12 Questions with MAKALANI BANDELE
1. Hey Makalani, what do you find necessary to forget when writing a poem?
I would say I operate in the opposite direction. I am trying to remember everything when I am writing a poem. I am trying to remember everything I have ever written, every poetic device and move I have ever made or noticed another poet make, every poem that has ever moved me, every fact, every quote, every memory. I want everything on the tip of my tongue. All this is material that is suitable and good for inspiration or integration into the poem. For me poetry writing is a process of “calling upon” things. It is also very much a “recalling” of things in the multiple meanings of that word.
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2. Hey Makalani, while writing poetry, how do you complete this sentence: “When in doubt…”?
make sure you are having a blast doing it. And fundamentally, I am only going to be enjoying myself if I am trying to discover a way to do it in a different way than it is usually done. Writing really didn’t become fun for me until I started experimenting and really trying to push the boundaries of convention. You must find enjoyment in the writing process, and you must be impacted by what you have written. I find the most joy in experimentation. If there is a thrill for you at first, then readers will experience that thrill. I think inexperienced writers make a big mistake trying to write what they think people will like. Among the myriad of reasons why it is important for writers to read, a very important one is to become a great reader. As a great reader you will have a better understanding of the elements of craft involved, what has been done prior to your watch, and what is out there now, and thus you will have more tools to judge when something you have written is not very good and needs more work.
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3. Hey Makalani, have a haiku you’d care to share?
a back alleyway,
got 5 on 4 the hard way,
shake ’em up, shake ’em.
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4. Hey Makalani, do you ever revise poems after they’ve been in print?
All the time. I am not one that believes my poems ever reach their full potential. I am always inclined to believe there is a note somewhere that could be played more in keeping with the music I was aiming to make.
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5. Hey Makalani, what do you think: Are poets made or born?
Both. I think some people just got it. Boom-bip. They can put words together from jump wholly of their own invention, full of an atomic energy not previously felt from any poet. Other people who have little originality initially, after years of study and experimentation make important work that reaches deep into readers. Then, there are those that have it and make even more of it through their devotion to craft. And unfortunately, there are the final two groups, the ones that have it and others that don’t, but both are unmade by their exposure to what goes for creative writing pedagogy.
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6. Hey Makalani, got a favorite writing prompt?
In my sophomore collection, under the aegis of a winged mind, the third section of the book is a suite of poems that I imagined as poetic transcriptions of compositions Bud Powell wrote when he was institutionalized. I came up with the idea of a form called the étude. In Jazz and Classical music, études are “short musical compositions, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve a particular technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.” Most etudes do not work as musical compositions. They are too theoretical, extremely challenging to play, and not very musical because they are repetitions of a technique. I imagined that Powell wrote these compositions to keep himself sharp technically as a pianist while he was away from performing and recording. My études are more a set of instructions, prompts if you will, rather than a form in the strictest sense. The études consist of different instructions for each opus to assist the poet in developing her skills in creating, for example, non-representational imagery or in verbing nouns in poems. The idea is that each opus is a form/prompt that can produce an unlimited number of poems. Many of my etudes may not work as poems, just as music etudes are not necessarily musical, but they will build the poet’s skill in working with the non-conventional poetic craft elements that I am interested in. My favorite opus, or form/prompt was for étude opus 11. Here it is:
1. in less than five words create an abstract image of a body of water appealing to the sense of touch.
2. write a line in which you verb a noun on the subject of nature.
3. using no more than 15 syllables create an impressionistic image of something that might happen on a date.
4. An imperative to using no more than 4 words
5. using a possessive noun construction make a non-representational image (ex. i stepped/ into my answers’ shadow ocean. – Ed Roberson)
6. Create a non-representational metaphor (appealing to olfactory senses) that is many words and phrases layered the way a painter might apply many layers on a canvas.
7. Alter a cliché question and repeat it twice.
8. Describe a journey home, the way Nate Mackey would through many twists, pauses to observe, and turns. (See the final lines of “Eye on the Scarecrow,” pg. 28, Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey).
called pursuit had us by
the nose. Wafted ether
low, tilted floor, splintered
feet. Throated bone…
Rickety boat we rode…
though what we wanted
was to be everywhere at
an altered life lived on an
coast we’d lay washed up
on, instancy and elsewhere
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7. Hey Makalani, we first came across your work when we saw your reading as part of the Poetry is Bread Distance Reading Series. Any advice on giving a reading?
I think readings are very particular, individual, and each one is different. I can tell you what I like to do before readings, but I share it not as any kind of advice, more food for thought. First, since every reading is different the only real preparation is to prepare to dispose of your preparations if the occasion calls for it. Be happy to adjust and go with the flow. Second, have an idea of what you plan to read and read over it a few times. I usually create a theme for the reading if there already isn’t one to help guide my poem choices. Third, I don’t always do it, but I have found my readings have the best energy when the first thing I do is sing a song or recite another poet’s poem. Fourth, read at least one poem that is new and never been read in public. Fifth, ask yourself if you really need to do all that explaining before the poem. Sixth, after the reading depending on how intense it is, don’t hesitate to ask for a moment to yourself (sometimes I just go into the bathroom for a minute maybe wash my face) to change gears and come out of reading mode before you shake hands, sign books, and socialize with the audience. Seventh, when the dust has settled take a moment to reflect and learn some lessons. Lastly, forget about it, it’s over.
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8. Hey Makalani, which foreign language poet do you most wish you could read in the original?
Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca. I adore the English translations of Lorca I have read. It is hard to describe, I feel like Lorca’s work has soul like Sam Cooke’s tenor. Of course, this would be borne out more in the Spanish if I understood it. I am so f#%&ing lame for not having learned Spanish. I speak a little German, was fluent in it in my late teens and early twenties. I am pretty good with languages. I know a bit of Hebrew and Greek from Divinity School, but I have been too lazy to learn Spanish, maybe someday.
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9. Hey Makalani, care to share a video?
So, in another life I was a Pastor in a Baptist church. I have come to appreciate that preaching in the African American tradition is an art form. I can appreciate a good sermon for its fine homiletics and its stylized delivery. I might not agree with all Christian theology and western hegemonic worldview, but I can admire the sermon as a work of art. The video I am sharing is the closing minutes of a sermon preached by Rev. Lerroy Elliot from Chicago. He is a master in the Mississippi hooping-style of African American preaching. Among the many things that I draw from my days as a preacher in my work as a writer now is the constant honing and developing of your craft.
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10. Hey Makalani, do you ever use chance elements when writing?
So, I will say I am big on chance in poems. My interest in Jazz is probably the root of my interest in chance. I will often keep typos (like doom for dome in “tune as an asylum” from under aegis of a winged mind, originally a typo in the first draft that I kept) or errant word choices in poems (ex. scene for seen). Since I am really interested in sound and language, I love what the “wrong” word does to the meaning and sound of a line. I am often guided by the ethos of Thelonious Monk who was the master of making the wrong note sound right. His music is filled with dissonance and discord, but it’s surprisingly melodious at the same time. Monk used to say there are no wrong notes, it is all about the notes you put around them.
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11. Hey Makalani, what’s your submission process like?
I attribute a great deal of my success in publishing to my very systematized submission process. First and foremost, I read the work that the journal has previously published. After my first few years of writing seriously, I stopped sending work out to journals just because they were major or important. I started to send to places based on if they appeared to publish work with a similar aesthetic to mine. If I don’t see poems in their past issues with funky syntactical constructions, incongruent or obfuscated metaphors, impressionistic or non-representational imagery, and/or parataxis (collage), then I don’t even bother sending my work to them. My work and the work I enjoy most is outside the boundaries of the conventions of most contemporary poetry. I appreciate opacity, flawed logic/absurdity, surrealism, abstraction, and troubled meaning. I am drawn to work that makes some “fucked up shit” out of white space. In the journals I submit to I am looking for my “peoples”. For whatever reason, I sometimes get solicited by journals that are, I would say, more within the mainstream and that is how my work gets access to a less niche audience. Next is the crafting of the cover letter. I save every cover letter I write because every cover letter is unique to the submission. Some elements stay more or less the same, like the bio, but I generally start off pointing out poems I liked in past issues and why. I believe many editors read or at least go over the cover letter, and if they see that you have taken the time to send a letter actually written to them that couldn’t be slightly touched up and sent to any other editor, I think they are a little more willing to spend some extra time with your work. And then, when your work is similar in aesthetics to what they usually publish and it’s decent, you don’t get rejected much. The final stage of my process is the filling out of my submission tracker spreadsheet. I am pretty good with Microsoft Excel, so my spreadsheet tracks and keeps a lot of cool analytics like solicitation/blind submission ratio, submission fees spent to-date, acceptance percentages, what’s been simultaneously submitted and where, rejection dates, number of journals submitted to, and so much more. I admit that my submission process is pretty time-consuming even with how systematized it is, but I like the results I get.
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12. Hey Makalani, any artwork that inspires you to write?
I am big into ekphrasis! I just recorded a panel for AWP 2021 called “Figure, Image, Form: Diverse Ekphrasis in Contemporary Poetry”. Other art forms and works are ubiquitous in my poems and poetics. Jazz Music and Theory undergirds a great deal of my poetics and approach to language. Visual Art also plays a critical role. I am particularly drawn to the non-representational modes of these art forms. I am fixated upon the exploration of non-representation and opacity in poetry. I am trying to investigate the edges of meaning and sonority. But for more specificity and to speak more to your question, I am always returning to Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz”, Eric Dolphy’s “Straight Up and Down”, and Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor” as Jazz masterpieces. As far as visual art, I like most abstract painting, except a lot of the Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollack. I am a big Gerhard Richter fan, of course his Blau is inexhaustible. Honestly, there is so much music and visual art relentlessly inspiring and invigorating me that it is asinine to be even singling out works, yet here I am.
Blau by Gerhard Richter
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[This Q&A was conducted in January 2021 and first published, via Facebook and Twitter, in February 2021.]