Last week, the 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship winners were announced. Among this year’s recipients was poet Ange Mlinko, an assistant professor in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. (Houstonians Emily Fox Gordon, a memoirist, and Fady Joudah, a poet, also received Guggenheims, which are granted to scholars and artists for a period of six months to a year and carry a generous stipend that varies annually.) Mlinko has published four books of poetry and is the poetry editor of The Nation, for which she also writes criticism; in 2009 she won the Poetry Foundation’s Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism. Born in Philadelphia in 1969 to Eastern European immigrants, Mlinko attended St. John’s College and Brown University and lived in New York, Morocco, and Lebanon before moving to Houston with her husband and two children in 2010.
Mlinko’s poetry is dense with allusions to world history, classical mythology, and the Western literary tradition, although its cosmopolitan erudition is ballasted by a dry, playful sense of humor. Her repurposing of traditional poetic forms like the villanelle and her extensive use of internal rhyme and other musical devices lend her verse a formal quality more reminiscent of modernists like Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens than the confessional poetry of the 1960s or the au courant postmodernism against which her criticism occasionally inveighs. She’s a connoisseur of arcane vocabulary and unlikely rhymes—cruets/cygnet; diptych/realpolitik; venial sin/Hölderlin/hallucinogen; Sarkozy/car-cozy. You can read a selection of her poems on the Poetry Foundation’s website.
During a recent interview, Mlinko told me she planned to use the Guggenheim to finish work on her fifth book of poetry (much of which will deal with her move to Houston) and to assemble her first collection of literary criticism.
Houstonia: I stopped by Brazos Bookstore to pick up Shoulder Season and Marvelous Things Overheard, then spent a wonderful few days reading through them. I so rarely come across strong contemporary poetry, and your work really blew me away. It reminded me a lot of Anne Carson [who's speaking at Inprint next week].
Mlinko: Well, that’s a compliment. Yes, she’s a big influence on me.
I thought I’d start by asking you a bit about Houston. When did you move here for the UH job?
The summer of 2010. I was coming from Beirut, so I had to rent my apartment sight unseen. And then the air conditioner broke down the night before I was supposed to teach my first class. So my introduction to Houston was having to spend a night without air conditioning.
That’s trial by fire. Where was the apartment?
Montrose. It was a little bungalow, very run down. There were lots of cockroaches that I’d never seen before.
What was it about the UH Creative Writing Program that enticed you to Houston?
Well, they’re a top-10 program. It’s a place with a lot of history—a history that’s a little off-center. It was started by Donald Barthelme, so it has a reputation for being a bit more adventurous, a bit more experimental, than, say, the Iowa Writers Workshop. And it has a PhD program, which attracts very smart students, so that was all very attractive.
Tell me a little bit about your family. I understand your father was Hungarian?
Yes, and my mother was Belarusian. Their parents were refugees, and they ended up in Brazil, and then the US. So I grew up hearing a lot of languages, which probably influenced my proclivity towards poetry.
So they lived through World War II?
Yes, that’s where a lot of their stories came from. They were traumatized by their passage through Europe—they fled west through the front lines. Eastern Europe was a very bloody piece of earth—Timothy Snyder wrote a book about Belarus called The Bloodlands. My grandparents were the people who went through that, so I grew up hearing stories about being lined up by Germans to be shot and then having a last-minute reprieve. Or being terrorized by the partisans in the woods. You were getting it from all sides as a civilian. I would hear some very terrifying stories. My grandmother was separated from his brother in the fighting, and never saw him again.
Your poems have a very strong historical memory. Was that influenced by your upbringing?
Oh yes, you couldn’t escape it. I was the oldest child, and my parents had only come to the US in 1961 or ’62, and then I was born in ’69. They spoke with heavy accents, they were a bit on the outside, and as a result so was I. It was a very family-centered household, so we were with aunts and uncles and grandparents all the time. So I had a sense early on of other worlds, other dimensions, other languages. My path took me not closer to that past but away from it—I didn’t major in Slavic languages or history. So I think trying to recuperate that through poetry is something I’m trying to do subconsciously.
You went to St. John’s College, which is famous for its Great Books curriculum. Did that spark your interest in the classical world?
Definitely. I ended up there because it seemed like a good place to learn how to be a writer. It didn’t have a creative writing program, but it did make you read all of the classics, and read things that you wouldn’t otherwise have read. I did two years of Greek there, and I was very impressed by my Hellenophile professors, who were steeped in the Greeks. Like my upbringing, it was this displacement towards a past. I didn’t really have an education in the contemporary until I went to grad school.
Judging from your criticism in The Nation, you seem to have a semi-estranged relationship to much of contemporary poetry. Some of the commenters on your articles accuse you of being a conservative. How would you respond to that?
The conflation of aesthetics and politics is absurd. I’m not a conservative politically. The idea that I’m conservative aesthetically is also absurd; I come from a tradition of breaking the rules, of nontraditionalism—basically, of modernist experimentation. I would grant that I’m more modernist than postmodernist, but I don’t consider that conservative so much as conservationist.
Your poetry reminds me not just of Wallace Stevens, whose influence on your work has been noted, but also of Hart Crane.
Yes, all of those people. I really cut my teeth on Crane, Moore, Stevens. The modernists were the first poetry I fell in love with.
What is it about the modernists that appeals so much to you?
They had this very scrupulous use of language that set it apart from ordinary speech. It pursued poetry as a language within the language, and I was fascinated by that, probably because I’m somewhat estranged from language as it’s quote-unquote naturally spoken. And there’s a transcendence aspect to their work, evident even in an atheist like Stevens, and I was very attracted to that religious or spiritual dimension of modernist poetry.
Your poetry is very musical—the consonance, assonance, internal rhyming. Do you have a musical background?
That probably comes from wishing I had more musical talent. I love country music, for instance—you know, the singer-songwriter tradition of American folk music. For me, poetry has to compensate for the lack of music by being musical in the language.
What are you planning to do with the Guggenheim?
I had originally intended to go to Lebanon again with my husband, because he has kept his job over there at the American University, and I thought I would spend some time there. But the political situation doesn’t seem very safe over there, and I have kids, so I don’t want to take them over. I’m a little up in the air as to where I’m going to travel with it. It was a big shock to get this money, and I’m still kind of reeling from it.
How would you characterize the relationship between your poetry and criticism?
I think it’s a mistake to separate your instincts from your emotions. There’s no separation between the intellect that creates the prose and the intellect that creates the poetry. You need both sides of your brain for both things. And I think the practice of writing good sentences and paragraphs strengthens my practice as a poet, and helps me to remember to communicate. And, in general, it clarifies things for myself.