In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Melissa Crowe
Your poem “Lessons” in Volume 24, lists a series of shocking events that a young person witnessed from extended family members. How has your childhood shaped your poetry?
This is a big question! I want to start by addressing that word, shocking because, believe it or not, nothing in the poem seems shocking to me. I was a guest in an undergraduate poetry workshop recently, and one of the students asked, rather pointedly, “Why do you write about these awful, painful things?” I said, “Well–these are the stories I have.”
It’s a little like looking in the refrigerator, hungry, and finding what seems like meager ingredients. Hopefully you manage a meal that satisfies, and on occasion you wind up with something surprisingly delicious. I’m working with what’s at hand, and by the time I’ve written a poem–spent weeks or months or, in some cases, years–crafting the thing, it doesn’t hurt anymore, or certainly not as much. In fact, that transformation–from experience to art–is joyful for me. It feels like triumph.
But of course the reader is encountering this old pain for the first time. I’m fascinated by that dissonance, actually, and I was thinking about it when I wrote “Lessons.” The poem is intended to say something like “These events gave me a particular understanding of human social life, and I carry that understanding forward, but to have been loved so well–gently, abidingly, sweetly–has changed how I see myself, my past, and the world.” It’s a love poem!
But to answer your question directly, I’ll say this: my childhood shaped my poetry completely, irrevocably, because it shaped me. It taught me that we’re vulnerable to one another’s whims and inheritors of one another’s suffering. It taught me that we live closer to the bone than we might like to recognize and that our survival depends on our willingness to rely upon one another, to care for each other. It taught me the dangers and pleasures of being an animal in the world, and it convinced me of the urgency of seeing and saying the truth. I think–I hope–these lessons are at work in my poems.
I appreciate the turn that happens at the end of “Lessons” as it flips to an ode of sorts for a person whose presence allows the speaker to rise above a difficult childhood with “a carton of Five Alive & a fistful of daisies.” What (or who) was the original inspiration for the poem?
We have a running joke in my marriage–we continuously evoke “the speaker’s husband.” Mark–to whom this poem is dedicated–is a pretty ferocious protector of my creative freedom, and he often reminds me that poems aren’t nonfiction. Actually, whereas the writer of an essay agrees to tell the truth and a fiction writer claims the story is made up, poetry occupies a liminal space when it comes to the real. Poets aren’t promising facts or refusing them. In my case, I’m using them as raw material and giving myself permission to remember, imagine, invent, all in pursuit of the made thing. My husband isn’t in this poem; the lovely young man with the juice and flowers is the speaker’s husband.
Just between us, though, I’ll say this: I was sixteen when I met Mark, and it was like spotting dry land after a long, hard time at sea. I’m grateful every single day for the good sense I managed back then. Kid-me set me up good!
I noticed that you wrote a few chapbooks before your first full length collection Dear Terror, Dear Splendor came out in 2019. How did those earlier works prepare you for that full length collection? What has your writing journey been like so far?
I love chapbooks. They play a vital role in the poetry ecosystem. They allow emerging writers to create a smaller collection before they take the bigger leap, invite folks already publishing books to engage with side projects, and make it possible for small presses to champion work that’s riskier because it is experimental or otherwise outside what the market deems viable.
My first chapbook collects prose poems I wrote in a flurry when I started teaching and was the mother of a small child. It was hard to find time for creative work, and I started a blog with the aim of writing and posting a poem a day, quickly and without much revision. What came out, not surprisingly, was very different from the poems that arise from my usual practice. My second chapbook, Girl, Giant, is more of a precursor, a place where I incubated my first collection, and many of those poems appear also in Dear Terror, Dear Splendor.
My practice has always depended a great deal on my circumstances–I had a baby at the tail end of my MFA and was raising a small child during my PhD, so the book I started writing at twenty-three was published two decades later. I thought that meant I was a very slow writer. I am a pretty devoted and meticulous reviser. I live with a poem for a long time before I find myself wanting to publish it, and it’s not unusual for the published version to be drafted thirty-five or forty-seven times. But right around the time Dear Terror, Dear Splendor came out, my kid went off to college, and then I wrote the second book in four years instead of twenty.
What do I want to say, then, about the journey? I always wanted, since I was maybe fourteen, to live a life in poetry, and I’ve pursued it persistently though not always in ways that look ambitious, and I think that’s because I’ve also chosen to be present in the other parts of my life. I have a full life, and I’m at peace with the ways that poetry moves in and out of the center, sharing space with friendship, activism, teaching, marriage, motherhood. As long as I can feel the poem within reach, I’m happy.
Congratulations on winning the Iowa Poetry Prize award for your second poetry book Lo, coming out in spring of 2023! What was the process like in creating this poetry book and submitting it for the prize? Did you submit to other contests or presses? What would you recommend to others who are working to get a poetry collection published?
Thank you! As I said, I wrote this book much more quickly than my first one, largely because I was no longer parenting in the same active, daily way I had been. I was working in an independent creative writing department. Everybody in the building was writing a book! It felt like I better be, too!
After about three years of writing new poems post-Dear Terror, Dear Splendor, I spent a summer taking stock of how much finished work I actually had. Did it add up to something cohesive? Cut to the bonkers, murder-investigation-style manuscript wall, and then passing the results on to a single, trusted reader, and suddenly, in time for the fall reading periods, it looked like I had a book to submit.
My plan was to send that version of the manuscript to about a dozen presses, and if it didn’t get picked up, I’d revise and try again. I’d arrived near the end of the cycle–had a few lovely near misses–and was making a revision plan when I got that thrilling call from the University of Iowa Press.
In terms of advice, maybe the main thing I can offer is encouragement to take your time making the poems and building the book, and once you believe it’s strong, identify presses putting out work you love and admire, making books you find physically beautiful and with reputations for treating their authors with respect.
From there, the hardest part is pursuing publication in the face of rejection, maintaining the confidence necessary to ride it out. For me, this is all made easier by remembering past experiences–so often when I’ve begun to believe a thing is impossible, I learn otherwise. But the bottom line is this: if I’m pursuing a thing I believe in, a thing I have chosen mindfully and with all my heart, I don’t have to keep second guessing myself. I don’t get to make others’ choices–whether or not to publish the thing–but I have made mine, have done my work, and I can feel good about that, no matter the outcome.
Will there be events leading up your publication of Lo that we can look forward to? What is next on the horizon for you as a writer?
On the run-up to the publication of Lo, I’m doing all the things a poet does to help get the book out: trading notes with the copyeditor, looking at proofs, helping to select cover art, gathering blurbs, and that takes up a lot of headspace and dayspace. Surprisingly, though, I find I’m also writing new poems toward something that already feels like it might be a third book, this time about desire for things we don’t choose. I’m thinking a lot about the word unconsummated. I identify as a bit of a hedonist, so this is new territory. We’ll see!
MELISSA CROWE is the author of Dear Terror, Dear Splendor (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019) and Lo, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in the spring of 2023. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Image, New England Review, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest, among other journals, and she was the 2021 winner of the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She coordinates the MFA program at UNCW, where she teaches poetry and publishing.