Albert Abonado's poem "Benign" appears in the August issue. He lives in Rochester, NY. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and has been nominated for a Pushcart. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fugue, Washington Square, Inertia, Gargoyle, New Ohio Review, and No Tell Motel.
Can you talk about the inspiration for "Benign"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?
My wife might tell you that I’m somewhat of an amateur hypochondriac, and have a habit of using various online medical websites to self-diagnose every little flaw. Honestly, I should probably stop watching shows like House. Those shows do little to soothe my anxieties. I remembered reading an article online about the origins of a particular cyst in dogs and was trying to track it down, or at least I thought I read such an article. I’m beginning to doubt that the article even exists since I’ve been unable to locate it. I really wish someone would respond to my email request to confirm I’m not crazy and didn’t imagine it. I hope it wasn’t a dream I had. Surfing the internet reading about cysts seems like it would be a waste of a dream. I could have been dreaming about something like hovercrafts or islands full of robots. In any event, I was fascinated by the idea that an animal had inadvertently stumbled upon a meanings of living indefinitely, if somewhat passively.
Whether or not such an article is true is beside the point, I guess. It served as a springboard to explore the subject of mortality, and this ache to extend an already limited lifespan, not only our own but of those around us. Recently, I was reading about a jellyfish that had figured out a way to go through puberty again, which sounds like a terrible thing to impose on any living creature and, barring any unforeseen circumstances like being eaten or shredded by a passing motorboat, could live indefinitely. I wonder what kind of what poem I would have written if I had started with that jellyfish.
The tonal focus of this poem is quite striking, the chattiness of the request for emails mixed with the imaginative thinking about a complex, not to mention serious, medical issue. How did you deal with tone in this poem?
Balancing the comic, the fabulist against very real medical concerns is always a tricky act. Whenever I use such a chatty voice, I worry that I’m not treating the subject with the gravity it deserves, that I’m being too coy, too glib in ways that undermine my material. Is the narrator just being evasive by putting a comic spin on the subject instead of confronting such serious concerns? Usually, I convince myself by telling myself that it is an entry point, a means of easing into the subject, hopefully anchoring the poem’s comic turns with a sense of longing or loss.
I love the downward trot of this poem, how it just lets the thinking do the talking, so to speak. This brand of revelation-through-chatter makes sentences like “On the Discovery channel/was a program about people who had absorbed/their twins at birth” remarkable beyond their simplicity. When you decided to write about this particular concept of living beings becoming cysts, how did you decide to explain your thinking?
I like the way you phrased it “lets the thinking do the talking.” I think that essentially gets at the way the poem works and the process that produced it. In fact, you probably said it better than I could and I should probably just stop here.
I don’t know if I ever really “decided” on the approach. It kind of just happened. That’s not a very useful answer, but that’s really the only way I can think of explaining the way the poem worked out. I suppose you can say I’m attracted to the kind of poem that invites you into its process however messy it is. I enjoy letting the poem get wander and spin out of control, allowing it to chase after every shiny object it comes across until it finally curls up in a corner somewhere. After I heard the opening lines, I became really attracted to the intimate voice of the poem: conversational if frantic and a bit dramatic, and I wanted to know where the voice was going to take me.
A poem of yours appearing in Rattle called “Apartment 2B” also concerns itself with death. Is death a topic that fits well in your poetic concern? Why or why not?
I was actually thinking about this the other day. I was looking over some poems and noticed the frequent appearance of death and began to wonder if I might have some issues. I like to think of myself as a pretty happy guy, so I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with it. I prefer to think that what I find compelling about death has more to do with how we deal with it, our perception of it and its inevitability, that ultimately I’m interested in examining our frailties and our resilience, how we confront and manage loss.
What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I’ve been toying with a manuscript for some time. At times, it’s not a book, but two or three chapbooks.
What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I really enjoyed Timothy Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation and Michael Burkard’s lucky coat anywhere. Besides that, I’m looking forward to reading Kathleen Ossip’s The Cold War, of which I’ve heard great things.