Mike White is the author of How to Make a Bird with Two Hands (Word Works, 2012), which received the Washington Prize. His poems have appeared in magazines including The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, and FIELD. His work can also be found online at Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. Originally from Montreal, he now lives in Salt Lake City and teaches at the University of Utah.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you begin writing?
Mike White: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something, but I only turned to writing poetry in my mid-twenties.
Geosi Gyasi: When you were a child, did you want to become a writer?
Mike White: As a kid, I loved sports above all, so becoming a beat sports writer seemed the next best thing to playing sports professionally. But a literary writer, no.
Geosi Gyasi: When do you write?
Mike White: I don’t have a specific writing schedule … though many a New Year’s resolution has been loudly proclaimed on this point. Plus, oftentimes “writing” will involve staring at a line, changing the line, and then an hour or so later, changing it back again.
Geosi Gyasi: What tools are likely to be found on your writing table?
Mike White: Coffee, invariably. Is that a tool? And I’ll often have a book of poems open on my lap – like a How-To Manual. There needn’t be any resemblance between what I’m writing and what I’m reading, but it’s as though I need that contact with the ‘real thing’ in order to get my own lowly poem off the ground.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever consider money when writing?
Mike White: Unless your name is Billy Collins, you’re not making any money writing poetry. My mother tells me I should write a novel that will get made into a Hollywood blockbuster. So that’s Plan B.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
Mike White: It’s partly true that I write for myself, to satisfy a need to better understand myself and my place in the world. But at the same time there’s a desire to reach someone else, a stranger, and ideally to communicate the shock of shared experience, that sense of communion that is art.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any writer you admire?
Mike White: I have many favorite writers, of course. It may sound banal to cite Shakespeare as a favorite author, but really, who’s ever done it better? Whitman, too, is a kind of polestar. More contemporary influences include Larry Levis, William Matthews, and Charles Simic. I’m also very fond of the great traditions of Japanese and Chinese poetry. Robert Hass’s haiku translations especially have had a marked influence on my writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your poem “Wind” all about?
Mike White: “Wind” is really about a very ordinary experience: a patio umbrella has blown harmlessly into the road. What the end of the poem records, however, is that transformative moment when phenomena becomes noumena – when we recognize, in other words, the magical potentiality of things. It’s about a patio umbrella.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you enthusiastic about short poems?
Mike White: I love well-written short poems. I’m attracted to concision in art, and I’m fascinated by how a short poem is at once a gesture of humility and a gesture of audacity. A good short poem should reverberate with all that it does not say. It uses few words, but nothing is withheld.
Geosi Gyasi: Who edits your work?
Mike White: No one – for better or for worse. Sometimes a magazine editor will request a small change to an accepted piece, but I generally just self-edit on the fly. Which leads to some blind spots, obviously, but also to a greater degree of creative control.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever had disagreements over your work with an editor?
Mike White: No, I haven’t. Poetry editors are often writers themselves, and on the whole are a selfless and devoted bunch. Major aesthetic differences do exist in the poetry world (thankfully), but the editors with whom I have the closest contact are usually those who’ve already accepted my work for publication … so creative friction tends to be minimal.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you spend some time talking about literature in Utah?
Mike White: I can’t speak to the state as a whole, but Salt Lake City has quite a lively literary scene. The University of Utah, where I was a graduate student in creative writing, hosts a number of events throughout the year, and there are community organizations, like City Arts, which are also dedicated to the promotion of writing.
Geosi Gyasi: What sort of things went into the writing of How to Make Birds with Two Hands?
Mike White: The book had a very long gestation period, almost 10 years from start to finish. The great challenge in the latter stages of the process was to pull together a diverse group of poems, and to make the collection feel like a collection, and not merely a catch-all. I knew that I didn’t have a book with an airtight thematic or narrative focus, and so I concentrated instead on having the very different voices in the poems speak to one another, and meaningfully bounce off one another. I wanted the reader not to know what was coming next – but also to experience a certain congruity and cohesion in hindsight. Anyway, that was the idea!
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any connection between teaching and writing?
Mike White: There should be. More than all else, I try to teach students to become more sensitive and appreciative readers – and in many ways these are the fruits of writing, as well.
Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your poems, “Death for Bad Guys Tastes Like Candy” and “Middle Age”?
Mike White: “Death for Bad Guys Tastes Like Candy” was influenced mainly by the pervasiveness of media culture in our lives. It was awfully fun to write – bordering on cathartic. “Middle Age” was inspired by, well, middle age. The poem is dedicated to Frank O’Hara (who died at forty and so never lived through middle age himself), and I hope it’s faithful to his manic energy and rapid turns of thought.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain anything from writing?
Mike White: It’s been said before, but writing allows you to live twice. It also allows you to communicate with complete strangers on the most intimate terms. It involves you in something much larger than your own work. And I’m often reminded that it’s a privilege to be afforded the time and space and wherewithal to write – and to read, for that matter. Those are two sides of the same coin.