Malachi Black

Malachi Black“Poems and prayers both endeavor…to celebrate, investigate, mourn, or heal the mystery of existence.”

Malachi Black is the author of Storm Toward Morning (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), a Lannan Literary Selection, a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and a selection for the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets Series.  Black’s poems have appeared in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and The Southern Review, among other journals, and in several recent and forthcoming anthologies, including Before the Door of God (Yale UP, 2013); Discoveries: New Writing from The Iowa Review (Iowa Review, 2012); and The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Publishing [U.K.], 2016).  The recipient of a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship (awarded by the Poetry Foundation in conjunction with Poetry magazine), Black has since received fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Emory University, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the University of Utah, and Yaddo.  Black was the subject of an Emerging Poet profile by Mark Jarman in American Poets: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, and his work has several times been set to music and has been featured in exhibitions both in the U.S. and abroad.  He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of San Diego and lives in California.

bulbWhat is the relationship between poetry and prayer?

The purest manifestations of poetry and prayer both emerge from human need—consequential utterance always does—and attempt to manage or address the agitations that provoke them.

Functionally speaking, each is a connective medium: poems and prayers are privately-made vessels designed for, or aspiring to, communion; and the existence of either kind of expression (though they are not uncommonly one and the same) depends upon varieties of faith—faith not only in the possibility of an auditor (or God, as is often the case in prayer), but also in the efficacy of language, at least as concerns its capacity to span the distance between sentient interiors. It’s no small irony that, because both poetry and prayer are directionally unilateral, each medium necessitates some projection or implied construction of an audience. In effect, both poetry and prayer entail three simultaneous varieties of invention: the construction of a (speaking) self, the composition of expressive matter (the self’s communique), and the imagination of a recipient adequately equipped to receive, comprehend, or internalize that matter. This is true of all forms of communication, certainly, but in media like poetry and prayer—where the prospective audience remains at a remove from the expressive gesture—they obtain particularly.

Most lyric poems, like most prayers, are comprised of praise (ode) and/or lamentation (elegy).

bulbWhy are poems a space for exploring and challenging spirituality? What is poetry’s relationship to belief?

I have already touched on certain elements of faith inherent in poetic composition, but less so on the substantive concerns shared by poetry and prayer: namely, a probing of the abiding mystery inherent in conscious existence. After all, there is nothing more truly peculiar, confusing, and surprising than being entirely alive, and poems and prayers both endeavor—whether in implicit or explicit terms—to celebrate, investigate, mourn, or heal the mystery of existence. If we can agree that this mystery is, at least in general terms, the basis of our spiritual lives, then we might even say that poetry—whose written origins lie in cosmological, memorial, and religious testimony and inquiry—has always been a space for exploring and challenging spirituality. Poetry seems to have arisen from that practice as the goblet did from wine.

bulbIs there something about poems in sequence that makes them particularly fertile ground for exploring questions of faith?

Coleridge draws a distinction between “mechanical” and “organic” form, form impressed (external) as opposed to form expressed (internal). In truth, all successful poems manage to marry shape and substance in mutual reinforcement, and that marriage is certainly among my foremost aspirations at all times. One particularly fruitful facet of sequential or serial structures is that their discontinuous nature occasions the amplification and communication of non-narrative or extra-narrative time; a sequence contains and expresses the passage of time implicitly (in the disjunctions between parts, as with chapters in a novel). This is useful in dealing with material or situations wherein duration or frequency—felt time—is at issue, and since temporality itself is perhaps the definitive characteristic of mortality, I have found sequential forms valuable in dramatizing the intersections and discrepancies between the mortal and the divine, much as have innumerable religious bodies in establishing and performing serial rites. I believe, too, that a sequence readily provides for a variety of approaches to the same broad subject, just as the hands on a clock are grounded to one source but alternately point in sixty different geometric rays.

bulbHow have specific forms and structures of worship influenced your poetry?

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued convincingly that the very idea or experience of “pure aesthetic space” grows, historically, out of “sacred space” (where texts, temples, and objects are built, beautified, and revered) and I’m compelled by the many enriching reverberations between worship and ceremony, elevation and art. I have been deeply moved by an array of systems and structures of worship, from Carthusian monastic practice to Tibetan Buddhist monastic practice, from the Catholic mass to the inspired silence of the Quaker meeting house and the violinic notes of the Islamic call to prayer. At times I have appropriated religious forms for my own expressive purposes, but I’m as influenced and affected by the practice of worship as I am by the manifold vitalities of painting, narrative, poetry, and song. I am especially devoted and indebted to the Kings James Version of the Psalms.

bulbWhat is poetry’s relationship to philosophical questions? What strategies do you employ to ask broader questions beyond the self on the page?

As with the most engaged philosophy, the most compelling poems typically emerge from inquiry and examination, even if only of the most oblique, reflexive sort, i.e., “Why?” As such, poetry and philosophy are both shaped by the interrogative mode and its supple curvature—and lyric poetry at its most focused is hardly distinguishable from phenomenology. I’m afraid I would be hard pressed to delineate a discrete set of poetic strategies for reaching beyond the “self,” but I would be remiss here not to invoke Rilke’s injunction to the young Franz Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet, where the elder offers the following: “[B]e patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and… try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now” (tr. Norton). It would both interesting and worthwhile to compile an anthology of lyric queries, from Sappho through Terrance Hayes; no small number of our very greatest poems begin from, contain, and/or take the shape of questions, wafting from the unknown.


In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:

 How did you come to poetry?

Poetry came to me—in stages. Both as an infant and as a child, I was read poetry by mother, whose soft but steady declamations left me as soothed as I was mesmerized. Then, once I could write, I played games with language, approximating in a jejune and utterly unselfconscious way the musical, magical spells to which I had been exposed. It wasn’t until I was twelve or thirteen that, almost by accident, I fell upon William Blake, and his work Virgiled me to the wide expanse of past and present poetries. I’ve had them with me ever since.

Can creative writing be taught? How?

Literary technique can, certainly, as can close reading, which is foundational—sensitivity to textuality underpins all. However, mastery of “creative writing” and its component parts can’t really be transmitted through instruction; literary accomplishment lies largely in the application of knowledge. An instructor can delineate the array of literary strategies, devices, and materials that are at any writer’s disposal, but those elements must then be repeatedly considered and deployed in order to be acquired. Wide reading, wide practice, and wider reading remain the best education in writing.

What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?

It would batter my heart to limit required reading in this way, so please allow me to name instead five unduly neglected volumes that I wish everyone were reading (listed chronologically): Michael Drayton’s Idea; The Poetical Works of Edward Taylor; W. D. Snodgrass’ Heart’s Needle; Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems; and May Swenson’s Collected Poems.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?

I cherish much too much to include here, but I’m delighted to share these long-loved lines, recently added to the corkboard I keep above my desk:

“… ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it.  Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here.  And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough.  Now strike your note.’”

(From Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island”)

What are you working on now?

My second collection of poems, Indirect Light.

Can you provide us with a poetry prompt for our students?

Formulate in precise terms one of your most preoccupying questions and use that as an invisible first line; write, by way of response, from that unknowing space. It’s more important that you inhabit, enumerate, and explore uncertain possibility than that you arrive at a definitive answer. If needed, use section six of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as a guide.

Classroom Portfolio:


from “Quarantine

from “Quarantine

Discussion Questions

  • Read the various sections of the “Quarantine” sequence linked on the Lightbox website. What holds these poems together as a sequence?
  • In what order would you place the poems , if you didn’t know the full, finished version published in Malachi Black’s collection, Storm Toward Morning? Why? What other possible ways of arranging these poems can you think of? How would they work to create new meanings?
  • What is the effect of the repetition of first and last lines in the “Quarantine” sequence? What surprises you about the reappearance of the familiar line in another poem?
  • How does “Quarantine” address its subjects? Do you think the “you” in the poem is an addressee with a stable identity or one that shifts?
  • In what ways does the sonnet form function in the poem, “Prime”?
  • Discuss the sequence’s interest in science. How is this imagery in tension with the poem’s overt relationship with faith and spirituality?

Discussion Questions (PDF)

In-class Activities

Invisible Listeners

In his interview, Malachi Black writes, “The purest manifestations of poetry and prayer both emerge from human need—consequential utterance always does—and attempt to manage or address the agitations that provoke them.” He extends this comparison by discussing some modes of address that poems and prayers share: “Most lyric poems, like most prayers, are comprised of praise (ode) and/or lamentation (elegy).” In this activity, we’ll explore what it means to address—that is, to speak to—something larger than ourselves.

Invisible Listeners Activity (PDF)


Lightbox Prompt:

In this prompt, you will write a poem of address to an abstraction. This might be an emotion, such as happiness, a complex concept, such as relativity, or a deity from any school of religious belief. As you write, you must imagine your abstraction as a listener, as Malachi Black writes, as a “recipient adequately equipped to receive, comprehend, or internalize” what it is that you say to them in the poem. Practice at least two different modes of address in your poem. Command the abstraction to do something. Ask the abstraction a question. Praise the abstraction for what it is, or lament it for what it is not. Reflect on what kind of address most effectively communicates what you want from your abstraction.

Lightbox Prompt (PDF)

Malachi Black’s Prompt:

Formulate in precise terms one of your most preoccupying questions and use that as an invisible first line; write, by way of response, from that unknowing space. It’s more important that you inhabit, enumerate, and explore uncertain possibility than that you arrive at a definitive answer. If needed, use section six of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as a guide.

Malachi Black’s Prompt (PDF)

Malachi Black Online

1550_mdBuy Storm Toward Morning by Malachi Black

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