Poetry Must Still Dance: An Interview with Ange Mlinko


At Work


The Spring issue of The Paris Review includes a long poem by Ange Mlinko, “Wingandecoia.” It took me a few rereads, but, after a bout of Google searching, I saw this poem trace its arc in several directions—those of time, of place, and of musical imagination. Along the way to understanding, Mlinko treats the reader to lines that feel both alive and spectral. Some are even like incantatory but welcome earworms.

Mlinko has also published three books of poetry—Matinees, Starred Wire, and Shoulder Season. And this fall her next book, Marvelous Things Overheard, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Between books, she writes on language and the arts for The Nation. 

Like the two poems you published in issue 199 of The Paris Review, “Wingandecoia” contains many unfamiliar words and names. How do you see these poems, and that idea, figuring into your forthcoming book, Marvelous Things Overheard?

The book is partly an exploration of time. The sixth-century brigand poet, the Macedonian general, and the ineffectual managers of the lost colony at Roanoke are allowed a measure of strangeness through the language each poem invokes. It amounts to a kind of foreign language within our familiar one. I grew up listening to languages my immigrant parents didn’t want to teach me, so I get a regressive pleasure out of feeling my way through sounds to their possible meanings. Not “getting” a word, or a line, or a poem at first read was never an obstacle for me—in fact, it was a seduction.

And then, obviously, these words are beautiful. Wingandecoia is a beautiful word. So is psittacines. So is pot pot chee. They suggest rhymes, anagrams, and puns. They make music, which I think is an indispensible pleasure.

It’s also an ambitious poem, dense with mythologies and near-forgotten histories of America. What guided you through your allusions?

As a child I was amazed by the story of the lost colony of Roanoke. I was in third or fourth grade when they taught it in school, and for a long time it seemed like a dream I had made up—it isn’t a part of our usual discourse about America. And then I got a chance to visit Roanoke Island last year. Simultaneously, I read Lee Miller’s Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. The vivid descriptions of the landscape reinforced what I was looking at, adding a historical dimension to it, as though I were seeing double. The poem came rather quickly, and is a melding of the read and the seen.

I must say I have a difficult time feeling American history; my parents, who emigrated in the early 1960s, were children of World War II, and it was Europe that dominated my childhood. Roanoke was also about immigrants, who vanished. So that was a point of entry. So was the role of Walter Raleigh. I had never considered the fact that Raleigh, North Carolina, is named after a Renaissance poet.

In your other work, you’ve written a fair amount about birds and birdsong. I can’t help but wonder why the Carolina parakeet is first up in this poem.

Wingandecoia was referred to as the “land of the parrots,” according to the Miller book. Parrot and parakeet are used interchangeably. They were spectacular and bountiful in the region until around 1900. Then they went extinct, like another lost colony. Also, the repetitions of the villanelle are a kind of parrot-speak.

The poem does repeat a sort of villanelle—a form that’s already heavy on repetition. It kept calling Wallace Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” to mind. Can you talk about any relationship between your poem and Stevens’s?  

“Sea Surface Full of Clouds” has given me great pleasure since I first encountered it at sixteen or so. This and “The Man with the Blue Guitar” use repetition and variation beautifully. I prefer Stevens at his most circular.

And you recently quoted T. S. Eliot in saying that a poem should be comprehended before it’s understood. What are some poems that, for you, exemplify this separation between comprehension and understanding?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” “My Last Duchess.” “Whitsun Weddings.” “The Snowman.” “Kublai Khan.” “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Country songs on the radio. Folk songs. Hymns. The Bible. Almost anything great that has survived the test of time has a riddle in it, a long arc between comprehension and understanding. Like our entire existence!

The penultimate section of your poem is a bit different from the rest. The distant quality of its voice, the varied line lengths, the abstractions—what’s going on here?

The anticipation of an ending, I think, puts pressure on an already wildly compressed narrative. Elizabeth the Virgin Queen sweeps in at the end, as the ruthless power behind these events—not the poet Raleigh, who had the charter, and not the artist White, who governed the colony. It’s the queen who gives her name to the territory of Virginia and to the lost granddaughter—it’s the virago, “Virgo.” I’m a Virgo. Meanwhile Virgo is off-rhymed with gone, as Virginia Dare, who roams the territory as a deer, returns to her womanly form after being hit by an arrow. The language that is gone is not only Elizabethan English, but myth itself. A culture that belongs to science and journalism abjures myth.

I could have done a deer/Dare rhyme rather than Virgo/gone. But I wanted to follow up on the sense of stars—fate—and loss. Dare lacks that elegiac sense.

Your poem’s subjects have this air of yearning for counterfactual possibilities, for those things “that feel emeritus.” How did you get started on this theme?

Presocratic paradoxes, metaphysical conceits, nonsense and sorities—these constructs have always seemed to me essential to a poetics. But now they’re less of an intellectual pleasure than an incantation against absence and loss. I’ll tell you, aging is a great gift to the poet. Aging is to us what tuberculosis was to Keats. Again, it’s a relation to time. To become emeritus—the opposite of emerging—is the fate of the poet. Its etymology is something like “having served.” It harks back to emerald at the beginning of the poem—perhaps one becomes hard and sparkling and precision-cut once one is an “emeritus” poet.

It seems like you are entering into dialogue with philosophy. Does philosophy feel like something we can separate from your poetry?

I did study philosophy, but the Western poetic tradition is a philosophical tradition unto itself. Think of Celan and Rilke, Whitman and Dickinson, Cavafy and Hopkins, Donne and Sidney. Shelley and Keats and Shakespeare. Petrarch and Dante. Homer and Ovid. The theoretical framework of poetry has developed parallel to the philosophical tradition. The essays in Allen Grossman’s The Long Schoolroom are a good primer on this.

And so therefore—no, my work can’t be separated from the poetic-philosophical tradition.

And empirical linguistics? You’ve written some about this. Though there’s long been a sense that poetry puts language at unease, empirical linguistics informs poetry in a subtly different way.

The truth is, I got tired of reading linguistics. All the descriptivists in the world can’t come to the rescue of a poem that lacks human interest. I keep coming back to what Philip Guston said when he abandoned abstraction: “I got tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories.” The language of the poem serves a purpose—an argument, a story.

Your poetry perhaps confronts readers with the failures of linguistic sense, which is something we all encounter as we increasingly become text messagers and e-mailers. What is your attitude toward this phenomenon?

As I suggest above, I think the “failure” of linguistic sense is actually a short-circuiting of sense. But it is possible that we’re losing our sensitivity to it in an age where information is privileged over symbols, and where texts and e-mails are such efficient vectors of that information. Geoffrey Hill is right to say that these messages are truncated rather than condensed. With truncation, you fill in the blanks with your intellect. With condensation, you must use intuition and sympathy and feel your way to sense.

Like language, so many things are “gone” by the end of your poem. Should we be wondering where they all went?

We start over again at the beginning, don’t we? We reread. In that sense it isn’t gone—we convert it to a kind of eternal recurrence of the same.

This was also a longer poem for you. Does it feel like you’re entering new terrain with it?

I made a kind of turn after my last book, Shoulder Season, because of going to live in Beirut. I had a poet baptism in the Mediterranean. “Wingandecoia” signaled to me that it wasn’t a fluke—I have an altered relation to time now. Poets function as the memory of humanity.

Is there a special challenge that comes with that altered relation to time, with poetry functioning as the memory of humanity?

The challenge is to remember that poetry must still dance. We can all think of poets who lost their sense of joy or humor when they assumed the burden of memory. Memory is the mother of the muses, who weren’t dour figures. They were lovelies.

Looking over your work, I’m impressed by the range of forms and voices you’ve explored. But do you imagine yourself, like Ashbery in Shadow Train, settling into one or a few forms for a while?

I don’t know. One is always after the next unrepeatable performance.