Michelle Reale is an Associate Professor at Arcadia University. She holds an MFA in poetry and is the author of five collections of poetry, including The Marie Curie Sequence, just out from Dancing Girl Press, and Confini: Poems of Refugees in Sicily forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press in 2018. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Please tell us a bit about your writing and what informs it, primarily in terms of your humanitarian concerns.
So much informs my writing, probably all of it being concern for human beings in one way or another. I write from a place of sadness, although that sounds incredibly cliché to say, but also from a place of what I think is possible. I have often said that I burrow myself into whatever preoccupies me at any given moment, and I write about it. For a very long time now it has been refugees and the beautiful and sometimes confounding nature of all things Italian-American---including family. I write to figure things out and hope against hope that what I am putting down on the page isn’t so insular, so peculiar to my own experience that others would not find it relatable---or worse, interesting.
The variety of poetic experiences I find fascinating. It sounds sacrilegious to say, but I am just being honest: the tried and true poets, those we have read over and over and over again (with a few definite exceptions!) do not speak to me as much as the poetry I am reading from poets in the here and now. I love the immediacy; I love that I, too, am experiencing what they are writing about, particularly if it concerns the state of the world or our present (and horrific) administration. Poetry either hits me or it doesn’t and I am inspired by the thoughtful, the well-considered, the intense, and not so much with the clever---God, I hate clever, or the snarky, meant to be hilarious, or the profane. It just isn’t what gets me, personally, going, but everyone to their taste.
Three topics that I have most recently written about are extremely close to my heart and extremely personal and will occupy me for a long time, I think. Last year Aldrich Press published my collection, Birds of Sicily, mainly a contemplation on the inscrutable and rather tragic life of my paternal grandfather who fled Sicily under great fear of Vendetta, and the life he lived in the United States. It is a harrowing story that I could only tell in poetry. Some details were too emotional, too close to the bone. I am not sure how successful or how accessible the book was or is to readers---perhaps I should be more concerned, but those poems needed to be read, needed to be put out in the world. The feedback has been strange. One Sicilian-American reviewer felt that the book is hard to get into. I can understand that, but it exists in the world and I am happy for that. The poetic form freed me to figure out a man that was as complex as they come. So, I honor that impulse; I go with that feeling, that intensity. Another cliché, but so true: often, I don’t choose the subject matter, it chooses me. It was certainly true in that case!
Cervena Barva Press will publish my book of refugee poems in 2018, and I am so grateful to the amazing Gloria Mindock, who for years has been such an inspiration to me, especially her book of poems, Blood Soaked Dresses.
For the past five years I have done ethnography in Sicily among predominantly African and Syrian refugees. I use poetry as a way to present my data, so all of the poems in the collection were, first, research poems that were published in academic journals with, of course, the attendant explanation of methodology, etcetera, but at their core, they were poems that often used the refugees’ actual words. I do not speak for the voiceless---refugees have voices. My poems allow them to speak for themselves. I was repulsed when the Italian press quoted then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as describing the refugees and migrants coming to Italy as a “human tsunami.” He stoked the rage and fear of Italians and it was nothing short of criminal.
I wanted to put names, faces and experiences on those that I met so that others could “see” them. The work was difficult and working with such a vulnerable population, absolutely riddled with all sorts of ethical pitfalls. I tried to be honorable to the people and to their stories. There are some stories, in poems or otherwise I still cannot tell. They are too painful--maybe some day.
West Philly Press will publish my chapbook of poems All These Things Were Real: Poems of Delirium Tremens. The writing of these poems was very, very emotionally exhausting. They are about my son’s near death suffering through delirium tremens, something I did not know even existed. And I had no idea how horrific and life-threatening this can be.
My son suffered a catastrophic fall down some steps while drunk which resulted in a very, very long operation to rebuild his shoulder, immediately after which he was plunged into a devastating alcohol withdrawal that was truly frightening and heart-wrenching to witness. He spent a month in ICU and I had no idea what would happen to him. I also realized how little I knew about alcoholism as a disease and how so many perceive it as a moral failure or lack of self-control.
Again, the impulse to write the poems was incredibly therapeutic. But poems must be more than therapy for the writer: they must also mean something for the reader. I think these poems will have many entry points for anyone who reads them, and I hope that many people do!
Can you tell us about the role of heritage in your work?
Someone once told me that I was the most Italian-American person he’d ever met. I am not sure that was an insult or a compliment; either way, it is probably true, and I own it, totally and completely.
My Italian-American heritage is so much a part of who I am that it would be impossible for me to divorce it or my writing from who I am---it just can’t happen. Years ago when I was writing fiction, an editor told me she loved my short fiction pieces but found them too particularly----this was her actual term, “accented” for the regular fiction reading crowd. To this day I have no idea who that “crowd” is, but if she means the 20- and 30- somethings, she is probably right. I didn’t really care. If a writer cannot be true to her own sensibilities, her own passions and preoccupations, then what she or he writes can’t be worth much.
I can’t be dictated to that way. I am Italian-American if you please; I am Italian-American if you don’t please. So who I am will continue to inform my work. I have so many mentors from afar in the wider Italian-American community, especially my good friend Olivia Kate Cerrone, who is doing some amazing work. I write about my Italian-American life in two ways: in my poetry and in my research on Italian-American life. The work feeds me in so many ways.
Tell us about your recently published work. What do you envision for yourself in the future, creatively speaking?
With pleasure! In a bit of a departure for me, I have written a chapbook of poems based on the life of the Nobel-winning scientist, Madame Marie Curie.
I had read several books that were written about her life and was fascinated by photographs of her, rarely smiling, always intent. She was a wife, a mother and a scientist, and her life was wonderful and complicated. I am not going to say “she had it all.” She didn’t. Life was not easy for her. She died from the effects of her research on radiation---in many ways, making the ultimate sacrifice. Then my son, who is a scientist, gave me an artisan-made Marie Curie doll and I sat it on my writing desk. I was in the last residency for my MFA in poetry and the poems just poured out of me. Dancing Girl Press will publish them. I am so grateful. I love everything that Kristy Bowen does and the press is so supportive of the many and varied ways women’s writing represents all of our variations.
What comes next is that I keep writing. It is something I do constantly. I may not be the best poet, but I think I just might be the most hardworking one, and I am really proud of that!