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Michelle Hulan: Indeterminacy, the Shifting Nature of Identity, and the Societal Pressure to Choose a Life

Malisa Garlieb Interviews Issue #54 Poet Michelle Hulan.

“While writing, I find I have to resist the urge for resolution, even sometimes preferring anti-resolution.”
Michelle Hulan


In “Sonnet for Fat Purple Figs” the speaker states, “I will consume enough
versions of myself to fill a century.” I found that all three poems resist fixed identities and seek to keep multiple doors or possibilities open. What are your experiences of identity-making/unmaking and can you describe the process of writing them down?

Absolutely. I’ve been thinking a lot about indeterminacy and ambiguity lately. I personally resist the idea that identity is fixed. I suppose I subscribe to the theory that humans are constantly shifting, dynamic creatures. Writing for me, especially writing these poems, is a way to honor indeterminacy and make room for a rich and multifaceted life experience. Early drafts of my poems start off with a question or an attempt to make sense of a feeling. While writing, I find I have to resist the urge for resolution, even sometimes preferring anti-resolution. My dream is that these poems resonate with other people who have felt at the behest of a binary culture or compulsory choice.

“Sonnet for Fat Purple Figs” references Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. How has Plath’s writing influenced you? What do you find in Plath’s work that resonates with this time?

Oh, Plath. Her ability to cut to the heart of the matter is just incredible. I find myself trying to attain the same level of conciseness and truth-making in my writing. The Bell Jar is such a staggeringly beautiful novel, and I often return to the passage about the fig where the protagonist, Esther, narrates, “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which figs I would choose.” As you know, Esther couldn’t sacrifice any of these figs, and they all shriveled and died.

This passage resonates so much because of the societal pressure to choose a life. Esther could not find a way to be “a famous poet” and “brilliant professor.” She could choose only one, and if The Bell Jar offers us anything today, it’s that the sickness is systemic. The outliers, the people who don’t fit within this system, become people who need to be reformed. But we know this isn’t true.

The directive statements in “How to Mourn the Loss of Your Brother’s Tenderness” are a wonderful foil for the underlying compassion in the poem. Holding space for one’s own humanity, as you said, can be a very complex and tiring task. For you, how does literature help with this effort?

Thank you for this question. Maintaining boundaries and/or space for one’s self can be exhausting. Literature is itself a kind of how-to guide for developing radical empathy for others and the self. Writing this poem using directive statements was really important to me, because it’s based on an actual conversation where I didn’t hang up. I stayed on the call, and it felt like I was making myself small to accommodate this other person. To answer your question, if literature can offer people a way of learning and developing empathy, this poem helped me forgive myself for not hanging up the phone.

Literature has given me a language to make sense of my life, to learn how to hold space for myself. Even though in the past, I hadn’t. I practice this language in my writing—though it’s a learning process. I think there’s an important exchange that happens when someone engages with literature. I truly believe that experiencing and making art can change someone’s life.

Your website has a map of every independent bookstore in NYC and says that you are in the process of visiting them all. What prompted this undertaking? How have such spaces helped you develop as a writer?

I started this project for a few reasons, but mostly I was curious. I wanted to know what NYC independent bookstores were offering. New York has such a vibrant literary community, and the thought of walking into a small indie bookstore, of getting the feeling of the kind of books and space they cultivate was/is super exciting. The first store I visited was Bravo’s Book Nook, a literal nook at the front of Player’s Theater in Greenwich village. I had a nice talk with the employee there and turns out I was the first person to ever order a book from them. I started to understand the interdependency of bookstores with their readers. It’s such a symbiotic relationship. Bookstores open people up to the world of possibility and give access to language and storytelling. In that way, they helped me become a better writer. Also, staff picks are one of my favorite things. I’ve discovered some of my favorite contemporary writers this way.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to put a pin in this project because of COVID-19. I even need to update the map to remove some brick and mortar stores that have closed. Bookstores are struggling, but I feel passionate to do anything I can to keep our communities invested in literature and arts (and keep money out of Bezos’ pocket). Lately, I’ve been furiously ordering books from my local shop, Word, in Greenpoint, but can’t wait to check out The Lit Bar, Cafe con Libros, and Bluestockings Bookstore when it’s safe to do so. I could go on forever about this.

The last lines of “On Becoming My Own God” read, “If this year is a burning pile of plastic/with enough fumes to knock out a cockroach,/I’ll be my own god taking it day-by-day.” What daily actions did you find useful in the burning year of 2020? Where do you imagine your writing will take you in 2021?

In 2020, the boundaries of my day to day life blurred. Where before I was able to compartmentalize my role as a parent, partner, writer, and employee, sheltering-in-place forced me to live all of my roles at once. It was (and still is) a struggle, but I found that there were certain daily acts to help keep me grounded. After what started as an assignment during a workshop with Shira Erlichman, I started to keep a daily gratitude journal. I also started to write something (anything) every day to explore and pay homage to the parts of me that often feel so invisible. These daily practices helped me regain a sense of control over my life. I hadn’t realized how much I had been feeling in relation to being a queer woman in a mixed-orientation relationship with a cis man. I had never taken the time to sit with what parts of me were incongruent to the life I was leading. This is something I’m still working on.

2021 should be a pretty exciting year. I’m working on a chapbook about indeterminacy and will continue to explore the limitations and possibilities of language and form. I plan to keep approaching writing playfully—but also doggedly.

Malisa Garlieb
By Malisa Garlieb

Malisa Garlieb is co-editor of poetry for Mud Season Review.  Her poems have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Calyx, Tar River Poetry, Rust + Moth, and elsewhere.  Handing Out Apples in Eden, her first collection, was published by Wind Ridge Books.  She’s also a mother, teacher, healer, and metalsmith.