Michael Homolka’s poem, “Self-Portrait as Tundra,” appears in Vol. 33.2 of The Southeast Review.
What can you tell us about “Self-Portrait as Tundra”—what inspired it? Where was it written?
I wrote “Self-Portrait as Tundra” because I was inspired by the poetry of Philippe Jaccottet—in particular, the untitled one below, as translated from the original French by Derek Mahon:
No breathing now. As when the dawn wind has done its worst with the last candle.
So great is the silence among us we could hear a comet on its way to the night of our daughters’ daughters.
To me, this Jaccottet poem stakes so much hope on “our daughters’ daughters.” The comet is what connects us to them and to our future. I started imagining to myself, “Well what if that placid, universally binding silence gives way only to further despair? or even just further minor annoyances? What if, in the silence, our daughters’ daughters go on bickering and fighting like us?” I started to unravel the silence, even though I love that vast, calming, and eternal nature the comet traveling in silence over generations seems to suggest. I started to object in my mind and feel the flip side of that silence, the pettiness of our natures, and our inability to sustain a connection with that kind of forgiving tranquility.
What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading Teaching Reading in the Middle Grades by James A. Rycik and Judith L. Irvin because I am at the outset of my first year teaching in the New York City public school system. I am also re-reading, very carefully and very closely, many texts I plan to teach. This includes the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, the “A Time for Everything” passage from Ecclesiastes 3, haiku by Basho and Issa, Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, and Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. (I’ll be teaching ninth grade, by the way, but the strategies in the Middle Grades book apply to the high school level as well.)
Where do you turn for inspiration? (A writer, another piece of writing, a place?)
It’s hard. I’d love to say I turn mostly to life for inspiration, but the content of my life is not especially unusual. I try to see things deeply, read as widely as possible, listen to people, observe people, observe nature, and write and revise all the time. I remember having a conversation about Shakespeare with Timothy Liu while he was my teacher at Bennington. Timothy was telling me—and I agree—how hard it is to use Shakespeare as a direct source of inspiration; he then said that, by contrast, the first time he read Milton, he said to himself, “I can build something from this.” So, I guess many of my favorite poets and authors are variable as far as whether or not I can glean direct inspiration. I revere and adore Shakespeare, but have an easier time reading, for example, “Lycidas” or “On his Blindness” by Milton, and then going and writing something on my own. The same with Mozart and Bach. I can listen to Bach and want to go write, but listening to Mozart for me has to be purely passive. I love it to no end, but I can’t do anything with it.
Which historic poet would you most like to fraternize with? What would you ask them?
This is one of my favorite games to play. I’d very much like to say Rilke, but I fear we might just sit in silence. Probably my number one would be Catullus. I would want to sit down with him and one of his truly pessimistic social critique poems and ask, “Is this a serious attack or a performance piece?” I would want to know if Lesbia was real in the way he portrayed her in his poems, and if he would still have written the Lesbia poems or something like them if there had been no literal Lesbia—was it just something he felt inside? Lastly, I would want to know which subject he felt closest to as a poet—blighted love or social critique. I don’t know—all these questions are probably somewhat beside the point. It’s not like a poet possesses spectacular content and can simply throw it all down on the page. Catullus cared about poetry and versification specifically as an art form as much as he did about critiquing Rome and “hanging tough” during the trials of love. He might be annoyed that I wanted to ask so much about the correlation between his inner sensibility and his finished poems.
Besides writing poems, what is one of your obsessions?
I love to run. One of my old co-workers at Simon & Schuster found it very puzzling how much I looked forward to running in the park after work. I’m not a particularly good runner. I don’t run 20 miles a week or anything—usually just two to three miles per outing, a few times a week. It brings me an absolutely irrational degree of pleasure. I love to look at trees and grass while I go. Sometimes walking or sitting and appreciating nature can get too heady. When I’m running, I feel a part of the natural world in a way I don’t have to think too hard about. I still wish I could fathom the beauty of trees more than I do (“World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!”), but that human limitation bothers me less when I’m in motion.
Michael Homolka’s first collection, Antiquity, is forthcoming from Sarabande Books.