(Almost) 10 Questions for Michael Bazzett
- By Edward Clifford
There is thought behind those eyes, said my head
when it saw itself in the Polaroid held in my hand.
My face was being eaten by the glow that dissolved
my forehead into a luminous window because I was
overexposed. This is no metaphor.
—From "Exposure," Volume 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
My poetic family tree would definitely have a Polish branch, where Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert would roost, with dark jackets and glinting eyes and the intelligence of crows. And there would be a dusty evergreen Portuguese branch where José Saramago & Fernando Pessoa would settle into the dusk. And I've always loved Borges and Simic, too.
I read a ton of Russell Edson when I was younger, and Mary Oliver, and Robert Hass, and Lucille Clifton, and Li-Young Lee, and Jane Kenyon.
Novelists are also big for me: Ishiguro, Saramago, Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Gordimer, Woolf, Morrison. I love the deadpan creepiness and psychological resonance of Patricia Highsmith. And Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” is a book I return to again and again. I love the imagination of Ray Bradbury. The brilliant wreck of Philip K. Dick. I’ll end with Heaney, as his three word definition of poetry is taped to my wall: Exact, Truthful, Melodious.
What other professions have you worked in?
I've been a house painter, a UPS driver, a flower delivery guy, laborer on a dairy farm, and for the last few decades, a high school English teacher. I once had a job, though, that in retrospect seems almost unreal for a writer, a sort of allegory or Kafkaesque fever dream: I baled the shredded paper-remnants in the sub-basement of the city newspaper.
On my first day I followed a supervisor along steel catwalks beside the roar of the printing press. Everyone we passed was wearing runway-grade ear protection, except me. We descended into a sub-basement below the press: a poorly lit cavern with a steel chute in the ceiling, out of which cascaded a steady stream of paper strips, about an inch wide, a sort of fat confetti trimmed from the advertising supplements being inserted into the newspaper above. An enormous haystack had accumulated under the chute, and a short distance from the stack was a scarred hydraulic baler, with a pneumatic press. The man handed me a pitchfork and shouted at me to fill the bin. I watched his lips move with no sound. The noise in the room was actually thrumming the walls of my cheeks like a drum.
Once the bin was full, he pressed a button that compressed the trimmings into an enormous brick, pantomimed for me to continue, then left. I stacked the bales on a pallet, swung the full pallets on a jack, then stored them deep in the darkness receding outward from the illuminated island of my filthy ink-stained haystack.
That first hour I made twelve bales. The second hour I made ten. The third hour it started to dawn on me that nobody was ever coming to check on my progress. I lay on the haystack, beneath the roaring chute, imagining myself on the ocean floor, listening to the roaring churn far above my head. I'd close my eyes and wonder how long I'd have to lie there before the paper carpeted me so thickly that I'd no longer be able to move.
Over the few weeks I had the job, sometimes I baled. Sometimes I didn’t. My presence seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the pile. It was a very Sisyphus-type situation. The paper snowed continuously from the ceiling in long tendrils. Some afternoons, I lay in the haystack. The roar never abated. The bales were sold, I later found out, to dairy farmers who used the shredded paper as winter bedding for their herd once their straw ran out. It might be the most weirdly perfect job for a poet that's ever existed.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Children's book illustrator, professional football player, fossil collector, Buddhist monk, pilot. I also very much wanted to finally be the one to confirm the existence of Sasquatch.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Yes! No one's ever asked this question, but there is a city. . . It's an imaginary city, a kind of amalgamation or pastiche of places and landscapes I've lived in (Rochester, MN; Paris, France; Claremont, CA; Knoxville & Andersonville, TN; Orange, VA; Minneapolis; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico) It's my psychic "city underneath the city" and it serves as a sort of geographical echo and exists somewhat outside of time: limestone quarries, screen porches, verdant ravines, weird tunnels, cobblestone streets, the little passageways and bars of the Left Bank, all funneled through a mash-up of Minneapolis meets Eastern Europe (due to reading so much Szmborska, Milosz, Dabrowski, Simic, and Zbigniew Herbert, I think.) It's a very real place to me, and the "here" that many of poems come from.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I pretty much have to be horizontal. My study has an old leather couch in it. My backyard has a hammock. I write with my knees bent, the legal pad or laptop propped on my thighs. It's a very specific pose.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife. Always. She writes fiction and screenplays and she's a lovingly insightful, and somewhat ruthlessly unsentimental first reader. She's also great at ordering my manuscripts, and I repay her with line edits.
What are you working on currently?
Mostly I've been doing a lot of translating, working on the poetry of Humberto Ak'abal, in particular; he's a K'iche' Maya poet from Guatemala who died in 2019, and he writes these fantastic, compressed, incisive poems. They're deceptively colloquial and often subtly philosophical. A collection is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in 2024, called If Today Were Tomorrow.
I also just had a little stand-alone book of linked prose poems called They: A Field Guide taken as the Editor's Choice selection for the Tomaž Šalamun Prize, which I'm very excited about. It's about a species of human primate that lives closely among us, but is hard to see, and often invisible. It will be published by Factory Hollow Press early next year.
What are you reading right now?
Carl Phillips new book on craft, My Trade is Mystery. It's marvelous.
MICHAEL BAZZETT is the author of four books of poetry, including The Echo Chamber (Milkweed Editions) and the chapbook The Temple (Bull City). Recent work has appeared in Granta, Agni, The American Poetry Review, The Sun, The Nation, and The Paris Review. His verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh (Milkweed), was named one of 2018’s best books of poetry by the New York Times, and his translation of the selected poems of Humberto Ak’abal, If Today Were Tomorrow, is forthcoming from Milkweed next year. The recipient of an NEA Fellowship, he lives in Minneapolis.