Melissa Studdard is the author of the poetry collections, Dear Selection Committee and I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, as well as the chapbook Like a Bird with a Thousand Wings. Her work has been featured by PBS, NPR, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and has appeared in periodicals such as POETRY, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. Her awards include the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, The Penn Review Poetry Prize, the Tom Howard Prize from Winning Writers, the REELpoetry International Film Festival Audience Choice Award, and more. You can find her at www.melissa studdard.com.
Suzanne Frischkorn: Dear Selection Committee is framed as a job application in Part One and as an interview in Part Two; it has no less than 18 subsections throughout the book. I love how the subsections set off the poems they contain. Would you tell me how you arrived at this concept?
Melissa Studdard: You know how sometimes you find a rug or painting and know you’ll be decorating a room around it? The titular poem of Dear Selection Committee was like that for me. Almost immediately after I wrote it, I knew it would be the defining poem for my next collection.
Like people, some poems are followers and some are leaders. I recognized that “Dear Selection Committee” was a leader. It was strong and charismatic and didn’t care what anyone thought about it, and, even though it was farcical, it rang with a strange sort of irreverent truth. Part of the work of poetry, for me, has been an attempt to liberate myself from the impairment of rigid, overbearing societal conventions. When the poem “Dear Selection Committee” came along, it basically flipped the bird at the kind of exploitative capitalism that harms workers by trapping them in unfulfilling, unappreciated jobs. So, “Dear Selection Committee” gave me a taste of that liberation I was seeking, and I wanted more, and I trusted the poem to guide me in creating a collection that would follow suit.
Before starting to write into the concept, I began sorting through poems I’d already written to see where and how they would group around “Dear Selection Committee.” How could they be in conversation with it? How could they amplify or accent or complicate it? One of the poems I’d written that seemed a perfect fit was “At Fifty, I Became a Three-Time Finalist for the Darwin Awards,” yet it was one of the only poems in the manuscript that my editor didn’t feel was fully actualized. So, I wasn’t certain whether or not we would include it in the final book, but it gave me the idea to create a section called “Honors & Awards,” which showed me how the poems could gain strength, humor, pathos, emotional resonance, and thematic power through their ordering, grouping, and relationship with their subheadings. A poem like “The Pain Is So Resplendent It Has Babies,” for instance, took on a new dimension when placed in a section called “Education and Formal Training.” I mentioned before that some poems are followers. When these poems’ subheadings told them what to do, they performed better and showed me how they needed to be revised.
After revising the poems I wanted to include, I wrote new poems to round out sections, fill in gaps, and make sure I’d said what I wanted to say. Although Dear Selection Committee is often humorous, I wanted it to have an undercurrent of seriousness—not in the sense of gravity, but in the sense of ensuring that, for all its joking around, it aligned at its core with the deeper wisdom of what I knew life to be. I also wanted to be certain that although the poems shared common themes, they varied in tone, style, and subject matter. Many years ago, when I interviewed Marge Piercy, she said that if you want to give a good poetry reading, you shouldn’t read too many of the same type of poem in a row. If you do, the audience will start thinking too deeply about their own lives, and you’ll lose the connection of the moment. I’ve taken that advice to heart not just for readings, but also for books.
SF: The poems in this collection feel kinetic, acrobatic—they leap, they bound with exuberance, and they delight the reader with surprising images and associations. Take these lines from “Sometimes My Body Forgets It’s Not a Peacock”:
My fortune cookie says to marry the next
person I kiss, but I want to have my fortune and eat it too,
so I kiss an entire shopping mall full of people.
Truth is I crave both winter and summer, fall
and the excess pinks of spring…”
What was your process like when making these poems?
MS: I love that your phrasing of this question tells me you already feel my process, even if you don’t know the details. Before I answer, though, I want to say that one of the things that thrills me about poetry is that it’s an opportunity to see someone’s mind on the page—not just what they’re saying, and not just the craft or skills they’ve acquired in order to be able to say it, but the way their mind works—their logic, their mental rhythms, their associations, their inner syntax, the architecture of their thoughts. I have ADHD, which makes my mind acrobatic and surprising, even to me. And, as with most things in life, that can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you do with it. I’m very grateful for poetry. Without poetry to pin my thoughts down, I’d be forever chasing after them, like a kid in the dark trying to catch fireflies that are sometimes lit and sometimes not.
Process, though—yes. For me, poems are created in different ways. Some are meditative and require stillness, but most require movement. More often than not, I dance when I write. And I mean that literally. I dance and then run over to the computer and write down a line and then dance and run over and write down another line. Over and over until a poem is done. Sometimes when a poem is rolling out too fast for me to run back and forth, I chair-dance in front of the computer and write, or compose the poem on my phone so I can write lines down while I’m dancing. When I work sitting at the computer, I usually have a piece of paper off to the right, and I free write and type, free write and type. The loose leaf paper is like scratch paper for a math test—freeing; it doesn’t count unless I transfer it to the computer.
When you ask about the leaping and bounding, I feel like you’re sensing all this flitting back and forth (between the “dance floor” and my desk, between typing and handwriting, between the body and the mind). Even when I work on still, meditative poems, I often flutter between sleep and wakefulness, napping as part of the process, so that I can more easily hear my subconscious mind.
I also love to write with friends—some of my friends and I have a process that involves sharing what we each most want to write about and then creating really specific prompts for each other. It’s great to have someone else lend you a little piece of their mind because it’s company in what could otherwise be a lonely activity.
The main thread in all of this is that I rarely just sit and look at a screen and wait for something to come to me. If I feel stagnant or too static, I can’t write.
SF: As physical as these feel on the page, there is also an undercurrent of the physical in theme. These poems are very much of the body. Especially the woman’s body—lines like “between the hours of legs open and closed” or “between my thighs” and “holy dark as my woman gash” unabashedly celebrate its pleasures and its powers. Were you writing against something, or in response to something when you were making these?
MS: Yes, I was definitely writing against and in response to the tabooing, constraining, shaming, and defiling of women’s bodies. I not only wanted to call out these problematic societal tendencies, but I also wanted to undermine them by celebrating aspects and functions of the female body that we’re told are shameful.
“Holy dark as my woman gash” is from my poem “Planted My Shame in the Backyard.” When I wrote it, I was thinking of all the ills that are piled and piled on women—ills we own, and ones we don’t own but that others have hoisted on us and into us—ills we’re forced to absorb so society doesn’t have to face them. In this poem, the narrator has to bury so much that you wonder if she can ever dig a hole big enough for it all. Then you realize, through the listing of items she’s buried—“shards of the coffee cup / hurled at” her face, “spatulas and gin bottles and broken lamps”—that she’s somehow been carrying all of these items alone, for a long time. It’s a lot—exponentially too much—and I wanted the reader to feel, through the accumulation of images, how much the narrator had to carry and then bury to get rid of her shame.
While “Planted My Shame in the Backyard” wants to call attention to how women and their bodies are shamed and disempowered, the other two poems you referred to attempt to subvert the problem by celebrating things that are taboo. “Between my thighs” is the first line of the poem “Did I Do, O God, Did I As I Said I’d Do? Good! I Did,” which you may recognize as a palindrome. The poem is also a palindrome and is shaped like a woman’s thighs and bent knees, with the line “from my center” as the middlemost line, a positioning that centralizes the narrator’s sexual power, pleasure, and experience. The second and also penultimate line is “where my love is always requited.” So, as you can see, the poem is not only about empowering female sexual experience; it’s also about the woman owning her own sexuality completely. At least four or five different times, when I thought of various family members, acquaintances, and strangers reading this poem, I nearly pulled it from the manuscript, but I so strongly felt the necessity of including a poem that (re)claimed female sexuality that one day I just said to myself, “COURAGE,” and quit wavering about it.
While “Did I Do, O God, Did I As I Said I’d Do? Good! I Did” is a poem of autoeroticism, the line “between the hours of legs open and closed” is from the titular poem, which celebrates a woman prioritizing her own gratification within a relationship. This is a less serious poem than the other two you quoted from, written in epistolary form and humorously addressing an unnamed committee. The applicant wants to drink a bottle of Chardonnay every night and then have sex with the most beautiful person she knows until they both pass out. In a world in which women’s bodies have been so frequently used for the pleasure of others, I wanted to seize that control and pleasure back for the woman in an irreverent sort of way, with a tone that felt more natural than weighty, as a way of saying it really shouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to seize her bliss. The narrator says, “If hired, I will need some important but modest / accommodations, such as mornings free of any / obligations and afternoons scheduled to practice / my Kegel exercises and rehydrate.” It’s no longer about the woman having to accommodate someone, but instead about the woman being accommodated.
SF: The empowerment in those poems is palpable. You’ve also written a middle-grade novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah. Did you start writing in prose and then begin writing poetry? Do you continue to write prose, and if so, do you experience any difficulty moving from one to the other?
MS: I write across several genres because I work best if I have multiple projects going concurrently. With a few pieces underway, there’s not too much pressure on any one project, and when I feel stalled or stuck on a piece, I can turn to another and keep writing. Right now I’m working on a libretto, a few poetry collections, a song cycle, and a noir poem for film.
I don’t feel difficulty shifting from writing in one genre to writing in another. My problem is more with organization. Certain projects are clear and easy to organize. For example, one of the poetry collections I’m working on is based in myth and written from the perspective of Philomela’s severed tongue. That’s easy—I write a Philomela’s tongue poem; it goes in the Philomela’s tongue manuscript.
But, outside of the projects, I try to allow myself the luxury (when life cooperates) of writing whatever arises for me poetically. I noticed about a year ago that a lot of these “other” poems dealt with similar themes: the environment, family, illness, et cetera. Then it occurred to me that if I put these poems in documents with their like kinds, I could write into the themes and finish several collections in the next few years. Well, that was a disaster because the categories were too broad and artificial and obvious. They robbed the poems of the nuance that made them what they were. When I created files called “Nature” and “Family,” the poems I stuck into those files felt caged, or worse—like moths pinned to a board, they felt dead. I realized that the poems needed a more organic relationship with each other in their groupings. I don’t know yet what that relationship will be, but I’m fairly certain it’ll happen much the way Dear Selection Committee did—around a specific poem with a quirky theme. I trust the process, and I don’t want to force things, so I’ll wait. And luckily, I have other things to work on in the meantime…
SF: This funny, surreal, quirky collection ends with the line “It’s just us here now. Give me your hand.” There is such tenderness in that close. I was struck by it, and tenderness was something I noticed threaded throughout the book. Who would you say your influences are?
MS: Interesting—I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, the tenderness. Life is tender, isn’t it? We as humans are tender, and we need each other’s tenderness to survive our own. I think that as many different things as I say in poems and as many different ways as I say them, the prevailing sentiment of much of my work is “Give me your hand.”
Because a whole generation of poets have been conditioned by MFA programs to grate against the stereotype of the touchy-feely poet, it’s scary to use words like “sentiment” and “tenderness” when talking about poems, but I don’t really want to shy away from those words here. It’s important to recognize that sentiment and tenderness are making a comeback. Not maudlin, unthinking sentiment, but complex sentiment braided into rough truths—and a willingness to be vulnerable in a world that has hurt you, is hurting you, and will continue to hurt you. It’s about baring that vulnerability so that others see themselves in something (the poem) they can grab hold of, so when they grab on, you know they’re out there, and you can hold onto them too.
It’s funny—I don’t usually think of Robert Penn Warren as one of my influences, but in this context, he’s the first poet who comes to mind. His poem “A Way to Know God” is so gentle, open, and beautiful, I could quote almost any line to show you tenderness. Here are a few:
I cannot recall what I started to tell you, but at least
I can say how night-long I have lain under the stars and
Heard mountains moan in their sleep. By daylight,
They remember nothing, and go about their lawful occasions
Of not going anywhere except in slow disintegration. At night
They remember, however, that there is something they cannot remember.
So moan. Theirs is the perfected pain of conscience that
Of forgetting the crime, and I hope you have not suffered it. I have.
I totally feel him reaching his hand out here. It’s like he’s saying this having-to-exist thing is tough, and maybe in response to that difficulty you have not always been good, but, even when suffering over your own bad behavior, there’s grace, and I’m with you, and even the mountains are with you.
Ross Gay is another influence in this vein. His poem “A Small Needful Fact,” for instance, is so caring and attentive; it breaks my heart every time I read it. The devastating irony of Eric Garner’s large hands gently nurturing the plants that will help people breathe creates an unforgettable layering of images. Ross Gay is one of the first contemporary poets I read who made me realize that a poem could call upon and create both the most delicate tenderness and an intense, fiery power.
Thank you for this question—this has been a really meaningful thing to delve into and try to understand.
SF: You mentioned earlier that you were working on another manuscript. Would you speak a bit about what you’re working on now?
MS: The poetry collection I’m currently working on is told mostly from the perspective of the severed tongue of the mythological figure Philomela. Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, and when she threatened to tell, he cut out her tongue. By featuring the tongue as the protagonist, and by making Philomela a supporting character in the story of her tongue, I want to emphasize the fragmentation of self and psyche that lingers after trauma, as well as the strange and surreal nature of PTSD. I was thinking about how women have had to house the ghosts of their traumas in their own mouths, how they have had to live with the words and truths that lie stillborn there.
So far the manuscript is built from multiple woven threads: original tongue twisters; a glossolalia (speaking in tongues) series; opinions from a Greek-tragedy-style chorus that represents a flawed society; a noir-style narrative arc in which the tongue hires a (private) eye to try to find Philomela; another narrative thread in which the tongue adopts an abused child and tries to save other victims (such as Prometheus’s liver and Frankenstein’s monster); Sappho-style fragments; lyric meditations on pain and suffering; and redux poems that complicate various passages and translations of the original myth with blackouts and added or rearranged text material.
In a way, I guess the story of Philomela’s tongue is a soul retrieval, with the tongue as a stand-in for the small, wounded parts of the self—splinters of heart, spirit, and mind—that seem lost but are really struggling to survive. I want to invite them home.