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Interview with Melody Wilson

Editorial Assistant Rosie Leggott’s Interview with Winter 2023 Contributor Melody Wilson
Rosie Leggott: Do you write all of your poems based on personal experience, or do you ever draw on the experiences of others that you are passionate about? When do you know that you will write about something? Is it in the moment (as it appears with Postmodern Pedestrian), or is it more reflective (as it appears in Hand Me Down)?
Melody Wilson: My earliest poems are about my family. But as time has gone on, I’ve tried to find ways to write about other things. Unfortunately, even when I write about something I’ve read in the news or a piece of art, I usually wind up writing about family. This is some kind of a confession, I’m sure. The good news is that I rarely begin a poem meaning to write about them anymore. So that’s progress. For example, I looked at a modernist painting of smoke the other day and started a close study on types and origins of smoke. And when I got through campfires, and house fires, and atomic bombs, I found myself finishing the poem with my father blowing smoke rings. To me, it’s the most beautiful example of smoke. So, I can’t help it.
In 2021 I completed a draft of a manuscript about my mother. It was gruelling and is in a state of disarray to this day. But when I “finished” it, I needed to do something else, so I decided, on a whim, to write a series of poems about bugs. And that’s where Army Wife comes from. I had married very young, and my then-husband joined the military. We lived in a primarily agricultural area and the cockroach population was robust. I started writing about cockroaches, but I think the poem changes pretty quickly. I’m fascinated by (and don’t understand) its undertones even now.
When I write about something entirely disassociated from myself, which I do when I work with art or interesting facts in the world, it comes through me, and I see myself in it. I don’t think it can be helped. With a poem like Postmodern Pedestrian, I am the witness, but it’s the pedestrian’s poem. I do think my own religious idiosyncrasies and cultural presumptions have an effect though. I knew that would be a poem right as he crossed in front of me. I often see something in the world and think—that’s a poem! About a quarter of the time, I get a draft written. Postmodern Pedestrian was much more insistent than usual. I knew it would be written—probably because of the association with the El Greco Christ.
RL: The juxtaposition of your perspective with your sisters in your poem Hand Me Down is jarring. As the youngest of five, I have often found myself in a similar situation. Do you ever find that your relationship with your siblings is affected by the differences in your childhood? Is this something that you write about often?
MW: I am the youngest of six sisters in a family that I might describe as a slow-motion plane crash from my earliest memories until the present day. But the crowning jewel of the family, the thing we could be proud of, was the sisters. And my glorious father, of course, who doesn’t make an appearance in these three poems. My oldest sister is sixteen years older than me; the sister closest to me is five years older than me. As the family deteriorated, of course many things changed. So, yes, the experiences of the older girls were very different from mine. They have their own stories, their own histories, and that is marked and commented on among us at every turn. Unfortunately, sisters four and five are no longer living. So that leaves a gap between the oldest three and me.
I write from my experience and my recollection, which is informed by the stories I’ve been told over time. But I no longer ask for clarification because I’m afraid being told someone’s version of an event would weigh too heavily on my interpretation. When I write about my sisters, it’s in association with me. I’ve never adopted a persona of any of them and wouldn’t dare. The good news is that this is poetry and not documentary. And each of my remaining sisters is a highly educated, very bright woman who can tell her own story if she would like to. I think that’s the only possible position on these issues.
RL: Your poems use details and have focuses that are less common in poetry, and that is one thing that makes them stand out. Paper clippings and cockroaches are both good examples of this. What do you think of the stereotype that poetry can only be soft, romantic, and "frilly"? Do you write any poems that fit this description? Do you find different levels of satisfaction from writing in these two separate styles?
MW: Before I knew anything about Emily Dickinson, all I saw in her work was the flowers and the bees. I avoided her for some time based on that incorrect assumption. I think that a person raised in trauma doesn’t have time for domestic nature, if that makes any sense. Or at least, that’s true for me. Once I was able to really read Dickinson, I could see that those images were representational. I think that’s the critical question—what does an image represent? How well does it do it? I suppose it’s worth noting that I spent an important chunk of my childhood in the Mojave desert, so while I adore the lush vegetation of Oregon, my home of many years, I will never be a great gardener and my poems reflect that.
The more important part of this question lies in the use of unpleasant images and events. The only thing I can offer is that I grew up in a dysfunctional home (I dislike that word, but it helps me avoid banal specifics) and some events that might be described as traumatic are the events that made me (and everyone else in my family) who we are. I’ve heard that regret is the act of wishing for a different past. I do not. I loved my family and part of loving them is allowing them to be who they were. This is not to say I don’t regularly feel sad when reading a poem about a wonderful mother, but, to take one example, the sister closest to me in age was a brilliant, conniving woman with serious issues with substances, and I will be writing her back into existence for as long as I breathe.
RL: Submitting work to be published can be very daunting. Now that these poems have been published, I expect you feel some sense of relief (and a well-earned amount of pride). But do you feel anxious that the vulnerability in these poems is now permanently in print? Have you ever felt like this? How do you combat it?
MW: Sometimes when you write poetry, people say nice things about it. Sometimes they mean it. A friend recently read a poem of mine and posted on Facebook “you don’t look away.” I loved that. I don’t know why, but it made me feel as if she really understands. I am sometimes disappointed that poems that I no longer think are good enough are in the air, but it’s never because of what I said, it’s my technique, which is evolving. If I sugar-coated my experiences, I would be invalidating the lives of the people I love, and I would miss the opportunity for others with similar experiences to connect to them—as you did, being the youngest of a string of sisters. I actually think I do put a brighter spin on things than what was true—which is a little alarming.
The only real concern about content that I have these days is that sometimes my poetry wouldn’t read well with certain kinds of readers who practice a different kind of world view. But I assume they’re not reading my work.
RL: Lastly, who do you write for? Not just who is your target audience, but when you write, who do you picture reading it? Does your audience have any impact on the stories that you decide to tell? If you were to say something to another woman who is in a situation similar to the one you describe in Army Wife, what would it be?
MW: I wouldn’t say I write to an audience at all. I write under the influence of other poets—I’m pursuing my MFA and I definitely angle current work toward my advisor’s nudging. I will have a new advisor next semester and will write toward their nudging. I am confident that I will come back to my own centre, improved, when I’m done. This is how I learn, and I am willing to work hard on my practice. But I’m trying to let each poem be itself. I start where it starts and then I
try to shape it into its own best existence. Only then do I consider what kind of audience might be interested in it.
If I had the opportunity to advise a woman living in the circumstances of Army Wife, I would ask her to really get a handle on what’s happening, to give names to the incidents that are occurring—even if only for herself. I couldn’t do that. Even now, I can’t quite name it. The time with my daughter was beautiful—she was (and still is) an embodiment of light. But I find it interesting that I describe the relationship with the man in cockroaches. It was an accident—I started with the roaches, but he turned the key and entered the poem.
Melody Wilson lives in Portland, Oregon. Recent work appears in Briar Cliff Review, The Shore, and The Colorado Review. New work will appear in Sugar House Review, Re Dactions, and Nimrod. She received the 2021 Kay Snow Award and high recognition from the Oberon, Dobler, and Pablo Neruda Awards.
You can read Melody Wilson's poetry in Issue 294 (Winter 2023) of The Fiddlehead