Mario Chard is the author of Land of Fire (Tupelo Press, 2018), winner of the Dorset Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry. Recent poems have appeared in the The New Yorker, Poetry, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Winner of the “Discovery” Poetry Prize and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he teaches in Atlanta, Georgia, where he lives with his wife and sons.
Meimei Xu: Land of Fire is your first book of poetry. What brought you to its cross-narratives about Argentina, migration, fatherhood, religion, and family?
Mario Chard: I know there’s a difference between writing poems and writing a book of poems. And maybe in the past, it used to be this idea that you would discover that you suddenly had a collection and a certain amount of poems, and you would put them together and that would be your book. Mainly in the books that I’ve read, that seems to be the case. The way that most people come to poetry is not by necessarily reading the individual volumes, but discovering individual poems and then going to the books. For instance, my favorite poet, Robert Frost—I didn’t read North of Boston. I read his poems in an anthology, and then eventually discovered that. So all of this effort I would put into thinking about the book, and into the cross-narratives or the structure or the order of it, maybe means absolutely nothing because if the book is good to have, and the book is a place to actually do something else with the poems that you couldn’t do otherwise, and if the poems survive, they’ll still probably live on individually. So that was in the back of my head, which is all a long way of saying, I was writing poems about things that in the moment interested me, about the angers I had, about the fears I had. I was new to fatherhood, I’d moved far from home with a young family to start school, we had no money, and all relationships, I think, if you’re willing to work to make them last, are challenging… Also, I was writing these poems in the latter part of the last decade, so that means we were in two wars, and we had a financial collapse in 2007-8…
I got really lucky and I got the Stegner Fellowship, which meant that I could dedicate two years of my life to writing. My situation was different because I had two children at that point, and we were living in the smallest apartment we could find. We were incredibly lucky and happy, but that also meant that a lot of my time was learning how to be a good husband and a good father in the most expensive city in the country. So not all of my time was writing, but I had those two years. I took the poems that I had written that I had liked… There’s a pile of drafts [gestures to drafts on his desk], which means I had written hundreds of poems that I didn’t feel like were enough. Everyone does that. I don’t think that’s unusual. It’s a little depressing how many I don’t feel can make it.
At Stanford, I was writing these poems, and then I was given a chance to go to Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the farthest southern city in the world. I had family there. I went there, and I started wandering around, and here I discovered that I had stumbled upon an anchor, or the center, or the heart of the book—which might just be the title, but eventually would become a poem. I was in Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire. I was in this part of the world separated by the Strait of Magellan. I was in this sweeping landscape that was brutal and gorgeous, and it was a place where they used to send prisoners to die because it was so far remote from anything else in the world. And suddenly that sounded like exiles being tossed out of heaven. Suddenly that sounded like the way that we treat all immigrants to this country—or almost all—or the ones that don’t get to become immigrants. The ones who get kept back or die in the desert or now the cages or are separated from their families. Which is to say that, “You are beneath us. You are far away and remote, and what is far away and remote from me, I can pay no mind to.” And that is the obsession of the book, which I tried to place not through outward statement but personal implication.
MX: It’s clear that certain images and references—the horse, Paradise Lost, “the land of fire” Patagonia itself—are recurrent. This book tackles a multitude of themes and images, sometimes seemingly disparate. And yet, reading the book in its entirety, the themes not only make sense together, but build upon one another. What were some of the challenges in tying everything in? How did you hold everything together?
MC: Well, how can I know if I was successful in tying it together? I know in some places that I absolutely was, and that felt like a gift. It’s interesting, that question, because what I was saying earlier about the book being separate from the poems—I realize now how important that idea is to me. I know that certain poems gain strength by the poems that sit around them and where I place them in the book. And I really try to be careful about being too overly obsessive or controlled about placement and order, because too much control can also be a weakness. Too much control and placement can show the poet’s hand too much… Yes, I had different ideas. Yes, I tried to approach them lyrically different. I thought every poem should have a different conceit or different structure or different movement, but maybe they’re part of two or three larger ideas. I was almost rewriting the same poem. To look for an example of that, I would say: I knew that Caballero would be at the heart. It would the central poem, the documentary poem about these undocumented immigrants who died in the desert and me speaking to my son. But then I had this other poem called “Round.” And “Round” is punning a lot on that word, “round,” which is the musical form in which others would begin at a different time singing the same lyrics. Also the round is the unexploded shell. So I thought, here is this poem about this unexploded bomb with lots of repetition, and it’s a statement about sons and fathers, about children and parents. That’s a lot of what’s also happening in “Caballero,” but I’m approaching it differently, and they’re of course singing to each other across the space.
I don’t know what to say other than I feel like the book’s organization was more the product of an impulse of a writer and less the impulse of a poet. To put together a book that gains strength by the placement. The poet really shouldn’t be interested in that. The poet is interested in the poem and what it can do, the single. It’s the writer that sort of sits outside and says, “Okay, what else can I make of these individual pieces.” That’s how I feel.
MX: Speaking of structure, throughout the book, each poem seems to flow logically, thematically, and/or sonically into the next. The red hands of “Banner Trees” flow into the next poem, “Made Red.” Jorge appears in “Two Men Cry,” then appears as the subject of “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother” immediately after. How did you decide the order of the book? What kind of story did you want to tell? Did you write the poems with a type of order in mind, or did they come more organically?
MC: I wrote the poems over a space of ten years. The youngest poem is “Made Red.” The oldest poem would be something like “The Lesion.” I did not write them, until the very end, thinking that I had holes to fill or spaces to fill. It was mostly just, I was writing poems about my obsessions. And then I discovered that there were a lot of similarities. Now, the truth is, I came to the end, and the book had been accepted for publication, but I was still working on two or three more poems. Some of the poems that I managed to say, “These need to be in,” would include “Made Red” and would include “Once.” I had been writing “Once” for a long time, and I finished. I did not write them intentionally for the book until the end, and so there are about five or six that had felt like, “Okay, I feel like what’s missing here…would be this kind of thing or this kind of idea. And I have this idea and maybe I should work with it.”
The order, however, was painstaking and was a lot of trial-and-error. There’s a whole other discussion we probably could have about how the impulse or the structure of how we publish in this country forces any writer putting together a book or especially their first book into a system in which they place all of their best poems first, because they know that readers—if you’re sending to contests or if you’re sending to editors who have had hundreds of submissions—are going to open that and your first poem better be great, and your next poem better be just as good, and I’m only going to give you the patience for four or five poems. The structure in which we publish forces the book to change. And of course, I was naïve and thought, “I’m going to be special, and I’m going to put the poems wherever I want to put the poems,” and realized that I have to play the game too, which is to say, I have to put some of the strongest poems first. I still think I won because I was grateful and lucky to have the book taken. I love that “We make a thing we marvel” is first, like a little entryway, the primer. And I like that I put “Spoke” at the end because it also feels like a poem that sits outside of the book. But “In Fables,” as an opening poem to the book, for me, I wouldn’t say that’s the strongest individual poem in the book, but I place it there because I felt like I need to begin with this idea of, “You are entering a world in which you may be deceived, you may be beguiled.” What I believe I have created is this idea of a space in which you may be deceived. You are going to encounter obsessive meditations on mistake. On things that are mistakes. On things that are wrong. On mistakes that people make. On missed opportunities. On things that are not steady. So once I had that down and took a little bit off this pressure that I had to organize it a certain way, then the other pieces fell in place.
MX: Why did you choose to draw from Milton’s Paradise Lost, specifically the Fall?
MC: I think we should always come up against what we know to be greater than ourselves. It’s what imitation is. And I in no way try to imitate Milton, but I know that “Paradise Lost” is a great poem. And it’s a great poem because it’s challenging in its structure and because it is transcendent in its language and its metaphor and image, but also because of what he does with the primary myths of Christianity. All of that felt like something I had been running toward or against my entire life. But what really made me think, “Okay, I need to include this in some way more directly,” was that I felt like his emphasis on the tossed out ones, the ones that were thrown from their perch in heaven and who would still be falling. That was interesting to me. I didn’t know how provocative it would be to say, “Here is the Christian myth of the fallen angels who find their way from the hell and corrupt the world, Earth. I’m going to compare that to migrants who were tossed out of this country and still finding their way back into paradise.” I feel like that is a provocative thing, because it’s sort of comparing these people, these enormous masses of people to [the] fallen or corrupted. Of course, that’s not what Paradise Lost is intending to do, nor is that what Land of Fire is intending to do. But I just knew that there are two parts to the story.
Christ’s parable of the prodigal son has two sides. We always talk about the wasteful son, the son who left and ruined his inheritance and came back. And we ignore the other son, the one who couldn’t put up with it, the one who said, “I’ve been here the entire time. How could you clothe my brother in a robe and set a feast for him and throw a party for him and not for me?” In the same way, there are two exiles in that book. There are the exiles of the angels. There are also the exiles of Adam and Eve tossed from their garden. There are always two parts. It’s a parable, and I’m interested in parables. That is primarily what drew me to Paradise Lost. I want to focus on what exile is. I want to focus on what it means to be tossed from your home. I want to focus on this sort of mad idea that we’ve all accepted, by the nature of things we cannot control, that these countries and borders we’ve made are real or mean something, or simply because our families and ancestors claimed the land, we can feel confident in the idea that we’re comfortable in this country that people are dying to get into. All of that seems to be a kind of madness. It’s mythical. It’s a belief that countries exist. It’s a belief that the borders are real. And of course, in one sense, they are. Of course, I understand sovereignty. Of course, I understand history. But it’s also like a hallucination. It’s this mass hallucination that we all believe in. And so when we confront moments like we do now in this country, which have been happening since the country started but have been aggravated and exacerbated now by policies of the government… It all seems like madness to me. Some of these people born in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, who recognize that there is opportunity here, and have in some cases fled great violence, can come and claim asylum but have to confront the reality of how we’ve established our world and our civilization. So you see, I’m kind of spinning off. The poems help me come back in. The poems help me feel controlled. The poems help me feel like I can condense the emotion and all of these thoughts into something that is small and hopefully powerful.
MX: There are also other biblical stories you delve into—Isaac and Jacob’s relationship, Daniel in the lion’s den. What kind of role has faith played in your life, and how has that affected your writing? Why choose these common narratives to understand modern life?
MC: I was raised in a Christian household. My mother was a Catholic who converted to Mormonism. My father grew up in northern Utah as—in a way, though he grew up there—a convert to Mormonism, and grew up in a society that believed and talked about Jesus Christ as real, that he lives. This is what everybody believes. Morgan Valley is this small valley in northern Utah in which almost everybody looks the same. Almost everybody believes the same thing. I had some little sliver of difference, which was that my mother was Argentine. My mother was this brown woman who came with a different language and a different culture and sort of flourished in this small valley. I was lucky to have good parents who raised us, yes with these beliefs, but also allowed us to confront the reality of what faith really means. So, as I’ve grown older and studied and traveled, I’ve had a family and confronted these same emotions and recognize what my faith tradition is and recognize the ways that I change and how I feel. At the heart of what I think is important to discuss, at least initially, is that I want to speak to the parts of the Christian faith that have to do with parents and children. That’s what’s interesting to me now. And I saw that to be at the root of Paradise Lost. And I wanted to take those stories from the Bible that really mention them. Abraham and Isaac is this troubling story of enormous sacrifice, and here I’ve put it into this little, tiny domestic moment in which a woman has accidentally stabbed her husband and the baby witnesses it (“Beget”). So these ideas come, yes, from an upbringing and my life and faith. But like I said before, for me that is powerful, emotional, complicated, complex, and the poems are a way of ordering that so that I can speak to them, so that I can let the poems speak for me. Each of those poems you mentioned, yes they have to do with the stories or the myths, but they also are ways of me confronting them and troubling them a little bit differently. It’s a longer more complex answer, but I would say what drew me to write the poems that question faith besides my upbringing or faith tradition, without necessarily discussing my personal beliefs, is the way I wanted to trouble the stories about parents and children.
MX: The poem at the center of the book, “Caballero,” is a poem about the crash of a car carrying illegal immigrants, the death of eight passengers, and the following investigation. What role does the sergeant play in “Caballero” and in the larger story of migration?
MC: In the poem, which is now six sections—it used to be more; I mean the poem used to be a lot longer and it had different parts and pieces—the sergeant exists because it was a documentary poem, and I had read the newspapers, the articles that spoke about, that discussed what occurred. And of course you had the voice of the authority. You had the voice of several authorities. Authorities who were summoned to the scene. Authorities who then had to reckon with the bodies and authorities in immigration on the other side of the law who spoke to what occurred. The sergeant is really the voice of a condensed form of different kinds of authorities and voices that spoke in one of these newspaper articles about what had occurred. And the central argument is this car crash in the middle of the night, the driver said it was a horse that stood in the road that made him crash, but the passengers say no, that he was trying to fondle the female passenger. That comes from the voice of the authority that begins the poem in the epigraph. But then as the sergeant appears in the poem, it’s sort of these two fantastical moments. Well, the first is not fantastical; the first is describing what occurs—he doesn’t find the wreckage first, then he asks the survivors. It’s like reportage. But the second is in his dream. And dreaming is important. I think that generally I’m obsessed with the idea of the dream and what occurs in the dream, maybe because that’s mythical and it can be the reverse of our life. We fill our brain with all of these stories and ideas and then they take on this narrative life when we’re asleep, and that interests me. And so here is this sergeant who takes on the reality of something that is difficult to confront, and in his dream, he is taking the shovel to the river. He’s like a condensed form of those authority figures.
MX: We’ve talked about recurrent themes, but even certain images—ropes, mouths, hands—and refrains, such as “Say it was…” appear frequently. How much of this was intentional, and how did you choose which images to repeat? If I might point to a specific image—why ropes?
MC: In [“Caballero”] in particular, I got excited because of the way the word for rope in Spanish was cuerda, and I was thinking about cords, and acuerdo, which is an accord, and I’m thinking about that word “accord,” which is an agreement, but why is the word “cord” there, or string? Why is that buried in agreement? In the past, when people made agreements, why did that involve a cord? When people married each other, why are their hands tied together? And so I got really excited about those ideas and I thought, Okay this is interesting, because there [are] layers here. The word “accord” is fossil poetry, like Emerson says. There is this poem, there, buried in the language itself, that in our use, is passed over. Or doesn’t get passed over, but in some cases gets used for nefarious or dangerous purposes. Another word in the book would be “renditions.” A rendition is a version. I’m going to do a rendition of that song or rendition of that game. But of course it also means the way we—especially during the last two wars and the Iraq war in the past decade—would take detainees outside of the jurisdiction of the United States to interrogate them. That’s called a rendition. So, language can either be passed over and ignored or can be used in very obvious ways to not reveal the sort of pain and anger beneath it. I’m really interested in language for that reason, for its etymology. I’m really interested in the sound of words, and how I organize them, how I choose them. A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is just time spent listening. It’s the training of the ear, or the inner ear. It’s the training of the way things sound when spoken aloud or the way they sound in our mind. That comes with a lifetime of listening. It comes with dedicated time thinking about how people speak and how words sound. All of those things interest me and dictate and push a lot of what occurred in the book. “Rope” happened that way. I would follow it and strain it and use it as much as possible. I just think that we are wasteful, as people. I think that poets can be wasteful, and we should be the ones who aren’t, the ones who recognize the way you can wring from small passed-over moments something of deep meaning or value. I get really anxious that I’m wasting opportunities if I slow down or don’t look directly at words.
MX: Some of these stories seem to come from your own life experience, but many seem to originate elsewhere. What did the behind-the-scenes research look like? How much did you have to rely on sources outside of your own experience, and how did you know where to look?
MC: I’ll give you an example. I become so obsessed with the poem that I look up almost every single word in order to make sure, to verify. I get really worried about spelling, too, for some reason. I mean I’m a pretty decent speller. I can hang in there with the best of them, or with the people who know how to spell. But when it comes to me as a teacher coming up to the board—this is me being very vulnerable right now—on occasion I’ll be like, “I don’t know how to spell this word.” And it’s not because I don’t know how to spell the word, it’s because the moment sort of calls into question, “Do you know how to spell this?” And so the poems sort of do that for me; they’re always like, “Do you know what this word really means? Do you know what this is? Are you sure?” I check everything when I need to.
If I’m speaking about a historical event or place, I read as much as possible, then I put it all away because I’m not writing an essay. I’m not putting footnotes in this. If they even come to the poem, I’m grateful, but no one is going to come to a poem that approaches them by saying, “You absolutely need to have several texts open to understand this.” I’m not interested in that right now. Maybe ever. Because I believe that poems can be difficult. Poems can challenge us. But they do not have to speak down to us. For instance, there’s a poem that I read in The New Yorker by Andrea Cohen, who is an alumna of Westminster, and she’s a terrific poet. Absolutely brilliant. And the poem is called “Conflation.” It is a difficult poem. And yes, maybe one or two things that depending on when and where you were raised, or what you maybe have heard in your life, you may need to look up. But that is a difficult poem because it demands something of you. It wants you, it needs you, to slow down and read again and again and again. What’s the point of a poem if we don’t ask somebody to read it again? So, knowing that I’m obsessive, knowing that I require some complexity but also not too much, that difficulty is important, but not the kind of difficulty that suggests [that] you are excluded from this simply by your education or by who you are. You should only be excluded from a poem by your willingness to let it speak to you. Poems are desperate to tell us what they mean. They’re desperate. It’s the most pure human desperation to say, “Have this thing.” There’s no other way to express it but through the poem, but through language, but through its order and structure.
I’ll study as much as I can but put it aside. Because in the writing of the poem I don’t care about truth. I don’t care about what’s real—to a certain extent—especially if it’s about my own personal history. I’m willing to take and use that as the clay and the poem is the one that’s going to be its own main thing. So “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother” has true stories in it. I was sitting in the front of the car between Jorge, my uncle, and my father. We were driving, and that is real and true. Now, is it true or real that Jorge was my mother’s first love? Well, I would say that if you’re going to write about your family history, and you’re going to be a bit provocative about it, I don’t know whether you should tell them or not, but I know that in my case, I had to confront Jorge at a certain point last year about “Jorge, First Love of My Argentine Mother.” What I told him is that in that story. There’s two stories. I’m sitting in the car with Jorge and my father, my father’s asleep, we were awake. But there’s also a secondary story, which is that a long time ago, when my mother was growing up in Argentina, she was involved in a car crash, and she was trapped in the car, and somebody was pulling her from one side, and somebody was pulling from the other. And in the poem, that becomes Jorge pulling her, which was true, but my father pulling her from the other side, and, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s true. But I don’t care, because the poem demanded it. She was being pulled from either side by two men who loved her and who needed to save her. “She chose what she could see: / kicked until your hands let go” was the line. So what I told Jorge is, “Jorge, the line in the poem says, ‘I knew only what they told me.’” Which means that in the mind of an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy, anything is possible. Anything is true. Anything that comes in as verified truth, in imagination, can change in very subtle ways. And so I’m safe now. I can talk about anything. I can make it imaginative by saying it was through the mind of a child. That’s a little bit of a cheat, but that’s how I approach research and truth.
MX: I’m curious about a specific poem: “Round,” which starts with an epigraph from the U.S. Forest Service about artillery that may explode once an avalanche melts. You talked a little bit about it before, but what was your goal in the weaving structure, running “the shell quickly / to my father,” and how does it fit into the wider narrative of the book?
MC: There’s another buried story there, which I’ll tell you, and I’ll try to keep it short. We did have a member of our small community whose son was killed by picking up an unexploded round. A military ordnance that wasn’t exploded. That is true. This man was actually a leader in our community, and what I remember hearing when I was younger was that when you’re born, there’s this ceremony called a name and a blessing. You announce [your name] to the community and then usually your father pronounces a blessing for you, saying this is your name and this is your blessing. But there’s usually other men involved. And this man (whose son was killed) was there while my father was giving me a name and a blessing. In other words, this man was standing in a circle helping to hold me up, to essentially bring me into the world, while his son was taken out of it. In my head, it became the same moment. As a child, I believed it was the same moment, the moment that I, in a church, was being given my name, this man’s son was killed by an exploded mine. In the childhood brain and memory, things get sort of mixed and the imagination is allowed to roam. So that’s not included necessarily in the poem, but it does give some background to this idea that I wanted to write about parents and children, and in particular fathers and sons.
As a young father, I went to get our sons vaccinated. And a vaccination, at least in my limited understanding, is essentially giving a small piece of an inert virus to the body in order to protect the body from the real virus. We are putting in the small violence in order to prepare for the larger. They are shooting off avalanche cannons in Utah and in the Intermountain West that shoot into the mountain sides in order to cause smaller avalanches so the larger ones don’t form. That’s the same thing. This moment of the needle going into the arm, and the howitzer shell shooting into the mountainside. It’s the same thing. So I started writing the poem. But I knew that every poem should be its own thing. It shouldn’t always have the same lines or it shouldn’t be in tercets or I shouldn’t use the same methods; and I thought, I love repetition. What if this became almost obsessively repetitive? And that formed the basis of the poem itself. But the heart of it is this idea: at the end of that poem, a boy is going through the woods and finds the unexploded mine. And his first thought is to pick it up and run it back to his father, which is the idea that you see the thing that is your destruction. It’s about this idea of who deserves blame. That’s where I was present when I wrote the poem. It’s always my own insecurity. Am I a good father? What does it mean to be a good father? What am I doing? Am I putting the violence in my son that will grow? That’s the indictment, that’s the implication. Of course this boy finds this bomb and runs it back to me, the one who deserves it.
MX: Do you see yourself returning to these themes anytime soon, or has Land of Fire laid them to rest, for now? What might future projects focus on instead or in addition to these themes?
MC: Well, some of these themes, yes. I’m cautious of a lot of things. I’m aware of politics and the movement of the poetry community and our obsession and focus on identity. I’m aware of all these things and trying to write poems, like all of us do, that try to work against what we see as being too common or too easy. My mentor, Marianne Boruch—I just saw that she has a book coming out called The Anti-Grief. I adore Marianne Boruch, and I think she’s brilliant, and I can’t help but think that that, in some ways, is a statement back against what’s occurring. I remember sitting in the workshop room at Stanford, when I was so lucky to be among those who I consider to be really terrific, talented poets and who are going to write all their lives. And yet all of us, at least that one time, we were writing these poems that made me come away feeling so completely depressed. The focus of all of our poems was only on war, or murder, or destruction, or violence. So, out of that workshop came this poem that I tried to write that I haven’t finished, which is “For Love of the Visitor.” I wanted to write from a place of love. I wanted to respond back from beauty. What I mean is that I’m trying to look at Land of Fire and speak to it, react against it. But of course that means I’m still dealing with the same ideas. I have some new poems that are moving towards less of the myth and more towards narrative. I think the poems that I’m writing now, the next book, will be less interested in this mythic space. However, that could be a complete lie; I could come back to it. You know, I’m digging up all of the old drafts of the poems, and some of them I’ve rescued from the bin because I feel like maybe they have a new life. I feel like there will be two or three themes that I will never let go of, that I will always be writing. But that doesn’t mean that their shapes and their sounds can’t adjust, too. What I’m writing now is directly in response to myself and to the poems of the day. But the themes will linger, and I might not be finished with them yet.