Getting to Know Michael Ansara, Author of What Remains

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems? 

I fell in love with poetry in high school but as a reader, not a writer. Over the years I would read poetry, primarily what I think of as the “classics” for well-educated white guys – Homer, Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, Spender. But then I drifted away from it, as so many people do. Occasionally I would write a poem. I thought of it as “finding” a poem not really crafting one. 

In 1996 I basically destroyed my life, unknowingly and unforgivably breaking multiple federal felony laws. I had created what was my greatest fear: I had profoundly disappointed everyone that I loved, everyone that I cared about. I was devastated. I could only get through it by taking full responsibility for my actions. Poetry saved me. I stumbled onto The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds and was blown away by the power and intimacy of her work. Then I read Seamus Heaney and was entranced by the music of his lines. From there I devoured as many poets as I could find. 

I started to write poems. At first, I thought I was writing only for myself. Soon I discovered that I needed to write. It was, in many ways, not a choice. In the writing of poems, I was grappling with myself, with the mystery of my mistakes and, as poetry does so often, with the baffling questions of living. The real choice was whether or not to put in the time and effort to learn the craft. I joined workshops. I read and read. I wrote and wrote, and rewrote and rewrote. 

The more I entered the world of poets and poetry, the more my old organizer-self chaffed at how isolated, inward-looking, and fragmented that world was. That led to the founding of Mass Poetry. I have kept writing. I don’t write many poems. At most one a month. And after many years, at age 75, I have my first, very slender, book of poems out in the world

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write? 

I can only write when there is, for lack of better words, “psychic space”, when I can unhinge from the demands of the day to day, carve some time to sit quietly, when I am able to not think about politics, about organizations, about emails and other messages. At the same time, I am thinking about possible poems all the time.  I often have an image or a possible line rolling in my head for weeks, waiting for the opportunity to have that space and quiet time to write, rewrite and rewrite to where I have a draft worth sharing. I have benefited enormously from a small number of generous poets, especially Richard Hoffman, who are willing to take the time to read my poems and provide ruthless criticism. After they have destroyed the drafts, I set to work rewriting and producing what I hope will be a finished poem.

Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea? 

Often when I am waking up in the morning, when I not yet fully emerged from sleep and into the day, a fragment of a line will slip into my mind. Or when I am out for a walk. Sometimes it is a phrase, sometimes an image. Then I start to toss that around over and over. Often what started the process of writing a poem, that phrase or image, will not even be in the draft. But it starts the process of discovery. Most of the time if I get to a first draft of a poem, I am surprised by the poem that I end up with. The writing takes on a dynamic of its own and takes me to a place I had not imagined.

Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most? 

The list is impossibly long: Yeats, Auden, Lowell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Olds, Heaney, CK Williams, Pinsky, James Wright, Jane Kenyon, Szymborska, Jack Gilbert., Kunitz.  The incomparable Lucie Brock Broido (who I was so lucky to study with for a short while.) There are so today many amazing poets writing whose work I love and am influenced by: Richard Hoffman, January O’Neil, Tracy K. Smith, Patricia Smith, Rita Dove, Kevin Goodan, Lloyd Schwartz, Mark Doty, Ocean Vuong, Terrance Hays, Joan Houlihan, Kevin Young, just to name a few.  I could go on and on. We are living in a time of such poetic richness!

What excites you most about your new collection? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?) 

I think if I were to be honest, I am more anxious than excited. I am plagued with doubts: do the poems stand up to time? Are they worthy of even a slender book? Will anyone read them? Will anyone buy the book? I want my lines to sing. I worry that they mumble. I think many poets would admit to the same anxieties if they were to be honest. 

Michael Ansara spent many years as an activist and an organizer starting with the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, going on to be a regional organizer for SDS. He spent 10 years organizing opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was for 15 years a community organizer including directing Mass Fair Share and helping to found Citizen Action. He has worked on political campaigns, coordinated voter registration efforts, and trained many organizers. He owned and ran two successful businesses. He is the co-founder of Mass Poetry. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Redress Movement and the organizing team for Together We Elect.  His poems have appeared in numerous journals and his essays have appeared in Vox, Arrowsmith, Solstice and Cognoscenti. He is currently working on a memoir. He lives in Carlisle, MA, with his wife Barbara Arnold and dotes on his three children and six grandchildren.