I sent a few of the poems to Christophe Casamassima, the publisher/editor of Furniture Press Books (www.furniturepressbooks.com) 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 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.
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 http://www.ah-opera.org. As well as watch it in-full as it was performed at REDCAT.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I live in New York City. Besides being a writer, I’m an independent book editor (www.bookdoctorbellen.com) 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: martinebellen.com.
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.