Claire Hamner Matturro Interviews Michael David Blanchard

CHM:  Mike, do you perceive a difference between being a poet and being a person who writes poetry? If so, into which camp would you put yourself—poet or person who writes poetry?

MDB:  A person who writes poetry. That phrase better connotes someone for whom the creation of literary art is but one of many callings in life, although a very important one. I have felt called to be many things other than a poet, like a father, a teacher, and a servant to others through work with hospice organizations and other non-profit organizations. Some of my early influences as a writer of poems – like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Neruda – likewise had vocations other than as poet. Williams was a physician, Stevens an insurance executive, and Neruda a member of the Chilean senate. When Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, he was an employee of Lloyd’s Bank. Shakespeare also was more than a playwright. He was an actor, part-owner and manager of a theatre company, and had other business interests both in London and back in his native Stratford. In fact, I believe the first author in English literary history to make a living solely from writing was Alexander Pope, and that wasn’t until the 18th Century.

CHM:  The poems in Naming the Silence appear to span several decades. For example, “I Have Longed to Stray” and “Autumn Comes to the Deep South,” are poems you wrote during the time you were a young twenty-something English and creative writing teacher at Troy University in Alabama. (Of course, it was Troy State University then.) Other poems appear to have been written when you were a more mature person. While you were selecting the poems to be included in this collection, how did you pick which ones to include? And—given the span of time they represent—what did you feel in looking at the young-to-mature person range in the poems? Did you gain any new insight into who Michael David Blanchard is?

MDB:  That question is a good one because it is central to my thinking in pulling this project together. The poems do span several years, five decades in fact. My initial intention in publishing the book was to do as you suggest: allow myself perspective on where I have come from as a writer of poems and where I am now. And, from here, to provide a vantage point on where I think my writing is moving. So, it was important to include samples ranging from college days to this year. Three things I have learned in the process: there are some pretty good poems all along the way; I think I have gotten better at the craft as time has progressed; and my outlook is more balanced now, with the earlier acute sense of loss and longing tempered by a belief in infinite possibilities for redemption. That comes perhaps from my experience working with hospice patients. Despite the fact that they were dying and knew it, many of them have been some of the wisest, most hope-filled, and most heroic people I have been privileged to know.

Michael David Blanchard

CHM:  Continuing with the points from in the previous question about the range of poetry represented in Naming the Silence: As you read and contemplated the poems in gathering together the collection, what did you detect about the way your vision and your voice changed over the decades in which you wrote the poems? What about technique and style—how might those have changed?

MDB:  Again, my world view has become more comic (not comedic) in the classical sense. Bad things do happen, tragic things in fact. But somehow hope endures. That outlook is reflected in poems like “In Green Ink” and “Reality in 3 Acts,” which pay tribute to Pablo Neruda and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, two writers whose emotional and creative courage I greatly admire. Also, the poems have become less confessional and more philosophical in nature. And, I am less fussy about abiding by the standard rules of punctuation and allow myself more freedom to deviate from the rules when that contributes to or supports the meaning of the poem.

CHM:  Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, can you explain why?

MDB:  Now, that’s like asking a parent which of his children is his or her favorite. Usually, my favorite poem is the one I have just finished writing. But, if pressed further, I would say my two favorites are “Promise” and “Autumn Comes in the Deep South.” Those are the two longest poems in the collection and the two longest I have ever written. And they both grew out of very personal, deeply felt events.

CHM:  Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is “Promise (for Benjamin).” Can you tell us what age Benjamin was when you wrote the poem? And what he thinks of this poem?

MDB:  I am glad you like that one also. Benjamin, who is now 32 and a filmmaker and photographer in Austin, was three years old at the time that poem was composed. He is my only child. And I dedicated the book to him. When he received his copy of the book, he immediately sent me a text to let me know it had arrived. He said he looked forward to spending the weekend reading the poems. That very evening, he sent another message saying he had already read the book aloud from cover to cover. I was proud of the fact that as a film director he understands poems as literary art to be performed not just read. But I was even more moved by his comment: “Found myself choked up, misty-eyed, and speechless more than once.”

CHM:  Reading a person’s book of poetry, especially modern poetry, usually feels quite intimate to me. It’s such a look into the interior life and mind of the poet, and often quite revealing even in ways reading a memoir isn’t. Yet, in Naming the Silence, despite some acutely personal poems such as “Promise” and “Berry Picking” and a few others, Michael David Blanchard the person often seems to hide behind intellectual images such as the “recumbent nude of Giorgione” in “Sidereal” or “In the frozen Gulag,/Solzhenitsyn fashioned a world/where men have not forgotten God” in “Reality in 3 Acts.” Which raises the questions of who the real Michael David Blanchard is—which is far too intrusive a question to ask in this interview. So I will settle for this: Which of the poems do you count as being the most revealing about who you are as a person? And why?

MDB:  It is important to make a distinction here between “confessional” and “personal.” And also between experience itself and the wisdom we achieve from reflecting intelligently on that experience. Much of modern poetry is confessional in nature, sometimes even sensational. As mentioned before, the older I have gotten, the less self-absorbed I have become in favor of more philosophical themes. After all, there are only so many stories one can tell about himself or herself and only so much patience readers have for self-revelation if it does not point to a deeper or newer level of self-awareness. As a reader of poems, I am less interested in the writer’s life story than I am in his or her depth of thought and feeling, command of language and originality of expression, and the communication of new insights into the human experience. That preference has served as a guide in the development of my own writing. This is not to say that poems are not personal. They emerge from the unique vision of each writer and are given expression by the writer’s distinctive style and voice. It is that vision I wish for readers to see in my poems more than particular facts about my life. In many ways, it is much riskier to reveal what one believes or thinks than what one has done. I would point again to “Promise” and “Autumn Comes in the Deep South” as very personal or autobiographical poems. One is about waking up my son early on a Saturday morning for our first fishing trip together. Because the event evokes memories of my own father, it is also a reflection of being both father and son myself. The other begins as a meditation on death and loss prompted by the unexpected death of two friends in the summer of 1977. Another would be “Flowers,” about cutting flowers in the yard for the woman who was my wife at the time. But as I mentioned, there is a strong emotional attachment to the poems about Neruda and Solzhenitsyn, which are not autobiographical, and there are lines in those two poems that bring me to the edge of tears every time I read them.

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CHM:  You won poetry awards (name of award?) in college according to your bio, which indicates you were writing poetry at a young age. Do you recall at what age you wrote your first poem and what it was about? Has it survived?

MDB:  Yes, that was the University Union Fine Arts Award for Poetry, which I won my third and fourth years at the University of Virginia. It was an annual competition open to all students at the University. I began writing poetry in high school and was a member of the Writers Club at Baton Rouge High. We published an annual review of student writing and art work. I hazily remember one or two of the poems that were published there but do not have copies of the magazine.

CHM:  You already had a successful teaching career—winning the Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom teaching at Troy University when you were still in your twenties. Yet you left full-time teaching to work in Hospice. Is there a story there you’d be willing to share?

MDB:  Yes, it is an important story. I have been very fortunate to have not two separate careers but simultaneous careers. Even after I started working for hospice full-time, I never completely gave up teaching or writing. The transition came about gradually. The seminal event was in 1992, when my older brother died in Baton Rouge. I was living in Lafayette and teaching at the University of Louisiana (called the University of Southwestern Louisiana at the time). I had gotten to know the director of the hospice program in Lafayette. He was a former Roman Catholic priest who himself had a change of vocation and became a registered nurse after leaving the priesthood. He was very helpful to me during the last year of my brother’s illness and very generous with his counsel about the dying process and how to be a loving presence to a dying patient. At the time, I knew a little about hospice care but like most people tried to push the subject aside when confronted with it. That is until my own brother was dying. At the time of his death just short of his 44th birthday – when I stood with his wife and children, our mother, and my other siblings at his bedside – I made a silent promise to offer myself to the Lafayette hospice program as a volunteer. I did so for about two and a half years. Nothing terribly grand or heroic. Mostly public speaking and helping with fundraising events. Then, one day the priest-turned-nurse-turned-hospice director asked if I would serve as a sounding board for some of the ideas he had for the future of the organization. I was flattered to be asked. His vision was impressive. Imagine my surprise, though, when after about two hours of conversation, he asked if I would be interested in joining the staff to direct the public relations and fund development efforts and to oversee the volunteer program. After considerable soul searching, I accepted the offer but only on the condition that I would be allowed to continue teaching as an adjunct faculty member at ULL. That was in 1995, and I stayed on faculty there until 2007, when I was recruited to work for a hospice program in Raleigh, North Carolina. Again, the deal was that I would be allowed to teach at least one course each semester. Fortunately, one of the volunteers at the hospice in Raleigh was a retired faculty member at NC State University, and he connected me with the right people there to get me on faculty. So, again, I have been blessed to have it both ways: to do something I love and feel that I am pretty good at and to be of service to others.

CHM:  “Summer Neighbors” is a wonderful poetic portrait of the neighbor—the faked French accent, the unicorn comparison, and the ending lines where she paces “about the room slowly/dully, as if expecting a pain/which has not yet descended.” Can you tell us a bit of the story behind this poem and when it was written?

MDB:  Thank you. The poems “Summer Neighbors” and “Holiday: Town Square Through a Window” are actually companion pieces. They date back to 1974. During the summer semester of my year at Indiana University, one of my classmates invited me to go home to Columbus, Ohio with him for the July 4th holiday break. We stayed in the apartment of another of his friends who lived down the hall from the artist in the “Summer Neighbors” poem. She was an interesting character that I did not get to spend much time with since we were there only a few days, and there was nothing romantic involved. But she was memorable. That helps explain the “Holiday” poem also, I suppose.

CHM:  You wrote “I Have Longed to Stray” as a young man in his early twenties. In the poem, a young man longs to stray from the “the kind of life/where old men…rub tired eyes and read yet/ another yellowed page.” From the vantage point of where you are in life now, does the poem hold true to you yet?

MDB:  If by that question you mean “Have I become the old man rubbing his eyes?” the answer is no. But, if it means “Have I found fulfillment in life without a full-time devotion to scholarship?” then the answer is definitely yes.

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