Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles, his first full-length collection, won the inaugural Miller Williams Prize in Poetry and was published by the University of Arkansas Press in April 2010. During our email exchanges over the past several weeks, he has proven to be astute, thoughtful, and quietly provocative—exactly like his poems.
RG: How long were you working on The Dirt Riddles? Were you always working toward this book of poems, or did the project change at some point?
MW: I wrote a manuscript on the same subjects from 1999-2002. Between 2003 and 2007 I wrote 90% of The Dirt Riddles. In 2008 and 2009 I made small changes, such as revisions or deletions and corresponding additions of poems.
I set out with several intentions that remained intact from start to finish. I wanted to write about growing up on my family’s dairy farm and coming out as a young gay man in the rural Midwest. I wanted to make it strange. I also wanted to give equal representation to the flora and fauna found on the farm. Therefore, I chose to limit the territory the poems could travel to the edge of the ditches that border the farm. I had to break that rule a few times to make the book work, though.
RG: I’m wondering if you could expand on wanting to make it strange. Do you mean that you wanted to defamiliarize the material for yourself? Or that you wanted to follow that injunction as a way to serve the poem and the reader?
MW: The farm where I grew up never seemed normal to me. And when I read pastorals, I didn’t find this farm in them. There was a strangeness to the place that I couldn’t easily name, but was also very familiar with. So I think my task was to find and name the place’s latent oddities.
RG: I have to admit I didn’t notice that your book was contained in that way–but it makes perfect sense. I’m wondering what setting your poems between the farm’s border ditches brought out for you as you worked.
MW: Limiting the poems by containing them within an imagined border intensified my vision. Everything within filled up with possible poetic meaning. The shape of that border seemed circular, so I think it also had the effect of hermetically sealing the world I was evoking.
RG: One of the things that struck me as I read and reread the book is the subtle way you resist several conventions even as you embrace other aspects of them. You mentioned pastoral poems earlier. My own reaction as I read your poems was that they’re not idealized, or don’t seem to be. Do you think of them as pastoral or as something else?
MW: Mostly I sought to reveal pastoral subjects with a photographer’s eye. Within the pastoral tradition you also find the anti-pastoral. As the pastoral idealizes, the anti-pastoral subverts that idealism. I think many of my poems about labor and animals are anti-pastorals as the result of their verisimilitude.
RG: One poem that stands out to me is “A Table Prayer.” It’s an interesting balance—on the one hand it’s highly lyric (“the rheumy broth/God made the world from”) and yet I find it quite funny. It’s a highly lyric prayer to manure…I love that. Am I right in thinking this is one of the oddities you find? It’s definitely something most people don’t consider as they’re eating their salads.
MW: Yes, this poem is an oddity that I went looking for. I’m glad you find it lyric and funny. Manure is, I think, a perfectly profane and fertile substance. As a celebration of growing and eating, this poem also quietly mocks the industrial consumer obsessed with cleanliness. In fact, I always read “A Table Prayer” because my mostly urban audiences are out of touch with the biological realities of food production. The poem is very strange for them to take in, though. I typically don’t get chuckles. Sometimes, even, a shocked look.
RG: Throughout the book you show how complicated rural life and farming are. On the one hand there’s the need to care and tend. On the other, the lines between the human and the animal have to be strongly drawn. In “Against Pastorals,” there’s a description of burning off the cows’ horn buds and the speaker’s need to turn from that and celebrate. It seems that in some cases there’s a psychic landscape that’s evoked but not fully sketched out for us here. You allow image and tone to do a lot of the work–do you find that more satisfying than flat out declaration?
MW: One of the facts of animal husbandry is that you carefully tend to animals you will likely eat later. You can’t Disney-fy these animals. You also can’t personify them. However, I believe that animals have their own personalities and preferences. At the same time, that doesn’t make them people—an entirely human concept.
I’m certain my great interest in the craft of painters, photographers, and sculptors informs my feelings about declarations. I always prefer to evoke, and I do my best to edit out declarations from my poems. There is a supposed wisdom to poetic declarations that I find suspect and sometimes tired. I’ve found that in my editing process, I can submerge the ideas contained within declarations into a poem’s images.
RG: I reread the book, keeping in mind what you said about the poems within a physical boundary. Originally, I was impressed by how consistent the book was. It seemed so grounded and confident when I first read it. Rereading it I saw the ways that choice influenced it and affected my reading. Were these secondary affects and effects part of that decision? Or a lucky by-product of that focus?
MW: I could tell from reader reactions early on that keeping the poems within a prescribed physical boundary had a grounding effect. I think the confidence and consistency you sense is also a byproduct of that decision, though my familiarity with my subject and authority in naming it probably lend a hand too.
RG: I also admire the way that you don’t necessarily play to narrative type. The poems involving the family are complicated. You have a poem like “After His Lessons from the Belt” and then you have poems like “Buffalo Bones” and “Blanket Game.” “After his Lessons” could be the only vision of the father that we have. But the other two show how full and complicated this emotional relationship is. Usually if there’s a figure in poems that uses a belt on his child, he’s only that. But you have poems that push beyond that stereotype, that offer admiration and affection for the father. How intentional was this? Did you want to confront that sort of old school confessionalism?
MW: Showing fear, admiration, and affection for the father was very intentional. He wasn’t a stock character in my life, he was a real person. I wanted to be honest about my experiences with him. But the problem with writing about an abusive father in a poem is that he too quickly becomes a symbol. The monstrous aspect overwhelms his personhood. It’s more interesting to reveal him to be a man with feelings, hopes, dreams, and fears. I didn’t think about confronting confessionalism, but in the end, I probably have because I’ve rejected some aspects of that school’s craft.
At the same time, I have a lot of admiration for three confessional books that deal with darkly symbolic fathers, and I wouldn’t want the authors to change a single word. I’m thinking of Plath’s Ariel, of course, The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds and Eva-Mary by Linda McCarriston.
RG: I have the same sort of sense about the poems dealing with being queer. You’re not embracing the traditional narrative here. The rural isn’t just another closet to come out of if you want to be a gay man. There’s not a lot of sturm und drung here regarding gayness. Not a lot of “I must grapple and learn to love myself.” But the poems do allow for some wit, some serious sexiness, and acknowledge the potential for physical harm.
MW: I think the coming out narrative you’re mentioning is a myth about the rural constructed by the urban—or urbanized—queer community. The myth is likely an artifact from another generation. I came out in rural Minnesota during my senior year in high school in the early 90s. There wasn’t any backlash. I went to college in rural Illinois, again to no backlash. I’ve been called a f****t by strangers many more times in cities than in the rural towns where I’ve lived. Therefore, if I use my experiences as a gauge of cultural tolerance, the upper rural Midwest is more hospitable than any number of urban centers.
RG: What are you working on now?
MW: I’m trying to expand my vision into cities. That means writing about how cities are like barns and otherwise bringing the rural into contact with the urban in strange ways. In some other poems I’m trying to defamiliarize the human by seeing the body and self as a composite organism consisting of not only the human, but also many microorganisms. I also can’t help but write some more poems about the cows.