A Conversation with Roger Mitchell, 2/19/18 Saranac Lake
Roger Mitchell, a long-time contributor to Blueline, is author of a dozen books of poetry dating from 1968, including The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant: A Poet in the Everglades (2010), Half/Mask (2007), Savage Baggage (2001), Braid (1997), Letters From Siberia and Other Poems (1971). He is also author of Clear Pond: The Reconstruction of a Life (1991), an archeological investigation into the life and times of one Israel Johnson, an early 19th-century settler of the Adirondacks. I had the occassion to sit with Roger for an hour at Nori's Village Market in Saranac Lake for coffee and conversation in February. The weather was warm. The slush was omnipresent. Slight runnels made their way to the river and northward, to Franklin Falls Pond, to Union Falls Pond, and beyond.
The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant: A Poet in the Everglades (Natural Dam Publishing, 2010)
Lemon Peeled the Moment Before: New and Selected Poems 1967 -2008 (Ausable Press, 2008)
Half/Mask (U of Akron P, 2007)
Delicate Bait (U of Akron P, 2003)
Savage Baggage (The Figures, 2001)
Braid (The Figures, 1997)
The Word for Everything (BkMk Press, 1996)
Clear Pond: The Reconstruction of a Life (Syracuse UP, 1991) (Nonfiction)
Adirondack (BkMk Press, 1988)
A Clear Space on a Cold Day (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1986)
Moving (New Rivers, 1976)
Letters From Siberia and Other Poems (New Rivers, 1971)
Another Time by Sy Kahn and Roger Mitchell (1968)
This interview was published in Blueline, vol. 39, 2018.
Rick: You open Another Time (1968) with a foreward about place: "A sense of place is essential to a writer. There are those who have it and those who long for it. Last year I had it for a few months in Cracow, Poland. These poems are a small testament of that fact and are gathered here as a way of saying thanks." Poland, Wisconsin, Indiana, the Everglades, The Isle of Lewis, The Adirondacks ... these poems [sifting through Mitchell's dozen or more books]....
Roger: The first place I remember was Glens Falls, which was my father's hometown. Except that my father and his mother and sister moved to Glens Falls when I think my father would have been around thirteen or fourteen. I don't know exactly when it was, but he lost his father when he was eleven, and they were living in Wayne, Pennsylvania where he was born.
He worked hard to make Glens Falls a kind of place that he must have remembered somehow or another from this small world, where he had come from. Five years later, though, Pearl Harbor came up, and he went right down to the recruiter. He had two kids, was thirty-three years old. The recruiter said, "Okay. Go get a physical." He went to get a physical, and found out he had TB. He came up here to cure for about eight months, during which time, his third child was born in Glens Falls. When he was finally let go by Trudeau [Institute], he went back to the recruiter.
Then, we packed up and moved to central Florida, outside Orlando, in an absolute swamp and later moved in to Orlando. Six months later he got stationed out in West Florida. So, we moved around a lot, and it kept happening, until we finally managed to settle down here in Saranac Lake, though only for eight years. There was a lot of moving. I came to have some kind of wanting of place, and I eventually found that kind of thing in out of the way places like Poland. I lived for a year in Poland, long enough to feel the difference, sense the uniqueness of the place.
I also moved around when I started making a living. I was in Madison, Wisconsin at first. Five years later, I was in Milwaukee, a big city. We liked that place, but I found a better job in Indiana. I had the experience of saying to myself, ten years later, "Gosh, I'm a Hoosier." Nevertheless, Bloomington was a real place. Of course, every place is real. Every place is deep and real.
We moved up here because I started in the '80s writing about the area where I had developed the habit of saying I grew up. I say that sort of thing, and yet it's been so long since I was here. Jay, where I live now, is really a very different place. The Adirondacks are constructed that way, really, unique places often separated by mountains.
Rick: Is it a different place sixty years later?
Roger: It has to be. The world is so different from what it was in the '40s. Although, if any place has managed to hang on to what it was in 1950, I would imagine the Adirondacks are up at the top of the list. Most of the places that do that convert into expensive little decorative versions of themselves. But as I look around, Saranac Lake isn't too different. It's still Saranac Lake, even though it had the heart ripped out of it 1954 or '55 when Trudeau closed.
Place is an interesting concept. It's also one you have to watch out for, because places can become inauthentic. What was the name of that playground down in North Hudson?
Rick: Frontier Town?
Roger: Frontier Town.
Rick: I went as a child.
Roger: Did you ever go to the Land of Make Believe, in Upper Jay?
Rick: I'm sure. That would have been in the early '60s.
Roger: The Land of Make Believe. I never saw that, and I live down that way now. A few of its buildings are still there. I did go to the North Pole once.
Rick: With Santa's Workshop.
Roger: That sort of thing. My sense of rootedness has grown into a greater interest in the stuff that is underneath us, the actual land, the geography and geology. And I've been trying to write about the earth as a piece of the galaxy. We live in several places and spaces, layers and layers of ... and I think it's kind of interesting to have some purchase on that kind of thing. I've written a number of poems that have a very local feel to them, around here, in recent years, but I can as easily now turn around and be talking about things that are remote in a simple physical way, but in harmony with where we are. In Indiana I got to know a lot about birds. Suddenly I was aware of the world that birds know and the world that the birds have mapped by memory and their specific needs. It's a world that is layered over or under, I don't know what to call it, ours. Then I thought ... I was living in a watershed, or a confluence of watersheds.
Rick: In Bloomington?
Roger: Anywhere. Here are these rivers and their subcategories. The creeks, the rills, the little things. I started a poem about living between two rills, both nameless, but nevertheless they are on the topo map. And if you go out into the woods, they're often dry, but nevertheless, as the rain comes along, spring comes along, they fill right up. They do their job, and you live in this kind of stuff, and this is all eventually connected to the enormous movements of water, like the St. Lawrence opening out into the Atlantic Ocean, or the Hudson. If you live in the Hudson watershed, it isn’t the St. Lawrence watershed. That's another map, another kind of place. This kind of awareness is interesting. It's as interesting to me as history. I've been fascinated by history for a long time. And history is human. It's about human migrations. My poems are kind of something of a mapping of my own whatever it is, wandering through life. Accidents, lucky accidents ... I've not lived in Hawaii, but I've visited Hawaii a number of times and gotten what feels like a nice, close feel of the volcanic cones and climbing in the mountains of Maui and places like that. So place is complicated.
I live on a street. I have an address. I live in a town. But I also live in, as we used to say in Indiana, a flyover. The birds migrate through in the spring and the fall.
We have a few acres and a view, which we keep losing. So I've got this guy who's going to come in and do some logging. I walk around with him and look at the trees, the kinds of trees, trying to get the names of those trees implanted in my brain. I love wildflowers, and I've got a list of wildflowers scattered through my journals, and I've written a few poems about the way wildflowers show up on the land.
Rick: As their own mapping of the world.
Roger: Yeah, I wrote a poem about this I'm still working on called "Buttercups," and this one moment in about June or so, when the buttercups suddenly blossom. We have this field that somebody mows for us, and takes it away as hay, several acres, but before he mows you see the buttercups mapping the places where the water runs through. They need the water themselves, so they only grow along the water. I didn't realize how many subtle cross currents of water slippage there are in the field. And Marsh Marigolds do the same thing, though Marsh Marigolds have to have their feet, their roots almost in the water. It's not just our place. I mean, we don't own it, really, though we bought it, but only want to "own" it in a bigger way that makes sense. I keep trying to write poems, get something like that established. My sense of place is different than what it was in 1968.
Rick: How was Florida, as a space? The Everglades. You talk about the mangroves [in The One Good Bite in the Saw-Grass Plant (2010)], you talk about rivers and the grasses and their movements, and there is that map that has such a different feel than what you have in Half Mask and the like, but are you seeing similar patterns? I would imagine a flow of granite ...
Roger: Right. The other living thing is the earth, itself. I mentioned that in some poems recently, about how every now and then there's a new scar on a mountain, a slide. That's going on all the time. One of the most wonderful stories I was ever told was that the Hawaiian chain of islands is a cluster of islands that people live on the eastern end of, a long, 2,000-mile chain. When you go 300 miles west from the big island, what you find are these little nubbles that show up just above the water. Then, way out on the western end of the chain there is a mountain top, maybe 200 feet below water, and they say that that mountain used to be as high as the big island, which is something like 10,000 or 12,000 feet.
The Adirondacks are said to be an old set of mountains. They're worn down. If you look at the Rocky Mountains, or these mountains that they're showing us now in Korea ... really rocky. In two million years or so, they'll be rounded off, too.
Rick: You seem to be tracking that kind of Adirondack movement in Clear Pond (1991).
Rick: You write about this in your introduction, but what got you into that for five or eight years?
Roger: I was working on this book [Adirondack (1988)], which had its origin in a poem about place and displacement called "From England, This Year," which is in Moving (1976). It is set in Saranac Lake, but it was written in England and at a time when a very dear relative of mine, Mary Bray, who was an old-maid school teacher, was moving into a home. So it's about that kind of displacement. We had lived on Trudeau Road, back in the '50s, across the valley from Whiteface. On the opposite side from where we live now in Jay. Which sounds like an organized life, but, it hasn’t been really, despite a certain amount of circularity to it. I am a restless guy. Even around the house. One of the reasons why I don't write novels. You have to sit in place for seven years. Although, as you mentioned Adirondack, in doing that book, I wanted to find out something about the Adirondacks, because while I felt I grew up there, I didn't really know that much about at all.
I went straight after any kind of document that would give me a sense, a whiff, of what it must have looked like in early, or first, settlement. I let the documents, as much as possible, speak for themselves, and I had a model for this kind of writing in the writer Paul Metcalf, who wrote documentary novels and documentary poems, and I think of these as kind of documentary poems. They're not found poems, exactly, because with a found poem, you sort of don't touch it, you don't mess with it.
Rick: When I was reading Adirondack, I thought of Charles Olson.
Roger: Yes, well, Paul Metcalf. Metcalf is grandson of Herman Melville. He knew big Charles rather well, because Charles, when he was writing his Ishmael book, what's it called? "Call me Ishmael," that's the first line of ...
Anyway, Charles Olson wanted very much to talk to or just see a living relative, and I guess this was the daughter of Melville, still alive in the early '50s. And his way of getting to her was to go to Metcalf and Paul said, "Well, I can take you by the house, but I don't recommend that you try to talk to her. For one thing, she's a little dotty, and the other thing is she hated her father." No doubt, a child abandoned by a father who spent all his time writing novels. Old author's story. Yeah, Olson is very much there, and I think I quote Olson. I wrote several epigraphs. "... find out for oneself" and "The point is to get all that's been said on a given subject. And I don't mean books: they stop. Because their makers are usually lazy. Or fancy. Or they are creative. And that's the end." He made me want to get away from the kind of making of language that poetry encourages and try to get at honest reactions. Unartful words, first words, or something like that. Doing that book [Adirondack], I stumbled on this guy, Israel Johnson, and then it was just like an assignment or a piece of detective work, which is a nice, simple-minded exercise. All you have to do is just go look and find whatever you find. It was fun to do that, but a lot of the time required lay in the rewriting. There was also a good bit of traveling and I had to be doing it from Bloomington. But I had a lot of fun knocking on doors. Finally finding a living descendant, Clifford Johnson.
Rick: You end so abruptly with, "Oh, so he married this older woman. That's it." It's as though you finally filled whatever gap it was and then you were done. Is that how that worked, or ...
Roger: I can't remember anymore. But when I went back to see him, I had a sense he had a troubled relationship with his wife. She was a war bride from Germany, and he had served in the second world war, and I just got the impression there was something about that relationship, so I didn't want to dwell on it. That's the other thread that goes through a lot of this work, is an interest in a life, what a life is. This is not-strictly speaking, a biography, but it is a putting of a life together out of whatever fragments that were left around. I'm doing that now, writing a biography of the poet, Jean Garrigue (1912-1972). With her, though, there's much more stuff left behind. This is a writer who left piles and piles of manuscript, and wrote wonderful letters.
Rick: I have a poem flagged here ("Glancing Out the Window," in Delicate Bait (2003)). I read, reread, your books from the first line on, and came here to a semblance: "a semblance lurks./ No, not a semblance. This/ would be the thing that semblances would be,/ if they could. This would not be other than/ it is. And would be here now. And is." You don't seem to be interested in semblance. That brought me up. Suddenly ... you're suddenly looking at that.
Roger: That's interesting. I don't know. Almost everything I look at is more than it is, or more than you see at first, so there is a sense of semblance, which may be nothing more than describing the quality, really, or the limitations of one's own mind. I feel like, I don't know, scratch about trying to find something. It's got to be down there. It seems like something. I guess most people feel like they never do get it all down, or something, even there on the paper, you have to stop looking at this page and just call it done.
Rick: Does language get in your way?
Roger: Yeah. It refuses to behave itself. It won't let me have it. Open sesame. It's the way in, and it's an obstacle as well. It's one of the reasons why so much poetry ... works of art are an approximation, for the most part. Leaps in the dark.