Heather Lang: Taylor, thank you so much for chatting with me today. As you know from my previous note to you, I feel The Whetting Stone (Studio City, CA: Rattle, 2017) might be the most important poetry chapbook of the decade.
Many of my travels over the past few years have been peripheral to love, to loss, and to long-distance friendships. I had become almost comfortable quietly crying in TSA lines, against airport walls near phone-charging outlets, and while curled up in the window seats of airplanes. On this trip, however, to see some friends in NYC, I had made a resolve: I will not cry on the plane. Only a few pages into The Whetting Stone, however, I found myself openly weeping.
Back in September, I mentioned that I did not have the words to tell you what this book means to me. Largely, this is still true. When I first approached you, I mentioned that I’d be honored to either review your chapbook or to interview you about it. I was grateful when you said that we could chat. At the time, I thought my asking which you’d prefer was, in part, my way of saying, do you want to talk about it? However, as I’ve contemplated questions for you, I’ve realized that, despite having reviewed books for a number of years, I was also terrified of misrepresenting, or maybe even misappropriating, such a deeply personal work.
Folks can read descriptions of your chapbook, The Whetting Stone, online. I’ve been wondering, though, if I may ask you how you tell people about the book. For example, if you were out getting coffee and a friend of a friend were to ask you what your latest book is about, what would you say and how would you say it? Also, may I ask about people’s reactions?
Taylor Mali: First of all, thank you for such kind words about me. Have you seen Patton Oswalt’s new comedy special on Netflix called “Annihilation”? He quotes his late wife, Michelle McNamara, as saying that the world is just chaos and the only thing you can do is be kind to one another. So you’re off to a good start! I describe The Whetting Stone as a dark collection of poems about the life, love, and death of my first wife, Rebecca Tauber Mali. If I’m in the middle of a poetry reading, and I’m about to shift gears and read a few poems from it, I might tell people that I tried (twice) to include some of the poems in previous books, but I just couldn’t because even a few poems would just pull the whole manuscript down with their weighty sorrow. I try to give folks a little warning, because I’m usually a little more comical in my treatment of every topic. As for people’s reactions, confessions elicit other confessions, don’t they? People always stop me after readings—or write me letters—to say they also loved someone with mental illness and sometimes had uncharitable thoughts, and they are relieved to discover they’re not the only one.
HL: Because I do not believe in a statute of limitations on grief, and because it’s my understanding that your chapbook is either largely, or maybe completely, nonfiction, I hope it is okay for me to say that I am so sorry for your loss and for the pain surrounding your experience.
I find the connotations of the title, The Whetting Stone, poignant. Especially when paired with Bianca Stone’s illustration, “Wedding Cake,” there seems to be so much more to the title than the literal meaning, a tool for sharpening a knife. Because you’re an award-winning spoken word poet, I am not at all surprised by your astute attention to the sonic value of words. Might you be willing to tell us a bit about how you arrived at this chapbook title?
TM: Believe it or not, the collection was once entered into a contest with the title Let Me Be Your Night in Shattered Armor. Thank goodness it did not win with that title (or rather, no wonder it did not win)! The echoes of “wedding” were intentional, of course, and also why Bianca Stone’s image was perfect for the cover. Stones used for sharpening metal blades are more commonly called whetstones, but whetting is also used sometimes. Since I sharpened Rebecca’s knives almost every day when she was a working chef – I still keep the knives in my kitchen deadly sharp – the title was perfect. By the way, if you Google “the whetting stone” you’ll find two other books with the same title, one of which I think is even a book of poems! But the publisher of Rattle, Tim Green, said the title was too good to change.
HL: In addition to being known as a poet, I’ve heard folks refer to you as a humorist, a label which I will admit eludes me a little bit. Forgive me, but this is an area that’s quite outside my wheelhouse. It’s my understanding that the term humorist is broader than comedian, for example, but I’m wondering if you might be willing to offer us your definition? Also, might you be willing to share any of the more unexpected ways in which your work as a humorist has impacted your life?
TM: I’ve only ever seen that “humorist” label on Wikipedia, which is where I suspect you saw it, too, and it has flummoxed and irked me for years. And since I’m the only person who really can’t do anything about that, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask both you and anyone reading this, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?!” Nevertheless, I do use humor a lot in my work – even in the sad poems, perhaps even especially in the sad poems – so maybe someone thought “spoken word artist” or “poet” just didn’t convey that. Why do I use humor so much? Three reasons: it provides a moment where the reader or audience can rest, catch their breath, and get ready for the next line; it provides a break from what might otherwise be an unrelenting onslaught of “deepness and darkity”; and lastly – this is only applicable in a performance – humor is a kind of built-in barometer of understanding, a way for me to know that my words are landing right.
HL: I understand that one function of humor can be to serve as a coping mechanism during difficult times. The Whetting Stone does not seem to incorporate those sorts of techniques, and I’m not suggesting that it should. The chapbook seems to differently embrace the heartbreak and the healing and the gravity that surrounds the circumstances. When I was studying poetry with an MFA program, we talked quite a bit about the need to avoid the TMI effect. My mentors warned us about poems that might make the reader want to close the blinds, figuratively speaking – want to run away from the poems and hide. Your chapbook explores one of the most difficult topics I can imagine, and not once did I want to set it down. For our readers who are also writers and poets, could you please talk a little bit about craft? How might emerging poets approach difficult subjects, ones they feel compelled to write about and to share with the world?
TM: There are actually a few instances in the collection that I would argue could be considered humor used as a coping mechanism, but they may be hard to spot. In “Making Ravioli,” Rebecca calls the one misshapen ravioli “deformioli” and sets it aside for herself. Then again, she was alive when I wrote that poem so maybe that instance doesn’t count. Also, in the poem “Twelfth Anniversary,” I think it’s funny that Rebecca was at first aghast that she had just purchased a red sports car (it was a Honda Prelude, by the way). I asked her who should be driving such a car, and she said someone named “Cindi,” which instantly became the name of the car itself. On weekends, I might tell her I was taking Cindi to the carwash and would stop by to fill up her tank and get an oil change. And this leads me to your question about craft. My advice these days is to fill your poems with imperfect things – broken, tactile objects with rough edges. Feelings might be what you want to convey ultimately, but the way to do that is to come at them through the nearby things at hand. Resist the urge to go abstract & general. Embrace the concrete and the specific. I agree with the folks in your MFA program; too much information revealed without artistry makes the reader feel prurient.
HL: I can’t thank you enough for talking with me and more so for writing your brave and moving chapbook, The Whetting Stone. I understand that all too often, still, mental illness and selfcare carry destructive stigmas. Although I’m no healthcare professional, I suspect it isn’t enough to simply talk more about these aspects of ourselves and our communities – although that is a start – but that we need to change the ways in which we approach these subjects. Your chapbook accomplishes this, for me at least.
I’d also like to take a moment to appreciate the Rattle publishers, editors, and staff for mailing out chapbooks along with their lit mag issues. I like to think that I would have found your book regardless, but it’s possible that I would have missed it. Also, I think they’re pretty rad for naming you the 2017 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner, high praise of which you and your work are more than worthy.
Taylor, there’s so much we haven’t covered. What are your current projects, and what have you been up to these days? I’d love to know whatever it is that you’d like to share with us.
TM: I’m working on a manuscript now called Late Father which has already been rejected by some of the best publishers in the world! It’s filled with poems about my own late father brought on by becoming a father . . . late in life (I’m 52 and I have a 2-year old and a daughter who is eight weeks old today!). It’s more in keeping with the type of work I’m known for: funny, sentimental, playful, and syntactically dexterous. But my main focus these days – after being a good father and husband – is a writing tool/game called Metaphor Dice that I’ll be introducing to the world in April of 2018. Based on the understanding that a metaphor is simply a temporary equation between a thing and an idea, the dice make it very easy to roll metaphor after metaphor – the heart is a broken moon, happiness is a mad blessing, my father was a gentle super hero, etc. – until you get one you like and might want to explore in writing for a few minutes and maybe apply to your life. Anyone can find out more at MetaphorDice.com.
And if you want to write me a letter, I almost always write back!
495 Henry St #146
Brooklyn, NY 11231-5246
| | |
Heather Lang is World Literature Editor at The Literary Review.