Born in San Francisco and raised in Vacaville, Michelle Brittan Rosado earned an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Fresno, and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Why Can’t It Be Tenderness, which won the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (University of Wisconsin Press, 2018). Her chapbook, Theory on Falling into a Reef, won the inaugural Rick Campbell Prize (Anhinga Press, 2016). Her poems have been published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Poet Lore, San Francisco Chronicle’s “State Lines” column, and The New Yorker, as well as several anthologies.
Love After Dentistry
by Michelle Brittan Rosado
With my mouth half-numb against yours,
the palm on my face might as well touch
anyone’s. I can’t feel your thumb pulling down
my bottom lip, index resting
under the chin, even though it’s a habit made familiar
to me now. I have to rely on sight
to know what you’re doing, your eyes closed
against the memory of another woman
for all I know. Beyond us and the wall
of the room, the grass stretches towards the end
of the yard. I could call up the fingers
of someone else; I’ve done it
before. It was a kind of test, the recollection
of the last man like a layer
over your movements so that, for a second,
the two of you blurred. And I would
do the work of finding you—the pressure
of your arm behind my back, your hip
on the inner side of my thigh—just to separate
your touch from his, and in this way
I could choose you over and over. Maybe
you’ve done the same, there may have been times
my body changed under your body, it’s possible
you did not know who I was until I returned
to you as myself, and whatever light
the day had left would uncover our faces
to each other. But this time I turn my head, run
my tongue over the raw surfaces of my mouth
for the first time, while the fence outside
the window arranges itself in parallel
lines. Here are new spaces, the hard
plaster sanded over, my own teeth.
From Why Can't It Be Tenderness by Michelle Brittan Rosado. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
Much of your work is in the liminal and this quality of liminality suffuses, I suppose, your poems with the longing to extend yourself back and forth in history. Could you tell us how you see the contours, moral and geographical, that define this space for you? What is in the middle? What tensions transpire in the in-between?
As a Californian, I’m fascinated with being at the edges of things: the continent and the ocean, the border between countries, where the urban and the rural meet. One side of my family stretches back five generations in this state, while the other side lives across the Pacific in Malaysia, so traveling that expanse of the ocean several times in my life has also given me an appreciation for what lies between and what it takes to get from one place to another, one state of mind to another.
I appreciate that you speak of the in-between in terms of longing, because this is the feeling that makes the tension of liminality seem worthwhile to me. Longing is driven by desire and connection. Feeling in-between can be marked by sadness, but the root of this is really love. This is part of why I felt compelled to have “tenderness” in the title of the collection, as the word can imply woundedness, but at the same time it also suggests being gentle with that woundedness. We may not be “there,” wherever that is, but in language we can name it and seek it. In my poetry I’m always striving for that more aerial view—that wherever there’s disconnection we can also find desire and beauty surrounding it.
The desire to extend yourself in time and across the continents permeates your poems, but I could also feel the tenacious nature of your longing to tether yourself. While the tethering finds more concrete expression in poems like “Pastoral With Restless Searchlight,” and in “The Tower District”—titled after the Fresno neighborhood where I met you for the first time in the fall of 2010—it becomes something else. The need to claim a place in the world might be fundamental to a poet but do you think it is also elusive?
Poetry in particular has always struck me as a means of traveling in a way that’s different from the other genres. If we think of the page as a map, we are already navigating line breaks and white space and the shapes of stanzas. Writing about place feels natural to me as a poet and I suppose as a person with my cultural background. I think that’s why I feel a bit more at home in poetry than in prose, because of that capacity to move through space.
The urge to capture a place and time often comes up for me in my writing, though I hadn’t thought of it as a tether, which is interesting. I think the elusiveness of memory is part of the wonder of a brief genre like poetry. A poem is short, and because of its length it sends us somewhere quickly and deeply and then it’s over, and we get to be somewhere else in the next poem. When I wrote “Pastoral with Restless Searchlight,” which is about my hometown of Vacaville, I wanted to recall the sensory details of my childhood and fully access my essential feelings about the place. But I don’t know that I want to tether myself there (or anywhere) in a permanent way. Maybe momentarily tether and appreciate its complexity, then let go, but also be able to return. A poem does that for me: it makes a door into a time or place that I can enter and leave, and enter again.
It’s like your reference to us meeting in the Tower District, which I’m glad you mentioned, as it’s a moment that lives in the past and a place we’ve both moved away from. But in talking about that time and place, it invites us to return there again in this conversation. Even if there’s an urge to tether in my poetry, or perhaps others’ poetry, the genre is always teaching me both as a reader and writer how momentary any feeling and situation can be.
Fresno is afflicted with poverty; its streets are thronged with the homeless and hungry. There is also an immigrant population that struggles to assimilate and get by. The Central Valley is agrarian and has, what I think, are probably the most politically conservative neighborhoods (like Clovis) and communities with grim crime records in the entire United States. Given the fact that most Americans would not think of the city poetically, how do you see it?
The town where I grew up, Vacaville, is about 200 miles north of Fresno, but shares some similarities in terms of the climate and the historical role of agriculture there. I left as an adult to attend college in Washington state, which was beautiful and dense with evergreens, and quite different. But it was in leaving the place where I grew up that allowed my appreciation for my hometown to develop from a distance. As an undergraduate there I encountered Gary Soto’s poem, “The Elements of San Joaquin,” and the landscape in his poem felt so familiar and intimate to me, and I began to realize how the Central Valley was not just a backdrop to my early life but has shaped the way I think and feel. Time, for instance, moves differently with the cycles of planting and harvest, the winter fog and extreme summer heat. After six years in the Pacific Northwest, I returned to California to study poetry at Fresno State. Though I had never lived in Fresno before, the city and surrounding area felt like home—even if the differences between rich and poor, developed and rural, were in higher contrast than the place where I was raised.
This setting may not seem “poetic” if we think of that word in terms of being flowery or ornate. But for me, the landscape has this capacity for inducing poetic thinking in terms of metaphor, of using equivalency or comparison to reconcile things that seem disparate. Adrienne Rich says, more or less, that metaphor is an insistence on an essential sameness despite our differences, and this is a political act. I’ve heard people make that joke of there being something in the drinking water that makes Fresno produce so many poets, but my sense is that it’s the land with all its polarities and contradictions. For me the landscape can hold a wide range of feeling and experience, the way the fields can seem infinite when you drive alongside the long lines of crops that grow in the Valley.
What did you learn from the Fresno School of Poets? How did/do you respond to the “notorious” neo-Romantic Central Valley sensibility?
The work of Fresno poets—like Soto, and Philip Levine and Brian Turner, whose work I also read while in in the Northwest—helped me see and appreciate the Central Valley as a site of beauty as well as economic struggle. Having them as early models felt like being granted permission, because their poems helped me believe that the setting of my own upbringing deserved to be written about. During my first summer in the MFA program, I read as much work by Fresno poets as I could, like the out-of-print anthology, How Much Earth, and many of the selected or collected works of the poets in it. At the same time, I was fortunate to write alongside brilliant poets in workshop who were both local and from out-of-state, so the idea of a Fresno school of poetry was an ongoing conversation with the work currently being produced. In that way, it struck me as a tradition that’s very alive and widening to include more voices.
As for the poetic, to bring that back from your previous question—I’m grateful for an education that doesn’t equate what’s “poetic” with what’s commonly held as beautiful, but rather, thinking poetically means inviting complication and contradiction, and trying to reconcile tragedy with radical optimism. This might strike some as romanticizing, but it feels very rooted in the real to me: that sensibility can be instructive for how to survive and find beauty in unlikely places.
In “Love-After Dentistry,” you made me revisit a place filled with the baggage of the past, the baggage that the bodies bear, reeking with doubt. Yet, at the end, I emerged humble and accepting. There are so many beautiful poems in your collection but this one stunned me.
Thank you, Feroz. We’ve been talking about place as something outside of us, and I do think we internalize that, so that our bodies carry the memory of people we’ve loved and places we’ve lived. As sometimes happens when we write, I began with one idea rooted in the literal and concrete that seemed novel—getting dental work done—and the poem moved into a direction I wasn’t expecting. I appreciate how the genre is always asking me what might be a metaphor that I hadn’t considered, and I suppose in this poem it’s repair and imperfection, and what is required of us to get used to change, physical and otherwise.
Thematically, I am interpreting the poem as a reproduction of the same theme we talked about at the beginning of this interview—extending and transcending the self. But this time, does the transcendence happen through the body, leading into the person’s past?
This is a really interesting reading of the poem, and I think that can be true. I’m one of those writers who ascribes to the belief that what we write has a will of its own, and I’m only the medium; I feel there’s more at work in the poem-making process than my own conscious intentions. But I do know that when I was putting together the collection, I wanted this poem to appear towards the end, which was my attempt to gesture toward connections with others. If there’s a transcendence of the self or the body, it’s at least in part to find belonging with another person. That’s the other kind of in-betweenness I find so interesting: the simultaneous intimacy and feelings of separateness between two people. Or, on a larger level, the self reaching toward the rest of humanity, feeling how different we are and also how essentially the same.
While “Love-After Dentistry” comes later along with a cycle of confessional poems like “Visitations With Unmarried Self,” I also liked the ones that came earlier and are more political. I am thinking about “Customs.”
as suitcases, boxes at eye level, the girl becomes
a piece of luggage in transit. She has nothing
that can be confiscated, she does not even hold
her own passport…
In an era of exclusivism and politics of segregation, the movement of the girl is very telling of how dehumanizing xenophobia can become when it translates into a government policy.
As many of us are, I’ve been thinking a lot about recent events at the border and family separations, and what that can do to a young child. Being a mother to a toddler, the enormity of that harm is just unfathomable to me. Although the poem “Customs” isn’t about that particular subject and was written before this current administration, I remain interested in (and also horrified by) the way even routine experiences like going through customs at an airport can be fearful to a child, because of the way people are categorized based on the types of documents they possess (or don’t possess). Parenting has been an opportunity for me to reflect more on how each of us absorbs messages about our humanity and worth, and from where those earliest intimations may have come. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the natural and the geographical, because it’s a different kind of authority, a different way of understanding our place in the world.
To end our conversation, one question about the form: Why Can’t It Be Tenderness is a broad collection that addresses many themes, like exile, rootlessness, history, migration, and the body’s relationship with place. Aesthetically, is there one single thing that brings all these themes together?
I’m really interested in the idea of halves that make a whole, and it’s a recurring theme and image in my work, due in part, I think, to being mixed-race. I used to try to avoid returning to this motif of things cut in half, but I’ve accepted that it’s a lens with which I view the world and relationships—not the only lens, but an extra one.
After finally embracing that idea, I split the collection in two sections. There are also poems arranged in couplets and variations of couplets, a contrapuntal poem written in two columns that can be read at least two ways, a pantoum that repeats all lines twice. I stopped resisting and let it take over. Form has taught me that what is halved can also be seen as doubled, and through poetry I’ve been challenging myself to think of situations as not being less, but more. Through writing, there’s a way to reach through what appears to be deficient and end up with abundance on the other side of that feeling.
Feroz Rather is an interviews editor at The Southeast Review and his work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Ploughshares Blog, The Millions, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Caravan, and in Mad Heart, Be Brave: On the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali published by Michigan University Press. His debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, published by HarperCollins in South Asia was nominated for the First Book Award by the Ninth Mumbai International Literary Festival.