After Several Years of Living
Evan P. Schneider chats with Melissa Reeser Poulin about her new collection of poems, Rupture, Light
Evan P. Schneider: I really enjoyed your new book of poems, Rupture, Light, published by Finishing Line Press this past January. After I read it, I read it again backward and wondered if you’d be up for conversing about it over email, sort of like Alexis Smith and I did when her novel Marrow Island came out. I’ve been growing reacquainted with poetry over the past year and am curious about the formation of your book and would be excited to hear a little about your process.
Melissa Reeser Poulin: Yes, that would be fun! I just sent off a reply poem this morning in response to the wonderful surprise poem-letter you sent. It got me to reread Braided Creek (by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser) and I am amazed at how much more depth those poems offer me now, after several years of living.
EPS: I’ve been dipping back into Braided Creek again, too, and was chatting with my friend Michael Matson about it as the new year approached—he lives in Nashville, where he’s a baker—which is part of what got me thinking about poem-letters again. He and I have been leisurely sending short untitled things back and forth to each other in the mail. Harrison said those brief unattributed poems between he and Kooser (that make up Braided Creek) were the essence of what they wanted to say to each other, and I really like that idea. Within the confines of a short poem, I’ve noticed I can find a tiny moment or heavy pattern rolling around in my head and share it with someone who might appreciate or relate to it. When I read and reread Rupture, Light, there were moments like these, I thought, that stood out as small pieces in a larger narrative arc you built and I wondered if you’d share a little about how the collection came to be? Did the poems in the book come new to you as specifically linked in some way, or were you assembling the collection from work you’d amassed over the years, or both—like having a long, deep conversation with yourself about your life?
MRP: This collection is the result of 5-6 years of work, from graduate school through the birth of my daughter and her early years. I had a working chapbook manuscript that included many of the poems as early as 2014, but collected the poems into this final version of the book in 2017-2018, just before my son was born. It was the expectation of his arrival and remembering how all-consuming the postpartum months can be that pushed me to publish. I started writing more prose after I became a mother, and felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these early poems—many about the transition to motherhood—were out in the world.
Several friends helped me arrange them into a narrative arc, because it was hard for me to see my own life objectively enough to do that. My friends Jill McKenna and Caitlin Dwyer (also poets and mothers) were especially helpful in the final stages of revision, ordering the poems, and choosing a title. It feels deeply satisfying to hold and read from this book now. The process of making the book was its own act of discovery and creation, similar to how I feel when I write a poem, that same quality of stepping into the unknown and being willing to let go of where you think you should go. It meant letting go of poems that I thought belonged in the book, and seeing how the collection was stronger and clearer without them—which is similar to the revision process in a single poem for me, in parsing and dissolving images or lines that turn out to be extraneous.
EPS: It’s interesting to me that you turned to prose once your children were born, and that only after Rupture, Light was out in the world did you feel you would be able to write new poems. Do you find that you explore different subjects in your prose than in your poetry, or that there are certain ideas that you wouldn’t be able to get as close to in one genre or the other? Publishing work is such an emotionally complex experience, and your satisfaction in holding the book now makes me wonder if you feel a certain closure to a specific period of your life, as though you’ve crossed a threshold (artistic and otherwise), only on the other side of which can you think about making that type of art (poetry) again? I’m reminded of the opening lines of your poem “The Prayer,” in which the speaker declares:
The ants know something.
Each one carries work,
whether it fits
in a lifetime
What do you feel that you discovered about yourself and poetry that you didn’t know in 2014?
MRP: I think the shift to prose had to do with very practical things like time and energy, and also with subtle changes in the ways I viewed myself in relationship to others: my role in the world, my responsibilities to my daughter, my membership in community. For me, and I’d guess for most women, pregnancy, birth, and the first postpartum year represent a tremendous physical output. All of that impacted how I functioned on a daily basis. For my family, in part because of finances, I quit my job to become my daughter’s full-time caregiver, and so I had drastically less time and energy to write. For me, poetry has always been an expression of an extended conversation I’m having with something larger than me—with God, with the creative spirit in me, with currents of ideas as they move through the world. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how to keep having that conversation now that I was deep in a new conversation, with my daughter and her spirit and her tiny body’s needs.
“Poems have always come to me as a series of images, or a question I’m turning over in my mind.”
There are really interesting studies about the science behind this: how a parent’s brain undergoes physical changes, over time, through the act of caregiving. In the research, this is true whether the caregiver is the biological parent or not, though there are additional and significant changes that women specifically undergo when they are the biological parent. As a culture we tend to deride these shifts and brush them off as “mommy brain,” but the reality is actually profound, complex, astounding, and beautiful. My brain has been fundamentally altered through the physical, emotional act of becoming a mother—of course the way that I write would change, too! I think the change has improved my writing, but it has taken time.
At first, I found I could process thoughts more easily through prose. I could make quick notes in my journal when my daughter napped, or work through an argument for an essay while she nursed and fell asleep on me. Poems have always come to me as a series of images, or a question I’m turning over in my mind. That’s been harder to learn to work with as my life has become less flexible. When I set aside time to write, it’s often when I have childcare, during specific hours. I’ve generally been better able to pick up work on an essay during planned writing hours.
I also need silent, reflective time in solitude in order for poems to find me—that has always been the case for me as a poet—and with each child it has been about a year before I’m able to get that time on any consistent basis. My son is just over a year old, and I just started a new series of poems. They came to me when I was alone, while my daughter was at preschool and my son was with a babysitter. Now the poems are in this state of aliveness, where the ideas are moving and I kind of have a sense of where I want to go, and I’m actively engaged with their questions and images as I move through my day. I think publishing the book has freed me up, made me receptive to new ideas, because I’ve kind of communicated to myself that I’m ready. The poems themselves communicate crossing certain thresholds, and then the act of publishing them has been like a signal to my creative self that I’ve crossed a threshold.
EPS: I’m inspired by your approach to revision, the parsing and dissolving of whatever’s extraneous, and am curious how you know when you’ve decided a stanza, line, phrase, word isn’t needed, because your results are both haunting, and hopeful, as well as quite beautiful. Rupture, Light opens with “Unbelief”:
I wait for you the way I wait
for spring—without believing
it will happen. I want to reach land
before I get out of this boat.
So I drift, how long?
sent south and then north again,
then south, inking the gray.
And I can’t get the waves
out of my mouth
Do poems come to you mostly all at once (or at least their fragile skeletons) where in the extended conversation that you’re having with that something larger than you, you feel every once in a while the urge to speak up? Or do they come to you slowly, like a drip irrigation system where once you find yourself in the creative current, parts of poems begin appearing from different places at different times, seeding different parts of different pieces? And I’m always really interested in whether any particular artists have influenced your recent work in a substantial way. Has any notable artistic experience really hit you unexpectedly of late?
“Something would catch my attention, like the way a bean vine wraps around a stake, or how a frog hides and waits under wet leaves of spinach.”
MRP: I like the metaphors you use to talk about the first impulse to write something down. Is it a sudden download, or a trickle of information? The image of a dripline is interesting to me because I have worked in landscaping and farming. I’d often work solo in the morning on the farm, uncoiling long loops of drip tape from a big spool, anchoring it every few feet with a U-shaped clip, walking the rows to check for leaks or plugs. That was quiet, meditative work—that and other repetitive physical jobs like weeding, seeding trays in the greenhouse, setting plants. With my body busy and my mind focused on a simple task, I would sometimes hear a line rattling around in my head, a word, a phrase. Or something would catch my attention in my immediate environment, like the way a bean vine wraps around a stake, or how a frog hides and waits under wet leaves of spinach. Something about that image would connect to a problem I was working with in my own life. And then my mind would go to work making connections between the two. Maybe a few lines would shape themselves around those connections, and I’d memorize them to write down later. Or I might just make a mental note—frog, my hands, watchfulness—and come back to it when I sat down to write again. I think this is the most common way that I make poems. There have been sudden downloads, too, but that is less common for me. The poem “Nullus Partus” woke me up in the middle of the night and was a steady stream of words I could hear in my mind. I bolted from bed and scribbled them down in the dark with a dull pencil and the nearest scrap of paper. In the morning it was mostly decipherable, and I typed it up. And here is where I can talk more about revising.
From “Nullus Partus”
I had a child
but she had no bones
he had no sex no name she had
no heartbeat no
In a rough draft, either when I am transcribing words I am “hearing” in my mind, or when I am returning to a series of images from earlier in the day, I will try to write quickly, tuning out the part of my mind that says, “That doesn’t make sense, don’t write that, etc.” I am just writing based on sound, rhythm, shape, light, and making connections without forcing them. I’m paying attention to where a noticed pattern is leading me.
“I try to find ways that the sound of a word or the language itself can do the work of creating the picture I want.”
In a revision, I go toward where there seems to be the most energy, and I try to focus on those places. I might find that the first several lines were mostly scaffolding, leading me to a place where the poem really begins. Or I might realize that the final line is really the place where I need to start, and start over there. If that’s the case, then often form is still developing, too, so I might choose an established form or invent a “rule” to help me generate more content. Lately I am playing with choosing a set number of words per line to work with. Then there are little tinkery things I do, like choosing to end a line on a strong verb, and “decluttering” the poem by eliminating more than a handful of descriptors. I try to find ways that the sound of a word or the language itself can do the work of creating the picture I want.
Recently I was invited to write a couple of poems live on Facebook for Ruminate Magazine. Readers bought a ticket, responded to a series of questions, and I used their answers to create a poem on the spot, in 10-15 minutes. It was scary at first, but I enjoyed the chance to be immediately connected with a reader, and in having to talk about what I was doing, I learned something about my process. I noticed that in making a poem I am responding to a somewhat narrative impulse, where I set up a theme in the beginning and then my poet brain moves forward like a searchlight, looking for ways to follow and return to that theme before the poem’s end. I’m not sure if that is specific to the unusual task of writing on-demand, but it was interesting to me to become conscious of it while I was writing. I’m glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and participated in the event.
Lately I am reading more non-narrative poets, as well as poets who like to spread out and write long lines or in prose blocks, to try to shake this part of my own tendencies up a little bit. I’m reading work by Angel Nafis and Emily Kendal Frey right now.
“I set up a theme and then my poet brain moves forward like a searchlight, looking for ways to follow and return to that theme before the poem’s end.”
EPS: Earlier you mentioned that writing poems and making books is a lot like “stepping into the unknown and being willing to let go of where you think you should go.” That’s really a lovely, and authentic, way of explaining the experience. Do you have a notion of where you think it (your writing) should go that you’re actively trying to supplant? What other tendencies are you trying to shake (writing or otherwise)? And what are you exploring in your new series of poems? Because I, for one, am really looking forward to more of your work.
MRP: Well, thank you. And thank you for the chance to think through these things, for your thoughtful questions. I appreciate your way of looking at the act of writing, which can be so much more complex than we realize. And I’m grateful for your literary citizenship, in helping to open up conversations around creativity. You’ve always done your work as an editor and writer with generosity and intention and I admire that.
“I have learned over the years that it’s impossible to have an agenda and write good poems.”
I’m exploring the matriline in these new poems: what is passed down from woman to woman in a family. I’m not sure where they will go, or how many poems there will be. This is a theme I have looked at many times in my writing, in various ways. It’s something connected to the learning I’m doing on trauma in the body and in cultures. I’m currently studying to become a community acupuncturist, and this also feels connected to that learning path in some ways. Right now I am finishing up a class in cellular biology, which has been a deep dive into questions I’ve had about genetic inheritance over time. These are questions that have come up for me in my personal health, including becoming a mother. I’m interested in the emerging science of epigenetics—how our environment and our emotional experiences can impact and even permanently change our DNA. I’m grateful for the chance to deepen my understanding of the natural sciences, because there’s so much there for a poet, and some of that learning is making its way into my poems.
That said, I have learned over the years that it’s impossible to have an agenda and write good poems. I want to write responsively to my life, as I live it, in the world as it is, and I want to live a good life—which to me means learning from my mistakes, being aware of my bias and privilege, working for justice, raising humble and kind kids, using my gifts and privileges for others’ freedom and for my own. But that is a tall order for a single poem. So I think my hope is that any growth I do shows up in my poems.
I also think the act of writing is itself a type of growth work. I think in trying to shake up old habits, I’m trying to be a good steward of creativity. Creativity wants to change us, and so I want to clear as many of my reflexive habits away as I can. Am I writing a certain way because it’s the way I’ve always written? Do I care more about creating a product—a publishable thing—than about creating something that’s true? That’s one kind of reflexive habit, in creativity, that can be about fear. What am I afraid to discover, and can I push toward that? And then how am I shaping my worldview—am I reading widely, am I reading the work of poets from all over the world, from all different economic backgrounds, from different periods of time? These are all important parts of living a creative life, to me. The live poem-writing exercise I did pushed me way outside my comfort zone, and it gave me greater awareness of my habits. It was a growth experience, and I want to keep having growth experiences. So I guess, if I have any notion of where I think my writing should go, it is toward growth.
Melissa Reeser Poulin has facilitated writing workshops with Write Around Portland, and led creative writing courses for young writers with Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program and Show:Tell: The Workshop for Teen Writers. In 2014, she co-edited and published Winged: New Writing on Bees, an anthology collecting modern poetry, fiction, and non-fiction from thirty-six writers on the relationship between humans and honeybees. Her first book of poems, the chapbook Rupture, Light, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2019.
Evan P. Schneider is the founding editor of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac, which Esquire called a “love letter to life in the saddle." His novel A Simple Machine, Like the Lever (Propeller Books) was named one of the best books of 2011 by Willamette Week. He has received fellowships for his work from the Oregon Arts Commission and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.