YOU CANNOT SAVE HERE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY MOLL BY SHIKSHA DHEDA

Anthony Moll is a queer poet, essayist and educator. They are the author of Out of Step: A Memoir, which won the Lambda Literary Award and the Non/Fiction Collection Prize. Their latest book, You Cannot Save Here, won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize, and was just released by Washington Writers’ Publishing House. They are an assistant professor of English at a college in Maryland. Anthony holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts, and they are wrapping up their dissertation for a PhD in English.

Shiksha Dheda: Anthony, firstly congratulations on a wonderful collection that is most deserving of having won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize! I enjoy a catchy title, but I am even more intrigued by a title that seems to challenge me. Your title, You cannot save here, almost sounds like a definite improbability. Could you tell me a little bit more about what the title symbolises and why it’s phrased like a definite statement and not a question, for example?

Anthony Moll: Thanks so much, and thanks for your interest in it! I’m excited for the collection to be in the world, and I’m touched that WWPH has honored it with this annual prize.

The title was sort of a fun one for me, because it connects a few different discourses. In part, it’s meant to invoke the language of video games, particularly older games where the player had to save their progress as specific benchmarks throughout the game. Those save points were a relief; they let us feel like we could catch our breath, and regroup, and we wouldn’t lose any progress. “You cannot save here” was a message that informed the player that she had yet to reach such a point, that they were still at risk. Likewise, the language is also used more generally in technology—I think Windows uses this language (or something close to it) as an error message. Of course, it’s also meant to invoke apocalypse: a here that is past the point of no return, past saving. It’s also, in a small way, meant to hint at religious concepts of salvation, of “being saved.”

SD: I actually hadn’t made that link between the title and the messaging used in gaming and other apps. Now that I’m aware of it, the title is even more brilliant than what I initially thought! While we are on the topic of titles: many poetry collections have one titular piece, but this collection has several different pieces that all share the title ‘You cannot save here’. What was your intention of not having just one or two, but several poems all sharing the same title?

AM: Well, that phrase, it does so much work—it’s so versatile. It can be used over and over again in different ways, and each time we have to recontextualize it. That’s one of the cool magics of repetition generally, right?

More conceptually though, I was thinking about the parade of disasters that anyone who consumes news and/or social media has witnessed. It’s tough to tell if we’re experiencing catastrophe at an increased rate, or if our age is one that is more effective at making sure we hear about it. We’re just beset by disaster, and my hope is that the repetition of the title mirrors that. And just as nonstop news of disaster can get to the point where it is hard to keep track, or where we ache to tune it out, likewise, by the end of the collection, the reader has the choice whether to consider the title in the context of yet another poem, or to ignore it altogether, to skim over it and get to the poem itself.

 SD: Now that I am recontextualizing (as you say) the title in parallel with game reference points, numerous pieces having the same title fits so aptly. I am going to jump from titles straight to endings now (that seems to be a persistent theme in this collection: the act of creating during destruction; the juxtaposition of beginnings and endings). There is a lovely list of footnotes at the end of the collection, could you tell me a little bit more about that? What really stood out for me was the range of references that were used: games like Pokemon Go and Final Fantasy 3 share footnote space with a saying that is carved upon a centuries old hunger stone!

I get the feeling that you didn’t just include that for referential purposes, but also perhaps to illustrate the persistence of the idea of apocalypse in so many different mediums. Please do let me know if I’ve awfully missed the mark with that inference.

AM: No, I think it’s a great point. Thanks for your attention to the Notes section. Beautifully, we’re living in a day that has busted open the idea of a single literary canon, and in those cracks we can make room for the important, gorgeous work that has not historically been included. The sharp end of that undoing, for the artist, is that we (however one conceptualizes “we”) don’t have a shared set of symbols, a shared set of stories.  Who is the person who can (without looking it up), immediately pick up on references to John Martin, Aimee Mann, Final Fantasy 3, Planet of the Apes, Muriel Rukeyser, Mary Oliver, Lars von Trier, and Ghostbusters? I’m not saying I’m singular in my diverse interests, but I do think that the foundation that every writer builds from is different, and I don’t want that foundation to limit which readers enjoy my book.

In that way, it’s meant to be referential, because I feel like that is needed in 2022. But you’re on to a key point of the poetics behind the book: apocalyptic narratives are both ancient and very of this moment—they exist across time, media and culture.

On the other hand: I’ve been thinking a lot about what poetic allusion means in the age of information, in an unprecedented era of access to knowledge. A reader could just look up each allusion on their phone. To me though, there’s also something gorgeous about it all being together on the page. In that section, there’s no distinction between an imagined “high art” and “low art.” Pokemon GO and PrEP take up the same space as Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sagan and the Bible. That’s who I am as an artist, and that’s what I hope the book is too, so it’s great to see it encapsulated in this section.

SD: That is a very good point, Anthony. Often (and sadly so), there is an unspoken hierarchy of art, “high art” and “low art” as you mentioned, and artists often feel that if your work is influenced by “high art” it is somehow intrinsically more well-crafted than if it were influenced or grounded by “low art”. In my opinion, the diversity of your footnotes (and by extension), the diversity of the work that has influenced or inspired this collection is a testimony of your adaptability and relevance as an artist.

You also mentioned that apocalyptic narratives are both ancient and very of this moment, so I have to ask (even though I’m sure you’ve been asked this quite often): was the main basis for this collection the sudden onset of the pandemic? Or were you working on this collection before that? If so, what are the main topics that you feel are headlining the apocalypse that we seem to be racing toward?

 AM: I have been asked this a lot, and people are often surprised to hear that, no, it wasn’t just the onset of the pandemic. I had been working on this book for a few years before the pandemic, exploring the small, personal impact of global disasters on my everyday life. Even before the outbreak, I was considering how we were living through the multiple apocalypse of climate disaster, fascism rising back into the daylight, the failure of democratic systems, police violence, and war. In doing so, I was thinking about the long history of imagining the endtimes, while I was also reading, writing & thinking about earlier real-world apocalypses too: The Second World War, the systematic destruction of the indigenous nations of the Americas, The Atlantic Slave Trade.

Of course, the pandemic interrupted that entire process, and it gave new meaning and direction to the work. Readers can see that in the final section of the book, how the pandemic becomes the entire focus, how it interrupts earlier threads, and how it asks us to reconsider everything.

 SD: This is true: the pandemic did, in many ways, eclipse all the other apocalypses (that you’ve mentioned) and several others, as well. There are many instances in this collection where the apocalypse is viewed as an unraveling, as is indicated in the very first quote from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, as opposed to a massive bang or crash. This reminded me of the well-known line from T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.” In many ways, especially with the ongoing pandemic and climate crisis, I often feel like a helpless bystander that can only control the little bubble I find myself in. I feel powerless to control much else.

How would you say these feelings of helplessness (during the unraveling) are addressed or discussed in this collection?

AM: That unraveling, I think it’s something that so many people are feeling right now. We can see things failing, and in a way that is slightly different from the end-times-thinking of the 20th century, we can feel it coming down slowly. As you said, we see it in the pandemic, and the failure of so many nations to keep people safe. We see it in climate change, in inaction even as we slide past the “point of no return” and start to feel its impact. We feel it too in the return of unchecked fascism across the globe. I don’t think the book has answers to this feeling, but I hope it’s just part of the choir that acknowledges “hey, we’re all feeling this, even if we’re not all saying so,” because I think that is important to hear.

 SD: This is true! Sometimes, in fact, more often than it is acknowledged, sharing and listening to and about a common grief is not only cathartic, but also uplifting, and I think this collection does an excellent job (especially) in this regard.

I enjoyed this collection in its entirety, but Lovers in Stony Run really remained with me after the first read. It highlighted youth, ignorance and the illusion of stealth. The duality of feigned ignorance in this piece really struck me, considering that the younger generation is very actively concerned about the climate crisis. What commentary/observation does this piece infer regarding youth, young love, ignorance and the climate crisis?

AM: Thanks! I love that poem, and I love your reading of it. The initial seed came from witnessing a very similar moment in an urban waterway near my home in Baltimore: teens playing and flirting in the water despite a sign just a few hundred feet upstream that warned of toxins in the stream. That got me thinking about youth generally, about how desire, romance and connection (for many of young people) eclipses so much else. There’s a tension in the poem because part of me found the moment sort of grotesque, the way adolescence can feel generally–our bodies, our notions of the world, our priorities. Yet there’s also something tender there, because there’s something to be said of the fire that we go through when we’re young, and how that continues in each generation, despite calamity. A major theme of the book is how we all get on with every variety these intimate, interpersonal moments, with disaster all around us.

SD:  You mentioned (and rightly so) that often desire, romance, and connection eclipse so much else. I think the many lockdowns highlighted this observation, not just for the youth, but for many of us, in general. Because Lovers in Stony Run is somehow both (amazingly) a personal and a general poem, it led me to a question which was reiterated in the piece You cannot save here (after “men standing with a pile of buffalo skulls”). In this piece you mention “that this isn’t the first last days”, does this allude to major past catastrophes that seemed like the end-of -the-world level catastrophe or does it allude more to personal, less generally significant events? (or both, perhaps?)

AM: In general, the book is about both, and I’ve talked a bit about how my aim was really a book of small, intimate moments, not big themes.

This particular poem is a big poem though. It’s a big public & history & concept poem. Part of the research for this book (and by extensions, for my dissertation) was studying the history of apocalypse and eschatology, and this is definitely one of the poems that were built from parts of that research that were sticking to my brain.  

SD: Now that you have mentioned your research and other writing, I would like to also congratulate you on also being the 2018 Lambda Literary Award winner for bisexual nonfiction for your memoir Out of Step.

How would you say writing memoir and poetry differs for you as a writer? Are you equally comfortable writing in both genres? Would you say your writing experience as a memoirist has influenced your poetry or vice versa?

AM: My favorite writers are the ones who straddle the line between the two genres or who oscillate between them, or who ignore the distinctions between one and the other. I’m definitely comfortable in both (My MFA thesis was creative nonfiction and my PhD dissertation is in poetry), and I want to continue blurring the lines between them. The lyricism of poetry certainly strengthens my sentences in CNF, and there are elements of truth and self in every poem I write. Likewise with reading, I think I become a stronger poet when I read CNF, and vice versa with reading poems.

 SD: I agree with you: my favorite writing oscillates between genres, too!

Lastly, as someone that has been dealing with the duality of significance and insignificance; beginnings and endings; survival and apocalypse, You cannot save here really resonated with me. It is, however, not necessarily a book of hope; it is rooted firmly in realism and doesn’t euphemise the harshness of what our current reality is despite the heavy inclusion of soft and tender moments.

Did you write this collection as a means of sharing this strange duality with your readers? Or was the primary purpose something else altogether? Is there perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future after all?

AM: My dissertation chair actually asked me a similar question about whether or not there is optimism here, because you’re right: the book is a harsh look at the world around us. It took me a lot of thought, thought that came after the book was assembled, before figuring out the answer. Ultimately, I do think there is a bit of hope here, but it’s not packaged in the way we often hear it when we speak of disaster. I don’t offer a sense of “maybe it won’t happen,” because it has happened; it is happening. Likewise, I don’t really offer a sense of “what comes after,” but I do hint at an after, and I think that’s a type of hope. When I talk about using condoms or starting PrEP, that’s planning for a future. It is a plan for sticking around, instead of a self-destructiveness associated with no future.

And when I discuss the collapse of systems that have, even before the pandemic, failed too many people (“some ends of some worlds // are meant to be, I think / a happy ending”), that’s a sort of optimism too, because they summon the question of what might come next. My favorite thing about the final poem in the collection is that it ends with seasons, and for so much of human history, through so much of the world, we’ve operated around cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. Me and you are having this discussion just around the solstice, an ancient holiday that reminds us that winter is inevitable, but so is the end of winter, and so is what comes after that. That’s the sort of hope the book hints at.

 SD: Thank you for that, Anthony and for this collection. It reminded me that life is cyclic and perhaps I should look towards what comes after the end of winter as opposed to recollecting the harshness of a winter gone by.

Shiksha Dheda is a South African of Indian descent. She uses writing to express her OCD and depression roller-coaster ventures,  but mostly to avoid working on her master’s degree. Sometimes, she dabbles in photography, painting, and baking lopsided layered cakes. Her writing has been featured (on/forthcoming) in Wigleaf, Passages North, Brittle Paper, Door is a jar, and Epoch Press, amongst others. She currently has chapbooks published with The Daily Drunk Mag and Fahmidan Publishing & Co and is the Pushcart nominated author of Washed Away (Alien Buddha Press, 2021). She rambles annoyingly at Twitter: @ShikshaWrites. You can find (or ignore her) at https://shikshadheda.wixsite.com/writing 

 

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