Michelle Burke's Horse Loquela is the winner of the third Red Mountain Review Chapbook Series contest. She just finished her MFA in poetry from The Ohio State University in June. Drawing on her extensive experience working on farms in Ohio and upstate New York, Michelle currently serves as outreach coordinator for GreenThumb, New York City’s community gardening program. Working with the more than 600 community gardens in Gotham, she teaches gardeners to grow organically, to compost, to can, and to cook healthy meals with the food they’ve grown.

Now that is the day job for a poet.

Click the link below to check out what she had to say about Helen Keller, chapbooks, and...Amtrak in this 500 Words (More) Or Less!

1. Talk a little bit about the chapbook as a form. Horse Loquela is part of a larger project, yes? So was the process of paring it down to 24 pages more or less useful? Nerve-racking? What were your governing principles for compiling a successful chapbook-length manuscript?

The chapbook came from my master's thesis, which was a book-length manuscript. Paring it down to 24 pages wasn't hard--I was so tired of my thesis at that point that I enjoyed cutting poems from it. Really, I've never had a hard time getting rid of poems. What's harder is deciding to keep a poem, to bring myself to that point where I feel like I can say, yes, this is a finished poem, and I'm ready to send it out. That's hard.

I did find the ordering to be difficult. I liked beginning and ending with a Helen Keller poem--that seemed right. The middle was tricky. I didn't want to put a horse poem next to a horse poem, and I wanted to vary the form from page to page. The more that I shuffled poems around, however, the more I saw the ways in which they built upon each other. This was an important realization for me as a writer. I knew I was writing a lot of love poems, and I knew I was writing a lot of poems about horses and other domesticated, ill-used animals, but it wasn't until I put everything together that I realized how much the poems about the horses spoke to the poems about human relations. I became very interested in the lover's desire to be both free and tethered. In romantic love, there’s an almost unbearable need to lash oneself to the beloved, but even as we embrace such tethers, we resist them. I think it's related to Milan Kundera's idea of lightness and heaviness--I just finished reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. We want to be light and float above the world, but it is our very heaviness that brings us to the earth, makes our lives real. Working the poems against each other in a concise format helped me to see these connections.

2. The title poem has an epigraph from Barthes that describes the term loquela as "language through which the subject tirelessly rehashes the effects of a wound." What drew you to Barthes, to that particular word, in helping you get your head around this project?

I happened upon A Lover's Discourse by chance, but I was immediately impressed by the book. It's an insane book really. Barthes sets out to unravel the very language of love--not the language with we which we woo one another--but the unuttered words we say to ourselves over and over, that endless litany of self-castigation and longing.

I also think that writing itself is a type of loquela. That's what writers do--we rehash the past and try to craft the stuff of raw experience into something finer. And all good writing comes from pain. As writers, we force ourselves to revisit wounds again and again, until something meaningful emerges. And writing is like being in love--there are moments of triumph, and that's what hooks us, but mostly it's disappointing or monotonous.

3. List three cool little-known facts about Helen Keller.

1. She performed vaudeville and acted in Hollywood.
2. She was secretly engaged, but never married.
3. Doctors replaced her real eyes with glass eyes tinted blue.

Iowa or New Hampshire? Obama
Garden or Farm? Farm
Black Beauty or the Black Stallion? A horse named 20\20
Manhattan or Brooklyn? Brooklyn
LaGuardia or JFK? Amtrak
Yankees or Mets? Neither
Shiitake or Portobello? Morels and parmesan in risotto
Sonnets or Ghazals? Free verse or blank verse
Emily or Walt? Both
Dressage or Show-Jumping? Western

5. You are Poet-Dictator for a day. You may be either benevolent or despotic. Make a to-do list.
1. Give books by Lisa Olstein, Carl Phillips, Hayden Carruth, and Marianne Boruch to everyone.
2. Make tea, draw a bath, and read the stories in Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock.

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