Michael Collins on the Collection of Poetry, Psalmandala

Michael Collins 

 

Interviewed by Matt Staley

 

Michael.CollinsMichael Collins’ poems have appeared in more than forty journals and magazines, including Grist, Kenning Journal, Pank, SOFTBLOW and Smartish Pace. His first chapbook, How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water, won the Exact Change Press Chapbook Contest in 2014. A full-length collection, Psalmanadala, was published later that year.  He lives in Mamaroneck, New York, with his wife and son.

 INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on the publication of your first full-length collection of poetry, Psalmandala.  Was the poetry written specifically for the collection, and if so, what do you see as the overall theme that ties the collection together?

 MICHAEL COLLINS

Yes, and no.  I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the place of each poem in a collection as I was writing them, but I did have overarching goals throughout the process.  In terms of subject matter, I wanted to try to write about as many aspects and nuances of the soul as I could.  In terms of form, I wanted a wide variety.  The poems taught me this over time.  Through the process of writing and revising them, I realized that the different kinds of ego-soul interactions that arose from different subjects demanded different forms.  I had to learn to be a bit more receptive and intuitive to allow them to do this.  We tend to call this sort of thing “experimental,” and maybe it was to some degree, but I think dialogical fits better.

 INTERVIEWER

Poetry is intimate for the writer and the reader.  What journey do you hope your readers will take when readingPsalmandala?

 MICHAEL COLLINS

To the degree to which the book is a journey, which it is in part, it is a psycho-spiritual one that seeks out psychological insight, on the one hand, and non-dogmatic “religious” experience on the other.  In other words, I would hope that the book speaks to a reader’s experiences of the soul – especially readers who would not normally use such words.  That said, religious traditions — Greek mysteries, esoteric elements of the Abrahamic faiths, Eastern traditions, shamanism — are referenced, but from a pluralistic perspective in which each is invited in when it connects with, explains, or sometimes complicates my understanding of these experiences.  In other places, a psychological perspective – mostly from Jung and those who developed and critiqued his psychology – may predominate.  More often it’s both at the same time.  As I began to say above, it is an exploration of the soul, with the soul, within the soul.

 If you would prefer to think about it through the lens of an extended metaphor, this is how a friend of mine described it:  “Your book is like a pinball machine.  I mean this in the best way possible.  We had a pinball machine in our basement when I was growing up and I wasted a lot of hours watching those little silver balls knock around and spin.  What I mean by this irreverent image is that your book is full of bright circuitry: loops, turns, and levers; clanging noises and soft ones; claustrophobic alleys and wide open circles. I can get lost in the machine and that’s okay. I think I’m supposed to.”

INTERVIEWER

What made you fall in love with writing poetry?  How has your view of poetry evolved over time as you have honed your craft?

MICHAEL COLLINS

I don’t know that there was a particular catalyst.  It’s something I’ve always done (or suffered from not “being able” to do).  It’s just a part of who I am.  Even when it’s completely frustrating, working on poems is a natural activity for me.  I think my answer to your second question actually has more to do with subject matter than craft.  As I’ve evolved as a writer, I’m much more interested in a writing process in which I learn from the poems with a focus on preparing a gift for readers, however strange, paradoxical, or terrifying that “gift” may be – and whether or not they even want it in the end.  When I was younger, I was trying to fit into or revolutionize whatever was going on in mainstream – read: popular – poetry.  That didn’t work.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your creative writing process.  What is your routine?  From where do you draw your inspiration?

 MICHAEL COLLINS

I fantasize about having a routine:  I wake up.  I drive to the gas station for coffee.  I rewrite some ancient text in iambic pentameter to get warmed up.  I restock the furnace of my farmhouse with fresh wood.  And then – No, wait, that’s Donald Hall’s routine.  In reality I usually work six days a week at my various jobs.  Granted, my jobs are teaching, tutoring and running extracurricular writing groups, all things I’m grateful to be paid money for, but my writing “routine” is, at best, a sarcasm.  Maybe this is what works for me though.  Often, it seems that the compression of my schedule causes poems to demand to be written, and they finish faster as well.  I have a longish commute, and luckily I am a productive train writer; that might be my most routine writing habit.  I also write a lot on walks when school stuff slows down.  Other than that, it’s an hour at a coffee shop here, some random time when someone no shows for an appointment there, etc.

 As far as process and inspiration go, they really work together, oddly.  I usually intuit a seed for something, write what I know will be a god awful first draft, read it and ask “So what was I going to try to do before I wrote that nonsense?”, and then write something that more resembles what I originally intended.  From there, it’s a conversation between form and content:  The subject matter and/or intention (I know, I used an academic swear word, but they are my intentions, so I can say it, right?) starts to dictate form, but then formal constraint causes new discoveries about the content – and this conversation continues until the poem is finished.

 INTERVIEWER

I have read arguments that teaching writing can sometimes hinder the creative process for writing.  As a writing teacher, do you think that is true?  Or, do you see your students as a community of writers to draw upon?

 MICHAEL COLLINS

I’m not sure if you mean “hinder the creative process” for students or teachers, but I think it can for both.  When it is a hindrance, this usually involves an institutionalization of writing that places a premium on the program or method that supersedes individual expression.  Of course there are many programs and methods that do great things to foster individual expression, and that’s great.  I just think that all writers are unique and idiosyncratic, and a program is only good to the extent that it fosters each writer’s individuality.  That said, I was lucky enough to study at two schools that were pretty good at doing this, and I’m grateful for both experiences.

 I should explain that in the classroom I teach expository writing.  I primarily teach creative writing to individual students in a more mentoring role and to extracurricular groups that don’t involve grades or course structure, so I have a bit of an odd perspective.  My students are certainly a community though that I deeply value.  I work mostly with adult and international students, so the life experiences and language backgrounds they bring to the conversation are fascinating.  I also really enjoy the process of talking with someone and reading their work over time and watching their voice, style, and obsessions find one another.  It’s a fulfilling and invigorating process of mutual investment and discovery that I often learn from in unexpected ways.  It’s also a wonderful break from worrying about my own stuff.

 INTERVIEWER

I have moved away from using the term “emerging” or “new” writers.  You are either a writer or you’re not.  So what advice do you give writers who are still searching for their own voice?

  MICHAEL COLLINS

I completely agree.  I don’t give that much writing advice, really, unless it involves some version of “Know thyself,” in which case I am constantly giving advice and people are probably good and sick of it.  I’m speaking from experience on both sides of the mentoring relationship as I answer you, though.  I think writers who are still “searching for their own voice” tend to write a mix of the idiosyncratic, interesting, authentic, and purposeful with the inherited, imitated, forced, and just plain random.  My advice is usually just to highlight the former, not to advise their voice so much as reflect it back when I see it.

 Now I should probably try to answer your question.  I would suggest finding out what you like to read but also reading against your tendencies, following impulse until it leads to other impulses, going on lots of walks, finding friends you can discuss writing with, finding friends you can laugh about failure with (these can be the same friends if it works out that way), and remembering that the understanding of those failures is the gift that allows us to “fail better.”  I think that was Camus.  Definitely someone French.

 INTERVIEWER

What projects can we except to see from you in the near term?

 MICHAEL COLLINS

I’m working on two books right now.  One is a series about Greek mythology – and myths in general.  The other is a sequence of poems about the harbor near where we live.  Both are about the liminal spaces between consciousness and unconsciousness, sacred and secular, dream and waking, nature and civilization, instinct and rationality, life and death – or, rather, our accepted concepts of life and death.

 INTERVIEWER

Where will writing take you over the next decade?

MICHAEL COLLINS

When those two books are finished, I would like to write some prose, I think.  Anyone who has read, Psalmandala knows that my spiritually strange side is balanced by a sense of and a need for humor, and prose releases this more easily for me.  I don’t want to talk my novel concept to death, but luckily it’s still finding itself, so I don’t even have the option.

 I, and several friends, would also like writing to take us in a more philanthropic direction.  We are organizing our book launch events to raise money for worthy causes as a collective effort intended to complicate the role of poetry – or art in general – in our culture.  The book launch for Psalmandala, which will probably take place in early February, will benefit Cystic Fibrosis research.  I hope my writing will put me in a place where I can do more of this type of work.

Kindle

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: