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Micah Ling: The Clarity of Passion

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Micah Ling is winner of the the 2011 Indiana Emerging Authors Award. She is the author of three poetry collections, Sweetgrass, Three Islands, and Settlement, which was published on May 8, 2012.  She kindly took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for KGB Bar Lit.

KGB: First off, congratulations on the publication of Settlement. Reading the collection, I was stuck by how fluidly you melded the political with the personal. Act One of the book focuses on Native Americans, their treatment by the U.S., reservations (or settlements, one could say), and your own experiences being Native American. Act Two delves into the Palestinian Territories and your impressions visiting. A poetic travelogue of sorts. How did the concept for the collection about? Did you start with the idea of settlements prior to writing any poems, or did the work reveal its theme as you wrote?

Micah Ling: First off, thank you. I have American Indian heritage: on my mother’s side. When I was growing up, I was always aware of it, but a little embarrassed by it. When I was in elementary school we had sort of an adopted grandfather living with us: Hollis Littlecreek (a character in Settlement). I learned a lot from him. So, I’ve always wanted write about this in some way, I just didn’t know how to approach it. Then a few summers ago, I went to Israel and spent most of my time with friends in the Palestinian territory, Ramallah. As soon as I got there and observed what was going on, I started making parallels to reservation life. The similarities between what’s going on in Ramallah and what’s going on in this country, for the Indians, is pretty remarkable. I went back and forth—writing poems in both acts/sections at the same time: mainly because I wanted to maintain the parallels.

KGB: Eleven of the poems in the collection are entitled “Settlement.” These are, in my opinion, the most personal. What was your reasoning for entitling them all the same and differently, say “Settlement: One,” “Settlement: Two,” and so forth? Do you view them as a whole or as individual poems?

ML: Initially I thought that all of the poems would be called “Settlement.” I did a lot of messing around with that word (also, “occupation”) because of the Land Act Settlement that was in the news quite a bit when I was writing some of these poems (2010, Cobell vs. Salazar). But then I decided on the two casts of characters, and really focusing the book more about individual people. So, the poems that remain with the “Settlement” title are some of the earlier poems: the ones that capture the way that I think about that word.

KGB: In Settlement, you address the unresolved political issues, issues that, to this day, spark heated debate. This is vastly different from your prior collections.  Sweetgrass focuses on your time in Montana. In your last collection, Three Islands, you focus on Robert Stroud, Fletcher Christian, and Amelia Earhart, three people whose histories are firmly established and—with the possible exception of Earhart—aren’t changing. The three islands serve as periods, hard stops, while in Settlement there is no finality. Not yet, at least. Things are still in motion, active, and changing. You shift from writing about the settled in Three Islands to the unsettled in Settlement. How was the writing process different between the two collections?

ML: I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to writing projects: I tend to think about projects (or books) and what I want to accomplish with the whole thing. Sometimes this makes it difficult for me to send out individual poems for publication: like choosing your own singles off of a record. So Three Islands and Settlement had similar processes, actually. I started writing Three Islands when I was in college. I did a lot of research: was constantly going to Purdue University to dig through their Amelia Earhart archives, went out to Alcatraz, and bought more than a few books on Wordsworth and Christian. I was (am still) a big dork when it comes to research. Three Islands took about 7 years to write. Settlement was similar in that I read a lot about what I was writing, and then incorporated my own experience—going to Ramallah was kind of like going to Alcatraz—I just wanted to write about everything that I saw and experienced. But, you’re right, it was different in that Three Islands was historical research and Settlement was a lot more experience-based immersion. Sweetgrass, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience. I worked on a ranch in the middle of Montana for two summers and at the end of 12-hour workdays, I would either hike or run and then just write little prose snapshots. I kind of think of that book as an entirely different genre.

KGB: You open Settlement with an epigraph from Sherman Alexie that reads Poetry = Anger x Imagination.  While there are flashes of anger in your work, there’s also a lot more: sadness, hope, heartbreak, and happiness. Can you describe your process of writing a poem? What compels you to put pen to paper?

ML: Sherman Alexie is a hero of mine. He’s controversial and makes people angry, but he also makes people think. He’s a genius at breaking the rules. That equation comes from his collection, One Stick Song. I feel like the equation is especially true for Settlement—even the poems that might not seem “angry,” were triggered by some sort of anger—I guess I should also clarify that I associate anger with passion. I don’t really trust a person who can’t name what they’re passionate about. Settlement made me realize that I’m pretty passionate about historic and ongoing conflicts that don’t generally take into account the individuals. All of the characters in Settlement, in my opinion, are really interesting individuals. It’s like when you’re watching the Olympics and on the surface it just seems like a bunch of athletes competing to “be the best,” and then the media (God bless them) does a little segment on one athlete’s background and how they saved their pennies to take swimming lessons, etc. It’s the humanness that we so easily forget about.

KGB: Aside from writing poetry, you review music, film, and books for magazines and for your own website, Ringside Reviews, which provides reviews of 200 words. What prompted you to start Ringside Reviews?

ML: Yeah, I really like to be writing all the time, even if it’s not poetry. I think that writing for newspapers and magazines, and for my own website, totally helps my poetry. The 200-words thing started when I read Lush Life by Richard Price. I have a friend who writes for Esquire Magazine, and after I finished reading that book in a day (maybe two), I told my friend that he should review it for Esquire: that it was an excellent read. He told me that he didn’t have time (which was just a lame excuse). So I told him that I’d review it, in his voice, for the magazine. He thought that was hilarious, and dared me to do it: told me that Esquire would only give him/me about 200-words of space for a book review. So, I did it: sent it to him within an hour. He told me to forget about Esquire and just start my own website. So I did. For a while (like a year) it was just book reviews, every week, and then I added music and film. Now I’ve got a small team of (amazing) people working with me and we stick to the 200-words because they’re like prose poems. We capture the experience of the book/album/film without telling you too much. It’s a lot of fun.

KGB: Settlement is your third collection with Sunnyoutside Press. How did that relationship come about?

ML: I was in Chicago for the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference. At the time, I was working for an independent creative writing journal out of Nashville, TN (Keyhole Magazine). This conference is known for its enormous book fair, and our table happened to be next to the table for the small press, Sunnyoutside (out of Buffalo, NY). I talked to the guy who runs the press and he sort of nonchalantly told me to send him part of the manuscript that I was working on (Three Islands). I figured I would never hear from him, but I did, and we went to work putting that book out. I really love the small press relationship. Sunnyoutside has been amazing to me: lots of personal attention. They go way out of their way to set up readings and promote me; I’ve considered looking for other place to publish, but I can’t say enough great things about my experience with Sunnyoutside, so, I’m pretty dedicated.

KGB: And finally, the obligatory question: What’s next for Micah Ling?

ML: I’m working on a new manuscript of sorts. I’ve been writing music reviews for the local alternative newspaper, in addition to my website, so I’m kind of constantly thinking about music. I get to go to a lot of shows and interview a lot of artists/bands for the paper. This new project deals with the music that defines people’s lives. I’ve been asking people to compose their list of the 10 albums that they claim as markers. The lists alone are incredibly interesting and telling, (I love lists), but I’ve also been writing poems about my own list. This whole thing is still hatching. The dream result, for me, would be some sort of album that I could release with the poems. Who knows, I have high hopes. Always.

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Micah Ling is performing at the Bowery Poetry Club on Sunday May 13, at 7 p.m.  Her new poetry collection Settlement is out on May 8 from Sunnyoutside.