Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison
This interview focuses on Mumolo’s book Mortar.
Rusty Morrison: It is such a delight to be interviewing you because your first book is coming out with Omnidawn! You have been one of Omnidawn’s longest tenured and most important poetry editors. And it’s especially meaningful to me that I was an early reader for much of this work, since you were in my workshop at Saint Mary’s College when I was a visiting writer there. You were such a terrific student, I had to invite you to be an intern with us. What a thrill it is for me to see this book come to fruition! That it became a finalist, selected by Fanny Howe, for the 1913 Poetry Award, made it clear to us that we simply had to ask you to let us publish it. Can you say a bit about the work? What is at the core of this material for you?
Sara Mumolo: Working with you at Saint Mary’s and Omnidawn has changed not only my poetry community, but it also augmented my sense of what’s important to a poem/poetry. I feel most invested in work that is culpable, that has something at stake in the world. It’s an honor to be a part of this press and feel the immense support of that kind of work. The use of fragment and phrase in the first half of the book seems antithetical to the second half’s fuller sentences and lines; these formal constraints are the work’s bones. The fragments both imply grammar and belie it, causing logical cause-and-effect to be slippery, a gesture that befits the anxiety and ambivalence of embodiment. There is a sense of vulnerability when approaching questions about embodiment and how this relates to the other, to community, to place. The sentences that form the second half of the book do something similar in a dissimilar way when they take the more massive moment, the grammatically correct, and point to the faultiness in this seemingly logical way of thinking, of composition.
RM: So many of the poems in Mortar reflect such a strong relationship to place and to community—at times inviting, and at times demanding that the reader inhabit, and examine, these experiences with you. The other element that feels so compelling to me is the relationship to an intimate other. Can you talk about these three deeply significant forces, these magnetic fields that draw our attention?
SM: One way the concepts of “community and place” operate in Mortar is as a community of place. I wanted to recognize how people make a community when they are bound together in a place for a continuous amount of time (work, residence, etc.). Sometimes these places are results of choices we make, and other times they are consequences, such as the workplace. The community we forge there, and how we participate in it—these are the forces in Money on It, the second half of the book. One of the questions I was thinking about when writing that longer sequence was how we interact with the intimate other in a larger group, a community. What is the intimate other’s role in a mob? Each individual, once he or she identifies with the crowd, helps to construe the mob or the community, making it into an entity, helping to determine how it will evolve as an “other.” Even going to a stadium to watch a ball game activates role-related identities that we step into because we are in this different place, interacting with that specific community. These personal connections we feel toward our environments, those dimensions of self, can define our relationships to community. Connections often result from submerged patterns of ideas and values that create our behaviors as individuals, but also contribute to how the community acts and is perceived as a whole—the spirit of the place or its genius loci.
RM: Would you talk about the relation of the title to the text?
SM: Mortar is used to bind construction blocks or brick together; this substance embodies the physicality of community in the work. It’s a workable, manipulated material that when set becomes fixed. Mortar recalls the insertion of place in the poems, but in this recollection it carries the destructive connotation of the relatively simple weapon by the same name. In braiding these together, masonry and weaponry, I thought to complement the dissonance in the poems and nod at vexed relationships in the book between self and other, self and community/community and self, self and place (the cityscape, the home, the sea, West Coast backdrops). This discord is also somewhat at work in the cover image. I hope a sense of emergency, or a sense of something being “at stake” as a result of the pressure among these motifs and themes, is present in the poems. There is also the third, more consequential, meaning of sustenance from the object of a mortar; sustenance is something a community, the individual, a family needs to thrive.
RM: Manuscripts often undergo revision before reaching their published form. Would you discuss your relationship to revision? Which poem or poems were the first that you wrote? How did the collection change as you continued to work with the material? Which series in the book was most challenging to you to bring to completion? Which most surprised you?
SM: Writing happens through revision. Or, I should say that I don’t differentiate between writing and revision. I hand-write lines and rewrite these lines repeatedly before they reach the computer screen. I tell myself that it’s hard to rewrite an empty line by hand. Since writing and revision happen in tandem on the poem/series level, revision becomes more sculptural at the manuscript level. Figuring out how to sculpt the series of poems into a book manuscript was particularly challenging. I thank Rusty for advising me throughout this process. Once I knew which poems should survive the transition from paper to screen, my relationship to revising the manuscript changed. This is probably more of what people think of as editing. Seeing the poems together in manuscript form changed my perception of the work, as I began to see a two-section book, rather than many series of poems present within the two sections. I became interested in how these two sections could aggravate and augment each other. The second section of Mortar seemed the most complicated to revise, as its ambitions of address were more vast, massive even. The speaker of the first section enters into the long sequence of the second section by submerging itself in the “we.” But by employing the first-person titles, the individual voice also asserts its presence. Of course, this challenge was also what made it fun to write. I could imagine the eclipse of the self in the vast places that Money on It employs: a stadium, a park, gathering locales in a community or city. I wanted to tease the positive and subversive aspects of what a collective sense of community or those markers of place undergo in reaction to late capitalism—to the spectacle that we find ourselves at risk of employing. Thinking about all these ideas in relation to the series of nudes in the book helped me to see the poems that I’d been writing for years reach a formative whole. There’s a surprising sense of fear in realizing the whole and then a mourning once it’s been formed, but there’s also a sense of elation in the fact that writers have the sheer will to make these books and put them into the world to contend with that world.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who most influenced Mortar? Who are you reading currently?
SM: What I’m reading currently doesn’t really correspond to what I was reading when I wrote the poems in Mortar. I was interested in texts by poets on subjects of visual art or other media. When writing the poems I was reading a lot of T.J. Clark (Farewell to an Idea, Sight of Death), John Ashbery’s Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, Barbara Guest, as well as Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. I thought of Blanchot’s text almost as a handbook. It still goes with me when I travel and has that loved/used look where the sides are curled and the pages are marked. Another poet that I feel a deep kinship with among that group is Barbara Guest. Her art criticism and prose were large influences, such as Forces of Imagination. My collection of her books and the Blanchot handbook always live near my desk. It’s also good to say in this space that visual art played a role in Mortar’s making, projects like Nan Goldin’s depiction of community in her Ballads, Jenny Saville’s Nudes and Hiroshi Sugiomoto’s patience in the minimalist Seascapes. Sugiomoto’s seascapes reminded me of Agnes Martin’s drawings. Both of these seem interested in depicting time. Martin said she paints “with her back to the world.” I sometimes wish this were true about poetry, that we could forget our poems the way Martin can forget a painting when it walks out the door. We poets read our work to a public, and so our work’s interaction with the world forces not only the work to contend with it, but the poet to contend with it as well. I hope the poems in Mortar depict a care for that world. Even if that care is nonspecific, it stems out of these influences. In my bag right now: the reader from the class Michael Palmer recently taught at Saint Mary’s on poets writing prose, Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog, two of my friend’s amazing recent books—Jane Gregory’s My Enemies and Lynn Xu’s Debts and Lessons.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
SM: I moved to the Bay Area in 2004. A few years later, I’m now the Program Manager for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, managing the daily operations of the program and focusing on its development overtime. It’s a brief description for a busy desk job. With my friend, Alisa Heinzman, I co-edit the chapbook series, Calaveras, a project based out of Oakland, California and Lincoln, Nebraska. Alisa and I met while in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s. She’s an editor at Octopus Books, and I like that together we bring such aesthetic-varying writers into one space. Calaveras is a project emphasizing the chapbook as a piece of design work itself. Alisa’s husband, Jake Gillespie, helps us to make our lofty visions for design into beautiful objects. Before meeting Rusty at Saint Mary’s and starting my relationship with Omnidawn, I created and curated the Studio One Reading Series in Oakland. I started the series in the summer of 2007, and ran it with co-curators and volunteers until 2012. The idea was that all kinds of poetry and art could happen in one place, and that everyone would feel welcome, so there were a lot of local filmmakers and musicians invited to participate throughout the years as well. Recently, I passed it on to another Saint Mary’s alumna, and the series is thriving, which is really satisfying. In addition to the reading series, I helped to create and run the Afterschool Arts Program for K-6th graders at Studio One, which is still giving the children of Oakland a place to make art. Studio One Art Center is Oakland’s only city-run art center. In a city with a deeply embedded thrust for community art, this seems like a shame. The center makes art classes accessible to both children and adults, as it’s subsidized by the city, so the fees are actually fair and affordable. Class participants don’t have to pay to keep the lights on in the building. The reading series was always free and donation based. It creates a space where all are welcome to hear poems by local and national artists on the first Friday of every month. In 2011 Cannibal Books published the chapbook March. I’m very grateful to Matthew and Katy Henriksen for publishing the chapbook as one of the last that Cannibal put out there. Just a few of these March poems ended up in Mortar. Some other poems in the manuscript have appeared in 1913: a journal of forms, Action Yes, Coconut, Lana Turner, Eleven Eleven, The Offending Adam, Real Poetik, The Volta, Volt and West Wind Review, among others.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you be willing to describe your reasons for this choice? Anything you’d like to share about the process of making that choice?
SM: The process for making the choice seemed by chance. My partner, Alberto, and I were going through my grandmother’s 17-volume set of Time Life Library of Photography that came out in the 70s, and Alberto stumbled across this photograph, which is cropped for the cover. He held it up and said, “Look at this! Could this be it?” The original photograph feels more massive than the cover, and has an interesting border of the city on both sides of the wall, which appears on the rear cover of the book. When you look at the rear side of the cover, you get a glimpse of this cityscape—of what might be a park or apartments in an indeterminate state, eclipsed by the sharp, diagonal edge of the wall. This sharp line meets the wall’s base, which frames the bottom of the image and the front cover with an uneasy line. The composition pits this inconsistent line against the sharp edges of the wall, with what we assume to be the ever-expanding cityscape just beyond the camera’s frame. These compositional choices, along with the bleakness of the massive wall, led me to choose this photograph. The set concrete of the wall is heavily textured, so that it almost looks like the sea. It’s beautiful, but also stark and severe in its presentation. I find myself interested in artwork, writing or theory that is almost complete in its form and presentation of ideas, so that it’s also almost its opposite—as if it can step through the mirror. Although the focus of the photograph is the wall, not the boy eclipsed (like the cityscape) by his headwear, he enlivens the image, vying for focus against the massive textures. I think this photograph could resemble a place in the book.
Sara Mumolo is the author of Mortar and the Program Manager for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California. She created and curated the Studio One Reading Series from 2008-2012, and Cannibal Books published her chapbook, March, in 2011. She lives in Oakland, California.