Open Alphabet welcomes Seth Michelson and Eyes Like Broken Windows,
a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection published by Press 53
(ISBN 978-1-935708-55-1).

Seth Michelson

Seth has published three chapbooks -- Maestro of Brutal Splendor, Kaddish for My Unborn Son, and House in a Hurricane. He has published three translations -- Argentinian poet Tamara Kamenszain's The Ghetto, Uruguayan poet Victoria Estol's Roly Poly, and Rati Saxena's Dreaming in Another Land. He also collaborated with composer Zhou Tian on a poetry / music piece which earned first prize at the 2009 ASCAP and Lotte Lehmann Foundation Art Songs Competition.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins, an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and a PhD from USC. He is a world citizen, having lived in Europe, South America, Australia, and now Lexington, VA where he teaches at Washington and Lee University.

The Torah's lifted from the wooden ark
and shown to us like conjured fire.
Everyone rises and sings
with a reckless, flame-lit joy.
After that, how could I want anything
but the ability to write a book?
-- from Early Memories of Singing in Shul

Open Alphabet: Do you remember your first experience with poetry? Did it produce an immediate bonding or was it more of a gradual warming? Eyes Like Broken Windows

Seth Michelson: I'm not sure if I remember my first experience with poetry, but I can remember one of my earliest sustained experiences with poetry: In the fourth grade I very much enjoyed working on our weekly poetry assignments to culminate in the creation of a poetry anthology by the year's end. I remember eagerly awaiting each week's new poem, which came from canonical Anglophone writers of the eighteenth to twentieth century. Every Monday we would receive a poem typed on a colored piece of cardstock, and we then would illustrate it above and around the text before fastening it into our growing anthology, which was bound by three brass brads within a tie-dyed cloth cover. We also would memorize each poem, and I especially loved that practice. Taking the poems by heart was a great thrill for me. Who knows why? I suspect it had to do with that poetry project coming in a relatively troubled moment in my life, during which I'd found myself in a wheelchair, sleeping in traction, and enduring hip surgery due to a congenital disorder. And with my health limiting my physical activity, I discovered a deep, private pleasure in working on my poetry journal, especially when doing so while tucked away in a quiet nook in school while my faraway peers ran laps for physical education or played kickball on the playground. It made me feel like I was the lucky one, which in a sense I was.

OA: Eyes Like Broken Windows is your first full-length book of your own poetry, but you've previously published translations of Tamara Kamenszain and Rati Saxena. Has the act of bringing a poet into our language changed your process? Can you comment on the importance of translation in poetry?

SM: I think translation is a wonderfully enriching activity in so many ways, both public and private.

For example, I derive terrific, selfish pleasure in learning from and through the poetry of another, particularly when she is a master of the craft. So that accounts for some of my interest in working through the poetry of others, morpheme by morpheme, in order to think about how it makes meaning and how I might translate that process into English-language poetry, not to mention integrate it into my own thinking and writing.

I likewise enjoy the social pleasure of bringing the poetry to readers unable to consider the original due to a lack of language.

I'd also like to mention that I believe strongly in poetry translation as an ontology, meaning that, for me, the action of translating is a way of being in the world through and between languages. It is the action of living hybridity. Conversely, then, to deny the possibility of translation would be to deny possibilities of being, with a pointed emphasis on the plural there. In other words, translation actively works against espousals of essentialist beliefs and advocacies of purity, which I find base and even dangerous. So a faith in translation is for me a faith in the possibilities of realizing new modes of being, or at least of striving towards becoming more and other than I merely am due to the intrinsic limitations of my birth, habits, customs, mores, education, friendships, psychology, travels, etc. And who among us would deny the joys and importance of creating new networks of meaning and new solidarities, whether as poets, translators, and/or readers?

OA: Who are your main influences, living or not, English-language or foreign?

SM: I'm unsure of influence, but off the top of my head, a tentative list of poets to whom I often return would include Walt Whitman, Sor Juana, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Juan Gelman, Emily Dickinson, César Vallejo, Hafiz, Nicanor Parra, Marge Piercy, Thomas Lux, Ernesto Cardenal, Virgil, Yehuda Amichai, Delmira Agustini, Dante, Homer, Cavafy, Quevedo, Basho, Miguel Hernandez, and Nazim Hikmet, among many others. Tough question, and a dull answer — apologies!

OA: You often employ a strong voice, a speaker who addresses the reader directly. For example, "The Fury" begins with "To all you...", and there is no doubt who the "you" is. In your writing process, does a voice arrive with the poem on its tongue or does the poem find the voice as it matures?

SM: At the risk of sounding glib, I'd say that it depends upon the poem. Sometimes, yes, I sense a voice, and it overtakes me in the writing process. Other times I might be arrested by an image, a sound, or a taste — in other words, some feeling — and it leads me into the writing process, wherein I might shift from a lyrical inception to a more narrative poem, perhaps one even dominated by voice(s). I'll mention, too, that I try very hard not to foreclose possibility prematurely in a poem when writing. That is, I try not to predetermine a poem or foreclose anything about my process. I do this in an effort to keep a poem as open as possible for as long as possible, remaining receptive throughout the process to whatever may emerge or intervene.

OA: I'd like to ask you about religion and politics. Both inhabit your work, but when present, they seem to emerge from within the poem as an a posteriori knowing rather than as a formal overlaid ontology. How do you see either, or both, moving through your work?

SM: I think you're right: If religious and/or political thoughts emerge at all in my poems, it would happen through the act of writing, or a posteriori as you put it. I believe strongly that a poet must challenge everything, including her own preconceptions, predispositions, and habits, and in that spirit, one of the things I try to keep in mind, whether as a writer or a teacher of writing, is the need to engage as courageously and intensively in a process of struggling through complexities. Sometimes those complexities hinge on spiritual and/or social intuitions or worries. Regardless the result of such struggle is the poem, which is not the articulation of a pre-formulated conception, such as an a priori religiosity or politics; that would be dogma, doggerel. Rather the poem, or at least the best of my attempts at writing one, seem to enact in language a rigorous struggling-towards. It's a perpetual reaching for and through language towards something else, towards something almost imperceptible but urgently pressing and beautiful in its urgency, an impossible promise of a better world to come, and I mean that materially

OA: Who are you reading right now? What book is on your nightstand? What is on your desk?

SM: Tonight I've been reading Sem Tob de Carrión, a fabulous medieval Spanish poet, and the book was a gift from a friend, making it even better. As for my nightstand and desk, I'll restrict my answer to poetry that I'm not currently teaching: On my nightstand are books by Fred Moten, Alicia Partnoy, Marjorie Agosín, Dante, and Claudia Rankine, and on my desk are books by Líber Falco, Rita Dove, Mark Strand, Kaifi Azmi, Horace, Osvaldo Lamborghini, Mahmoud Darwish, Stephen Dobyns, and Lorca. To borrow from Shakespeare, "By your most gracious pardon / I sing but after you!"

OA: Where do you do most of your writing? desk

SM: Here is my favorite spot to work, which is flooded with light. It's a special comfort to me as I have to work either standing up or lying down due to my health problems, and here I can do either with ease, not to mention an enormous sense of openness and engagement with the world (or, to borrow from Neruda "no me reservo nada / sino todo el espacio").

OA: Was there anything left out of Eyes Like Broken Windows that we can expect to see in the future? What poetic adventure is next for you?

SM: My new adventures in poetry continue to blend writing, translating, and researching. That is, I'm finishing a new book of my own poetry; I'm translating two new poets, both of whom I'll keep secret for now; and I'm polishing a scholarly manuscript for a book on poetry, economics, and political violence in the hemispheric Americas.