By Jarrett Neal
I sat down to dinner with Chicago poet Simone Muench to discuss her new collection “Wolf Centos, ” a dazzling yet haunting volume of poems crafted in the Italian tradition of the cento: poems comprised entirely of lines from other poems. Employing the wolf as the primary symbol, these poems address and, indeed, awaken the primal sensibilities in all of us. Muench, whose previous collections include “Orange Crush” and “Lampblack & Ash,” shared the details of her craft, what excites her as a poet, and what makes “Wolf Centos” such a distinct collection.
What was the inspiration for “Wolf Centos”?
Brandi Homan led me to the form; Vasko Popa, Gabriela Mistral, and my childhood malamute Zach, helped guide me to the wolf.
What was your process in writing these poems?
I gleaned through numerous single-authored texts as well as many world anthologies and, in a similar manner to erasure, when a line would light my eye, I’d highlight it. I would go through texts and underline lines and phrases that sparked my attention. Once I was done underlining various lines that “called” to me, I would then transcribe them in a Word document, until I had hundreds of lines. From there I would start the act of stitching the lines together, tailoring something that made sense to me in terms of atmosphere, associative imagery and sonic latticework.
This collection is replete with arresting images. Some of my favorite lines concern the (dis)connection between humans and animals. I love the line “you have become human, alien & hateful.” These poems seem intent on preserving the animal within us, as if the speaker is compelling us to return to a primordial state of human existence. Do you agree?
The poems are most interested in the idea that “every transformation is possible,” so in that regard, yes, they are engaged by metamorphic acts of returning us to something embedded in ourselves, but also beyond ourselves. In addition to human and animals, they are also interested in textuality’s connections and disconnections: the transformation of one text into another.
There’s something quite elegiac about these poems.
I am interested in elegy and the three parts of elegy: grief, loss and desire. Humans are limited in their ability to express those three things, and this is one of the reasons we turn to poetry. Finding the wolf was my way to give voice to their unsayable experiences. Not all of the poems are elegiac but most of them have subterranean undercurrents of grief, loss and desire.
Why the wolf?
For me, the wolf has so many contradictions. We think of the cliché “the lone wolf” but wolves are actually social creatures that travel in packs. We think of them as mysterious, and I am definitely beholden to the mysterious in poetry. When I was a kid, I had a pet malamute, Zach. He disappeared one day. I don’t know if he was shot or stolen, but I was so devastated. I used the window of wolf to sing through. The wolf is evolutionarily real, but ultimately imaginary in that it represents the mysterious, elusive other. In this manner, the wolf, which is both romanticized and demonized, with its multiple contradictions (e.g. the lone wolf versus the wolf pack) becomes the address in which these poems accrete their flesh.
You sourced phenomenal poets for “Wolf Centos.” Charles Baudelaire, Gwendolyn Brooks, Bei Dao, Federico García Lorca, Czeslaw Milosz and Walt Whitman are just several of the poets you borrowed from to create these works. What do you seek when you read poetry?
In reading all of these poets who had such a profundity to their work, I also wanted to become a reader again for a while. As I was reading across eras and geographical regions, I realized everyone had a wolf in their poems. I compiled hundreds and hundreds of lines with wolves in them. I seek sustenance, surprise, dialogue, frisson and translations of the unsayable.
Preserving the inner life at all costs is one of the many ideas I take away from this book. Is the erosion of the inner life and self-reflection a concern for you?
The erosion of imagination is definitely a concern, and in this manner, the wolf also becomes a conduit in which to explore anxieties concerning the taming of imagination and the domestication of the marvelous.
Through the multiple encounters I have had with these poems, it is evident that you are enraptured with language and, like all poets, language is sacred to you. In your opinion, can language help return us to our primal selves or does it just get in the way?
Well language, of course, is problematic. Humans are social creatures like wolves, yet there is within us the need for the solitary, and perhaps in that place, language does not exist.
What are you reading now?
Gillian Flynn’s “Dark Places”; Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”; Jill McDonough’s “Habeas Corpus”; and Bruce Kawin’s “Horror and the Horror Film.”
By Simone Muench
Sarabande Books, 72 pages, $14.95