Poetry, Compassion, & the Archive: A Conversation with Millicent Borges Accardi by Kristina Marie Darling

Millicent Borges AccardiMillicent Borges Accardi is the author of four books of poetry: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, Practical Love Poems, and most recently, Only More So, which was released by Salmon Poetry in 2016. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Commission, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, the California Arts Council, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, as well as residencies at Yaddo, Jentel, the Vermont Studio Center, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She holds degrees in English literature and creative writing from California State University, Long Beach and the University of Southern California. I recently had a chance to ask Ms. Accardi a few questions about history, the archive, and her latest book of poetry.

Kristina Marie Darling: First of all, let me just say that your new book is absolutely breathtaking. I was impressed by your graceful treatment of some of the most difficult subjects: the atrocities of the Second World War, the persistence of grief, and the place of the individual in a sorrow that is larger than any one person. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and collective grieving. What do the literary arts make possible for the individual voice in a moment of shared sorrow?

Millicent Borges Accardi: Thank you for the kind words about Only More So. I appreciate your comments and am honored for this interview.

I have found more and more as I grow older, I am comforted by the notion of community, of gathering together for support and engagement, especially among women. A moment of shared sorrow—

When my mother died, I headed straight to my first love of poetry, to seek at first companionship, then sadness, then, perhaps answers. I read Without and Otherwise as companion pieces, like two bookends on a mantle place. Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon.

Deep in depression, I turned to Darkness Visible, which, page for page matched how I was feeling: I sat up through long nights, drinking sleep and meeting new words by myself, until it all became too much, and I sought instead, companionship or comradery or agreement. I attached myself to an idea of getting through this, of there being as the British say instead of an exit, a way out.

So, I wrote letters, striving to connect with community.

The poet David Huddle, sent this, “you’ve transported me back to my own mother’s death, a couple of years ago—about this time of year. I’m one of those people—men usually—who can’t quite feel what they’re feeling. . .every year when the first snow is here in Vermont, I’d find myself making a phone call to Virginia to tell her.”

And Michael S Harper, who wrote “out of nowhere,” ten years after his mother’s passing: this “Psalm” for Katherine Johnson Harper 1913-1988:

          that a harp
          of a thousand
          should stay
          in tune
          so long

Recently, Rosebud Ben-Oni in Kenyon Review talks about grief, “In Jerusalem I learned this the hard way: don’t hold in grief. I attended a funeral today with people I didn’t know only five years ago. They are my family now. We went full-circle from day to night, being together. You never know who you will love in years to come. Let it out. Be with the grief of those you love. Hold them like you would your own blood. Maybe even at times tighter, more certain, less distant.”

KMD: The literary arts are indeed a doorway into a community. We tend to think of poetry as an isolating endeavor, but it’s also a way of connecting – with readers, with a shared cultural imagination, with history. I admire the way your work balances introspection with visually arresting imagery and a concern for others. Through the details of domestic spaces—“the mirror,” the “children’s toys,” the “sharp pints in bars”—the philosophical questions surrounding history, affect, and collective memory are particularized, and in the process, they are also humanized. Writing is revealed as an act of empathy, which, in turn, becomes an invitation to the reader. What role does empathy play in both your creative process and your poetics?

MBA: I am not sure empathy is the right word. It might be something else. Since I think of empathy as the observer, my process is rather more of an interpretation of what is happening to someone else.

It is what is happening to me, or a translation, as a very different human animal. My own experience, or a resulting poem, may not even look like the experience as I observed. My interpretation could seem completely different and as its own stand-alone entity. My empathy is more of a conjoining of sensitivity or feelings, of being IN the rabbit hole WITH someone, not necessarily witnessing or re-telling their story, but living it with them. Next to them. As if I were them.

One observation is that my book is not built around a theme, per say. Only More So is a voice. The thread is the female voice: WWII, racism, Vietnam, 911, prostitution, cancer, injustice, poverty, struggles. Where women fail, where they are victimized, faith and the loss of faith. Also exploring “like” things: objects in different states of being, bones in a cemetery, ordered; bones unearthed in a street dig, chaos.

KMD: Your book certainly shows us how poetry offers a starting point for cultivating a shared feminine consciousness. Yet you offer a poetics of social engagement with great subtlety, prompting reflection, compassion, and understanding, rather than promulgating a particular narrative or viewpoint. In the ideal situation, what would your reader feel after finishing the book? On a related note, what would your ideal reader be moved to do when they reentered the world around them?

MBA: This question is that I wrote the book with the idea of, the goal to transport someone, to encourage action or for them to do something. . .

I don’t think I am trying to inspire action in the reader or for readers to be moved, to take direct action. For readers to act like French existentialists and flourish a banner bearing the word “engagement.”

My hopes (soft, quiet hopes) are to, they may, encourage readers to consider being. Not doing. Not inspired to enact a new law or to enact something else, but rather to consider the importance or the significance of being able to articulate where you are, as in this is me being here now.

Who you are, within your own universe, and, through written words, to use that as an entry point. In that sense, my book is not about activism or a call to action, but the opposite. A call to reflection, maybe, or a call to, or about, an inner life. Two aphorisms I recall go like this: “The truth doesn’t mean anything. It just is.” and “Don’t change beliefs. Transform the believer.” I trust readers to reveal moments rather than plot-driven or literal meaning.

KMD: Your work is transformative in the best possible way. Recurring images and motifs metamorphose as the book unfolds, but also, the artifacts of history are made stunningly and startlingly new. I’d love to hear more about the relationship between writing, history, and the archive in your creative process. To what extent is yours a poetics of research? What role does the archive play in your writing practice?

MBA: An archive is this objective collection of experiences, ideas, artifacts, that are merely documented, to be held in a place. It could be a letter, a prescription label, an old address book.

Research serves as a resource to subjectively collect an assemblage of allegorical imagery– if you will–to be reassembled and dissected and assigned to either explain an event deeper or to transform the inter-workings into something completely new. It can be a resource to improvise or to inspire. A catalogue.

Improvisation: Tina and Phil lie on the floor surrounded by water and broken glass. What happened? It could be a fish bowl that was pushed off the table? That could be one answer, or it could be the start to a 1940’s film noir plot. It could be Kristallnacht.

KMD: Your poems certainly traverse temporal and geographic boundaries. Your archival practice offers opportunities for conversations to take place across vastly different moments, landscapes, and historical milieu. On a more literal note, your work has also taken you to many very different locales, including snowy upstate New York, lush and temperate cities in Spain, and the vast open spaces of Wyoming. How does travel promote the reflection, open-mindedness, and compassion that are so crucial to your writing practice?

MBA: Travel re-sorts the natural order of things. Mixes the socks with the linens and then with the flower bed and the kitchen sink. I have been lucky to have been invited to a number of wonderful residencies, all of which helped me create community and to put “normal” life on hold for a brief respite. Although not directly related to my writing, as an after-effect, residencies broaden my scope and add to my understanding of the world. I have never been one of those writers who has a goal and sets out to write so many pages per day and does. Instead, I tend to soak in the scenery and it is often months or years later when I write, for example, a poem about the almond trees in Spain or an article about show shoeing in Wyoming. I tend to read a lot at residencies, attend events, meet other artists. Revise and percolate.

At Fundacion Valparaiso, I took a road trip with the Irish novelist Evelyn Conlon across Andalusia—to see the Alhambra. Along the way we collected sugar packets and stopped at the abandoned Spaghetti Wester movie sets (where Clint Eastwood made The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), saw the cave houses and marveled at city names, mirroring the California landscape: Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento, Fresno, Madera, Modesto, San Bruno, San Bernardino.

KMD: That road trip sounds like an essay waiting to be written. With that in mind, I’d love to hear more about your current projects. What are you working on at the moment? What can readers look forward to?

MBA: I have a manuscript of jazz poetry that I am finalizing, as well as an on-going project collecting Portuguese and Azorean fairy tales, turning them into poems.

You can find my articles, reviews and interviews at The Writers Chronicle, Portuguese-American Journal and Poets Quarterly (where I interviewed you nearly two years ago). My books are at Amazon. Other than that, I have local events this the fall, and, next February, I’ll be reading with Charlotte Innes in the Arcade Poetry Series at the Carnegie Art Museum.

KMD: Wonderful, I’ll look forward to reading more. Thank you so much for your time, and for this illuminating conversation.