Poetry Muse: Michael Lithgow + Who We Thought We Were As We Fell
Today on Poetry Muse, we are joined by Michael Lithgow, whose poetry collection Who We Thought We Were As We Fell (Cormorant Books) was released a year ago today! Michael shares how his muse for this collection was Cvetka Lipuš, what his creative writing process is, and shares a poem titled Cradle from this collection.See more details below
Who is your muse?
The muse for this collection was Cvetka Lipuš – her first translated collection into English (What We Are When We Are, Athabasca University Press 2018). Lipuš is one of the great Slovenian poets of her generation. I was so inspired by her work that I sat down again with poems that I'd been working on for some time, and I also produced a raft of new poems in a frenzied sort of intense period, a very short period of time. The manuscript was done. So if there was any unifying inspiration for this collection, it really was being affected by the work of Cvetka Lipuš.
What inspired you when you started writing your poetry collection? And what is your creative process when you begin writing?
My two books of poetry have been “collections” in every sense of the word – no intentionality in the sense of creating poems on a theme, but rather pieces of writing that emerge over time out of my life then curated into a manuscript. I think all good poems have an element of surprise – a sense of journey and unexpected arrival. Most of my poems emerge from a moment in time: a place, a feeling, and an incident or idea. Inspiration for me tends to be a conflagration of these three elements through some sort of crisis.
I write in the mornings, usually. Although sometimes life dictates that I write in the evenings, or in the afternoons. A poem comes in a rush, usually, and if I don’t finish the poem in one sitting I rarely can finish it -- as if I either catch the moment in a soft cage of words when it happens or it slips away. I may revise and tinker with a poem for years after that initial sketch, but if I don’t find my way to an end, it’s hard for me to do it after the fact without the intentionality ruining something about the poem. My poetry has to be intuitive first, intellectual second. If it’s the other way around, it rarely works – as poetry, I mean, I do write academic papers that are all head with heart under neath, but deeply buried, and it works – or works well enough -- to get published in academic journals. (Not that anybody reads them!) But a poem that comes mostly from my head might be interesting on some level, but it won’t feel like much. Writing a poem for me is like forging and then finding a path through unknown terrain. I never know how a poem will finish when I start, but if I am alert to the tensions – affect, language, intellect, place – I can find a way through crisis to meaning.
When did you start writing poetry and why did you choose to write poetry over other forms of literature?
When I encountered The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams -- in grade 9, I think, or maybe grade 10, a little door blew open in my head. It was just like that - I know, it sounds corny. The work of WC Williams was my first great love in poetry, his clean lines, his poetic sensibility aimed and trained on his sensory world, and the tension Williams could create in a line. That language can come alive like that on a page is for me one of the great pleasures of poetry. The Red Wheelbarrow – despite the cliché it has become – captured something so essential to my relationship with poetry and why I am drawn to it: that a poem can (re)create a numinous feeling for the poet and reader, and if not numinous, feelings of great complexity and intensity. Not all poetry is like this, of course, but it’s the kind of poetry I’m drawn to – ecstatic poetry I suppose, even if the ecstatic feeling is melancholic. Poetry can allow us to hover in the intangible mysteries and tensions and other barely containable feelings that sometimes bubble up from among the banality of days.
How would you describe your poetry collection?
Hungry. Anxious. Awe
What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
You have to like writing poems. It may sound obvious, but people get into poetry for all kinds of reasons – well, maybe not all kinds, but sometimes the hunger is for attention. I know this hunger. And it’s all fine, there are no real rules about right and wrong reasons for writing poetry. But the question of advice draws me back to Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, which I read when I was quite young. It is such a beautiful and impassioned correspondence. But in the end he says if you can quit, do it now! It’s a funny way to be encouraging. But the reason to write poems is because it is in poems that you can become who you need to be, see the world as it needs to be seen, reach out into relations as you need to reach.
I would also say that I wish I would have appreciated far younger the value of seeking help and mentorship. Having courage to not do what everybody says you should do is important, and likely what will eventually define the unique beauty of poetic voice. But when difficulties arise – and they will – my advice for aspiring poets is to go and find the help you need, seek out mentors, find the creative souls you need to keep growing. It’s important.
It's a balancing act. Maintaining your own voice, but then not being afraid to listen to the guidance and critiques of people who have more experience and who care about you. The magic lies somewhere between hubris and fear, the Scylla and Charybdis of artistic creation.
A Poem from Who We Thought We Were As We Fell
I watch the movement of my daughter's fingers
opening and closing in darkness like sea anemone,
her small body asleep in my arms. I am a cradle
in a windstorm. Outside, the savage air moans
against the window like something angry and lost.
I am first among giants to carry this little piece of sun
into the night – we have each of us become
mythological; she is a colossus shattering days;
my hands are bigger than her chest. She senses
my restlessness, my own unsettled airs pitching
against the walls, mixing with her breath and soughs.
I try to tease the sounds apart, a strange mix of moths
and noises in the wind: a muted crash some distance
away; the sighs and grunts of a child's body staying
alive. Wars waged in family photos hanging
in the hallway. The shuffle of straw men
everywhere jostling to rein in the future.
An uncertain centre swaying in the lullabies of a storm –
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Michael’s poetry and essays have appeared in various journals including the Literary Review of Canada (LRC), The /Temz/ Review, Cultural Trends, Canadian Literature, Existere, Topia, Event, The Antigonish Review, AlbertaViews, The High Window, ARC, Contemporary Verse 2, TNQ and Fiddlehead. His first collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House (Cormorant Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Quebec Writers Federation First Book Award. Work from this collection was included in the 2012 Best of Canadian Poetry (Tightrope Books). Michael’s second collection, Who We Thought We Were As We Fell (Cormorant Books), was published in the spring 2021. He currently lives in Edmonton, AB and teaches at Athabasca University.
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During the month of April, you can buy Who We Thought We Were As We Fell and any one of our other featured Poetry Muse books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada with promo code ALUPOETRYMUSE. Or find them at your local independent bookstore!
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