BP:  This interview is somewhat unique, since you’re not necessarily out promoting a book or another specific project. You’re not on a junket. You’re a student from Minnesota who is currently living in Norway (more on that later), and I decided to chat you up after I saw UMN’s English Department website bragging about you because you’re the reigning Best Individual Poet according to the 2011 national College Unions Poetry Slam.

(Aside: Unbeknownst to me at the time, the 2012 national winners had been chosen a week prior to my beginning this interview, so Michael is now Best Individual Poet Emeritus.)

ML:  I’ve been a part-time student at the U of M for a few years now, taking only a few classes so that I am able to work and devote the majority of my time to writing, though at the moment, I’m actually not enrolled anywhere and am now couch-hopping around Norway. I’ve got both a novel and a chapbook I am working on finishing and have promised myself at least two years of nothing but writing and as little work as possible to get by. The degree will have to wait. I’m in no rush.

As far as the video/poem and this interview, I’m grateful and excited that you stumbled upon it. I met director Josh Thacker at the 48 film festival in Minneapolis, where I performed ‘Pass On’; he loved it and asked if I’d be interested in making a music video type of project or a visual representation of the poem. He’s an extremely talented and down-to-earth guy and offered to do the whole project pro bono because he thought the poem was important and wanted to share it with as many people as he could. Each member on crew did many hours of work for free just ’cause they liked the poem and believed in Josh’s vision. The whole thing still seems kind of surreal. The video had nothing, really, to do with my past successes, I just happened to get asked to perform at an event and a very talented and generous dude in the audience happened to be there. It almost makes you look at spoken word performances like you would look at submissions for journals, it’s more than just a chance to share your work, but a chance for, well, you never know. Anyone could be in the audience.

 

And we’ve met before.  You were a contributor to the Undergraduate Literary magazine at the U of M when I was one of the poetry editors. Way back in 2009.  Did yours take the best-of for poetry? I feel like it did.

Yes it ended up taking best poetry award. I believe Todd Boss was the judge for that. It was cool experience especially given that it was one of my first ever submissions. It gave me confidence in my writing that I really needed at that point in my life. I think within the big picture of things, having that poem accepted and being fortunate enough to win the best poetry submission gave me more motivation to edit and write and read and go after my craft in a very serious way. It was a catalyst for a greater work ethic than I had, despite the fact almost all I did anyway was read or write. I was in a point of my life where I realized the only thing I really wanted to do was write, but given a lot of struggles I was having, I had a very negative relationship with myself. The boost came at just the right time.

 

We were Facebook friends as a result of that, and I’d sort of watched you with interest thereafter. Endless posts about writing and poetry and slams and writing and editing and sitting on your front porch and writing some more. Something in my head is also telling me you went running a lot, but I might be imagining that; it might just be a figment of this image I have in my head about you being this super driven, super dedicated person. Also, I feel like there was a dog.

Haha, that all sounds about right. When my poem appeared in the Ivory Tower I had been clean and sober for about 6 months.  Poetry is what I chose to be my new addiction.  It sounds cliche, but that’s the natural way of it.  Every addict replaces their drug or drink with something else, sometimes destructive things like gambling or unhealthy relationships, or sometimes healthier, like exercise or art. I picked poetry.

I don’t think I was running at that point; I had sustained a lot of injuries over the years from sports and from using, but the image of me running is an accurate one, I suppose. I’m hyperactive and always moving. I hate sleep. It’s boring. The only time I can sit still is when I write or read. I’ve lost some friends over the years as a result of my work ethic, not because of resentment but because I faded away into my work.  The friends who I kept were artists too or at least understood the grind; they understood that sometimes I wouldn’t respond to anyone for days on end because I was writing or walking or biking around Minneapolis at two in the morning just thinking. I put 100% of myself into what I do (so long as I enjoy it; I never put more than 20% into a chemistry or math class). Part of that comes from a background as an athlete and also an alcoholic. It’s all or nothing.

 

You stood out among my classmates/colleagues/cohort, as I was much older than all of you, but you and your poems seemed unusually mature.

Well thank you! I think going through intense things in life makes you grow up faster. I had a lot of people close to me pass away when I was young, and I struggled with bad anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADHD, and addiction at a young age.  The stuff makes you grow up quickly in some ways. In some ways, I’m still a kid–a 16 year-old in a 24 year-old’s body. I don’t reply to emails much; I shred bank statements without reading them. I’ve been working taxable jobs since I was 17 but only started paying taxes last year (I’m 24 now), and I’m incapable of using a calendar and thus incapable of being on time, but because of what I have been through, I think I have a good understanding of the world and of life and of people and ultimately understand that emails, bank statements, taxes, and calendars aren’t actually that important. There’s no humanity in them.

Those difficult experiences bring us (or brought you) to this poem and this video. The subject matter is personal, and I know you’re passionate about sharing it, so I’ll just have you talk a bit about the poem, performance, video…any and all of it, and if I have questions after that, I’ll ask them.

I struggled with drugs and alcohol as well as a decent number of mental health issues, but far and wide one of the worst things I’ve been through is the murder of one of my closest friends. When you’re addicted to something, life is horrible, but you feel like you have control, as if you can make it go one way or the other.  When Stephen was murdered, it was like all of our (my friends and I) childhoods had been assaulted; we were twelve and thirteen and had a divine village of ignorance and dreams erected around us, and when Stephen’s mom murdered him as a result of her schizophrenia, it was like everything was burned to the ground.

How do you understand something like that? With a lot of years–ten now–in between me and the day he was killed, as well as a lot of destructive behavior and also a lot of writing and exploration, I have come to see Stephen’s death as also one of the single most important events in my life. After he died, it all changed, even talking to my ma, she said I got more compulsive and more obsessive in my behavior, which has turned into a good thing.  It first was obsessive destructive behavior and now its obsessive work ethic.

In the fall of 2009, I took to really facing Stephen’s death, first I wrote a poem about what happened, called ‘We’re Golden’. That two or three-month process of writing almost led me to drop out of college entirely; it brought everything back like it had just happened. Finally, I got through it, and over the next year, I found more celebration in Stephen’s life than mourning in his death. I talked to one of my best friends and her mom, who were also very close with Stephen, and also his mom, and they said Stephen wanted a happy poem now; he wanted us to be happy. He was never sad, so I knew they were right; I knew I had to give him another poem, and ‘Pass On’ came out of it.

That’s the story I really want to share.  It helped me so much, and also my friends, and I’m very grateful that it has helped other people; I was never expecting that to happen. I got an email from a girl in the Netherlands about how it helped her; I don’t even know how she saw it. Even in the darkest events there is goodness. Sometimes you don’t find that goodness for 10 years, but it’s there. I went through Stephen’s death so that I could help others with similar experiences. Why everyone else in his life went through it too? That’s part of everyone’s personal journey, but I know for me I’ve gone through everything I have so that I can help people, whether in writing or in personal interaction.

 

Divine village of ignorance and dreams is brilliant. It’s going to drive me nuts now because I can’t remember the name of the poem, but I was reading something not long ago that had as its dominating theme the presence of loss. That absence is a presence in and of itself, something with a tangible character that we have to contend with like anything else.  That something lost is something that IS as opposed to WAS. There was a lot of negative space/imprint imagery and that sort of thing.

Hah! Thanks. So much of my past has been sorted out by poetry I can’t help but approach it that way. I would like to know what it was you were reading; there is a lot of truth to that idea, I think, and I’ve been exploring it quite a bit myself over the past year or so. The same with nothing being everything and everything being nothing. Sounds simple or maybe dumb, but when you pry them open it’s very exciting. To me anyway. I also find flicking balls of tin foil and trying to knock over markers exciting. But who doesn’t? Right?

 

You talk about helping people.  When it comes to performance poetry, this is a huge element. Being heard. Going out TO people and giving them something as opposed to hoping people will go find your chapbook in some independent bookstore in the artsy part of town. You’re a firm believer in the communicative aspect of spoken word and poetry, it seems, where others might see writing–poetry especially–as a primarily aesthetic or intellectual endeavor.

I want to drag the academics out of the ivory tower (funny how my first publication was in the Ivory Tower). I love spoken word because it’s for the people; poetry which is only written has become an elitist sort of art and really has been for as long as it’s existed. Only the upper class was able to attend school thus almost entirely only the upper class was literate and thus only the upper class wrote poetry. Byron. Shakespeare. Yada yada…

Know who I don’t care about at all? Byron and Shakespeare. If we want to inspire people to write, to explore the world and themselves, we need to connect. Too many young people are turned off from poetry in school because we are teaching Bryon and Shakespeare and often not offering alternatives.  Sure, they’re important, to an extent, but not to the extent we have thought. Art should be concerned with both reaching the highest quality it can and also freeing the masses. Art is a liberation, and if we are only teaching works produced by a system of extreme inequality, works which are also contextually difficult and historically impenetrable, we are alienating countless potential poets and writers. Jim Morrison of The Doors got me into poetry in the sixth grade because I could relate to him, not because he was great. From there I delved deeper. We need to open the door, and spoken word does that. If you want to teach Shakespeare, that’s great, but the next week offer Yusef Komunyakaa, then offer Nikky Finney, then Jim Morrison, then bring a spoken word artist into the classroom–or if you can’t, then show some videos. If life isn’t about learning and sharing and human interaction and opening yourself to people, then it’s not about anything as far as I’m concerned.

 

In Shakespeare’s defense, I feel like I should offer it’s not really his fault he’s become synonymous with snooty literature. He was a writer of performance pieces for the masses and was fairly middle class. I mean, he was a writer of “low” drama…It’s his remoteness from us in time–in terms of his language, I mean, not his themes–that makes him a bit of an academic specialty. But there have been instances of Shakespeare being adapted very effectively for contemporary audiences. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is one of the more recent resounding victories in that regard. Maybe I’m totally dating myself. I loved that movie. That sort of kicked off a Shakespeare renaissance in popular culture that proved it was possible for those works to translate, but you’re right. Most people can’t just pick up a book of Shakespeare and get the same effect. It has to be translated, somehow, for contemporary audiences, and that puts up a roadblock in terms of accessibility.

And that’s fair; realistically, I shouldn’t dislike him anymore than other writers I find annoying. I find myself projecting my disdain for academia or the way academia is currently structured on Shakespeare as a writer. Still, there is too much focus on Shakespeare in English departments and classes. Like you said, he wrote performance pieces; his works, I think, should be largely kept in script-writing classes and in theatre programs; if you want to study it as literature, leave it as an elective. Truthfully, I enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed. However, the fact that when I was in college I had to drop my elective African American Literature course to take my required Shakespeare course is criminal. If anyone suggests Shakespeare himself, as a writer, is more relevant to me as a writer and young American than any number of African American writers, well, they should be laughed out of the room.

 

And there is, of course, all kinds of talk about the future of publishing, the face of literature and written/language endeavors in the digital age and so on, but in a way, it seems to me, anyway, the rest of the published world is just now being forced to come to grips with something the poetry community has been coming to terms with for years, possibly decades: People don’t necessarily need what we’ve got…or don’t know they need it…how can we make them want it? How can we stay relevant when the foundations of the craft–independent of the craft–are in such a state of upheaval?

Performing is a great way to get new audiences, and so is technology like Youtube and blogs and the like. I guarantee someone will have seen this video, or another, who never was into poetry but could relate to the story and enjoyed it, and then after that they found someone else’s spoken word they could relate to, and soon they find out that they they like spoken word poetry, so then they bought those poets’ books if they had them, liked them, and then bought other books of poetry, and soon they’re reading books of poetry, going to events, and writing their own poetry.

There are plenty of people that will come to you, but if you want to do your job as an artist, which is setting something free–whether it be a thing locked inside you or another individual–then you need to bring your art to people as well, people who maybe wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

Yeah. You can kind of fight the tide and try to tell people that they’re wrong and poetry IS accessible: “HEY! Shakespeare isn’t hard! Check out this groovy adaptation!” or you can just accept that they don’t want any part of that and go about creating something new that might one day lead them to Shakespeare. Metaphorically speaking.

Sure. As far as Shakespeare the accessibility within film/theatre adaptations is the context and not the language. The language doesn’t change. If the goal is to get young people more interested in Shakespeare as theatre then perhaps adaptations are the best place to start, but if you want to get young people more interested in Shakespeare as a writer, that’s a different story; maybe you need to lead to him.

But ultimately Shakespeare isn’t the goal, writing is the goal. The goal of an educator should be getting their students excited about the subject, should get students excited to explore the subject on their own and take to their own creations. If you can find a group of thirty fifteen year-olds that enjoy Macbeth more than Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories and are, moreover, inspired to write and read more as a result of Macbeth and not Rushdie, then I’ll hang up my Shakespeare hating coat, but for now, I’m wearing it and wearing it loudly. Sure, a few kids of that thirty loved Macbeth, and they read more of Shakespeare and that’s great, but without a doubt, the majority was most affected in a positive way by the latter.

 

I have to admit, I’ve never seen a poetry video before. Or, I have, but nothing in this narrative style. Usually it’s just the poet, standing or sitting there. This is extremely well-done and manages not to be overwrought or “telly”. It seems like a person with a gift for performance could probably find a way to make pieces like this pay off. PTV, maybe. The moodier, less booty-rific sibling of MTV. Something like that. Carson Daly must be looking for work, right?

Well, I know lots of people that have wanted to merge performance poetry and video.  Button Poetry and Poetry Observed have been working on that out of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I was lucky with ‘Pass On’ with the quality of it, both of the individuals involved and also the equipment, but we have talked about doing more videos, about writing grants to try and take it a step further. I think there is absolutely a way to make money off of this; indirectly, it gives you a great product to use to represent yourself.

If I’m trying to get a show, I will be more appealing with a well-produced video than just a flip cam of me at a show. I think it’s easier to get shows from people who don’t know who you are if you have a well-produced video of what you do. More directly, it’s grants, film contests and festivals, and in the future, maybe a PTV, but I don’t think its popular enough yet, and maybe we don’t ever want it to be; maybe I won’t want any part of it if it gets that way.  Does popularizing poetry with videos mean it’s going to get watered down like popular music has? I don’t know. I hope not. It’s a hard little catch-22, wanting to bring the art to everyone but still fearing being too popular. At this point, I’m most concerned with trying to push art forms. I want to push myself on the page. Push myself on the stage. I want to work with film makers who want to push themselves and push me. I want to do new things. I’m not convinced that what I’m doing is new. Maybe it is. I just need to keep working harder and harder. After that, I’ll have to figure out a way to work harder. Always room for improvement.

 

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, something strikes me as exceptional about a white kid from MN going to couch surf in Norway to sort of get in touch with his roots. Generally speaking, we Euro-mutts tend to only see others’ roots as worth investigating. As anyone who watches the video will discover, you have “Valhalla” tattooed across your chest, so it’s safe to say your interest in Scandinavian history and culture isn’t a passing fancy. What’s the story on that? If it’s not too general a question.

I think the great American experience, whether you are first generation or sixth generation, is a loss of culture. Whether Irish, Chinese, Ghanaian or Iranian, people have been forced to Americanize, change their prayers, change their garb, change their music, their food, their traditions to fit into American society so they could succeed or, in most cases, just survive here. As far as white people go, I think we do, generally, find more interest in other cultures that we don’t have any real connection to; now, I think it is essential as a responsible member of a diverse society to understand other cultures. I should know something about Somali culture and Mexican culture and Peruvian culture and Chinese culture and Japanese culture, and I fall short time and time again. We all do.

I think a lot about cultural reclamation, and in the interest of not sending you an essay right now, I’ll just say that the root of my interest in my own culture fell into the fact that I have always felt a bit empty and a bit out of place; hence, a lot of my past. It was a way to fill the hole and find acceptance. For awhile, I thought being Irish was the coolest thing in the world; I don’t have an ounce of Irish blood in me, but boy, did I try. I drank Irish beer, wore old-style Irish clothes.  I listened to Irish music, and I got into boxing, but none of that was me. I think culture is such an important piece of an individual, and whether we can acknowledge it or not, when we lack aspects of culture, language, food, dance, music, traditions, religion, we have an emptiness. I grew up always feeling somewhat empty. I used things outside of myself to try and fill that void. When I get sober, I filled that void a little bit with spiritual living, then some more with poetry, and after awhile, I came to realize the next step was reclaiming my own culture, identifying what parts of my life came from Norwegian traditions and learning as much as I could.

People always think something else or someone else other than their own selves is cooler; we are insecure beings. Finding my roots is a part of my journey of self-respect and self-love. I need to celebrate who I am, and in so doing, also be able to celebrate others. As far as the tattoos, I have always loved tattoos as a form of expression and have been very interested in Viking mythology as a part of delving into my Norwegian ancestry. I will say that most Americans of Norwegian ancestry are probably more interested in the mythology than Norwegians are, but I’m fine with that. It’s a specific part of the country that I’m very interested in and plays relevance to my life. Valhalla, or “Hall of The Chosen Slain” was a way to honor my grandfather who was a soldier and simultaneously celebrate Norse Mythology.

 

I have one last question for you, and it’s about our great home state. I’ll put it plainly and as wide-openly as possible: Will Minnesota ever get any respect?

I think Minnesota gets respect where you would want it to come from. We get respect for Greywolf, The LOFT, plenty of our music, our spoken word scene, etc. Minnesota is a sacred place to me, and like the Twilight Series: If it gets too popular, it means something has gone wrong. More people will always move to LA than to MN, and thank goodness. I hope to be a small part of keeping the conversation of Minnesota going, but for now, the more movies that parody Minnesota accents and farm life, the better. There is a small feel to the Twin Cities; they pack a lot of artistic punch for being small. I don’t want that dichotomy to change.

 

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

4 responses to “Pass (it) On: An Interview with Writer, Slam Poet, and Norwegian Couch Surfer Michael D. Lee”

  1. Gloria says:

    That video is gorgeous.

    Great interview, too.

  2. kristen says:

    Nice. Happy for the introduction to this guy.

    “If you want to teach Shakespeare, that’s great, but the next week offer Yusef Komunyakaa, then offer Nikky Finney, then Jim Morrison, then bring a spoken word artist into the classroom–or if you can’t, then show some videos. If life isn’t about learning and sharing and human interaction and opening yourself to people, then it’s not about anything as far as I’m concerned.”

    I like. Wondering if my high school English teacher, who I kinda adored so he already had sway, had snuck some Yusef types into the curriculum, I wouldn’t have fallen for poetry that much sooner. Back then, I had no idea what poetry could be/do–nor was I curious about it.

    Also, Michael’s (and your) words about absence having presence called this Kay Ryan poem to mind, which I heard her read the other night–

    FORGETTING

    Forgetting takes space.
    Forgotten matters displace
    as much anything else as
    anything else. We must
    skirt unlabeled crates
    as though it made sense
    and take them when we go
    to other states.

  3. mel says:

    are you listening to lots of black metal in Norway too?

  4. mel says:

    I asked my part Norwegian husband if he would get a viking tattoo on his chest and he said ok, but not sincerely. I can hope.

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