Every year Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a literary co-op based in D.C., holds contests for residents of Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., selecting manuscripts in the categories of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry for publication. In 2022, The Jean Feldman Poetry Prize was awarded to Baltimore’s Anthony Moll for their debut collection, You Cannot Save Here.
Growing out of the tradition of apocalyptic verse, Moll’s poems are rife with imagery that is at once familiar and unsettling. Their observations of alienation and collapse are juxtaposed with moments of intense intimacy, and the pervasive sense of doom is tempered by the beauty and power of the poems themselves. Though these poems show us the many ways in which our world verges on collapse, they also show the possibilities that may rise from the ashes.
Read on to find out more about this collection and Moll’s artistic process and vision.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What was the process of writing the book like? Often first collections are written over many years, but the poems here are so strongly connected in voice and theme, they seem to have been written in a more condensed timeframe.
Anthony Moll: Thanks! Because You Cannot Save Here is my second book, but my first collection of poems, I got some of the “everything needs to be in here” energy that comes with a debut out of my system with my first book, so here I was able to be more focused in my approach.
It helped too that this book was developed as part of my PhD dissertation. I’m about to defend a creative dissertation that includes a book-length manuscript of poems with a critical introduction. The introduction is a history and analysis of apocalyptic verse and associated movements. I’ve been working on it for about five years or so. That means I began this well before COVID. In fact, I thought I was nearly done at the outbreak of COVID, but the pandemic and associated quarantine were unavoidable topics, given the subject matter. You probably noticed that the last third of the book is the “pandemic section,” but what comes earlier are poems about all the other apocalypses we were experiencing before early 2020: climate disaster, economic inequity, war, the failure of democratic institutions, fascism reappearing after years in hiding.
BFB: Many of the poems reference the emptiness of consumer culture and the bleakness of a capitalist landscape – the spiritual wasteland of the strip mall and so on. Were you consciously trying to critique that aspect of our culture?
AM: I don’t think I come to poetry to consciously critique. Maybe sometimes, but I’m not sure that it’s the best tool for doing that. I’m mostly just trying to write intimate pieces about living during collapse. Since consumer culture & capitalism are responsible for that collapse, they’re just sort of unavoidable topics.
BFB: On a related note, did you grow up in suburbia? If so, how do you think that shaped your view of the world?
AM: No, I’ve been a city kid almost my entire life, but the city I grew up in was a small-sized city out west: Reno, Nevada. It’s an interesting place because, like a lot of cities out there, it grows outward rather than up. It’s a blend of urban, suburban and rural culture at times.
But Baltimore has become the place I’ve lived the longest, and most of this book is about what it means to be living here (“where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite”) during these times. (In fact, that strip mall I mention in the book is actually that strip mall at 20th and Howard.)
You’re right though that I do make a lot of nods to the suburbs though, and it’s mostly talking shit about them.
BFB: Many of the poems have epigraphs that reference other works of literature. Do you feel that your poems are in conversation with other works? How do your experiences as a reader inform your work as a writer?
AM: I think every writer is deeply influenced by the creative and intellectual work that surrounds & precedes them, and all literature is in conversation with other work.
Some writers do more to hide it, and others want to only show the highbrow influences, the art with which they hope people will see their work is in conversation. I want to be among the creators who refuse to do those things. I want to acknowledge that I’m deeply influenced by the folks I read (both poets and prose writers), and by the films I watch, by television and music and video games and theory and museums and by the axiology tucked into all of them. In part, I do so because I believe poetry should be a living art that is positioned alongside (not above) other forms of song and storytelling, and staying there requires refusing any pedestal.
BFB: The poems acknowledge human capacity for destruction and the sense of impending doom that seems to increasingly characterize day-to-day life. Where do you turn for hope?
AM: This sounds dramatic, but I am a bit skeptical of “hope,” at least in the common, narrative sense. I think (maybe too often) of that quote from Chekhov about how the bourgeoisie love happy endings because they suggest that we can keep going, just the way things are, and everything will be fine, that one can “be a beast and still be happy.” We’re past the climate change tipping point, and we’re barely slowing down. We’ve proven how poorly this nation responds to something like a global pandemic. Even under the less conservative of its two major parties, the U.S. continues to expand funding for military might at the cost of education, arts & humanities, and essential safety nets. Some sort of collapse has already arrived, and I’m not trying to hope it away.
But what I love, in both reading and writing, is work that finds joy and meaning despite collapse, that considers how romance & art & sex & ritual & cooking & feelings & being in the park with your chosen family is not only worthwhile and important, but essential during dark times. I don’t think that’s pessimistic so much as it is epicurean. Moreso, what I find most comforting during collapse is the possibility of after. Endings are scary, but they bring with them the possibility of something better. That’s a kind of hope too.
Which is to say, I’m also skeptical of “despair” and its functions.
Can you tell us a bit about the events you have coming up?
Yes! I’m building out a spring tour now that’s sort of the second half of the push for You Cannot Save Here. It will stretch out over a few months, but most immediately, I’ll be reading online @ Ok Zoomers on 23rd of January The monthly event is a partnership between two Pennsylvania literature organizations–The Mad Poets Society (Philadelphia) and Raven Rabbit Ram (Harrisburg)– and it’s really centered on bringing together poets from all over to connect and read their work.
I’m also reading on Valentine’s Day for the Wilde Reading Series at the Columbia Arts Center alongside Melvin Brown, an iconic Baltimore poet and the longest-serving editor of (the recently recovered) literary journal Chicory. That’s a great, long-running series run by Laura Shovan, Ann Bracken and Linda Joy Burke out in Columbia, Maryland. I think I plan on getting into the spirit of the holiday and reading the selections from the book that are most about love, sex and desire!
Finally, I have a couple of cool events coming up with community partners, including a talk at the Walters Art Museum as part of their Queering the Collection series. It’s a newer series, and it’s so rad. They’re hosting queer artists and scholars to offer talks, readings and performances in the museum to illuminate the hidden and often erased ways that queer and trans lives (both artists and subjects) can be found in the museum’s collection. I’ll be joined by art historian Lisa Anderson-Zhu, and we’ll be discussing same-sex desire in the military culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. As we do, I’ll be reading from my first book (Out of Step: a Memoir) to demonstrate homoerotic and homosocial connections between ancient and contemporary military cultures.
OK Zoomers Virtual Poetry Reading (Red Rabbit Ram & Mad Poets Society): Jan 23 @ 7 p.m.
Queering the Collection: “Homosexuality in Ancient Greece & Rome” @ The Walters Art Museum: Feb 11 @ 2 p.m.
Wilde Reading Series (Columbia, MD), Columbia Arts Center: Feb 14 @ 7 p.m.