“I Found a Home for Them in Poems”: A Conversation with Michael Dumanis–curated by Lisa Olstein

Born in Moscow to Jewish parents of mixed Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian descent, Michael Dumanis immigrated to the United States at the age of five. His second book of poems, Creature, was published by Four Way Books in September 2023, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.. His first, My Soviet Union, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry. He is also coeditor, with poet Cate Marvin, of the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century. With Kevin Prufer, he coedited the volume Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master. He lives in North Bennington, Vermont, and is a member of the Literature Faculty at Bennington College, where he runs the Poetry at Bennington reading series and serves as Editor of Bennington Review.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Michael Dumanis: I think all my poems at their core grapple with the linear progression of time, the simultaneous banality and ecstasy of existing as a creature in a world populated by other creatures who also seem to exist, and the desire to sing into the wind.

One of the earliest poems I wrote for this manuscript is the one that begins it, “Natural History,” where the speaker is a sort of marionette making sense of being able to move around and speak. He seeks to find substance and purpose, “to feel more substantial / than an elephant wearing a fez,” so he attempts to create an entire world out of language. The theory of gravity. A lover. A baby. But it’s challenging to find fulfillment, as he discovers, complaining, “However, the darkness keeps hitting / me over the head with its hammer.” And yet, he acknowledges, “It’s so amazing what we get to see.”

I would also add that at the heart of this work is an immigrant and a father. I was born in the Soviet Union, a country that does not exist and literally can’t be revisited, that my parents had to ask permission to leave. I now live in a country that my parents had to ask permission to enter. Some of the poems in Creature are informed by my conviction that borders are an absurd construct, that people should be able to cross them as they like, that everyone should have a right to freedom of movement. This book took me a long time to write, and when I started, I didn’t have children. But on some whim I gave myself the directive that anytime I wasn’t sure where to head in a poem, I needed children to walk into it and make their presence known. And then the children became real, and those two children started to enter the poems as well.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

MD: For me the building block of every poem is the line. Conscious decisions of lineation and enjambment, sometimes favoring recklessness, other times favoring grace, provide a rhetorical frame for the words, and create a tension in the poem that is essential to any music and meaning. I recognize the dominance in contemporary American poetry of the Charles Olson declaration that form is never more than an extension of content, and I confess I struggle with it. To my mind, formal decisions often lead the poet to discover content that they wouldn’t otherwise access, and truth in many of my favorite poems emanates from the music.

I wrote many of the lines in Creature well before I wrote the poems themselves. I would go to an art museum and compel myself to not leave one artwork for the next until I’d written something down about it in a notebook, it could be an impression or an image or part of the caption or curatorial note or a reaction to what I’m seeing or a complete off-topic non sequitur; but I had to write something down. At home, I shaped these notes into lines. Then, when I wrote I found a home for them in poems I was working on. A huge part of my writing process involves juxtaposition and collage. I see the poem as an improvisational rhetorical journey, where each decision I make guides the decisions that follow as I assemble it, one line at a time, trusting the language and the inevitable accumulation of meaning to help me reach a destination that surprises me and yet feels earned and somehow right.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

MD: As far as I’m concerned, the I that’s on my page is always a persona, a disembodied voice capable of communicating across time and space, an “I” I construct out of language. My values and emotions and confrontations with despair are certainly present in my poems, I recognize the humor as my own, and my thoughts often (though not always) align with a poem’s utterances. I suppose my speaker, even when it’s decidedly not me (one poem in the book is spoken by the dying Roman emperor Hadrian and another by an endangered marsupial called a “greater bilby”), is looking at the world through my eyes.

But poetry to me, while searching after insight into being, is not the autobiography of a corporeal self and does not adhere to a reader’s expectations of nonfiction or narrative truth. My poem “Autobiography,” for instance, where every word begins with the letter “a,” is the autobiography of someone who can’t stammer past the first letter of the alphabet, who is constrained by what he can and cannot say, and who can mainly speak in depersonalized fragments because he can’t actually ever say “I.” Curiously, rereading “Autobiography,” I notice that a lot of what its speaker says is indeed surprisingly autobiographical or autobiographical-adjacent. And yet, he is not me. My poem “Flag Day” is most certainly set in an immigrant childhood in cold-war Buffalo, New York in the 1980s. I drew on personal experience to write this poem, but not every detail of the speaker’s experience is my own: most tellingly, I never marched in a Flag Day parade (although my sisters might have), and as my sister pointed out to me, we never drank Snapple.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

MD: Most of the poems in this book were read out loud shortly after they were drafted or revised to one or more of the following three people: my wife the poet Monica Ferrell, my friend the poet Jericho Brown, and my mother, to whom the book is dedicated and for whom I would translate the poems into Russian over the phone. I take their opinions and potential affirmation very seriously, so I suppose I’m aware when I’m writing that they are the original recipients of my utterances. But in a way I’m also probably writing these poems to a version of myself that I’ve never met that is reading them somewhere I’ll never end up. And to you, who are nothing like me, who are reading this now, whoever you are.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

MD: I think every poem is a risk of language: will it land? will it engage a reader and persuade them and hold them? In terms of subject matter, I feel a good amount of vulnerability in writing about my actual children, in shining a spotlight on them and expressing my emotions about them with perhaps uncharacteristic directness, as I do in the poems “The Empire of Light,” “Annunciation,” “Walkup,” and “Ordeal.” I am a relatively private person, so it’s a lot for me to introduce a reader to my family the way I try to do in those poems.

There are four poems overtly about immigration in the book – “Flag Day” and “Exit Visa” explicitly concern themselves with my family’s departure from the USSR, and “Checkpoint” and “The Kidnapped Children” owe their existence to my horror at the Trump regime’s draconian border policies. Those are probably the most political poems in the book, and I find it especially challenging to write a successful political poem that isn’t limited by message, that doesn’t just tell the reader what the reader already knows.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

MD: I came to poetry with a fairly Keatsian sensibility—that as he says in his too-famous Negative Capability letter, “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” That said, I think there is a kind of contrarianism and interest in subversion of closure in my poems that stems from being born in a totalitarian state and then being raised in the US by the emigrant products of a totalitarian state, where subtext, sophistry, subtlety, and semantic ambiguity were seen as essential for survival, let alone resistance.

I don’t feel too much of a conflict between music and truth, even if I tend to let the music guide me, as the poems can’t help but concern themselves frequently with the ecological destruction of the planet, with economic and social injustice, with immigration and the search for refuge, with the need for human connection, and with the violence we do onto one another, because those are constants in the world these poems emerge from. But I am more interested in questions than answers, in ethical quandaries than ethical clarity.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

MD: Reading poetry or listening to it, I am aware that I first experience it pre-cognitively, as sound and rhythm and diction and syntax, before I think of what the lines might actually be asserting. In general, I think of the poem as a kind of sheet music for a reader’s internal or audible voice, something on the page for you to play in your head or out loud. The poems in Creature frequently arose as a result of sonic patterning and the moving around of one word’s letters in the mind to form another word the poem feels destined to use. I can’t help but pay a lot of attention not just to the way a word sounds but how it feels in the mouth when spoken.  I also pay attention to the melody of a line, to how the melody of one line helps form the melody of the next. I tend to form a lot of lines or sentences that scan metrically: iambic pentameter, but also anapests, and a kind of amphibrachic meter of my own devising. Some of this just comes out instinctively. I’m fluent-bilingual in English and Russian, speaking no English until I was five, and I wonder if what I’m in fact doing metrically is trying to graft a kind of Russian sound, meter, and syntax onto the English words I’m using.

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

MD: Creature is preoccupied with time and its passing, with how much of one’s time ends up feeling squandered. Your question makes me realize that the word “time” with staggering frequency in the book.  “Even a day is a very long time,” I write in “State of the Union.” “I book a lifetime / at the Weathervane Motel,” I say in “The Fortune.” And in “The Double Dream of Spring”: “Sparing some time before the impending extinction, / I stand in the clearing between two pages of forest // and recognize myself.” Time always feels infinite in the moment, yet paradoxically  there is never enough of it, and it is most certainly finite. “I have barely begun the day / I think towards evening,” says the hapless father in my poem “The Empire of Light.”

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

MD: The first lines of the first poem of the book are “I’m fully posable, a leather and clay creature / with the capacity to waltz and do the Twist.” I wanted this recognition of one’s own creaturehood to begin the collection, and for the experience of reading the book to feel like a journey of encounters with various manifestations of creatureliness. The passage of time is integral to the book’s structure as well, as the order of the poems moves roughly from origin story to migration story to geographic wanderings to a recognition of mortality to a consideration of fatherhood to a kind of coming to terms with the reality of being. I knew from the outset that the poems in the book would not be separated into sections. I wanted them to feel like a single unified improvisational movement.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

MD: A number of the poems were written in the first year of the Covid pandemic, so the anxiety and listlessness and static electricity therein most definitely kept me company. I spent so much of that year driving aimlessly around Vermont with my family, entering forests and lakes. And then I would head home and try to write something. Artwork also kept me plenty of company, and many of the poems in the book directly or obliquely reference paintings, sculptures, and installations that stayed with me. Rereading the book, I’m struck by how many attempts it makes to be in dialogue with visual artists I find particularly meaningful or provocative—Magritte, James Ensor, Marina Abramović, William Pope.L, Chiharu Shiota, Damien Hirst, Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Hieronymus Bosch. There are three poems in the book titled after, and consciously seeking to imitate, paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

MD: I am a slow writer, and it’s taken me a bit of time to begin a fresh cycle of poems, but I’ve written quite a few new pieces at this point, enough so that I have a solid sense of the next book’s overall shape. The new poems may or may not be in a similar creative space in terms of subject matter to the ones in Creature, but so far they feel different in terms of structure and form: one-line stanzas, perhaps more white space on the page, a kind of broken song.

Lisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections and two books of nonfiction: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (Copper Canyon Press 2006); Lost Alphabet (Copper Canyon Press 2009); Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press 2013), Late Empire (Copper Canyon Press 2017), Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press 2020), and Climate, a book of epistolary essays co-written with Jule Carr (Essay Press 2022). Dream Apartment, a new collection of poems, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in 2023. Her honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Lannan Residency Fellowship, Hayden Carruth Award, Pushcart Prize, Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and Writers League of Texas book award. A member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, she currently teaches in the New Writers Project and Michener Center for Writers MFA programs.