INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, ERIK MORTENSON, AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, RANDALL HORTON
(Interview conducted via email correspondence in August of 2012)
Randall Horton: Erik, thanks for sharing “The Fifteenth Station” with Tidal Basin Review. I remember leaving these poems very curious about the larger work. Please describe the scope of “The Fifteenth Station?”
Erik Mortenson: The sequence follows a young African woman, who contracts HIV from her husband. As the pieces progress, her disease escalates until her death. A few pieces follow that event. Beyond that, the pieces follow the Catholic Stations of the Cross, which summarize the Passion of Christ from his condemnation by the Romans, until the opening of his tomb after his death. Traditionally, there are fourteen stations of the Cross. Obviously, I have added one more.
RH: The art of the line break seems a very important element in the aesthetic realm of your poems. One of the very first things I discuss with beginning students is the line break, primarily, because I feel that having a good understanding of end words and their use as breaks can add an additional layer to the poem. Could you please expound on how you have negotiated the line break throughout your writing?
EM: I agree with your thoughts on the line end—a term I prefer to “line break” for some reason maybe for the idea of violence in the line—and its use. I think of it as a primary tool for poets. It’s what separates much poetry from prose, except for the prose poem, which I also use in “The Fifteenth Station.” For my work in general, I write everything out long-hand and in prose. That way, I get down what I want to say—diction, rhythm, etc.—then I go back and let the piece dictate its form in terms of line ends and spatial arrangement. Some pieces are prose poems; some are “traditional” short-lined, left-justified, lyrics. Others have a page-as-field lineation strategy. In this sequence, however, while that concept applies, I really wanted the form of each poem to mirror the degeneration of the protagonist as her disease progressed. As with all the characters, I tried to think what poetry would be to them, and present that. In “The First Station,” I gave the speaker a very straightforward notion of poetry—roughly equal syllabic lines, generally equal-lined stanzas. As she progresses through the stages of her disease, her “poetics” devolves—or evolves?—into something far more radical.
RH: Within the series, voice and context are crucial. I view them as persona, not with the historical steeped in rhetoric, but rather the idea of acknowledging a certain humanness. The woman’s voice is so authentic, it is harrowing. How did you construct the female voice? Describe the process of stepping outside of one’s given station in life to so authentically portray another.
EM: I must say I am completely relieved to hear you say that about the authenticity of voice. Throughout the writing, one of my goals was to be “true”—whatever that can mean—to this woman. Of course, there is no such woman, and of course, there are LOTS of such women. I was very concerned with current notions of appropriating narratives and co-opting suffering, and I did not want to do that. I wanted to present a story through these poems. I could not be further from this character: I am male, white, American, healthy, and preposterously affluent in the scope of the world. I simply began with “The First Station” and tried to inhabit this woman—to convey, as you term it, her “humanness.” What would she feel in this situation? How would she act? As she progressed, I simply tried to honor that as best I could. I think by the seventh or eighth piece, I felt marginally confident that I knew this woman. Surely, more than a few people will read this and NOT find her terribly authentic. However, as much of a goal as “authenticity of voice” was, it is not the be-all-end-all. After all, this is not a real person; the messages here transcend the voice of which they are a part.
RH: The reader of these poems cannot help but to be lulled by the rhythmic tones, pacing, internal rhyme (in places), and attention to sound through assonance and consonance. Discuss the aesthetic approach and the presentation of the work.
EM: I work out a lot of the prosody early on. Writing in prose first allows me to give real attention to the words themselves. I liken it to a golf swing. A good golf swing is composed of about 3,498,257 moving parts. No one can think of them all at once. This time, you pick keeping your head down, then, swing away. Writers get as many drafts as we need. The first time, I get down what I want to say. Then I can tinker with the diction and with some sound effects. When all that is square, I address how the words physically appear on the page. A vastly underutilized resource, the visual presentation of the poem on the page adds a layer of meaning to the reader that is dynamic and important, far more so than a flat, left-justified, short-lined lyric.
RH: The voice and tone of “The Ninth Station” are dictated by spacing, comma placement, attention to line breaks, and end words. This is the type of poem I would explore in a creative writing class, for several reasons. Explain your thought process here?
EM: Right. More than others, this piece embraces a number of aesthetics, culminating in the literal cutting of words and phrases. In this piece, the protagonist’s disease has culminated in bouts of unconsciousness and semi-consciousness. I tried to present what you would hear her speak if you were a medical worker at her side. She is not only hallucinating, but she drifts in and out of consciousness. However, for her, the narrative continues. It was quite a challenge: first, I constructed her hallucinatory narrative. Then, I put it on the page. Then I decided which portions to cut to indicate unconsciousness, but decided to keep the blank spaces for the duration of what was cut. The trick was to cut enough to truly disorient the reader, but to keep enough to allow the reader some notion of understanding—an “almost get it.” I read this piece at a poetry festival, scared to death to look up at the faces of the audience. To my surprise, this read pretty well. Everyone seemed to follow the pathos that is in the blank spaces. It occurred to me that was what I really wanted them to get.
RH: What literature informed this series? Which writers are influencing your current poetic process?
EM: I’m not sure any “literature” informed this sequence. Obviously, Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island” was in my mind to a degree in terms of the framework, though I think this differs pretty substantially from that piece. I did do a good bit of research on HIV/AIDS and the liturgy of the Stations of the Cross. I also researched some African poetic forms because, in some later pieces, the Mother-In-Law returns and her poems appear in particular African forms. Again, to tie the stages of the disease to the Stations of the Cross, while including some liturgical/Biblical material, required a good bit of research and juggling. Someone so inclined could do a little Talmudic work with this sequence.
As to who is influencing my current writing, I write a lot of varied material. What I would call my “regular poems” are heavily-influenced by Ultra-Talk poetry: David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and the likes. I’m actually pretty funny—Surprise, surprise! I even edit poetry for a journal of literary humor! I do a lot of UNcreative writing, so I’m pretty influenced by Kenneth Goldsmith and a number of conceptual artists and writers, including Jenny Boully. That merges with some political work I do, such as my current and pretty large project dealing with historical genocides, and I use a lot of material both found and original. So, writers like Anne Carson, Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser and such are never far from my mind.
RH: The poems, more specifically “The Seventh Station,” tend to pay attention to a workforce and the conditions in which its work is performed. Do you intend for these poems to encompass the political and the effects of classism?
EM: Yup. I could leave it at that, but I won’t. We’re conducting this interview via email. I first opened this on my iPhone made in China in arguably less-than-ideal conditions. It was assembled with a number of elements taken out of the ground somewhere in Africa. You’re talking about Nickel, Palladium, Platinum, and a whole host of other things that some guy(s) dug out of miles of tunnel deep in the ground. The technology we use here doesn’t arrive without some human cost. Now, I haven’t thrown my phone away, and I don’t intend to, but I do think we need to be aware of the full price of our technological ease. The people of Africa, it seems to me, have always been exploited for their resources by others, and human capital has always figured a large part of this.
I decided, as I was near to completing the manuscript that I did not want to profit in any way from it. As such, if and when this sequence is published, I will donate ALL proceeds to a charity that works directly with African women living with HIV/AIDS. It will be a small thing, but I think the right thing.
RH: Is “The Fifteenth Station” an examination of a certain type of society and its beliefs?
EM: Well, I’m not sure I intended it to be so, but it does do that in the final analysis. As I did my research, I simply could not avoid the repetition of stories from HIV/AIDS sufferers that spoke to the shame they experienced not only at the “hands” of their community, but also loaded on by their own family members. There is, frankly, some very backward thinking about this disease that still continues today. That is not the fault of those who believe it, as such, but of governments, who deny wholesale the very existence of the disease, and so-called “relief” agencies, which do nothing to disabuse people of such myths and even perpetuate them to foster their own socio-political agendas, etc. When you get down to it, though, if you lived in a small village, wouldn’t you feel some shame? You know everyone is talking about it, about you, or your loved one. We are human; we talk. The smaller the fishbowl, the louder the talk sounds. I tried to embody this primarily in the voice of the Mother-In-Law. She is, for me, a bizzaro Virgin Mary. Mary has no voice in the Stations. She appears briefly, but one can be acutely aware that she is present for the entirety of her child’s suffering and tortuous murder. What must she have felt? I don’t ask this as a religious person, but simply as a human. As a human with children of my own, what must a mother feel? I didn’t want a direct mother-child relationship in this sequence, so the Mother-In-Law gave me a nice foil to present some cultural thinking.
RH: Is there a specific incident that garnered your interest in writing this series?
EM: No, not really. It is the culmination of a lot of things. I grew up a Catholic, and to call me “lapsed” is so great an understatement, it is laughable. Anyway, as a youth, I remember being fascinated by the Station plaques around my church. In my late teens, growing up in the height of the AIDS epidemic, I remember thinking, “Hey, these stations would make a cool story. What if ‘Jesus’ had AIDS?” I think Kushner’s “Angels in America” had come out, so I thought that idea had been played. The germ was always lurking in the back of my mind, I suppose, and reading bits and pieces about African mining—men who travelled very far from home to work, the inevitable prostitution that springs up around such “colonies,” the massive African epidemic and general Western disregard/indifference/apathy—all these kept swirling and, eventually, worked themselves onto the page many years later.
RH: Ultimately, what do you hope is the takeaway for readers of “The Fifteenth Station?”
EM: I think there are a lot of potential takeaways here, depending on the angle one chooses. I don’t mean to be coy here, but I’m not sure I want to limit a reader’s experience. You have touched on many of the angles, purely poetic ones of form, diction, rhythm, prosody, and the like. There are issues of voice and persona. These blur with the social and ethnic elements we discussed. Obviously, those tie into political and religious elements. If you are desperate to pin me down, the real takeaway here is a sense of the human. That might be a little cheesy, even sentimental, though I think I avoid that pretty well. Read the whole manuscript and you’ll see that just like the Mother-In-Law is no Virgin Mary, so the nameless protagonist is no redemptive Christ. Maybe the take away is the grace we humans are capable of when all hope—and help—is lost. Again, I am not a religious man, but the Passion narrative is illustrative of many things as a metaphor. At any moment, one reasons that Jesus could have ended the suffering. He’s God incarnate, after all. But he doesn’t. We don’t. We can’t. We can only bear up, shoulder our cross, heavy as it may be, and bear up.
Erik Mortenson is the author of, Dreamer or the Dream (Last Automat Press, 2010) and What Wakes Us (Cervena Barva Press, forthcoming). His work also appears in both print and online journals and anthologies. He writes and teaches in Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two children.
Randall Horton is a writer, teacher and the Editor-in-Chief of Tidal Basin Review.