When the Skull Is a Bell: Interview with Poet Michael Lee
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Michael Lee will always lead me back to the inextinguishable part of the self where the ones we’ve lost are alive in another form. There’s a tension here: how painful it is to dial the number of a memory instead of a person, but how precious it is to dial any love at all, to celebrate and learn from. Some people have chiseled their initials into our bones. So too have we named the scaffolds of our being after important experiences, often trials, perhaps hardships or compulsions. These are the thoughts Michael Lee’s new collection of poems awakened for me.
Published by Button Poetry,The Only Worlds We Know draws on almost a decade of poem writing. Michael has a talent for thoroughly examining grief, shame, and despair until they shift from disorienting to orienting. Things have happened to us. We did things we regret. We have lost. Now it’s our duty and privilege to make meaning out of the past. If we’re doomed to see through a particular waterfall of emotion, at least we can become masters at recognizing shapes. This theory also applies to awe, which billows again and again inside The Only Worlds We Know.
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Audiences may be familiar with Michael from his work in the national slam poetry scene. He has a trio of performances on YouTube which average out to about 500k views each. I suspect this is due to his tendency to articulate feelings that are widely felt, something on full display in his new collection. In this interview we explore the stories within and behind The Only Worlds We Know, and the vivid perspective of a poet who is attuned to both his perceptions and their limits.
I’d love to start this interview with talking about your sobriety. You mention in your book you have a decade. What about currently?
Eleven years as of September.
Hell yeah, congratulations.
Thanks, man. How long do you have, by the way?
Three and a half years.
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That’s what’s up. That’s what’s up.
Could you tell me about the title of your book, “The Only Worlds We Know,” and how it manifests in that first poem?
A big chunk of the book was written within nine months of sending out the draft. I was on a roll. I looked at it and thought, “Okay, this book no longer centers on the death of my best friend. It’s a lot bigger than that.” So [the title] tried to capture the new direction. And I wanted to capture...well it’s like being in recovery, right? You have two options. You can either get clean or you can die. But there is also a nebulous space in your head where there are a lot of questions and wonder. The title comes from that first poem which has the line, “If the bullet were just a tool of grammar / in the language of the unspeakable, / would it not be a conjunction, / would it not be the word “and” / for doesn’t it connect us to the only two worlds we know?” The piece opens the book because it sets the stage for talking about life and death. But I dropped the word “two” because I was looking beyond life and death, at longing, nostalgia, and place, how our sense of place is shaped by longing, by death, by nostalgia.
Did this new surge of work offer fresh perspective on ideas or themes you had been engaging for a while?
Distance from the height of addiction, or from the height of grief does offer perspective. Poems like “Out There,” “Row,” and “Tapestry in Five Parts” were written in the last year. With “Out There,” the longer you are in recovery the more you are going to see people who aren’t able to figure it out, who go back out there. Or, recovery can happen in episodes. For a year you go to two meetings a week, you have a sponsor, but then that formula doesn’t work for you the next year.
I wanted to explore some of the dark spots where you go in sobriety. One of the oldtimers in my homegroup used to say, “I don’t always miss the drink or the drug but I do miss the chaos,” and I’ve always identified with that and tried to capture it tonally in poems. Some of the distance has allowed me to explore not just the nostalgia for this person or this moment in my life I lost, but how this thing, while it almost destroyed me, it was consistent. Even if it was terrible, I knew what the terrible was going to be. I needed it, and there have been dark times in my sobriety where I have longed for it. Imagined throwing it all away.
The book struck me in how it approached some of these subjects indirectly, talking about the emotions that challenge recovery, and the ones that precipitate addiction in the first place. You said something earlier about wonder. I do see magical realism in some of these poems. Do you agree and if so, how is it functioning for you?
Great question. The beginning of this book was written at the end of 2011. I was living in Norway, a couple years sober. It’s the first time I’m away from my recovery groups and I’m in this magical place I’ve always wanted to go, surrounded by mountains, living in this 300-year-old house with a bunch of Norwegian musicians. But I had mono so I couldn’t do much. My spleen was so enlarged I could hardly walk. I dug into the library down the street which was about as far as I could walk. I kept checking out as many books as I could and one of them was 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Ah, OK, I can see that.
I was reading Garcia Marquez and a lot of Larry Levis, Cormac McCarthy, Roberto Bolano. So I was getting a lot of wonder, magical realism, lyrical narrative, and grit all while being in this miraculous place. For me, my sense of wonder is also partially why I first started to use.
My using was sped up because one of my best friends was killed, the same year my grandfather died, and I was already 14 which is a shitty age to be anyway.
Yeah, of course.
Everything is terrible when you’re 14. The world was too much to contend with, both in its terror and in its beauty. I felt so much and the best way to deal with that was to numb it, even the good. I’m sad? Give me a drink. I’m happy? Give me a drink. I didn’t have the language to express what I was feeling and that’s part of why I was drawn to poetry. It gave me some tools to survive with.
I’m glad you picked up on the magical realism. When you talk about things like death and addiction, facts and numbers don’t really get people, especially in this era of information. You can say 100 people died in a plane crash. You can say 5,000 people were killed in an attack by some country’s military. 75,000 people died in the US from overdoses last year. Numbers have stopped meaning something to most people when there is death all the time. Most people don’t feel any different response to the 100 people in a plane crash and the 75,000 people who died from overdoses because it isn’t numbers that move us, those don’t fully register, it’s storytelling and narrative that shape our responses to death, to tragedy. So I try to get at the emotion of it and go beyond data and create a mythology.
I had heard Just Yesterday a couple years ago. It’s always been a poem for me to turn to when thinking about the work of memorializing the dead and writing about the dead. To me, it seems you’ve been doing this work for a while. I see it in this book and I like the placement of that poem before “Secondly, Finally.” You sort of inspect or interrogate what it means to memorialize the dead and the responsibility that comes along with it. What do you think?
This is something I wrestle with a lot in this piece, especially in talking about the death of my friend because A, he’s gone and cannot tell his own story, B, we were children, and C, he was a black child and I am a white writer, so there are levels of potential appropriation and co-option I’m trying to be cognizant of. What story needs to be told? Who is the one to tell it? I mean, it’s essentially a function of whiteness to co-opt the stories of people of color, particularly stories that chronicle death or pain. And that co-option is violence. So there are a number of layers I’m contending with in terms of telling the story and what parts. Especially the way I finish the poem, talking about the body and its relationship to his death, talking about keys and doors. That’s not something I necessarily have the answers to. It’s nerve-wracking to tell.
I’m in some contact with his cousins and his aunt. In some ways I’m terrified about what they might think of the book. Do I do any justice at all? Do I open the wounds further? Do I close them? As far as placement after “Just Yesterday,” putting them together, I wanted to get at this feeling of, “Look, I can write this whole book that has a great focus on loss and the lost and the ways in which they died. At the same time, is it worth it? Does it do anything?” I hope it does. It did for me.
Let’s turn to the subject of memory, which is woven throughout the book. I heard on a Radio Lab podcast like six years ago that remembering--the way it works biologically--it’s a process of rewriting that introduces errors. So the things you remember the most have the most errors because you keep rewriting them. Memory and its disintegration, such as in the poem “Self-Erasure as Applied to My Memory,” is another focus of your book. Any thoughts on this?
Memory plays a huge role in the book and in why I used, right, trying to forget certain things. But absolutely, the longer you get from any event the more the story begins to change. That’s just how memory works. I specifically remember seeing the Northern Lights as a kid in Northern Minnesota. My grandfather pointed at the sky and said, “That’s where we’re from,” and I was like, “...the sky!? What do you mean?” But he was like “no, Norway, that’s where our family is from.” This is such a fantastic moment and I wonder if it actually happened. Part of me is like this is too poetic to be true. But I remember it! I have to think: at this point does it matter for my development if this moment is actually true? That story has shaped me in profound ways. It’s partly why I wanted to go back to Norway on this sort of journey of cultural reclamation. Whether or not it happened doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s true. How we remember the world determines how we live in it, how we move in it, and how we imagine the future.
I think about myself. I think about recovery and addiction. People with substance use disorder are good at rumination. It’s like a talent. I feel the line between problem solving and growth is important in this book. There are some griefs we cannot move forward from, but acknowledging that is a form of going forward--
So it’s not always clear cut. But can you talk about that line in this book, between rumination and problem solving, between growth and stagnation?
So much of my use was a result of my inability or refusal to accept a number of things. The refusal to accept my own powerlessness. The refusal to accept that people I loved dearly were gone and gone in horrific ways. My recovery has been less about problematizing or problem-solving my own addiction or past, but finding ways to accept it, and that’s where magical realism came in with how I work with metaphor, for example. The pill. The body. The way it breaks down. How the moon wrestles with the sky, which is too big to hold. There’s something about making it larger than life that makes acceptance easier.
For a lot of folks, it might be the opposite. For them to accept it, they have to understand it in a factual way. For me, I have to understand it in an emotional way and the easiest way for me to do that is to make it huge. So that line is less about rumination than exploring and mythologizing the need to find acceptance.
It makes me think about the things we pathologize that aren’t a pathology. Okay, let’s talk about “Row” specifically. For me it got at this paradoxical feeling of becoming more distant from the memories of addiction that are so central to my core of self-definition--
Yes. Right, right--
But then also the feeling that it’s closer than ever, that precariousness. There is a tension between want dissipating and it still being there. Can you talk about how want appears in this poem?
There’s the line:
“In my favorite dream I row that boat forever; / the fire finds its way inside me. / I’ve been clean for ten years, sometimes / barely. I could throw it away if I wanted / and in my favorite dreams I do. I want. I give up...”
No matter how far you get from it, you’re never that far. You’re never more than one drink or one smoke or one pill away from going back...so, you know. It’s interesting how easy it is to forget what was bad. Because that’s selective memory.
There was this thing in my first four years of recovery where I would drive by someone’s house. They are out drinking a beer, and you’re like, “Oh man, it’s such a nice day. It would be nice to sit outside and drink a beer.” Well I forget what happened last time I sat outside and drank a beer. I had 30 more and headbutted a guy in the face and shattered his nose and woke up and my shoulder was out of its socket and my arm was swollen black. And I was covered in pie. I forget all that stuff.
So how do you keep some of that close but also acknowledge that drugs and alcohol are a symptom of a larger issue? There’s a lot of unhealthy behaviors we can still engage in when we get sober. A big part of it is finding where these feelings are coming from. What kind of work do I have to do to accept where they are coming from, to work through this place?
There’s talk that this is a golden age of poetry. I don’t know if I’m just starting to pay attention more, and yeah people have been writing about addiction and recovery forever, but I see all these amazing poets like yourself who are writing right now. We’d of course like to think it’s a golden age of poetry for everyone. Do you think it is for the population of folks in recovery from substance use disorder?
There’s a lot more conversations around recovery than there was 20 or 30 years ago, and more conversations around addiction as a mental health crisis rather than a criminal justice issue. Part of that is because now we have white people dying during the opioid crisis. The face of addiction has become white and so now we talk about it more and in a different way. I know both white and black crack addicts, and I’ve seen people react to their stories differently. That was one of the difficult things for me when writing about addiction. When I would talk about being in recovery it was easy for people to hold me up as a hero. “You’re so brave. You’re so strong. You’re so courageous.” But like I was a total asshole while using!
We need to talk about who is pathologized versus who is mythologized. That for me has always been a tension in recovery. But I do think culturally we are moving to a place where we are seeing addiction and recovery in a different way. We are also romanticizing it less, I hope anyway. One of the first books I read was by Jim Morrison, my first book of poetry--the second was Mary Oliver, which if you look at my work this all kinda fits [laughs]. Jim Morrison romanticized drug use and addiction, and he died at 27. We’re moving more toward a place of self-care and accountability nowadays. As within the political left, I don’t think that language exists in the same way across the country universally.
What I don’t see, is the literary infrastructure geared towards folks in recovery from substance use disorder, the journals, fellowships, retreats, reading series, etc. Any thoughts on this?
You’re right. I don’t see much of that either, and I really would like it. Especially fellowships and retreats. Poets especially can really party. It’s easier for me to be around it all now than when I was earlier in recovery, but even so.
When I was a Scholar at the Breadloaf Writers Conference I was lucky enough that I ended up in a solo room, the rest of the male-identified scholars were all in one big house where they were reportedly up all night drinking most nights. I was seven years sober and would have made it out of that okay, albeit a bit annoyed, but when I was a year or two sober if I had received that scholarship that might have been a scenario that would have caused me to relapse. I spoke of my recovery in my application so part of me thinks the selection committee arranged for me to have my own room. Even then though, you’re stuck on a mountain for two weeks. If you feel like using there aren’t just a list of meetings you can attend. I’d love to see fellowships and retreats for writers in recovery. I think some really great partnerships between literary foundations and reputable drug and alcohol treatment facilities could be explored.
You performed at UMass Boston when I was there. I remember halfway through your set you were like, Okay, more sad poems. [laughs] I was reading the poem “Joyous Work” in this book and I was like, “Wait, is this a happy Michael Lee poem!?” then I got to the ending and was like, “Nope.”
I actually do see “Joyous Work” as the happy poem in the book, I joke that it must be because it has the word joy in it. It’s happy for me anyway. Every couple of years I go to Norway. I’ve got a couple of friends there who’ve owned a farm for ten generations. It’s in the poem when I talk about Mikkels Plass. Since I was a kid, physical work has always been special for me. My grandparents lived in a cottage in the woods with a giant garden and I learned how to grow food, to chop wood and keep the house warm. I learned how to fish and hunt and make dinner from the land at a young age. I feel very comfortable in that part of my life.
So yeah, “Joyous Work” is about different ways of praying. The farmers were kind of flummoxed. I spent twelve hours in the silo. I remember my friend being like, “Alright, if that’s what makes you happy, we’ll keep dropping loads of hay down into the silo.”
In terms of what’s next for me, I haven’t written many poems since my book. For now I’m focused on short stories about Norway and memory and definitely playing around with magical realism.
Last question, are you touring right now?
I probably stupidly went to Norway for all of October to work on the farm when I should have been doing readings. I did some shows in the fall and I’ll be doing more in the spring.
Available for booking?
I’m available for booking any month at this current juncture.
You brought up your poem “Mikkels Place,” and I feel the ending is kind of bleak but at the same time nourishing, and it might be a great way to close out this interview.
“There will, one day, be another war, and another, and the theory / of everything comes down to grass and is simply grass, which / grows long and green and endlessly. There are one hundred ways / to destroy it, and there are one hundred more ways it will find its way / back out of the dirt.”
Yes, yes, I think this line is the heart at one of the things I’m trying to get at it in the poem. Look, it’s a heavy book. I’ve spent so much time living and writing it I don’t think I realized how heavy it is until I’m reading these reviews online where people are talking about how they cried their way through it. It is heavy, but I wanted to leave room for hope and healing, that we can make our way through this world, that despite all the destruction and violence there is also peace, and we have to find it in the small and odd places sometimes but it’s there. And it’s worth finding, and for me it’s worth being sober for and really feeling it all. I love that. I love being sober and being able to feel the world and be a part of it. It’s such a gift. It’s taken away from so many people, the world is, so we’d better hold onto it as tight as we can while we’ve got it.
More poems from The Only Worlds We Know:
“Finality” and “Look,” The Adroit Journal
“Insomniac Maps the Night,” BOAAT