Michael Mlekoday, the author of “The Dead Eat Everything” (Kent State University Press, 2013), and a National Poetry Slam Champion, sat down with TellTell to give us the lowdown on his life.
When did you start writing? Did you always want to write?
I started writing in high school, but not fiction or poetry, exactly: I wanted to be a rapper. It wasn’t until college when I learned about poetry slam—thinking it’d be a great venue to read my awesome raps (nope and nope)—but I was immediately hooked.
Rapping aside, you won the National Poetry Slam in 2009…what the heck was that like?
It was wild. There was just something magical about that summer, the way our team came together and worked and practiced and glowed. Something I’m particularly proud of: you always get to Nationals and hear about such-and-such team who has 12 group poems (poems with more than one performer in them) ready for the tournament, because they’re generally thought to score higher than individual poems. This had been the way that teams have won Nationals for at least the previous ten or fifteen years—one of the most basic strategic decisions teams made. Instead of taking that route, my teammates (Khary Jackson, Sierra DeMulder, and Guante) and I just worked and re-worked our solo poems all summer, revised and practiced a bunch, and we went and won the tournament by using 16 different individual poems—I don’t know if any other team has done that.
Wow! That’s a super-duper achievement if I’ve ever seen one! After that you coached the team to its second championship…what kind of tips or advice did you give the team?
There are lots of different elements of coaching a poetry slam team—particularly if you’ve got a coach who knows what s/he’s doing. There’s writing workshops and revisions—making sure the poems are doing the work they should be doing, making sure everything makes sense and is clean and crisp, etc. Then there’s performance workshopping: we talk about things like tone, pitch, emotional arcs, choreography. Just like a writing workshop, we focus on how the performance comes across as a whole, and we also do line-edits, making sure that each line and each word is intoned in the most effective possible way. There’s also slam strategy, which I’m particularly interested in.
If you’ve got 20 poems ready to go for the tournament, you need to figure out which order you want to perform them in, what combinations you want to use, how to respond to different kinds of poems opponents might use—it’s typically the coach’s job to make the final decision regarding these questions. And finally, just like in sports, there’s the element of team morale; the coach ought to be monitoring how hard the team members are working, how they’re getting along, and how they’re feeling. I’ve seen otherwise fantastic coaches lose poise in the middle of a slam and let their poets despair when they’re losing, and that’s crushing for a team.
I saw on the Indiana University website that you’ve never seen the ocean. Is this true, and if it is, I suggest you go as fast as you can to the ocean.
Haha, yeah, it’s true—for now. I’m planning on seeing the Atlantic over Thanksgiving Break, and then maybe the Pacific over Spring Break. But I’m a Midwesterner through-and-through.
What are some projects that you are currently working on? I’m actually working on a book-length poem about the ocean, about not having seen it—the ocean sort of takes on this metaphorical weight, for me, and I suspect that going to see it will be a religious experience, so I’m trying to put that journey on the page.
Besides writing, what do you spend your days doing?
I play pool, hang out at bars, make “that’s what she said” jokes a lot. I’m envious of the kinds of folks who have multiple talents and interests—poets who can also paint, musicians who are also photographers. I’m kind of a one-track guy.
If someone could walk in your front door in five minutes who would you want it to be and why?
I don’t know, I’m not really a celebrity / historical figure kind of person. I miss my best friends back home. I miss a pitbull my friends and I used to live with, named Snoop. It’d be great to see them.
What is your connection between page poetry and spoken word? Do you feel an inner-nagging to perform, or did you stumble upon it and like it?
Beyond the fact that I wanted to be a rapper, I never really had any interest in performing. I had stage fright. I sucked at it for a long time. But it was also a huge adrenaline rush to get onstage, and over time, I grew to love it. I teach college classes now, and it’s the same thing—it’s like getting 50 minutes of stage time three days a week. In terms of poetics, I think there’s a big difference between things I write for performance and things I write for the page, though I’m always thinking about music and rhythm and sound.
Where is the strangest place you’ve performed? Back before I quit rapping, me and some buddies played a show in this barn-party up North in Minnesota. The band before us was a death metal group who wore gas masks while performing. It was super uncomfortable.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals? I fast the day of poetry slams or big performances. I started at the College National Poetry Slam in 2009—it was during Lent, I think, on a Friday, so I was already fasting, and we did well at the slam, so I figured that it brought my team great spiritual power. Robert Hass writes: “Emptiness / is strict; that pleases me.” I like that.
What is a typical day-in-the-life of Michael Mlekoday like? I wake up earlier than I’d like in order to teach or go to class, I pop over to the Indiana Review office and play rap music while everybody else is busy, read poems, write, sometimes go out to the bars.
Where did you get your awesome glasses?
Man, the more important question is: where did I LOSE my awesome glasses!? I don’t have them any more, and I can’t find the same ones anywhere.
Where do you see your writing career going in the next 5 years? Where would you like it to go?
Hopefully I keep learning new things, keep growing, keep removing myself from my own aesthetic comfort zone. My first book, The Dead Eat Everything, is coming out in about a year, so I’ll probably make a point of getting out and doing more readings, which is always fun.
If you could sleep with any character from any book who would it be and why?
Ha, great question! I mostly only read contemporary poetry, so that makes the question sort of awkward—like, um, the speaker from Famous Poet K’s poems? (Yes, I had a real name there, but deleted it.)
Hopefelly, the “Famous Poet K” will read this