Richard Michelson is a poet and children’s book author who has written sixteen children’s books and three books of poetry—More Money than God, Battles & Lullabies, and Tap Dancing for Relatives—as well as two fine press collaborations with the artist Leonard Baskin. Michelson’s poetry has been published in many anthologies, including The Norton Introduction to Poetry, and has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, Parnassus, and Issue No. 09 of The Common. He has served two terms as Poet Laureate of Northampton Massachusetts and in 2009 he received both a Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medal from the Association of Jewish Librarians, becoming the only author so honored in AJL’s 47-year history. Most recently, Michelson was awarded the 2016 Poetry Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Michelson and Marni Berger spoke this winter about how Quebec City’s “Ice Hotel” inspired a poem—and how a childhood in East New York, Brooklyn, inspired a lifetime of work in multiple genres and disciplines.
Marni Berger (MB): Your poem “The Ice Hotel,” which appears in Issue No. 09 of The Common, reminds me subtly, with the cartoon cloud in the fourth line, that you are also a children’s book author. How do you see the genres—children’s book writing and poetry writing—feeding or energizing each other?
Richard Michelson (RM): The gulf between my books for children and my poetry for adults is not as wide as it first appears. In both cases, the primary job is to find the essential word and/or image that creates the “a-ha” moment.
Philip Pullman has, only half-jokingly, said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction: they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” There is truth in the fact that children, with less cultural references, deal in more basic emotions. And I try to find that emotional core in all my writings. So I see the genres less as feeding each other than arising from the same hunger.
MB: I’m thinking about how your poetry, which appeals to adults, confronts serious—one might call “grownup”— issues. Your most recent book of poems, More Money Than God, hits hard on poverty, prejudice, and loss. But your children’s books tackle these issues too—clarifying that “grownup” issues are clearly universal. For example, Busing Brewster addresses desegregation in the 1970s via a child character. What led you to write for both adults and children, in regards to issues of social justice?
RM: One’s concerns are one’s concerns, and I can only write about the issues that are daily in my consciousness. I am a political being and my view of life was forged early on. When I was born, my neighborhood in East New York, Brooklyn, was ninety percent Jewish and harboring the shadow of the Holocaust. A short twelve years later it was ninety percent African-American, and would soon be majority Latino, sparking my life-long interest in racial and economic issues. I’ve written at length, in both essays and poetry, about the murder of my “Jewish shopkeeper” father, and I needn’t go into it here, but certainly a big part of why I write is an attempt to both heal society’s ills and the many wounds within myself.
As for children, poverty and prejudice and loss are issues that most kids deal with every day in schools. How do you navigate the moral complications of wanting to speak out for what is right, and still fit in with the majority of your peers? I have been criticized for bringing up issues “too early,” and I know there are those who believe childhood is a time of innocence, but I wonder if they really remember their own childhoods.
MB: Childhood ought to be taken seriously.
RM: But let me just promise your readers that that my books are funny! I don’t want to sound too dour. Humor is, in most lives, our saving grace.
MB: Agreed. It sounds like where you grew up—or where you spent a lot of time as a child—has truly affected your choice in subject matter, regardless of genre.
RM: Most of my poems and children’s books are still based in Brooklyn, though it seems odd to realize that I’ve been in the Amherst/Northampton area three times longer than I lived in NY. If I live another sixty years, maybe I’ll start mining the New England vein!
I did manage to write an Emily Dickinson poem and a Cal Coolidge poem after being appointed Northampton Poet Laureate. And I was commissioned to write a book of beach poems for children—S is for Sea Glass. But the majority of my imagery is still inner city.
MB: When you transition between children’s book writing and poetry writing, do you have a sort of ritual for switching gears?
RM: While writing for children, I generally have a subject or question in mind before I begin, and then I search for the words that will best bring it to life. In writing for adults, I most often start with a word or phrase, and only slowly discover the theme as I write.
But the ritual, if you can call it that, is the same: check emails, read the headlines, snack, and then force myself to enter my study, sit down at the desk, and get to work. I’ll usually write poetry for a month or two, and then when I feel the tension waning, switch to children’s books, then repeat the process.
MB: You also work full-time in the visual arts as an art dealer. How does that work affect your writing life?
RM: Like most writers I have a full-time “day-job.” My job happens to be one I love—as an art dealer—and I tend to hang out with visual artists more so than poets. But, of course, it is still a job and often takes away time I would prefer to be focused on my writing. That said, I’ve certainly written many poems about paintings. There is section of ekphrastic poetry in my book Battles and Lullabies, and More Money than God has poems, such as “Art Gallery: Summer Internship,” which are set in the gallery and directly debate the value of the arts.
I am also a big fan of interdisciplinary projects. I’ve collaborated with visual artists, dancers, and composers. I am currently writing the libretto for a song-cycle on the life of Edvard Munch, working with the incredibly talented composer Steven Schoenberg and director Kevin Newbery. Also in the works is a series of prayers, and a reinterpretation of the Haggadah, with artist and bookmaker Michael Kuch.
MB: That sounds like a lot of incredible work. Returning to your poem in The Common—“The Ice Hotel” takes readers to Quebec City, where there exists an actual ice hotel that travelers can visit. Have you been, in real life?
RM: Yes, I was there, and no, I didn’t want to go. I hate the cold, but the kids were young and we hadn’t planned anything for their school break and my wife insisted—I pushed for the very civilized Hotel Frontenac! I was not a happy camper and generally made everyone miserable over the course of the long drive north.
MB: So how did this real place—called Hôtel de Glace—inspire you to write “The Ice Hotel”?
RM: And then we arrived! The Hotel caught my imagination immediately. Amazing to think how the entire structure is built—and then melts after the season. And yes, it was freezing! And yes, you had to go outside to pee. I didn’t start writing the poem, however, until a few years afterward, when I was reading about climate change and the melting glaciers.
MB: There is an interesting play in “The Ice Hotel,” as depicted by the honeymooners at the hotel as well as the narrator and his wife, between the idea of love’s heat and how it can exist in the midst of a freezing place. Would you call this a poem about love’s paradoxes?
RM: I struggled with this poem on and off for years. It was too heavy-handed and “messaged” on the environment. It wasn’t until I realized it was essentially a love poem—and I took a risk in opening with that bald statement “I love you”—that the poem started to come together.
In technical terms the poem had to be turned on its head, so the “environmental issue” could evolve naturally, and as a “complication” or backdrop to love’s paradoxes. Just as death gives love its urgency, the potential loss of civilization gives life its meaning.
MB: That reminds me of the chilling—no pun intended!—line at the end of the poem: “and even the polar caps are, as I feign sleep, thawing.” The poem takes us from a very specific place to a larger perspective of what is happening to the world: the thawing of polar caps. Would you talk a little more about that sense of global climate change urgency, or anxiety?
RM: I wanted the poem to open outward at the end, as though the camera were pulling away from the two couples before the closing credits.
And yes, that image is filled with anxiety. We know we must save the earth, and yet I often find myself pretending to be asleep—it is certainly easier, and more comfortable, to live your life as if nothing awful is happening around you. I am sure I am not alone in feeling helpless to create change in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. What do we have but each other? And yet… And yet… It does get complicated living in this frightening and beautiful world.
Marni Berger is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Maine.
Photo credits: Headshot by Ellen Michelson; photographs of Michelson’s East New York neighborhood “TRPD Flying” and “Gift Wrappin the Garbage” by Frank Espada, courtesy of Richard Michelson.