Aperçus Guest Editor
Madeleine Mori is a Japanese-American poet and winemaker originally from San Francisco. She received a BS in Wine and Viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she was the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, judged by Suzanne Lummis. Her work has appeared in Outrageous Fortune, sparkle + blink, BOAAT, Bone Bouquet, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She was the recipient of the Lucille Clifton Memorial Scholarship from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University and serves as Co-Poetry Editor of Washington Square Review. She lives in Brooklyn.
Tell us a little about yourself, what brought you to poetry, and which poets first inspired you.
I began writing poetry in sophomore year of high school. My English teacher Ms. Price had everyone select a class job for the year and I decided I wanted to be the “Class Poet.” I hadn’t read much poetry or attempted to write a poem yet, but connected poetry fondly to my mom, who has written poetry since before I was born and has maintained a monthly writing workshop with some of her best friends for several decades. As “Class Poet” I think I brought in a lot of poems from my mom’s bookshelf (Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Rupert Brooke) and eventually tried my hand at writing poems to share with the class. My first poem was titled “Sensitivity;” it sucked, but I was very proud of it, particularly the abab rhyme scheme. After that class, writing poetry was pretty much the only thing I did for myself and though I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind, I didn’t think of myself as a poet. I read a lot of Ginsberg, Plath, Neruda, Eliot, and borrowed heavily, as I do to this day, from my musical influences of the time. I would give myself prompts without realizing what I was doing, for instance, listening to a Fleet Foxes song and trying to write a new poem over the rhythm of their lyrics. It wasn’t until I took undergraduate poetry writing classes at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that I realized poetry was still relevant to modern society and that I could study it intensely, and in some cases professionally, at a higher level of education.
What’s it like to be an MFA candidate at NYU? What poets are you working with right now? Do you have the opportunity to teach as well?
Joining NYU’s MFA program was one of the best decisions of my life. The community of writers I have met through NYU, from faculty to my fellow cohort, are so talented, dedicated, and supportive. I am in my last semester of my two-year program, currently in a workshop with Sharon Olds and a Craft of Poetry class with Catherine Barnett, who I also worked with in a workshop last semester. Sharon and Catherine are two of the poets I was most excited to work with and learn from when I applied to NYU, so it feels like a perfect way to wrap up my experience here. I love the size of the program, which accepts 40-50 new writers a year, and feel I’ve been able to meet and make a connection with almost everyone, largely through my part-time position working for NYU as an Events Assistant for our visiting writers reading series. I also had the opportunity to teach my first course, an Intro to Creative Writing class for NYU undergraduates last semester, which was such a rewarding experience.
Tell us about your experience as Co-Poetry editor for NYU’s literary magazine, Washington Square Review. What kind of work does the magazine look for?
I started my year-long position with Washington Square Review in September. I get to work with one of my best friends in the program, the highly-gifted and luminous poet Maggie Millner, as Co-Poetry Editors. I think Maggie and I both have an affinity for poems with a strong focus on sound and lush, layered texture to the imagery, as well as the emotion. We value a sense of urgency, risk, and experimentation, but also an engagement with the varied histories and traditions that contextualize a sense of “self” (whether those be personal, political, regional, artistic, poetic, etc.)
To what degree would you say that your writing and your engagement with poetry have been affected by politics over the past year?
As I once heard the poet Patrick Rosal say in response to a similar question about the role of politics in his work and “the role of the poet” in these particularly harrowing political times, I wouldn’t say that I overtly try to represent a specific political platform in my poetry, but that identifying as a queer Japanese-American female, “being born into a political body,” my work naturally does so.
Just how in the greater political system we can exact the most change through local elections, I think my form of responding to the current administration has been turning the view inward, on promoting self-care, patience, and empathy for myself and those in my closest proximity. This is not to say that I don’t stay abreast of global news and engage with it on a personal level.
I also see poetry as an inherently political art form because it has no apparent capitalist value. There is very little potential financial gain from writing poetry and most citizens of this country read very little poetry, if any, in their daily lives. To quote a poet whose name is escaping me right now, poetry “can slip under borders” because of this illusion that it has little clout in greater society outside of poetry communities. Of course, we know the true revolutionary potential of poetry and the written word (think of how many poets during times of civil revolution we know have been kidnapped, persecuted, executed); we know that it frightens those in power by illuminating our deepest human truths. It is a tradition I am proud to engage in daily, in my own way.
What makes a poem memorable or stand out to you?
I can’t deny the impulse to make metaphor here: I tend to look for poetry that is like Howl’s Moving Castle, a veritable machine, in how intensely and intricately it is working to move forward, with a shroud of the ineffable and inexplicable, of some sort of magic, myth, mystery. I crave poetry that is skilled in craft (form, line breaks, syntax, rhythm, etc.), but also feels new and inspired, that transforms cliché. There’s very little I respect more than honesty and the emotional risk involved in exposing oneself to the light.