Poetry interview

A Ladder Out of a Burning Building: A Conversation with Astrologer and Poet Gala Mukomolova

Poetry Interview Gala

Gala Mukomolova earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in the PENPOETRYPANKVINYL and elsewhere. In 2016 Mukomolova won the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her first chapbook, One Above / One Below is forthcoming from Yes Yes Books. She sat down to chat with Tell Tell about poems that could start religious, astrology and love, and how to feel better. 

Tell Tell: When did you start getting involved in astrology?
Gala Mukomolova: I can't remember when I started loving astrology. I have an Astro.com account that holds the info for natal charts belonging to my first gf in high school. When I was a lesbian growing up in a homophobic home with parents who barely spoke the same language as me, I needed a chart like one needs a ladder out of a burning building. I was looking for some answers or anything that could make sense of what was a pretty devastating time. I was splitting a lot of identities, I needed something to stay true at the core.

 TT: Tell us a bit about transitioning from Galactic Rabbit to Nylon. What’s that been like for you? GM: I want to say right off the bat that writing for NYLON is a true blessing. My editor is an angel in my inbox and the director is a queer empress, I've never felt more valued and supported by a publication. That being said, Galactic Rabbit Love Notes was just that—a labor of love—and labors of love are hard to give up even when the labor wears on you! The truth is I miss writing them and I do hope to write more. I just need to get my bearings in this hell-mouth of a  year. You know, I still get emails from Galactic Rabbit readers and they still hit me right in the heart. That's one of the big losses. 

TT: What is it about astrology and poetry together that really excites you?
GM: Recently, my best friend who is also a visual artist turned to me while picking out a vinyl to play and said, “You know people are really interested in astrology again, and people are treating poetry differently too, with curiosity.” I was caught off  guard because all of a sudden everything felt out of step with modernity. I'm excited about a culture turning inward, about projects that reveal more projects, of questions that lead to more questions (that's the Jew in me). I like that both poetry and astrology seek to give words to a feeling, to give a pattern a fabric to cling to; it's nice when they come together on the same tapestry and inspire resonance. And, there's a little god in both these practices, one that pries your hands open and shows you what you've been carrying this whole time. That's empathy work and the reward is spiritual. When I tell people I write poems or when I tell them I write horoscopes, they give me the same face, a face like capitalism malfunctioning, a face which can't compute my role in this regime. I find that face soothing.

TT: What is your biggest worry right now and how are you working through it? 
GM: My biggest worry? That's a wide net of a question. My biggest worry has something to do with feeling powerful in the world, I think, figuring out where I placed that part of myself that was irreverent and generative and unafraid to take risks. Creative risks and emotional risks. What's working through it? I have a therapist. I read books by trauma and codependency experts, I go for retreats at Zen Buddhist monasteries. I'm gonna crack this whole being a person thing. Or did you mean what am I worried about in the stars? I'm worried that the Solar Eclipse followed by Jupiter in Scorpio is going to see a lot of people into new stages of self discovery prompted by heartbreak and searing grief. I'm worried there are so many vulnerable people amongst us that have already suffered too much. I'm worried about my friends who are people of color. I'm worried about trans women. I'm worried about all these fucking guns and the ghouls who run our country. I deal with that with the work I do and the love I offer others which is no small thing I promise you.

TT: Do you have any poems, lines, or lyrics that you think about more often than the others? What are they?
GM: Well, it changes often. I let writers get in my head, I let them get in my heart. Adrienne Rich has stayed with me for a long time, lots of lines from 21 love poems, this section especially:

or, when away from you I try to create you in words,
am I simply using you, like a river or a war?
And how have I used rivershow have I used wars
to escape writing of the worst thing of all—
not the crimes of others, not even our own death,
but the failure to want our own freedom passionately enough
so that blighted elms, sick rivers, massacres would seem
mere emblems of that desecration of ourselves?

I think about Lucille Clifton’s fox poems all the time and those women walking unafraid through the generous fields.

I carry echoes of Richard Siken’s poems “Wishbone”(if you love me Henry, you don't love me in a way I understand) and “Snow and Dirty Rain.” (In the gold room where everybody gets what they want).

The Stranger song by Leonard Cohen, the apple poem by Yehuda Amichai, I’ve had a single piece  of paper with Anne Sexton’s “Consorting with Angels” on it since I was 16 probably, it’s a crazy poem, it’s the kind of poem that can start its own religion.

And, speaking of Angels, my friend francine j. harris has this amazing poem in her first book, Allegiance, that catalogues the sorrow and grace of ordinary angels. I think about that poem all the time too.

Let me stop before I start recalling the genius of my loved ones, that would be an avalanche.

TT: I often think about your poem Vasilyssa Has No Familiars (published in Vinyl) and the line “because your heart is / the ghost that haunts your family, accept aloneness.” How do you relate to that line now?
GM: Funny you should ask that. As I'm answering this question, I’m on the third leg of a one hour and a half journey to be present for my mother who is having cancer-related surgery even though I have otherwise not been speaking to her. And, I will be sitting in that waiting room with my brother who I recently charged to make a choice regarding my sexuality: either accept it or exit my life. He didn't make a choice which means he made one. But, here we are, illness demands generosity. Ghosts stay ghosts tied to burdens on Earth until those burdens die.

TT: What are you currently reading? What are you loving? What are you starting at?
GM: Recently, I set up a breakup  book mix for myself: The New Codependency, The Art Lover by Carole Maso, Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Susan Sontag’s second set of journals, and Thich Naht Hanh’s Calming the Fearful Mind. Some of these books I’ve carried for a long time and some are new but I'm just interchanging them on the daily. It’s a sort of “other people have felt this before, some of them have even killed themselves but you don't have to, plus, there's a lot more to you than your suffering—look a mother fucking mountain—so just do your work” kind of experiment.

Poetry and essay wise, I’m really excited about the work my friends are getting published. Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s new essay collection is out, Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, and Duriel E. Harris just came out with No Dictionary of a Living Tongue. Rachel Mckibbens’ blud is newly in my clutches. I am inside the moment with these book births and the worlds they cord and drag open behind them.

Otherwise, I genuinely believe everyone should be reading Octavia Butler right now just to, uh, be prepared.

 TT: What playlist have you been enjoying recently? What songs make you cry?
GM: Ive been listening to Kendrick’s latest album a lot and SZA’s too. That helps me move from one spot to another. Lots of shit makes me cry. “Stay Ready” by Jhene Aiko makes me cry.  Just looking at Princess Nokia makes me cry.

 TT: What are men good for?

GM: The sticky gag of old sweat, an explanation I don’t need, raising my heart rate down a midnight street, the refusal to own their complicity.

 TT: What happens when a Taurus and a Scorpio hang out together?
GM: Drugs, liquor, eating meat with their hands, brute loyalty, watching Moonstruck again, matching tattoos, an overwhelmingly joyful amount of sarcasm accented with tenderness, lying flat on the ground and moaning just to do it, sitting in parking lots drinking Starbucks talking about the nature of love or just blasting Heavy D’s “Nuttin’ but Love.”

TT: What’s your favorite sign?
GM: You’re trying to get me in trouble!

TT: What are you waiting for?
GM: To Exhale. My money. A change to come. The world to change.

 TT: If the following poems were signs, what signs would they be?

  “Wait” by Galway Kinnell. Aquarius, post break up, after reading a book on mindfulness.

“The Glass Essays” by Anne Carson Gemini on new anti-depressants trying to figure it out.

“First Love” by Jean Valentine I don't know because this poem is unavailable

Online it seems but “For Love” by Jean is a Sagittarius flirting with an ex.

“A Wreath of Stars: Symsonia, Kentucky, 1914” by Joe Bolton Libra dude considering bisexuality.

“Tear it Down” by Jack Gilbert Scorpio making excuses for an abusive relationship.

“Dreams” by Wislowa Szymborska Capricorn in love with an Aquarius.

“The Stray” by Charles Simic Leo who is drunk and can't figuring out where his friends went or why it's always like this.

“A Love Letter” by Russell Edson A Pisces dude whose pot problem has affected his virility.

“Blood Soup” by Mary Ruefle Taurus with lots of Gemini placements and possibly a Cancer moon who’s not ready to talk about the depth of her grief but needs to at least try and communicate something of its nature.

“It’s no use/dear mother” by Sappho  Virgo feeling guilty for not completing her work to her usual high standard because she’s sprung for some delinquent.

“kitchenette building” by Gwendolyn Brooks Aries after reading a book on semiotics, trying to stoke  a fire in their own brain.

“And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So” by Wendy Xu

Cancer secretly excited about the Holiday season despite social anxiety.

Interview with Tasha Cotter

Tasha Cotter, author of The Girl in the Cave sat down with Brian Orth and Tell Tell Poetry to chat about her collection. Tasha Cotter is the author of the poetry collection Some Churches (Gold Wake Press, 2013). You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com and on twitter @TashCotter.

Tell Tell: As a poet who also returns frequently to landscapes in order to explore the emotional mythologies inherent to us as humans, I greatly appreciated being introduced to the countryside of Kentucky (have never been). I think sometimes we forget our deep connection with the earth itself. I suppose that ideal is as good of segue as any into my first question.

It was not until my second read-through of the chapbook that I was struck by the clever title of the first section of The Girl in the Cave. At first glance my brain went automatically to “A Looking In” rather than “A Locking In,” but upon subsequent readings I found the beginning poems of the chapbook displayed a speaker more in the stages of coping (a locking in) than introspection (a looking in). Would you say this is true of these introductory poems in which we find the speaker invested/fond of storytelling and destinations of retreat (cave, outer space, the inner self)? Is this a way to allow the reader a “look in” to memory “locked away”?

Tasha Cotter: Yes, once I had a sense of the poems I thought would fit within the parameters of the book, I began to see two possible themes emerge as ways of organizing the book. Part one of the book, like you described, includes poems that are more confining and restrictive, whereas the latter part of the books includes poems that have a little more freedom – as readers we’re breaking through; we’re getting away. The water is draining into the field at sunset. I like the idea of finding a narrative arc with books of poetry, and when I can, I try to deliver that kind of experience to the reader.

Along these lines of storytelling/mythology, it appears the speaker feels a connection with the outsider and exotic. Throughout The Girl in the Cave there were moments I could not help but think of Plato’s allegory. Was there any connection to his philosophy that one must experience both the “cave of shadows” and reality in order to be conscious of the power of the mind?

If the connection to Plato’s cave of shadows is there, it must have been subconscious on my part. It’s been a long time since I read The Republic. If anything, the title and the idea behind it was more literal – I was deep in my reading about the Mammoth Cave National Park system and the history of the caves. I was intrigued that bodies had been recovered from the caves – Native Americans from hundreds of years ago. As someone who grew up on the land around the cave system, I was always intrigued by the land, and the endless, unseen paths underfoot. Of course, the title works in a metaphorical way, too.

One of my favorite poems in the whole collection is “Dormant” because it strikes such a beautiful balance between image and emotion. Yes, “the last blade” is visible in my mind, but the strong imagery of a “mindless winter… and its difficult breathing” is phenomenal. Is this a form you like to integrate alongside more narrative-driven work? I think it’s a lovely way to allow the reader to take a breath from the storyteller’s perspective and simply get lost in one of Wordsworth’s infamous “spots of time.” Do you read many Deep Image poets? Or what type of work especially attracts you as a reader?

I’m so glad you liked this poem. The poem “Dormant” went through many iterations, and was eventually published in the journal Interim – a big thank you to editor Derek Pollard for that. One of my inspirations for this poem was studying the work of David Ferry. I was mesmerized by his work and his ability to say, in such a few words, an exact emotion, or to convey a vivid experience. I discovered his work while listening to the Poetry Magazine podcast and his poems just resonated with me, and they left me buzzing in that way really excellent poems can. He has a new book out, Bewilderment – it’s on my to-read list. I loved his book Strangers.

I read a little bit of everything, though. And I tend to read as much fiction and nonfiction as I do poetry. I love the work of Kate Zambreno, Rachel Glaser, Elizabeth Strout, and Alice Munro. In terms of poetry (or near poetry) I really like Anne Carson and Sarah Manguso.

Towards the conclusion of “A Locking In,” the speaker seems to return to the role of storyteller. Many of the anecdotes the reader encounters revolve around a relationship that has been lost or is in the process of being lost, and they are often shrouded in a certain mystery known only to a certain “community.” These scenes have a very small-town feel to them. How much were you influenced by your own upbringing when writing these poems? For me, this was when the speaker began to realize that there were ways to “look in” one’s self rather than have to “lock in” these emotions so no one could see them.

In his book of essays The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo has a passage that has stuck with me since I began to take poetry seriously. While arguing against the poet’s desire to “write what you know,” Hugo contends that

The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you've just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn't always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you've never seen it before, it must be a town you've lived in all your life.

I, personally, have sometimes found it hard to create a new town that reflects some inkling of the town you have actually lived in your whole life without becoming too sentimental or too fond of exact details. As a poet writing about specific places/relationships, how do you balance the language with the memory? Do you find it takes distance (mentally, physically, and emotionally) to properly give details of the past their proper diligence?

I think trying to weave in details you know and experiences you own, does take some distance, if you want to create something artful. For me, I need space away from the event and a certain amount of emotional distance, too, otherwise the writing can feel too raw, or too personal. I love that passage of Hugo’s and for me, getting into the personal history and the real accounts of the land and the history of the caves helped shift my perspective a little bit – those stories broadened my idea of the place. I also looked to certain word choices to lend the poems power. How I crafted some of the poems was very intentional on my part. For example, the use of “we” in my poem Thanksgiving – the line “No one would say what would happen / to the rest of us.” As soon as that new perspective entered the poem, it charged the poem and gave a new sense of energy to the poem, which, as a Poet, is the kind of moment I live for.

While “A Locking In” was a type of retreat for the speaker, the second half of the chapbook reads as a type of reminder to oneself that he/she can overcome the shadowy caves of the past by investigating the exact memories that lead to certain repressed feelings. The speaker has “come back…something bigger / than I was when we began.” Was this section more personal for you? I felt as though these memories were more vivid and alive once they had been given a voice to the outside world. Is this section a way of “rewriting the story”?

I think every poem I write is a way of rewriting the story. I’m always trying to make sense of an idea, a person, an experience. I write as a means to ask questions, and I don’t often get answers. But writing is a way of understanding what I think about something. What I’m searching for is emotional truth, and often that starts with a kernel of personal truth. From there, I try to expand on the idea and locate meaning on the page that feels real and earned. That being said, some poems are more personal than others. Others are purely fictional; a vehicle for me to explore an idea or an image I can’t forget because it seems charged with meaning and metaphorical possibilities.