Vlad Savich: When I was young I liked the Beatles song with the beautiful name, Michelle:
Michelle, ma belle
These are words that go together well
Hi Michelle. Tell our readers a little about yourself. Who are you? Where are you from? What do you live. What do you write? We will be interested in everything, I promise. You have the floor, Michelle.
Michelle Penn: Ah, yes, the Beatles’ song. I’ve been greeted many times with it and it always makes me smile. That song was released before I was even born. I wonder if Michelles in 50 years will still be ’serenaded’ with it. I suppose, in a funny way, that phrase, ‘words that go together well,’ sums up what I (at least try to) do. I love playing with words, exploring language and seeing what I can do with it. I’ve done lots of different kinds of writing over the years but these days, I’m mostly concentrating on poetry. My first chapbook, Self-portrait as a diviner, failing, was published in 2018 by Paper Swans Press. A book-length poem called Paper Crusade will be out in June of this year with Arachne Press.
It’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. And I have a few other projects in the works… As for who I am: that may be the world’s most difficult question! Aside from the typical human bundle of good sense and complete chaos, I can tell you that I was raised in various parts of the US and lived in Paris for 7 years. London has been home since 2005, and while I do now say ‘flat’ instead of ‘apartment’ and ‘biscuit’ instead of ‘cookie,’ I don’t think I’ll ever get used to calling a truck a ‘lorry.’
VS: “Michelles in 50 years will still be ’serenaded’ with it.” I’m 100% sure yes!
The main question of philosophy concerns the idea that matter is primary while consciousness is secondary.
“I’m mostly concentrating on poetry.” What do you think comes first: prose or poetry?
MP: If I’m understanding your question correctly, you’re asking if matter is more important in prose or poetry than consciousness. I’m not a philosopher, but I am fascinated by the brain and what its role might be in consciousness. However, I’m going to step away from which brain areas might directly correspond to which creative impulses, etc. (if that’s the ‘definition’ of matter/consciousness) and interpret matter in a way that feels closest to the act of writing.
For me, poetry and prose involve matter in the sense of what is both inside and outside of the body. There’s matter in the physicality of the blank page, the muscular act of moving a pen or typing on a keyboard, the brain-to-hand act of editing, the movement of the vocal cords in reading aloud, the visual stimulation of a piece of writing (particularly poetry) on the page, etc. And then there’s the conscious — and unconscious — side to writing: how language finds its way from initial image or word to reflect a series of ideas, how those words form in that order, how tapping into the unconscious leads to discovery on the page, etc. Of course, there’s also the conscious act of editing (which is still very much informed by the unconscious, that moment when something clicks or an unexpected edit strikes you and you know it’s absolutely what the writing needs).
As for the distinction between poetry and prose, I’ve found that a piece of writing falls into its form very early in the process. A poem feels like a poem (and perhaps that feeling is where the matter and consciousness come together in ways we don’t yet understand) and prose feels like prose. (And a prose poem feels different from other kinds of prose.) I can tell if I’m trying to force a piece of writing to be something it’s not. That’s an intuition of the body and the mind — matter and consciousness, I suppose — which leads us right back to where we began.
VS: “There’s matter in the physicality of the blank page”. Are you afraid of an empty page? I’m afraid of it. The blank white page seems to me like a snowy desert that I may not be able to cross. What image do you get when you see a blank page?
MP: I love that image of the blank page as a snowy desert. I picture heavy boots covered in snow and the difficult trudge through the drifts… For me, the blank page isn’t necessary a frightening thing. I think of it more as a door: it’s an opening I can go through, a passage to an unknown place. I can follow whatever path lies beyond it and see where it leads. It’s not always an easy experience, but I think I’d be much more afraid of not going through the door, at all.
VS: “I’d be much more afraid of not going through the door, at all.” That is, you want to say: better a terrible end than a horror without end. If so, then I agree with you.
MP: For me, what you call ‘a terrible end’ might simply be a piece of writing that doesn’t work. Or it might be hitting something difficult or painful as I write. But the blank page and writing aren’t a horror for me. A horror would be feeling utterly unconnected to writing — not even wanting to try.
VS: I started writing literary texts by accident. Or to think of it another way, ‘I’ became the pseudonym God used when he didn’t want to sign his name. Michelle: How did you become a writer?
MP: I was one of those kids who was always thinking about how words sounded, playing with them in my head. I was constantly inventing characters and imagining their lives and what they would say. I wrote my first poem when I was nine and played around with lots of short stories when I was growing up. But the path to ‘becoming a writer’ has been anything but linear. There have been false starts, dead ends and a lot of trial and error. I read and read and read, wrote and wrote. I asked people to read my work. I took some terrible advice and abandoned several projects. I kept trying to improve my craft. I worked as a professional writer, producing everything from advertising copy to articles to multimedia guides for museums. I edited other people’s writing. I don’t think I’ve fully ‘become’ a writer, really. I’ve read a lot but there are still so many things I haven’t read. I know a lot but there’s still so much I don’t know. I want to keep growing and challenging myself, keep trying new things in my work.
VS: I suppose that history is nothing else but a summary of heroes and cowards. What do you think about the history of mankind?
MP: Heroes and cowards: I suppose that’s one way to look at history, although I’d extend that definition to include altruists, innocents, victims, perpetrators, strivers, failures, seekers and many other types of people — including ‘ordinary’ people, who in my view are often the ones doing the most extraordinary things.
For me, the history of humanity is, of course, a very mixed bag. It isn’t difficult to find instances of cruelty, hunger for power and selfishness — just check the news. Every generation is marked by horror in some way or another. But I’d far prefer to focus on human development, creativity and the development of knowledge: where we came from and where we’re going. I’ve been reading about the Neanderthals and how, far from being ignorant brutes, they had their own rituals and art. And when I look through more recent human history, it’s astonishing to see what we’ve continued to build: from astrolabes to the James Webb Space Telescope, from ideas of the body’s humours to vaccines, organ transplantation and laser treatments. I think of the arts, the sciences, the ways we’re learning about our own brains and what it means to be human. Don’t get me wrong: I’m often in despair over the state of the world. But I do believe in human decency and that most of us want to live peaceful, meaningful lives.
VS: “But I do believe in human decency and that most of us want to live peaceful, meaningful lives.” How do you think your creativity helps humanity to become better?
MP: Well, I don’t think it helps humanity per se — that’s a lot of pressure! — but it helps me: creativity isn’t something I’ve chosen but it’s the way I understand the world. Through creative work, I’m more aware of what I think and what my experiences mean. I’m more attuned to other people and their ideas and emotions. I pay greater attention to details. I’m more sensitive to what’s said — and what’s left unsaid. But I can’t know if my creativity impacts other people in a way that improves their lives, let alone all of humanity! I can only hope readers find something in my work that interests them, moves them, or makes them think.
VS: Do you have an idea about the future? And, if the future depended on you, how would it look?
MP: If I could shape the future, I’d start with abolishing war and establishing societies in which people not only tolerated each other’s differences but embraced them. In this future, everyone would live and travel freely. There would be no poverty and no disease. Everyone would have a home. Our cities would be beautifully designed and full of greenery. We would somehow be able to benefit from all of our technologies but the planet would be healthy. (I’m glad I don’t have to define the way to actually make this happen!) There would be an emphasis on the pleasures of life (music, art, dance, sport, travel, etc.) and everyone would be encouraged to be creative in any way they chose. Transport would be by air taxi and other forms of flight. This future would see lots of space travel for everyone so we could all explore the universe. Back on Earth, unicorns would exist — because why not? We could hold unicorn derbies.
VS: I think everyone probably wants some version of this, but instead, we have wars, epidemics, the death of the environment. Why does it happen?
MP: Yes, my version of the future isn’t all that unusual. Except perhaps for the unicorns. All joking aside, the question of why we continually suffer wars, epidemics and environmental degradation is a vast one. Countless history books and articles in economics, the sciences, psychology and so many other fields explore it. As do writers and artists. I don’t think there’s a formula for why these disasters happen, or if there is, I certainly haven’t found it. I’ve heard and read all sorts of explanations: capitalism as sole cause, the existence of a fundamental human need to dominate others, a lack of education leading to propagating stereotypes or mistaken assumptions about how illness spreads, etc. So my answer to your question is: I don’t know. It depends on the war, it depends on the epidemic, it depends on the type of environmental damage. I think about these issues often but I haven’t found an answer that satisfies me.
VS: I’ll ask a hypothetical (even childish) question, but please try to answer it as truthfully as possible. If you were offered a billion dollars on the condition that you had to stop writing, what would you do? Take the money or keep writing?
MP: The writer in me gasped in horror and my immediate reaction was: “Of course I’d keep writing! What a question!” But my practical side reminded me that I like (and practice to different degrees) other forms of creativity: photography, sculpture, dance… If I could never write again, I’d miss language, I’d miss playing with it and stretching it and testing its possibilities, but I would find another way to express my ideas. If you’re someone who needs to create, I really do believe that you find ways to do it. So yes, I’d take the money. But I’d use a lot of it to support other writers. And I’d still read lots of books!
VS: “And I’d still read lots of books!” Why? After all, it is said: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’
MP: With all due respect to the Bible, I disagree. Learning may indeed entail grief and sorrow: history is filled with suffering and it’s difficult to read about war, famine, disease, prejudice. In our own experiences, wisdom is often obtained through grief and pain. But knowledge in and of itself doesn’t increase sorrow. I think it’s quite the opposite: even learning about horrific things is a way to expand our minds, increase our understanding of other people and have a larger view of the planet and the universe around it. And there’s so much joy to be had in gaining knowledge: I love reading about all sorts of things. I’m grateful I can know (at least something) about bioluminescent deep-sea creatures, String Theory, mythologies from different cultures, giant Sequoia trees, illuminated manuscripts, the evolution of horses, medieval medicine and so much more. Reading is a gift. Knowledge is pleasure, at least for me. The only sorrow is that I’ll never read everything I want to read or know everything I want to know.
VS: In your opinion, does one’s gender influence one’s prose?
MP: I’m wary of distinctions like these, which lead to unhelpful and outdated stereotypes. I think each piece of prose (and poetry, for that matter) needs to be written in the style the subject and publication demands. If it’s a factual article for a newspaper, that’s one type of writing and the voice of the author should be appropriate to that. In fiction, it’s about the characters and the narrative tone. I don’t see writing as an indicator of gender.
VS: Is our world real or a computer simulation?
MP: As much as I’m interested in the philosophical and scientific arguments for a simulation, I think of the world as ‘real’. Of course, that depends on how you interpret ‘real’: we’re learning so much about how our brains interpret stimuli and construct what we call ‘reality.’ But I like the messy, mysterious nature of ‘reality’. If we’re all living in a simulation, I’d ask who designed it and why like this? In fact, why bother at all?
VS: What do you use to write: a pen/pencil or a computer?
MP: Both. I draft with pen and paper, then lay everything out on the computer. After that, I edit on paper. I find that I’m more aware of what works and what doesn’t (as well as better able to spot typos) on the page, rather than on the screen.
VS: Do you have a favorite part of speech: noun, verb, adjective, pronoun et cetera?
MP: Not really — I need them all! But I do notice from time to time that I’ll go through phases in which I use a certain type of word quite a bit. In poetry, it’s been gerunds. I like the way they propel the lines and mirror the activity and emotions I’m describing. I don’t use them in every poem, though. I’d hate for any sort of word to become a personal cliché.
VS: Please, tell me: Where do dreams, ideas, images and whatnot live?
MP: I’d say they live in the unconscious mind but that they’re constantly fed by the world around us. Other people’s ideas and images can fuel our own ideas, and pieces of them can feed our dreams — particularly, I think, when they aren’t directly related to our own lives. For example, I’m not a physicist, but physicists’ theories and discoveries ignite new ideas and approaches in my writing. Similarly, I’m interested in different kinds of artistic experimentation (in photography, sculpture, dance, etc.) and those images often spark some kind of tangential expression in words.
Of course, for writers (or any kind of artist or creator), the goal is to find fresh perspectives; bring different ideas, images and dreams together in new ways; create resonances that no one has considered before. But I don’t believe this cross-pollination between other people’s ideas and the unconscious mind applies only to ‘creative types.’ I think it’s in all of us, an influence that can be very subtle and often takes place without any of us realising it.
VS: Foreigner’s biggest hit song was “I Want To Know What Love Is”. Can you explain to me: What is love?
MP: Now that’s a vast topic! And, of course, it’s probably different for every person. But I’d say it’s a deep appreciation of and affection for another person. It’s an inexplicable chemistry. It’s a meeting of the minds. And it’s something intangible, beyond definition and beyond language. I like the ancient Greeks’ take on love. They divided it into different types: agape (love for community, for humanity), eros (romantic and sexual love), philia (love for friends or community), storge (love between family members), philautia (self-love and self-respect), ludus (flirtateous, playful love), and xenia (love expressed as hospitality to guests or strangers). All of these together might be a good definition for what love is.
VS: If you had a chance to change something in your life, what would you choose?
MP: I’d love to be someone who walks up to strangers at an event and starts witty and interesting conversations. But I’m a bit too reserved for that.
VS: What is your latest major literary project?
MP: As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently working on Paper Crusade, a long poem that reimagines Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest as a tragedy.
VS: The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy did not like the works of Shakespeare. What about you?
MP: I do like Shakespeare — particularly the plays. (I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read 9 or 10 and have seen them performed numerous times. I’ve read the sonnets and some of them are extraordinary.). Although some of his characters don’t chime with 21st-century sensibilities, I think his insights into the human psyche often remain as relevant now as they were then — perhaps even more so. And as a native English speaker, I feel he had a profound impact on the language — so many phrases we use every day come directly from his plays: ‘What’s done is done,’ ’the world is my oyster,’ ‘melted into thin air,’ etc. Every time I pick up a Shakespeare play, I find something new in his use of words to admire.
VS: Thanks for the interview, Michelle. Maybe you want to share with us a short poem?
MP: Thank you, Vlad. This poem appeared in 2021 in a wonderfully weird UK journal called Perverse. The poem was inspired by an exhibition, Deconstructing Patterns: Art and Science in Conversation at the Francis Crick Institute in London. In the poem I used one of the phrases (‘Interference silences expression’) from the exhibition texts and slightly reworked another (‘Only by rupturing its own symmetry can an organism achieve its full potential’). Hope you’ll enjoy it!
It all comes down to fruit flies
Only by rupturing its own symmetry
can an organism achieve its full potential.
Cells are birthed, then change. One side
skates away from the other, anchors,
extends out in columns of specificity.
Balance before injury overwrites
inheritance: a prayer, a shout. A fist.
Breaking is becoming, self-portrait
as palimpsest. Science claims
that interference silences expression. I
have often held my tongue and don’t
Michelle Penn’s pamphlet, Self-portrait as a diviner, failing, won the 2018 Paper Swans Prize. Her book-length poem, Paper Crusade, is forthcoming in 2022 (Arachne Press). Recent poetry has appeared in Queen Mob's Teahouse, Berfrois, PN Review, Tentacular, The Amsterdam Quarterly, The Rialto and The Interpreter’s House. New work is forthcoming in The London Magazine, Bad Lilies and Stand. Michelle plans innovative poetry/art/music events in London as part of Corrupted Poetry. michellepennwriter.com Photo by Pawel Czerwinski (Unsplash).