In 2024, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Dante Micheaux discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with our Guest Editor for January, Dante Micheaux. Dante is the author of Circus and Amorous Shepherd. Dante, welcome and thank you for joining me.
Dante Micheaux: Thank you for having me.
Poets.org: Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for January?
Micheaux: My approach was simple, really. I wanted to share poems by poets whose language, whose poetic language, I love. In my solicitation, I specifically asked for that particular music to remind readers that poetry is not transactional. The only goal beyond that was to amplify an intergenerational spectrum, which I’m elated to have achieved. The age difference between the youngest poet and the oldest poet in my selection is more than sixty years.
Poets.org: If you could direct our readers and listeners to any poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Micheaux: Well, anyone who has ever met me will undoubtedly have been confronted with the work of Jay Wright, especially if the conversation turns to poetry. But even if it does not, I hope I’m a faithful acolyte in directing readers to “The Healing Improvisation of Hair.” This poem has all the hallmarks of Wright’s poetry—supple lyric: “[A] day so thin its breastbone / shows.” An inhabited eye. In Wright’s poems, there’s often a real observation that transports Wright into the body of a character in his mythopoetic landscape. He and the Ghanaian—excuse me, the Guyanese novelist, Wilson Harris, were doing this in text long before James Cameron’s Avatar. And robust phrasing: “bottom juice,” “the grit of solitude.” The fact that Wright is not more widely read is a complete failure of the U.S. education system. [laughs] He is as important to our national literature as Walt Whitman.
Poets.org: Your comparison of Jay Wright to Walt Whitman is so interesting to me. Though, one could argue that they differ in that Wright pursues such an intellectual rigor in his work, particularly when I think of his latest collection of essays and aphorisms, Soul and Substance, a collection that could very well feel inaccessible to some readers, while Whitman, in contrast, was one who sought to “contain multitudes.” But maybe I’m missing something. So could you take us further into your comparison of Whitman and Wright? What do you find in common between these two extraordinary poets?
Micheaux: I think their strategies, as you pointed out rightly, are vastly different, but their goal is absolutely the same. Wright famously said in an interview back in 1983* that, when asked why he seemed to be weaving so many different sources together in his poetry by a young student, responded by saying, “[It’s] already woven, I’m just trying to uncover the weave.” And when you look at Whitman, and one of the things that made him not singular for his time, but certainly, as it relates to poetry written in the English language, he was also weaving together many different traditions in his poems and those long, exhausting lists of different things. I’m thinking in particular about “A Song for Occupations,” but many of the songs in Leaves of Grass, especially in the 1855 edition, he’s weaving together different communities, different walks of life, and also different spiritual and religious sources, which was not the case for poetry being written in English at that time. I think that’s one of the things that made Leaves of Grass so startling to its readers. Not only its format, you know, breaking away from the stanzaic poetry, breaking away from the rhyme, breaking away from received forms. That was not the only thing that made Leaves of Grass startling. And Wright equally is assuming many, many, many traditions in his work. In his early work, it is significantly influenced by French anthropology as it relates to the Dogon people of Mali, their language, their cosmology.
But in the later work, he is weaving together many different sources of philosophy, and there seems to be a particular interest in Golden Age Spanish literature. He’s talking a lot about [Rafael] Alberti in the later work. Just the other day I got to my office and I saw a copy of Jay Wright’s actual latest book, which, believe it or not, is not Soul and Substance, even though that just came out in June. He has another collection of poetry out just two weeks-old called Postage Stamps, and I read it on the subway home last night, and it was…it’s startling for the ways in which he’s weaving not only philosophers together in his lyric, in his really idiosyncratic lyric style, but he’s also weaving in number theory, which seems to be a fascination of his of late.
I remember a few years ago when he said that he was sneaking into Dartmouth University and auditing some number theory classes. And at that point, he probably was maybe eighty-five or something like that. So he, both men seem to have this fascination with weaving together a lot of different sources, and they do so in a way that isn’t allusive like T. S. Eliot, for example. Their weave is really, I use the word “inhabited.” The weave is really inhabited. They take the sources into themselves and then bring them back out, as opposed to just signposting their very deep reading like Eliot did.
Poets.org: Who are you reading right now? In addition to Wright, whom, I believe, has come out with three books in the past two years, if I’m not mistaken. [laughs] He’s been so prolific.
Micheaux: He’s so prolific and it’s really hard to keep track. But one book was not written by Wright. It’s a book written by two philosophers on Wright’s work that’s called Pitch and Revelation. Then he published a double volume of his selected plays, then he published Soul and Substance. Now Postage Stamps is out. I know for certain that he has two finished collections of poems, whether or not he will decide to publish them or not, but they exist in manuscript form, and I believe there is a book of essays coming out. Again, not authored by Wright, but a book of essays on his work.
But besides Wright, who I’m always reading, I’m currently rereading Phillis Wheatley, not only because this year marks the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, but also because I’ve been thinking about her as I prepare for a symposium on poetry and theology at Duke University in February. Incidentally, I just got back from the fiftieth anniversary of the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival that happened at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, and it was a wonderful gathering of Black women, several of whom are still alive and working and writing, who attended the first Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival in 1973. They convened again just a couple of weeks ago, also at Jackson State; and it was four days of celebrating not only Wheatley, but also her influence on American letters, on poetry, on the identity of Black women writers. Really an amazing example that we have of an ancestor, you know, whose work is still vital, you know, two hundred and fifty years later.
Poets.org: And what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Micheaux: One of the things I learned from Yusef Komunyakaa when I was his assistant is to work on multiple collections at once. I think the method is a powerful prophylactic against writer’s block or boredom, so I’m always engaged in that. There is a speculative book-length project underway that centers around my maternal great-grandmother. I’m also working on a memoir in verse. And then there are always my homoerotic musings when I tire of the former two. I’ll be teaching at the Fine Arts Work Center this coming summer, and I’m also really looking forward to the premier of Rolf Hind’s opera Sky in a Small Cage, for which I compose the libretto. It’s going to be opening in September, I believe, at the Barbican in London, and then it will move on to the Copenhagen Opera Festival in the fall.
Poets.org: When poets tell me that they also compose librettos, I must ask, how does that creative process compare to writing poetry?
Micheaux: It’s not dissimilar at all. When I was much younger, I knew that I wanted to write a libretto one day, and I thought I would just come up with the premise of the story myself. And I met the late J. D. McClatchy, “Sandy” McClatchy. I can’t remember where. I think it might’ve been at the Jackson Prize or the first Jackson Prize, and he was so wonderful and generous. I mentioned that to him in meeting, knowing that he had written several opera libretti, and he invited me to his apartment and we had tea, and then he sent me away with, like, a stack of all of his published libretti, and so I’ve kept them with me.
And when I was commissioned to write the libretto for this opera, it already came with a premise. The composer wanted sort of sketches, biographical sketches, of the life of the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, Rumi, and I had already been a deep reader of Rumi, and there was lots of controversy about the Coleman Barks translations and their faithfulness. And so during the lockdown, I reread all of the Coleman Barks translations, and also several of the newer translations of the Masnavi that are being put out by Oxford University Press, much more faithful to the Arabic or in the Urdu than the Coleman Barks, which are really just adaptations of Rumi.
But that was really wonderful, and so diving into that material, also, I read Brad Gooch’s amazing biography of Rumi [Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love], and that’s not dissimilar to how I prepare when I’m working on other poems that deal with historical material. So I reread the material, I look for primary sources, and then I sit with those primary sources and see what inspiration they bring me. And Rumi’s was a fascinating life. There was already a homoerotic thread through there, and so that is always fuel for me to write, and it came along very easily, I thought.
I think there are about twelve scenes, and I’m really looking forward to going to the rehearsals. The librettist doesn’t do much in the rehearsals. Maybe a line or two might be changed going forward, but I’m looking forward to hearing the singers. It’s a very eclectic group of contemporary singers, and also, the music has been written for thirteenth-century Middle Eastern instruments, and so it’s not going to be the music of a traditional European orchestra.
Poets.org: Wonderful. This has been so enriching. Thank you. Thank you so much, Dante, for joining me today.
Micheaux: You’re very welcome. Again, thank you so much for having me. This has been a wonderful, wonderful process.
*The interview to which Micheaux refers is titled “The Unraveling of the Egg: An Interview with Jay Wright” by Charles H. Rowell, published in Callaloo, No. 19, Jay Wright: A Special Issue (Autumn, 1983)