“A poem’s life is created only after it’s let loose in the world”: An Interview with Melissa Stein

Melissa Stein is the author of Terrible Blooms (Copper Canyon Press 2018) and Rough Honey (APR/Copper Canyon Press 2010), winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared Tin House, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets, among other places. Stein has received fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She lives in San Francisco, where she works as a freelance editor. Stein was kind enough to answer some questions about her adventurous and fun poems, writing a million bad poems to write a good one, and writing at residencies.  

I find your poems honest and open. I was wondering in the poem “Jigsaw” if you had first-hand experience with a soldier who had gone to war. Do you feel love can help a soldier heal from PTSD with the last line of the poem “Give them engines, watch their childhoods fall away” really saddens me. Were you referring to the soldier’s loss of innocence and seeing the world in a positive light compared to the violence and pain many soldiers must go through?

I’m so glad my poems resonate with you! While it’s tempting to wonder about the autobiographical aspects of poems, as it makes us feel we know the writer to some degree, I find it even more fascinating to ask what the poems offer as imaginative and emotional landscapes, raising questions like yours—in this case, can love foster healing in some way? What is patriotism? What is belief? What do we choose to sacrifice, and why?

While the answers, if they exist, may be complex, we discover so much in the exploration. I couldn’t pretend to know whether love directed toward or felt by a soldier could lessen trauma, which surely is as individual as that soldier’s experience, but it would be hopeful to think it can have that effect. As you do, I see the soldier’s entrance into violence, pain, and impossible decisions as a loss of innocence, one that ironically often begins for children in play and games.

In “Lemon and Cedar,” I felt saddened when you wrote the line “To lose what’s lost—it’s all born lost \and we just fetch it for a little while.” It reminds me of when I was a child and how when I was growing up, my parents helped make so many amazing memories, but I genuinely cannot remember most of them. I am thankful my mother made scrapbooks so I can piece together some of the memories, and then it triggers a happy memory.  

So interesting that this poem reminded you of childhood! That association hadn’t occurred to me, which is a great example of how a poem’s meaning can lie in the eye of the beholder—one of the qualities I love most about art in whatever form. I’d be far less interested in writing poems if I had a particular goal or message to impart before I even put pen to paper. Maybe a poem is one possible answer for a question we don’t know how to ask yet. Or the poem itself is the question. I believe that so much of a poem’s life is created only after it’s let loose in the world and is heard and read and felt. It becomes as many different poems as there are readers.

In the poem “Seven Minutes  of  Heaven,” there is a surreal twist from starting the poem explaining a childhood game then turning into thinking about having your own children and the regrets partaken in your own life. It was a drastic flip in thought. I love the contrast.

When I start a poem that turns out to be a good poem, I usually have no idea where it will lead me. The ending of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” surprised me, which was delightful, as it meant the poem might possibly surprise someone else as well.

When I know how a story will end, I might be less inclined to read it. It’s the same for me with writing poems. Every day we gather experiences and resonances and images and emotions and methods and urges and strategies and passions, and we never know what might emerge when and in what form. Maybe that thing said to you when you were 17 will suddenly pop into a poem when you are 37 or 67 or 97, though you hadn’t given it a single thought since.

This makes life more of an adventure. And is some of the fun of being an artist.

The poem “Slap” starts off “I want to write my lover a poem, but a very bad one.” I felt a deep connection to that. It’s like a secret jab at someone, all for your own release of pain, when you write, “When you get new things/ you treat them delicately like fragile glass for a while// and then you can get used to them/ and manhandle them/ like everything else.” This is a secret jab I’d love to throw at a former significant other.

I’m sure a million bad poems are written for every good one. Bad poems can be very useful, even (especially?) for good writers. I agree that poems can certainly be cathartic to write. And if they resonate beyond the poet and the specific circumstances of their creation, they can be cathartic for readers, too.

(I noticed that you added “delicately like fragile” to the line “you treat them like glass for a while”! An intriguing glimpse into how you felt your way into that image.)

I felt a hate especially in the line “To be honest// my lover doesn’t really like poetry,/ which I guess is why I plan to write/ such a bad one, so he can feel right// and strong and good in his beliefs.” It makes me feel like, oh this stupid person feels like “blank” so I’m going to prove them right but also sarcastically insult them while I am at it. 

While I can’t say that many of my poems are ha-ha funny, I find that folks at my readings often laugh at that line. Confirmation bias is a thing!

Some people find writing poems therapeutic, while others may enjoy seeing life from different perspectives. Do you think you have a primary purpose to composing poems? 

I like to say that I write to find out what I’m writing about. I love tangling with language and trying on different characters and landscapes and never knowing what will happen next.

One thing that distinguishes a lot of artists is that they feel a need to make stuff, to put something in the world that wasn’t there before. Being open is a hopeful state of being, especially in the face of so much that’s the opposite.

Have you ever thought about having a pen name? I feel when I write my poems, sometimes they are too personal and I want to keep my identity hidden—yet if it can help someone else through a difficult patch, then I want to help and let them know they are not alone. 

Yes, over the years, that’s occurred to me, though I’ve never used one. I know several poets who have waited many years until it felt safer to publish certain work. What is too personal is a good question in this day and age!

Last question: Are there certain conditions that help your poems flow more easily like a favorite place, music, or time of day?

I work best at artist residencies, when I’ve been able to carve out time and space just for writing. I often write wearing earbuds, and there are songs I’ll play over and over when working on a particular poem. The tone and feeling of the music become almost a landscape for the poem.

Tierra Damico is a freshman at The College Of Saint Rose. She is majoring in Childhood Education (B-6), and is part of the swim and dive team. She comes from a long line of teachers, including but not limited to her dad as an art teacher. Because of her dad, she has a big appreciation for art.

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