10 Questions for Ryan Mihaly
- By Edward Clifford
You unwittingly keep a catalogue of embarrassments on hand, lifetime-deep, ready to be flipped open to any page should the right moment present itself. The right moment is usually wrong, conventionally speaking: the bus driver doesn't want to hear it, no matter what stop you're at; stramgers waiting for the crossing signal don't care; but whenever you happen to remember calling an old friend by the wrong name, or the time you lost all sense of language during an interview, or the failed attempts at elegance, the story comes bursting out.
—from "[B]," Volume 61, Issue 2 (Summer 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I wrote several chapters of Animorphs fan fiction when I was in third or fourth grade. Of course, I didn’t call it “fan fiction” at the time, I just loved the stories so much that I wanted to write myself into them. I wanted to touch the blue cube; I wanted to become a hawk like Tobias.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This question naturally sent me to my bookshelf, which is currently contained in a number of Trader Joe’s bags because I’m in the process of moving. The writers I pulled out: Julio Cortázar, Eliot Weinberger, Jean Valentine, Nathaniel Mackey, Virginia Woolf, Olga Tokarczuk, Halina Poświatowska, Rodrigo Toscano, Samuel Beckett, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Joanne Kyger, Clarice Lispector, Robert Walser, Antonio de Benedetto, E. M. Cioran, Ralph Ellison, Aase Berg, Lydia Davis, Rumi, Sarah Manguso, Nietzsche, Bruno Schulz, Mathias Énard, Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco, Svetlana Alexievich, Ge Fei… plus my teachers and fellow students of art – writers, musicians, painters, thinkers, theologians – who by some miracle I have been able to sit down with and not only read their poetry but hear their minds at work.
I also want to mention Aaron Shurin. I had the pleasure of seeing him read from The Blue Absolute at a La Quinta in San Antonio this March. I have been enthralled by his work ever since.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A racecar driver.
What inspired you to write this piece?
[B] – This was inspired by the literal “catalogue of embarrassments” I have in my head. I wonder if other people suffer from this. I remember getting off a bus in Boulder, CO, thinking I would tell the bus driver about all the embarrassments in my life. When I realized he probably would not want to know, I decided to write this piece instead.
[A#/B-flat] – The story of the Tower of Babel is a wellspring I love to drink from. Wordplay is essential to me too. I enjoy the “turn you on/turn on you” flip and the idea that “handiwork” is actually three words in one.
Is Music a Language? – This is a question that plagues me.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
There is a bench in Lisbon inscribed with a poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. It’s an ode to the city. The last lines are: “Lisbon swaying like a sailing ship / Lisbon cruelly built next to its own absence.” I love that idea, as if there was an identical “absence” of Lisbon before there was a real one. Or maybe the “absence” was constructed at the same time – a shadow city that haunts the real one. I have been lucky to travel to many cities in my life and I know that I am haunted by all of them, that their absence marks my mind.
I started writing a piece in 2016 called “Biography of Walks.” Every few lines when the “I” turns a corner, he steps into an alley of a different city.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Sometimes I’ll be writing in a public place, completely focused, and a car will drive by blaring “Come on Eileen.” My goal recently has been to write into that frustration. I want to listen as deeply as I can to the songs that annoy me and extract something from them – a description of texture, an odd lyrical inflection. Everyone knows music is beautiful. I want to write about the part of music that frustrates and annoys us, that rubs us the wrong way, that haunts us while we shop.
Most of my writing is based on the phenomenon of sound. I am always writing “with” or “to” whatever I hear. So I try to let the music or sounds swirling around me, whether I enjoy them or not, to guide my writing.
I do love writing to saxophonist Steve Lacy’s album, “The Kiss,” or live recordings of the János Nagy Trio from Hungary.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My partner, the writer Karolina Zapal.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Someday I would like to be in the orchestra pit for a musical, or have some minor speaking role in a movie, or… I wish I knew how to play trombone. I have a student who played violin and trombone before he started playing saxophone; I’m envious and hope he teaches me someday…
What are you working on currently?
I have a habit of immersing myself in 10,000 projects at once! A few of them: Karolina and I are translating the work of Polish writers Halina Poświatowska and Olga Hund into English. I am working on publishing the clarinet poems in book form. And now I am “harvesting” the last few years of writing and shaping it into various different manuscripts. The project that has my attention now is a 3-part book of poetry on the theme of silence and cacophony.
What are you reading right now?
Just this morning I finished reading Ge Fei’s novel, The Invisibility Cloak. It was mysterious and hysterical. I’m in the middle of many long books (quarantine habit?) including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Baron Weckheim’s Homecoming, Dante’s Inferno, and my second reading of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. But I hope to read something much shorter next, something I’ve been dying to read: Inger Christensen’s Alphabet.
RYAN MIHALY is a poet, musician, and collage artist who recently completed the BridgeGuard residency in Štúrovo, Slovakia. He graduated from the MFA program at Naropa University where he was an Anne Waldman/Anselm Hollo fellow. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from: 3:AM Magazine, DIAGRAM, Opossum, Asymptote, Posit, and in Ilan Stavans' anthology On Self-Translation: Meditations on Language. A multi-instrumentalist and composer, he has played in a number of jazz, rock, folk, funk, punk, and experimental groups over the years, and is a frequent collaborator with dancers and poets.