"One of Me Wonders": An Interview with Mike Puican

Mike Puican has had poems in Poetry, Michigan Quarterly Review, Bloomsbury Review, Cortland Review, and New England Review, among others. His poetry reviews have appeared in TriQuarterly, Kenyon Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and MAKE Magazine. He won the 2004 Tia Chucha Press Chapbook Contest for his chapbook, 30 Seconds. Mike was a member of the 1996 Chicago Slam Team and for the past ten years has been president of the board of the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago.

His poem, "The Current," appeared in Issue of Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

Here he speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the reinvention of oneself, being a disrupter in writing, and looking at oneself from the outside.

Where did you find the inspiration to begin this poem? As a reader, I felt that this poem’s grounding is in reality rather than a poetic fantasy. Did the inspiration for this poem spark out of a memory that you may or may not have included in here?

All the images are from my past. I am someone who has reinvented himself a few times in my life—athlete, anti-establishment radical, capitalist businessman, poet, activist for incarcerated writers, and others. With each reinvention, my inclination has been to pretend that anything that doesn’t fit my current persona didn’t exist. I’m now trying to understand this bundle of disparate directions and how it all originated from the same source.

The poem lists experiences from these different times with no interest in providing a narrative explanation. It’s a collage of disparate scenes joined only by the voice of the poet who is trying to understand how this can be explained. The closest the speaker can come is to attribute it to some unknown fire in his heart.

During the first two stanzas of the poem, the narrator starts all the lines with either “One of me” or just “One.” It seems though that as the narrator progresses through the poem they start to refer to themselves as a singular “He.” Would you like to speak to the reason behind this decision? Is it that the narrator is starting to become a singular form of themselves again, or that they may be starting to take claim for their actions?

I start out repeating “One of me” in each sentence to make sure the reader understands the perspective of the poem—the speaker is observing his life and acknowledges he’s had different identities along the way. Once that is established, I short-hand it by simply using “One.” With the shift to “He,” the speaker distances himself a little more and takes more of the perspective of an outside observer. This is the stance I wanted for the entire poem. I wanted the reader to think that these observations are being reported dispassionately despite the fact that I am clearly talking about myself.

At the end of every stanza, we are left to visualize an image. In the first three stanzas, we are left with images reflective of nature, but in the last stanza we visualize a woman in an unnamed color. In a frame of structure, do you prefer a more rigid format for your poetry, whether it be following a visual structure such as stanzas with the same number of lines, or in a thematic structure where a recurring theme is laced throughout the poem, but in the same place in every stanza?

As a writer (and in some ways as a person) I am a disrupter. I love to interrupt expectations in unexpected ways. For that to work in a poem, you need to create a frame or a pattern that you then disrupt. It works best when the disruption occurs at a turning point of the poem, as I have tried to do here.

The observations in this poem are mostly from an exterior viewpoint, as though someone on the outside could have reported it. Then, in the end, the poem shifts from exterior observation to internal emotions. My intention was to reveal a deeper emotional investment, one that, despite this looking back on my life, is still occurring.  One that I’m still trying to understand.

Have you read anything lately that you think everyone should take the time out to read?

The best book I’ve read in the past two years is Olio by Tyehimba Jess. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It presents the voices of extraordinary first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. The depth of creativity and description of human experience is astonishing. It uncomfortably draws a straight line from those days to now.

I was knocked out by the recent memoir Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot—a Native American’s story of growing up in frightfully dysfunctional situations, some of which continue outside and inside her. It’s a fascinating account of her struggles for sanity and dignity as a woman, a mother, and a writer in a country where indigenous people are perceived of as “other.”

Do you have any upcoming writing projects that you’d like to share?

I’ve been working on a memoir for the past year or so. In the spirit of “The Current,” it tries to come to terms with the many directions my life has taken. It explores this through two opposing lenses: the desire to uncover some unifying guiding force in my life; and the acknowledgment that my goal has never been unity. To impose some idea of unity is likely to diminish the experiences I’m trying to write about. It’s still very much a work in progress.