Interview with Simone Muench
-by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
McFadyen-Ketchum: I was first introduced to these poems at a reading a few weeks ago and instantly fell in love
with the rhythm, sound, and images in lines like “trouble came and trouble sang / shush-shush or tell-tell / for
I alone will break your bones” and “At Trenton Episcopal, Desirée decides to use the bathroom. /
The choir boys are singing Hallelujah / when she jaunts in like a lucky horseshoe.”
What I find
particularly moving about “Hex” is that even though “Hex” is not a narrative poem, it’s not
not a narrative poem, it’s just that we’re granted access to the story in a way
we’re not used to— via this intensely focused study of trouble’s descent upon a “small, small town.”
Is this an accurate reading of “Hex?” Should readers think of this poem as
a small part of a larger story? Is this a “useful” approach to a poem like this?
Muench: I think most approaches to a poem are useful. In terms of whether this is a narrative
poem, I don’t consider it as such, but at the same time it definitely has a relationship to the ballad with a hint
of iambic tetrameter running through it, as well as a nod to Nick Cave’s fabulous "Murder Ballads":
Come take him by his lily-white hands
him by his feet
And throw him in this deep deep well
is more than one hundred feet
AMK: Without revealing too much, would you mind discussing how this poem developed?
Were you thinking of events from your past or did this poem come from some other place?
The world always encroaches on poems, and when I wrote the poem, I was experiencing a sense of foreboding about the
future, feeling like we were a failed species. I was also listening to Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie,
and though the poem isn’t written in a specific blues structure, the darkness of the subject matter and the doubling
of certain lines gives it a sort of percussive, obsessive rhythm that I associate with the blues. (See response regarding
Nick Cave as well).
AMK: Was “Hex” the sort of poem that you sat down with an intent to write or
did it come to you via another avenue?
I think I came up with the refrain first, “Trouble came and Trouble sang”; I liked the childlike lulling liquidity
of it, but I wanted to create a counterpoint to its palliative sound as much as possible with a much more brooding content,
specifically the subverting of the cradlesong with
. . .Babies born
with clubfoots and cleft lips, babies
partial hearts and partial heads
and some just born plain dead.
How did you discover this way to write this poem with “trouble” as the central figure behaving a lot like an
antagonist and the town much like a protagonist?
SM: I was watching a lot
of WesternsJ Trouble incarnated by Clint Eastwood
and Lee Van Cleef. Hanging in my office, I have a Danish language poster of The Good, the Bad and
the Ugly that I picked up in Copenhagen, so maybe that filtered through my consciousness to metamorphose in the form
of a hex poem.
AMK: “Desire Takes a Road Trip to New Orleans”
is a neat poem. It’s in third person omniscient; the speaker of the poem knowing not only what
Desirée does (“Desire changes her name to Desirée”) but also what Desirée thinks (“She’s
got nowhere to go / but she likes the leg’s elongation”). At the same time, however, it seems
like this is a persona poem, a poem in which the narrator or speaker is someone other than the author.
Would you mind talking a little bit about this definition of persona? Do you
ever consider the speaker of a poem to be the author of the poem?
I try to never assume the author of a poem is the speaker of a poem, since for me poems don’t have to be categorized
as fiction or non-fiction. In Diane Wakoski’s "Justice
is Reason Enough” she writes about her brother David who committed suicide.
Many made the mistake of assuming the author is the speaker of the poems. Wakowski never had a
brother who committed suicide and when asked about it, she responded something along the lines that there is a truth larger
than reality. The poem certainly isn’t lessened for me knowing that it’s invention.
Do you think of persona as a mask the poet wears in order to get at a mode of expression or is persona a way for the poet
to imagine what it is like to enter someone else's personality and then write about it? Is there a
difference between the two?
SM: I think they’re inextricably bound. I often deploy personae, and many of the poems in my first book
are other people’s stories in the manner of Cocteau’s “the poet doesn't invent. [S]he listens.”
Though “Desire Takes a Road Trip” is in third person, I often employ the “I” because it’s
constantly revolving—an umbrella pronoun that can separately and simultaneously inhabit the roles of confession, persona
and community. Though the “I” is often mistaken for the author speaking, for me at least, it’s not; but
I like the quick illusion of intimacy it can create. I frequently have my Intro to Creative Writing students
write persona poems with a stress on invention and strangeness—one of the most imaginative I’ve received was
from the point of view of a tomato on Mars.
Reflecting on both of these poems, why is it that you create central figures that are so rich and, yet, are so elusive?
Why write in a persona? Do these points of view allow you more creative freedom? A
larger elasticity between fiction and non-fiction?
SM: In terms of elusiveness and elasticity, I’m intrigued by the
paradoxical construction of autonomy and unification that human relationships require, beautifully exemplified in a poem
by Paul Eluard called “Kiss”: “You overtake, without losing yourself, / The borders of your body // You
have overstepped time / Here you are a new woman.” I’m fascinated by the limbo region of
ambivalence, which to me is integral to being human. I’m interested in that moment when the border (or the leash) between
things begins to dissolve and self becomes other, identity becomes identities. In a poem from Charles Wright’s Country
Music he writes: “I want to be stretched, like music wrung from
a dropped seed. / I want to be entered and picked clean.” I’m entranced by that act of emptying the self,
which is neither positive nor negative but an ambi-(valent) state, as is the division between fiction and non-fiction.
Finally, what’s most important to you in poetry: music, image, sound, metaphor, allusion, story, place…?
You’ve got them all. What drives you to write a poem?
I responded this question in a previous interview, so I’m going to rephrase some of it here. Each poem changes in terms of process, sometimes it’s an image
that becomes the centerpiece, sometimes it’s a sonically challenging line that becomes the rhetorical device to build
the poem upon. My friend, the wonderful poet Kristy Odelius, likes to use an analogy between poets and furniture-makers,
as we have two mutual friends who are wood workers. When you first decide to build something you’re
usually more concerned with the finished product—the chest-of-drawers or the chiffonier, but the more you construct,
the more you fall in love with the materials themselves: the wood, the words. My earlier
work was more concerned with subject matter, and the finished, polished product; now, I’m much more concerned with
the textures and crossgrains of language. I think of my work as more of an homage, sense catalogue, travelogue and langue-logue:
a kind of call-&-response in its continued tribute to poets, movies, musicians, and the dead.
SM: Thanks Andy! Here’s to you handsomely sporting
the T-shirt and blazer look.