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Michael Perret Interview

Michael Perret’s debut poetry collection The Chimera traces the tale of Smarra, an intersex human turned into a vampire during the Inquisition. This gothic collection dives deep into the world of 1800’s New Orleans, where Smarra falls in love with a Voodoo Queen as the yellow fever epidemic ravages the city. Through these poems, Perret delves into the concept of patriarchy and monstrosity in the realm of Western art.

Read the full interview below.

How did The Chimera begin? Did it evolve around a poem you’d already written or did the concept come first?

A little bit of both. The idea of a narrative vampire poem came from the desire to write a collection of atmospheric gothic poetry in formal verse. I had some success with a sequence of vampire poems (also reprinted in this collection) and moved on to a larger narrative poem that begin with a vampire approaching a young man at a slave auction in the French Quarter, but I quickly abandoned it. I didn’t know what the story was about, what stanza form to use. Then 6 months later, there I was working on it again.

The concept of the Chimaera, the Greek mythological monster, as a symbol for monstrosity (and nature itself) in Western art is a proper idée fixe that I’ve been hung up on as a poet for a long time. It didn’t surprise me at all when my muse found a way to incorporate it into Smarra’s story, mainly through the Grecomania of Monsieur Vilcor (the plantation owner) and, of course, through the fact that Smarra as narrator is a poet too, and so completely conversant with Greek mythology.

The verse novel, which tells a complete story beginning to end with poetry, is less common in contemporary culture than it has been in the past. What was it like working on one overarching narrative through individual poems?

One aspect of my practice as a poet, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, is to challenge what I find to be a pervasive opinion that nothing of real aesthetic value can be created in pre-20th century poetic artforms. Like nothing can be rhymed now but a bad nursery rhyme, and then, out goes the baby with the bathwater. At some point I began to doubt that rejection, and, kind of on the model of certain painters who concentrate on mastering older techniques, like Adam Miller looking to Raphael, or Roberto Ferri looking to Caravaggio, I began to look to formal poetic techniques. Whether or not I’m anywhere near mastering them, well…

That said, this collection consists of a long verse narrative, The Chimera, an appendix of poems exploring some of the subtext of that narrative, and a final selection of dark poems, which, whether they relate or not to The Chimera, are meant to be read as independent works. The long narrative is a pretty straightforward linear story describing events over a weekend at a plantation outside New Orleans. Through the musings and the emotional life of the vampire narrator, themes emerge, like the exploration of the concept of monstrosity in Western art, be it mythological monsters, intersex people, vampires, Black people, all under the umbrella of a patriarchal system. That system gets discussed abstractly through a strong focus of the Chimaera myth and the changes, or reversals, that I and/or Smarra give to it.

The poetic form you use draws inspiration from Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Can you talk a little about that?

A few considerations went into my basing The Chimera on Pushkin’s Onegin. One was that the historical periods roughly matched. I thought there might be a stylistic justification in choosing a verse form (or basing my own on a verse form) developed in a masterwork for that period. Also, that historical period, the early 19th century, saw the rise of the vampire and the gothic in association with Byron, who was perhaps the principal influence on Pushkin’s Onegin. Pushkin even references Byron’s vampire in Onegin.

With regard to my verse form, I did modify the Onegin sonnet stanza somewhat. I extended Pushkin’s 8 syllable line to the more common (and easier!) in English 10 syllable line, I ignored the rhyme scheme of masculine/feminine endings, and I gave myself the option of an alternative rhyme scheme in the final tercets.

New Orleans is a fabulous setting steeped in rich history. What was it like centering The Chimera in a place with so many facets to explore?

It’s hard for me to imagine setting a story about a vampire anywhere else. This is partly just because I love it so much and New Orleans is always where my imagination wants to go, but also because New Orleans is perhaps the most gothic + vampiric location in the United States. At least since Anne Rice, in a stroke of genius, moved the vampires there.

The title of the book comes from the Chimera, a mythical creature in Greek mythology formed from different animal parts. You continue to draw from Greek mythology in the narrative. Have you always been interested in mythology?

As a poet, yes. A culture’s myths can serve as an opportunity to explore the depths of that culture, to contrast where its values were with where they are now. Smarra says as much when they write: “Of/Such reverses it has sometimes been said,/Let the ancients have their myths and instead/Of rehashing theirs come up with your own!/But I believe in correction and change,/And I don’t find it in the least bit strange/To show through their myths what else can be shown.” Perhaps I should have written, “To show in OUR myths what else can be shown”!

What made you decide to lean into the gothic with this story? Do you think the gothic is inherently tied to the vampire narrative?

I wouldn’t hesitate to argue that there is an intimate association of the gothic and the vampire. The vampire, because they live so long, drag the old, the dead (or undead), the mysterious in their train when they appear in contemporary times. The ruins of the past cling to them. You asked before about New Orleans, well, with its old cemeteries, its heartbreakingly beautiful architectural decay, it’s not at all surprising to me that Anne Rice would see vampires there. Once I was there with the story, there was no avoiding the gothic, and I admit, I did lean in! I mean, incest, old plantation house, violent nights beneath the Spanish moss…

Without giving too much away about the book, could you discuss the concept of monstrosity in Western art a little more?

There’s a fairly common plotline in the heroic myths of Ancient Greece. A young man with great strength, probably the son of a god, finds himself on a quest requiring heroic feats ultimately with the goal of earning a place in the heavens. Those heroic feats are often the killing of monsters. At some point in reading those myths, I began to experience the logic of that mythology as dissonant. The definition of monster, at least in Greek mythology, is an impure creature formed out of more than one thing: a woman with snakes for hair, a lion/goat/serpent, a horse with wings. Contrasted with this monstrous multiplicity are the gods and their heroes, beautiful, pure, associated with the heavens and not the earth. Where I began to bump was, I don’t believe in heaven, but I do believe in the earth. In our times, with its scientific perspective, what’s real, and therefore, for what it’s worth, “good”, is nature. Nature is a diverse, evolving, surprising, even impure and monstrous thing, if you will. So the values of these myths got reversed in my mind. The old Monster/Earth=bad and God-Hero/Heaven=good was upside down. The fact that the heroes are always men, and the monsters are often women, Medusa and Chimaera, for example, strongly references that these old values are largely patriarchal, and the engagement with them is therefore still highly relevant.

More specifically to this book, I took Chimaera, her multiplicity, as a symbol for this revaluation. Her story involves Pegasus, the one “good monster”, associated in the myths with the heroes and the gods. Pegasus therefore becomes a pivotal character in this revaluation (his mother being Medusa, his father Poseidon). Not to give anything away!

I should also note that there is another “chimera” in Western art. Especially in 19th century French poetry, the chimera as an unattainable, self-destructive ideal appears frequently. I try to play with that notion critically in this work. Smarra expressly refers to Minerva as their “chimera” when they become infatuated with her, and then pursues her against her will. I frankly wanted to push against patriarchal culture with this concept too, thinking in terms of stalking or seeing woman as serving a role preestablished by the expectations of patriarchal relationships. In 19th century French poetry, the danger was that an idealistic young man might lose himself in pursuit of a chimera, but in my poetry, the danger is when a real person becomes the projected ideal of one of those idealistic young people.

The cover for The Chimera is haunting. Who did the artwork and how did you feel when you saw it for the first time?

I was blown away! I had put forward the concept initially. I wanted to highlight the subtext, the discussion of monstrosity. I imagine my publisher might have had a moment there of, Or we could put a vampire on the cover… In the end, the cover artist Mitch Green created a very striking image.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I almost always have submissions out, so maybe! but nothing to report right now. I can say that my second collection is finished and will be published by Curious Corvid sometime next year. Tentatively titled The Decadent Book of Babylon, it takes its cues from late 19th century Decadent poetry, and through narratives situated in fin-de-siecle cultural milieus and Babylonian legend, engages with the misogynistic view popular at the time that women are closer to nature than men, and therefore, are more amoral.

Q. What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

A. I’m going to have to mention two! One is Décomposée (Decomposed) a remarkable free verse narrative by French author Clémentine Beauvais that gives a backstory to the carcass in Baudelaire’s famous poem, "Une Charogne" (A Carcass). In Beauvais’s work, the carcass is that of a woman who ultimately becomes a sort of vigilante against rich men who prey on women struggling at the bottom of economic ladder. If anyone wants to publish this book in English, call me! I’d consider translating it a labor of love! The second is Rat Bohemia by Sarah Schulman. A gut wrenching and heart wrenching novel about AIDS and the queer experience of just wanting to be seen as the normal, natural human being you, in reality, are. Gay people, another monster!

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Thank you for the opportunity! Such great questions!

The Chimera is out now.

Michael Perret is a poet and translator from Austin, Texas.

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1 comentário

19 de jun. de 2023

This was a fascinating interview to read!

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