I met Michelle in 2009 at the VONA/Voices Writing Workshops for Writers of Color. We bonded, as fellow graduate students often do, as we tried to navigate the University of San Francisco’s serpentine campus where VONA was held that year. Michelle’s exuberance and intelligence was captivating. I’ve had the privilege over the years to see this remarkable poet’s career flourish. Michelle’s work and her spirit continue to enthrall me and her current project is one I feel deserves much attention and support.
Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and earned her MFA from the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared most recently in TriQuarterly, Hobart, The Weekly Rumpus, Hyphen, and INCH. She is the recipient of the Miriam McFall Starlin Poetry Award from the University of Oregon, fellowships from Kundiman, the Richard Hugo House, and Oregon Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from VONA/ Voices, Vermont Studio Center, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She lives in Seattle, currently hard at work on her latest project, landscape / heartbreak.
There’s a verse from one of Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets that goes something like this:
“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
How do you interpret Neruda’s words?
For me, these lines allude to a number of things: the mystery of our love for another; the thrill and peril of intimacy, of knowing a person fully, in ways no one else can; the beauty in darkness, in the unsightly, in the ways we hide ourselves, a reveling in that; it is how we are to be loved–intimate and revealing and unknowable still.
A good poem grounds the ethereal, gives voice to the elemental, re-imagines and gives shape to the abstract, the spirit, the loss and heartbreak of human experience. In March 2014, Hyphen Magazine featured two of your poems, which to me exemplify these stated poetic qualities: “Daguerreotype” and “Family Kundiman.”
In “Daguerreotype,” we witness a young boy’s escape through the voice of a narrator. The title of the poem suggests an attempt to create beauty out of hardship . We don’t know whether this is a memory retold or a fable prompted by the recorded image on a Daguerreotype.
In “Family Kundiman” through the narrator’s keen filter, we see the pain of loss relived. The narrator’s unflinching portrayal speaks to the power of love.
Both poems evoke how history/myth shapes who we are. Do you see memory and family history as a chronicle or a reinterpretation of the past?
Well, first, thank you for such kind praise and close reading, Gessy, and thank you, too, for your question.
I think that any negotiation with memory and/or family history is often both chronicle and reinterpretation; a chronicle because we’re working from some sort of record of event(s): Once, we had three pianos in the house. After the war, Lolo was never the same. Any bit of engagement with the past speaks to the work of documentation and reportage, even if that engagement is not literal or obvious, but subtextual or contextual.
That said, in my own work, I’d say I engage more with reinterpretation or, to be more highfalutin, a kind of scrying, especially when engaging with familial history. I use the word scrying because I think of familial and personal histories as kinds of reflective surfaces to elucidate the past, the present, and the future. Having just said that, I feel like I sound sort of hippie-dippie, but what I’m getting at is how we engage with our subconscious (particularly with familial history–we’re engaging with our bones, our blood) and our imagination when we reinterpret the past.
The question grows more complex when you think of individual and collective memory; I think the work of myth factors into the way I engage with family history and think of individual and collective memory. So much of my family history is shrouded in mystery, layered with conflicting narratives, and sealed shut by the finality of the dead’s silence. I used to mine my family for stories and felt some sort of fidelity to the “truth,” to the actual record of facts; however, I think that’s mostly fallen away. Now, I scry. I look and I imagine in order to fill in the spaces where no records or facts or narratives exist.
“Scrying” is a fantastic word to use because it describes what you are doing with your current project, landscape / heartbreak. You state on your website that you are “invested in poetry as a means to process trauma” and question how “our physical surroundings mark our internal landscapes.” Tell us more about landscape / heartbreak and how the project is informing your poetry.
landscape / heartbreak is a literary cartography of heartbreak in Seattle; volunteers take me on walks from the Hugo House to places in Seattle where they’ve had their hearts broken. I map (via CardioTracker on my phone–ah, technology), record, and later write poems in response to these walking conversations, which I will assemble into a chapbook. Since September of last year, I’ve taken 19 walks with folks and walked a total of 105 miles. The longest walk so far was 20 miles or so – it took us about 8 hours (we stopped for lunch and coffee and respite from the rain). I’ve walked with very close friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. People have shared stories of all kinds of heartbreak: betrayal, the ugly/inevitable/painful ending of love, the loss of a child, the loss of a parent, friend break-ups, the heartbreak and trauma of racism, the heart break of breaking someone else’s heart. All kinds of loss. All kinds of trauma.
landscape / heartbreak is unlike anything I’ve ever attempted before and has taken me out of my comfort zone with my poetry and with being an artist in general. I worry about treatment, about giving due diligence to the stories that people have generously shared with me while trying to not let that anxiety lead me to sacrifice anything in the poems. Also, heartbreak as a subject is rife with opportunities for melodrama, cliché, and sentimentality. Haha, especially for me because I’m a very sentimental person and, I’ve found, people often use clichéd and uninteresting language to talk about trauma (even as their stories are fascinating and singular); I’ve been inspired not through the language people choose to use, but through my observations of the details of landscape traversed and through what people prioritize or what repeats in their narratives, and what overlaps from walk to walk and with my own experiences of trauma. Also, I’ve found it’s not a one-to-one ratio; not every walk will lead to a poem, but every walk shapes the project.
Through the project, in collaboration and with the generous help of (talented, awesome) friends, I’ve also created ephemera (postcards, maps, broadsides), where before, I just wrote poems. An unforeseen foray into the visual arts! Actually, this summer I’m part of a group installation at the Henry Art Gallery here in Seattle, entitled, “Summer Field Studies” and later this year I’ll be doing something with the Short Run Festival in Seattle as well. I think landscape / heartbreak warranted supplementary materials to coincide with the poems, the maps especially. It’s another way of tracking and acknowledging what a Greater Romantic Lyric or Itinerary poem might do on its own; so maybe there’s less requirement for verisimilitude within the poem because a reader/viewer can see where the poem corresponds with the information on a map. I’ve never been part of a group installation or shown anything in a gallery space before, nor worked with sound recording and editing, nor ever done any kind of crowd-sourcing fundraising, so landscape/heartbreak seems to be pushing me in all sorts of ways.
I hope the poems stand on their own as good poems and also within the scaffolding of the project; I hope that the poems are not exploitative or gimmicky and honor the conversations and connections made on the walks. Ultimately, whatever happens creatively or professionally with the project, I’m proud of how it’s gone so far and am grateful for people’s positive responses and the experiences and connections made possible through the project. It’s cheesy (I’m hella sentimental, remember), but I like to think it’s helped my own heart heal and taught me something about how hard and wonderful it is to be a person in the world.
Is there a form when composing the landscape/heartbreak poems you gravitate towards or is content dictating form?
So far, content seems to be dictating form; in the impetus for writing these poems, my impulse leans towards couplets for a number of the poems (which, makes sense given the nature of the conversations–two people walking side by side–and the way in which couplets allow for an unfolding, sometimes meandering, pace). That’s the only pattern that seems to emerge when I look at what I’ve written so far; the poems that fall out of that form are all pretty different, just like all the walks I take with people and all the stories they share.
At this point, I’m still very much in the composing part of the project and am seeing how the poems emerge. I am working out my organizing principle for the manuscript as a whole and playing with the language and structure of maps and surveying.
You mentioned the group art show and additional cartography work for landscape/heartbreak. Are there other upcoming events and/or publications in the works for you?
Two Sylvias Press will be publishing landscape / heartbreak as a chapbook upon its completion in print and e-book format! That’s the big news for now. We’re hoping for a May release date 2015. As far as events, I’m part of the Jack Straw Writers Program this year and have been having fun being a part of their readings series and my Made at Hugo House Fellowship will be wrapping up at the end of September, so there’ll be a reading then, too. At the end of this month, I will be doing a reading and Q&A about the project for the Henry Art Gallery. And, I’m really excited to be going back to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference this August. It’s an exciting and busy time!
Thanks so much for your interest in my work and my project, Gessy!
Thank you for this fascinating conversation, Michelle and congratulations!