May 27–June 2, 2019
Derek Mong is the author of two poetry collections from Saturnalia Books, Other Romes (2011) and The Identity Thief (2018). His chapbook The Ego and the Empiricist (2017) was a finalist for the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize. The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Stanford, the University of Michigan and Denison University. His poetry has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Southern Review, New England Review and Writers Resist: Hoosier Writers Unite (2017), among other places. A long poem about parenting and the painter Lucian Freud will soon appear in At Length. The recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Louisville, the University of Wisconsin, and the Missouri Review, he lives in Crawfordsville, Indiana, with his family. He and his wife, Anne O. Fisher, received the 2018 Cliff Becker Translation Award for The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (White Pine, 2018). On Thursday, June 13, Mong will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 61 Local in Cobble Hill with Ladan Osman and Sally Wen Mao.
The First Heartbeat
doesn’t splash down,
a space capsule
blinking its beacon
to be found.
What warmth it bodes
derives from swarms;
cells converge to thrum
I think of yours
and think of crowds,
sourceless and surging
through a cross-
walk, the footsteps
the stoplight’s bleating.
bears the largess
we’ve traveled. You hold
To dip an ear
into these notes
then tip our heads back
and float un-
midwife, thank you
us, mute now
as the novice
who—scoping our dark,
yearns to brush knees
with a stranger.
Your broadcast broadens
kingdom. We ask,
for now, just this:
let us never hear
your last one.
—From The Identity Thief, Saturnalia Books, 2018.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
It began with an idea; it grew with a form. Someone once told me, having actually read the science on this, that there’s never a “first” heartbeat. There are cells, the cells gather, a heart’s rhythm begins to coalesce. Or something along those lines. I didn’t get too hung up on the details so much as the metaphor—the heartbeat is a collective impulse before it’s ever a pulse. That fit my Romantic mind. That matched the Whitmanic belief that we’re our best selves when we acknowledge that we are “one of a crowd” (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”).
The form—like all good ones—urged the poem forward. I wrote it in quantitative syllabics, using a pattern I employ elsewhere in The Identity Thief: 4-4-5-3. That shape feels meditative to me, and controlled. It also helps to quiet, without muting, my iambs. You can hear them pretty clearly in stanza two.
In the last few months, the poem has taken on a new, unforeseen life as these nasty “heartbeat” abortion bills appear in Georgia, Alabama, and my home state of Ohio. I’m itching for the day when some pro-life wingnut finds this one, quotes it out of context, and I get to write a strongly worded cease-and-desist letter. There’s a difference, in short, between lyricizing the semi-mysterious run-up to personhood, which is the work of this poem, and legislating a woman’s body, which is the work of today’s GOP.
What are you working on right now?
More than I can handle, frankly. I’ve got a collection of belletristic essays, tentatively titled Nude Dude Poets, that is a few pieces shy of finished. The title essay appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review a few years ago. It looks at William Blake’s naked recitations of Paradise Lost; Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s “penis” sculpture of Ezra Pound; and the unseemliness, what Byron calls “friggin the imagination,” of the lyric “I,” among other things. It’s also a heap of fun. I write short essays at Kenyon Review Online and the occasional longer one for the Gettysburg Review. They’re in there too.
On the poetry front, I’m trying to finish off a third collection. Like The Identity Thief, the book’s anchored around a long piece, “A Poem for the Scoundrel Lucian Freud,” that should be appearing in At Length in a week or two. Freud was a master portraitist and the likely parent of forty (!) unacknowledged children. I found myself, in looking at Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” thinking hard about ekphrasis, ego, C-sections and the casualties of art.
Other projects linger around the margins: a book of children’s poetry; an essay on parenting and Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898); the long-planned conversion of my dissertation on Whitman, Dickinson, and tropes of marriage into individual essays, or a book.
What’s a good day for you?
Any day where I get to work on my writing is a good day, preferably for a long quiet stretch of time, hidden away from the world. Then I join my family, and my wife and I cook dinner while our son practices his guitar. We eat, we make each other laugh—uproariously, inappropriately—before retiring to the couch for reading or homework or board games. Sometimes the reading comes during the meal, what we call “reading dinner,” and everyone grabs their favorite magazine, book or newspaper. (Our son occasionally prefers Big Nate and Tintin to our company.) Sometimes, at night, we’ll watch an old episode of MacGyver, which we groan our way through, and cheer. As even our son has come to understand, the show is fantastic (no guns! such moxie! what mullets!) and awful (improbable plots! fake Russian accents!) all at once. Then we sleep. Then we start again.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Three years ago, we moved from Portland, Oregon, to Crawfordsville, Indiana, a rural town of 15,000 residents due west of Indianapolis. We had our reasons. I’d landed one of the last great tenure-track jobs, teaching poetry and American literature at Wabash College. I adore my work and my students. Still, it was an adjustment. We love our friends here, who are often my colleagues, and the community we’ve made within this struggling, impoverished town. Many friends are fellow parents; we all acknowledge, at least implicitly, that it does take a village. We’ve made that village.
I love the new brewery that just opened. I love the ease that comes with setting up playdates or biking over to campus to swim at the athletic center or watch college baseball. But boy, do I miss the comforts of the liberal West Coast. My wife and I have had six rainbow flags ripped from our front porch. We’ve heard of and overheard things that are simply unconscionable. We get out-voted yearly.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Very little, though I stayed with my cousin and his wife in Cobble Hill just last month! I went down to Brooklyn Bridge Park. I watched the helicopters pop like grasshoppers from New Jersey to Manhattan. I imagined Whitman on his Brooklyn ferry, crossing the East River. Mostly, though, I strolled the neighborhood, eavesdropping on conversations, noting the small differences that differentiate Brooklyn from my Ur-image of city, San Francisco: the carriage houses converted to apartments, a power washer cleaning a stoop.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
It’s a good question, but—at least in my case—a very pre-kid question. Our son was born in 2010, just after we moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, Louisville was the last place where I felt like a part of a poetry community. We had Sarabande Books and the University of Louisville, where I taught. We had Carmichael’s Bookstore and the InKY Reading Series. I had a hand—often a small one, like I bought stuff—in all these organizations.
A poetry community presupposes time, outside of work and parenting, to meet with other poets and poetry readers, to discuss books or new projects, to explore. But I’ve never attended a reading that included childcare—someone should get on that!—and I’ll choose writing poems over hearing them any day. I find the same holds true for “po-biz” generally: promoting your book, doing events, tweeting. It’s all for the young and the childfree, and I no longer qualify as either.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I wrote half a dissertation on Whitman. When I finally saw Gabriel Harrison’s 1854 daguerreotype of the man—what Maurice Bucke called the “Christ likeness”—at the New York Public Library, I needed to take a minute, collect myself and step outside before moving on. I’ve written essays on Whitman and iPads and Whitman and some very NSFW performance art. In my new book, The Identity Thief, I often find myself in crowds, buoyed by the thrum of people moving in the same direction. My son’s name is Whitman.
Need I say any more?
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve had lots, thankfully, over many years of education. I’m thrilled to see the attention, for instance, that David Baker is receiving for Swift: New and Selected Poems, reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review. I met David when I was very young, pre-college, and he’s taught me countless things over the years: perseverance, capaciousness (in reading, in forms), joy. Ann Townsend and Linda Gregerson, from my BA and MFA years, respectively, remain huge influences. Linda is a model of a great scholar-poet. So is Laurence Goldstein. I’ve also worked with critics and scholars, non-poets, who taught me how to write about verse: Christopher Rovee and Roland Greene. That has been key.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I enjoy stumbling upon poetry books, reading them without plans or designs—how could I teach or review this?—and reaching my own conclusions about the work. I like to read books before they’re ruined by the boosterism that constitutes so much of poetry criticism today. I found one recently, on display at my college library: Ada Limón’s latest, The Carrying (2018). I didn’t know her poems.
I respect so many of the poems in that book: “Of Roots and Roamers,” “Overpass,” “The Dead Boy,” “Bust” and “How We Are Made.” I appreciate Limón’s casual voice and the music she finds in the domestic. I love how her syntax, often layered, snaps into place with the perfect image—like clothes hung up to dry, like the vegetables planted just so in the book’s many garden poems. It’s a lovely collection, maybe a touch long, but very accomplished.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Oh, Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City, a critical study I’ve owned since its release in 2014. An earlier work, The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History (1994), is exquisite. I’m finally finishing the last volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative (1958–74). I own, but still haven’t really read, James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). That one didn’t make the cut for my PhD orals exam, and it has been haunting me—if you’ll excuse the in-joke—ever since.
If we turn back the clock, the list gets even longer: the poetry of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of “The Yellow Wall-Paper”; the non-canonical poems of Phillis Wheatley; ditto with Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor.
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?
Reading a digital book sounds godawful. Like eating space food. Like listening to Mozart through tin cans. Ugh. Even without a smartphone, I hate how much time I spend at screens. I don’t want one between myself and an author. And digital books are worthless for note-taking, and yes, as a professor, I do so compulsively. Studies consistently show that e-books curtail retention.
Which is all to say that I’m print all the way. I prefer it even as my reading process would be easier, not to mention lighter, with a Kindle. I tend to read a nonfiction book, a novel and a few books of poems at the same time.
Right now, my nonfiction is James Salter’s Burning the Days, and my fiction is Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. I’ve forced myself not to take notes while reading Shalimar. So far, that’s working out just fine.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve always wanted to create a fixed form—nothing fancy really, a stanza pattern that I dig—and write an extended sequence in that form. I’d like to do it until I’ve maxed out both subject matter and form. This is what John Berryman did in The Dream Songs, more or less. I’ve tried on many occasions, but usually I wind up cannibalizing the project to write individual poems, in different shapes, one at a time. Try as I might, I’m more Elizabeth Bishop than Berryman.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My wife coined a term for my reading habits after our son was born: “huffing print.” At first this was out of necessity. I’d read in the car, the bathroom, while feeding him, between chores. If I didn’t read in the corners of my life, I wouldn’t read at all. So I huffed. Here’s the funny part: now that my son is eight and hyperliterate, he does the same thing. All three of us do. This is how I read the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the Times.
Writing is different. I do keep a notebook, I do jot down tidbits of language, but I prefer to write in the quiet stacks of university libraries. I like the company of books, pulling random ones off the shelf, returning to my carrel. When we moved to Indiana, we bought a large brick house built in 1905. I have an office. My wife, a translator, has an office. Still, I prefer my college’s library, just down the road. I kill the Internet with a special software. I get to work.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I haven’t really spent enough time to say, but I really liked Mile End Delicatessen where I got a bagel to go and held it, wrapped in wax paper, until reaching my gate at LaGuardia. It still tasted delicious.
My cousin, Zack Mitchell, and his wife, Liz Moody, have a great apartment on Henry St. I like lounging on their couch, reading her massive collection of cookbooks—she just wrote one called Healthier Together—and drinking tea.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate my shelf
And what I consume you too shall consume,
For every author singing to me as good shall sing to you.
Because a tree grows there? Actually, many trees? I could imagine living in Brooklyn, in no small part because of the foliage. Manhattan is all glass and steel and sky.