Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Melissa Studdard
What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?
Telling my truth as a woman and a writer has not only been difficult; it’s one of the greatest, most ongoing battles of my life. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that almost every day I write is a day I struggle to say what I really think and feel. As well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that what I really think and feel is at times so repressed by and so buried beneath everything I am supposed to be that I can hardly find it to write about it.
Realizing that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you is not the same as feeling empowered to do so. For me, it’s a process, and the biggest awakening has been reading Audre Lorde. I’m not all the way brave or all the way awake yet, but reading Lorde shook me up and startled me out of a sort of debilitating politeness. She made me realize that it’s not only my right—it’s my responsibility—to speak my truth. I came to her late, through my girlfriend, Amy King, and I wish I’d discovered her decades ago. My whole life would have been different. I keep Sister Outsider on my desk, and I keep quotes from “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” on my hard drive. Lorde says:
We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.
What liberates me is not overcoming fear but taking fear for that wild ride from my gut out to the page.
How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?
Writing is my self-care. I’ve felt silenced by authority figures, partners, fear, manners, well-meaning family members, shame, doubt, insecurity, patriarchal hierarchies, religious judgmentalism, and on and on and on. Feeling silenced, it turns out, has been the single greatest detriment to my well-being—far greater than any of the things that have happened to me. To quote Lorde again, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” To that, I add: I write; therefore I reclaim, I heal, I own my tongue and my life.
What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
Currently, I’m reading about ten books. I always read a lot of books at the same time because I leave them partially read all over the house and my office at work, and I carry them partially read in various purses and bags. Next to me right now is Leonora Carrington: What She Might Be, a book put out by Salomon Grimberg for a 2008 Carrington exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. I’m re-reading it. There’s an incredible essay in it by Carrington called “Female Human Animal” in which (synchronicity!) she also engages the Descartes:
“I think; therefore I am” quote. She says, “But why? Is this some kind of pretense Mr. Descartes? If I am my thoughts, that means I could be my anything, from pasta soup, scissors, a crocodile, a cadaver, a leopard, or half liter of beer, etc.”
She, like Lorde, ends up shifting from examining thinking to examining feeling and goes on to say that “to be able to unchain the emotions, we must observe the elements that kept them in chains: all the false identities that we embrace through advertising, literature and the ultimate beliefs with which we feed ourselves from the time we are born.” To me, she is one of the most fascinating people who ever lived. For one thing, she was an artist whose main decorations were books. She didn’t have art hanging in her home, not much anyway. She was disagreeable with interviewers. She was mischievous and pulled outlandish pranks on people. She studied alchemy, wrote backwards, and was ambidextrous and could paint with both hands simultaneously. She was an incredibly devoted mother and friend, a major intellect, and her paintings made a mockery of the “tenuous line that exists between the real and the imaginary.” And she was a great, great feminist. You know that cheesy question people used to ask: “If you could have dinner with a historical person who is no longer alive, who would it be?” For me, it would be her.
Do you think literature can influence social change, or reflect it? Or both? Can poetry be activism?
Poetry sails in on the wind of breath and nests in the body. Unlike strictly functional communication, which often flies through and away, poetry arrives pregnant and remains to roost and hatch. Yes, it can hatch activism. Yes, it can hatch social change.
I almost wonder the opposite of the questions you asked: Can literature avoid influencing social change? Is it possible to read, for instance, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and remain unmoved? Is it possible to have collective, poetically curated and rendered effects of racism hatch inside you and not grow more sensitive to the nuances of micro-aggression, more able to spot it, more desirous of calling it out when you see it, more desirous of eradicating it from yourself, less willing to tolerate it for yourself? I feel like it would take an intentional, ugly act of will to resist this natural extension of having read such a book.
Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?
I see the problem. As soon as I read the question, I thought: The poets already included, plus about 30 more. But there is only so much room in an anthology. Here are just a few that come to mind quickly:
Claudia Rankine, of course. She betters and betters and betters. From Citizen: “You are in the dark, in the car…”
Lois P. Jones is writing some of the most sensitive and powerful poetry today. Here’s ‘Reading “Shadowlands” to a Friend At The Sepulveda Dam.’
Pamela Uschuk is deeply in tune with spirit and the natural world. Her poetry is a way of caring deeply about everything. It’s like love in action. Here are a couple of her new poems at Connotation Press.
MELISSA STUDDARD is the author of the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the novel Six Weeks to Yehidah. Her poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Poets & Writers, Tupelo Quarterly, Psychology Today, Pleiades, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day. Of her debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, Robert Pinsky writes, “This poet’s ardent, winning ebullience echoes that of God…” and Cate Marvin says her work “would have no doubt pleased Neruda’s taste for the alchemic impurity of poetry.”
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.