About the Author:
Steve Healey is the author of 10 Mississippi and Earthling. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle and Rain Taxi, and his poems have appeared in the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century and the journals American Poetry Review, Boston Review, jubilat, and others. He currently divides his time between Minneapolis, Minnesota, and East Lansing, Michigan, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Michigan State University.
“Healey’s work demands that we betray our allegiance to poetry schools and simply appreciate his rich imagination. His poems fill the corners of the heart with light, revealing how the steps we take toward desire are stages of poetic ascension.” —Bloomsbury Review
“Healey’s high-wire act of verbal play . . . is inventive in language and challenging in intellect but never forgets the emotional stakes that bind the reader to the work.” —Gulf Coast
“Like David Byrne, [Healey is] in love with innocence, and some of [his] poems are as absurd, magical, and sweet as Byrne’s most memorable lyrics.” —Minneapolis Observer
“Steve Healey shares that same sense of quick wit matched with deep soul that [Billy] Collins holds.” —Vox
Steve Healey in conversion with Sarah Fox
Sarah Fox: I am immediately struck by the presence of epigraphs throughout 10 Mississippi—each of the book’s six sections opens with two or more epigraphs, as do many of the poems. “6 Mississippi,” for example, has four epigraphs, including one describing different versions of Betty Crocker from General Mills’ history of her life. Elsewhere, there are passages from quite an assortment of thinkers, poets, musicians, political documents—Nietzsche, Lucille Clifton, folk-singer Roger Miller, the Declaration of Independence, even the U.S. Forest Service. The epigraphs become almost a filter through which the poems pour, or maybe a funnel. Or it’s as if the poems make meaning with these texts collaboratively, in dialogue with them. How did all these texts make their way into the book?
Steve Healey: I like that—yes, the epigraphs are filters and funnels, they’re in conversation with the poems, which means the poems have an ongoing relationship with these other texts, and I hope readers keep finding surprising connections to the epigraphs as they read the book. Almost always I sample language or imagery or ideas from the epigraphs and recontextualize this borrowed material in the poems—so the Betty Crocker epigraph leads me to imagine a bizarre party in which all the different Betty Crockers are checking each other out.
I’ve always been interested in creating speaking contexts in my poems—a strong sense of who the speaker is, why he’s speaking, and what’s at stake in that speaking. In my first book, Earthling, for example, there’s a poem called “I Live Two Doors Down from the Powerball Winner,” written from the vantage point of someone playfully coveting a neighbor’s recent windfall. While writing 10 Mississippi, I started to realize that I could take these kinds of speaking contexts from outside sources and recontextualize them. As I wrote a poem called “The Whiteness of My Family,” I was thinking of the famous chapter in Moby Dick called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” so I began to filter my material through Melville’s obsessive ruminations about Moby Dick’s color—a kind of ventriloquism. After finishing the poem I found a passage from that chapter to serve as an epigraph and signal to readers that my poem has appropriated Melville’s speaking context, even just slightly, and tries to recycle it in an interesting way, to create a synergy with it.
Sarah Fox: So you want the epigraphs to help guide readers into your poems?
Steve Healey: Yes, and epigraphs are just one of many forms of outside source material in 10 Mississippi. The poems are full of appropriated stuff—bits of overheard conversation, factoids from Google searches, and so on. Almost always this appropriation is an attempt to give an audience something familiar, some context that’s beyond my own little world. This book wants to be part of a larger, public, social language. I used to believe that poetry is a private language, self-contained, and that poets are supposed to be completely original, their poems formed totally from their isolated imaginations. And I used to dismiss epigraphs as snooty—a desperate attempt by authors to show off their exceptional erudition. But lately I’ve been realizing that language is public, no poem is completely original and self-contained. So 10 Mississippi embraces “unoriginality” as a generative strategy, and the obsession with epigraphs is, I hope, not an attempt to show off, but a collaboration with all kinds of other voices, building communal relationships with other texts rather than competitively staking out my own private imagination.
Sarah Fox: I wonder what the Mississippi River itself has to do with all of this. Certainly the river is a social network, serving historically to connect communities, transport people and goods, facilitate migration, and so forth. It’s the literal boundary dividing our Twin Cities, and also essentially splits the entire nation. The Mississippi indelibly marks the American fabric—mythologically, economically, folklorically, geographically, spiritually, psychically. Yet there’s hardly a more depressing sight in this city than, say, some guy fishing on the river, because really the river is disgusting and toxic. What role does the river play in this book?
Steve Healey: I think that word “Mississippi” has been powerful for me for a long time. As a kid I remember spelling it over and over again—partly I was just proud that I could spell such a long, complicated word, but the sound of those letters was musical and magical. As an adult, though, despite living near the Mississippi River for years, I couldn’t see how to use it in my poetry. I was scared of being too local, I think, too small. Maybe because I was so close to it, I couldn’t access the Mississippi’s enormity.
Luckily, I was given an assignment. I was invited to write poetry in response to an installation art show that focused on the Mississippi River, and this helped me start seeing it not just as my local river but through all those lenses you mentioned, and yes, as a social network. Any geographical location can have a poetics, of course, but not many places resonate as richly as, say, New York City. I mean, when Frank Sinatra sings, “I want to be a part of it,” we know that “it” is much more than the physical space of the city. Seeing the Mississippi through that art show helped me get Sinatra with it—to see it in much bigger ways, to see the poetics of it.
What emerged from that project was the ten-part poem called “10 Mississippi” that became the title poem for the whole book. The central concern of this poem is the ritualized news reporting of dead bodies pulled from the Mississippi River, many of them suicides or homicides. As this motif developed, I began to weave other motifs around it, making that American fabric, as you say. Some parts emphasize the dark and morbid, like the one that explores the environmental “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico produced by fertilizer run-off from the Mississippi. Other parts are more celebratory, like the one that re-enacts a childhood game of hide-and-seek and that beautiful, incantatory counting technique (“1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi . . .”).
Sarah Fox: This poem also feels like a river in the way it’s composed, the way the parts are arranged, the way it moves from line to line.
Steve Healey: I sampled a lot of text from generic information sources and collaged it into the overall flow, just as the river itself swallows up all kinds of external materials, from dead bodies to used condoms. And there’s a manic pattern of repetition throughout, like a river that keeps moving forward but is also like a tape loop that keeps repeating the same movements and sounds with slight variations over time. In recent years, while reading and writing, I’ve been listening to a lot of minimalist or ambient music, by people like Steve Reich and Brian Eno, and some newer names like Tim Hecker and Stars of the Lid—and I’ve been trying to create similar effects in my poetry though certain kinds of repetition, spinning out slight variations on one theme. It was thrilling to discover—or rediscover—this music in the Mississippi River.
Sarah Fox: In addition to the music you mention that uses variations on a theme to create a texturing, deepening, almost evolutionary effect, repetition as an aesthetic move has a long tradition in poetry, maybe of particular importance to American modernist poets like Stein, Stevens, and others. Are you conversing with these poetic traditions as well?
Steve Healey: “Evolutionary”! That’s a good word, because I had the idea of natural selection on my mind while writing this book, and one of the opening epigraphs is by Darwin. What really catches my imagination is the notion that life is determined by slight variations—life is mostly repetition with subtle, evolving adaptations trying to promote survival. Often “survival of the fittest” is presented as a rallying cry for individualism and progress, but the implication that resonates more for me is that evolution is a collective, collaborative effort. Humans are not some special, totally original organism created by God to kick every other organism’s ass, nor are we free agents totally in control of our destiny. We’re shaped by our evolutionary ancestors and we adapt to our environment.
I think this skepticism of human exceptionalism also plays out in American poetics, and you’re totally right to bring up Stein and Stevens—their presence is huge in 10 Mississippi. Although I love Whitman and his obsession with repetition, I think he was a bit too drunk on the promise of the individual human self and progress (easy for me to say in 2010!). So his repetition is a vehicle for truth-statements and the speaker’s full realization—it tends to be loud, yawpy, regular, symmetrical, preacherly.
But folks like Stein and Stevens reclaimed repetition with their modernist skepticism—theirs is more irregular, askew, unpredictable, and it calls attention to the slipperiness of language. Interesting, too, that Stein and Stevens have become among the most influential modernists. They turned out to be bridges to postmodernism because—unlike, say, dour, pessimistic Eliot—they celebrated the slipperiness of language with humor and play. I see the Stein/Stevens strain of repetition in lots of poetries these days—Michael Palmer, Michael Burkard, Dara Wier, Peter Gizzi, Harryette Mullen, Lisa Jarnot, Juliana Spahr, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and so on. No one would call these poetries a movement, but I admire all of them for the ways they spin out variations on a theme, webs of language that keep circling in on themselves, taking readers past the same material but always from slightly different angles.
Sarah Fox: Why do you think this kind of aesthetic is prevalent now?
Steve Healey: Well, you used the term “social network” earlier in relation to the Mississippi, and I think more than ever before we inhabit many kinds of networks—networks of people, places, texts, images, consumer goods. In the twenty-first century, everything seems to make reference to everything else, and it’s impossible to be separate from these networks. So I think a lot of poetry is trying to perform the experience of being networked, and that’s what I see 10 Mississippi doing as well.
Sarah Fox: Going back to the idea of play in language, I especially love your sampling from the idioms of childhood—whether it’s familiar chants or rhymes (“If you catch / a tiger by the toe, your mother says to pick / the very best one, / and you are not it, . . .” from “The Laws of Raining”) or a quality of syntax and vocabulary so evocative of the way children speak. What role does childhood play in the poems, and the book as a whole? Do you think you feel closer to a child-like perspective now that you have a child of your own?
Steve Healey: My son, Nico, is two years old now, and his experience of the world is so much about language. What fascinates me lately is how much of what he says—and what he repeats again and again—is simple factual statements about what exists and what’s happening. So at breakfast he might say, “Dada is making coffee,” and repeat this several times. His life is a like a documentary film and he’s a little objective-sounding narrator whose job is to state what’s there. Of course he also uses language to tell us what he wants and doesn’t want, or to be silly and funny, but often he just describes the world in this matter-of-fact way, and I think that matter-of-factness is something I wanted to emerge in 10 Mississippi.
There are a few poems in the book—like “Invention of the Alphabet” and “Among the Most Well-Educated Motherfuckers”—that are spoken more overtly in that child’s voice, combining a sort of hyperdriven metaphor-making with a naïve tone and simple language, but there’s also a more muted childlike voice that I hear throughout the whole book. More than Earthling, 10 Mississippi tries to avoid those adult ways of commenting and analyzing. It tries not to manipulate the world so much. It tries to let the world be in its description, and I think this impulse is similar to my son’s being that matter-of-fact narrator of his life.
A poem in the new book called “Animals among Us” begins with these lines: “Night is when we say it’s night. / It’s night and we’re in the backyard. / In the backyard we gaze at the slug. / We say the slug slimes the chard.” The speaker here is not really a child, but that voice has a slightly naïve sensibility, an urge to state the obvious, to build the world with the most basic elements possible and repeat those elements to help make them real.
Sarah Fox: Speaking of “Animals among Us,” this book is sort of obsessed with animals. Does this connect to what you’re saying about childhood?
Steve Healey: About halfway through writing 10 Mississippi, I realized that animals were wandering through pretty much every poem. At first I was kind of shocked and worried about repeating myself so much, but then it occurred to me to embrace the repetition, to go even more deeply into that animal world.
And yes, I think there’s a link to childhood. My son, like many other toddlers, is completely enchanted by animals. Why are animals such a big deal for kids? Probably 95% of the books he reads involve animals, often ones that talk. Among the first “words” Nico learned were animal sounds like “meow” and “moo.” But those animals are also often personified, they speak human language and they’re acting out human experiences, so part of the fun of animals, I think, is the blurring of the animal and the human. Animals are a lot like humans but they also seem to have these wild, exotic, supernatural qualities that make human life more interesting, dramatic, mythological.
Getting back to Darwin and evolution—one of the perhaps obvious implications of his work is that humans and animals are not so different. Maybe the biggest difference is really that we adult humans perceive ourselves as different, and in doing so we blind ourselves to so many amazing connections between ourselves and the rest of the world. 10 Mississippi—and a lot of the poetry I read—tries to reclaim those connections. I got so excited about the animal theme, for a while one of the working titles for this book was I Like Animals! But some of my trusted advisors suggested that I was being a little too exuberant—irrationally exuberant—so I let it go.
Sarah Fox lives in Minneapolis with John Colburn and her daughter Nora Wynn. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation, and the Jerome Foundation, as well as grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Her poems and reviews have been published in Conduit, jubilat, Verse, puppyflowers, Spout, Swerve, Forklift: Ohio, Shattered Wig, Zoland Poetry, Handsome, Rain Taxi, Boston Review, and many others. She’s a teacher and a doula, co-founder of the Center for Visionary Poetics, and the publisher of Fuori Editions.