Michelle Bitting & Phil Abrams
Michelle Bitting’s latest book Notes To The Beloved won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Prize. She has work published or forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, the L.A. Weekly and others. Poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and as the Weekly Featured Poet on Verse Daily.
Thomas Lux chose her full-length manuscript, Good Friday Kiss, as the winner of the DeNovo First Book Award. Michelle has won the Beyond Baroque, Glimmer Train, and other poetry prizes.
Her poem-films have appeared on Moving Poems and Atticus Review. She teaches poetry in the U.C.L.A. Extension Writer’s Program, at Twin Towers prison with a grant from Poets & Writers Magazine and is proud to be an active California Poet in the Schools.
She was just honored with the position of the Poet Laureate of Pacific Palisades.
Visit her at: www.michellebitting.com
Phil Abrams works extensively in television as an actor appearing on numerous shows, both comedic and dramatic.
Along with writing haikus and short, short fiction over the years, he is also currently working on scripts for both television and film.
Phil is honored to be collaborating with very talented wife Michelle as the editor/collaborator of her poem films and also serving as a designer of various anthologies she has generated for her work as a California Poet in the Schools.
Back in the early 1990’s, Phil was also renowned for his work as a Bubble Sculptor having appeared internationally in Japan, Holland and Australia.
A video of his bubble work can be found at : http://vimeo.com/27304614
The link to his film and television credits can be found at : http://www.imdb.me/philabrams
RD: – Michelle Bitting, why write poetry in these times of crises of all kinds? Tell me, please, that is for you poetry?
MB: – Human experience, human touch, telling our stories as Elizabeth Alexander says, “Are we not of interest to each other?”
The big word here is EMPATHY. All of us matter. Matters of the heart and spirit are relevant. The fact that people don’t have enough to feed their dogs let alone themselves. The nitty gritty of the quotidian made into something beautiful, told in a real way. So that we keep paying attention to the shade of coral the sky has turned this evening and we want to do everything in our power to sing its praises and keep it chemical free, along with the tomatoes and spinach. To keep noticing the gorgeous world of creatures and landscape. In poetry we shape shift constantly because like the Romantics, like Whitman, we imbue them with a huge amount of energy. We meditate and as we do, we become one, and then its spirit enters us and we tell the world’s story. And in doing so it becomes our progeny thus giving birth to the world and ourselves over and over – as a result, of course, we are determined to make sure nothing destroys it. I think this is why poets are natural hippies and wired to be anti-war. I can’t imagine a pro-war, pro-destruction hippie or poet, can you?
RD: – How do you define poetry in general and yours in particular?
(look at quotes page) it’s about what’s left out as opposed to prose which is about what needs to be included.
MB: – I guess it’s about the top of your head being taken off as Emily Dickinson said.
Whatever form of art it takes. Poet is a big word and applies to more than just writers.
Making the ineffable, the invisible have form, shape? To come as close to expressing that, capturing The Other without ever totally doing so, but enough to make the experience satisfying, that is, when you do it well. In poetry, it’s done with language.
To stop time as Dylan said.
In poetry, it’s about what’s left out, as opposed to prose which is more about what’s left in. To capture chaos and arrest it in this capsule with its heart still beating. In poetry it’s about how close a shave you can scrape the razor, back to the bare essence of things. It’s totally spiritual, sometimes more than other times, and that’s in regard to the writing and reading processes.
Tension and compression of wildly large motions, emotions.
Vita Sackville-West: To clap the net over the butterfly of the moment.
Fanny Howe: “Why write if not to align yourself with time and space?”
It sounds very trippy and it is, especially the deeper you get into the game.
But it’s much better for you than heroin AND is way better for the people around you,
Better for human connection to strive to be a spokesperson for humanity by describing what goes on in our human world and to have a human response to it.
My poetry, specifically, is lyrical narrative—prone to flights of fancy and leaping when I’m lucky and the wiring is firing in top form. I like to play with formal forms, mostly the sonnet and although I’m nothing near to being a “language” poet, I do mess around with language and a heightened attention to its sound and music and also with a more spare and fragmented line and associative, abstract thinking.
RD: – Who introduced you to poetry? For whom did you write your first poem and in what circumstances?
MB: – I first fell in love with Dylan Thomas—he was my human portal, my gateway. I was in theater for a long period of time and I used to recite “Sometime The Sky’s Too Bright” as an audition piece. His work really grabbed me. The strong music of it and often strange but profoundly moving imagery. I think the first serious poem I tried to write was made in college when I was driving from Los Angeles to Berkeley at the end of vacation break. The title was “I’ve Stopped My Car To Say These Things”. It was about just that, pulling over on the shoulder of an Interstate because the need to write my poem was so great. Of course, I pulled over right next to a cattle farm and slaughterhouse so the cows and animal stench entered into the poetic picture.
RD: – What brings you poetry?
MB: – Well, that’s the mystery of the muse, isn’t it? You never know when and where she’ll call from. But you better be ready when she does! And then don’t hold on too tight or she’ll slip away!
More and more I find my mind spilling ideas for poems almost non-stop during the day. It’s like a faucet that won’t turn off. That doesn’t mean I’m at liberty to do anything about it or that they’d be any good if I could follow the wild lead. But the point is, the longer you write, the more of a life-long devotee you become, the more the doors of perception part and widen. I’ve felt this happening at a rapidly increasing rate the past year or so. The world is like on fire for me. Everything is grist for the mill. I’m very excited about existing in the world these days. I used to write about my childhood but more often I take what’s in front of me: my children, my marriage, some crazy thread of yearning and desire, some incident that happened during the day and I’ll follow that thread and let my imagination and thoughts run where they like. I don’t control the content or conclusion of my poems the way I did in the past. It’s much more of a Keatsian “Negative Capability” experience for me now. I like to keep my self surprised, on my toes. More fun for me, more fun for the reader.
RD: – It is said that the act of writing poetry involves the idea of plunging into the seas of the imagination to fly the skies and distant dreams, with great freedom of mind. How do you feel while you write your poems?
MB: – Like I’m invisible. Completely alive. Permeable. And the more I write, the more I’m able (like Alice in her Wonderland) to fall down the hole of the imagination. It can happen anywhere, anytime—walking down the street, standing in line at the bank. The world becomes very charged, very alive. Very electric in the moment. And for that reason, it is a totally fulfilling spiritual experience. It is prayer. And there is longing and frustration but in a good, engaging way. Imagination and passion equals freedom. It’s what I teach to all my students. I’m a firm believer and they teach me my own lesson over and over again. It’s marvelously reciprocal.
RD : – Who hosts America of today, poetry and poets?
MB: – We’re still a minority, still underpaid and that is for always, I imagine. But there is a strong pull, a hunger, towards poetry in this country that I think is the logical counter-instinct to some of the right-wing political trends that have such a lack of regard for humanity, for the care of the people and the fragile but necessary truly democratic ways that have been such a shining achievement of this country at times in the past. Poetry is about listening deeply to the soul and saying I care about you. I care about your story. It was wonderful to find out that a major up-and-coming American poet named Matthew Dickman was consulted in the writing of a very moving advertisement narrated by Clint Eastwood for the Super Bowl. It was very stirring and caused much discussion in the media.
It was a great “mass media” moment for poetry that doesn’t happen very often. Our circles are devoted but small. I’d like to think that is changing.
RD : – How contemporary American poets contributes to change the moral of thes industrial society?
MB: – I know many poets who refuse or seriously limit their time on the internet, social networks, etc…and certainly the clatter and clamor of urban, technologically log-jammed air and brainwaves, the barrage of criss-crossing frequencies conspires to keep us severely distracted from a deep and ponderous existence. That said, there are astonishing things we can create, artistically, with and through it. That’s the Catch 22 and it takes a lot of self-control and mindfulness not to let the over-industrialized which I think of as over-technological mode of existence keep you from a state of contemplation that allows one to dwell not on the surface, shallower places but to allow space and focused silence draw you down into deep wells of discovery and illumination. Also, not to say one can’t get Keatsian or Wordsworthian contemplating the fluctuating shadows cast by a lamppost on a city sidewalk or a tussle of acid yellow dandelion buttons popping out between its cracks. Most poets yearn to get away to nature on a regular basis. Some find ways to spend their breathing and writing days there, have renounced the cacophony of modern life and could have it no other way.
RD : – To better convey the message of your creation, you practice performance, the marriage of poetry with other arts. Would you talk a little more on that subject please?
MB: – I think that when you are an artist, everything you do goes into the mix, the make-up, the body of your artistry. I have been singing, dancing, playing music, writing, and photographing my entire life. All of it influences my writing, and now, my poem-film making, which I write, direct and edit with the generous technical savvy of my husband, the actor Phil Abrams. With very little resource beyond my talent, vision, and ingenuity, I’ve been able to create beautiful work. Art that makes people think and feel something they didn’t imagine before. I teach a class in the UCLA Writer’s Program called The Multi-tasking Muse: Finding Your Poetic Voice Through Exploration of Multiple Art Forms, a course that explores multiple genres and their cross-influence on poetry. Poem-film making is the wrangling of these sensibilities into this new art form and now my students are curious about making these films themselves. My practice keeps expanding on many levels and it’s very exciting for me.
RD : – Can we still live from poetic writing in America?
MB: – We need to try, very, very hard don’t we? If we are to preserve what’s crucial: the spirit, humanity, the precious fleeting essence of life – to counter-act greed and materialism and reconnect to what truly serves the soul. We must find each other in the stories and art we all have inside us and needs so badly to be shared.
RD : – Write and showcase your writings would it need a life or a philosophy to live your life under the starry roof of poetry?
MB: – The more I drown in poetry, the more I am saved and feel myself at all times pretty much of the day and night under the starry roof of poetry. Even in the most perfunctory and quotidian motions of the day. Well, I try at least, to mine the beauty of the moment. It’s a phenomenal way to live, to flow through life. I hope I just keep getting better and better at it.
For me, teaching is essential. I need a lot of time and space to write and I love being alone, but I wouldn’t want to just make art. I like to share the fire with others and my students are such an enormous inspiration. I guess we’re really talking on all levels about energy exchange. It’s transcendental, ultimately, and life-affirming. I would die to be invisible. And that’s a Thomas Aquinas thing isn’t it?
RD : – Are your books and movies use the same lyrical language?
MB: – Absolutely! The films become poems themselves, digging into the unconscious dreamscapes embedded in both poem’s content and whatever else is going on in my life, the moment, when I’m gathering the images for the moving picture. I love that about it. The visual, auditory planes that evolve and open up—the discovery!—that comes in the actual making of the piece. Then the union of those various sensual strata, which then creates a totally new, unique piece that speaks on different levels.
RD: – How your poems they dig their roots in the sounds and colors of an image intense?
MB: – If you are talking about the images in my poem films what I like is to find striking images that call to me from an often familiar place. If you capture (shoot) something in the right way, even with a very rudimentary apparatus, it can be extraordinarily beautiful, its radiance often enhanced by its juxtaposition to sound and context. The great poet Lucille Clifton talks about how the poem “comes to you” as opposed to running after it, chasing it down. She wasn’t advocating abstinence from applied and diligent acts of creativity or hard work, but we know what she means, too. In middle of our diligent practice, suddenly the muse comes. It comes when it’s good and ready and the trick is to be warmed up and loose when it does.
RD: – I know you are defended, helped, supported, sublimated, artistically, by Phil Abrams, your husband, talented actor. Poetry, and could be the result of a common love for a long time?
MB: – We are bound together by a mutual love for our children and for the arts. We found each other through theater and our friends from many years ago who were or are involved in film, writing, music, acting, etc… We’ve collaborated for many years, first on stage and now on page! It’s a huge part of our connective tissue and spiritual life as a couple. It keeps the fires burning because we are both standing there warming ourselves in front of the muse and feeding her flames at the same time. It’s a highly provocative state to be in and helps to be able to plug into it together as the years roll on.
RD: – What is your favorite book (all of your books). How was he born?
MB: – Good Friday Kiss was my first book, my baby, and I stand by her. Those poems come from many years of pent up energy and when I put them to paper I was learning my way through a very dark forest. My recent book Notes To The Beloved is more daring, aesthetically, the central “I” is more off center, there’s more leaping, fits of imagination and I like that. It’s less directly autobiographical, I guess you could say.
I’m proud of both of them and I’m also always reaching for something new and mind-blowing whatever form that takes as long as it’s honest and comes from a real place however fantastical that may be.
RD : – Michelle, you are an original author, who lives inspired through lyrical symbols and magical numbers (within the meaning of encrypted). This is my perspective. What do your editors and your criticisms of your originality? You know, originality is scary … because it asks/ requires an intelligent and cultivated audience!
MB: – One of my mentors, the great poet Marvin Bell, says that art is about learning the rules and breaking the rules. I strive to learn the rules and then break them in an original way that is interesting and perhaps challenging to others. That’s a goal that could take me the rest of my life to fulfill. So the good news is I’ll never be bored, right? He also instructed us to work to create something that at least one person in the room will hate. I guess that has something to do with pushing boundaries and working the edge.
RD : – An almost final question: Michelle, what do you like about modern American society? And what irritates you? The same question, if possible, to Phil, as an actor and director / film producer …
MB: – I do not like that we are still battling the same old horrifying injustices in relation to poverty, racism, the degradation of women and oppression of basic rights to a decent existence and education for children. It’s obscene, the disproportion of wealth in this country. There is more than enough for everyone but greed continues to grind mass numbers of people into the grave as it has since the beginning of time. Why can’t our children be fed solid, proper nutrition? Why are our schools in shambles? Our healthcare system? It’s a disgraceful and monstrous shame and it is so unnecessary. That said, I am an optimist! It’s why I love teaching and showing my students how enlivening a life in writing and art is. And I love the resources, and yes, basic freedoms of this country and I don’t want to see those taken away by some sort of Neo-Orwellian religious-fundamentalist money-grubbing, racist misguided Religious Right! Yikes! I love our museums and our gorgeous lands. We make some cool movies, too! Not as good as the French, of course, but we can keep trying. Ha! I love the highways and coffee shops and taco stands and crazy mixed up melted pot culture. It’s rich and diverse and needs to be preserved and celebrated.
PA: – I love the American sensibility of comedy and humor in television and film. From the first days of film when Chaplin brought slapstick comedy and married it with pathos and poignancy, for example, in his masterpiece City Lights. The same applies to the best of the television medium and a wonderful example is a show on the airwaves now called Louie. Comedian Louis C.K. has created a fantastic program that is part poetry, comedy with a heartfelt examination of the human condition. It is what I strive for in my own acting and writing.
As for what bothers me most in the culture…I think the machine of consumerism that makes people believe they need this new thing or that new thing, or more, more, more and if the person doesn’t buy it, then they have no worth in the eyes of the culture. It is an insidious way to live – a life of fear and want – which keeps us oblivious to the beautiful, poetic and, yes, sometimes painful moment of the NOW.
RD : – A little word, please, Michelle and Phil, for the poets and artists around the world, for these creators in exile, carrying of messages, or bearers of rebellion peace activist artists, artists suffering, unhappy artists, who cry or register their words with disasters, famines and wars … from the XXI Century.
MB: – Passion is genius. Fight for your right to party in art because art saves lives and all we have is each other. Art is powerful and people have the power!
PA: – Never forget to bring humor and laughter into the reflection of the human condition, as it is one of the best salves for our own suffering and mortality.
So many tangles in life are ultimately hopeless that we have no appropriate sword other than laughter. ~ Gordon W. Allport
Laughter is the shortest distance between two people. ~ Victor Borge
Translator : Howard Scott (MONTREAL, CANADA)
Reporter : Rodica Draghincescu