In conversation with Kallie Falandays
Meghan Privitello is the author of A New Language for Falling Out of Love (YesYes Books, 2015) and the forthcoming chapbook Notes on the End of the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). Meghan’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a NJ State Council of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Below she talks about loneliness, loss, and inspiration.
Kallie Falandays: In the first piece in this collection, “Perspective,” you write, “No amount of rare bones could convince me I was ever small enough to sit in the grass.” What was growing up like for you? Are you like the speaker’s niece who gets bit by a mosquito and “doesn’t ask when her body will be normal again”?
Meghan Privitello: My childhood was externally uneventful. I was the youngest of three kids and there was a healthy age gap between me and my siblings. My mom was the definition of overprotective. This is all to say: I spent a lot of time alone. This is all to say: my internal life was a mess. I think the loneliness (which I can only now see was loneliness) sparked an intense relationship with my own body as a way to become close to something, someone. I became a pretty impressive hypochondriac and always latched onto the ways the body could fail. A moment that stands out to me was when Magic Johnson went on Nick News to talk about HIV/AIDS and his diagnosis. I was eating cereal and looking at my body and thinking oh no oh no oh no. I remember being in the second grade, convinced I had ovarian cancer after reading an article in a magazine about “silent killers”. What the hell! That’s not the way it should have been! The line you refer to about the niece’s mosquito bite—that is one of the few lines in the book that comes straight from real life. My niece gets gigantic welts when bitten by anything, and she pays it no mind. When I was her age, I would have been convinced I was growing a super-accelerated tumor and that my death was just around the corner. Bless all the children who play with other children and hate washing their hands. I was not one of you.
KF: Many of these pieces seem to explore love and loss and misunderstanding in a raw way. Can you speak a bit about what inspired these poems, what it was like writing them, and what it was like arranging them in a collection?
MP: I often ask myself the same question you are asking me: what made you write these sad sad poems? Contrary to the life of the poems, my life now is extraordinary. I’m loved. I love. I have experienced few losses. I think these poems come from a place of what I could call "the possible now." I've had many moments in my life where I was almost literally driving my car off the road, destroying myself and in turn the people around me. I think many of these poems are written by and from a past self, and show a life of what could-have-been had I not broken out of self-and-other-imposed chokeholds. There’s also a lot in these poems about marriage, which makes it sound pretty bleak, because that is how I always imagined it would be. I swore I would never get married but did. This is a promise to myself I’m so glad I broke. These poems also explore the fears of being married, of being "a wife," whatever the fuck that means. These poems all came out quickly and almost fully formed. When I was arranging them in the collection, I was trying to find links within the poem, like particular words that carried over from one to the next. I felt that they were all thematically and tonally similar enough that they needed something smaller to hold them together. Thank you, nouns. You are the divine glue.
KF: My favorite piece in this collection is “The Problem Is How.” I was particularly struck by the line, “If you had wings, you could move like a slow child’s description of light.” Can you talk a bit about any authors who may have influenced this collection or your writing style?
MP: There were a few particular books I was reading right before and in the very beginning of the writing of this collection: Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees, Allison Benis White’s Self Portrait With Crayon, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and Julia Story’s Post Moxie. These are all collections of prose poems, or at least poems arranged in block format. These books were liberation. Whenever I had tried writing poems with line breaks, it seemed like they were trying to maintain an allegiance to narrative, and I was not interested in writing narrative poems in any way. One day, frustrated and on the brink of giving up (which is basically every writing day), I set up arbitrary indentations on my word document and started writing within that space. The boundaries gave me permission to be wild. I knew the words and lines were going to be contained visually, and that was enough to unlock the doors between the leaps I wanted to make. The rest of the process was a joyful bleeding out.
KF: In “Solvent,” you write, “When I was nine, I was dream-pregnant and practiced being in love with invisible hearts.” Can you expand a bit about this difference between what we imagine love to be like when we’re little and what it’s actually like?
MP: Oh my god, I could probably write forever about this, but will try to make it brief. When I was little, my room was plastered with torn out pages of Teen Beat and Teen Bop magazine. I had no idea what love meant. I assumed it meant being happy looking at the same beautiful person for the rest of my life. Jonathon Taylor Thomas. Joey Lawrence (Whoah!). I thought love was putting a harness on beauty and keeping it close, keeping at as an emotionless and fit object. A thing so beautiful it could never die. For me now, love is being able to reconcile the fact that the people you adore the most will perish and rot. That choosing to love means choosing to suffer, to lose. For me, that is the constant undercurrent of love. It’s temporality. It’s inevitable sadness but the absolute light it brings in the prelude to its loss.
KF: Many of these pieces have scattered questions that seem to get to the heart of what the speaker is thinking or hoping for. What are some of the most important writing-related questions you’ve heard in your life?
MP: A very important question for me is "who are you writing for?" I think it's easy to get caught up in the idea of "audience," that someone will inevitably be reading and judging your work. But it's important to kill that idea. The audience freezes me. I get stage fright in my own damn solitude. For poems to be for anyone, they have to first be for you, as selfish as it may seem. I don't see it as selfish. I think it's absolutely necessary to serve your own fears and joys and demons in order for your poems to have any honesty, and I don't want to write or read poems that are bullshitting their way to a person's heart.
KF: In “Automaton Museum,” the speakers seem to circle around each other until, finally, they enter the Automaton Museum. What inspired this type of movement in your work?
MP: I don't think I ever even noticed this movement until you mentioned it! The best way I could probably talk about this is that I am always circling around my own thoughts, am always looking at an idea or event from a thousand different angles before I find a door that lets me inside the thing, that allows me to trust my own intuitions. I think this speaks a lot to my anxiety and lack of certainty about myself and the world. If I was a shitting dog, I might be circling the grass for eternity.
KF: Many of these pieces are set under a wide expanse of sky (whether foreboding or not). Where were these poems crafted? Do you think where you worked influenced the type of pieces you wrote?
MP: Every one of these poems was crafted on my computer, at my desk, in my study. I had an almost superstitious routine when I was writing this book: I wrote every day at a certain time in the same place with the same small glass of whiskey by my side. There is a window to the left of my desk that I look out of when I’m pushing ideas around, and since it’s on the second floor, I see nothing but rooftops and sky. I’m sure this informed much of the skyscapes in the pieces. I also lived in Colorado for a time and love the sky of the west. The vastness of mountain sky gives me courage. It makes me believe the possible is truly possible.
KF: What’s the best writing-related advice you’ve ever heard?
MP: “Write the poems you want to read” has always been advice I go back to. It helps me move through and past any fears I have about revealing myself on the page. The poems you want to read are the poems you need the most, and other people need the most. Poems that will shake and break you. If you are bored with your own writing, the boredom will transcend the poem and the readers will be equally bored. Surprise yourself and you will surprise others. That is what I am always looking for in poetry. I am looking for the almost alchemical impossibility of language, ordinary words that, when combined and processed, become bombs and fire and gold. I want poems to be spells, to bring forth the living and the dead. Poems like that are exactly what this fucked up and beautiful world deserves.
KF: What was the publication process like? How long did you work on this collection as a whole?
MP: The publication process had no trauma or drama, and I am so grateful for that. I worked on the book for nine months and started sending it out in September of 2012 to “the list” of poetry prizes. It was a finalist for a few, but I was quickly starting to realize that I didn’t want to spend a bunch of years and dollars sending this manuscript out, and winning one of the poetry prizes wasn’t my priority. I loved the poets YesYes was publishing: Nate Slawson, Lynn Melnick, Corey Zeller, Tanya Olson. Not only was the quality of the poetry amazing, but the books themselves were beautiful, and the book-as-object was very important to me. On a whim I decided to send to their open reading period, and was selected for publication in August of 2013. I still can’t believe it and couldn’t have asked for a better press. Their generosity and passion is unmatched. The work they are bringing into the world is amazing. I love them. Hard.
KF: Can you talk to us about some of the projects you’re currently working on?
MP: I recently finished a second full length collection called One God at a Time. These poems make their way through my god obsessions/delusions and are quite sexual. When I was a kid, Jesus was the first guy I had a sex-crush on. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when my neighbors’ children first saw my husband, they thought he was Jesus. I’m kind of poem-ed out right now but am making preliminary notes on a project centered around Buster Keaton. I also love men who don’t talk. There are some ideas stewing about a collection that is very very body focused, that would deal with the hypochondria, the distrust of the body, the expectations of a female body, etc. But I’m not ready for that. Maybe with enough whiskey and a sky full of stars. Maybe.