Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Visiting with Michael Madonick

by Claire Guyton

What inspired your poems “Jungle” and “River Otters” (or just talk about one, if you prefer)?

Normally (which is a word I don’t often use and one, in any form, that is never used to refer to me) I would have little or no idea what “inspired” a poem. I write very early in the morning usually from 5:00 to 7:30, when things are “happening.” However, with “River Otters,” it’s a different story.

North American river otters at the San Francisco Zoo, August 2005, by Dmitry Azovstev via Wikimedia Commons.*

My wife and I live in the middle of the Midwest, among the measured corn and soy bean fields that farmers rotate every year for purposes agricultural and apparently for entertainment. The land is flat, the sky is large. Both of us, my wife and I, are observers of our natural surroundings, and we are often starved for things to be attentive to. That’s not to say that the turkey vulture doesn’t have its appeal or the coyote its convincingly singular voice or the ground squirrel a particular scampering gait reminiscent of a submarine’s agile avoidance techniques. But mostly we are dumbfounded, staring out the window, waiting for something to mistakenly migrate in our direction.

I can say with some degree of certainty that my early years in the Bronx looked more like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom than the flat lands of Illinois could ever hope for, until I spotted—and I swear that I did—two river otters crossing a farm road to a small stream. Just my luck, I was by myself, so no witnesses to verify such an exotic event. But I measured what I saw, paid attention to their movement, their size, their Slinky-like dexterity, their interplay as they rushed toward a flow of water charging from a drainage pipe. The big mistake was telling my wife I had seen something unusual, because I do have a past of discovering strange creatures in odd places. But I best not go into a litany of those events if I intend to have you believe me at all. Anyway, I told my wife. I described them as best I could as she stood there listening, nodding her head, as if she were a fine and patient tailor constructing an exquisite suit for a patron. But in my case, the suit was a straightjacket. As I recall, the first thing she asked was if they were pink. From there, and to this day, it was all downhill. Even one of my best friends has gotten in on the jibing. He recently showed me a map in his daughter’s Ranger Rick magazine, which showed a resurgence of otter population in every county in Illinois except ours. In fact, it seemed to indicate that there hadn’t been a sighting since the Native Americans vacated this region.

So Jimmy Stewart and Harvey, his invisible rabbit, had an easier time than me. But I fought back. For Valentine’s Day I bought my wife two river otter stuffed animals, a river otter key chain, and a yellow river otter crossing sign. But what needs to be said is that her jabbing at me about this is like the otters’ playful movements, a kind of “aggressive intimacy” as my psychiatrist once called my offensive nicknames for students. They get it, though, the students, they understand that I’m prodding them. That in some respect I’m letting them closer to me by engaging in this repartee. My wife has done this to me with regard to my otter sighting. She teases me, nips at me, and I, I invite it, I love the attention. I recognize that there are hundreds of ways to say the same thing. And though the human condition is basically one of loneliness, we often find our way through observation, contact, and humor to communicate things that need to be said.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of these poems.

I have been writing, if one can call it that, for almost fifty years. Process is now just thinking. I think best when I’m writing. I learn from what I’ve written and I try to serve it. It sounds simple. Maybe it is. The key to any poem for me is its tone. I read for tone. I listen for tone. I see my dog cower when I tell her, a bit too harshly, how beautiful she is. I watch her tail wag when I tell her, in a gentle way, how bad she has been. It isn’t just volume; she’s trying to measure a state of mind, not the meaning of the words. She is often quite right.

All writers have favorite words we have to guard against over-using. What are yours?

I find that the word (the exclamation) “hell” has been acting as a transitional device in many of my poems. I’m not sure how to replace it. It seems to want to express a turn in the poem’s direction, some cathartic manifestation of some sort, or just a pause between a series of thoughts. Hell, I’ve thought about replacing it with, “zooks.” But alas, I might have been born too late for that.

What does your writing space look like?

Hell, that’s what my office looks like. Or, a corner candy store in the Bronx. I’ve got stuff hanging from the ceiling, fish heads on the wall, 3D Darth Vader puzzles, a rear bumper from a Honda CRX, a singing sunflower, a St. Fiacre statue, Christmas lights, a House t-shirt that says IT’S NOT LUPUS, a children’s Halloween chicken outfit, a can of Harris’ she-crab soup, a picture of Willie Mays, two Krispy Kreme paper hats, three do-rags, a miniature catapult, a few hundred books, a sign stolen from the university hockey rink that reads “INDIVIDUALS USING PROFANITY OR ACTING INAPPROPRIATELY WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE,” my father’s army photo, a map of Mystic seaport, a shit-load of students’ papers and all of the students waiting in the hall.

* More Dimitry Azovstev, more Wikimedia Commons.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Katherinne November 23, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Nice to read your poetry Proff. Madonick! I can definitely hear your voice in this interview.


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