Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Lynn Melnick

What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

Yesenia Montilla The Pink Box

This is hard because there are always so many, but last fall I read and fell in love with Yesenia Montilla’s The Pink Box and I think everyone should read it!

Also I highly recommend Sheila McMullin’s book, daughterrarium, forthcoming in spring of 2017.

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I would say: I understand that. I write a lot about violence and that can be too intense or upsetting. As much as I write about it, I cannot handle watching violent television or movies, so I understand what it feels like to have to avoid certain things because they might be triggering or upsetting. When I write, I’m in control of it (more or less) but when I’m consuming someone else’s stories, I don’t know what will come next and I feel out of control.

That said, if someone is avoiding subjects like violence against women just because they don’t care or don’t find it relevant to their lives or experiences or because it makes them a bit uncomfortable, well that’s no good. We can’t leave it to victims alone to tell and consume our stories, or nothing will change.

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?

Oh absolutely, if the q’s I get at q&a’s are any indication, or the notes I get from readers.

I have complex feelings about the assumption that my work is autobiographical because my work is autobiographical–but I’m not writing memoir when I’m writing poetry. I’m making something wholly new out of sound and rhythm and image and etc and I get to bring in to the story whatever I want. To discount the art that goes into my work–that hurts, actually. And I’ve been accused of exploiting my own life history for the sake of my poems, which is like, what the fuck does that even mean?

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

This is a large question which requires a big answer but I’m going to narrow this down a bit to what students can do. Students can ask for an inclusive reading list. I work with VIDA and we have teamed up with Girls Write Now for the past couple of years to have the girls “count” the syllabi in their New York City public high school English classes. I often joke that their assigned reading lists are all white men and Toni Morrison–but this is not too far from the truth! Many of the girls hadn’t thought to question what they were being taught and why–but once made aware were really very engaged with the problem. So I guess, to wrap up what could be a long and rambling answer–Hi, students! Question your assigned reading lists! Speak up if it feels safe enough to do that!

(And I think it should go without saying that educators need to provide an inclusive reading list to their students. But maybe it doesn’t go without saying so I’m saying it.)


Lynn MelnickLYNN MELNICK is author of Landscape with Sex and Violence (forthcoming, YesYesBooks, 2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). She teaches poetry at 92Y in NYC and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

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.