by Patty Jameson
I’m excited to introduce you to Mark J. Mitchell and his award-winning chapbook, Three Visitors, which won Negative Capability’s National Chapbook Competition. Mark’s book introduces us to a series of three characters who welcome us into their daily doings and private thoughts. I had a chat with Mark about his visitors and their muses, and learned quite a bit more about welcoming inspiration from traditional texts and forms.
Three Visitors gives us a unique look into three distinct personalities, which you introduced with literary and historical relationships. Can you tell us more about Guenivere, your reference to Montale, and the story behind the Gangetic Plains? How did your characters grow out of these inspirations?
The book is called Three Visitors because these characters came to me of their own accord. They arrived on their own with stories to tell. So it’s not so much their growing out my inspiration, but growing as I got to know them better.
“The Woman Who May Have Been Guenivere” turned up during a time of year when I write a poem every day. She first appeared in “Her Housekeeping.” After that she had something to say in various forms, and she tended to choose Welsh or French forms to have her say. I included a note about her when I distributed those poems to friends: I’m not entirely sure who this person is and I don’t want to impose my own will on her. I just want to make it clear that she doesn’t think she’s Guenivere—she is, in some way, haunted by her. She was either Arthur’s wife in some former life or somehow this idea has leaked into her subconscious mind. After she appeared in a couple of poems I realized I should revisit Jack Spicer’s book, The Holy Grail, as well as his Vancouver lecture where he talks about dictation.
The other two visitors each turned up in December—different Decembers, mind you—and had their own say. “The Girl in the Mandarin Collar” (who appeared long before Steig Larrsen’s book turned up in English) seems to have been a very young woman, 17 or 18, in San Francisco in 1978, at the beginning of the punk scene here, when it was still very mixed up. The center of that scene was a Filipino nightclub called The Mabuhay Gardens (or the Fab Mab as it came to be known). I’d been reading Eugenio Montale for some time by then, in the doorstop of an edition that came out around 1998. The title of the first poem in his first book, Cuttlefish Bones, is “In Limine,” which means “on the threshold,” so that’s the title of her first poem. She spoke in the form of that poem and just kept speaking that way until she was finished.
My gravedigger, as I think of him, appeared in the same way. He wanted to speak in these short bursts of blank verse. It seemed obvious to me, as we got to know each other, that this was a person who had actually heard the Buddha speak. I think, at the time, I must have wanted to write some small, hard nuggets of verse, but I don’t think my intention was much involved in the decisions.
What’s odd about these December appearances is that I was working retail at the time. Physically strenuous work, sixty to eighty hours a week, and I would come home exhausted. But these characters had to have their say. Once they did, they left as suddenly as they arrived.
After looking at all three sets for some time, I realized that they belonged together.
Is the Coda giving us more on any of these characters, or is she a completely different personality? What inspired this fourth section of Three Visitors?
The Coda was actually the first poem of the book to be written. However, over the years I have tended to think of this woman as the animating spirit of the woman who may have been Guenivere. She died at the end of her poems and this is the way she makes her way back into the world. Of course, it is also the first time she knocked on my door.
You write from both male and female perspectives, and you capture the personalities of each quite well. Which perspective do you enjoy writing most, and why?
Thank you for the compliment. I credit the characters themselves. I do write fiction from time to time (I have a novella in print). It’s not unusual for female characters to turn up in my work, especially when I am in a period of intense poetry writing. One of my personal favorites is a woman known as “The Existential Ecdysiast.”
It would be disingenuous of me to say I prefer to write from the female perspective more than the male, but I always enjoy it when female characters come to call.
Do you have any formal writing/poetry education? When did you begin writing?
I began writing about the time I began to read, I suppose. I took creative writing classes all through high school.
I majored in “Aesthetic Studies: Creative Writing: Poetry” at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. My first writing teacher was Raymond Carver. George Hitchcock took me under his wing while I was there, as did Barbara Hull. I also studied Medieval Literature—Dante, the French Arthurian Cycles, Sir Thomas Malory’s versions and Cervantes, under the tutelage of Robert M. Durling.
Ray encouraged a poetry of character. George favored the surreal and the possibilities of automatic writing. He also taught me to appreciate different types of poetry, even the sort that I would never write myself. Barbara tended to stress the idea of control within freedom. Professor Durling taught me to respect traditions and conventions and guided me through some of the greatest writing in history.
Have you been published previously? Where can readers find your other published work?
This is the first time I’ve had a volume of my poems come out and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I’ve been publishing poetry for over 30 years in various magazines. One of my first major publications came in George Hitchcock’s legendary kayak in 1978. I helped mail out that issue and was excited to put the stamp on the envelope going to Octavio Paz. Poems of mine have appeared in a few anthologies, the best known of which is Good Poems, American Places (Viking, 2011) edited by Garrison Keillor. That same poem appears in the anthology Line Drives (SIU Press), it’s sort of my biggest hit. Recently my poems have appeared in Third Wednesday, Blue Unicorn, J Journal, Poem, and others. They have also been published on-line in The Buddhist Poetry Review, Jerry Jazz Musician, The Road Not Taken, Numinous, and Snakeskin. My novella, Sir Gawain’s Little Green Book is a print-on-demand book and an e-book available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble (look me up as Mark J. Mitchell, since my name is a common one). (psst...We've saved you the trouble of searching for Sir Gawain's Little Green Book yourself.)
You show a reverence for traditional poetic forms, and mentioned that you are currently working on translating poetry by Aragon. Can you talk more about what you enjoy reading and how it has affected your own style?
I enjoy working in forms for a couple of reasons. The first is the element of play involved when you have rules to follow. Secondly, I love formal verse because I don’t think my own ear is a better conduit for musicality than a thousand years of tradition, from the troubadours on. Writing in forms helps to keep my own ear honest. I first fell in love with form when I read the great Middle English elegy, “The Pearl,” in the early 80s. The shape of that poem is just amazing.
When I was seventeen I picked up the paperback edition of Modern European Poetry, edited by Willis Barnstone. That exposed me to a whole world of poetry that hadn’t turned up in my high school yet. That’s where I first encountered Montale and Louis Aragon. I’ve been working on translating Aragon because there is no edition of his work in English (at least not since the World War II years) and because he wrote some of the most beautiful love poetry in the French language, and that’s saying something. Since he wrote those beautiful love poems for his wife and I like to write love poems for my wife, I’ve always felt a connection.
Barbara Hull, my teacher, had studied with Theodore Roethke, and so she pointed me in the direction of Elizabethan songs. I’ve always thought that poetry was speech that aspired to song.
Do you have any advice for writers--young or old, aspiring or seasoned?
Seriously, I think that if you’re going to write poetry seriously you have to take a vow of poverty, and be willing to live with that and never give up.
I think every poet should be able to scan a line of verse and to write in forms, even if that’s not how they do what they might consider their real work. It’s like being a musician, you should be able to read music and practice your scales every day. It will strengthen your free verse. Never lose sight of the fact that the patron saint of free verse, e.e. cummings, was also the great master of the American sonnet.
Also, read poetry from other countries in other languages. We have a wonderful array of translations available to us these days. Try to pick up copies that have the original on the facing page so you can get the shape and sound of the original.
Keep all your tools sharpened and ready. You never know when a visitor might drop by.
If there's something I didn't touch on that you wish to answer to, feel free to ask your own question and add it in.
I just wanted to add that Three Visitors is a very unusual group of my poems. It’s odd to see this many of my poems gathered together and not one of them is a love poem to my wife. I wouldn’t be able to keep writing without Joanie’s daily love, support and inspiration.
Mark's admiration of traditional forms are evident in his poetry, and his ability to insert a contemporary voice into a traditional setting takes the reader on a unique journey with three new friends. Keep watch for the Three Visitors -- available soon from Negative Capability!