Author Features / Excerpts / Features / Interviews / Poetry

Trusting the “I”: Nancy Mitchell on Adjacent Lives, Personae & Final Truths

by Annie Kim

To say this was not the visitation
I had hoped for would be ungrateful. Mother
took care to be scrupulously fair, but how
can this compare to my sister’s account
of being roused from sleep by gentle
strokes on her cheek to behold my mother’s
face, smooth of worry lines, haloed by blond
billows of Lauren Bacall hair? Smiling,
she kissed my sister’s forehead, then floated
off into the night on a pink cloud of chiffon
nightgown, trailing a wake of Chanel No. 5.

But no. The smell was my mother—smoke
from her mornings alone, smoking
as she waited for the kettle to sing
steam into the dark
kitchen, smoking
as she watched her face
vanish in the windowpane
as the sky lightened, smoking
as was her wish, smoking
as was her wont, smoking her only
do as I damn well please.

–from “Ghost Smoke”

*

In her quietly explosive third collection, The Out-of-Body Shop, poet Nancy Mitchell creates a world in which souls come to “sift memories, scratch through the veneer of appearances, and relentlessly stalk ghosts until they surrender the past they hold.” It’s one of the most emotionally compelling books of poetry I’ve read in years. It’s also rich in formal diversity, combining meaty narratives with beautifully spare lyrics. 

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I enjoyed talking with Mitchell about her new book, her writing practice, the relationships between autobiography and art, and more. Mitchell is the poet laureate of Salisbury, Maryland, a Pushcart Prize 2012 recipient, and author of previous collections The Near Surround (Four Way Press, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009). She teaches at Salisbury University and is Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume Poetry.  

*

Annie Kim: You’re both a writer and a visual artist. Which came first for you—writing or art? And how do the two practices inform each other?   

Nancy Mitchell: Art came first. My parents took my five siblings and me to art museums almost every Sunday to see new exhibits and to haunt permanent ones. Mostly we ran around in wonderfully bright and open spaces, but something must have made an impression, as I turned to visual art as an early means of expression, but never demonstrated the kind of technical facility that would earn any serious attention. I started writing with seriousness when I was in my early twenties, but it wasn’t until my late 30s—single parenting three children, full-time job and grad school—that I started publishing. My first book, The Near Surround, was published when I was 42.     

I’ve always hesitated to call myself a working visual artist, as I’ve never practiced and exhibited with the regularity that I do with writing and publishing. But it’s always been a companion to my writing—when I’m stuck in writing, I fool around with painting and assemblages, and take photos that attempt to create or document what’s below the surface. My paintings/assemblages are layers of material that I put on, then strip off by a variety of methods. Somewhere in the process other images start to surface. I’m interested in photographing rusting, peeling objects in the process of disintegration, the point at which the surface gives way. I think I write in the same way—write, revise, revise, excise, until I feel closer to what I’m after. In an interview with Nin Andrews in The Best American Poetry, many of my paintings are featured, and I talk about this relationship. 

AK: I’m really drawn to the storytelling in your poems. This book has the whole range—robust narratives in prose and verse, lyrics with quick narrative brush strokes. I ate all of them up! Can you talk about the urge to tell (and read) stories in this collection?  

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NM: All my life I’ve been haunted, fascinated and obsessed with the feeling that there are other lives adjacent to this one. The Russia writer Pasternak calls this the “sister life”—-a concept which chimes with string theory in quantum physics. I think the stories are ways I explore the possibilities via personae whose lives are distinctly different from my own. I haven’t always taken a narrative approach; my first book, The Near Surround takes its title from a physics term meaning that which is palpable to us but unseen. Like the poems themselves—small lyric islands in a sea of white space—these presences are fleeting, but vivid and intense. As I’ve continued this exploration in subsequent work, the presences have taken on more weight and their stories have become more narrative.  

Although the poems in this book are primarily in the first person—I’ve used the “I” in most to collapse the distance between writer and reader—the speakers are distinctly different characters who have landed in The Out-of-Body Shop via traumas of relative degree. I used a variety of forms to demonstrate the speech patterns, rhythms, etc. idiosyncratic to each. 

AK: Could you say more about a poem that took its form this way? 

NM: In contrast to the surrounding poems, “It’s No Fox” uses sentence fragments, syntax, and grammar that are all dialectal in nature. By the time readers get to this poem, they know it’s idiosyncratic to the speaker. An example is the grammatically incorrect “don’t” in —”damn if that hen//don’t look like she just lay…” 

“It’s No Fox”

or else you’d see the drag 
trail in the woods and nothing 
left save a few feathers 
 
it’s a skunk that sucks 
the blood out, leaves the body 
to rot—damn if that hen 
 
don’t look like she just lay 
down to sleep, her neck 
blood-stuck with feed. 

AK: As a reader and writer of many autobiographical poems, I’m interested in your take on how much you want to signal to your readers, “Hey, this is not about me.” Excluding a handful of poems that clearly seem to stem from others’ stories, or to represent composite characters, many poems in your book could easily be read as coming from the same female speaker, including poems about sexual violence. And reading them in that way doesn’t, in my mind, take away from their artistry or the universality of the experiences they evoke.  If anything, it lets me connect more deeply. What are your thoughts on this? 

NM: What an important question. Yes, I do think there is the possibility of a deeper connection if the work seems more autobiographical if not confessional. Somehow one is able to trust more fully if one can believe the “I” to be the “I” of the author—we want the stories to be real, we want to have an empathetic experience, which research suggests is the singular emotion with the most transformational potential. It’s also a great question because it makes me really think about my motives, however unconscious, in claiming the other personae outside of those you mention. I may not be able to fully answer this, but I’ll try. Every voice in The Out-of-Body Shop is I, even if the story, the body, isn’t—does that make sense?  I’m circling around fear of exposure, shame, and fear of shaming my family by association. Recently I gave a reading attended by three of my five siblings, which I prefaced with the disclaimer of first-person persona. I was surprised at how visibly relieved my sibs were—it’s not really her, and therefore not really about us—yay!  

But, if it’s shame, I’m wondering why I had no such qualms in aligning with the vulnerable, abandoned “I” in The Near Surround and the grief and guilt-stricken mother in Grief Hut (which was about my son’s disease of addiction and recovery—and published with his permission and encouragement: Tell it all, Ma. Maybe it will help somebody.)  

So, I have to ask myself why this need to distance when it comes to the poems about disassociated experiences via sexual abuse?  The statistics for abuse by a family member are higher than abuse by a stranger. As we’re finding out more and more via the Me Too movement, shame of being damaged goods, guilt that we made it happen, and fear of not being believed have silenced women into the shadows for decades. Where was this clearer than in the Kavanaugh hearings? Maybe this signaling of personae comes from not fully trusting my reader to believe me? I do know this question resonates with me deeply. And maybe I, like other women, am just beginning to sort out what has been dredged up via the Me Too movement. 

AK: I’m also interested in your choice to include three prose pieces in this collection—all of which I thoroughly enjoyed—“Work,” “Summer Without Mercy,” and my favorite, “The One I Called.” They remind me of flash memoir, though they might not be autobiographical at all.  

Do you remember the process you used to draft one of these prose pieces? Did you begin drafting in verse or prose?  

NM: These three pieces are all flash memoir in response to prompts to write—in any form—about a first job and personal connections to particular poems.  And because I was musing, finding my way, I knew prose would offer a more expansive consideration of the subject matter via longer lines and afford revelations that occur naturally in conversational rhythm. They are all “memoir” in emotional experience. 

However, one piece in particular that started out as prose, then insisted on being a poem, is “Ghost Smoke.” I can’t tell you how many drafts until I realized the lines wanted to waft down the page like smoke. And, looking back, I can see that the above poem had a lot of imagery and needed a more constricted form to frame and contain it.  

For me, it’s trial and error until I find the container in which the writing will best thrive. Sometimes I’ll find what starts out as a poem defies the compression of shorter lines and will blossom when it can spread out, spill over in a prose poem. On the other hand, there are prose poems that seem to need more of a straitjacket.

AK: A unique aspect of this book is how it evokes a historical sense of place, though not one that’s tightly mapped to one family or to one city. We see images of a mid-twentieth century past, of what it was like to grow up White in a certain kind of Southern rural community. In “Farewell to Bellehaven,” for example, we’re introduced to multiple generations of a Southern family. They own a nostalgic copy of Lee’s Lieutenants. Their son violates racial codes to befriend a black woman in the 1930s, and ultimately ends up hanging himself. What did it mean for you to write this kind of history?  

NM: Bellehaven is the fictitious name of the ancestral home of my maternal family, and the repository of our Southern history and canon of myths. I was the kind of kid who ended up hanging out in the kitchen with the help during family reunions—lots more action. There I heard different versions of family stories in a dialect that I found riveting. And as I grew up and away from home, I wondered which stories were true. Over the years the family, house, and history began to deteriorate and I was drawn to track that trajectory in the hopes of ferreting out the true story. Although my family was not overtly racist—I never heard the “N” word or heard my family speak discourteously to, or about, any person of color—it was implicit in so many other ways. Also, this Bellehaven would not let me go—it insisted I try to shake out the truth.  

AK: How did you decide to approach such potentially sensitive material? Here’s a section from “Farewell to Bellehaven,” for instance: 

At eighty-two Irving plugs cotton balls 
into keyholes—to keep the ghosts out— 
while he’s not snitching from the whiskey 
 
behind the leather-bound Lee’s Lieutenants 
on his great-granddaddy’s desk—custom made, 
ebony-inlaid mahogany, shipped 
from “London to New Orleans, 1870”.

NM: I tried to weave the different versions of the stories in the family canon and allow each a voice. It went through hundreds of drafts for over fifteen years—from prose to poetry to prose that I had just about given up on, but it seemed to finally find its body in sectioned tercets, which felt like the final truth.  

AK: What’s next for you? Are you working on new poems or other writing?   

NM: I’ve been doing research on the Hoodoo practices of eastern North Carolina and on memories carried over from life in utero; I’ve written a number of poems exploring that. One, “Blame my Mother,” is among three just out in The American Journal of Poetry. I was surprised to see that another poet, Philip Fried, has a poem from that embryonic perspective in that issue. Hmmm…the transmigration of ideas? Who knows—we live in strange times. 

AK: We do, indeed. Thanks for sharing a bit of your magic and your poetic insights for this interview!  

 

Nancy Mitchell, a Pushcart Prize 2012 recipient, is the author of The Near Surround, Grief Hut, and The Out-of-Body Shop and co-editor of Plume Interviews I. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Daily, Agni, Green Mountains Review, Washington Square Review and others. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University, Maryland and is Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume Poetry. She is the Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland. She can be reached at nancymitchellpoet@gmail.com

 

Annie Kim is the author of Into the Cyclorama (2016), winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize. Kim’s poems have appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, Beloit Poetry Journal,and Narrative. She works as an assistant dean at the University of Virginia School of Law, teaches poetry and legal writing, and writes micro book reviews for DMQ Review.

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