March 14–20, 2016
Mike Lala (1987, Lubbock, TX) is a poet who works with text, recorded sound and, occasionally, images. His texts can be found in Boston Review, Fence, the Brooklyn Rail, Denver Quarterly, Jubilat, the Awl and VOLT, as well as a number of chapbooks, most recently In the Gun Cabinet (The Atlas Review, 2016). He curated Fireside Follies from 2010-2013, edited Washington Square from 2012-2014 and was a Veterans’ Writing Workshop Fellow at NYU from 2013-2014. He lives in New York.
Author photo by Kate Enman
from In the Gun Cabinet
as a child
many lives, I
loved me as myself
I was my brother last I
entered the gun cabinet he kept
forgetting who he was, what he wanted, which side
or surface I belonged to
in his despair, he drew the colors
independent, like letters
from the same word [twenty children
not even the end of his magazine]
what work to be done then
when the birds falling right out of the sky
the sea mammals blind from concussions
you place the glass down & begin your day
light flecking off the surface, doubled & blinding
on the formica rose oh sheer contradiction
how will I
address it there is a moment from my childhood where my father
to straddle the 30-millimeter, hydraulically driven, seven-barreled
on the nose of the plane he flew
my mother smiled & my younger brother looked up from her shoulders
there is a picture I remember
what is the value in making now I see how
will my work speak from its place to this
great violence shining white air trembling
am I so seduced I believe
the time I spend
& what I produce
are untethered to the economy I live by
raised I reflected the white flat
sea look around you
how you gaze beyond the gun cabinet
a birth water the better nation does it exist
to an end, our winter
what parts of the story were you told dark evergreen
our seaming duration
do you remember what parts of the story
did you take to be your own
–from In the Gun Cabinet (The Atlas Review, 2016), excerpt originally published in PEN America
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is an excerpt from the penultimate section (really the final section before a coda) of a long poem, In the Gun Cabinet, which will be out March 19 with the Atlas Review’s TAR Chapbook Series.
I started In the Gun Cabinet in the summer of 2012, finished a first draft probably very early in 2013, and then spent the next two years working on the text and sound for the performance of the text (there’s a polyvocality that’s apparent in formatting, and I decided to design a sound performance of the text to present those voices live). I’m suspicious of overtly personal or confessional poems in a culture that is (still) obsessed with individualism, personal identity (its discovery, not its politics) and memoir, but I also felt the need, and ready, to write something that dealt with my personal connection to American militarism and cultural violence.
There’s something very old-world and opulent about military culture that has to do with mythos, history and tradition. My childhood was profoundly unhappy and frequently terrifying, but I now feel a sense of gratitude that my father’s job allowed me to see wide swaths of the county and the world at an early age, and to learn the kinds of niceties of etiquette and decor that my parents’ income or class position would not necessarily have allowed us had he not been in the military. Without these things I would not have been prepared for New York.
In the Gun Cabinet comes out of these complex personal relationships to family, paternity and brotherhood; placelessness; state violence; and on a very basic level the knowledge that the hand that fed me as a child is the hand of death. It’s one aspect of my life—who I am—that I needed to put down in a time of war.
What are you working on right now?
I have a full-length I’m shopping around and a visual project I completed over the summer, which I’m starting to place in magazines. As far as new work: new poems, old poems remade, and sound work for the performance of select texts from the full-length, with the help of some brilliant friends, Zachary Nichols and Miki Foster. For the last year and a half or so I’ve also been working on a choral-style Homeric performance with four other poets using live and recorded voices. Those people are:
More on that soon.
What’s a good day for you?
No dallying in bed, shower then coffee, toast, Times, heavy revision, uninterrupted composition, break (lunch or fiddling on the guitar, maybe), editing or further comp., Democracy Now TV dinner, finishing a book, good wine at the end of it all.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The short: My place in L.A. fell through.
The long: My dad grew up on Staten/Long Islands; I always wanted to move to the city. After a trip to Southern California in ’07, I changed my mind, but then one of my to-be roommates stole money from the other, and the whole situation collapsed. I decided to go with the original plan and move to New York, and after another housing situation collapsed I struck a deal with a few people and went in on a loft. Brooklyn per-se wasn’t that important. I just wanted to be in New York. Since I was broke, jobless and parts of Brooklyn were still affordable at the time …
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I live on Grand Street on the east side of Williamsburg, which some people call Bushwick, erroneously. We’ve been in this (thankfully rent-stabilized) apartment for four years. It’s the one part of Williamsburg that feels like New York to me. I like the easy access to south Brooklyn, Queens or downtown Manhattan, not to mention Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Greenpoint, but it is decidedly ugly and slowly filling with these monolithic, cheap glass and aluminum structures that I’m convinced exclusively house the space-hogs at YTTP who don’t know how to park their Car2Gos.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
There is no one experience.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
This is such an important question right now. I’m glad to know and read, and to continue meeting, so many different poets and poetry lovers here. I’m grateful I get to live in New York in 2016. I’m grateful that this is above all a diverse and changing place. We live in the one truly global city in the country, and the arts here reflect that, even if their support structures often further inequality and division. And I want to say that I think community, however defined, can be a force for social change, for protecting people, and for healing.
That being said, there seem to be many poetry-related friend-groups or communities in New York but one always has to account for the possibility that the Internet amplifies or distorts their visibility and social power, the true frequency of their meetings, and the historical import of their members’ work. I felt like I had something like a community when I curated but now I’d rather just have friends. There’s real value in eschewing labels and making your own work, even if that value’s depressed in a poetry world composed of poet-critics who trade in visibility and prop each others’ social and critical standings.
Most of the people making work that really informs my thinking and my own work live all over, not just in the U.S., certainly not only in NYC or Brooklyn, and many of them practice other arts. I read poetry every day but it’s fairly rare to read something that feels in concert with my intentions for my work, and rarer still to be in physical proximity to the people making that work, which I do think is necessary for a “community.” Those chances go up when you broaden the scope. People (and sales in visual art or the sheer number of presses, etc.) will tell you that this is a boon time for American artists or American poetry but if you are, like me, interested in work that engages history and the social in ways that go beyond the so-called “everyday” (like, whose everyday?), basic aesthetic considerations (whose aesthetics?), or the privileged feedback loops of art history (whose history?), then you should look outside your community, outside your city, outside your country.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
(A truly Brooklyn-only, poet-only, non-exhaustive list)
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In a proper sense my one mentor was Diane Wakoski, who helped me shape my early poems, and who fed me and gave me real-life advice when I sorely needed it. I also took several classes and was lucky to work on an early version of my manuscript with Yusef Komunyakaa at NYU. I hear Diane in my own phrasing sometimes, and I think of Yusef when editing, when I circle a word or phrase to consider, no notes next to it, just that circle.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ll limit this to American poetry books despite the above.
Jennifer Nelson’s Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife—I like being in the presence of rigid intelligence and this book really delivers. It deals in ekphrasis in a sly way too, one that doesn’t pander or plate things for its reader.
Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa—Mackey is doing what might be the most technically virtuosic rhythmo-syntactic work in the English language. No one comes close. I hope these two long poems never end.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I read one book of poetry at a time, sometimes alongside nonfiction (esp. essays). One novel at a time (though I read fewer novels). I read to the end. I exclude introductions. I plan out research reading and pick mornings from a “to-read” shelf for pleasure. Poetry is the best commute. I dog-ear.
Where are some places you like to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
For reading: the subway. I don’t write in public.
What are some other Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Silent Barn—still here
BAM—the real deal
Bibber & Bell—best wine shop close to me
Thirst Wine Merchants—best wine shop in Brooklyn?
Bread Brothers—the real deal (bagels)
The bike lanes on Dekalb in the fall or along the waterfront at night in the summer—visual confection
Second Chance Saloon, Ontario, Bushwick Country Club, The Lone Wolf, my friend Gabe’s roof—good times on the cheap
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate, or try to,
And what I fail you redeem,
For every me’s a me as good as only made with you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
faeder > father
(unknown) > dodge(r)
Jaikes > jack
reave > rob
sons > sin
penna > pen
lufu > love
bruoh > brook(lyn)
Biggie (Smalls) > (The Notorious) B.I.G.
Really, my place in L.A. fell through.