Provisional Map of a Lost Continent, winner of the 2015 Poets Out Loud prize, uses surreal and dreamlike imagery to tell a story of exploration and discovery, beginnings and endings. Its author, Gregory Mahrer, has been published in The New England Review, The Indiana Review, Green Mountains Review, Volt, and Colorado Review, among many others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times, including a Pushcart Special Mention for his poem, "Refrain," in 2014. In this interview, we discuss his process and influences.
EC: First of all, congratulations on winning the Poets Out Loud Prize!
GM: Thank you. I’m pleased to be part of such a wonderful group of poets. It’s been a pleasure to work with everyone at Fordham.
EC: Where did the idea for this book come from? How long did it take to write?
GM: For some time I’ve been intrigued by the idea of mock narratives and speculative histories which, while following the logic of grammar and syntax, veer from the expectations of a narrative. Some of the poems in the book go back eight or ten years and some are more recent, but it’s difficult to quantify the length of time it took to put the book together. What I can say is that I sent it out in more or less its current form for about four years before it was published.
EC: Did you start out wanting to tell an overarching story, or did you write several poems with similar themes and then the book developed from there?
GM: I never start with a clear sense of where I’m heading and refrain from consulting a compass. If I think I know what lies ahead then it is almost certainly a sign that I’m on the wrong path or in the wrong metropolis. At some point, I realized I had written a number of city poems and then began enlarging that series, as well as themes of geography and mappings of exterior and interior worlds. I think, in general, the poems in the collection owe a debt to various accounts of expeditions to foreign lands. My hope is that at the intersection of actual and imaginary accounts something else, something adjacent, opens while still retaining a connection to the mapped and unmapped world from which I draw inspiration.
EC: I’m a fiction writer, so I tend to search for narrative in everything. Do you see an overarching story here?
GM: Well, certainly there are dystopian themes, mixed with the imperative of exploration, but also a kind of nostalgia for a time that never was, or a time that never will be. In that way, there is a kind of implicit romanticism, but that romanticism—post apocalyptic, troubled -- is also a critique of romanticism. In addition, I was interested in moments when the expected narration of exploration and discovery suddenly goes awry, becomes disorienting. So the moment the narration seems familiar, it also begins to unravel. The way is lost. I think in writing these poems, I was continuously in the process of finding and losing my way, which is also the plight of the various disordered subjects that populate the book.
EC: “Red City” immediately establishes a dreamlike, almost fairy tale atmosphere that continues throughout. Later on, “Fable” directly echoes this. Do you find yourself inspired by mythology and folklore when writing poetry? Where to you find the most inspiration?
GM: Early on I was influenced less by poets or fables than fabulists like Borges, Garcia Marquez and, as can be seen by the epigraph, Donald Barthelme. I am sure the accounts of Spanish expeditions gleaned from my early school years figure in some way, though I can’t point to specific examples. All those accounts blend into one. Any details in the poems bear only a slight relationship to historical events. They are mostly misremembered, but hopefully retain some sort of essential resonance of that age.
EC: Do you see this as deliberately anachronistic? Did you have a specific place / time for the setting?
GM: No specific time or place-- more nomadic landscapes, cities that wander through time, migratory geographies, cultures assembled without regard to fixed locations. I think of the time frame, as well as the place, as spanning centuries, continents, and geological epochs. Any mapping is, therefore, tentative, speculative, flawed.
EC: “Whiteout” felt like a poem purely about writing and process. Do you agree, and how does this relate to the Lost Continent?
GM: Yes, it’s partly about writing, though I think I was mostly interested in disemboweled political speech: what is obfuscated, what is revealed and what happens at that intersection. Similarly, the lost continent, evades the certainly of precise mapping. I'm intrigued by what is knowable and what eludes inquiry. We interrogate the landscape we find ourselves in, or the language we are born into, and what comes back is often less certain than we would like. Or, said in another way, we have arrived too late or in mid-sentence, and can’t remember how many search parties have gone out, never to be heard from again. We follow their traces. Now we are sending out another.
EC: Is “Ciudad de Plata” meant to be a reference to La Plata, Argentina? If so, why did you choose to use real geography in this mythical landscape?
GM: Any resemblance to an actual city is purely coincidental, but I like the idea that every city in the book has a kind of sister city somewhere.
EC: One of your poems, “En Las Calles des Borges” is a direct reference to Jorge Luis Borges. Can you describe influence of Borges in your work?
GM: I read a lot of Borges in my twenties so I clearly owe a debt to his work, particularly his short fiction where reality and illusion are almost indistinguishable and in which a sense of mystery, double meaning, and ambiguity preside
EC: The book is divided into three sections preceded by an image of an abstract landscape. What’s the relationship between structure and visuals and your poetry?
GM: The visual components of the book were assembled once the poems were finished though for a long time I had the idea of old or imaginary maps being placed between the sections of the book. In the end I elected to go with the Harry Frank monotypes of abstract landscapes. I felt they worked well with the mood of the poems.
EC: You use a wide variety of forms throughout the book. Do you enjoy experimenting with structure and form in your work?
GM: I do like playing with form. Mostly, I try to let each poem dictate what form suits it best, though there is clearly no science to it and often more than one solution. Some poems like “Red City” were originally in standard stanzas. At that point the poem didn’t seem to be working the way I wanted it to. Once I played around with the form it helped open up the poem to other possibilities.
EC: Do you see this work as apocalyptic? Hopeful?
GM: It has been called apocalyptic by others and I think that description is accurate. I don’t think that means it isn’t also hopeful in some measure, even if that that possibility resides outside the frame of the poem or maybe is allocated to the conditional and the subjunctive. I hope that a horizon is in view as much as the close geographies of loss and exile.
EC: How did you start writing poetry? Why poetry?
GM: When I first started writing, I wrote mostly short fiction, which in retrospect seemed like early drafts of the poetry I later came to write. I think I’m temperamentally more suited to working in shorter forms and like the more pressurized pared down language which is so essential to the poetic gesture.
EC: What do you like to read?
GM: For a long time, I read fiction more than poetry, but these days it’s predominantly poetry. I tend to read more elliptical poetry when I feel stuck in my own writing, but I appreciate a wide variety of forms and styles. I’ve been missing fiction lately and hope to make room for that again. I’m thinking of reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” again, but in Spanish this time. I may need almost that amount of solitude to realize that ambition.
EC: Do you have a day job? How do you balance this with your writing?
GM: As a friend of mine recently observed, I’ve taken a somewhat unconventional path as a poet. Though I was an English major, I never formally studied poetry and there are still holes in my knowledge though I am working hard to fill in the gaps. Unlike most of my friends who are poets, I don’t teach and have little desire to do so. I’m involved in a couple of real estate partnerships in California and Mexico which engages my interest in architecture and allows me to understand, to some degree, other cultural perspectives, while still affording time to pursue my interest in poetry from near and distant shores.
-This interview has been edited and condensed