By Ross Nervig
Over the past few years, Michael Bazzett has materialized on the poetry scene like an investigator showing up to assess a collection of perplexing clues. He arrived both scrutinous and curious, eyes weathered but not weary. “If poems are buildings erected to house our wonder, then Bazzett has gifted us a metropolis…” writes fellow poet Kaveh Akbar of Bazzett’s latest book, The Interrogation (Milkweed Editions),“…one teeming with life and endlessly hospitable to visitors.” Publishing three books in the past four years (with two coming out in 2017 alone), Bazzett moves through this metropolis with his flashlight and notepad, following his instincts down surreal alleyways, breaking images wide open with a rare blend of intrepidity and a keen eye. Bazzett has received the Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. He is also a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.
Michael took time away from teaching at The Blake School and translating The Popol Vuh for Milkweed Editions to chat with Bayou Magazine about his recent book of poems.
Where were you on the night The Interrogation was conceived?
It was an afternoon, actually. Winter sunlight slanting in from the south. My wife had just cut and cobbled the book together out of the few hundred loose pages I’d given her. The folder where I’d kept the poems was labeled untitled & invisible. She handed it to me and said, “Here it is. But you should call it The Interrogation.”
You’ve been accused of having “earnest sight” by Airea D. Matthews. How do you feel about that word, “earnest?”
I love it, especially coming from her. It’s an honest word, and I’ve been trying to live my life toward that direction, in spite of all my ironic tendencies. My sense of humor skews to the sardonic, but that’s probably because I appreciate sincerity. I fear it, even, and the accompanying vulnerability. I turned fifty last year. A half a hundred. With each passing year, I think kindness is the only thing that matters. Far more than wit or dazzling accomplishment. I admire emotional intelligence and transparency; I could probably be quite happy living in a world run solely by golden retrievers.
In some ways your book seems to be an interrogation of the human experience. How are we doing as human beings?
That’s kind of a big question, isn’t it? We’ve been around for something like a quarter of a million years and only moved to the farm a little over ten thousand years ago. Since then the ability to accumulate & hoard wealth has caused plenty of problems, particularly over the tiny snippet of the last few hundred years when we started mining the stored energy of sunlight via various fuels. Currency is called currency because it’s meant to flow, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s gathered and held close by those in power. So we keep chomping away, trying to transfer the wealth of the sun and the earth into the abstraction of money, willfully ignoring the endless signs of the real damage this is doing to our world, our psyches, our bodies. If we could have somehow done the paradoxical backflip of transcending our biological appetites, we might have been beautiful. And sometimes we certainly are. As it is, though, I think we’re a blossoming virus nearing a major correction, if not collapse.
This book has undertones of the noir. What is this book’s relationship to the genre?
You’re the first person who’s mentioned that, and it makes me very happy. I love noir as a genre: it’s so whittled and lean. It reckons with ambiguity. It seeks the truth, even if that truth ultimately damns or implicates the seeker.
I noticed resurrection as a motif throughout this book. Can you discuss this as metaphor and action in this work?
Well, zombies have been very big in the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, yes? And there’s plenty of fodder to consider why that might metaphorically be the case, i.e. it stems from our collective anxiety that we’re not fully living; that we’re muted, walking corpses; that we’re addled, distracted, unable to focus; that we’re driven by an appetite for what we lack (fully functioning brains, original thought), etc.
So we’re worried we’re not really living, but we’re also not really dead. And I think that this ambivalence overlaps with a lot of the classic constructions of whiteness. How it’s an absence of something, how it projects so much of bodily desire & complication onto the other, and thus loses a lot of vitality in the process. (Hence poems like Miles and They and On the Subway and the risks they take with point of view.)
But I like to put all those thoughts side-by-side with the fact that we’re being resurrected on a daily basis, as well. That we never wake up fully the same human being two days in succession. We literally shed our skin every seven years or so. That’s where my hope can come from, I think. I’ve always found the Lazarus story a lot more intriguing than the Jesus story. I mean, a god resurrecting? Cool. But that’s what divinity does. Now a human who was not only dead, but also beginning to decompose? Who then wanders back into the light? That’s the person I want to interview.
Is this book in dialogue with any other poetic works?
Some poetry, yes. And other things. I just did a quick scroll through the table of contents and, at first glance, I can see fingerprints/echoes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Jenny Holzer, José Saramago, Charles Simic, Elena Ferrante, Homer, Octavio Paz, Chuang Tzu, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Gilbert & Sullivan, Zbigniew Herbert, Toni Morrison, Wislawa Szymborska, Miranda July, Robert Walser, Tran Dan, Elizabeth Jennings, Lucille Clifton, Mark Leidner, Danez Smith, Phillip K. Dick, Monty Python, Guillermo del Toro, Mark Strand, Dave Chappelle, and Mary Oliver. There would be many more, I’m sure, if I’d slow down and delve.
I read in another interview that you are fascinated with folklore and myth. Does this book engage with any specific myths or folklore?
I’ve been thinking a fair amount about Narcissus and Echo. Also, the episode with Proteus, in Book Four of the Odyssey. And I was translating the creation epic of the Maya, The Popol Vuh, at the time, which leaked into the proceedings.
This book also serves as an interrogation of yourself. How does Michael Bazzett fare at the end of this book?
At the end of the day, I’m just the lens through which I see the world. I think this might be my favorite wrinkle of the myth of Narcissus – not merely that he was infatuated with his own transitory reflection, but that that image was a function of a calm, still surface in a sheltered grove. Meditation and contemplation can themselves be crazy-narcissistic; it’s built into the myth. If we want to get beyond ourselves, we have to go through ourselves into the depths where other life resides. Or as Goethe put it, “What we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive.” Quiet reflective moments are nice, but we need to find ourselves in flux, too, remembering that balance is a dynamic state not a static one, and seek for our reflection also in the shifting face of a river or the corrugated surface of the sea.
Of The Interrogation, you said it is an attempt on your part to “embrace the pain and wonder of wide awakeness.” What is the worst pain of this awakeness and the most wonderful wonder?
I think the worst pain is the only thing we can be certain about is that there’s little truth in certainty. But that’s also the most wonderful wonder.