Mitchell Untch

Mitchell Untch is the author of Memorial with Liminal Space (Driftwood Press, 2023). His poems have appeared in more than one hundred and twenty poetry journals. Untch, a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, lives in Los Angeles. Memorial with Liminal Space tends to happen in the present tense, though it often shifts into and back out of the past tense within a single poem. How does the tensing of words inform grief, and how did you consider temporality in language as you wrote this collection?

Mitchell Untch: Albert Einstein determined that time is relative—that the rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. I believe that this is how we operate as human beings. Fluid consciousnesses. The linear progression of past, present, and future. When I start a poem, it’s usually prompted by a thought that seems to come out of nowhere but is actually part of a continuum. That’s the impulse I use. Through the process of creation, I allow my subconscious to write the poem. I’ve learned that subconsciousness is more powerful than the conscious dictation or active determination of a thought. In other words, I don’t think when I write. I start with an impulse and trust the culmination of my life experiences to inform my writing. I get out of the way of stopping to think too much, or what I call “lifting the pen,” and I simply let go and write nonstop for twenty to thirty minutes. The culmination of my life experiences will automatically inform the conscious undertaking. Grief never leaves you. It’s always with you. In that sense, the tense of grief can be present and past combined. When my twin brother died, I felt he never left. When I look in the mirror, I still see him. Sure, the physical presence is gone, but not the spiritual. I feel I’ve succeeded when I can look back at something I’ve written and say to myself, “Where did that come from? Did I write that?” The poem “Psalm,” which opens the collection, could just as easily have ended it: the poem seems summative, as if it contains the themes and moods of the rest of the collection. And, not just for its divine preoccupations, it also looks and feels like certain of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems, so deftly woven and subtle. What about this poem, in form or in content, made it feel like the right starting place for Memorial with Liminal Space?

MU: A psalm is described as a sacred song or poem used in worship. By using the psalm as an antecedent, it opens the reader to a certain aesthetic feeling of pending enchantment. A hymn, a canticle, a plain song is about to be expressed. In religion, the Psalms are a collection of lyrical poems. I use the word “psalm” as a type of premonition of things to come. A series of songs, of lyrics. The beginning of a thought as opposed to the end of it. I’m still writing. I don’t know where my writing will end. I don’t know at the time that I’m writing a poem where it will end. Liminal space is described as a space that generates mystery, the unknown, the unexplored. I try to inhabit that space with words. In Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny, the “double” is an image of terror and a manifestation of repression. In the poems “Twin I–IV,” it seems that this theory is both embraced and subverted, as the double is transformed into something comforting. What sort of relationship is there between a poem and the uncanny? Does writing similarly serve as a manifestation of our subconscious? 

MU: “Twin I” and “Twin II” were written in the past tense, which was a way for me to try to figure out why my twin had died. I was literally having conversations in my head. I think that’s human nature when tragedy happens in our lives, to trace back our thoughts and relate them to the present—a way of trying to figure out how and why we got to where we are. “No one thing ever leaves, / I tell myself, falls away completely.” In “Twin III,” I’m drinking in a bar, a setting wherein I could escape reality, recreate my brother, and talk to him in the present because it was a way of telling myself that he had never left me. Poems are uncanny creations of the subconscious. I think to be a good poem there needs to be a sense of the mysterious, a feeling that the writer’s moving into uncharted territory. Certainly, there may be a release of suppressed thoughts and ideas. Aren’t all poems a release from something buried within the writer’s subconscious? The poem “Oranges & Sardines” is reminiscent of Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” What, if any, influence has O’Hara had on you as a poet? 

MU: Although I am familiar with Frank O’Hara’s work, I’ve read so many different poets’ work that it’s hard for me to disseminate who might have influenced my writing overall. When I wrote “Oranges & Sardines” I was not familiar with “Why I Am Not a Painter.” However, “Having a Coke with You” does conjure up certain similarities between our writing styles. What are you currently reading?

MU: I am currently reading Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar. What are your favorite poems on

MU: “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and “On Living” by Nazîm Hikmet.