An Interview with Michael Chitwood
By Deena M. Biengardo
DMB: You have worked for a number of different publications, as a science writer and also as a commentator. Which of these was most fulfilling?
MC: I enjoyed my time at the various publications. Working for the University of Virginia Medical Center and Duke Medical Center introduced me to people and situations I would not otherwise have ever encountered. I’ve witnessed surgery to put skin grafts on burn victims and flew in a life-flight helicopter. I once stayed up 36 hours with a medical intern for a story. The radio commentaries gave me a wide audience. After one of my commentaries aired, my doorbell rang and a neighbor on my doorstep said, “You just made me cry.”
DMB: In 1986, you moved from Virginia to North Carolina. What were the factors that caused you to move?
MC: The reason for the move was simple. I had just finished my MFA at UVa, and my wife wanted to get her MBA. She had chosen the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We came to Chapel Hill and fell in love with the place.
DMB: Did your 'poetic voice' change along with the move to NC?
MC: I don’t really think so, at least not immediately. I hope that my work has evolved in new directions, but I think that is more a matter of new life experiences rather than location. I will say that here in North Carolina I found other really fine writers who were very welcoming and it’s been a real boon getting to know them.
DMB: Where is it that you write?
MC: I have two favorite places: a comfortable chair in the living room and the front porch (when the weather allows.) If I’m working on a book review or other piece of journalism, I usually just work at the computer in my office. For poetry and fiction, I like to start out writing by hand because it slows me down and lets me think word to word.
DMB: Do you sit-down with notes or a plan of what it is you’d like to write about?
MC: Not usually. Often, I start with an image or a single line for poetry, sometimes a title that I’ve given myself the assignment of writing the poem that goes under it. With stories, I have a general idea of the characters and some of the plot but I try to let them have a life of their own as well.
DMB: In your book Spill, your keen use of imagery often brings the piece alive. Do you envision the place about which you are writing or do these places often exist?
MC: I do “see” the action or images of a poem as I am working on it, whether I am remembering a real place or person or object or making up the situation. It seems to me that the “seeing” is the real work of the imagination.
DMB: What most often starts the idea of a poem for you: images, or do the particular images come later?
MC: Like I said, I usually start with an image or sometimes an object. I’ve recently written a poem about the vulture-bone flute archeologist discovered in a cave in Germany. That poem starts with my picturing the flute in my mind’s eye and thinking about the fact that a musical instrument was made from the bone of a flying carrion eater.
DMB: Has being a science writer influenced your work?
MC: I think that everything that you do has to have some influence on your work. On a few occasions, the research for the science writing has worked its way into poems and stories. A chemist once said me to me during an interview, “Of course you know naphthalene sublimes at room temperature.” I couldn’t get that phrase out of my head and it became the first line of my poem “Let My People Go” in Salt Works. Naphthalene is the stuff moth balls are made of and to sublime is to transform from the solid to the gaseous state without going through the liquid.
DMB: The jacket of Spill describes it as ‘a book of spiritual yearning’, do you agree?
MC: Yes, the spiritual quest is a big theme for me.
DMB: Has being a science writer influenced you spiritually therefore playing a role in your poetry?
MC: I don’t think so. The spiritual questing for me began by being raised in an evangelical church and later having many questions about the teaching I first learned there. It’s an ongoing argument.
DMB: Spill is separated into three sections depicting a journey. Is this a personal adventure you have taken?
MC: I did want Spill to have a narrative arc, which begins in childhood and progresses from there. The arc certainly parallels some of the facts of my life, but not all.
DMB: Does your poetry ever function as a way of remembering?
M.C: Absolutely. Remembering and sometimes documenting. Of course, I hope I am doing more than just recording memories. I think the strongest kind of remembering is seeing the past in light of the present.
DMB: Publishing eight books is such an accomplishment! It is especially remarkable since writers often struggle to make a name for themselves. What helped you get your ‘big break’?
MC: I published poems in The Ohio Review and they also published books. When my first manuscript was done, my friend Tom Andrews, who had begun teaching at Ohio University, mentioned to Wayne Dodd, then the editor at Ohio Review Books, that the ms. was complete. He asked to see it and that became Salt Works, my first full-length collection.
DMB: Do you read the books of many contemporary poets?
MC: Yes. Every day. That is my advice to my students and to beginning writers. Read. Read. Read. If I’m having trouble getting started I have two or three poets that I turn to to prime the pump.
DMB: What advice would you give a young writer who has yet to be published but has hopes of becoming a poet?
MC: Besides reading as much as possible, I would say to show up at the page. Many people, especially beginning writers, think that writing is mostly inspiration. The muse tosses down a lightning bolt and you write something good. I think writing is mostly perspiration. You go to you chair or desk, and you stay there. It’s best if you do it at the same time every day just like you show up at a job at the same time every day. And learn to love revision.