Devil’s Lake


Interview with Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello

Q: Hour of the Ox (Pittsburgh 2016) won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is perhaps my favorite collection to come out of 2016. Your verse is so muscular and precise I’m now a little suspicious of the adage “a poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” I can’t imagine any poem in the collection looking any different than it appears in the book—they glide so effortlessly, no fussiness involved. What was your editing process for the collection?

Thank you for such a close reading of the book, and for your kind words. All the poems in the book were written over three years during my MFA, but I took another year to reorder the manuscript. I was ruthless in revision. Early versions of many of these poems are nearly unrecognizable. Beyond the writing and revision process of the actual poems, this collection took a year of hardcore editing, reordering, and re-editing. I still made small changes to punctuation and word choice in the final book proofs, and even when I read certain poems, I wonder how those changes impact people’s interpretations. I forget who told me that the last poem you write for the collection is the overall order. Once all the poems were sequenced, I set aside an evening to read the whole book in one sitting as if it were one long poem. I made several additional edits to individual poems in thinking of them all together as a book-length poem. To revise, I must be able to hold the entire collection in my head and see it all simultaneously.

Q: I’m forever haunted by the poem “Happiness,” particularly the line “I never knew you had such silences.” With such intimate subject matter throughout, what silences did you intentionally leave out of the collection?

So much of human communication is nonverbal, which always fascinates me. I read recently that the psychologist Albert Mehrabian estimated communication to be 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and 7% actual words spoken. I’m not sure how accurate that percentage breakdown is, but it made me curious: If text is the only bridge between author and audience, and body language and tone of voice are absent, just how much can be communicated in the small space of and around a poem’s printed words? I don’t have a definitive answer.

Absence is a recurring subject for my work. Since each poem is written from the persona of a family member, I refused to include the brother’s voice. He can only be accessed through others’ representations, and that is never entirely accurate, is it? We often seek to give voice to the voiceless, and I wonder who that actually empowers. Each decision we make is double-edged.

Q: There are a lot of dichotomies present in Hour of the Ox but the two that stand out the most to me most are the striking differences between American culture and the culture of immigrants, and the relationship between myth and reality. How do you see the balance between folklore and myth and staying true to the customs and sacrifices of the everyday?

… that impulse toward creativity and human connection, if granted enough distance, becomes the same stuff that made previous versions of our world and ancestors so mythic to us.

My professors told me to consider symmetry when ordering my collection, but I’ve always been more interested in things that appear symmetrical but aren’t, or things that don’t seem like exact dichotomies but are. We think that folklore opposes reality, and American culture opposes the immigrant narrative, but in fact both of those things are extensions of each other. American culture is the culture of immigrants. Small differences exist, of course, but underneath it, people are the same. We all want to be seen and loved, want to fully feel what it is to be human. There’s also a misconception that the people who came before us were not as intelligent as we are now. Our basic desires have not changed; simply their mode of expression has. This is why art transcends all boundaries so easily, if we open ourselves to the universal impulse and need that drove it into being. Although the details in Hour of the Ox might not precisely align with someone else’s life, the emotional landscapes that hold each poem connect us all, which makes us feel seen and heard and understood. And that impulse toward creativity and human connection, if granted enough distance, becomes the same stuff that made previous versions of our world and ancestors so mythic to us.

Q: You’ve been rather candid about not writing for a little bit after completing your MFA. How did you stay active in the literary community during that time?

I suppose I should clarify that “not writing” means not writing anything worth working on. My inability to write anything substantial has not been for lack of trying. I stayed in Miami after graduation, so I have been able to maintain friendships with professors and colleagues still in the program. During my MFA, I said yes to every kind of literary volunteer experience possible, so I was already integrated into various literary communities outside of academia. I was also fortunate to find work at Miami Book Fair as a children’s literacy and poetry programs coordinator, so being able to read new poetry all the time intersects with a career in which it is my job to be aware of what is happening in literary circles. Although I have gained a profound appreciation for nonprofit literary programming, I still choose to come home every night and try to write. It took me about two years to realize that being a poet and being an employee aren’t necessarily exclusive, even if they are fully separate careers. I identify as a poet in the same way as I identify as a woman, a wife, a pet owner, a Korean-American.

Q: What advice would you give to those experiencing a similar break from their craft? How do you return to the page?

Read everything. At my best, I read and write fiercely. I am wary of poets who tell me they don’t read other poets, or that they only read the same few poets over and over with no effort to expand their literary horizons. How are we to grow in our craft and bring fresh energy to the page if we draw from the same old resources?

Try everything. A friend once told me that if he wrote one hundred songs, maybe one of them would be worth producing. I think the same goes for poetry. I may not have written a good poem in months, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been trying. In a recent craft talk, Terrance Hayes said that he considers every poem he reads to be a prompt. Every moment of every day can be part of your writing process if you pay close enough attention. This means you must be willing to try anything and everything. Being able to articulate what works is just as important to sharpening your craft as being able to articulate what doesn’t.

“Every moment of every day can be part of your writing process if you pay close enough attention. This means you must be willing to try anything and everything. ”

Forgive yourself. I once asked Jane Hirshfield how she moves forward in her work, and she said, “I forgive myself for the days I am not Jane Hirshfield, but rather the woman who’s late to the airport, running frantically through the terminal having forgotten to pack her gloves.” When I am not writing, it is usually because I am telling myself, incorrectly, that the stakes are too high. Poetry can start revolutions and bring down dictatorial governments, but to put pen to paper with such an intention can destroy the heart of the poem. On the days that you feel poetry is despairingly distant, simply make yourself available by trying so that when creativity begins, you are prepared.

Q: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

Since my MFA, my work has shifted and divided its attention among various projects. Although my poetry has yet to shape into any kind of new, clearly defined project, I have been exploring a series of lyric essays on food, language, and culture.

Poet Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello MARCI CALABRETTA CANCIO-BELLO is the author of Hour of the Ox, which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry (Pittsburgh, 2016), and has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, among others. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets 2015, Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art, december, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. She serves as cofounding editor for Print-Oriented Bastards and producer for The Working Poet Radio Show.