in the book is battling with this religious/spiritual uncertainty, and the poems came out unafraid of confronting the holy with raw and dirty and sinful language (Sorry, God).
Wale: And the criticisms that follow this confrontation, how do you react to them?
Meghan: Generally, I don’t have much of a reaction to criticism but, if I do, it usually errs on the side of gratitude. In order for someone to be critical of a work, they must have spent time with it. I am such a small speck of life in this world, and I am thankful to anyone who takes time out of their days to read something I’ve made. If the work strikes a nerve, if it offends, if the reader is critical of the subject, the style, the craft, then the work has done at least part of its job; the poem has manufactured a way to enter the reader. What happens after the poem gets in is not up to me. To read my poems and feel nothing would hurt me much more. It would mean the poems have failed, that they are empty, that the hungry reader has eaten only air, and for that I would be truly sorry.
Wale: The prose structure of the poems in A New Language for Falling Out of Love, is it something that begin with the early poems in the collection or something that came while compiling the manuscript?
Meghan: The prose structure was actually the catalyst for the book. I had been so frustrated with the poetic line, writing what felt like tired, unimaginative poems, and I think this is because I wasn’t thinking in that form. I was thinking in the prose block, but wasn’t aware of it. The first poem I wrote for the book was ‘Yes, I Will Go’ and it was in prose block form, but with stretches of white space between some of the words and phrases. ‘Jesse’s Girl’ was another early poem in the book that initially had the same stretches of white space, but, as the book was being edited for publication, the spacing was changed to the traditional spacing they have now. I don’t know if I have ever felt as liberated as I did after writing those first few prose poems. It opened up so much in me, and allowed me to say what I had been trying to say for years. The poems came out quickly after that, a bit urgently. It became a physical sensation, the need to write that way. But as soon as I wrote the last poem, the feeling faded almost completely. I’ve written a few prose poems since then, but not many. It feels as foreign to me now as trying to write lineated poems did to me then. Creativity is so wonderfully fickle.
Wale: I must say they are very beautiful that way. You have a new book, Notes on the End of the World. I like the title, can you briefly say what the book is about?
Meghan: Thank you so much, and of course! This is a chapbook that is very much what the title says it is – notes on the end of the world. I actually wrote this before A New Language for Falling Out of Love, and thought it was going to be a full-length manuscript. I’ve felt like the world has been ending for years now, more and more as time passes. I feel like animals and objects are telling us things we need to pay attention to. We need to pay more attention to the tiny moments and details of living, because there are messages there, and I think the messages are dire. When writing these poems, I was setting up an imaginary apocalypse around me, positioning myself as someone who was about to see the world snuff out. Surprisingly, the poems came out quiet and fairly tame (especially compared to the god poems!). My anxiety about the end of the world was tempered.
This is not to say they aren’t haunted by death and loss and ruin, but I think these things are speaking in more of a whisper, or a necessary acceptance. I unearthed the manuscript last year and decided to send it to Black Lawrence Press for their Black River Chapbook Competition, and won! I was so surprised and still am. This little almost-forgotten-about book comes out in September.
Wale: My late congratulations! I can’t wait to read it. The first poem of yours I read was ‘Even when am naked I can’t tell the truth’. It was on The Adroit Journal. This poem was what led me to you. I like it a lot; I couldn’t get it out of my head for days, to the extent that it began to reflect in some of my works. Sometimes, I see your words as fire, a fire burning nothing but itself. In your poem ‘The Problem is How’, there is also this element of self-destruction, which seems to be coming from the disorderliness of chaos. The more I try to understand whether this fire is outside or within, the more I get caught up in it. There is a world that is pretty fucked up and there is a speaker that is burning and not allowing anyone to come near. The idea of appearing heroic and destructive at the same time is common in most of your poems. How did that enter?
Meghan: Thank you so much, Wale! And I love everything you just said about the duality of destruction and heroism. Again, something I’ve never thought about in my work until now. Your reading of the poems is a scarily accurate reading of the psychology that lives in my poems and in the way I live my life. Of course it is impossible to build a wall around one’s life and being so that it does not enter the work. Autobiography, in some way or another, manages to sneak into writing.
Although I don’t write about real events or narratives, I suppose I do write ‘through’ the way I exist in relationships with people and the world – appearing heroic and destructive at the same time. I doubt that I could answer your question with any certainty, since I was not conscious of the duality being there. I have become more emotionally guarded as I’ve gotten older, and have withdrawn further into myself. There, in the protected space I’ve built around myself – the space of quiet and reclusiveness – I feel safe knowing that my silence and illusion of emotionlessness gives the appearance of me being strong, heroic. The second that façade fails, I have no fear of burning it all down, walking away from the fire with the same deadpan I started with.
All of this, of course, to protect the actual overload of feeling that is sunken into my bones. I think, now that you point it out, there is so much of this in my poems – what must appear as indifference and, sometimes, heartlessness. And I don’t know if that makes me cringe or breathe a sigh of relief that my terribly breakable soul is covered in enough insulation to let it cry without anyone hearing.
Wale: That’s touching. Very touching. Sometimes, I burn it all down too but most times, I blame humans, I blame God, for letting humans play God, for the love, loss, world and wars. I have also come to a realisation that we can share blames but we can’t share grief. Let’s briefly talk about how you became a poet. Is everything you saw at the beginning happening now?
Meghan: I wish I had some kind of machine that could look into minds and brain synapses to see exactly how poetry became so essential to me. I would go back and thank every person and word and object that made me a poet. These are the few things I do know: as a child, I always loved writing, even just the physical act of holding a pen in my hand and making words appear seemed a kind of crude magic. When I was 12, I read Sylvia Plath for the first time, and things really shifted into place.
I wrote endless (bad) poems throughout high school, didn’t think it was possible to go to college for writing, so I majored in Sociology. Before my first year of college was over, I realized writing was the only thing that would get me through living and that is when writing became more serious for me. I didn’t start submitting work to journals until four years ago, when I was 27. So it took me 15 years to get my shit together and send poems into the world. I still cringe when I call myself a poet, not out of shame, because what could be more beautiful than to be a poet, but maybe because I have never been able to accept the fact that what I dreamed about has become real. What a privilege. In the beginning (and even now), I didn’t envision anything happening with my poetry.
I wrote because I loved to, and because I had to. I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I am as shocked now with any poem acceptance as I was in the beginning, and still can’t believe anyone has read my work. I can’t believe I have published a book, and soon a chapbook, and have finished another full-length manuscript.
Poetry is one of the few things I believe in, but the fact that I have been given the opportunities to be a heard voice, no matter how small, will always be unbelievable to me. I think gratitude is such an important part of being a poet, and every day I am thanking beaks, thanking air, thanking bruises, thanking sadness, thanking every single thing for being inspiration and foundation, for allowing me to use them in order to become who and what I needed to be.
Wale: Lastly, can you tell me your favourite poets?
Meghan: There are so many! I’m overwhelmed by the number of amazingly talented poets in the world right now. A few oldies, but forever goodies: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Rilke, Larry Levis. And an endless list of writing-in-the-world-right-now poets: Francine J. Harris, Anais Duplan, Traci Brimhall, Rachel McKibbens, Claudia Cortese, Ladan Osman, Kiki Petrosino, Morgan Parker, Natalie Eilbert, Erika Sanchez, CatieRosemurgy, Sandra Lim, Ada Limon, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Saeed Jones, Diane Seuss, Emily O’Neill, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Kaveh Akbar, Danez Smith, SinaQueyras, Sam Sax, Anne Boyer, Lo Kwa Mei-en, Emily Kendal Frey, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Elisa Gabbert, Roberto Montes, Wo Chan, Lynn Melnick, Aziza Barnes, Ocean Vuong AND I COULD GO ON FOREVER. There is so much beauty in this world, and these are just some of the people who work their fucking souls off to keep it that way.
Wale: Wow, Meghan, you have some of my favourites on your list. Thank you for the time and patience, it has been a beautiful conversation.
Meghan: Thank you, Wale, for the work you are doing to bring more poetry into the world. It has been an absolute joy talking with you.