I am so excited to be sharing today’s post with all of you, and just over the moon that “songs on car stereos” is out today! One of my best friends, Jen, introduced me to Michael several years ago, and when he told me that he was releasing a book of poetry, I knew that I had to do everything possible to make some noise about it. Thus, here we are with an interview with Michael Mahin, and stay tuned on Thursday for a review of “songs on car stereos”, which is now available for purchase on Amazon.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat about your new book of poetry, “songs on car stereos”! It was such an honor to read it, and I’m so excited for the world to have it in their hands soon. Let’s start with an introduction on you and Pumpkin Boy Press!
Thanks for chatting with me, and for taking the time to read my book! I’m so appreciative. Okay, introductions: My name is Michael Mahin — I’m an aspiring writer and educator, living in Salem, MA. I’m currently studying to receive my Master’s at Salem State University to become an English Language Arts Teacher for high school students. I’m also queer and a recent cancer survivor (I finished treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma about 3.5 years ago).
I started this lil self-publishing press, Pumpkin Boy Press, within the past year and am really excited to be self-publishing my first book of poems, “songs on car stereos” (with illustrations by Skye Murie), on Sunday, October 31, 2021. I started Pumpkin Boy Press not only to publish my own work but with the hopes that I might publish the works of other queer poets and writers in the near future. It’s been such a fun and heartening experience to work with a dear friend of mine, Skye, to develop the logo for the press (and illustrations for the book) and to find such a lovely, supportive community of fellow writers on Instagram.
I love that you included a playlist on your Instagram for the book. How did you choose which songs to include for which parts?
I’m definitely a bit obsessed with music and making playlists. My friends joke that I literally create a playlist for every single trip, hang-out, excursion, etc. So, it was really inspiring and helpful to make a playlist for this book of poems. A lot of the songs in the playlist are directly referenced in the poems themselves or within the section headers of the book; others were songs that I listened to a lot during and/or after treatment, or while writing the book for mood-setting. There are songs, like “I’ve Been Down” by Haim, which I played constantly in the months leading up to writing this book, driving around my hometown, windows down, the stereo blaring. It just captured how I was feeling at that time — a bit depressed, adrift, but also ready to acknowledge that I was feeling down, so that I could finally move on. I do feel like there’s a bit of an emotional trajectory to the playlist, as there is in the book — from the deep blue of treatment (songs like “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange) to the exhilaration and confusion and anger left in the wake of finishing treatment (e.g. “Different” by Ofelia K). And, finally, to the bittersweetness of being a number of years out now and just feeling a lot happier and healthier with where I’m at in my life and in my healing journey (e.g. “Nothing is Wrong” by Mike Posner).
The structure of this honestly feels like something preordained. Every poem hits at exactly when it feels like it should. Were they written in a similar order, or was it a puzzle to piece them together?
That’s so nice to hear but it was definitely a puzzling-through process. I was sequencing up until the last minute. That being said, I did have a strong sense that I wanted three distinct sections, loosely corresponding with the idea of “during treatment” (the section entitled “blue songs”), “immediately after treatment” (“scar songs”) and “now, years after treatment” (“love songs”). Many of the poems in the first section were easy to place, because they were so clearly about being sick, undergoing chemo. But a lot of the post-treatment poems were harder to sequence, because the experiences were often so fluid; some of the feelings of confusion and loss I felt immediately after treatment are ones that I still feel now to some extent (just a lot less acutely).
What inspired certain styles for certain poems? Ones like “balloons” feel like something I’d see in most poetry books, but then “2012” has such a distinctly different style that really shifts the way it’s read. Which, wow, but “2012” just sucker punched me with its incredible peeling away of what it’s like to wander a street alone at night because you just can’t go home yet.
“2012” was a late addition, so I’m really glad to hear it resonated! I wish I could say I had more of a master plan related to the poems’ formatting but I’m mostly having fun and playing around at this stage. I have no formal training/schooling as a poet and actually received my undergraduate degree in screenwriting. So, it’s been cool to just test the limits and explore with indentation, dashes, lines, etc. to strengthen the emotions of the piece and/or for emphasis. Screenwriting is such a regimented genre, with little room for formatting-play. Poetry has been sort-of liberating on that front; I can really go outside the box with how I want to present each piece. With “2012”, I almost wanted to mimic my internal monologue at that time, when I was starting college. I was experiencing this flood of memories, fears, anxieties, etc. at that time. Having the lines so close together, in a claustrophobic block, felt like an intriguing literalization of what my mind was doing at that time.
What was the experience like digging back into your cancer and writing about it? Did it become something cathartic? Or something else entirely?
It was really cathartic. Before writing this book, I felt really stuck on the emotional aftermath of finishing treatment for a while and it seemed like nothing I did really helped. Then, over a year ago, I wrote a poem, trying to express a lot of the fear and anger and hope that I was holding onto at the time. And that one poem (which, ironically, didn’t make it into the book) opened the floodgates. I began writing to explore all the nuances and intricacies and petty little problems related to my cancer experience. And the weight of those experiences began to lessen a bit, gradually, as I was writing. Not because surviving cancer wasn’t hard any longer, but because I wasn’t simply alone with those thoughts and emotions anymore. I wasn’t just batting the idea of You should have healed sooner, better, stronger, faster around in my head endlessly anymore; I put the idea onto paper and exposed it to the light, which helped to take away some of its mental power. I don’t mean to suggest that writing this book cured me of all of my post-treatment depression and anxiety but it helped me see a way through these hard, fraught feelings. It helped me to feel a little less alone with them. And, in some cases, it clarified or sharpened what I saw as beautiful in the wake of my cancer experience too. I hate the platitude that gets thrown around sometimes, which suggests that “cancer is a gift”, because it makes your life newly meaningful. It does, and it doesn’t. Cancer, like all life struggles, can give us an opportunity to deepen our commitment to living a vibrant, meaningful life, if we are lucky enough to survive it and to have access to needed supports (family, friends, etc.). We also have to want to find meaning in its wake. I was lucky enough to survive. And I wanted, needed, to find some meaning in my post-cancer experience. And there is, can be, extraordinary beauty in that.
Each of the sections feel like very distinct stories in their own right with a bigger narrative pulling them all together, and each of them are so very much you that it almost feels like peering beneath the skin. What was that process like, shaping them into a story with these vastly different voices?
I think shaping the poems into a coherent whole was the hardest part of putting this book together. The sequencing process, deciding what to keep and what to forgo, was really challenging. I’m more familiar with sequencing a script, where your story often abides by a three-act structure. This book of poems has a three-act structure, in a way, but it’s looser, shaggier, more conflicted and contradictory in places. It definitely takes on some different voices and characters and experiences, and some of the poems aren’t as closely related to my own cancer experience or the experience of being a queer person in my 20s. But my hope was that, ultimately, all of the pieces would add up to a coherent whole, a sense of what it feels like to struggle through a hard, life-changing experience, make mistakes in its wake, and still come out the other side, bruised but still beautiful (I hope!).
I’m a huge nerd for formatting when it comes to poetry, and you’ve used your white space spectacularly. Is that something that comes before, during, or after the poem is written?
I’m a nerd for formatting too! The white space was not always intentionally created, although I knew I wanted to have a lot of space on the page for processing and playing with the words and the formatting. I hate when the page is so cluttered that you aren’t really able to grapple with the words.
As someone who also feels that Salem is something beloved, I have to commend you on “song for salem”. That line, “and yet is ancient to you”, I don’t even have words, which feels unfair to then ask you–why do you love Salem so much? What is it that draws you back again and again?
Ahh, I hoped you would like that one, as a fellow Salem fan! The older I get, the more I feel attuned to certain places and the energy they hold. Sometimes it’s a body of water (like Walden Pond) or a specific building (the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge). Sometimes it’s a city. Salem is one of those places where I just feel at home. Some of it has to do with the fact that I’m obsessed with all things spooky and Halloween-related; some of it has to do with its sense of history, the architecture, the fact that it’s situated by the water. But the other part is inexplicable, unexplainable; it’s that thing inside each of us that says This could be like home. I don’t know why exactly, but I hear that voice as I walk around my neighborhood every morning. I feel really grateful to live somewhere I love.
What was the experience like writing about both your family, your friends, and your lovers? Was it different for each?
It’s always a bit scary writing about people you know and who know you! But it felt important to do so in this book — I was trying to process my life in the last 4+ years, and my family and friends and (boy)friends have played a large part in my life during those years. I always try to be generous with those I’m writing about; there’s a poem entitled “sunflower”, in the second section of the book, in which I describe a relationship with a former coworker and friend where I had to make the hard decision to cut ties. I had tried numerous times to set healthy boundaries and this friend just wouldn’t abide by them. As a natural people-pleaser, I kept tamping down the voice inside my head that said: I need to go, I need to go, I need to go. And, in the end, after a while, I had to, and I did. It was hard; writing that poem was hard, because I still wish that relationship had gone differently. That friendship occupied a lot of my psychic energy for a while because I kept feeding it. I felt myself getting more and more bitter. It wasn’t until I trusted myself enough that I made the decision to enforce these boundaries (by cutting off the relationship) that I was able to have more compassion and generosity of spirit for this friend. I think about them a lot, even though we aren’t in communication any more.
Elsewhere, I have poems dedicated to both my mom and dad; I’m very close with my parents. They aren’t perfect, nobody is, but they have brought so many good and beautiful things into my life and I love them so much. And I feel that is worth honoring. I have referred to my friends as “the great love story of my life” and it’s true. I’ve never been very lucky in romantic love but I have the privilege of knowing some of the most thoughtful, compassionate, conscientious, curious, and kind people in the world and I get to call them my friends. So, I consider myself pretty fucking lucky. It’s why the last poem in the book is about being in a car with your friends — that experience, that feeling you get when you’re screaming lyrics at the top of your lungs with these people you love so deeply, is just beautiful and indescribably good.
What starts as something often angry and scared becomes something daring to hope and find joy. Was that a conscious decision or just the natural road map of the book?
It was definitely a process, though I did have a sense that I wanted to chart the emotional journey of “during cancer treatment” all the way to “present day” in some fashion. Maybe I’m a sucker for happy/bittersweet endings but I did feel like I wanted to close the book with poems that contained some of the more joyful or hopeful images I had written. That being said, I wanted every section to have a little mixture — the hope and the horror of cancer treatment was often inextricably linked in my experience, and I have felt that dynamic play out in the years of my life since finishing treatment as well. It’s one of the reasons I chose to end the book with “songs on the stereo (pt. ii)”; I liked the idea that the poem acknowledges that there are hard things in the background but that the narrator and their friends were choosing to be really present and joyful and alive for a moment, even if just for that moment. Because the hard things don’t magically go away; life is full of them. But we have to be willing to lean into those moments of sudden magic, where we feel really connected and hopeful, scream-singing in the car with our friends, windows down, the sun shining through. I live for those moments.
Thank you again for the true pleasure and honor of getting to both read your words and chat with you about them! What’s up next for you? And where can people find you?
Thank you for reading! I’m so inspired by you and your writing, truly. If you can believe it, I’m currently in the very, very, very early stages of thinking about my next poetry book. I have an idea, although I am not anywhere close to having all of the pieces written or to having the vision properly solidified. But right now, I’m imagining a book of summer-tinged love poems; these poems wouldn’t just be about romantic love but would encompass all the dimensions that the word “love” takes on in our lives, whether it be familial love, friend love, etc. So, that’s premature but exciting! I’ll definitely be sharing more details about the project in the year ahead. And I’m hoping to start to work with some authors in the near future, either on collaborative projects or helping them to self-publish their work through Pumpkin Boy Press. So, we’ll see what 2022 brings!