Mother Poet: A Conversation with Melissa Crowe

Melissa Crowe is the author of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Seneca Review, and The Shallow Ends, among other journals. She’s co-editor of Beloit Poetry Journal and coordinator of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.


A NOTE FROM ADROIT—This conversation has been updated to reflect edits made prior to its publication. We apologize to Melissa, to Bianca, and to our readers for not including these edits in the initial publication of this conversation.


Bianca Glinskas: Hi there, Melissa. First, I want to offer my congratulations on publishing Dear Terror, Dear Splendor. As I first read these poems, there was a growing sense that I was the poet-speaker’s confidante. Reading these pages, I became a witness to your life: the incarceration of your uncles, your brother trying heroine at fourteen, your single mom raising you, your love-filled marriage, the birth of your daughter, grappling with your aging body, and your struggles to feel safe and let go of the fears for yourself and loved ones which overwhelm you. I applaud your fearlessness in writing autobiographically. Publishing this work, then, has been an act of exposure—of public vulnerability. Can you speak to the overall reception and your reaction to the work’s release?

Melissa Crowe: Thank you so much, Bianca, for reading my book so closely and so kindly and for your insightful and truly thought provoking questions. (They have been a delight to answer!)

I’ve thought a lot about my attitude toward poetry as autobiography since the book came out. You’re absolutely right that the events you mention happened in my life as well as in these poems—my brother is a recovering addict, my mother had cancer, I’ve been blessed in love beyond measure. I won’t say I haven’t experienced any anxiety about having shared so many personal details, but mostly I feel just fine, and I’d put this down to a couple of factors. First, while I definitely draw from memory as I write, the process of making poems hopefully transforms that life-stuff into art. Ultimately, I want to write lines that hold the reader in a charged space, an electric moment of mutual discovery and full-on emotional experience. Closest to hand as I do this work are the details of my life, which are also the details about which I have the most authority. They seem to give rise to a music I can trust, to a lyric that sounds true and, so, is true. In other words, for me, the autobiography isn’t the end goal; it’s the raw material. By the time the poem emerges, I’ve burned through that fuel to a certain extent. What’s on the page, in the end, feels like poetry, not memoir. I’ve heard folks claim all poetry is fiction, and of course one default mode is to read all poetry as nonfiction. What seems magical to me is that poetry is really neither. It exists in a space beyond information—or by using information, it makes another space; it makes truth.

The second reason I’m okay with this kind of exposure is that the reception has been so kind and so buoying. At readings it feels this way especially, when people offer their generous attention, encouraging murmurs, laughter. Someone might come up afterward to tell me about their child who struggles with opioid addiction, or a young woman says my poems made her want to call her mother. It feels like we’re really connecting, and this is glorious. Scary, yes—I think we have to make ourselves vulnerable to connect—but so far, without hesitation, I’d say it’s been worth it.

BG: Of course, it has been a delight reading and re-reading your work. I love the insight that poetry is neither nonfiction nor fiction; well put, and I wholeheartedly agree!

While this work may technically be considered your debut poetry collection, it succeeds the publishing of two chapbooks titled Cirque du Creve-Coeur and Girl, Giant. How does the writing in these earlier works compare to your more recent work? Can you share a bit about your journey from emerging to established writer? As an emerging writer myself, I’m curious if there any piece of advice you wish you could have confided in your younger self.

MC: Right—I’ve been writing poetry committedly for over twenty years, and I’ve produced one full-length collection. I took so long to “emerge” (and I think it’s safe to say I’m still emerging!) for lots of reasons. I was raised in poverty in a rural, isolated place, so there were lots of deficits to overcome—emotional, educational, financial. I married and had a child very young, and we were bent on having one parent at home, but we had to support ourselves. All these things, of course, slowed progress toward a book. But also I had to do these things—reckon with the difficult past, reckon with the challenging present (marriage, motherhood, work, global politics—blargh!)—in order to be the woman who could write this book. I think I’d tell my younger self that what she did was just fine. Single-mindedness might have gotten her here faster but not wiser, not better.

When it comes to the chapbooks, the first one, Cirque du Crève-Cœur, was a little bit of an aberration. For about a year, I wrote a poem a day on a blog (Remember those?!), and from that exercise came some of the strangest stuff I’ve written, born from giving rise to the weird thoughts that floated into my head in the moments I stole from parenting and work—half hour bursts of unfettered creativity. They’re all prose poems, full of wordplay and thought experiment, and if they contain moments from my life, they’re moments as seen through a distorted lens. Only one wound up in DT, DS (a highly edited version of “Stabat Mater Dolorosa”). Girl, Giant, on the other hand, contains several poems that are also in the full-length collection, though they’ve all been revised, and some didn’t make the jump. I’d say Girl, Giant represents the progress I’d made toward a book by 2013.

BG: I think what you’ve said here beautifully encapsulates the difficult tendency towards impatience with the necessity for writers to experience formative personal development before blossoming artistically.

Your poetic voice in this work is a tour de force, a declarative set of private direct addresses—a confessional compilation of pains and joys—of terrors and splendors. Sometimes, this “you” is you, as in “The Uncles”:

                                                            the uncles work at the fair,
reek of kerosene and fried dough, sneak you in
through a fence hole, tin snips and arm scrapes, and summers
you slip into the public pool after hours, silence of night
and slap of water and laughter of uncles—

                                                                        and when the cops come,
as they do, you cry, the uncles in cuffs, their forearms

And sometimes, it is your “sixth-grade best friend,” Your Uncle Steve, your daughter, your husband, etc. How do these people respond to being written to/about?

MC: Thank you! I love that you’re tracing a strain of intimate address, which is so clearly there but which I didn’t really notice until the press called the collection “epistolary” in jacket copy, at which point I thought, oh, right, it is like I’m writing letters to one “you” after another! Of course, this isn’t unique to my work; it’s an essential pose in lyric poetry. In a recent class I taught on the post-confessional lyric, we thought a lot about why the poet so often locates the poem’s register only once they’ve located the listener. Partly it’s because this is how we talk—not to the ether but to others. Intimacy unfolds between people, so we evoke that particular other to evoke an intimacy that’s authentic. I think when I write this way, I’m drawing the other person closer; I’m imagining us collaborating toward a shared understanding of something that matters to us both. I’m also making someone to listen to me. This is a strategy employed historically by women writing in or adjacent to the confessional mode, poets like Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sharon Olds. They partly established authority by conjuring listeners disposed toward listening to them or by imagining listeners who had, for the space of the poem, no other choice.

And how do the “particular others” I conjure feel about all this? In some cases, I worried! I knew what my daughter and husband thought—both are savvy enough about poetry to understand there was some distance between them as real people and as people on the page, but they’re also brave and generous souls, willing to endure a little embarrassment for the sake of my work (bless them!). My sister had read most of the poems already, and she’s a huge cheerleader. But neither of my parents had read them. I didn’t know whether my brother had. I was sure aunts and uncles and cousins would see them for the first time if they read DT, DS. My biggest fear, of course, was that they’d be hurt or that something that feels to me like the truth would feel to them like lies.

In the weeks after the book’s publication, I heard from family members mostly in text messages and emails. My brother wrote, “I love your book, though parts of it are kind of rude.” He’s got a dry sense of humor, and I knew the second part was a joke. Phew. My mother texted to say she was halfway through and needed to take a break; a few days later she texted, “I just read ‘Some Say the World’ [the book’s final poem]. I have no words for how scary and beautiful it is.” Aunts and uncles sent messages of pride and encouragement. One read only, “You’ve done a good job.” And though my father hasn’t said much directly to me, my sister claims he quotes passages to her. I know how to read all this, however scant and coded a response it might seem to others. My people love me. They’re proud of me. They’re not (apparently!) mad. That’s good enough for me.

BG: I am glad to hear your family has responded warmly overall to the work’s publication.

There is an incredible sense of catharsis within these poems, which sometimes begin from places of distress, decay, or death and ruminate towards recovery, redemption, and realizations of inner strength and loving support. Take, for example, the beginning and ending lines of “Perpetual Beginner” (one of my admitted favorites): starting,

Outside, everything starts to rot till
the world is wine, that dark and sour
and a little sweet despite its dying.
In here my hair fades, a frown line
deepening, and I can’t ignore anymore
that nobody has called me young lady
this year.

and finishing,

                   Some days I take it
personally, the way the years have
amounted to this. Tonight
I just fall asleep in your arms, and—
like magic—I’m somebody’s baby again.

Or, another favorite, “Mourning Portrait for Uncle Steve”, begins:

Because of you I never believed when anybody
called anybody a bad man for some bad thing
he’d done. I knew you—gentle, funny,
generous—on furlough from Thomaston

where you’d serve ten years
for shooting a man without meaning
to kill him.

and ending,

                        I don’t believe you get
what you deserve or that good things
come to those who wait, and I don’t

believe either that every picture’s worth
a thousand words. Some give rise mainly
to silence, a set of little losses, their mouths
shut tight against goodbye.

Can you describe the connection between the emotional and creative processes behind the drafting of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor?

MC: How lovely to hear that some of these poems read like engines toward catharsis. I’d say that while I write, I’m sinking deliberately into the hard place; I’m going where the heat is. Sometimes I’m pressing on a bruise, not to harm myself but to test the wound and to try and understand the pain it causes. I hope I’m careful not to come to pat conclusions, to rush toward relief. I guess I want the bruise and the possibility of its healing to coexist, not just in the same poem but actually superimposed. For me the assertion isn’t, “There is pain and then there is joy,” but “There is pain and there is joy.” I don’t know how to disentangle them. To do so, I’m afraid, would be disingenuous. The “little losses” at the end of “Mourning Portrait for Uncle Steve,” the babies in their coffins, were a bruise I pressed on, and I think ending the poem on those sad and frightening photographs was a gesture toward a sustainable relationship with what seems unbearable but can’t be avoided. Maybe that’s why people kept mourning portraits, to mark the simultaneity, in all our lives, of wonder and horror, of love and loss. The word reconciliation comes to mind. One of its meanings is “an act of making one belief compatible with another.” Suddenly I feel like that’s the best possible description of the emotional and creative work I tried to do in this book: to make my belief that life is terrifying compatible with my belief that life is splendid.

BG: Maybe “resolve” wasn’t the right word. There’s almost a dual sense of watching psychological processing and a simultaneous act of artistic reflection. All of the hurt and healing in these lines perpetuate the tangled, unpredictable nature of life and emotion.

These days, writers are given more opportunities to be collaborators in the discussion of their works as the contemporary canon forms. So, I’ll invite you to share a few aspects concerning your writing: How do you self-identify as a poet? What influences help to shape your unique poetic voice? How do you conceptualize your work in terms of its placement in the contemporary literary landscape?

MC: For sure I self-identify as a mother poet, proudly and in full knowledge that doing so is still a risk in contemporary poetry in spite of the brilliant, harrowing, necessary work of so many women who have written or are still writing about motherhood—and in spite, even, of the acclaim they’ve achieved. I’m thinking of poets like Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Beth Ann Fennelly, Maggie Smith, Kerrin McCadden, Julia Kolchinski Dasbach. Why does it still feel somehow reductive to claim this subject as central to one’s work—to one’s poetics, one’s politics—while writing about war or nature or even fatherhood does not? The answer is, of course, misogyny (including the internalized kind). It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the skill and force and shattering beauty of the work these women do, which is beyond reproach—do not @ me. ☺

It’s hard—because far more complicated—to identify as a working-class poet. That said, I am very clear about the fact that I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) write without reckoning with how poverty shaped my life and continues to shape it in ways difficult to measure and hard to relate. Once you’ve gained access to the institutions and resources that usually wind you up with a published book, you’re probably not living what looks (at least on the surface) like a poor or working-class life. I have a Ph.D. and I teach in a graduate program. My belly’s full of the pizza I had for lunch, and I know what I’m eating for dinner. But when you start out in the hole, in very real ways you spend your entire life climbing out, or you climb out and then you don’t have the energy to climb some of the hills that seem so easily scalable to those with different backgrounds, different material realities. Or you muster that energy, just barely, and your knees throb, and your heart keeps hurting, and the view looks very different than you thought it would. And you may spend all your days suspecting everybody else up there thinks you don’t belong. All this is to say, I’m not sure I can accurately apply any label to myself on this front, but I can’t live or write apart from my experience of rural poverty, and I’ll never set aside issues of economic justice.

BG: I find that fitting; you are a Working-Class Mother Poet! I take your point. Perhaps labels are useful to identify and group writers, however I do think they can be narrow-minded or misleading. For instance, you have overcome the rural circumstances of your youth, but this part of your life has made a permanent imprint. I think your difficulty and resistance in identifying your own labels may, at least in part, come from struggling with this issue.

Your work is sprinkled with selected lines from other poets’ works in the form of epigraphs. For example, the five sections of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor, as well as a number of your poems, find their entryway through epigraphs. In the poem “Grounded” there is an epigraph from Robert Frost: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” The note at the back of the book also gives recognition to a number of poets’ poems whose lines have inspired your own. Can you speak to the relationship between these selected lines, sources of inspiration, and your own writing? What works are currently inspiring you? Do you have any new project(s) in the works?

MC: Oh, yes—one of the purest joys of putting the book together, for me, was making so literal what I had long wanted to believe, that my work would join a conversation begun long before me, that I was speaking through time to Whitman and Dickinson, Hughes and Bishop, that I was speaking more or less directly to the writers who had so inspired me: Roethke, Dove, Erdrich, Redel. The fact that I could invite these voices into my own book, that I could make them pillars of the house I built and into which I’d invite readers—I don’t even know how to talk about how exciting that was. Partly I’m trying to honor them, to show how grateful I am for their guidance, for the wisdom and music of their work in my head, how they brought me to the page and, ultimately, to these poems. To be completely honest, the manuscript came together only when I’d selected the epigraphs that appear as section breaks. I heard a click when they were in place. This is especially true of the Kerrin McCadden lines that serve as the book’s final section break: “I want to tell you what happened / when I let her go, but I don’t understand it yet.” I cried when I put those lines in the manuscript. Suddenly the whole project made more sense.

I guess I feel comfortable saying I’m working on “book two,” though holy cow, it’s weird to say that! And as I do so, yes, absolutely, so many poets are astonishing me and nudging me forward, teaching me all over again what I’m trying to accomplish. I’ve already mentioned many, but I’ll throw out a few more inspirations: William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind, Laure-Anne Bosselaar’s These Many Rooms, Jordan Rice’s Constellarium. The poet and essayist Jehanne Dubrow, who is currently on fire. Always, always Naomi Shihab Nye. Every word that comes out of Meg Day and Cortney Lamar Charleston and francine j. harris. The quiet ferocity of Matthew Olzmann. Young poets like Emily Pittinos and J. Bailey Hutchinson and Brandon Thurman who combine remarkable skill with a level of wisdom and emotional acuity I don’t know how they’ve arrived at already. And oh, don’t get me started on Daniel Arias-Gómez (but do get started reading his gorgeous, fearless, excruciatingly tender work). We are living and writing through a very hard historical moment (though let’s go ahead and be clear: we always have been). I am grateful every single day for the ways this community of poets sustains me. As Chen Chen put it recently, “it still feels like such a gift, to tend to the imagination—and each other.” Amen.


Bianca Glinskas

Bianca Glinskas hails from sunny SoCal where she studied English Education and Creative Writing at Cal State Long Beach. She's an emerging poet with plans to obtain an MFA. Her literary journalism appears on The Adroit Journal, Drizzle Review, Harriet Blog (Poetry Foundation), OnDenver, and elsewhere.

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