Interview with Malachi Black, Young Poet and Editor

By The Editors on 10.16.09

Just over two weeks ago we started a new series on Poems Out Loud called “Letter from a Young Poet” which aims to chronicle the experiences and insights of young poets as they find out what it means to call oneself a writer: from contests and rejections, to themes and obsessions, to what bids each of them to write. Now we are happy to bring you the second installment of the series in which we chat with Malachi Black, a recent winner of the 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship.

Malachi Black is Literary Editor of The New York Quarterly and a James A. Michener Fellow at UT–Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellow, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, the Southwest Review, Best New Poets 2008, AGNI Online, the Iowa Review, and elsewhere.

What is your day job?

Black: As it happens, I’m fortunate enough right now to be without one: I’ve just entered my final year of a three-year fellowship at the University of Texas–Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. I also serve as literary editor of The New York Quarterly, but my involvement in the journal’s operations has been significantly hampered by geography.

How do you believe having your first book published will change your life?

Black: I hardly know, really. I certainly hope that it will enable me to teach at the university level—something to which I very earnestly aspire. Perhaps, too, it will provide some sense of satisfaction at having made a more substantial contribution (however ultimately meager) to the literary eons than the few pieces I’ve been lucky enough to scatter through the pages of a handful of magazines. But I doubt that it will meaningfully affect my writing life: the plane of publication bears little if at all on the compositional plane. Publishing a book won’t change the basic set of aesthetic problems that craze me every day, nor simplify the process of resolving them.

Who do you read?

Black: I’ve lately been rereading Gary Miranda’s little-known (and sadly out of print) translation of The Duino Elegies in conjunction with Barrow and Macy’s translations from The Book of Hours.

But for the last eighteen months or so, my major preoccupation has been the sonnet. I’m especially drawn to poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Greville, Drayton, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Vaughn. One of my favorite books of all time is an obscure anthology called Petrarch in England (ed. Jack D’Amico), which very carefully documents the adoption and adaptation of Petrarchan modes in the early modern period. Of course, my favorite—and I always feel rather precious in admitting this—is Shakespeare. I never travel without my crusty copy of the Sonnets.

In terms of more recent poets, I’ve recently laid steady eyes on Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger; Ashbery’s Double Dream of Spring; Dean Young; and Dana Gioia’s excellent rendition of Montale’s Motteti. Also Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets”; John Clare; later Keats; Yeats; E. A. Robinson; Frost; Heaney; and Geoffrey Hill.

I’d better quit now, or risk spilling on indefinitely.

How did you come to write poetry?

Black: It sounds apocryphal, I know, but my mother, who’d yet to develop our collection of children’s books, read Milton and Chaucer to me almost as soon as I came home from the hospital. Really, that was my introduction to musical, magical language, and, preposterous as it might sound, I think that so early and steady an exposure to cultivated English cadence can only have been formative.

Almost as soon as I could write full sentences, I began keeping journals of mostly nonsense in which I would try to compose rhyming stories, and I would once in a while sit at my mother’s electric typewriter to try to write a “real” story. It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen, when I encountered Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, that I realized that what I was doing was writing poetry (or some crude approximation thereof). I was probably still too young to “get” Blake, but I was utterly transformed by my reading. Soon thereafter, I discovered Cummings, the Beats, the New York School—I was off and running like a hungry drunk. Many atrocious poems ensued.

How often do you write?

Black: I “touch” my work every day, usually for several hours. I’m rarely satisfied with just how far I can advance it, however. Groping occupies an enormous portion of my writing time; sometimes one simply isn’t ready to get it right.

What do you give up or sacrifice in order to write?

Black: Sad as it is to admit, I probably compromise many existing and prospective relationships. I’m a terrible correspondent, for example. It’s ultimately an issue of time: I need a lot of it, time to myself especially, in order to invite what I experience as “authentic” or “true” poetry. I live like a landing strip, sprawling widely through a kind of punctuated quietude. After all, writing is a solitary activity. Having an empty house helps, too.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

Black: “Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid for it.” That, as my wise father told me, is the key to happiness.

Do you feel there is a community of writers where you live? Do you participate in it?

Black: Well, the Michener Center provides a vital if inorganic community, and I’m very much a part of it. Austin is still developing a coherent literary culture, but talented writers abound.

Do you have specific career goals related to poetry?

Black: It’s hard for me think in terms of a “career” in poetry. I can only aspire to my ideals. Like Robert Frost, I hope that my work will appeal to a broad audience, rewarding the close readings of scholars and other specialists while contributing something to the lives of those with a more casual interest in poems and poetry. (I entertain a very Romantic notion of art’s role in and value to society.)

How has receiving the Ruth Lilly Fellowship changed your life?

Black: Perhaps most importantly, it affirmed the intuition that informs my aesthetic choices. Of course, it has also permitted me more time to focus on my work (by way of funding), and I am endlessly grateful to Christian Wiman and the kind people of the Poetry Foundation for their generous encouragement and support. But my life remains largely the same. Awards don’t write, after all.

What are your favorite places to learn about new poetry?

Black: Other people (readers and writers alike), journals, bookstores. I’m sorry to say that I haven’t developed any discrete systems. Often, the best recommendations come from writers whose work I admire, typically through published lectures, essays, interviews, and the like.

What’s the best poetry reading you’ve been to and why?

Black: That’s tough. I can say that the best reading I’ve recently attended was given by W. S. Merwin. Ed Hirsch has described Merwin’s work as “wisdom literature,” and on the evening I saw him read, at least, one had the undeniable sense that such was true. Merwin is also an impressively poised and mellifluous speaker.

Photo of W. S. Merwin by Kenan Writers’ Encounters on Flickr.

What does your role as the literary editor of The New York Quarterly entail?

Black: When I’m not half a continent away, I help sift through incoming manuscripts, solicit work, conduct interviews, and generally try my best to be useful.

What are your feelings on the state of poetry today?

Black: Well, a great deal is being written, and, insofar as sheer engagement with the art of poetry is concerned, I think our era is unprecedented. It’s true that most people reading poetry also write it, but I regard that less as evidence of poetry’s withering relevance than of increased access to higher education and a resultant sense of empowerment. Why not practice what we love? Even still, I doubt that the ratio of interesting to uninteresting work has changed much since the age of Ovid.

How do you believe the Internet will continue to shape poetry?

Black: I doubt my competence as a judge of such things, but I certainly expect the Internet to enable the formation and perpetuation of literary communities in increasingly sophisticated ways. I don’t know exactly how, but I also expect it to significantly contribute to our conception of poetry and poetic possibility. Flarf is surely just the beginning.

Poems by Malachi Black:
Drifting at Midday
Insomnia & So On

topics: Interviews / Letter from a Young Poet