An Interview with Poet Meg Day

Meg Day is the 2015-2016 recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry, and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street 2014), winner of the Barrow Street Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award, and a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University. Day is Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Lancaster, PA. www.megday.com

This past spring, Day was featured in Columbia College’s Creative Writing Reading Series, hosted by the English and Creative Writing Department. I was fortunate enough to be in a literature class with poet Tony Trigilio at the time, and Day visited our class after the reading, answering questions from myself and my peers. My last question for Meg was if we could do an interview for TLR.

Below, are poet Meg Day’s thoughtful answers to questions sparked by the masterfully eloquent collection, Last Psalm at Sea Level.

Kristen Nichols: In Last Psalm, there are apparent shifts in geography; we began with “There’s Snow in the West” before “the folds of the Midwest” end the poem “After Getting Caught Staring, Twice” in the middle of the collection, and then the west is mentioned in some of the last few pieces, including the title poem. Are the poems written about places that inspire you in the moment, or are many written on location?

Meg Day: I like the idea of a poem written on location, but I don’t think I’m the poet to do it. Geography is integral to my work because I’m so affected by it—weather, altitude, seasons, topography, the presence & migration of regional creatures, industry, politics, accessibility—& consequently the reason I rarely write about a thing as it’s happening. The influence of place is too strong for me in the moment; I tend to go back there—especially the west, the mountain west, the midwest—with the distance memory or imagination affords. I guess in this way I avoid ruining the place with the poem & the poem doesn’t get swamped by place.

KN: Throughout your book, you use several different forms—the aubade, ghazal, sestina, cleave, psalms—and several, especially the aubades, are repeated. Were any of those forms new to you when you created this material? Are those that repeat forms you felt you mastered or were they repeated more because of the expression that they were able to afford you?

MD: I’m interested in queering inherited forms. I’m interested in remaking them, finding out what else they can do. I think it’s foolish to expect queer & trans & disabled poets to contort themselves & their work into these forms that, in many ways, represent a long canonical lineage of exclusion. So in that sense the forms are new, yes, & I welcome their unpredictability. I’m thinking a lot lately about the Deaf aubade, the Deaf pastoral. I keep returning to form because I’m still figuring out how to make them fit me instead of the other way around. There’s a lot of pleasure in it for me, a lot of play.

KN: Animals are often mentioned: cows in “Psalm for July,” horses in “Aubade for One Still Uncertain of Being Born.” When writing, do you find yourself thinking of the qualities animals represent that somehow speak to human qualities or experiences? Are the images you create with animals linked inexplicably to the places and other elements of nature, like land or seascape, that you also draw from?

MD: There are moments when my fascination with & adoration for horses feels cliché or juvenile, but it always passes quickly. They’re magnificent creatures. Mysterious & emotive, too. Powerful, tender. Most animals are. I’m hesitant to admit that I tend to like animals better than I like people, but there it is. I’ve been lucky to be around them my whole life, so it’s no surprise to me that they appear regularly. I’m probably guilty of projecting human qualities onto animals or vice versa, but it’s really that animals often seem to me one of the better barometers for human conduct; I rarely encounter an animal in distress that doesn’t have humans to blame. Humans seem to be in the same boat.

KN: The rhyme scheme in your poems relies heavily on alliteration and assonance. Is there something that draws you to use this kind of rhyme?

MD: Vowels in English aren’t audible to me—nor are they easily speech-read—& so whatever rhyme I’m using is memorized or matched as an eye-rhyme. The patterning is based on what feels good in the mouth: the phenomenology of rhyme, the felt sense of it. Alliteration is more legible on the page; you don’t have to hear it, necessarily, to know that it’s a repeated sound. I like repetition that uses a lot of bilabials & labio-dentals, but I tend to go easy on the velars & gutterals because they’re harder for me to keep consistent. They’re not visible. Most of my rhymes are visible in some way or another as a way to foolproof their reliability, but also because I think they feel best.

KN: Each of your poems is rich in details, but I was particularly interested in the “Portrait of My Selves” pieces. Could you tell me a little bit more about the blurring of identity the speaker describes in those?

MD: This series was really helpful & exciting for me at the time because I was trying to figure out pronouns in poems & coming up short. I was doing a lot of reading about self-portraits & the singularity of them, & I couldn’t get them to properly accommodate the multiplicity I felt. The self-portrait didn’t seem very intersectional to me, couldn’t account for all or any of my identities, especially gendered ones. I experimented with a few approaches, but landed on this one because it allowed me to be really candid & explicit about the binary, the way I was trying to collapse it, smoosh it together in a scene. Sound & image were priorities for me; I wanted the scenes voiceless & slow, inert even, & for the interactions between the gendered selves to be intimate but still separate in their togetherness. Writing into this series & keeping these characters consistent helped me begin thinking about the deaf lyric & what it means to suspend a moment without relying on the sonic stamina we sometimes associate with that tradition. Over time, they’ve come to feel like very private poems.

KN: I’ve heard you mention that you often look up while writing, which leads to the spirituality and outright mention of higher powers in your work (“Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God”). This is a really interesting, specific part of your creative process; where have you found the best place, for you, to look up?

MD: When am I not looking up! Being alive is difficult! This is a complicated question & one that I probably can’t answer. There is a kind of divinity in being alive & therefore a kind of divinity in poems that tend our living. When my poems nod toward a g-d or a lord, they nod also toward a lover, a beloved. I’m trying to do what synapses do, I’m trying to point to the place between the fingers on the ceiling of the Sistine. I’m looking up & what about the sky isn’t divine? It’s all sacred enough for the attention that a poem lends.

KNLast Psalm at Sea Level often very eloquently speaks to deaf and/or transgender experiences. Your poems don’t shy away from sharing experiences with violence and misunderstanding within those communities. As a writer, does poetry feel like the most natural form of advocacy to you?

MD: It didn’t always. I prefer direct action; I came up on it, I believe in it. The most natural form of advocacy, though, seems always to be the hardest: in the home, in the classroom. I’ve never worked so hard as an activist as I have in my own classroom, at a family meal, in the checkout line at the grocery store. In one sense, I never stop advocating: I’m Deaf, genderqueer, & still alive. In others, I have a lot of work & learning left to do. Poems are a part of that, but a small one in comparison.

KN: When you were visiting Columbia, I asked how you view your work within the context of the current trend to stray from genre boundaries. Your answer was surprising; you said that you view teaching as your non-genre work. Could you elaborate on how your work and your teaching coincide right now?

MD: Over the last few years, the divide between my teaching & my work has widened insofar as I can’t seem to write regularly when I’m teaching full-time. I think I’m supposed to push against that, or want otherwise, but I feel good about it; I like focusing my attention in these ways. I travel so much for poetry throughout the academic year that it feels a little bit like I’m doing the community work alongside my teaching & then retreat into poems & poetkin & residencies during the breaks. Neither really ever quit, though; I’m always prepping for one during the other.

KN: In your thanks at the end, you wrote: “Many of these poems pay homage and owe their existence to the earnestness of my creative writing students, the critical eye of my colleagues, and the work of numerous poets whose readings, workshops, books, and exercises were made accessible to me…” You go on to give credit to other writers and even musicians whose work led directly to your own. How important would you say it is for a writer, of any genre or background, to be in conversation with other writers’ work?

MD: I’d argue we’re always already in conversation with other writers’ work, whether we’re reading it or not. I’m grateful to the poets & artists whose work has struck in me some kind of resonance or desire to respond, but I imagine I’m in just as much conversation with the folks I’m not reading, or who are not reading me. Aesthetics & access are frequently on my mind: how we come to believe work is good, what we are inclined to like & share, whose work we aren’t seeing & why. The call & response of poets is one way we re-examine & modify our oversights. I love watching contemporary poets respond to one another in poems. I think it’s a kind of incredible generosity, even & especially when it’s critique or talk-back. How lucky, to be tended in that way.

KNLast Psalm has received so much recognition; it was the winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and The Publishing Triangle’s 2015 Audre Lorde Award, and a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University, a 2015 Lambda Literary Award in Poetry, and Jacar Press’ Julie Suk Award. After all of that, I know that I’m not the only one looking forward to reading more of your work. Can you tell me a little about what your next project will look like?

MD: I’ve tried to answer this question fifteen different ways. What I can tell you is this: I’m writing it & slowly. For the last year, I’ve felt a little rushed, a little frantic about it. More recently, I started enjoying taking my time. New things are happening because of it & I finally feel like I’m writing the poems that will actually make the cut. It’s exciting work & scary, too. I’m trying to push off a lot of undue pressure surrounding sound & nondisabled readers & the weight of publication. I’m trying to rethink my own education in craft & how much of it was rooted in learning to labor for a reader that is nothing like me. I’m trying to become a student of a different kind of movement. Mostly I just feel really lucky.

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