By Alex Zitzner
Before the upcoming release of The Word We Used for It from the University of Wisconsin Press, I was able to grab a coffee with the latest Brittingham Prize Winner, Max Garland, and discuss his third collection of poems. Following two previous prize-winning books (The Postal Confessions; University of Massachusetts Press and Hunger Wide as Heaven; Cleveland State University Poetry Center), this third installment lends a new ear to topics of memory, nature, and how we account for each as our eyes become critical of our words.
My immediate reaction was to pose a question about the title’s vagueness. With the word “It” being somewhat open ended, Max explained the title, noting how, “...we use words all the time as if we understand what they mean, but more often when we get down to it, we’re meaning very different things. Some of the most important things we try to say aren’t adequately conveyed…” By admitting the rift between what we experience and how we share those experiences, “The Word We Used for It” serves as a reference point for each trail of memories traversed in trying to find the right words to describe the journey.
Max explained how memories often “...become colored with all we’ve experienced,” and become lost, slightly skewed retellings of stories. This idea can be found running throughout each and every piece of the book in its own way, allowing the reader to reflect on the theme as they go. The poem, “The Woman Who Waved From the River” perfectly illustrates this sentiment.
Besides memories of childhood, another pertinent theme running through the collection involves nature and the urgency to depict the present before the next moment vanishes. As Max puts it, “There is a lot to be learned from creatures. Think of those rabbits and squirrels and the grit they have during the Wisconsin winters, there is a lesson in that. Look how invested they are on a day to day basis...look how alive they are, even if their life is going to be short.” A telling epigraph from Nazim Hikmet appears at the beginning of Max’s book: “Living is no laughing matter: / You must live your life with great seriousness / like a squirrel…” Hikmet’s words set the stage for Max’s, helping readers better understand nature’s constant state of motion, even if we don’t quite see it.
The Word We Used for It will challenge readers to think deeply about language and its abilities. Having read it myself, I am certain the newfound perspectives will long stick with me, even as my memories begins to fade.
Max will be releasing, reading, and signing this book at The Local Store on Friday November 10th. To hear Max read more about memory and nature, he will be reading with current Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Karla Huston, on Friday, October 20th at 4PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church as part of the Chippewa Valley Book Festival.