Meghan Privitello is the author of A New Language for Falling out of Love (YesYes Books, 2015), Notes on the End of the World, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition (Black Lawrence Press, 2016), and One God at a Time (YesYes Books, 2020). Poems have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, A Public Space, Best New Poets, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation, and elsewhere. She recently received a Master’s degree in Social Work.
Nancy Reddy: Your book is called One God at a Time, and God shows up in all kinds of surprising and sexy and scary ways in the book. There’s “God as Butcher,” “God as Lifetime Movie,” “God as Gynecologist,” “God as Sicily,” and God appears in nearly every poem, sometimes violent, sometimes sad, sometimes wilting, sometimes building fires. He intervenes sometimes, but mostly he fucks up. How did this understanding of God develop for you?
Meghan Privitello: I was raised Catholic, in a very non-descript way. I was forced to go to church every Sunday until I started to know differently. I began to carry on about being too tired to get up, not having clean “church” clothes, forgetting it was Sunday, etc. My parents eventually gave up the fight and I would stay home and watch Ren and Stimpy, look through my brother’s porn mags, eat my body weight in bagels. When I did go to church, one of the first crushes I ever had was on a crucified Jesus—his abs and agony! Something was built here, in the combination of sex, appetite, power, submission, resistance. All against the backdrop of God. As an adult, I feel like not much has changed. All of my desires, both possible and impossible, play out in front of/illuminated by/observed by God.
I also started to see God as part of the deep dysfunction of heteronormativity and the oppressiveness of gender roles. God became tied up in my bitterness with performing the feminine (caregiver, sacrifice of self), with the expectations of a married woman (caregiver, sacrifice of self). These were roles I was taught to expect and honor, from my family, from their associations with God, from their fears of creeping outside the traditional. I think in these poems, God remains himself (whoever that might be) and stands in for everything. I think I am able to see God in everything now. Not in a way that signifies God as creator, but more like God as particle. God as a piece of (shit, mind, cake). God as a diacritic letter, silent and able to change whatever it stands next to.
NR: “God Skips Newtown,” which was also included in Jenny Holzer’s VIGIL, a series of light projections confronting gun violence that were displayed in Rockefeller Center in New York (some images from the piece are here), is such a stunning indictment both of a conventional understanding of a God who protects us and of America’s refusal to take any meaningful steps to prevent further mass shootings. The poem ends with a crushing image of school children lining up their classrooms:
When God is busy wiping grease
from his mouth, we can stand in a line
with the dead in our backpacks,
next to our pencils and our snacks;
he won’t notice when
we gives the whole damned world back
It’s also the rare poem in the book that’s explicitly about a particular, recognizable event. How did you come to write that poem?
MP: I think this is maybe the only poem I’ve ever written in response to a specific event, and I honestly don’t know how to feel about that. I am uncomfortable when I speak so closely toward the real, especially the tragic real that is not my own to speak from. And I don’t know that I remember how this poem came to be, except that I was (and always am) curious about how religious folks come to negotiate God and tragedy.
I was imagining an off-duty God, a very American God, i.e. selfish, oblivious. It is so convenient for me to siphon anger directly into God, especially if I see God as an empty and infinite vessel. This works for and against my advantage. An empty God is capable of containing these feelings, and can become Winnicott’s wet dream of the “good enough mother,” someone who is imperfect but there just enough for you to survive. But, of course, there is the expectation that God be greater than “good enough,” and accepting this kind of functional mediocrity makes for a disappointing and dangerous idea of God. And in the Newtown shooting, God was certainly not “good enough.” So what else is there, what is left? The poem became a bit obsessed with the tangible—objects and nouns. The things we can still hold when so much else disappears. When God is absent/unrecognizable, the ability to hold and touch a pencil or a sandwich feels like an unbearable and violent grace.
NR: One of the things I love about this book is how it’s always remaking the stories we think we know: mythology, Christianity, our expectations about marriage and family and domesticity. “Hera, Say Hello,” for example, calls up the voice of Zeus’s wife to examine the violence and erasure that marriage has often meant for women, and the speaker comments that “Some women pray for a husband / who will take the sky in his fist / and break it” before observing that “Whoever we marry / we vanish like a trick.” “The Minotaur” similarly intertwines mythology and the domestic: “My life is an old sentence— // First comes love, then comes marriage. / The gods are tired of that story.” I’m a sucker for this kind of re-examination of mythology, but it’s also really easy for it to feel like a gimmick—Romeo & Juliet, but in the Great Depression! or somesuch—which your poems never do. How did you approach those kinds of reinventions? What does writing through those stories and mythological figures allow you to do?
MP: I don’t have dreams or intentions to fulfill when I set out to (re-)write. I like to take a cheap hold of a story like, say, the mythology of Hera and read a few accounts from different sources to gather a very general aura or theme of her story. This becomes the background which I then like to clutter up with little bits of, maybe, personal experience, or contemporary gender politics, maybe a few tchotchkes. Sometimes these poems have little to do with the actual myth, and that’s how I actually prefer it to be. I send out a whisper to the spirit of the character, and let the character whisper back through the fatty layers of history, and allow the message to come out as wonky as it has to be after passing through so many memories and mouths.
When I write these re-examinations of mythology, I like to summon the spirit of that woman in Spain who painted over that 19th century fresco of Christ. They called it a “bungled and botched restoration,” a “Monkey Christ”! Fantastic! Because the painting is still Christ, but it pushes viewers to the edges of tradition, history, and authenticity. This type of writing allows me to consider how faithful we are expected to be to original works of art and the hysteria of preserving the ideal object (of beauty). I think every version of a story told is a preservation of the story, but with a new beginning. I prefer when the stories get uglier, and I can’t help but think of my boo Rilke here: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.” I want to write poems that contain both, and these redux poems have given me a container to explore that dyad.
NR: Your chapbook, Notes on the End of the World, tracks a slow apocalypse, and the poems chart the last 20 days of the world. (In the first poem, the speaker says “‘I could almost believe the world planned for itself to fail,’” which feels eerily prophetic at the moment.) How do you think having spent that time thinking about and writing about the end of the world has shaped the way you’re experiencing our current disaster?
MP: It didn’t help me at all! It’s really difficult for me to access the space I inhabited when working on previous projects or poems. Even if it’s a poem I worked on yesterday, whatever today is made of would make it near impossible for me to get back in. I’m not sure I know exactly what kind of world I was watching the end of in those poems. That was actually the first collection I ever wrote, even though it was published after A New Language for Falling Out of Love. I felt pretty lost as a writer, that I was a stand in for the world that planned for itself to fail. I think I was tracking my own apocalyptic psychic landscape.
The world of today’s pandemic is one I am incapable of responding to through poetry, at least right now. I had set myself up for a project, a kind of Notes on the End of the World sequel, but fear and death feels too close and too uncontrollable right now to make into a poem. I also don’t want to be a poet that capitalizes on this, from a privileged position of health (for the moment), financial security (for the moment). It could be easy to transform the pandemic narrative into a poetry gimmick in order to get more readers, or other various unsavory reasons. This is not to say I won’t ever touch this experience with poetry. In order to do so, I think I have to reconsider what my idea of poetry is, and let go of some of my self-imposed restraints. A loosening of control, which is a nightmare for me. But in a world of nightmares, what’s one more?
NR: One of the things I love about your work is how intimate these poems feel—having read your work and seen you read, I feel I know you much better than I probably do. There’s often the feeling in your poems of being admitted to a private space. And yet the poetry world seems to require us to produce a public self, a version of ourselves that’s witty on Twitter, that’s posting pictures of ourselves with our arms around other poets at AWP. (Ugh, I obviously started thinking about this in the before, when we were still walking around and hugging people.) I wonder if you feel a tension between the intimacy of writing and reading poetry and the public self the poetry world seems to expect.
MP: I feel that tension acutely, which is what makes it so hard for me to be any kind of public poetry self. I am pretty comfortable letting people into my creepy crusty inner spaces, but I realize that those spaces can be quite haunted, and not made of the best atmosphere to survive in. I have so many traits that make me a bad public poetry self: I am very much a hermit, and it takes everything in me to prepare for an event like AWP, or even a small reading. I’m terrible at self-promoting, which requires a public self and triggers all kinds of feelings of guilt and shame (thank you, God). I’m also a very slow thinker, which makes publicity difficult, because I end up appearing like I am a void when I am actually processing what others are doing/saying, and being entirely too careful in how I choose to respond. And I struggle with taking up space, verbally, physically, emotionally, in the presence of others. I exhaust myself as a public thing. But writing poems allows me to feel like I have a giant roll of paper tickets that I can throw to whoever wants one, and when I represent myself in the absence of my body—that kind of intimacy approaches the erotic. Or maybe the divine—that mix of presence and absence. I think that’s one of God’s specialties, to be there and not be there. Ugh. Here I go with God again.