Uprising: Michele Battiste takes TG to School
When I first picked up Michele Battiste’s Ink for an Odd Cartography a few years ago, I was drawn in by how this book of “modern poetry” actually felt modern. I’d felt those things, thought those things, and there it was in beautiful poetic form. With Ink as my rubric for her work, I was almost hesitant when I read what her newest volume, Uprising, was to be: a narrative of post-WWII Hungary done as poetry. If the subject seems esoteric, it is. If it seems heady, it is. If it seems like something you would not be interested in, you are wrong.
Originally from New York, Michele is a Colorado-based poet who has published two poetry collections: Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009) and Uprising (2014). Her work is the sort one purchases two copies of: one for yourself, and one to give a friend (bonus points if it’s a friend you want to be more than a friend). For each person who says: “Eww, I don’t like poetry!” Michele Battiste’s work gives a sly wink and says: “Because you haven’t read me yet.”
Battiste has a gift. Those who studied poetry will appreciate her technique, her ability to play freely within the parameters but still paint with her words, and those who have an aversion to the p-word will be stunned by how much sense her work makes. Her work makes sense. It makes sense because it is relevant and it is approachable; you will get her work and, more importantly, you will appreciate and be able to relate to it – the grand jewel of artistic expression.
Uprising is human storytelling at its most enthralling, and Battiste makes the subject matter easy to relate to, easy to understand and more visceral than prose could hope to do. Based on her family, Battiste takes a watershed event in history – the Hungarian Revolution’s lead to a massive displacement of its people – and makes it almost as personal for her readers as it is to her because, at it’s core, Uprising is a narrative of the human emotional experience at which Battiste is a master of depicting. She feels it and you will too.
I caught up with Michele recently to ask her about Uprising, poetry, story-telling, and her ability to see into all of our souls.
Tuff Gnarl: When did you start writing poetry?
Michele Battiste: I started writing poetry quite young. I think I was 10 and in the fifth grade. I wrote a poem called “Box Marked Summer.” It was an assignment in my Language Arts class, but I liked it. I remember that my father, who was a bit of a stoic, also liked it and let me know. His enthusiasm encouraged me, and I wrote more poems. I have to confess, though, that the poems I wrote were pretty awful. And they weren’t just awful at 10. They were awful at 15, awful at 25. It was probably a blessing that I didn’t know how bad I was, or I would have grown discouraged and stopped. Somewhere in my late 20s I figured it out, though. By that point, it was too late to stop, so my only choices were to get better or to be content writing predictable, hackneyed poems. I chose to get better. I worked on my craft. I read poets whose work I found challenging or made me uncomfortable. I experimented and failed a lot and succeeded occasionally. So I guess I’d say that I really started in my late 20s.
At what point did you realize that you had the gift to publish? And when was it that you published your first poem?
I published my first poem in 1998. It was a broadside included with issue #26 of Poetry Motel. That’s when I knew I could publish. I mean, I believed (or hoped) that my work was publishable before that, and I think I submitted to 20 or so journals before that first poem was taken. And I’m sure a few people in my past – teachers and friends – encouraged me. But I didn’t ever (and don’t now) think that there are poets who are publishable and poets who aren’t. I believed (and still do) that there are poets who are really good about sending out their work and understanding the journals to which they submit. Writing amazing poems is one thing. Publishing is a whole different skill set that includes understanding the landscape and finding your place in it. It’s funny; when I started submitting, I kept thinking, “If only I could publish a poem, then I’ll be a real poet.” But publishing makes you a published poet. Writing poetry makes you a real poet.
I’d like to start at the end of Uprising. The last thing you write is that Hungary lost many of its most competent and talented citizens; one gets a real sense of pain beneath the stoicism from that generation because so many people were displaced. Was that something that inspired you to write Uprising?
I am a daughter and a granddaughter of Hungarian refugees who fled the country after the 1956 revolution was lost. My understanding of Hungary – it’s history and culture – comes from displacement. I grew up at my grandparents’ kitchen table, listening to them speak to each other in a language they refused to teach me. When they told me stories in English, it was always of the “old country,” and the stories were fantastical – soldiers and spies and evil Russians. These stories were definitely my inspiration for the book, but they weren’t painful, necessarily. They were wistful, maybe. And it wasn’t until I traveled to Hungary to do research that I understood that the stories really were removed. Isolated. Displaced. Still living in the “old country.” That part was hard for me. To realize that the stories that inspired me were frozen in time and I was writing about a country that had moved on.
I almost hesitate to call Uprising a “poetry book” because it feels much more like story-telling, it is story telling. Have our stories, our family histories become less important than they once were, or are people simply less interested?
Oh, I think family stories are actually the subject of increased interest. Memoir is an incredibly popular genre. But I also think that our culture’s interest in family stories and histories have taken on a voyeuristic feel. We aren’t interested so much in the narrative that informs individual identity as we are interested in dysfunction and scandal. And I’m not above a little scandal. Uprising includes an adulterous affair. I also think that family stories are being documented differently. Photos and home videos and blogs and social media posts are all usurping the straightforward written narrative.
When I started Uprising, I wanted to tell the story of my family, but I realized that I couldn’t tell my family’s story without telling the story of post-WWII Hungary and the subsequent uprising against their Soviet occupiers. So it became less of a story about a family and more of a story about a country, and that may be something people are less interested in. A past that isn’t distinctly ours.
Isn’t technology wiping away our personal histories?
The thing I worry about with technology is whether or not young people will be able to access their family narrative before the date they joined Facebook (June 2, 2008 for me). I do think technology is wonderful in that it provides easy ways to document family stories and histories; I’ve seen lots of “friends” post childhood photos of their parents on Facebook for Throwback Thursday. And I was able to access old photos from Hungary because my mother made it a project to scan them all and save them to a DVD. But stories – real stories – the ones you hear around the kitchen table or late at night after your grandfather’s third glass of vodka – can’t be captured in 140 characters or a status update. And the important ones – the ones that go back a generation or two – are often shared orally. Which means shutting off the computer and talking face to face.
Is Uprising, in some fashion, the Michele Battiste way of expressing gratitude to her family? The book is dedicated to you mother, correct?
It’s dedicated to my mother and to the memory of my grandparents. I’m not sure gratitude is the right word. I think it’s more of a gesture of respect, of honoring them and their stories, which don’t belong to me. I’m sharing them, but they aren’t mine. I always have to keep that in mind.
How did you go about constructing the narrative? Some of the dates (not necessarily the ones with historical significance) are very specific.
I started with two simultaneous time frames. The first is the end of WWII when the Soviets invaded Hungary through the end of the 1956 Revolution. The second is my mother’s conception through to her family’s flight from Hungary when the revolution was lost. In between, there were significant political events that acted as markers. I have an enormous timeline written out of everything that happened from 1945 to 1956, and that drove the narrative. I had to capture those events so that the frustration, anxiety, and terror of the individuals involved made sense. And so I integrated the timelines and explored the intersections when public life impacted domestic life.
“July 12, 1952: Waiting” struck me. A woman, supposedly in the safety and comfort of her own home, is concerned about her children hearing Western radio for fear that her own child might accidentally or purposefully denounce her. That’s not something we can really relate to in our own lives, is it?
It was part of the political climate. Children were indoctrinated into communism through (mostly) mandatory membership in the Young Pioneers, and they were instructed to report their parents if they engaged in unpatriotic behavior like speaking ill of the government or reading Western papers. It wasn’t just children that people had to worry about. Their neighbors could denounce them. A co-worker. An angry ex-lover. It bred a culture of suspicion and distrust. But to constantly worry that what your child says could get you thrown in jail or sent to a labor camp? I have a six year old and I never know what’s going to come out of his mouth when he talks with strangers on the street. And this was part of every family’s daily life.
“February 11, 1955: A Small Indiscretion” was touching; young woman’s most personal fears and longing and disappointments are juxtaposed with the larger climate: “You know what happens to fatherless children when the Party cracks down.” Do you feel especially emotionally invested in sections such as this, being a mother and understanding the fears that must come with pregnancy and children for example?
It’s funny. You picked the only topic of disagreement between my mother and me. In my research, I read a lot of first person accounts that testified that the government took children from single mothers and/or adults who were sent to jail, communal farms, or work camps. My mother denies that this was true. She said the government never took children from their parents. I decided to trust my sources and include that as a possibility. And I included it because, as a mother, I couldn’t shake it. There were lots of horrors I encountered in my research, and this one affected me greatly.
Were some sections more emotionally taxing than others?
I had to write about torture and violence. That was really difficult. I still don’t think I did it well. Joska, the main character, undergoes torture when he’s arrested for sabotage at the shipyards, and I rewrote that poem so many different ways. In the end, it’s almost a catalog. It was the only way I could manage it. And it was hard to document the violence of Bloody Thursday, which was a massacre of 800-1,000 people – almost all civilians – at the start of the Revolution. I ended up focusing on a very specific image of a dead mother with her dead child. I think what was the most emotionally taxing part was that I couldn’t do the violence and torture justice.
From a political standpoint I find Uprising very relevant. The most relevant section, in my opinion, is “October 28, 1956: Risking Hope.” Encouragement to overthrow from the West but with no tools to manage oneself. During your research, did you get a sense that the Hungarian citizens were always waiting for the other shoe to drop?
In the months leading up to the Revolution, Hungarian citizens heard many messages from Western media that not only encouraged them to rise up, but also promised support if they did so. Hungarians reasonably believed that once they started the Revolution that Western (American, specifically) forces would join them. But their timing was very unlucky. The Revolution coincided with the Suez Canal crisis, which made it very politically difficult for Americans to support the uprising, even though they wanted to, or it could have sparked a war with the USSR. And so when the Hungarians realized that they were on their own, they felt baited and set up.
The self editing process must have been difficult because I’m sure you were dealing with troves of information, how were you able to keep your narrative so tight?
Troves! I don’t really think of my narrative as tight. More like over-stuffed. There was so much information that I wanted (and felt I needed) to convey, so the difficult part was how to convey it without writing a history textbook. I focused on the details and the images that told a larger story – one instance of brutality that could represent hundreds, one tense interaction that told the story of constant fear and suspicion. And I depended on end notes. Lots of end notes.
During your writing, which came first: the story itself or the poetry? What I mean is, did you take a particular anecdote and ascribe a poem to it or was the poetry itself the narrative?
This was a book of documentary poetry, so the poetry was in service to the story. The poetry was a medium of witnessing, testifying, documenting. It was a very different way of writing for me – to start a poem knowing exactly what it needed to say and how it needed to end. Also, I knew how the poem needed to dialogue with the poems that came before and after it. It felt like there was very little room for poetry, for the crafting of language. Very little room for any choices. So the challenge was finding ways to make each story a poem. To write it in a way that could make it a visceral experience for the reader, and an emotional one, and also an artistically interesting one.
This is a departure from your previous work; was this something you’ve always wanted to do or simply felt that you had to for whatever reason – events were personally relevant at this point in your life, change in your familial relationships, etc.?
Uprising was a 12-year project. I wrote the first poem for this project in 2002. I drafted (very roughly) the last poem in 2008. I spent three years rewriting, revising, and editing. In 2012, Black Lawrence Press agreed to publish it. I had another year to edit. In the meantime, I wrote and published one book and four chapbooks, but I was always committed to Uprising. I felt that it was my most important project precisely because it wasn’t about the poetry. It wasn’t about my work. It wasn’t about my craft. It was an important story that needed to be told. And I was uniquely positioned to attempt to tell it.
What always strikes me about your poetry is your ability to craft sophisticated pieces but somehow make them very approachable and easy to follow. If I ask you to be self-effacing, would you say that is your greatest asset as a poet?
For me it’s less about writing poems that a reader “gets” and more about writing poems that “get” the reader. That create openings through which a reader can enter the poem, passages through which the reader can move. If I do that well, then I think the poem will be successful. And I always try to do that well.
But I think my greatest asset is risk-taking. I don’t mean I experiment a lot; I’m not an experimental poet. I risk sentimentality. I risk banality. I risk rejection and failure and embarrassment. As I write this, I realize that it doesn’t sound like an asset at all. But what I think I’m saying is that despite failures I keep going and I try not to stay safe.
Are you a poet who simply understands the minutia of being a normal, less observational person, or are you someone who just has the gift to ascribe language to your life and paint us a portrait with your words?
I think it has to do with the fact that I still struggle with the idea that I’m a poet. I write poetry, but it’s hard for me to identify as a big “P” poet. Most of my day is spent as a mother, a fundraiser, a bad daughter who doesn’t call her parents often enough, a lover, and someone who needs to clean a broken bottle of apple juice out of the trunk of her car. I work with what’s at hand, and I find what poetry there is to be had there. It’s not very ambitious, but I’d like to think I do it well.
Check out Uprising, Ink for an Odd Cartography and look for news on Michele’s upcoming volume at www.michelebattiste.com.
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