Sunday, August 01, 2010

MRB CHELKO: Parting words from a Somerville Poet

Unfortunately at times Somerville loses its many talented artists and writers to the allure of New York City. Poet MRB Chelko is one of them. I interviewed her shortly after she left Union Square to the "City that never sleeps." She has a recent collection of poetry out "What to Tell Sleeping Babies" published by the sunnyoutside press; a press that also left Somerville for Buffalo, NY.

MRB Chelko is a recent graduate of The University of New Hampshire's MFA program and Editorial Assistant of the unbound poetry journal, Tuesday; An Art Project. Her poems have appeared in AGNI Online, Contrary, Fourteen Hills, Portland Review, and other fine journals. She lives with her husband, Nick and dog, Chuck in Central Harlem. Her chapbook is What to Tell the Sleeping Babies (sunnyoutside, 2010).

You got your MFA at the University of New Hampshire, where Charles Simic teaches. You seem in some ways to share his spare and minimalistic style. Was he a big influence on you?

Yes. The first time I read Simic was in an intro poetry workshop at Penn State University. I was nineteen and had never encountered a poetry at once so strange and so accessible. I read all of his books and as many of the Eastern European poets who influenced him as I could. I tried to imitate his style. Ha, I was a pretty intense little wanna-be poet. Thank God I didn't actually know Simic then. He might have needed a restraining order. The Simic influence in my work is considerably watered down now, but in What to Tell the Sleeping Babies it's pretty potent. Mystery is one of the great pleasures of poetry, and, for me, spare poems allow for more mystery because they allow space for silence. Simic is master of eerie silence, but he is also master of undercutting the eerie silence. It's one of the most thrilling things about his genius There's a poem of his in which he lists all the terrible things that happened to him in his life, but the poems ends with something like When I think about these things... I burst out laughing.

You left Somerville, Mass--the Paris of New England—why?

Ha. The Paris of New England, I like that. Well... my husband Nick and I lived in Somerville for two years while I was finishing my MFA. We lived near Union Square and were quickly wooed by Neighborhood Restaurant, Block 11, Highland Kitchen, the neighbor kids, Market Basket, the dog park.... But Nick and I both wanted graduate degrees, and he was kind enough to wait until I finished mine to begin his. We moved to New York City in June so he could attend Columbia University's Urban Design graduate program. New York is a good fit for us; we're fast-paced people really, but we were very sad to leave behind a great neighborhood and beautiful friends.

You published your first collection "What to Tell Sleeping Babies" with the sunnyoutside press. Why did you send it their way?

Great question. I was in a poetry workshop a few years ago with sunnyoutsider Nate Graziano. At the end of the semester, he told me he thought David McNamara—sunnyoutside creator, beautiful book maker, and general jack-of-all-trades—would like my poems. David had published another poet I was familiar with, Jason Tandon, recently as well, so I was somewhat familiar with the press. Anyhow, I sent some stuff along to David, not a whole manuscript, just a few poems, and that was the beginning of what's now been a brilliant two-year, two project relationship with sunnyoutside. I can't say enough good things about David McNamara and his Buffalo, NY press. The books are gorgeous, the work relationship flexible and exciting. Above all, I trust that my poems will be well represented by sunnyoutisde, and that's a big deal.

You worked as an editorial asst. at "Tuesday; An Art Project" a very unusual and artful journal of poetry. Can you tell me about the journal and your experience there?

I am still editorial assistant of Tuesday; An Art Project actually. Most of the work I do for the journal is online: e-mailing, contact info, contracts... so I can still do it from New York. In fact, we are thinking of launching a Tuesday reading series in Brooklyn starting this fall, which I'm very pumped about. The journal is four years old now, so we're poised to expand our reach a little. It's exciting. Tuesday; An Art Project is an unbound journal of poems, photographs, and prints out of Arlington, MA. It comes in a little package twice a year. The idea is each work is an object. Some poems are postcards. Others you can put on your wall or frame or do whatever you want with. You do more than just read Tuesday; you interact with Tuesday. It's a cool concept, but the journal is much more than a concept. It's a collection of truly first-rate art. We've published tons of poets I love, Ralph Angel, Mary Ruefle, and Joshua Beckman to name a few. Working with the journal's creator and editor, Jennifer Flescher, over the past few years has been a great learning experience for me, and a blast.

I loved your poem "the unplucked fruit hangs itself." You have an image of this fly flinging itself time and time to get a t the light. Well, to use a metaphor, ain't that a bit like a poet?

Yup. It sure is. Although, in the poem, the fly is throwing itself into the light “like a bored child throws a ball.” As a poet, I am certainly not bored, but I do think the notion that we are, as writers, constantly trying to fling our bodies and our perceptions towards some great bright thing is pretty accurate. It's all about Frost's idea that a poem is a “momentary stay against confusion.” When you look at the poem, you see the light; when you look away from the poem, blackness.

Dear Whoever's Listening

You can press an orchid anyplace,

provided you've come with an orchid—

for the sake of some great something,

some final, Oh, there you are...

I say let the pigeons alone

rest on the shoulders of great men,

but I've been sitting here for hours

between a fruit basket and an open book,

trying to pick one—

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