To accompany this interview, the Woodberry Poetry Room is proud to present a Recording Session by Melissa Green (featuring poems from her forthcoming Magpiety: New & Selected Poems), made at the poet’s home in April 2015. The following interview by Daniel Evans Pritchard took place via email during the spring of 2015.
Occupying a small peninsula on the northern edge of Boston Harbor, the town of Winthrop’s only connection to the mainland is a single two-lane road along a thin isthmus, bound on one side by protected salt marshes and by the bay’s blue mouth on the other. It is tantalizingly close to the city. Boston’s skyscrapers rise across the water. Planes landing at Logan Airport fly so low that they seem liable to skim the tops of trees. But there is no easy access, no shortcuts or through-ways, no tourist attractions. The town thrives despite, or because, it remains hidden, tucked away and happily apart from the sprawl across its narrow land-bridge.
Melissa Green, who has written some of the most exquisite poetry of the last three decades, resides in the second floor of an otherwise unremarkable house in Winthrop, and lives at a similarly contented remove. Green is often referred to as a poet’s poet, her work beloved within a relatively small circle of enthusiastic readers, many of whom are fellow writers—such as her mentor and longtime advocate Derek Walcott.
Having battled depression for the better part of her life, and spending several years in hospital, the particular difficulties of modern society hold little appeal. Green spends her days reading—novels, histories, art theory, memoirs, poetry—painting, assembling collages, walking her small dog Taz through the tall grass, drinking tea with her partner John (an artist himself), entertaining occasional visitors, and listening, in season, to her beloved Red Sox. Rarely, she will make the long trek into Boston or Cambridge, maybe to the Museum of Fine Arts to visit her favorite painting, “Herodias with the Head of Saint John the Baptist,” or to Fenway Park, or to attend a reading by some close friend. But not often.
Poetry is Melissa Green’s landbridge, her strongest connection to the wider world—though it would be more accurate to say that, through poetry, the rest of the world gains access to Green’s “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence,” as Joseph Brodsky put it. Marie Howe has written that “Melissa Green might well be a 21st century version of Emily Dickinson, poet of ecstatic states and extremity.” Like Dickinson, a careful repose allows Green to sustain the sensitivity that the machinery of modern life erodes.
Green’s debut collection, The Squanicook Eclogues (Pen & Anvil Press, 2010), won awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. Derek Walcott has called her one of the few true poets he has ever known. And of her forthcoming edition of selected poems, Magpiety (Arrowsmith Press, forthcoming in December 2015), Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith writes, “Across the span of her career, Melissa Green has rendered that which she sees—the natural world, yes, but also the surfaces of our lives: the lingering evidence of history alongside the things we do in the here and now—in language that draws readers deep into an indelible psychic space.”
You studied poetry with Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky at Boston University. Can you tell us a little about how you came to be mentored by two Nobel laureates?
As for my meeting up with Derek Walcott, I will always contend that the old gods had a hand in it and arranged our paths to cross when and where they did. I heard Derek give a reading in Boston near where I was living and was gobsmacked—I recognized in his language and metaphor the kind of poetry I was desperate to write, and the craft I had not been able to learn alone. I couldn’t have guessed then that Derek would change and guide my writing life.
My grandmother gave me money to attend Boston University’s MFA program so I could roost with other poets and still be close to home, but I was halfway through my degree before Derek unexpectedly arrived. At our first student-teacher conference, he asked me how he could help me. I saw so clearly that he possessed the elusive thing I’d sought—and found in no other teachers of poetry—and deeply hungered for.
“I want to learn everything you know,” I told him. His eyebrows rose, he beamed and I promptly burst into tears, understanding, by some miracle, I’d found the mentor I needed. I spent time in his classroom, but a great deal more time away from it. We talked as much about Cezanne as Rilke. Derek was fierce. He made me write prose for six months, of pure description—it could have been on any subject—but I began by sketching my grandmother’s garden, and it was through our weekly bush-whacking through my awkward prose that we found the route to my first grown-up poem, an elegy for my father called “The Squanicook Eclogues.”
Joseph Brodsky, Derek’s great friend, came often to our class. I was never his official student. We rather befriended each other—he came to visit me many times in Winthrop, and I often traveled to New York to see him, and in between, we talked about our work. He very much liked the book-length poem about Heloise and Abelard I was just beginning and would continue work on for years fifteen years after his death. He would call me in the wee hours to chat and smoke, sometimes reading me a poem he’d just finished, or to query me about a line in English he was struggling with.
In your work, there’s both a tactile sonority as well as a kind of philological depth to the language. The music reveals many layers of meaning in the refined structures of your poems. (I’m thinking in particular of your book, Fifty-Two, in which the poems share this novel interlocking form.)
How do you think about this relationship between sound, form, and meaning; or between diction, the line, and the poem as a whole?
Coming as I do from the New England countryside, I’ve been surrounded by stone walls that run through fields, marking off property, dividing woods. In spite of Frost’s “Mending Wall,” my sense of things was that though (literal) frost heaves might tumble boulders from their rightful place nestled between other boulders after a hard winter, that they held together remarkably well. In the city where I live now, there are still some masters of the craft of masonry, whose cheeks are gouged by years of weather but whose remarkable hand-eye coordination remain that of young men. They can build a wall without any kind of mortar, simply by sizing up a stone and knowing by some combination of experience and intuition where it needs to go exactly, where the weight and balance and protrusions of each piece, as in a jigsaw puzzle, declare where it belongs. In the mason’s eye, the stone has only its own place and no other. And part of me thinks of the great drama of Michelangelo pacing the rim of the Carrara marble works, knowing almost by a sense of smell when the stone he sought was near, and knowing too when he saw it what it contained: it was simply a matter of chiseling away the parts that didn’t belong to the David.
Perhaps that’s only an apocryphal story, but there seems to be a truth in it: for a great artist, perhaps, it may simply be carving away all that is not the David; for the rest of us, the tools of our trade grow awfully heavy in the palm when one wants a surgeon’s skill, the delicacy of “felth” one needs in order to create from the inside out.
When I’m inspired to write and know my subject or can feel my way toward its parameters, it requires almost literally a physical act—of concentration, of weighing in the scale pans I use for language one word over another—counting without an identifiable gauge the weight of the sound of the word, the weight of its visual values (how does the word look near other words I’ve chosen in the line? is there anything in a particular word that would add to its indispensability in the line, i.e., in itself? Is there an echo with other words near it (as in rhyme, off-rhyme, eye-rhyme, homonym, the whole damned bag of nails)? Is there a repetition of letters or something else of interest in the literal look of the word that would work like a brushstroke, where the individual sable hairs make true and lasting marks in the line and add to the understanding of my idea? Is there something in the word itself that is mimetic of the feelings or thoughts or vision or description I’m trying to complete? What is the weight of its layers of meaning? Would another word simply be a better fit, like the mason’s intuition about a particular stone? Is it the word that belongs in this place?
I remember Derek telling us in class, “You’ll know you’re a poet when you spend an entire day trying to decide if you should use ‘the’ or ‘a’.”
Do you see any limitations to that approach to process? There are styles of poetry that are still affecting but aren’t nearly as finely-tuned, in terms of the language. Or maybe they are, and it’s just harder to see.
I’ve been accused of writing with a dictionary in my lap, or looking for words only for their dazzle and only to “show off” something about myself, or to “show up” other poets. Pah! How can I answer those ridiculous questions?
Of course I use a dictionary, but only to serve the needs and music of the poem. I’d be a fool not to make use of such treasure houses. The OED and Roget’s Thesaurus are fascinating mines of language, of paper-thin distinctions in definition, words that over the years have been shaved like soap by usage. Also, I cannot help but be enthralled by the history of words, as studying Anglo Saxon and Old English in college gave me the “art history” of English. It is easy for me to imagine petrogylphs and runes coming through to the word I have on my tongue.
My feel for language is a cellular phenomenon at this point. But I know every poet’s sense isn’t. When I am working, my mind is wholly on the line. How would I even be able to write if I were thinking about the effect my choice of words would have on other people? I don’t think about my reader at all, actually. I only wait for the right reverberation in the tympanum of my own ear, the tone, the exact pitch—Frost again, “The ear is the only writer.”
Young poets often don’t “see the point” of writing in form and kick mightily against what they feel is out-of-date and immaterial, as though form were merely a style of fashion, like the bustle, which was only constrictive and to which thankfully we will never return. But can a poet learn the craft if they get no further than riding horseback through the field of a pentameter line at full gallop simply to get to the end?
In poetry the constraints of form, rather than limiting what the poem can contain, work like a series of mirrors: when the poet reaches them, they reflect back the content, meaning, sound and shape of what’s been created so far, and bend the light in the direction of what must by needs come next. Form is never an idle construct. Form presents the essential signposts by which you can find your way to the heart of the poem, and by which you can never be lost. As Denise Levertov writes so incisively, “Form is not just an extension of content but a revelation of it.”
Form is an element that’s as organic as the senses then?
When I have a nascent sense of what I want to describe there is some way in which I use English as if it followed some torqued rules of an inflected language: the sound, or sonority, has to encode meaning, line by line; the meaning-infused sounds in each line get weighed in the filaments of the ear and depending on where the sense of the line needs to be most pronounced, I put a verb, say, which is heavier than an adjective. If meaning needs to rise at the end of the line, before it is lashed back to the mast of the line following, I might dispense with punctuation so that the meadowlark embedded in the meaningful sounds can fly free; or I might find the natural break in the line so that one of the levels of metaphor gets to show itself like Degas’ line of dancers, before they have to step back to allow the next line of meaning to perform.
“Poetry is the thinking of the body,” says Yeats. I always hoped to be able to use this perfectly-expressed thought as an epigraph in one of my books. It’s one of those images which can’t be declined or rewritten, it almost can’t be understood in any other words but the ones he uses. My breath catches in my throat when I read it—the body recognizes its rightness.
The poems in my book Fifty-Two, I’m afraid, may seem to take Yeats’ dictum a bit too literally, but it seems worth describing them just the same. Again, the form for these poems came organically both from my state of mind and the literal state of my body.
In 2005, I nearly lost my foot to an infection. After two surgeries and a long unpleasant recovery, I saw that my metrical foot had also been changed. When I finally did sit down at my desk, dragging an IV pole through my parlor, with enormous bags of antibiotics in my fridge’s lettuce drawer, I began to write my usual dense lyrics, and after two-and-a-half lines I heard a crack, the sound of the snap of a yellow Ticonderoga pencil. It took me a moment to understand that what I’d felt was a kind of fracture in the language, and I saw that I couldn’t continue to write the way I always had. Each of the poems in Fifty-Two has a sharp caesura after two-and-a-half-lines, which represents that break, and when the half line and two lines continue, the diction and pitch had to be different, because in that crack of the language was a place my heart had been broken.
Another strong motif in your work is the relationship between the natural world and your own emotional processes. Would you say the natural world offers a formal articulation of those often-difficult emotions? Or does the wonder and beauty of nature help you identify those feelings for what they are? Or, maybe it’s a bit of both?
My world was profoundly and strangely bifurcated growing up: the farmhouse was dark, cold, uncomfortable, full of the unspeakable suffering of alcoholism and psychosis; and the other side of its hopelessness, the battering twins fury and chaos. Cigarette smoke settled over the supper table, the black stove hissed as chunks of wood raged and broke off into coals, there was the pounding of my father’s spent pipe into the pantry bucket followed by the tinny recoil of a Pabst Blue Ribbon, beer dribbling into the ashes, extinguishing them. For years I thought that must be the smell of a crematorium. My growth could not be measured there in a ladder of pencil lines inside the cellar door when all the clocks in the house seem to have stopped. There was nothing for it but to wait out the long night of winter.
There was always one bright day every spring when snow runoff chuckled its way from the top of the hill in sparkling freshets that divided the ground into fine branching vessels, as though the skin of the earth had been peeled away, leaving evidence of its pulse at the surface. Suddenly I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer, could no longer bear wearing shoes. It was probably mid-May and in New England still cool, but fat white cotton batting clouds scudded over the apple orchard, the grass beginning to turn its just-born green which lasted barely a week, and my body hurt with the need to run through the mud and the squelch of grass like a young pony who has kicked at her traces and then the stall door because the call to run and be in the air so redolent with new life was too great to be denied. Mother Nature was flinging her encyclicals everywhere, teaching me beauty, showing me time’s great wheel on which our lives hung, whose cycle could be trusted to continually turn until everything living and we also died.
At any early age I knew how to read in her alphabet its sequencing, like prime numbers indivisible only by one and itself: snowdrops first, then crocus, daffodils, forsythia, tulips and arbutus. I learned soon after I could walk not to touch any growing thing before the willowy yellow stems of forsythia, because spring was still too new and I would not be able to carry any flowers into the house without petals falling into an embroidery seam behind me.
The stems weren’t easy to break when I was little, but I was fierce in my intent: I found with the help of a step-stool the large shears in the cutlery drawer. The sun-colored shoots grew profusely over the stone wall and blazed a bright bouquet beside the cooperage where my great-great-great grandfather and his brothers had made barrels. The shears were heavy in my hands but I kept reaching into the heart of the bush, struggling to cut the stalks and then lay them down on the grass with the fairy-cups all facing in the same direction.
When I brought the flowers up to my chest, there were always too many. They spilled up and over my hair and down my back, but I was determined to bring the bundle inside, all that bright yellow-gold. The dining room was used only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, its thick-layered paint stuck to the lintel by the latch, but I kept throwing my weight against the panels until the door screeched open, and I could blink my way through the dark north light to the corner shelves where the vase stood, a tall, heavily-chiseled glass pitcher with an embossed pewter spout. I stood on the step-stool and waited until the well water ran numbingly cold, then filled the vase with all the forsythia to sit in the middle of the kitchen table and bless us with its rays like a monstrance.
I did the same with the lilacs which filled the kitchen not just with beauty but with its holy scent, the sweet aroma of what I thought in some way might save us, or soothe the hurt hearts who stormed blindly past the bruise-colored blossoms, never noticing. Then tiger lilies. Then roses, carefully plucked of thorns. Mountain laurel, which I had to go far into the woods for. Hydrangeas. And earlier, in a drinking tumbler, a bride’s bouquet of lily of the valley.
I didn’t feel the irony of arranging bittersweet in a centerpiece with the gourds and Indian corn on our Thanksgiving table. Perhaps someone I loved had been soothed once or twice in my tenure. Later, when poetry and manic-depression arrived in the same season to break my branches, I had new words for what I’d only dreamt: every spring I was seduced by Roethke—“Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light”— and every fall rowed back to Hades by Lawrence:
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
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