N.G.Q.

Let’s address the elephant in the room—“Isaac Newton’s Teeth,” your defining work as a poet, wouldn’t exist if not for this journal. Inspired by this tweet, we gave you the title. We gave the poem life. We went out for a pack of smokes and never returned. How did you rear this poem so well (and on a poet’s salary!) to maturity with so little to work from? What challenged you?

Michael Schmeltzer

Every word carries with itself dual histories: one public and the other private. In truth there was much to work with. I had a title and the intimacy of teeth. That’s far more than I usually have when I begin a poem. Usually it’s me, a Moscow Mule(s), and a blank Word doc. That scenario usually devolves to me, an empty glass, and House (is there anything he can’t diagnose?).

Each poem offers its own challenge, asks a unique set of questions. (#ProTip¹: If you answer every poem the same way, listen harder.) In this case, the main challenge was balance, weighing the private connotation of teeth against the public denotation of Isaac Newton. Once I discovered 1) the scientist’s father was also named Isaac Newton and 2) that the scientist’s father died before he was born, I had the key. For all the scientist would learn over his lifetime, he wouldn’t know something as simple as what his father’s teeth looked like. That breaks me every time. We are all keepers of secret details, some so trivial and personal they can define or fracture us.

N.G.Q.

Searching isaac newton + teeth on Google leads to a particular curio regarding the sale of one of the physicist’s teeth for what is today a cool $35,000. That kind of information—the auctioning off of human remains, essentially, a tidy niche business in which we hope to one day succeed—is nearly irresistible; you can become a line of iron fillings above its bar magnet. Thanks in part to your weak ferromagnetism, though, you ushered the poem away from trivial factoids to a place of substance, defining a nonexistent parent–child relationship via absence, intentional or otherwise, in the case of the Newtons. How much of your own history—as a child or as a father (of two girls) yourself—is in this poem?

Michael Schmeltzer

A brief history lesson. As a child [in the early 1980s], I would flick my dad’s earlobes.

N.G.Q.

Your popularity with certain family members must have been dismal.

Michael Schmeltzer

My popularity among the general public is also dismal. It’s not limited to blood.

(cont’d)

When my parents first received dentures, I thought, I will never see their real teeth again.

N.G.Q.

Have you? or did your parents fetch the right price for them at the auction?

Michael Schmeltzer

My parents fetched a fair price but the real money is in(ternal) organs.

(cont’d)

When my eldest daughter lost her first tooth, then others, it was like looking at footprints, gaps in a field of snow-white squares. This poem is sloppy with histories—mine and, if I’ve written well enough, others. I hope everything I write comes with loaded truths and enough lies to make a small but accurate statement.

N.G.Q.

That conditional statement—“if I’ve written well enough . . .”—is of immediate interest. According to Twitter, one (or both?) of your daughters is a promising engineer. Her rocket ship may be too turgid in design to fly, her robot may lack proper wiring, but it is a rocket ship nonetheless, it is a robot nonetheless: facts presented so plainly you stand aback of her confidence. At what point, if ever, do you—a published poet²—present your own work with similar confidence? What items must you first cross off on a checklist before you can submit a poem without second-guessing yourself, your ability, or the final product itself?

Michael Schmeltzer

I present my work with the same confidence I buy lotto tickets. I know the odds are against me, but the fun isn’t in winning, anyway³. Once I realized that, confidence wasn’t even a factor. When I write, when I read and get inspired, that’s the big prize. Submitting is the art of making yourself vulnerable and open, a kind of giving. And I want to live all aspects of my life like that: open, vulnerable, spent.

If you spend any amount of time with children (as a parent, a relative, a teacher), you will probably receive a series of poorly but lovingly made gifts. I want to submit work with the same earnestness and unapologetic joy. I second-guess, I doubt, but whatever form of confidence I have contains enough room for all my anxieties as well as my inflated sense of self-worth. Whatever happens to the gift after isn’t as important as the fact I made a gift the only way I know how—and I chose to give it away.

N.G.Q.

You live in Seattle, WA, but it’s fair to say you spend plenty of time elsewhere, isn’t it? Let’s talk about your present stomping grounds: #BabeCity. You and Justin Lawrence Daugherty (of Sundog Lit, among other journals) were #BabeCity’s earliest settlers, according to the town’s charter and historical texts. Rampant cronyism and crooked politicking have run amok ever since. As a literary community, however, it’s thriving; its denizens are well-read, earnest, supportive. Has this group of writers and editors stepped up to fill the void left by your graduation from Rainier Writing Workshop (as if everything functions solely to please you)?

Michael Schmeltzer

I am so very pleased you brought up the mayor (and founder, as far as I know) of #BabeCity himself, Justin Lawrence Daugherty. He is the first person on Twitter I consciously made an effort to get to know. Why would I choose to intentionally talk to someone who tweets about wrestling and comics 78% of the time, you ask? Because Justin represents so much of what is good in the literary community. He was being a fantastic literary citizen even before I knew the phrase existed. He is a phenomenally talented writer, a supportive editor, and a chronically sincere human being. You can’t help but want to be around someone like that. If this were Dungeons & Dragons, his charisma points would be immeasurable.

[Daugherty] is one among many in the vibrant literary community. I’ve been introduced to and educated by phenomenal writers like Kat Dixon and Sarah Certa, who can wield 140 characters like weapons. Passionate editors like Kia Groom, who doesn’t just speak about increasing diversity in the literary world but creates a journal—Quaint Magazine—devoted to it. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know multi-genre writer J. M. Gamble, future <insert major prize here> winner, and Molly Chambers, who writes humor better than anyone I know (and really should be writing for television). Then you have Amanda Miska and Leesa Cross-Smith, both writing flash-fiction sharp and painful as toothaches. Jill Talbot, to whom everyone should pay tuition to follow her because she just drops knowledge. Writers like Ray Shea, Christine Lee, Roy Guzmán, who teach me about vulnerability. It goes on and on.

Thinking back on confidence, I’ve never needed more for myself (nor do I need more affirmation, attention, et cetera). But what I could use, what I could always use, is more confidence in other people. The literary community is filled with trolls, petty arguments, narcissism—you name it. It isn’t exempt. But the people I follow are perpetually teaching me something. The people I follow don’t tend to sit idly by. They speak, they write, and a couple I know would burn what’s in their way. May they never lose fuel.

N.G.Q.

Especially if it goes toward reforming ethics in video game journalism.

Michael Schmeltzer

<a plumbless silence devours all and for aeons each man, woman, and child on earth suffers catastrophic tinnitus—the wailing of a brutalized alien species, the gnashing of mongrel teeth—and by one account, transmitted and handed down via the acrid spoor of fear, a man made feral at length held the gaze of another too long and erupted in a welter of blood; now, some societies teach children to avoid eye contact not for the sake of propriety but for the sake of their lives>

N.G.Q.

That was weird.

(cont’d)

One might not expect a place called #BabeCity—while we’re on the subject—to feature so extensive a list of personal ads. To be fair, most of those are yours. You’re tearing your Seattle family apart. Hobart’s answered them. Rattle. We have, too, of course. We’re all complicit here. Guiltiest of all is C. D. Wright, whose poem “Personals” launched this ship. What about personal ads has compelled you to this long call-and-response series? Many of yours come from lonely figures, voices on the edge of some quiet annihilation. How do you arrive there? More importantly, how do you depart?

Michael Schmeltzer

There is something fluid about personal ads, a combination of confession versus confession used as distraction. It’s all magic to me. There’s an inability to truly know who is behind the ads, at least until you meet—descriptions can lie, pictures can be faked. Sexuality, gender, personality, it’s all malleable on the page. The personal ad, much like the poems themselves, is persona at its finest. A mask to conceal the face while revealing the self.

And what you touched on, that loneliness, is exactly what I am after. There is such a sad hopefulness in personal ads, don’t you think? A reaching-out, a voice calling, and the anticipation of the response—will it just be your own echo? or someone calling to you? I think all the writing we do in some ways is a calling-out. And sometimes a reader will respond in exactly the way you hoped.

There’s a scene in The Avengers where Hulk reveals his “secret” to Captain America: he’s always angry. A part of me is always lonely, always reaching, so I don’t find it too difficult to get to that point of quiet annihilation, as you so lyrically put it. There’s an edge within me, sure, but once I topple over it’s a short drop into a giant pool of jello. My sense of whimsy keeps me safe. I haven’t quite learned how to depart of my own will. I often sit around hoping someone will come save me.

N.G.Q.

Someone may have already. Tell us who you’ve been reading of late.

Michael Schmeltzer

I’ve recently finished the soon-to-be prize-winning book Citizen by Claudia Rankine. (Seriously, it deserves to win something.)

N.G.Q.

Oh, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, now available for purchase from Graywolf Press. What aspect of her writing withers you most?

Michael Schmeltzer

The moment we begin reading we begin to unconsciously formulate boundaries on what makes something a poem, a short story, et cetera. We begin to form walls around what we think is “good” or “bad” writing. The greatest writing can at times reveal your own biases, then break them, prove you wrong in the best way. I’ve felt a tension between the personal and the political. I often resisted writing that overtly dealt with my biracial identity. In my head there were many different compartments, and I didn’t know how to access all of them at once. Citizen creates no such false barriers, and for that I’m thankful.

N.G.Q.

What has Ms. Rankine spotlighted or taught you about your craft?

Michael Schmeltzer

Though the book is categorized as poetry, you can argue it encompasses social criticism, history, memoir, prose, art criticism, and probably about three other genres I’m not smart enough to name. It’s personal, intelligent, lyrical, political. Rankine speaks with righteous anger and grace. It does everything I would never aim to do, that I couldn’t even conceive of doing five years ago. It isn’t just a well-crafted book but an important one. And out of the many, many books of poetry I’ve read over my lifetime, there are a handful that have been “important” to my craft—but important to me as a human being, as someone trying to do good in the world? This may be the first. Now I know what activism in a poetry book can look like.

N.G.Q.

So far, you’ve used this platform to compliment more than a dozen writers and editors. We think it’s time you say something nice about us.

Michael Schmeltzer

I’m a fickle and strange beast. I’m quick to laugh but nearly impossible to impress because of my ego (which is like one of those giant inflatable clowns you can keep punching and it just gets right back up again, stupid grin and all). So, when I say your online presence is probably one of the most intelligent, wittiest Twitter feeds around, you can be sure that adds, like, +3 to your Klout score. And you had the savvy to get yourself a very intelligent poetry editor who made my work better by doing some second-guessing I probably should have done to begin with. Thank you for that. Finally, a most sincere thank-you for offering an unpublished/emerging writer the space to share some thoughts. It shows every reader and writer exactly where you put your priorities as a journal. It shows everyone you’re doing it right.

N.G.Q.

There are a few things you ought to know about Michael Schmeltzer. Most importantly, if he doesn’t favorite one of your tweets, he’s not yet had the chance to read it—be patient with him. Secondary characteristics include an indefatigable urge to help you when and where applicable, a propensity to casually dispense writing advice both sage and dad-like, and a wily sense of humor. We approached him to be the inaugural Object of Derision with little idea what to do; he assured us he’d be our ride-or-die no matter where this interview ended up.

Sometimes, you get the sense that he waits for you, that the only thing you can surprise him with is the length of time it took you to come forward. He’s the sort of asshole—@$$hole, in Schmeltzerian parlance—who’s wrongly labeled an asshole because you spent so much time working up to asking of him, only to be appeased anticlimactically. How frustrating.

That’s Michael Schmeltzer the person. Michael Schmeltzer the poet—as you should know by now, as this interview has been strategically placed at the tail of the issue, after all four of his poems—exhibits these same traits but at a more profound depth of concentration. Inside each poem there are his good intentions; there are his formulas for unspooling a hedge maze, pulling it into a straight line to the point, a path from himself to you. He’s good at this, if we may understate things.

We’re proud to know Michael. When you reach out to him—and you will—don’t berate yourself for taking so long to do so.

 


 

¹ Mr. Schmeltzer intended this to read “amateur,” in lieu of “pro,” a kind of feint toward humility, but here he doesn’t get to kneecap his reputation; only we may do that.

² poet, from Middle English: from Old French poete, via Latin from Greek poētēs, variant of poiētēs—“shambling mess of anxiety,” from poiein—“Tina Belcher’s groan.”

³ Yes, it is.

By no means does this journal endorse doing such perilous things.

A lowballed number, to say the least.

M. S. writes: “Yeah, I poked fun at Justin for doing wrestling and comic book tweets and just dropped some D&D knowledge. Come at me.” Go at him, please.

For example, by accepting these poems for publication in a literary journal.

Way to commit there, Schmeltzer.

This is true.