Mira Rosenthal

Interviewed by Stephanie Maniaci

In another interview, you discuss the “cooperative” nature of writing. With whom are you cooperating right now? Which old and new writers are in your head?

So many! Reading poetry reminds me that writing is possible and gets me out of the ego. I find my own ego a pretty small and frustrating place to dwell, hence the rotating stack of books at hand on my desk. You’ll always find some first books there—I love the particular quality of first books, the intensity and especially the wild imperfections. Right now, the stack includes first books by Layli Long Soldier and Aaron Coleman, as well as the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Zuzanna Ginczanka, Ingeborg Bachmann, Yusef Komunyakaa, C. D. Wright, Adrienne Rich, and Diane Seuss. Ask me in a month, and the response would be totally different. It might seem antithetical, but my sense of the cooperative nature of writing agrees with Gwendolyn Brooks’ statement: “I am interested in telling my particular truth as I have seen it.” All I can do is speak from that truth and listen to others speaking from that truth. It’s not about ego or originality, but about bearing witness to a particular human experience in a way that enlarges our capacity to love.

“Sublet, Pay-Later System” feels intimate, even though the speaker is describing a system and an anonymous “we.” Were you thinking of someone specific while writing this piece? 

I’m happy that you find it intimate, even though it’s not confessing in the typical way. There’s actually a specific backstory. My husband and I were living in San Francisco, a city that constantly raises the question of who gets to live there, who is excluded, and why. “Sublet, Pay-Later System” is one expression of these various threads having to do with identity, belonging, and worth. The fleeting quality of the sonnet form—what Rossetti famously called “a moment’s monument”—felt right for the fleeting quality of our economic worth as precarious subletters in a city being taken over by wealth.

You seem like a technician—like you enjoy testing meter and form. Will you talk about your experimenting? How did you come to the sonnet-in-couplets form for “Sublet”

I think it’s helpful to remember that a sonnet was once invented by a poet sitting around and playing with language. I want to invoke that same kind of joy in the way I approach the formal qualities of writing—the pleasure of sonic texture, the joy of how a line unit plays against syntactic meaning. When I remember the joy, then I find my way into a sonnet in couplets and a rhyme like essence/ants.

The constraints of meter and form are fascinating  to me, because I see writing as a question of how to use technique (i.e., tradition) to tap into the energy of the moment. If you’re a great technician only, then you fail to inhabit the form as a lived expression of now. If you’re only interested in the energy of the moment, then you fail to make art. I think of the technical aspects of poetry—prosody, lineation, received form—as tools rather than rules, tools that help the poet take our everyday, unshapely language and chisel it into a form. And there’s a lot to be said for knowing when to use and how to handle each kind of tool in the toolshed. 

Aside from the sonnet, which tools are your favorites?

Sonic texture is always close at hand. I love poems that allow for chimes and rhymes in a way that enacts content, like Kamau Brathwaite’s “Ogun,” in which the heavy alliterations replicate his uncle’s physical labor (how fitting that it’s about tools). I’m also happy to see poets using rhyme in a contemporary way, as Malachi Black does in his first book, Storm Toward Morning.

But, hands down, lineation is the most important tool in the toolshed for me. After all, the line break defines the difference between prose and poetry. Poems excel at layering meaning, and the device of lineation allows the writer to cut with precise and subtle effects.

If you were an insect, which type of insect would you be, and why?

Perhaps a darkling beetle in White Sands, New Mexico. There’s something appealing in the contrast and sense of being a small speck in a vast expanse of brilliance. I’d love to know what it’s like to live inside that kind of armor and feel how it opens to reveal the wings.