Interview with Randall Mann
by Geoffrey Brock
Your poem in our new issue is an elegy for Michelle Boisseau, a poet we both admired a great deal, who died last fall of cancer. I remember her as fiercely smart and funny, warm and generous, and yet about as unsentimental as you can get. How did you know her, and what did she mean to you over the years?
I was drawn to Michelle the minute I met her, in a workshop in the mid-nineties. It was full of groaning male energy, and she was wry and funny and circumspect and female, and I was a young queer writer, seduced by surface but wildly unsure—so she was exactly the person I needed. I turned in a poem called "The Elements," and she said, with a serious half-smile, great, but where are the elements in this poem? She had a point. She took the piss out of poetry. She was also, and without pretension, always, always the smartest person in the room, the warmest and the coolest. I think I knew she was someone worth knowing, worth keeping, so we struck up a friendship that lasted over 20 years. I loved her very much, and I can hardly believe she’s gone; I don’t know what else to say.
What are some of your favorite poems of hers? Favorite book? Favorite qualities of her writing?
I greatly admire the vulnerability and ambition of A Sunday in God-Years, but Michelle is that real rare thing, a writer who got better over the years, so my favorite book is her last, Among the Gorgons. I have always valued, for lack of words, the right-headed voice of her poems, but in Among the Gorgons, in the midst of all the grief—this is a book of grief that stubbornly resists that grief—what I hear is a new assurance, a voice mythic and meditative in ways that I hadn’t seen in her earlier work. There is the ghost of myth, but it lingers just out of sight, as if at the end of that hallway that longs to be skipped down in the poem “Children Visiting Hospice.” I feel I’m in the hands of a real pro when I read these emotionally complex pieces, ones that are often divided against themselves. Some favorites in Among the Gorgons include the remarkable title poem, which should be her anthology piece; “Window Body”; “Postcards from Catatonia”; “Cumulonimbus”; “Hubbubbing”; “Cataract”; and “The Voyage of the Sentence Begins.”
Tell me about this elegy you’ve written for her, which I found both beautifully restrained and deeply moving. Can you talk a bit about the mirror-like form of this poem? It’s a form you’ve used often over the years—I think you do it better than anyone—and I wonder what about it attracts you.
I find this palindrome form incredibly flexible in the way it brings, I hope, the reader to a kind of truth and then methodically undoes it, turns against it, almost in spite of itself—an ancient, Orphean idea. I chose it when I thought of my last conversation with Michelle, from which I quote directly in the poem: I felt, I feel, so close to her, one of the most alive people I have ever known—but even then, she was slipping away.
What elegies do you return to? What, if anything, do they have in common?
Three of my favorite elegies are Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven,” Donald Justice’s “Invitation to a Ghost,” and Thom Gunn’s “The Beautician.” Each is very different, but each speaks to a failure of art to help in the hour of loss, even, of course, as art is doing just that, paradoxically, in the poem. I find this sort of humility—as when Justice writes, of his friend Henri Coulette, “Come back now and help me with these verses. / Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life”—heartbreaking.
RANDALL MANN's poem “Complaint” appeared in our first issue and his poem “Beginning & Ending with a Line from Michelle Boisseau” appears in our Spring 2018 issue. He is the author of four poetry collections: Complaint in the Garden (2004), Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), Straight Razor (2013), and Proprietary (2017). The latter is currently a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.
GEOFFREY BROCK is the author most recently of Voices Bright Flags, the editor of The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous books, including a forthcoming graphic novel. He is the editor-in-chief of The Arkansas International.