Blood Song by West Seattle poet Michael Schmeltzer is a compelling debut book of poetry that explores grief, memory, and sound. The kind of language and technique readers find delicious in their favorite novels of suspense is continually at work here in Schmeltzer’s poems–lovely and disturbing truths under the surface detail, the mysteries in the body of a dying parent, echoes inside a landscape’s secrets and a girl separated from her tongue. From the poem “Elegy/ Elk River” the 38-year-old Schmeltzer writes: “It’s a kindness, sure, but beware of the kind/ of violence only found in lures.”
I caught up with the poet in a West Seattle coffee shop, taking a break from watching his two young daughters, and got him to answer some questions about his daily life and his work.
Betsy Aoki: What was going on in your life at the time of writing Blood Song?
Michael Schmeltzer: The book was written over a decade and several poems date back even further than that so I suppose what wasn’t happening may be easier to answer! 9/11 happened during the time a few of the poems were written (which is also my birthday), I married, we welcomed two daughters, some horrible personal choices were made, some better ones were also made. The sacred ordinary of everyday happened and some of it made it into the book.
BA: Did having kids change your writing?
MS: Having children changed me profoundly. It has given me anxieties and levels of joy I thought unimaginable. I am wildly, foolishly in love with them. And I think all the fears and hopes I have for them creates a lens in which I write through now. My notion of time is different. My ideas on loss are different. In turn, how much happiness I manifest is different, too. It isn’t that the things I write about changed drastically per se, but I feel as though I’ve been given access to them in a way I hadn’t known before. Not everyone needs children, of course, but the arc of my life dramatically changed with their arrival, and nothing else feels quite as holy as they do to me.
BA: Is there a story behind the title “Blood Song”?
MS: Blood, of course, is family. Being biracial, blood and half-blood, these things swirled in me all the time. As for the song part, my father was in the Navy, my mother was a stay-at-home parent. My brother has his PhD in chemistry. And then there’s me, the lone creative. But music—that was one thing we all had. My dad use to play a variety of music in the house: Dylan, The Doors, The Beatles, Air Supply, Meatloaf. My brother introduced me to Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, the Beastie Boys. My mother would listen to enka. I grew up listening to all this (and started listening to the Cure, Depeche Mode, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan.) Besides some classic books, music was the creative thing we had most in common. There was always song.
BA: Do you write to music? What kind?
MS: I write to music with lyrics and edit to music without. Composers like Dustin O’Halloran and Dario Marianelli evoke such emotion but rhythmically offer little interference when I’m tinkering closely with a piece so it’s perfect for revision. Otherwise I’m listening to anything that puts me in a mood, in a mind of musicality. Whether that comes from pop music or acoustic folk, it just depends on where I’m at mentally and emotionally at the time of the writing.
BA: Favorite writers? Anyone you are reading now?
MS: Chen Chen. I am telling everyone about this book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. Other favorite poets include Li-Young Lee and Louise Gluck.
BA: Favorite comfort food (or beverage) while writing?
MS: I seriously cherish my Maxwell House International Café Vienna beverage mix. It’s borderline laughable but I honestly cannot get enough of that stuff while I write.
BA: How does your ethnicity inform (or not) the things that you write?
MS: My poetry has remained fairly neutral in the ways I express my ethnicity or experiences. My nonfiction tends to approach it more directly. (Schmeltzer has co-authored a nonfiction book called A Single Throat Opens which will be published this summer by Black Lawrence Press.). Being biracial, being born in Japan yet on a Navy Base, being a father and a son, I often feel of two worlds but fully immersed in neither one. This gives way to various tensions I try to reconcile. However, as I grow older I think maybe I’m not about reconciling the two sides so much as laying roots in the between, sustaining myself with either side as needed.
BA: What advice do you have for people who want to start writing poetry?
MS: First and foremost: read. Read widely and diversely. The world of poetry is so much more cosmic and epic than most people probably imagine. If you feel isolated (because of any part of your identity or experience). I can guarantee you there is someone out there who is writing words just for you. You have a community just waiting to embrace you. Be part of it. Next: reach out to those you admire. Listen to their words. Read their words. Get involved in whatever way you feel comfortable. Then write your own poems however way you want.
As part of National Poetry Month, Schmeltzer will be reading April 20, 7 p.m. with other Two Sylvias Press poets at SoulFood Coffee House, 15748 Redmond Way, Redmond, Washington.