Associate Editor’s Note: I received a copy of Dave Malone’s book Tornado Drill (Kelsay Books, 2021) earlier this summer and enjoyed taking my time savoring it. As you will see in the interview, Dave and I have one surprising connection! It’s one of the reasons it has been so interesting to do these interviews—to make and find connections of many kinds. Dave is the author of three other books and he has had poems in a variety of publications in addition to MockingHeart Review: Midwest Review, Poydras Review, River Heron, etc. I am sure you will enjoy learning more about him and his writing. I include one poem, “Heron” in the body of the interview, and two others, “Tornado Drill” and “Confetti” follow the interview. Please look for those.
Denise M. Rogers, Associate Editor
MockingHeart Review: Tell me a little more about yourself, Dave. Some of the poems are set in Kansas; some are set in the Missouri Ozarks. Did your family move from one place to the other?
Dave Malone: Yes, when I was very young, my family left the Ozarks for Texas then Germany, and we moved to rural Kansas when I was six—then back to the Ozarks briefly when I was twelve before we eventually ended up in the Kansas City area. Now I make my home in West Plains, Missouri, in the Ozarks.
MHR: I could relate to a lot of the Ozarks poems in that my own family comes from the foothills around Potosi (Old Mines and Richwoods). While the poems in the Growing Up section read like memories and history, the ones set in the Ozarks feel more haunted in a sense. Take the poem “Longtime Schoolteacher.” My grandmother went to a one-room school, and the teacher in this school could be the ghost of Mrs. Pelikan, who taught at that school and occasionally boarded with my grandmother’s family. Is there a particular person who inspired this poem?
DM: No way. Are your ancestors French?
MHR: My ancestors on my mother’s side are French. My grandmother was a Pratt and her mother was a Mercille. French was my grandmother’s first language, and she’d speak it with her friends and her son, Donald. She was born in that French-speaking pocket of Missouri (around Old Mines, Richwoods, Cadet, and Potosi).
DM: One of my branches, the Partenais (eventually Americanized to Partney), settled at Old Mines in the late 1790s. That’s an excellent observation, and one I had not made myself—I can certainly see that the poems in “Growing Up” are more memory-filled, while the Ozarks’ ones may cast a haunting feeling. Mrs. Pelikan is a great name; have you written about her?
MHR: I have not, though I should. She was my grandmother’s teacher because she was the oldest graduate of the school. She was probably all of about 18 when she taught. She later married Joe Pelikan (Missouri has a lot of German folk right next to the French), and they moved to St. Louis. My parents found a house near theirs in Wellston (St. Louis County), and we actually went to the same church as they did. The Pelikans had no children, so every now and then Mrs. Pelikan would host a tea party for me and my three siblings. She’d tell us stories about our grandmother as a girl. That was fascinating! My mom said she was so grateful for those parties and that they sometimes saved her sanity (we were all under 6 years of age, and my mom stayed home with us).
DM: Regarding “Longtime Schoolteacher,” the setting was inspired by the Shady Grove area, a rural farming community a few miles outside of Cabool, Missouri. I lived in a berm home about a mile, from yes, a one-room schoolhouse. The school had been revamped as a community center, and I recall several memorable events like eating scrambled ostrich eggs, attending a pie supper, and laughing heartily at a stage play where my landlord forgot most of his, what had to be no more than, twelve lines. Yet, the teacher in the poem was an amalgamation of a couple of teachers I knew—some my own teachers, and some my colleagues when I taught school.
MHR: Your poem “Most Just Talk About the Weather” in the Quarantined section of the book reminded me of how people from the rural communities dealt with Covid-19 and the hospitalizations and deaths that came of it. It sounds like this was true of the community you were living in. Sounds like you were also compelled to ignore it. Can you talk about that and how it affected your writing?
DM: I think, like many other writers have talked about, when the pandemic arrived, it was difficult to write about anything at first. The thinking of course was: “Why bother? People are dying at an ungodly rate across the globe; how dare you be writing at a time like this?” But that feeling faded for most because writing and reading is a way of coping, of learning, of communicating feelings, of being better persons, of living better. Personally, how it affected my writing? I took a brief respite and then dove back in.
MHR: The poem that follows “Most Talk About the Weather,” “Walking Benefit,” begins:
Sitting at the table with breakfast
I obsess about what I said
the night before and don’t taste
the scrambled eggs with dill
and cracks of black pepper.
I immediately thought of Covid-19 and the fear of illness and death that comes with it. I remember myself feeling that I wanted to be careful around loved ones about what I said to them in case they got Covid (and in fact, both my elderly parents contracted it in July 2020 but luckily did not get hospitalized). How did Covid affect how you spoke to others and especially, how you wrote about others. Did anything change there?
DM: I’ll go straight to the poem here. And thank you for asking about this poem. I don’t think it’s my finest, but it is one close to my heart. If I can be so bold, I’d focus the reader’s attention to what happened to the speaker’s sense of taste in this poem. What happens on a daily basis if we are not present in the moment? What might you miss if you are not here?
MHR: The Growing Up section is focused on the boys; the Town section seems populated mostly by poems about “women.” Was this intentional?
DM: Organizing poems for a volume can be quite fun because ultimately the volume itself becomes a poem with a beginning, middle, and end. Maybe I have more female friends than male! The poem placement was intentional, but I would not say the inclusion of so many female characters was intentional in this section. But I am so glad they are there, and it seems to me, often in the role of protagonist. Hopefully, if my poems were made into short films, they would pass the Bechdel Test. Thank you again for an astute observation.
MHR: The poem “Confetti” reminds me of so many of the girls I went to school with who showed promise academically and technically but never had the money or encouragement for college. I appreciated the way this one woman “who banked her dimes / for Loretta Lynn albums when we were kids” and whose “knowledge trumps [the mechanic’s], an off-Jack in Pitch” was noticed by you. Do you often find yourself writing about those you knew when you were a kid?
DM: That character is a force to be reckoned with, right? In answer to your question: Oh, most definitely. I’m a nostalgic type of person, so there is fertile ground in my past to cultivate poems at a pretty steady rate. Plus, I’ve traveled a lot, lived a lot of places—and those experiences provide rich soil for new works. The woman in that poem is fictional. But some of the experience is true to life. I used to have a writing space on the town square in West Plains, and one day I heard the recycle truck rattle by, and I thought about all my shredded paper I sent to the recycle center, like drafts of poems and my ubiquitous to-do lists. So then I thought about the notion if someone bent down and looked at some of those scraps of mine, or scraps of paper from anybody from town. There is something intimate in those scraps of paper, and there is an intimate connection (or not) if the recycling person were to bend down and read or instead just sweep them away. And so that idea became a poem about different lives: a contemplative person working in an office and a blue-collar worker and survivor at a recycling plant.
MHR: Some of the women in the poems, like the hairdresser in “Hairdresser” seem almost magical. I loved that quotation from Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop about her hairdresser–he compliments the hairdresser but seems to acknowledge a connection between Bishop and the hairdresser. (He says “There’s something haunting and nihilistic about your hairdresser.”) Does that extend to the magic of Bishop’s hair? Does he suppose the hairdresser “at times, / a spinning top…Others, the arrow an ancient archer shot last week” endows Bishop with power? Certainly hair salons, like barbershops, are powerful places.
DM: Right? When I read that quote from Lowell, I thought: “Oh my god, he’s met my hairdresser.” Like some of my other poems, I would like the reader to consider the present moment. For the hairdresser, that is key. You have to pay close attention (how do they make small and/or deep talk while cutting hair? It’s a miracle to me). Zen is about spontaneous action. Don’t think too much; if you think too much, you are not present. So in this poem, when seen from the lens of Zen, the hairdresser is the arrow; she is action; she is present.
MHR: The hairdresser’s youth does not belie her knowledge. That’s true, too, of the boys who recognize danger in your poem “Fruit.” The boys get a ride from “Two old men in a truck” and neither of the boys “likes their looks.” While they get out of the truck as quickly as they can, they are still far from home, and I’m sure the reader feels some dread about their trip back. Have they really “scrambled to freedom”?
DM: You tell me! What prices do we pay for adventure as kids? I suppose, we should probably ask a child.
MHR: I loved “Mutt” for its ending of fear. It reminded me of the losses I experienced of pets, from dogs to a box turtle, and how my siblings and I dealt with it. But in your poem, it’s not the death of the dog that brings fear, but the place where they chose to bury it. It’s sort of like “it seemed a good idea at the time” situation. But maybe it is the new acquaintanceship with death the speaker and children now feel. What do you think?
DM: Thank you for paying close attention to the ending and to the irony of the last line, “We aren’t afraid, really.” Hmmmm. Yes, I would agree that it is a new “acquaintanceship with death.” That is what the poem suggests, isn’t it? My follow-up questions would be, “Where are the parents?” “Why are they not included?” Again, a child is probably best to ask these questions.
MHR: The tornado drill was familiar to me, growing up in St. Louis as I did. We had both tornado drills and, during the Cuba crises, there were the atomic bomb drills. So the book starts with a threat to mortality, and throughout the book, that fear pops up in the poems over and over. How did this experience and fear shape you as a person and as a poet?
DM: Whew. Where are the easy questions? I can’t imagine an atomic bomb drill, first of all. You are correct; that particular tornado drill did occur, and it was a monstrous storm that day, and it missed my little school, thank goodness. One of my favorite quotes is from Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The rural life in Kansas and spending time in the Ozarks on the family farm made me keenly interested in nature, with its very up close and personal world of life and death. That has certainly shaped the wellspring that is my life and that serves as inspiration for my poetry.
MHR: Even with the various kinds of fears that adults and children deal with exposed in the poems, there’s humor, too. Like “Fifi Gets Placed in Time Out” and the “Summer Afternoon in the Pod.” Life is such a mixed bag, and we do try to enjoy it even during quarantine, don’t we? I had such trouble writing anything (particularly poetry) during the quarantine that I took up these conversations as well as quilting. Was writing your only refuge for you during this time?
DM: Good for you for quilting. It’s a wonderful endeavor, isn’t it? And calming? With the onset of the pandemic, I began a more diligent reading practice, which has stayed with me. Now, it’s how I start my day each day: morning coffee and reading. Currently, I am reading about love and the types of love (most argue 4, 8, or 12), so I’ve tackled Theodore Reik’s Of Love and Lust, after reading bell hooks and a couple of very fine W. Somerset Maugham novels.
MHR: I love the poem the book ends with: “Heron” It’s just right. Let me reproduce it here:
I startled the great blue heron
when my kayak scratched stones
in the river’s low summer water.
With little effort, like the way
one takes off shoes, the grand bird
flapped long arms, held steady,
until she found the shore opposite me
and slipped into the sycamores
below the bluff. She stayed there
a long time, longer than my life.
It reminds me of the Li Bai poem “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain” (this version translated by Sam Hamill):
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Both touch on the eternal, nature. Can you talk about the role of nature in your poems?
DM: I love that Li Bai poem very much. And thank you for your kind words about “Heron.” Interesting, how in this moment, this proves a difficult question for me, to talk about the role of nature in my poems. It’s as if you were to ask a mirror: “How do you reflect light?” The answer might be: “I just do.” I suppose nature offers me, and many poets and writers, the opportunity for crisp and understandable metaphor? Why do you like the Li Bai poem? Is it in part because you appreciate nature? Birds, clouds, mountains surround us, and they are easily understood, and when spoken of in the manner of the Li Bai poem, suddenly we are receiving teaching—and it is a spiritual message. You find the Self when you lose the self. I would also say because I have an affinity for nature, that makes nature easy to write about, and the natural world finds its way into my poems even in those about town life.
Denise, thank you so much for these illuminating and intriguing questions. I have appreciated and enjoyed this opportunity to talk with you and MockingHeart Review’s readers.
Beneath the school desks, our legs angle
and lean like autumn crickets.
Dust motes float and sparkle
above the tongues of our sneakers.
To distract ourselves from the howling windows,
we till the flooring tiles with fingernails
scrubbed clean of bottled glue
and the remains of Mrs. Nelson’s
no-bake cookies. She booms “Quiet”
and invites the great silence.
We don’t wish to hear
what is a low hum at first—
Just an evening tractor laboring
several farms over—but then
The earth roars and the sky paints
the classroom cocoa.
Some of us scrape wings together and squeak.
Others weep. I scramble to the glass.
The recycle truck rolls past my office at noon.
I know one of the gals who works at the plant—
a hilltop-thin brunette who banked her dimes
for Loretta Lynn albums when we were kids.
From time to time, I see her at the post office
where she throttles bills under her thumbs.
or at the mechanic’s where her knowledge
trumps his, an off-Jack in Pitch.
She lost a husband to the twister last April.
Sometimes, I wonder about her
as she brooms the recycle room floor—
those scraps of paper, debts and to-do lists,
downed confetti of our town’s recent past
she sends away to the paper mill.
Dave Malone is a poet and writer from the Missouri Ozarks. His newest poetry volume is Tornado Drill (Aldrich Press, 2022), and his poems have appeared in Plainsongs, Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, andMidwest Review.