Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, youth worker, and organizer. He has received grants and scholarships from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Winner of the Scotti Merrill Award for poetry from the Key West Literary Seminar, his poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, and Best New Poets 2018 among others. Michael has worked as a dishwasher, a farmhand, a teaching artist, a social studies teacher, and a case manager for youth experiencing homelessness. Author of The Only Worlds We Know (Button Poetry), he works, lives, writes, organizes, and dreams in North Minneapolis.
Michael Bazzett: So, I thought this might be a good place to begin: I saw this thread on Twitter recently. Actually, Danez [Smith] started it. They said, “It’s so interesting how many poets who started in or moved thru slam are formalist now. We talk about slam like it’s the absence of form when really slam itself is a strict-ass form and really prepares you to have a long relationship with restraint and structure.”
Michael Lee: Of course!
MBazzett: And Dee Mathews chimed in, saying, “If a poem is timed, you have an inherent sense of space and time and body, an inherent rhythm. And the form becomes an efficient and necessary conveyor of those concerns.”
So with those ideas in conversation with one another, I found myself thinking about your book, and your roots in slam: how slam functions as form, a restraint and structure which immediately gives you a scaffolding to play with. Or against.
And I’m also wondering how engaging slam serves as a form of internship, where you’re getting inside process, going through iterations, receiving intense public feedback, you’re being appraised in ways that are perhaps quite different than, say, an MFA workshop where it’s you, the page, and fourteen people sitting around a table.
MLee: And instead you’ve got five random people, judging you, using numbers.
MBazzett: Exactly. So how do you see those structures informing your work and this book?
MLee: It’s funny. I think there is, still, this sometimes unspoken, sometimes very overt prejudice against slam and spoken word as a lesser form of poetry, or a lesser art form. Which is funny to me, because some of the most celebrated contemporary poets are coming out of that tradition. And that mindset forgets the vast majority of poetry’s history, which is an oral one.
My first introduction to workshops was slam. You have a team that’s very dedicated to helping you get your poem into this form, this forum. And the way that I write is that I overwrite everything. So every first draft I had was six minutes long. And then I’d sit with a team of maybe five or six people, and a couple coaches, and I’d workshop the poem down to three minutes, or maybe 2:50.
MBazzett: That’s the golden boundary?
MLee: Ideally, you try to get it between 2:50 and 3:00, because you have to consider that you might have a loud audience, and you might have to wait for them. Which is an interesting thing, that the form is also affected by—
MBazzett: It’s reception?
MLee: Yeah. Which is intriguing. Because I don’t think there’s another form that so overtly responds to those demands. “Oh, in this sonnet, you might want to add a couple lines, because the reader might want to read them twice.”
MBazzett: Let’s bring these thoughts on form to your new book, The Only Worlds We Know, your debut from Button Poetry, where you have what I might call a restless aesthetic, employing many approaches: erasures, or poems like “The Law of Halves Applied to the Blade,” where the poem enacts its own diminishment and unwrites itself. Or where you’re working with strict cadences, or internal rhyme, or couplets… And even when you’re not overtly using form, I hear skeletal structures inside the work. It never feels driven purely by rhetoric, or voice.
So, how does the book intersect with those slam roots, which was your entree into writing, yes?
MLee: Right. Before that I was writing, like, really bad fantasy novels. I was just knocking off Tolkein for years, until I got into slam, where you learn very quickly to ask: What is effective? And what’s effective in slam is what connects, what scores well. And that then influences, for better and for worse, how people write, and the forms they use to tell a story.
And I noticed, early on, that the poem’s turn, and the poem’s call-back, were very popular moves. How do you gather an audience? How do you give them enough signposts that they are not taken totally off guard when you shift the direction? But not give them so much that you no longer surprise them?
MBazzett: That reminds me of what Dave Chappelle does, where he often has a bit at the beginning which feels odd or boundary-crossing, and then he’ll do that big elliptical move where it will land as the pay-off line in the midst of his final bit, where you don’t see it coming.
MLee: Right. And then you’ll realize that everything you didn’t quite think was connected in the middle was actually building toward that moment, that call-back.
I was also drawn toward the idea of building toward the crescendo, or ending on rhyme. And all those things found their way into the book. The call-back especially is something I’m really interested in, and something I tried to build toward as a whole, in the arc of the collection, building thematically: the body as paper, the body as landscape, the recurrence of knives, and certain images or themes, in hopes of building that tension toward the end where it can call back to the beginning.
I also think those roots showed up in the narrative aspect of the book.
MBazzett: Yes, it’s narrative as well as image driven, and I find your work invariably has an accessible clarity to it, which I offer as the highest compliment. Your poems can be tall buildings, but they have doors on the ground floor.
I always like it in interviews when people don’t just talk in general terms about the book, though, but actually delve into specifics. So, let’s look at “The Law of Halves As Applied to the Blade,” where we go from section 2 to 1 to .5 on down to zero, and you’re employing that elliptical call-back move more formally, where we arrive at the end, and it’s both pleasing and… Surprising.
It’s a move you employ, in different ways, throughout the book, where the poems are concerned with disappearance, thematically speaking—and formally speaking, they almost begin erasing or eating themselves.
MLee: As far as the disappearance in the book, a lot of what I was trying to do formally was connect to the twin major themes: addiction and loss. Whether that’s loss of life, losing one’s connection to the land, loss of love, or other loss or grief, I wanted to recreate that on the page. I wanted to recreate that disappearance.
I wanted “Law of Halves” to appear early in the book, because—especially with grief—there’s that disbelief: It’s not really true. We think there must be another world in which this doesn’t happen. And there are moments where we feel, Maybe I’m dreaming, maybe this other world is somehow possible to get to.
MBazzett: Like that iconic moment, when someone loses a partner, and they awaken and reach out for them, and their hand hits empty pillow. Which is the cruelest version of the parallel universe, where you glimpse that other world, and realize you’re living in this one, your *worst* life.
MLee: Absolutely. And for me, “Law of Halves” was an attempt to grapple with and embody that, through the speaker.
MBazzett: So when I hear that poem assert “There are still, in the end, atoms shivering / between us. In this way, none of us ever / really touch,” it feels like Zeno’s paradox (which you invoke earlier in the poem) holds true: there’s always going to be that tiny, tiny distance between people. And it’s infinite in the sense that it’s endlessly divisible.
Yet, on the other, the distance between people is utterly finite in the sense that it’s where “I” end and the “world” begins.
MBazzett: The poem both embodies and somehow beats the paradox. You get to the end, and there’s real nothingness. But you don’t just talk about loss in the book, but addiction as well. And in the way that you write about it, addiction and recovery are things that live very much inside the body. There’s not a distance between you and it. It lives within you, as the speaker.
So, I’d like to make a connection, to the opening section of “The Study of Knives and Music,” which was originally published as a stand-alone poem in Copper Nickel. The opening section reads: “The knife is envious of bones, each metatarsal / of the foot, collar, jaw, but especially the rib / and its motionless rest. The knife / remembers when it was bone, when it lived / inside an elk or a man and kept the rind / together until it didn’t, until the body / was used against itself.”
I find myself wondering about that line, in the context of addiction, in this book where the poems are so deeply in conversation with one another. About how what’s inside us can hold us together and take us apart, how your own hungers can annihilate you.
MLee: Absolutely. Both the image and addiction are things that fold in on themselves, and I try to get at that aspect of it through poems like “Row,” where I talk about want, or a poem like “The Pill,” where it’s “dissolving forever but never quite completely.” I want to get at this feeling of endlessness, an endlessness that’s ever-present but impossible to attain. That’s why I placed those poems early. It’s sort of like the contract of the book: Here’s what you’re getting into, here’s what you should be looking for.
MBazzett: When you say the book is moving toward that endlessness, would you say that it’s yearning for it? And would you call that endlessness oblivion? Transcendence?
MLee: I think when you’re addicted, you’re looking for both. And there’s a type of transcendence in oblivion, where it’s an attempt to wash everything clean, even as it’s filthy, and for a moment you lose touch with reality, lose touch with your own body, you forget what you own, who you’re connected to or who you’re beholden to. And in that moment of forgetting, none of those things really exist, none of those responsibilities. And for me, at least, in my own addiction, that was kind of the goal. I was so overwhelmed with the world, both in its horror and its beauty, that I couldn’t contend with it.
So I sought ways to transcend it and disappear from it. A lot of my early life was very concerned with that. And that showed up via substance abuse. But that also showed up via a fascination with spirituality at a young age too. Oftentimes I would get super high and try to meditate. Or I’d do speed and try to meditate. I’d be speeding up and trying to slow down at the same time, trying to reach some higher plane.
MBazzett: I have an image of you in a car, one foot jamming the brake, the other one revving the engine.
MLee: That’s really what I was doing. [Laughs] One night I did it, and I just ended up sitting in my room, with all the windows open, super paranoid that there was a gas leak and that my house was going to blow up. I was freezing because it was winter, and I was worried that someone would climb in and try to kill me, so I just sat in a corner, shivering, holding a knife. It was a constant fear of mine from my youth, the gas leak, so I was afraid of being in buildings, everywhere I went. I always tried to find an open window.
MBazzett: So your primal fear was your world was going to explode, that there was this invisible thing that could ignite and blow away all existing structures. That was your operative metaphor?
MLee: Yeah. [Laughs] That was my baseline, everyday.
MBazzett: That makes weird sense, somehow.
MLee: The world was out to get me, so I had to get me first.
MBazzett: So maybe we should look at the repeated image of the knife? Something that we all have in our kitchens, something that can bring people together in the making of meals. But of course, their primary function is to take things apart. And I don’t know how many knives there are in this book; it’s a steady motif.
MLee: Part of it is one of the central themes of the book is exploring the death of my friend Stephen, who was stabbed to death by his mother. Also, there’s the allusion to self-harm, which was a defining aspect of my mental health struggles when I was younger.
But hugely, it’s that aspect of the mundane you mentioned. It’s just an everyday tool that can kill us. Our undoing is always around us, if we want it to be. It’s always within our own hands. In “The Study of Knives” I look at that history, that desire to destroy ourselves. Our self-destructiveness as humans. So the knife is a very literal object in the book, but it also becomes a metaphor for that desire.
I’m very interested in that draw to pain, to the human impulse for sadism, even, especially through the lens of addiction.
There’s a quote from someone I know in recovery, and it’s a common notion: “It’s not necessarily the drugs or the alcohol I miss. It’s the chaos.” And you become addicted to that: the chaos, the pain, the destruction you can cause.
MBazzett: The disorder?
MLee: Exactly. It’s horrible. But you love it.
MBazzett: So somehow we’ve come back to form, the antithesis of that chaos.
MBazzett: But the collection is more than grief and loss, and having read earlier drafts of it, there’s a lot of beauty from the natural world that’s found its way into this book as well. You’ve got pastoral, you’ve got gorgeous landscape, moments of tenderness that have found their way in. Quiet moments.
MLee: Part of the reason for that, I think, is that the early drafts were really kind of unreadable. So, thanks for reading them. [Laughs] But at some point I had this realization about a year and a half ago, when I was kind of stuck and thinking, you know, What’s wrong with this book, why isn’t it getting picked up? I sat down and I read it through a couple times and I was like, Oh, it’s unreadable because it’s just grief grief grief, death, death, death. And I was like, You know, that’s not my entire existence.
MBazzett: It was a little like Spinal Tap, where they have that amp that can be turned up to 11.
MLee: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the book is still cranked pretty high, but it’s tempered.
MBazzett: There’s more space now for the reader to reside.
MLee: Yeah, you know within landscapes. I think for me, the way I understand grief and solace and also healing is very much connected to the land. And I think there’s a lot of room for grief within land and people’s relationship to it. And, you know, there’s a long history of theft of land, within a colonial context.
MLee: But also, just more simply, our memories are connected to land. To sense of place. And so when we lose someone we think about the land they belong to, and also find healing in that same land. And for me a big part of my healing has been in nature. That was a big part of my childhood, before I fell into addiction—a connection to nature. And I also just thought within the book it was very important to buttress a lot of this pain within the softer world around us. But also to use the world around us as an introduction into the internal. I think, for me, a failure of the pastoral in art is when you use landscape to ignore the internal, or to shy away from internal. And for me, it’s something I really use to enter into that.
MBazzett: What poets led you in that direction?
MLee: Larry Levis. He was really my big intro into that thinking. I think too, even before that, I was very interested in nature from Mary Oliver. She was one of the first poets that I really loved. I think she kind of set that foundation.
MBazzett: That’s interesting (the Mary Oliver connection). Because I see that payload or epiphany at the end, where her poems often have that concussion. But it really comes out in a very different form in your work. That’s not an antecedent I necessarily would have named. Levis, definitely. He can be looking at a Caravaggio painting and suddenly you’re reflecting on the Vietnam War.
MLee: Yeah. I think of the poem “Looking at a Steel Mill in Syracuse New York, 1956.” How the poem begins with his father driving along a road, beside a river, and it ends in a reflection on loneliness, his father’s and now his. And it kind of sets readers up to do that (draw that connection) by creating this emptiness, or this loneliness within nature. And I think that’s also very much connected to slam. You know, how do you hook the audience? Any performance or slam poem I have in which I talk about addiction or death, I’m not just going to throw it out there at the start. Maybe it begins just talking about becoming drunk at a party. And it’s disarming, people can relate to it. People laugh, I become likeable on stage. The poem is enjoyable. And then when I turn the poem, people are now ready for it. The subject matter is the same, but now it’s the darker side of it. That’s a move you figure out really early on as a slam poet: how do you disarm the audience and bring them in? And I think for me landscape is kind of operative in that way within the book. How do you soften the audience to prepare them for the payload, for the concussion?
MBazzett: Hmm. Yes, I think that’s an interesting connection to draw back to Levis. I see now why you named your dog Levis. [Laughs]
MLee: Right. Which was actually Hieu [Minh Nguyen]’s idea!
MBazzett: Was it?
MLee: I don’t know what I was thinking for a name. Maybe Bartholomew. Something old. And then it turned out he (the dog) was young, but he’d had a hard life and looked really old.
MBazzett: [Laughs] The haggard youth. Which is another trope from this book.
MLee: [Laughs] Right. Right, exactly.
MBazzett: You talked a bit about the process of getting this book out there. And I know you’ve read from it a bit, but given that you’re someone who’s been reading in front of large audiences for a while now, going out behind the book must be a different process for you, yes?
So what’s it been like to be out inhabiting work now that’s no longer mutable and evolving? And how does it feel to be out in front of an audience now, shifting from a sense of “I’m here, as a troubadour, in this moment” to “I’m here inhabiting poems that exist, now, separate from me, as a book!” Folks can now curl up with a cup of green tea and read these poems in the voice in their own head, you know?
MLee: I love that. I think for me the beauty and the bummer of performance in general is that you can’t take it with you. I think you leave with the feeling, but not the poem, the product. I mean, obviously that’s changed with the Internet; you can watch YouTube.
MBazzett: But with a recording you’re not inhabiting the moment in the same way.
MLee: Exactly. And in performance, you’re watching other people. And the experience of reading is… You’re alone. Even if you’re reading in a coffee shop full of other people. And I think that is really beautiful. And it allowed me to depart from some of the poems that are so narrative heavy, and to have a little more wiggle room for interpretation. Which I really like.
MBazzett: Like some of the shorter lyric poems?
MLee: Yeah, exactly. In that, you’re going to understand my meaning, but you’re also going to create much of your own. Which I think is really important.
MBazzett: Well, they’re also in the context of an entire collection, which gives them resonance in a different way.
MLee: Yeah, that’s the great thing. They’re all in conversation with each other. And I really spent a lot of time on the order. You know, Jamaal May talks about the ecosystem of a poem, but also of a collection. And I was thinking a lot about that word, ecosystem, in particular when thinking about the book. You know, there were a lot more knives in the book originally than there are now. And that was partly at the urging of Hanif [Abdurraqib], my editor, being like: Look, each of these poems on their own are great, but you’ve got 38 knives in a single collection with 85 pages. And it starts to feel a little heavy handed.
MBazzett: A little bristly.
MLee: Yeah, exactly! And it loses some of its power. So there was the process of trying to pull back a little, so that the collection could be more impactful as a whole.
MBazzett: And how do you feel about being 31 when the book came out? Given that it’s something that you’ve lived with, and thought of as a manuscript for what, six, seven years?
MLee: Yeah, I think I saw that this was a book in 2012 or so. The book obviously thematically encompasses a lot more than that initial idea. Thank goodness. But it feels great. I think I was very hard on myself for a long time. You know, a lot of my peers are now on the second and third books. And some of them are younger than me. I think we talked, for example, about Danez in the beginning. And their connection to slam. We kind of came up together, Danez and me and Hieu. And I started to watch both of them publish books in their mid-20s. Which is fantastic.
MBazzett: And you and Hieu were roommates, right, for quite some time?
MLee: Long time. Roommates during both of his books.
MBazzett: For six, seven years then? Because he just headed out to Stanford a few months ago, right?
MLee: Yeah. Drove West and left me with the dog. [Laughs] But yeah, it’s difficult when you come up in any community, to not compare yourself to others in that community and think that you’re off track, or that something is wrong with you and your work when you hit 30 and still don’t have a book. Even though some of the most celebrated writers didn’t even have books come out until they’re in their 40s or 50s. Toni Morrison’s first book, I think she was 47, 48? And she’s one of the greatest writers that ever lived.
MBazzett: Yeah, she did just fine. [Laughs]
MLee: Changed literature forever. And I think that’s an important reminder. I think of Octavia Butler working in a potato chip factory. And that—working and supporting your family and traveling, whatever you have to do—is also a part of your writing process. And so, being gentle with myself, knowing it was later than I hoped, but still earlier than many people. I think now publishing is so much more visible in my generation. There are so many small presses, so many ways to get your work out there, it feels a bit more like the norm to publish younger than maybe it did 20 or 30 years ago. And I think that is both cool and stressful for young writers. I really believe whatever age you are when your book comes out, that’s the age you were supposed to be when your book came out. You know I look back on what the book was like when I was 25, and I lose sleep thinking about what it would have been like to have that book come out into the world. I mean, it would have been a really embarrassing collection.
MBazzett: Well, what’s next, writing-wise? I mean, is it too soon to ask, given that the book just came out in August?
MLee: No, I think for me it was very freeing to have the book out. I was beholden to the process in a way, feeling like, I have to get this book out. As soon as I sent in that final draft, I started writing short stories, which I’ve begun sending around. They look at memory, childhood, Norway, cultural reclamation, race, whiteness, violence. Kind of our current American political landscape. And that’s been really fun. I first identified as a fiction writer before I identified as a poet. In slam, it’s very instantly gratifying. Or—it’s not! [Laughs]
MBazzett: Well you know, one way or another. [Laughs]
MLee: It’s instantly something, right? My first time slamming, it was insanely embarrassing. But it became instantly gratifying, and instantly rewarding, in a way that made poetry kind of the sensible thing to do. In that, people started to say hey, we’ll pay you to come in and do this workshop. We saw your video online. And I was like, Oh, that’s great, I can start to make money as a writer. It’s also easier to get someone to look at that your two-page poem than it is to look at your 30-page short story, or 300-page novel.
MBazzett: And if it doesn’t work out, you’ve wasted a lot less of your life.
MLee: Exactly. But so, I’m having a fun time now getting back into short stories, and getting back to where I started, in prose. Which I think is also apparent in the book, that I have a prose background, in the narrative arc. And that arc is also very slam. And then I’m also working on a novel. I think I’ve written maybe one poem since the book came out. And for a while that was stressing me out. But I think, now I’m just working on prose, and that’s okay.
MBazzett: And you’re living inside these poems, and reading from them, too.
MLee: Yeah, and I’m learning about poetry as I talk about the book, and am asked questions about the book and learning about what I did and do think about it.
MBazzett: Has it changed how you read the poems aloud? I’m just thinking about something Jamaal said. He’s a marvelous reader, and he talked about how exhausting it could be to be out reading, making a living that way. But then he said something switched over, and he realized: people aren’t really there to see me, they’re there to hear the poems. Which simplified it. He said, here’s the book: I’m going to trust it, I’m going to completely be inside it, but when the reading’s done, I’ll close it. And maybe the poems are in conversation with one another, and maybe that conversation continues, but I don’t have to be there anymore.
MLee: Right, right. Yeah, it’s been really nice. Performatively it’s been interesting, too. Because often in slam the impulse is to be very big, performatively, right? And so it’s been very nice to be in a context where that would be inappropriate. Like, I read in a bookstore in Madison the other night. And in a slam crowd, I’m used to performing for a couple hundred people, maybe. And the audience might clap and cheer and snap, and you might have to perform over them. And at a bookstore in Madison, A Room of One’s Own, where 5 people came out on a snowy frozen night… I mean, at first I felt a little bad, like, I hope the bookstore isn’t upset that I could only draw 5 people. And at first my impulse was, I have to be very big to make it worth it for them. One woman said she drove 2 hours to come to the reading—which is very flattering, and also like: Oh my God, now I have to give you the best show ever. But then it’s also like: trust the poems. And I think I don’t always trust my own writing, and I make up for that by over-performing. Which actually weakens the work. And so I’ve learned to trust the poems. And it was a very quiet reading and very intimate—because I was in a bookstore with 5 people and people shopping and nobody wants to hear someone yelling—and I heard my work differently. And I was like, “Oh, this poem functions so much better more quietly.”
MBazzett: I overheard somebody the other day, and it was me.
MLee: [Laughs] Right. And so that’s been really nice to hear the work in different ways. And be like, Oh damn! That’s a good poem! I wrote the hell out of that poem! But I didn’t realize I wrote the hell out of it until I heard it quietly. Or until I heard someone quote it back to me, and I’m like, damn, that line is great. [Laughs]
MBazzett: I love that. That’s wonderful. Sometimes the last person we listen to is us.