Michael Collins recently released a new chapbook, Harbor Mandala. His poems have been featured in 40 journals and magazines, including Grist, Kenning Journal, Pank, and Smartish Pace. His work has also received nominations for the Pushcart Prize. We are happy to feature “genesis” in the Roanoke Review. Content Editor Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Michael about poetry, his writing life, and his future endeavors below.
“genesis” is a unique poem as it may be read in two different ways. What inspired you to write the poem? How did you piece together the images and ideas across two plains?
As far as inspiration goes, I had written a good number of poems at the harbor during the summer, none of which I intended to write. I would remind myself to take walks there in the summer because it was nice out and I had more time, and then poems would happen, which just made me want to take more walks. As I kept going back, the poems evolved from image-based poems to more complicated ones. “genesis” is one of the latter.
This process included returning to the harbor in the winter in a lot of cold and wind and snow, and at one point it kind of reminded me of the verse from genesis that the ending borrows. I don’t remember how I got from the seed draft to the two column form; there are some others like that in the collection. I tend to move towards it when I see two intertwined poems happening simultaneously within a draft. Then the demands of the form kind of take over, and tinkering with the lines and their various ways of interrelating presents the nuances and subtleties shows the way to completing the poem.
What do you hope to see in your future poems? Do you think you will continue to experiment with dynamic structures?
I’ve just finished the full-length collection that “genesis” belongs to, so I’m a little bit between projects and also getting busy with teaching. So I guess the honest answer to your first question is that I will be happy just to see new poems of any sort arrive. I’ve been experimenting with a few possibilities; I’m not sure which direction will win out. I’m very interested in the different relationships between voice and page in poetry, though, so I’m sure experimenting with dynamic structures will be an element of my future projects.
I love your attention to the visual dimension of poetry in “genesis.” In your opinion, how important is the visual aspect of poetry in terms of making meaning?
Oh, it’s very important, both to making meaning and to the writing process itself. I tend to write first drafts in prose unless lines are presenting themselves organically in which case I will see if a pattern emerges. After that, though, a lot of my revision process involves figuring out what visual form a poem wants to take and letting the constraints of that form open up developments of and alterations to the original spark. The forms don’t always have such a pronounced visual element as “genesis” does, but even a device as common as stanza breaks can lead to unforeseen evolutions in the process of writing a poem. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the visual aspects almost always influence the voice and music of the poem through the writing process, and this manifests in its final appearance.
What are your strategies as a teacher of writing? What advice do you impart to your students?
I don’t really have any great wisdom about writing. I mostly just try to be as student-centered as possible, pick up on what they’re doing, what their idiosyncrasies and obsessions are, and then lead them onward with questions and challenges.
What led you to become a poet?
A horrible curse. Not really. It’s only a curse when I’m not actively being a poet. The actual making of poems is how I connect to the world, to deeper mysteries. It was just something I’ve always done; I don’t remember ever making a conscious decision about writing poems, only conscious decisions to keep writing poems despite the fact that it seemed pointless and doomed to failure, which it only is most of the time. If there are inherent parts of our characters or sensibilities, writing poems is just one of the important aspects of mine. It’s just part of who I am.
What themes do you explore in your latest chapbook, “Harbor Mandala”?
Harbor Mandala was a true exploration. I never intended to write it. I was just walking around thinking about how to finish another book – that I never finished – and images compelled me to write them. As time went on, I began to see that they were often embodying connections between the “objective psyche,” as Jung put it, and this strange borderland between land and water, civilization and what cannot be made to conform to civilization, consciousness and the unconscious. And then there are poems to talk back to these imagistic poems in a post-pastoral way, challenging the underlying presumptions about the relationships between ego, nature, the unconscious, and spirituality – and sometimes deepening the exploration of those relationships through such challenges.
What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?
Good question, and kind of a hard one. I think I’m pretty good with the questions people have asked me so far. Maybe something not about my writing like, “What five writers do you think everyone should read?”
Listen to Michael reading his work here.