On May 30th, Dead Mall Press began accepting pre-order's for MJ Stratton's new chapbook, River, Our River. This collection of poems was written during a single month and comes from a place of fluent imagination and feeling. Moving through a variety of forms, the poems are both dreams and exposed nerve ends, asking us questions about identity, need, suffering, and the body, while revealing a garden of cinders, moons wrung out into jars, and bees singing in the chest. MJ's poems draw us into a river of language, at once gentle and cruel, that accepts fluidity and refuses to claim anything for itself as final.
Recently, MJ and I had a chance to discuss the book a bit over email, and you can read our conversation below.
DMP: Thanks for doing this interview, MJ! Maybe we can begin with some basic context for readers who are unfamiliar with you. Would you mind giving us a brief sketch of your background?
MJ: Oh no, thank you so much for having me! Genuinely, the pleasure’s all mine. The basic facts are that I live in Providence, RI, and I work as a receptionist. It’s a Pam Beesly situation without the love story or boss that hits people with their cars. I also write, of course, and you can read a bit more about it at my website. Beyond that, though, I struggle to answer any question that even vaguely resembles “who am I?” I’m the authority on that particular subject, right? And yet I can never get over the fact that really, I don’t know—at least not completely (we’re always changing, myself included). I’m also not particularly interesting, and I don’t like having “the floor” when there are so many better, more deserving dancers I can/should be standing behind while aggressively clapping them on. Clapping, or fist pumping.
DMP: I know you are quite prolific, often writing multiple poems a day, and have well over a thousand pages of poetry in manuscript. And River, Our River contains nineteen poems selected from a larger crop of writing from July 2022 alone. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process in general and how you write so much?
MJ: I think it involves both external privilege and internal need. It takes time to write, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m very lucky to be able to devote some of my time to something I love. That’s the privilege aspect, or a fraction of it. The “internal need" I mentioned is harder to characterize, probably because it doesn’t have societal or economic infrastructure you can point to and trace with your finger.
A large part of why I write is because I have to—and I hope that doesn’t sound grandiose or pretentious or insincere. I picture it like this: I largely live in a state of white noise; while I’m very self aware, I also really struggle with revealing myself to myself. I don’t know what I’m thinking or even how I’m feeling unless I write it out, usually abstractly. The pen serves as both a translator and a processor for me.
There’s a Joan Didion quote that dissects the body I’m vaguely pointing at and cuts out the beating heart of it: “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Really, writing is how I step out of my own blankness and exist. Then, luckily, hopefully, I can go a step beyond existence and connect.
DMP: One thing that draws me into the poems as a reader is that they often feel like dreams, and as in dreams, the sense of identity is very fluid. The poems do not feel impersonal at all –- they are filled with distinct voices and feelings -– but they also do not feel tied to a specific personality. So I wonder how you relate to them. Do they surprise you as you’re writing?
MJ: They do surprise me! In the sense that I never set out to write something particular, or outline it, or try to find images that match more straight-forward words—it’s the bizarre abstract images that come to me first, which I think reveal an emotion or experience more acutely than the simple and more tangible can, lucky enough…But the words as I’m writing them also seem familiar to me, too. Or true. It’s like not expecting to see your reflection in a storefront or a puddle, but then it’s there, and you recognize yourself immediately.
DMP: What have you been reading lately? And who are some of your poetic influences and inspirations?
MJ: Right now, I'm reading so many amazing works! Gods of Want is a stunning short story collection by K-Ming Chang. Her imagery is beyond visceral and evocative and strange and wise --it makes for the most stunning, transformative writing! If you haven't read her first book, Bestiary, I highly recommend it too. I'm also on a Tom Robbins kick right now, and it will probably extend through the rest of my life; his humor and wit and blending of the fantastical with the mundane very much inspires me. You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Maggie Smith's memoir, is one I'm basically transcribing in my journal as I read it...she's a poet hero of mine. I also look up to Kaveh Akbar, Victoria Chang, Maggie Nelson, Amy Newman, Kim Addonizio, Aimee Bender, Ada Limón, Stuart Dybek, Kimiko Hahn, Kevin Young, Richard Siken, Virginia Woolf, Mary-Kim Arnold, Alice Walker. Ooo, also Neil Gaimam, and David Sedaris, Paul Tran, Saeed Jones, and Evie Wyld -- god, it's impossible to list everyone! One of the greatest pleasures of my life is drowning in other people's talent.
I saw an interview once, I think it was Jake Johnson, or Nick Miller on New Girl, and he said something that really stuck with me: you WANT to be the stupidest person in the room---that means you're doing something right and, more importantly, have the opportunity to learn. That's how I feel around piles of books. People, too. Dwarfed and warm and hopeful and scared and alive.
MJ Stratton is a writer from Providence, RI. Her work has appeared in Blue, Cathexis Northwest Press, and Prometheus Dreaming. You can read more about her at her website.
River, Our River ships on July 3rd. You can place an order here. Additionally, 25% of every sale will be donated to the Urban Youth Collaborative, "an NYC student-led coalition fighting to end the school-to-prison & deportation pipeline." We feel that the UYC's work and its message are especially vital in a time when public schools continue to be a political battleground, and we're proud to support their work.