A Split Lip Chat With Michael Meyerhofer
J. Scott Bugher
It is a privilege to feature Michael Meyerhofer as our first Split Lip Spotlight Poet and a pleasure to have him sit with us and talk poetry. But first, let me introduce the guy.
Meyerhofer's C.V. is quite decorated with three published collections of his work, five chapbooks, and several stand-alone published works, which have all earned him awards such as the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest, the Liam Rector First Book Award for his debut collection Leaving Iowa, almost every award possible for his chapbooks from presses such as Codhill Press and Uccelli Press, awards for individual poems like the Laureate Prize for Poetry, the James Wright Poetry Award, and the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, plus all the good things others in the world of poetry has to say about him such as Mary Biddinger's quote: "Michael Meyerhofer is the master of the twist, the patron saint of lines embodying equal parts comedy and poignancy." Some notable publications include Ploughshares, Hayden's Ferry Review, North American Review, and several others. He's all over the place and he's on fire! Let's rap with him.
Where do we start, Michael? Where do we start? Okay. Here's a question I'm positive you've been asked before, but it's a good icebreaker. Did you choose poetry or did poetry choose you? At what age did either/or occur?
Good question! Congrats, first off, on running such a fine journal. OK, let's see. I started out in love with fiction but after my mom died, writing poems to help me deal with it (around age 20) gave me a wonderful sense of how immediate poetry can be. Of course, I had no idea that what I thought were poems were more like bad diary entries full of heart-wringing and pontificating but hey, you gotta start somewhere. Also, for me, writing (or art in general) seems a lot more fun and more effective when you have a lot of different tools at your disposal. Sometimes, if something isn't working as poetry, it might work better as prose. So I guess I choose my forms but I also try to fly on autopilot whenever possible.
Are you a natural? By that I mean do poems come easily to you? If so, I'm jealous. If not, tell me about the despair you go through to write a poem.
Dear God, no! My early to middle poems often took many, many drafts and rewrites and often wound up getting cut or cannibalized for future poems, anyway. Very gradually, though, through lots of writing–and yes, lots o' reading–I tightened my aesthetic and became a bit more aware of my own voice, plus how the inner mechanics of lines work (at least, for me). As for the writing process... well, I don't want to say that it's gotten easy but it definitely does feel more focused, more joyful. I'm able to skip some steps and work on polishing a piece rather than spinning my wheels, trying to decide if it should be something else. I should add, though, that for every poem that finds it's way into a book, there are still 4 or 5 I shelved.
On writing a poem, Socrates says "If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman." How do you feel about that? Any madness involved when you lay down your words?
Well, I'm not running around throwing pies at strangers and screaming that I'm a vampire, but when I observe what seems to be the daily lives and thoughts of the average person on the street, I've never felt like I fit in. Granted, we all feel that way sometimes, but the difference seems to be that the "average" person shies away from disquieting musings and uncomfortable thoughts, which is the opposite of what you have to do as a writer. I don't mean being overly theatrical and self-absorbed; I just mean keeping some deep part of yourself unhinged in recognition of the fact that a substantial part of the world–and the page–are governed by arbitrary rules (kind of like what I think Irving was getting at in Cider House Rules). Personally, I feel like I'm at my wildest when I'm writing, though paradoxically, it's probably when I'm also the most focused.
When you wrap up a poem, do you trust in yourself, or do you seek counsel from others before sending it off into the world?
Ha, I tend to trust in myself only to realize a month later that I was wrong. That being said, I know I'll be my own toughest critic. There's a lot to be gained by getting another opinion, though. Honestly, I don't do that enough.
You're poems lean on the narrative side with tasteful bits of imagery. I was curious about the imagery. For example, in one of your works here on Split Lip, "At Sixteen," you write: "at any one of those farms scattered like lawn darts / beyond the blacktop, sprawling mansions // where wind and rain splayed off paint / and flannelled millionaires used hay balers–" Where do your images come from? Experience? Imagination?
When I write narrative poems, I almost always tell the truth, well, the "truth." In this case, I was flashing back to my childhood in a farming community where poor and wealthy people tended to look almost identical at first glance. Wealthy farmers tended to avoid being" showy" and spoke so gruffly that it was easy to forget who you're talking to. As I got older, the metaphor of things not being what they seem–for better or worse–really stuck with me.
Who are some of your favorite poets? Why?
Especially these days, I really dig poets who know how to be lyrical and energetic but also seem to have something to say. I don't really have much time or affection for poets whose work reads like a stream-of-conscience spam message. Humor is great, sadness and grief are great, but I have to feel like whatever I'm reading, the writer absolutely had to write it. There are many, many poets that fit that bill but here are just a few: Dorianne Laux, Paul Guest, Barbara Ungar, Bob Hicok, Djelloul Marbrook, Tom Hunley, Stephen Dobyns, George Bilgere, Allison Joseph, Linda Pastan, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Donald Hall, James Wright, Peter Bethanis, etc.
Who's your favorite band ever? Name the first one that comes to mind.
Was it KISS?
No. Dammit, no.
So, you earned your MFA at Southern Illinois in Carbondale. How do you feel about today's debate over the value of a master's degree in creative writing? There are definitely several pros and cons, but I'd like to hear what you have to say about it.
That's a tough one. I guess it depends on what one expects and wants. Getting an MFA won't necessarily make you a better writer; not getting one doesn't mean you're an eternal second-stringer, either. However, grad schools are a huge opportunity to refine your craft, get experience, and maybe most important of all, make friends with fellow writers who are serious about this and plan to keep doing it as long as they're alive. I've known people who got their MFAs then stopped writing, and people who kept writing but never went to grad school, but in general you have a deeper pool to choose from at grad school. I also have to say that people who avoid grad school but say they plan to keep writing seem to have a higher chance of quitting. This is probably a chicken and the egg thing. Long story short: I think if someone doesn't really want to go to grad school, they shouldn't go. If they're worried about some kind of hipster wing-shearing that will take place there, they shouldn't go, either, because they're probably too in love with their own voice and don't have the guts to face subjective but expert criticism. (Ha, just realized I sound a little blunt there.)
I'll leave you with this last question, and I'll try to phrase it differently than the typical "What advice to you have for new writers" question. What I want to know is what you might say to practicing writers, the ones who maintain discipline, yet real life intrudes at times: day jobs, kids, physical exercise, car or home repairs, etc. I mean, you've got a lot going on outside of writing. You're a professor of English, an editor for Atticus Review, weightlifter, and probably have all sorts of miscellaneous stuff going on. How in hell do you find time to write, and prolifically at that? You pump out poems, are almost done with a trilogy of novels, and all sorts of stuff. Tell others here on Split Lip how to get writing done in the midst of real life.
I've found that the more things I do, oddly, the more energy I have. I think that's because, for me, all these different things kind of feed the same trough. I think the trick is to take whatever seems to be a big drain on physical and psychic energy and turn it around. Easier said than done, of course. I remember working awful factory jobs and scribbling down poems during breaks (or whenever the boss wasn't looking) and feeling rejuvenated after. I'm not a father but I have a lot of friends who scribble poems while their kids are sleeping, or who find solace in directly writing about parenthood. Write what you know, and maybe more importantly, write what you're actually doing. For me, poetry helps me make sense of the jumbled mess around me–as well as my own messed up internal self–so writing about whatever I'm doing takes time but in the long run, actually makes life easier. Of course, I don't know if what I do would work for everyone but after a lot of years spent trying to break down walls between separate aspects of my life, I now feel like I have a bit more energy to shuffle around.
Awesome. Thanks so much for taking time to chat with us, Michael. Again, we're stoked about having you featured in this month's issue.
Thanks, I appreciate it!