For years, I’ve known poet Mike Bove and admired his work. When I taught at Southern Maine Community College, where Mike has taught for over twenty years, we’d bump into each other in the English office, and together with a cadre of other poets, we’d commiserate and shoot the poetic shit. I believe Mike and I share a quality – on the exterior, we’re very nice and agreeable and polite, but there’s much more going on inside us than we are able to let show. Good thing for poetry! As Mike writes in his poem, “This Poem Isn’t Going to Write Itself,” “a mind in fever, hot and pumping quietly, so quietly.” Mike’s third book, EYE (Spuyten Duyvil 2023), is a deeply immersive experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his book via email in October 2023.
JN: As you mention in the note at the end of the book, you wrote this book over the span of three days during a snowstorm. According to myth, it took Jack Kerouac a lazy three weeks to write On The Road. How do you think about this torrent of production in which you wrote almost sixty poems? Possessed? Lucky? In the zone? Cursed?
MB: Maybe luckily possessed? Definitely not cursed. I was certainly in a zone, I tend to be a bit obsessive. I wrote all of the poems in four days, and on the fifth I ordered them into manuscript form with three sections. The book’s structure is exactly the same as it was on that fifth day. I didn’t move anything from my initial ordering, and the poems also pretty much appear in their original state with a few small revisions. There are fifty-one poems in the book. I wrote fifty-two over those days, but the last one was complete doggerel so I interpreted that as a sign I was finished.
I think of it the way I think about those studies done of Jazz musicians in flow state. They know their instruments well enough to enter into a trance-like state of fluid creation. Kind of like turning on a machine that runs on its own. I’d never claim virtuosity, but for whatever reason the poems just flowed out. And to say I wrote the whole book in five days is both true and not. The act of writing only took that long, but some of the ideas had been rolling around in my head for quite a while. There’s one about a last-minute halloween costume my dad made for me when I was little. I’d been looking for a way into that poem for years.
I should say I never write that way normally, though it did happen in college once at the very end of a Fiction Workshop. I wrote something like a twenty-page story in a day or two that was so different than what I’d been doing in the class that the Professor suggested I’d plagiarized it. That story went on to be the first thing I ever got published!
JN: I'm glad you mentioned the poem about a last-minute halloween costume your dad made ("Tree"). That's an incredible poem, and I love hearing that it had been rolling around your head for a while trying to get out. Can you say a little about what clicked that allowed you into that poem? And I should say how much I love the ending of that poem: "we went from / house to house / hand in hand / and took / what we were / given." To end a Trick or Treat poem with this sense of openness to what you're given is genius. And I also think this ending adds complexity to the "luckily possessed" way this book came to you. In a sense, you took what was given to you, which gets at a sense of good fortune, but also belies the sheer amount of effort and concentration it must've taken to write these poems in that short a time. Or, as you write in "This Poem Isn't Going to Write Itself," "a mind in fever // hot and pumping / quietly so // quietly."
MB: Thank you, I’m really happy that one spoke to you. It’s one of my favorites. For a long time my memory of that halloween took up a lot of mental space as a way to stay angry at my mother for all kinds of things, and earlier attempts to write it always came out focused on her. She never used to appear in my writing, but then years ago I started writing all these mother poems, mostly angry ones. I ended up frustrated with all of them. They seemed to miss the mark and felt self-indulgent. It takes a lot of ego to stay angry at someone. After a while I realized I was tired of being angry at a thing I couldn’t change, it just didn’t make sense anymore. But acceptance is slow. I had to write all those other poems in order to write “Tree.” Sometimes that’s just how it works. So when the moment arrived to write it, I had worked through those feelings and reframed the memory with my dad as the quiet hero of the story, the one who attempts to assemble normalcy out of chaos, who can’t quite get it right but tries his damnedest. As soon as I thought of it like that, the poem just came, and the memory became one of my dad rescuing me, of the two of us walking out into the unknown together, ready to accept whatever we got.
There’s this quote of Richard Hugo’s I think about all the time, where he called writing “a slow, cumulative way of accepting your life as valid, of accepting yourself over a lifetime.” I think that’s true. And I also know there are worlds of people who had and have it way harder than I ever did. With a poem like “Tree,” part of what I’m trying to do is bring us all together, united in suffering. That sounds bleak, but actually I think it’s beautiful. That’s part of the reason there are no first person pronouns anywhere in the book.
And yes, the whole experience was a lot of effort but also very liberating. There’s so much play in this book, even if much of the subject matter is serious. I look back at those five days and I’m amazed I wrote so much. And I did other things too! I took walks with my family, took my boys skiing with my brother, even attended your book launch that weekend. I also shoveled the driveway more times than I can remember. But in every other moment I was writing. That’s what I was thinking with "This Poem Isn't Going to Write Itself.” A common stereotype is that the muse visits and the work just pours out, as if the writer is simply a conduit for the universe’s magic. I always thought that made it sound so passive, when for me writing has always been active. Even when it comes easily, it’s still the product of years of active practice.
Geez, that’s a long answer. I hope you’ll edit some of this!
JN: I like how you keep foreshadowing my next question. Who needs to write in transitions when they're already here?! I love to hear the bleak and beautiful intent behind the lack of the first person pronoun. At first when I read "eye," I read it as you'd created an alternative first-person pronoun, rather than the "I," it's the "eye," which functions similarly in grammar, but seems to extend, or turn, the first-person outward, to have it be more observational. And I think that goes with the universal sense you mention. However, the more I read it, the more it started to sound like the imperative tense, like a gentle reminder to do something, as in "Arrival," when you write, "eye // remember now // the days they were / born." And it was like the "eye" was some sort of collective memory. Could you talk a little more about that decision to use "eye" and how you came to it?
MB: Yeah, that “eye” is really versatile! It was very spontaneous. I’d been struggling with another manuscript for about a year. It was filled with first-person poems I was frustrated with, poems I’d revised and rewritten all kinds of ways with different perspectives but that never seemed right. I’m very interested in ego-dismantling in poetry, but writing from the first-person makes that challenging. Some poets are really great at it. Robert Hass’s book “Sun Under Wood” is a good example, or think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” There’s a universality some writers achieve with the first-person that I admire, but I was so sick of failing in my own attempts to emulate it that when the storm started on that first day I decided to put aside that problematic manuscript and write some experimental stuff without using “I,” without using punctuation, and also trying out some weird line breaking. I knew I’d have a couple of days of being snowbound, so I let myself play. It felt so good I just kept going.
Some of the poems needed an “I,” like “Arrival” which is about the anxieties one has about being a good parent, and so I used “eye” instead and liked the way it worked as an inclusive proxy for the first-person. I know I’m not the first to attempt it. Whitman and Hughes famously redefine “I” in their poems. In the act of writing it felt a lot more natural to use “eye” as “I,” but also as a real eye, a physical organ that allows sight, and then too as a metaphor for consciousness. It also serves as a way to frame memory. “Eye” in some of the poems becomes a stand-in for our remembering selves. That’s a little abstract, but that’s where my head was.
JN: As you're mentioning Robert Hass or Elizabeth Bishop's universal "I," that reminded me that I also wanted to ask you about Emily Dickinson's eyes ("Emily Dickinson Upstairs"). I loved how this poem was about actual eyes, and the possibility of Dickinson's blindness and the anxiety that accompanies it. Ultimately, it seems to be about "the triumph of light." I believe she's the only poet mentioned in the book (unless I missed someone!), so I wondered how you feel about Dickinson, and how did she make her way in the book.
MB: There are a few writers in there, but you’re right, she’s the only poet. Unless you count Shakespeare and Thoreau, who also make appearances. I love reading author biographies, and I’d recently finished Richard Sewell’s of Dickinson and another one by Martha Ackmann. The Ackmann book focuses on ten defining moments in Dickinson’s life, and that moment in her upstairs room is one of them. The image of her alone up there opening her favorite book to see if she could still read it is such a powerful one. So much hung in the balance in that moment. What if it went the other way?
Like many people, I first read her poetry in high school. A lot of it went over my head then. After spending more time with it I started to better appreciate that jarring intensity her poems have. The best of them rattle with it. And that comes from the intensity of the world she lived in. Not the external world, which is plenty intense, but the internal world of a mind like that. That’s how my mind has always felt, and I can’t turn it off, which is the old blessing/curse paradox. I don’t think that’s unique to me or to her. Wouldn’t you say that writers’ lives aren’t so much lived as they are felt?
JN: If it was anyone else, I'd say that's a great place to end -- the intense inner lives of poets! However, because we're friends, and I know what car you drive, I wanted to ask you about "Push Start." Reader: Mike sometimes drives around Portland in a lovingly maintained, old VW Beetle that sometimes doesn't start and requires some human push power to get it going. I don't even quite know how to phrase this question, but I'd love to hear more about your relationship as a poet with beloved objects/things. It's something I've always loved to think about, and I was hoping to hear your thoughts.
MB: Collecting curious objects runs in my family. I love old things and natural curiosities. I collect a lot of things, especially interesting stones. And my Beetle is a beloved object of curiosity I can drive around in. For a long time it randomly wouldn’t start without a push, and you know first-hand what it was like to help me get on the road. Part of the reason I bought it was to be able to learn how to maintain it, and the starting problem drove me nuts. I researched and read and tried all kinds of things. Finally I took it to the shop this summer and it turned out a three-dollar fuse was faulty. Literally the simplest solution. It’s started reliably ever since. “Push Start” is about the feeling one has when something works fine, just not the way one expects.
An object becomes loved when there’s a story inside. When I look around my house at things I’ve collected, I think about where they came from, who they remind me of, all kinds of details like that. My dad was a collector, and he used to label things as he got older with where he found it, the date, etc. I do the same. Turn over a stone in my house and there’s likely a note underneath saying where it came from, who found it, and the date. I’ve left notes all over the place, inside furniture drawers and on the pages of special books. The next time someone replaces the appliances in my house, they’ll find notes I wrote on the wall when I installed them. As much as I try to stay conscious of impermanence, I can’t help but stare at a stone or a piece of driftwood or something and imagine its story. And I’m part of that story. And so are you and everyone else. Objects and stories are pieces of the people and places we love, ways to feel connected, to feel as if we’ve mattered. Poems do this too. Little notes to the future saying, I was here.
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