By: Daleyna Abril
Michael Lavers is the recipient of the 2018 Tampa Review Prize for his collection of poems, After Earth. His upcoming collection, The Inextinguishable, will be published by the University of Tampa Press in 2023.
The following interview was conducted via email.
Daleyna Abril: Can you share a little bit about your forthcoming collection, The Inextinguishable?
Michael Lavers: I’m no Emily Dickinson, but I certainly understand what she meant when she said: “The Mind is so near itself-it cannot see, distinctly.” I’m too near my poems to know what to say really, but from here, from inside of them, what surprises me is how didactic they are. They seem to have an argument, even a thesis, namely that nothing is lost, or that everything, in some sense, is inextinguishable. I don’t know where this argument came from. The poems seem to be written by someone who has a belief in something like “the soul,” a belief which, as I say in one of the poems, “I cannot believe.” If I had to say what the book was about, I’d use Wordsworth’s phrase and say it’s about being “surprised by joy,” by this strange hunch I sometimes have that what truly matters will never die.
DA: After Earth is described as “part elegy, part ode, part pastoral, and part sci-fi,” driven by an impulse to record and preserve the Earth as it slips away. These poems convey a sense of wonder at the world and an acknowledgement of its fragility. What drew you to writing about this topic in the first place, and what keeps you invested in writing about it in your upcoming second collection, The Inextinguishable?
ML: Most of the poems in After Earth were written when my kids were very small, and I began to worry that the Earth would not last in the way it should, in a way that would sustain them. In addition, I’d already lost both my parents, and with them so much knowledge of our family history. And so, I was caught between these twin anxieties, that both the past and the future were not safe, and could not be preserved. Hence the need in that volume to name, to record, to tell stories, to shore up my fragments before the inevitable end. The Inextinguishable takes a different, probably foolish, definitely pompous, even Quixotic position, namely that there is no end and nothing essential will be lost. Didn’t Whitman claim “there really is no death”? But then again, he also said, “The scent of these armpits is aroma finer than prayer,” so who knows.
DA: Across both of these collections, you repeatedly return to Greek mythology and write from the perspectives of Greek characters, reinterpreting their stories in new ways. Greek mythological influences serve as an undercurrent to so many of these poems. As a Greek mythology nerd, some of my favorites were “Andromache’s Lullaby” from After Earth and “Song for a Severed Head” and “Apollo Considers the Humans” from The Inextinguishable. Why choose Greek mythology as a medium of sorts to write about the Earth and humanity?
ML: The best way I could answer that would be, annoyingly, to use a myth itself. On their way up from the underworld, Orpheus could not look directly at Eurydice or else he’d lose her. Thanks to the blind spot created by our optic nerve, the same things happens when we stare directly at a star: it slips out of our grasp and then leaps back into sight the moment we look slightly askance. Dickinson again: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies.” I just feel that what matters most is often best talked about indirectly. Life is a great mystery. Love is inexplicable. Time and change and decay confound us. Ancient cultures knew this (the Greeks no more than others), and devised stories, parables, allegories, koans, and songs that don’t so much as explain life as mimic its mystery, revel in its dark radiance, present a model of being that we can hold in our hands or sing to each other as the sun goes down. Blake’s world in a grain of sand. Myths have lasted this long because their power to do this, to be mini yet total versions of reality, is itself inextinguishable.
DA: After Earth carries the voices of so many iconic writers, from Homer to Hesiod to Dante to Pushkin and more. The Inextinguishable builds off the voices of these writers, adding Goethe, Shakespeare, and others to the mix. What about these authors inspires you to write in conversation with them? How do you integrate their voices into your poetry without letting them overpower you?
ML: Well, they definitely overpower me. Reading Homer or Dante or Shakespeare is like stargazing, to feel yourself in the presence of something much more grand, cosmic, eternal, sublime, and beautiful than you. It makes me slightly dizzy. Rilke described this feeling best: “For beauty’s nothing but the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.” So I find the sublime beauty of these authors, and the night sky, more than a bit overwhelming. And yet, at the same time, who else were they writing for if not us? What they wanted, what they needed and hoped for more than anything, was for readers to keep them alive. They need us, you and me. And small as the night sky can make us feel, here we are able to see it, to feel awe, to—in some very real sense—bring the beauty of the night sky into being. Whoa!
As for how I integrate these voices into my poems, I just steal things. With less talent for stealing, but in the same spirit, I steal in the way that Eliot stole from Dante, who stole from Virgil, who stole from Homer, who stole from who knows who. Sometimes the stolen bit does indeed “integrate,” the grafted branch takes, and the resulting fruit feels totally mine. More often it does not, and I have to try again. And again, and again…
DA: The final poem in After Earth, “Works and Days,” is named after Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” and like Hesiod’s poem, is of sweeping scale and tells of the history of humankind while emphasizing the agrarian. Tell me about the writing process for this poem. What story did you want to tell and why make this piece the conclusion of your first collection?
ML: Emerson writes: “Dante’s praise is, that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality.” I know how bombastic this sounds, but that’s what I was attempting in “Works and Days,” to use a fragmented, half-remembered version of my family history to tell our universal family history: the exile from some kind of golden age—whether that be childhood, Eden, or some imagined pastoral paradise—into the wilderness of labor and toil, a life of plowing the land, dealing with disease and death, old age and loss. I forgive myself for such bombast because I think everyone wants to attempt what Dante achieved, to see their particular lives as embodiments of the cosmic whole. Hesiod is ostensibly giving advice to farmers, but he’s clearly using the language of agriculture to wrestle with much more fundamental problems of the human condition: the nature of work and pain, the cycles of the Earth, and our place in them, etc. My mom came from a line of farmers, and so when I read Hesiod, I recognized a world that I grew up seeing the margins of, from the outside, a world in which working the land was inseparable from moral and metaphysical instruction. So it was a natural fit. I’m not sure why it’s the final piece in the collection, other than it feeling like a crescendo in some way. Or maybe I’m just flattering myself, again. Maybe it’s less a crescendo, and more that big trunk at the back of your attic, full of old papers and photos that only you are interested in, and even then only visit every few years.
DA: Your new collection, The Inextinguishable, contains so many beautiful poems, but one that stood out to me was “The Blindness of Homer” because it doesn’t look like a typical poem—it’s written as a scene in a play. What made you decide to play with form and write the poem this way?
ML: I was reading Plato, and, like a little kid, wanted to dress up in my dad’s work clothes and stand in front of the mirror for a while. That’s the motivation that gets me writing most things, the desire to do what the grown-ups are doing. Anyway, as much as I loved Plato’s ideas, what I loved even more was the dialog form. It’s very true to what we are: bifurcated, arguing with ourselves and others, ambivalent and questioning. I love the way this form turns knowledge (or learning or wisdom or love) into something enacted, embodied, emotive, full of the sound and fury of actual human voices. So I wanted to create something as lively, something less “thought” and more “spoken.” Another appealing aspect of Plato is watching Socrates either play dumb, or try to be patient with an interlocuter who is actually dumb. There are so many wonderful layers of irony and dramatic tension. I definitely didn’t accomplish this in my piece, but I thought it would be fun to imagine Homer not as a marble bust confidently dispensing flawless wisdom, but as a rather struggling young poet failing to grasp what his increasingly frustrated teacher is trying to tell him.
DA: As you keep writing, how do you feel you’ve grown both as a poet from After Earth to The Inextinguishable? How has your writing process evolved between them?
ML: Hopefully I have grown, but who knows, maybe I’ve shrunk! I’ve certainly changed, though. I think I’ve become less interested in “showing” and more interested in “telling.” In other words, I’ve become more didactic, which is weird. I want to say things that I think are true as clearly and plainly as I can say them. But who knows what’s true? Not me. What I aspire to, therefore, is a writing practice in which my poems educate me, and teach me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, in which I learn that I’m a very different person than I think I am, and the world more vivid and mysterious than I’d imagined. If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.
DA: What are you working on now?
ML: I do have a book-length poem I’ve been threatening the world with for a while now called The Transmutation Notebooks. My fantasy version of it is something like Wordsworth meets Ovid meets Proust meets Rilke. As if. Other than that I don’t have a very clear path forward. I love what Emerson says: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” I’d love to have a masterplan and know exactly what I’m doing, and when, and for how long, but… Or maybe I actually wouldn’t want that. A map definitely gives one a sense of safety, but at the cost of a sense of adventure. Who knows what’s coming next? My only hope is that my next poem surprises me. The promise that it might is the only reason I keep writing them.
Michael Lavers is the author of After Earth, published by the University of Tampa Press. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, AGNI, Southwest Review, Best New Poets 2015, TriQuarterly, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He has been awarded the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, the Moth Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize. Together with his wife, the writer and artist Claire Åkebrand, and their two children, he lives in Provo, Utah, and teaches at Brigham Young University.
Daleyna Abril is a junior at the University of Tampa majoring in English and Writing. She is president of UT’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, assistant editor for the Neon Art and Literary Magazine, a tutor at the Saunders Writing Center, and a student worker for the UT Press. In her spare time, she writes diversity-focused movie reviews for Incluvie.com.