Spring 2020, Volume 28

Interview with Dora Malech

Interviewed by Bill Neumire

Q 1: As an introduction to readers new to you and your work, what would you say in response to
your own “I come from” prompt?

A: Since so many of my memories are linked to the materials of language (as is my poetic process), I think I could say it’s where I come from, in a way. I come from the songs my mother sang and the songs I sing to my daughter. I come from the colloquialisms of the places I have lived and loved. I come from what I’ve read and written down and memorized passed along—recipes and nursery rhymes and favorite books. I come from the languages I have tried to learn, and the mistakes I make in language. I come from where language fails me too.

Q 2: In Flourish, and in the trajectory of your work, you really seem to wrestle with the efficacy of poetry even as you revel in its possibility. Do you feel like writing has gotten you closer to
answering the big questions? How would you compare it to reading, to your visual art, in this

A: I do wrestle with the efficacy of poetry, as with the efficacy of all language. Part of the reason I love poetry so much is that it asks us to attend to language in a different way than we usually do. We’re surrounded by language—political, corporate, phatic—all the time, and it becomes habit to absorb it. That poetry asks us to question language, to dismantle it and put it back together, to participate in it, seems so full of possibility to me. That said, most poetry isn’t really intended to “work” on a reader or listener like a political speech or instruction manual, and as such, it’s sometimes harder to decide if it’s efficacious, since it isn’t necessarily seeking one predetermined effect. So, no, I don’t feel like writing or reading or making visual art have gotten me closer to answering the big questions, but they have allowed me to feel greater intimacy with them. When I’m engaging with art, the big questions feel like fellow travelers.

Q 3: If all poems are political, what is the politics of Flourish? What can words do?

A: That’s one of the big questions! I’d venture to say that Flourish has a politics of form and a politics of content, and I hope that the two feed into each other. Formally, they engage in a kind of serious play, an unruliness or disobedience or irreverence that, for me, becomes a way of excavating language-as-usual. Words rupture and morph into each other. I believe in interconnectedness, and I want to enact that in language. Of course, while the poems are enacting, they’re also occasioned by issues and frustrations and situations that are often more explicitly political, social, or ecological. The first few poems in the collection all address apathy or the tendency to look away and disengage in one way or another. There’s a kind of mini-turn at the sixth poem in the collection, “Unconditional,” which ends, “And you—will you attend?” I’m pushing myself and the reader to question how and with what and whom we are willing to engage. I know that the kind of attention we pay to poems and the attention it takes to make change in the world aren’t equivalent, but I think that any practice we can give ourselves in terms of paying attention can’t hurt.

Q 4: “Must we fail in one form to find another?”

A: Ha! That’s the last line of the title poem from my previous book of poems, Stet, published in 2018, so I should probably have the answer by now. I’ll venture a tentative yes. Or rather, I believe that we have to recognize that failure and closure aren’t the same thing. I’ll say that I was writing that book at a time when I needed to find new possibilities in my own failures. I needed to think of them as apertures. This was true in my life, but I also needed to make it true in my writing. It isn’t quite as cheesy as the old, “When one door closes, another opens.” It’s more like, maybe the door wants to be a raft now, and we just have to take it off its hinges to find out.

Q 5: How, if at all, has parenthood changed your writing?

A: Talk about taking the door off its hinges! It has changed my life, for sure. But my writing? I’m not sure. I don’t love the cultural narrative in which parenthood “deepens” a person, as if those who cannot have children or choose not to have children don’t have access to those depths. I do think all relationships and experiences deepen a person though, so this one’s no different. And my daughter is hilarious, and she loves language, and she’s seeing the world for the first time! So the kind of attention I want to bring to my poetry, she’s bringing to her encounters with flowers and rhymes and the weather and everything. I often think poetry is a way to try to re-access the delight and imaginative connectivity of childhood, and it is lovely to reexperience it vicariously.

Q 6: What are your favorite adjectives used to describe your writing?

A: I’m pretty much happy to have folks describing my work at all! But Jane Huffman recently called Flourish “fully felt” in a piece for The Iowa Review, which I particularly loved, because it recognized the book’s intentions and engaged with the book’s playfulness and musicality through its own alliteration and consonance. I’d be happy for my epitaph to read: Fully Felt.