Mike Lala is the author of the chapbooks Under the Westward Night (Knickerbocker Circus, 2010) and [fire!] ([sic] Press, 2011). His poetry has appeared in Fence, The Brooklyn Rail, The Awl, RHINO, DIAGRAM, Artifice, and many others. He lives in Brooklyn, where he co-curates Fireside Follies, is Assistant Poetry Editor at Washington Square, and reviews poetry for Publishers Weekly. More at mikelala.com. His poem “Self Interrogation (Kill Team)” is published in Paperbag 5.
Cathy Linh Che: I was drawn to your poem, “Self Interrogation (Kill Team),” in part, because of my first encounter with the story—which I read about in an issue of Rolling Stone. For those who don’t know, The Kill Team was a group of American soldiers who killed several Afghan civilians for sport. Some of them kept parts of the victims’ bodies (thumbs and teeth) in baggies and showed them to friends. Others took photographs of the dead and mutilated bodies and even sent them home. The first person they killed with a fifteen-year-old farmer named Gul Mudin. The story has been with me for a long time, and I was interested to know that someone out there was grappling with it, too. Where/when did you first encounter the story of the Kill Team? Also, could you talk about your reaction to the news story as well as what led you to write the poem?
Mike Lala: It’s good to hear that you came across the story at all. If anything beyond the story itself is shocking, it’s how little mention it received in news outlets, as if this sort of violence—deranged beyond what I think most of us find fathomable—as if this sort of violence is commonplace in war—or as if we should accept that it comes with the territory.
But in any case, I found out about it either through a link to Der Spiegel or CNN, when Sgt. Gibbs was indicted (i.e. the investigation slipped by me).
My initial reaction was to a degree horror, or disgust, but it also awakened a very uncomfortable feeling that I wasn’t expecting, and one that intrigued me. I remember being struck by a thought: “This is me.” Or, “This says something about us:” something about this act, not just murdering someone in cold blood, not “just” a war atrocity, but the sort of psychosis surrounding the whole situation—how this man began collecting body parts from the corpses of his victim, how he showed them to other soldiers in a (successful) effort to keep them quiet, how he even got some of them to play along, and how his plans became ever more elaborate and outlandish (at the end, plans to throw candy in the road in front of convoys so they could run over children)—something about this saying to me this is the product of something more than one person and it hit very close to home, maybe because I grew up on military bases (my father was a career soldier), but I think also because these actions mimic in a very real way the more abstract and insidious actions we’ve taken as a country. So the poem, which is an embarrassing and futile attempt to talk about something that is sort of unspeakable (not just the act of one person, but an implication that is much wider), is an attempt to grapple with the idea that I am (or we all are) Sgt. Gibbs. After all, it’s my country, my culture, the vote of my elected representative and my tax dollars, that made this possible. It’s my crime as much as his.
CC: So much of our lives are saturated with news from afar, news that makes us angry, but that also feels like material that we can only access partially, news that’s often incorrect, manipulated, sensationalized, biased, whatever.
For you, what are the challenges, risks, and rewards of writing from something you find in the news, and how did you feel that you addressed the challenges and risks?
ML: I think that there is the basic challenge that many poets face of how to take “found” material and what to do with it, to make it work in verse. But then there’s another catch, because when dealing with “the news,” using a story like this one, you risk exploiting it—the stories of people who have suffered tremendously, who have died or had people close to them murdered in gruesome ways, and people who have been asked to bear an impossible weight or carry out a task that should never have been asked of them. You can’t well leave the victims or their family members out—but how do you let them exist in the work in a way that doesn’t exploit their suffering? Is that possible?
And about Sgt. Gibbs—how can I begin to talk about empathy, which really is what the poem is operating on, as someone who is living this relatively safe, comfortable life while he was cast (to some degree, by me) into a kind of hell I’ll never experience? So the risk, and I think something the writer has to accept, is that by taking on “the news” of the day, you ultimately fail in what you want to do, you learn that you’re not and cannot be educated enough about your subject, that there’s an inherent hypocrisy in the distance you have take to write “about” it, and to some degree you exploit something that is so not yours it’s a little sickening while you do it. But then again, you do it (even if the information you start with is manipulated, sensationalized, or incomplete).
CC: How important is it to you that this poem proceed as a kind self-interrogation? The word that comes to mind is culpability. Another word that comes to mind is solitude. How are these topics at play in your work?
ML: Well, there are perhaps many ways culpability, which is a great word, and to which I might add the previously mentioned empathy, figures into things. I think that these ideas are complex and uncomfortable enough that writing the poem became a form of interrogation or antagonism of the self, while of course the poem is an interrogation in form and takes place when “interrogation” itself is a buzz word for acts of torture this country is committing in the name of keeping its people, many of them blindsided with “the news,” safe.
Reading the story, I recognized something of myself, and of my culture, in this deranged act. Not just the killing, but the psychosis of a culture that can produce a personality that could do such things repeatedly (or better, that asks a human being to enter a situation that could produce this act and then to find enjoyment in it). To think that he is a monster, or an anomaly that can systematically be dealt with, or just to write him off and say “I told you so” because one never supported the wars in the first place is really overlooking what we, all of us, have created or allowed to happen. This act of taking fingers and teeth from corpses as war trophies especially—how can one not see it as analogous to what we’re doing on a large scale, invading countries, hanging dictators and installing our own? We’ve been doing it for half a century but now someone, one of us, has come along and given us Americans something of a terrible gift: the large act distilled into a very small one, “an image of ourselves.”
CC: I would also like to ask you about the form of the poem: the short sections, the redactions, the inclusion of tape or recording place this text in an interrogation room, but also departure from the realm of “the real” into a perhaps parallel universe of the imagined. How did you build this poem and when did you made decisions to use these particular formal elements?
ML: The first drafts of the poem were much different. The poem was lineated, and it dealt with the ongoing wars, but it was my reading of this story that pushed things along into a broken prose. It seemed for a long time that there was no way to directly address the idea of shared culpability, so it had to start in fits and slide into an acknowledgement, rather than work toward a previously known truth. So we start with home, then the conception of a home a soldier could depart from, the monologue beginning to become aware of itself as not entirely issuing from one speaker, the accusatory tone becoming confused, then relenting into an open space, a door, an encounter, but one that we know and the speaker knows is imagined and in which only he can truly speak or have agency (which in itself is an admission of failure).
As to the recordings and their redactions, there were two voices, or at least two elements, that I thought needed to be allowed into the poem: the sense of a previous history, a history or narrative that is common to us, and the acknowledgement of a history in the making. What most of us know about the wars, and about this story, is of course, second-hand, and often heavily redacted, and different narratives compete with each other for prominence.
CC: What/who are your models, influences, heroes, specifically for this poem? In other words, when writing this poem, were there other poems out there that helped you understand how to write a long poem, or how to grapple with the subject matter?
ML: Reading C.D. Wright was certainly a great help in composing the poem. I think it’s apparent in both the form and tone, so I’m indebted to her. There’s also a particular section in Alice Notley’s Alma, or The Dead Women, that I found to be extremely helpful, though it takes a much different approach to a similar subject and implication in general:
“About 450 U.S. troops have already arrived in the Philippines, Pentagon officials said. Alma is an owl and she will terrorize you in your future dreams when you wake up knocking your head against the headboard of your bed, trying to get out of your past actions, for i know things about soldiers, but no one would ever listen. because your body in its privacy in its veritable intimacy of you—and why am i crying?—knows it has no right to kill, except for food, and even that is sticky. but all of this is discredited. Alma is your omen, god is your omen, beware of her. if you see her you will know, that before your death the privacy of your body will be filled with the wings of your guilt; for you will know that anyone’s self is as intimate to that one as your is to you and you negated that, you deleted yourself. the death was yours and it was the worst thing you could do. you will know this from exactly within where god’s wings have come.”
At the end of writing the piece, I also saw Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape performed at BAM, and that, along with recent performances by innovative producers like Annie B. Parson and Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater helped me conceptualize and work with the more formal stage and sound elements of the poem.
CC: Are there any particular artists/writers you find especially compelling these days?
ML: Too many to list, I’m afraid. I just started reading Pinter’s Death Etc., which seems applicable. Anne Carson’s new book Red Doc> also deals peripherally with characters affected by war, though it certainly doesn’t seem like the thrust of the book. But I think it’s good that a decade of brutality hasn’t completely slipped out of consciousness.
CC: Are you working on any projects? Or, obsessed with any particular ideas in general?
ML: I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a long, somewhat essayistic poem in sections that deals with many different forms of violence, including state-sanctioned and military, but also much more personal, small scale acts. And then I’m going back to a long project that involves a lot of early 20th century research and quoted text that is supposed to round out my manuscript, if I can ever finish it.