Monday, May 15, 2023

Q&A with Richard Michelson



Richard Michelson is the author of the new poetry collection Sleeping as Fast as I Can. His other books include the poetry collection More Money than God. He is the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in Sleeping as Fast as I Can?


A: My last collection of poems, More Money than God, was published in 2015, so I started these poems soon after. The optimism of the Obama presidency was fading and our country was about to enter a period of polarization.


Trump started to bully his way into power, and  there was a spike in racist speech and gun violence (the events not unrelated). Anti-Semitic incidents increased to an extent which I did not expect to see again in my lifetime. The demons of hate were set loose, followed by the scourge of Covid.


On a personal level, I watched my mother’s mind diminish as dementia took hold. The poems in this new collection could not help but be darker in tone than my previous work; the challenge was to find the empathy, humanity and humor that is our saving grace.


Q: The poet Ilya Kaminsky said, “Sleeping as Fast as I Can is a book where prayers are filled with history, and history is filled with the urgency of the present, a book that isn't afraid of tragedy because it holds music as a shield.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am honored by that description, which is exactly what I am aiming for in my work. To my mind our past consistently informs our present and I often jump back and forth throughout time in my poems.


There is also some comfort in acknowledging the historical struggles of so humanity, and simultaneously our ability to persevere, and even to cherish life. Musicality, of course, can be as essential a tool as meaning to lead us through the poem.


Q: Another assessment of the book, by Patricia Spears Jones, says that it “brings prayers, rants, memoria, and rage against hatred, violence, racism and anti-Semitism in a bitches brew of language of every page.” How does that strike you?


A: What’s not to like! Language is the core of my art; if I did not enjoy playing with words, I would have chosen a different medium of expression. Rhyme, meter, form, cadence is how I express myself. If the poem “works” we can derive pleasure, even if the subject matter is, say, the death of a loved one. It is why we often turn to the arts in our greatest moments of need; an attempt to let the beauty outweigh the suffering.  


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book?


A: This book’s subject matter is often difficult and yet…as I touched on in the previous answer, I find that the only time I felt true peace is during the writing of these poems, and tackling my feelings head-on. I hope the reader also finds solace in the reading of the book, which I should emphasize, is filled with humor and compassion. The question is, how can art help us to cope with life and honor the dead.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Busy, busy, busy. I admit to the prevalent American disease of industriousness.


I have a new children’s book about Sydney Taylor (author of All of a Kind Family, the first Jewish children’s book to reach a wide audience) out in Spring 2024, and I am revising the libretto for an off-Broadway music/theater piece about the artist Edvard Munch, which is opening next year as well.


I am juggling three other books for children, and I have started on my next poetry collection, which, so far at least, seems a bit lighter in tone.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Sure. Check out my site and send me an email to say hello!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Richard Michelson.

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