Friday, October 4, 2013

MARTINE BELLEN and her new book of poetry WABAC MACHINE

Christal Cooper  3,009 Words                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
Facebook @ Christal Ann Rice Cooper


What poem from this collection did you write first? How was the poem first conceived in your brain? Where were you at when you wrote it?

WABAC MACHINE is divided into three sections, and the oldest poems are in section three—“Meet Ya on the Next One, ” which, by the way, is a line from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” A pivotal question I ask in the collection is what is reality, and that includes the realities that we identify as life and as death. Japanese manga and anime, because of the great potential of animation and art, is another type of reality. Comic strips, cartoons, manga have an alternate language of reality that we became literate in when we were kids (at least that’s true for many of us). For instance, when Wile E. Coyote runs off a mesa, he doesn’t fall until he looks down and sees the ground is no longer below his paws. Or we know the moving spiral that’s on the cover of my poetry collection means either we’re remembering something and/or going back in time. Some of the poems in section three—or parts of them—were written in Bellagio, Italy. I was awarded a month’s residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Italian palazzo, right over Lake Como. Being there was otherworldly—the window in my writing studio was no longer looking into the East Village of New York City. So it was the perfect place to dislocate reality and work on the anime poems. I don’t conceive of a poem before I write it. I might start with a cluster of words or an image and see where the poem wants to go. Since many of the anime poems use movies as a source, I’d view the anime a couple of times and see what remains it left on me. The poems were a lot of fun to write!

Did you originally write these poems as a “book collection” or individual poems?

I often work in series, though not always. The anime poems are individual poems but I worked through an idea/concept, so although they are each intended to stand alone, they are also related to one another. The collection’s second section (since I’m moving backward) is called “Mothers, Daughter & Nightbirds,” and, in a number of those poems, I channeled Emily Dickinson. Even poems that I don’t develop as a series are often in dialogue with other poems because at a certain point in time I find I get obsessed with a form or a question or a tone—like fairytales, for instance. Several poems in the first section of WABAC Machine use fairytale motifs and collective unconscious dream imagery. So the quick answer to your question is yes. The pieces are conceived as individual works and as a collection. I like to think of my poems in the collection as beads that form a necklace.

How did you write these poems? In long hand? If so what kind of paper? With pencil or pen? On computer?

The poems were all written on the computer except for “Hard Objects Found in People.” I had wanted to explore the making of an object, which is what we do when we write, though because writing (for me at least) has become so cyber, its physicality from the outset is reduced to the 8x11 page. Or some computer screen page.  Also, I wanted the process of making a poem to feel like an art project. So I got some oaktag and taped it to my wall and started writing words on the unlined surface. Probably when reading the poem, you would never know that it was made so differently than its siblings.

Where did you write most of these poems? Some in Italy? Did you write most of these poems in a certain room (living room or office?)

It’s interesting to me that you ask about space—the space in which the poems were written—because another theme in WABAC is space (and space’s skin—time).  Some of the poems were written in Italy, some in New York City, some in Montauk, Long Island. When I had a bunch of poems that seemed to form sequences, I considered how they might work together (the most senior poem is nine years old). Even though one doesn’t necessarily read a poetry collection from front to back, when I structure my collections, I do order them with loose narratives in mind. Kind of how a music CD works. Within each of the three sections an arc is formed, and the sections form an arc themselves.

What was your experience in getting this book published?

I sent a few of the poems to Christophe Casamassima, the publisher/editor of Furniture Press Books ( and, the very day I sent the poems, he wrote back and said he read them during his lunch break and would like to read the collection. And he commented specifically on a poem or two, mentioning books he was reading at the time that aligned with notions in my work. So I sent him the collection and our dialogue continued, and soon he said he’d like to publish it. It was really exciting because Christophe really read the poems. The poems found their reader and their reader was going to make it so they could find more readers. That’s really all a poem and poet wants. At least this one. 

The second section of this book – or the poem “On Becoming a Poem” first appeared in the chapbook “Mothers, Daughters & Nightbirds.” What is this chapbook about and how were these poems conceived and written?

The brilliant German translator Hans Balmes is also a dynamic editor at the publishing house S. Fischer Verlag. He has translated a good number of my poems into German (the book Magic Musée is a bilingual collection) and has edited many issue of the literary journal Neue Rundschau. He was editing an issue around Emily Dickinson and asked me if I’d write something for it. Most of the poems from “Mothers, Daughters & Nightbirds” were written in English with the intension of being translated into German for Neue Rundschau. An Emily Dickinson poem was one of the first poems I remember encountering that woke me up to poetry. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade, and the poem was in my English book at school—The Roberts English series. So Dickinson was always important to me, and Hans knew that when he invited me to send him work for his journal.  When I read My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe’s book, I started understanding Dickinson in a new way, which even deepened my love of her work—her poetry gained visual intrigue. I think of Emily Dickinson as a revolutionary writer. She was uncompromising in her language choices and her life choices. There is no border between her language and life—she lived and breathed her poems. When working on the poems that I dedicate to her, as I said, I tried to channel her, find an Emily Dickinson who dreamed through me.

Can you give me a brief description of AH! Opera No-Opera?

The composer David Rosenboom and I met when we taught at the Milton Avery School of the Arts, which is Bard College’s MFA program.  We both became very familiar with the other’s work and, through our work, became friends. I should say that David lives in Los Angeles and I in New York. David is a professor and the dean of music at Cal Arts. So we were in email contact when he asked if I’d collaborate with him on an opera “based” on the Diamond Sutra. The Diamond Sutra is Buddhist scripture and records a dialogue between the Buddha and his student Subhuti about the nature of perception and impermanence. A well-known line from it is “All things are like a dream, a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.” So David and I started a dialogue (through email) about the Diamond Sutra and about opera and that conversation turned into what our project might be. One thing we decided early on was our opera—so as not to exclude—wouldn’t be religious but humanist. Some consider Buddhism a philosophy rather than a religion because rather than offering a set of beliefs, it offers only a path—people of any religion or no religion can have a Buddhist practice. Our discussion lasted years. Eventually I began writing short narrative investigations based on our pages and pages of emails. You can read more about the opera at As well as watch it in-full as it was performed at REDCAT.

Where did the title WABAC come from?

The WABAC machine is the time machine on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show—a 1960s cartoon. A segment of the program was called “Peabody’s Improbable History” and it featured the WABAC Machine—a time machine in which the dog, Mr. Peabody, takes his pet boy, Sherman, way back in time to meet historical figures.  This allusion is in the poem “Time Machine”: It is equally possible that every universe is a WABAC/Losing us/in the time of our life.

Are any of these poems biographical? Autobiographical?

Well…yes and no. All the poems in the collection are borne from my experiences but then those experiences are reformed and transformed, so the poems aren’t confessional—they don’t tell stories about, let’s say, my childhood, but they are very personal, and I use my life and background when building them.

There is a lot of fairy tale imagery – (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hans Christian Anderson). I’m interpreting these metaphors as identity, rather it be authentic identity or an identity we want to wish for or we dream for. In essence fairy tales is how we view our life – our identity – as something not true, something unreachable or something that at the surface appears fairytale but is not as magical as we would like. In other words, our identity is somehow limited by our own interpretation; therefore we are limited never in who we really are but who we think we are. Is this a fair interpretation? What is your intention of using this fairy tale imagery? How would you define identity? And is our identity more of what we do or how good we act? Or what we think? Etc.

I’ve mentioned that time/space and questions around the meaning of “reality” are themes in this collection, but, in my mind, identity is the most dominant theme. The first poem in the collection, “Customers Who Have Bought ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Have Also Bought This” asks who am I, asks what ME means. The poem begins with a of dictionary of sorts, attempting to define ME (a state in New England, a large, furry animal, etc.) I think a dictionary is a tool that identifies. One of the last poems in the book, “Metropolis,” also includes a dictionary. The word “identity” from late Latin, identitatem, means “sameness.” I love fairytales for their transformative, cross-cultural collective unconscious powers. Even though fairytales tend to want to define in a simplistic way, the stories themselves are filled with spooky, ancient imagery that always feels, to me, to be on the cusp of getting really scary and out of control—the threat of getting lost forever (ever after) is always being hinted at. The forest, all of a sudden, gets too dark, has a roaming center. The beautiful, unstoppable hair grows too long. And these images/motifs are cross-cultural, so there are Egyptian, Korean, Chinese, North American, and European Cinderella stories. What’s being explored is the same in all cultures, the same in all people—our identities are our sameness, though also not totally. We know that. Nevertheless, we can all meet in the fairytale forest and see how our stories overlap, merge, mirror one another. We all make up one story, one fairytale with Nature as our helper because we are part of it, it is us too, even though we feel cut off. Fairytales can make us feel less cut off.

Some of these poems were free verse, prose poems, vignettes, and what I would define as haiku. Do you agree? And how would you describe the physical format of this collection?

Yes, all these forms are represented in WABAC MACHINE. I’m interested in blurring genres—poetry and prose. I do it within individual poems and throughout the collection. Really, it’s not so much that I’m interested in the concept of a hybrid genre but, when I’m writing, I want the form of the piece to evolve as it wants to—as a sentence, as projective verse, syllabically structured poetry, enjambed lines, whatever. So I try to be true to the form of the piece and not to be rigid about form in general. “Assemblage,” which uses loose haiku, was written at a time when I was having trouble writing. I was in Montauk, which is the village at the tip of Long Island, very beautiful ocean-scape. Every day I walked around outside and found at least one haiku. The full-length poem came from looking at these haiku moments. 

On page 19, the last six lines of the first paragraph were my favorite. I thought It described how our environment can change the way we feel about ourselves and our lives. What was your intention and your own interpretation in writing these lines? A part of me felt that coming to the mountain enabled people to forget the bad of their past; but then at the same time in order to go to this mountain the individuals must “leave behind their charisma, expertise, their ability to make their way in the world.” Or perhaps this mountain is an equalizer of identity – when you get down to the bare essentials – we are all human, needing food, clothing and shelter and one another. What is your response to my interpretation? Can you talk about this prose poem in length?

Yes, I agree with all you say. Also, the hotel tucked in the mountain is like death and going there is like the journey to death (though death isn’t conceived as a final resting place in the poem), so one gives up what accumulates when one dies. But the poem and its landscape can be so many other things as well—it’s also a spiritual retreat, a silent meditation retreat. I am a Zen practitioner and Zens will participate, from time to time, in “sesshin” which is a five to seven day silent retreat in which everyone sits zazen all day long. The epigraph “mountains are mountains” is a Zen saying. Before one starts practicing Zen, one sees mountains as mountains. Once one starts practicing for a short time, mountains are no longer mountains. Identity comes into play. What is the mountain? The streams of the mountain are part of the mountain, so if the streams are removed, is the mountain still a mountain? What about the birds and other animals and bugs? What about the trees? The dirt? etc. If you take all of these away, when is the mountain not a mountain? What is a mountain? After one practices a long time, the mountain is again just a mountain. The poem/fiction (is it a poem or prose fiction?) is dedicated to a friend who died young, in his early forties, of cancer. At the piece’s end, it seems my friend is in the landscape, is the landscape, and the concept of interior/exterior dissolves.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Where do you live? Are you married, have children? What is your day to day routine like? And what projects are you working on now? As well as contact information for readers?

I live in New York City. Besides being a writer, I’m an independent book editor ( and an educator. I’m in a long-term relationship with James Graham, the artist who painted the cover art for WABAC MACHINE. I have two cats: Daily Alice and Rocco (yes, I’m a cat lady).  Presently, I’m collaborating with writer Zhang Er and composer Wang Lin on an opera based on the Chinese legend about the moon lady Chang Er. I can be contacted through my website:

What is your favorite or most meaningful poem of this collection?

You asked if I have any children. I’ll revise my answer to the question to say yes, many. They are my poems, and I couldn’t choose one over the other. Sometimes I like one better than another but when I look at them all together, I’m sure I couldn’t single one out.   

*Below is the poem OSHIMAI (THE END) from WABAC MACHINE.  Copyright by Martine Bellen and Furniture Press Books (

One April morning, the mother believes she awakens and her lovely daughter has disappeared.  The mother has been watching a movie about a young girl, her daughter, with aubergine hair and round eyes.  Parasitic bugs that have found solace in the skin of the girl replace her.  Upon seeing the parasites, the mother falls into a deep weeping, keening slumber, and the bugs continue her dream.  She can exist only through the parasites’ memory.  They watch her sleep.  She supposes she’s dead, dreaming that her daughter is directing insects in an anime movie.  She’s at the movies with secretions that dissemble when light’s switched on (the secretions which are raised from light, the secretions which are her thoughts).  The viewer will open his eyes and go home (open his heart–turn on the light–(close his eyes)–dream-(turn in sleep)-becoming something other-a moth maybe, nothing more substantial than the filmic flame, gossamer, a damselfly’s shimmering whirr.  Strangers in our body.  Passengers.  Parasites.   


Photo 1.
Martine Bellen.  Attributed to Jeffrey Gaffney.  Copyright by Martine Bellen.

Photo 2.
WABAC MACHINE jacket cover.

Photo 3.
Jimi Hendrix performing for the Dutch television show Hoepla.  Attributed to A. Vente.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands. 

Photo 4.
“Voodoo Child” jacket cover.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 5.
The kanji for “manga” Attributed to TheOtherJesse.  Public Domain.

Photo 6.
An anime stylized eye.  Attributed to Oni Lukos.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License.

Photo 7.
Wile E Coyote.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 8.
Bellagio, Italy.  Attributed to Jean-Christophe Benoist.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Photo 9.
Daguerreotype of Emily Dickenson in 1848.  From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers.  Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Photo 10.

Photo 11.
Martine Bellen giving a reading. Copyright by Martine Bellen.

Photo 12.
View of Lake Como from Martine's studio in Villa Serbelloni (Bellagio, Italy) where Martine worked on anime poems.

Photo 13.
East 5th Street between Second Avenue and Cooper Square is a typical side street in the heart of the East Village.  Attributed to Beyond My Ken.  GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0 Generic

Photo 14.
Photo of Culloden Point by Montauk in Montauk, Long Island taken by poster from parking lot at the top of the bluff in July 2006. The large rock with the red on its side is the landmark for scuba divers who follow a heading of 333 degrees from it reach the wreck of the HMS Culloden.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

Photo 15.
Furniture Press Books logo

Photo 16.
Places People Dare Not Enter jacket cover.

Photo 17.
Martine Bellen giving a poetry reading.  Copyright by Martine Bellen.

Photo 18.

Photo 19.
Magic Musee jacket cover.

Photo 20.
Neue Rundschau.

Photo 21.
Jacket cover of the Roberts English Series second book.

Photo 22.
Jacket cover of My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe.

Photo 23.
The Milton Avery Arts Center.  Public Domain.

Photo 24.
The Chinese Diamond Sutra, the oldest known dated printed book in the world.  Public Domain.

Photo 25.
Detail of Elder Subhuti, from the famous Dunhuang Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), the first known printed book. The picture is derived from the second chapter, in which Subhuti asked the Buddha how bodhisattvas can achieve enlightenment. "From the midst of the great multitude, Elder Subhūti arose from his seat, bared his right shoulder, and placed his right knee on the ground. With his hands joined together in respect, he addressed the Buddha..."  Public Domain.

Photo 26.
AH! opera no-opera at REDCAT, Sept. 2009.

Photo 27.
This image is a screenshot of a copyrighted television program The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 28.
Screen shot of WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and Sherman about to enter it.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.

Photo 29.
Of The Monkey God jacket cover.

Photo 30.
Tales of Muraskie and Other Poems jacket cover.

Photo 31.
The Vulnerability of Order jacket cover.

Photo 32.
GHOSTS! jacket cover.

Photo 33.
2X2 jacket cover.

Photo 34.
Snow White illustrated by Alexander Zick (1845-1907).  Public Domain.

Photo 35.
Sleeping Beauty illustrated in pencil and watercolor by Henry Meynell Rheam (1859 – 1920).  Public Domain.

Photo 36.
The Fairy Godmother and Cinderella.  Attributed to Oliver Herford (1863-1935).  Public Domain.

Photo 37.
Photograph of Hans Christian Anderson (1805-1875).  Attributed to Thora Hallager (1821-1884).  Public Domain.

Photo 38.
WABAC MACHINE jacket cover.

Photo 39
Photo of Culloden Point by Montauk in Montauk, Long Island taken by poster from parking lot at the top of the bluff in July 2006. The large rock with the red on its side is the landmark for scuba divers who follow a heading of 333 degrees from it reach the wreck of the HMS Culloden.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic.

Photo 40.
James Graham.

Photo 41.
The Moon Goddess of Chang’er.  Ink painting by Shi Yu.  Public Domain. 

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