Melissa Studdard’s debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, was recently released by Saint Julian Press. She is also the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah; its companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press); and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards.
Melissa’s poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals and anthologies, including Boulevard, Connecticut Review, Pleiades, and Poets & Writers. In addition to writing, Melissa serves as editorial advisor for The Criterion and a host for Tiferet Talk radio. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence college and is a professor for the Lone Star College System and a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative.
Okla Elliott: Your work engages with politics and philosophy without ever becoming pedantic or didactic. What role does poetry play in these larger cultural matters? (And feel free to answer either for yourself personally or for the culture at large or both.)
Melissa Studdard: Thanks for the compliment, Okla. So many of the things I’ve avoided in order to have time to make poetry, it turns out, are the things that make poetry. I tend towards solitude, meditation, and quiet communion with the keyboard. Like many poets, I often feel compelled to cloister myself in cave of words—and though that cave may be where the breath of poetry originates, it is not where the body of poetry moves. The body of poetry wants to kneel in the temple, protest in the streets, ramble through open-air markets, dance in clubs, and serve lunch at soup kitchens.
Even the most private-seeming poems are not truly private, but, rather, bottled messages sent from the island of self to the world. They say, “I’m here! I understand you.”
Because I enjoy writing so much, I used to think it was a self-indulgent waste of time. I thought there were more important contributions I could make. But all it takes is hearing an elegy recited at one funeral to know that poetry matters. It only takes one inaugural poem to see that poetry works a magic plain language cannot. Poetry lights the world on fire, whether in lament of a broken heart or in calling voters to the booth. It enacts an enchantment that touches the deepest place of care in us and lingers. It opens people to awareness and concern, without telling them to care. So—the more engaged culture and politics are with poetry, and the more engaged poetry is with culture and politics, the better.
OE: Since we know each other and each other’s work due to being friends on Facebook, and given that so many publishers and publicists are fixated on social media these days, I wonder if you have some thoughts about the good and the bad that the online literary community has brought about in the past decade or so. How has it helped independent publishers and authors? What have we lost because of it?
MS: In short, we’ve lost a little depth and gained a lot of breadth. There’s so much more of everything, but it’s harder to sort through and engage with in a deeply sustained way. Our attention is pulled in many directions at the same time. The good news is we now have access to information, people, organizations, works, and platforms that we did not have access to before. This is terrific, especially, for people who would not have been able to make these connections otherwise. I’ve learned about authors I probably would not have discovered any other way. In this sense, social media is a fantastic vehicle for small-budget publicity, which is, of course, a boon to indie publishers and authors.
However, the expectations set by online publicity are spreading some writers too thin. So much is demanded of authors that it’s hard for many to find time to write. We’re to be cheerleaders for our own work, yet for many of us, promotion does not come naturally, nor is it how we want to spend our time. I spoke above about poetry’s essential place within culture at large, but I am a firm believer in balance—and writers do need time in the cave—to simply be, observe, and reflect.
Driving back from the bank today, I noticed a thin strip of clouds in the pink sky, and I felt hungry for that sky and those clouds—not a picture of the sky, not a sky meme with an inspirational quote, not a YouTube video of drifting clouds. I was hungry to plop down in the grass and watch real clouds for hours, as I did when I was a kid. Much of life has become virtual, and I wonder how that will impact language and imagery in the long run. This does feel like a loss.
As well, many of us look to others regarding matters for which we should be looking inside. For a while, I was waking up and rolling over to my phone to text, email, and instant message before I even got out of bed. I’ve had to remind myself to write in my journal and meditate and look at the clouds and walk in nature. I’ve had to remind myself to write down my dreams and connect to my subconscious mind before connecting to the Internet. Lately, I’m trying to write in my journal, meditate, or read an actual, physical book last thing before bed and first thing in the morning. I feel so much more at peace.
Yet, despite the fact that I feel we need to remember to call on our internal resources first, I do believe the online literary community has fostered an amazing kinship among writers. I’ve made great friends through social media, as I know you and many other have. Writing can be a lonely occupation. It’s easy to feel isolated. Through the Internet, we can connect with others at all times of the day or night. And that can be an extraordinarily beautiful thing.
OE: Okay, now for the obligatory process question. How do poems happen in Melissa Studdard’s world? How do you revise? Do you research for your poems or just gather data organically and let it filter into the work as it will?
MS: I think I must mate with a different muse for each poem. It seems every poem is born from a new process. Some are hard-wrought, and others spring onto the page nearly fully formed in a matter of minutes. What I do know is that the poems that come easily ride in the wake of the poems that did not come easily. After struggling with a poem for weeks, I can be almost certain that within days of finishing it, one or more poems will flow quickly after. I don’t mind struggling with difficult poems to get to easy ones, either. The only thing that breaks my heart is not writing at all.
There is one pattern I sometimes repeat though, and which I love, and that is starting a poem in my journal and then carrying it to the computer once I see it’s really headed somewhere. Starting in the journal feels less formal and allows for a sort of raw expression I cannot quite achieve at the computer. The fluid movement of my hand across the page elicits an organic, intimate utterance that can later be sculpted through the facility of editing, revising and moving passages on the screen. Without both the keyboard and the pen as very different sorts of tools working together, I feel that many of my poems would have been different.
The research question is an interesting one. I follow my passions in life—reading about and engaging in the things that interest me. In that sense, my “research” is organic. However, if I am writing about something and need more information, I will seek it out—sometimes going back and forth between composition and research, and sometimes waiting until the first draft is done.
So there God lay, with her legs splayed,
birthing this screaming world
from her red velvet cleft, her thighs
cut holy with love
for all things, both big and small,
that crept from her womb like an army
of ants on a sugar-coated thoroughfare.
It wasn’t just pebbles and boulders
and patches of sky, but the soul of sunlight,
the spirit of moon. She bore litters
of stars that glistened like puppies,
robed in celestial fur, and galactic
clusters dusted with the scent of infinity.
It was her moment of victory:
the unveiling of seven billion milky breasts,
and she glowed—like a woman
in love with her own making, infatuated
with all corners of the blemished universe,
smitten with every imperfect thing:
splotchy, red-faced & wailing—
flawless in her omniscient eyes.
I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast
—after Thich Nhat Hanh
It looked like a pancake,
but it was creation flattened out—
the fist of God on a head of wheat,
milk, the unborn child of an unsuspecting
chicken—all beaten to batter
and drizzled into a pan.
I brewed some tea and closed my eyes
while I ate the sun, the air, the rain,
photosynthesis on a plate.
I ate the time it took that chicken
to bear and lay her egg
and the energy a cow takes
to lactate a cup of milk.
I thought of the farmers, the truck drivers,
the grocers, the people
who made the bag that stored the wheat,
and my labor over the stove seemed short,
and the pancake tasted good,
and I was thankful.
When You Do That
It feels like millions of tiny
harps are playing inside my body
and all the extinct animals
that ever were
running into you
their hooves and claws
burning on the unexpected
their tongues alive
with the ministry of light