42.1 Feature: An Interview with MRB Chelko

Oct 26, 2015Archive, Interviews

MRB Chelko is the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Manhattations (PSA, 2014). Her work has appeared in many journals and chapbooks–publications include: The Cincinnati ReviewGulf CoastIndiana ReviewPoetry International, and Washington Square Review. A recent John Ciardi Tuition Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Chelko holds an MFA from The University of New Hampshire and lives in Harlem.


Black Warrior Review: One of the things that grabbed me about this series is the way that the lack of punctuation complicates the intimate (dare I say punctuated) relationships between the characters. At what point in the writing process did you decide not to punctuate these poems? Was this from the first draft? More a decision of theme or syntax?

MRB Chelko: I decided early on not to punctuate the series. In many ways, these Be poems—there are about 50 of them—are studies in simultaneity. The poems quilt scraps of image, perception, statement, quote, social texture, and memory, and I wanted the quilt to be elastic, stitched with Janus-faced phrases. In the case of the Bes, conventional punctuation hindered dexterous syntax.

When I’m writing I love nothing more than to goof around, but I’m also a formal stickler. Louise Gluck once warned in an essay, “If the sentence is to be forfeited, incompleteness must be able to match, or augment, its resources, must infuse the poem with equivalent depth and variety.” I’m terrified of Gluck (in all the best ways), so I unpunctuated the poems with some trembling.

BWR: Another aspect that grabbed me is the subtle humor present in these poems. This was very refreshing. So few poets use humor in their writing, perhaps because it is so challenging to use effectively. What do you feel like your relationship to humor was in writing these poems? What about in writing or reading as a whole?

MC: When I was in graduate school, the poet Ralph Angel once asked me, scowling at a particularly maudlin 3-page draft I’d submitted for critique, “This poem, when you were writing it, did it make you cry?” “No,” I said. He dropped the stapled pages to his lap and began massaging the bridge of his nose. I sat in the thick of my failure, waiting for line edits, suggested reading. But, instead, Ralph shot me a playful look. “Well,” he shrugged. “Did it make you laugh?”

I always think of that.

I love humor, but humor does seem to be rare in American poetry. Americans are nervous laughers.

When I come across a really funny poem, I’m over the moon. And it’s important, when writing, to pay attention to the things we take pleasure in as readers. If I love humor, I should try to use it… right?

Of course, there are fantastically funny American poets. Anthony Madrid’s book, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say is a hilarious and formally innovative work.  Now, Madrid is writing a series of limericks –several of them were just published in Poetry. There, in an introduction to the work, he calls a good limerick an “effective mouth toy,” then goes on the explain, “I define a successful mouth toy as a small polyhedron of language that is revolved more in the mouth than in the mind, and which causes unintelligible pleasure…”

I’d like to imagine a reader: cheeks plump with mouth toys.

BWR: There are quite a few references to people and places in these poems. To me, they seem to be functioning on different levels at different times. How do you see these references (like the reference to the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean” or the mention of Brooklyn as a place) working across the project of the Be poems?

MC: My references tend to be are all over the place—I drop the names of poets (first names mostly), song titles, quotes from essays, billboards, movies, kids at the playground…  The Bepoems are accumulations of my experience; so, anything I encounter or remember or read is fair game. That readers pick up on or “get” all the references doesn’t really matter to me, particularly because my speaker can intentionally misunderstand or misremember. Cue apology: my poem “Sovereign Be,” which appears in BWR, opens with a quote from Jon Anderson, but I misspelled Jon’s name—my sincerest apologies for the error.

BWR: While writing these poems, were there any writers that you were reading for inspiration or guidance?

MC: Yes! I was reading constantly as I wrote these: Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters for use of long, unpunctuated lines; e e cummings and Berryman for strangeness and play; Aase Berg for music and performative fear; Szymborska (always); Louise Gluck for tone; Rose McLarney also for tone; Cate Marvin for strong vocal range; Robert Creeley for lineation; Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver Speak for humor and smarts; Jamaal May’s Hum for use of personal narrative in lyric; David Rivard for wisdom and architecture; Major Jackson for social texture; Robert Hass’ Time and Materials for general awesomeness and savvy deployment of intelligence…

I’m also constantly reading the poems of my friends – their living flow of drafts keeps me excited, challenged, in-the-know, and on my toes.

BWR: What are you working on now?

MC: I’m writing a sequence of lyric responses to the essays in Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell. 

To read MRB Chelko’s work and more, pick up a copy of Issue 42.1 or order a subscription from our online store.