Melissa Studdard is an American poet, writer, editor and the author of four books, including the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the young adult novel Six Weeks to Yehidah. Her short writings have appeared in a wide variety of journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies, such as The New York Times, Psychology Today, The Guardian, New Ohio Review, Harvard Review, Bettering American Poetry, and Poets & Writers. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Kathak Literary Award, the Poiesis Award of Honor International, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. As well, her books have been listed in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts’ Best Books of the Year, January Magazine’s Best Children’s Books of the Year, Bustle’s “8 Feminist Poems To Inspire You When The World Is Just Too Much,” and Amazon’s Most Gifted Books.
In addition to writing, Studdard serves as the executive producer and host of VIDA Voices & Views for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and the president of the Associated Writing Program’s Women’s Caucus. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is a professor for the Lone Star College.
Here Shafinur Shafin, on behalf of Prachya Review, interviews the poet to know more about her thoughts and literary journey.
Shafinur Shafin: The title of your debut book of the collection of poems is so interesting, “I ate the Cosmos for Breakfast”… I found the poems are somehow spiritual and erotic also. The language is really meditative. Was it intentional? Tell us please the background of writing the poems in the book.
Melissa Studdard: I like the way you described Cosmos, and I think it’s accurate. The particular combination of the spiritual and erotic was not initially intentional, but once I saw the pattern unfolding, I cultivated it. Though it may seem unconventional or strange to some people to combine spirituality and eroticism, there’s actually a strong, longstanding precedent for it in the mystical branches of most religions. Eroticism and spirituality, though different in many ways, are two great sources of passion, so it makes sense to me that they would share certain elements, like exuberant language and vivid, sensual imagery.
Shafinur: How do you choose a title for your poems?
Melissa: Sometimes they just come to me, but when I have to work for them, I use two basic methods. The first is to extract a line or phrase not working well in the body of the poem and use it as the title. This often produces good titles because the extracted lines are tightly related to the subject matter but not flowing well. If there is no such line in the poem, I free write until I have one. For me, staring at a screen to try to think of a title is a perfect recipe for getting stuck. Flow and movement are integral to my creative process.
Shafinur: How does life influence your writing?
Melissa: In every way you can imagine. There is no part of my experience that does not influence my writing.
Shafinur: Do you think poems can bring peace?
Melissa: Without question, they can help activate more peaceful states of being, both socially and personally. Unlike strictly functional communication, which often flies through us and away, poetry arrives pregnant and remains to roost and hatch. It can change the rhythms of our breath. It can nestle deep within the conscious and unconscious facets of mind, simultaneously, disrupting patterns and unexamined choices that preserve harmful structures and belief systems. Though daily language can tell us that we need to become more mindful, poetic language can awaken us to that mindfulness by making us slow down and pay attention or by startling us into a new awareness. Through the rhythms, figurative imaginings, and syntactical complexities of poetry we can not only communicate but also envision and implant new ideas about ways of being, thinking, and acting. Connections not readily available to the conscious mind are activated, and we exercise the power of the imagination to direct us to new possibilities.
Is it possible to read, for instance, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and remain unmoved? Is it possible to have collective, poetically curated and rendered effects of racism hatch inside you and not grow more sensitive to the nuances of micro-aggression, more able to spot it, more desirous of calling it out when you see it, more desirous of eradicating it from yourself? I feel like it would take an intentional, ugly act of will to resist this natural extension of having read such a book.
As well, poems make us feel understood and less alone in our human experience. Coming across a line in someone else’s poem that beautifully articulates something I didn’t even know I was feeling, or something that I was thinking but too ashamed to say, tells me it’s not outrageous to think and feel those things. That understanding, that connection, can deliver peace.
Shafinur: What inspires you to express yourself through poetry?
Melissa: The world is incredibly beautiful, sad, harsh, lovely, lonely, nurturing, ugly, resplendent, sublime. I can’t quit thinking about it. I’m in love with it. I hate it. I have to write about it.
Shafinur: You published your novel before your debut poetry collection. I think you are more famous as poet than novelist (I also first got to know your name through poems). So tell us something about the novel and writing it.
Six Weeks to Yehidah is a middle-grade novel about a young girl on a spiritual journey, learning ancient wisdom traditions and gaining insights into her purpose in life. She travels through mystical lands, where trees grow instruments and petroglyphs act as portals to other worlds. It started as a short story, but the larger scope of it became apparent quickly—when I was about ten pages in.
A fun fact about the novel is that my daughter, Rosalind, actually wrote the poem that the main character, Annalise, recites in the first chapter. Rosalind was about eight years old at the time, and we were at a restaurant with a paper table cloth the children could draw and color. At some point I looked down and saw that my daughter had written a gorgeous poem instead of making a drawing. I loved the poem so much I took the tablecloth home. When I created Annalise a few years later, I just knew she had to recite Rosalind’s poem!
Shafinur: Do you think any poet/author influenced your writing? Who and how?
Melissa: So very many. I could literally write about this for years and still have more to say, so I’m going to choose one poet who heavily influenced me when I first began writing: Li-Young Lee. I read his poems so many times I memorized them unintentionally. More so than with almost any other poet, I feel privy to the intimate rhythms of Lee’s thought patterns. And they are beautiful rhythms, beautiful thoughts, full of stylistic and imaginative paradoxes. His metaphors have a way of arriving both unexpectedly and with a light touch, which is a feat even the best poets often do not accomplish. The poems are artful but without artifice. Grand structures unfold with ease. No matter how many times I read Lee’s poems I always feel surprised and delighted by his mind.
Shafinur: One of my American friends was saying nowadays female poets are celebrated more than male poets in media. Do you agree? (because in other parts of the world, we feel that the literary world is dominated by males mostly and they sometimes say female writing so girlish as if it has no literary value)
Melissa: My experience has not shown me that female poets are more celebrated than male poets. We have more work to do in bringing marginalized groups, such as women (including older women who started careers late, after rearing families), LGBTQI folk, people of color, and people with disabilities into the forefront of the literary landscape. This work is not just about the living. We need excellent, driven scholars to put their time and research towards finding writers of past generations whose work was suppressed, marginalized, or ignored because they were not members of the prevailing power structures of their times. We need these marginalized voices in order to gain a fuller picture of the human experience. When our view is lopsided and limited, it has a huge negative impact on our ability to attain the level of mutual understanding needed to treat each other the way we all deserve to be treated.
Shafinur: Do you think your poems inspire other people’s life and thought?
Melissa: I’ve received beautiful messages from people who say they’re inspired by my poems, and I’m always happy to receive the messages. It’s a gift when one person takes time let another know their work has had a meaningful impact.
Shafinur: Your poem was included in the Bustle’s “8 Feminist Poems to Inspire You When The World Is Just Too Much”, how was the feeling? (In fact I was so happy seeing your name on it)
Melissa: It’s nice that you were happy to see “Respect” on the Bustle list. Thank you! I was delighted too. The same poem was also just on a feminist list at Bookriot, and I appreciate the people who take the time to curate such lists. It’s fun when a poem starts to have unexpected adventures on its own. It feels like an adult child has gone out into the world to make their own way.
Shafinur: To what degree do you feel awards make a difference for recognition and author establishment?
Melissa: Awards certainly help call attention to people’s work, and that is a wonderful thing. I know awards also generate opportunities for the people who receive them, and that is also a wonderful thing. However, I think it’s more important for writers to recognize, honour, and share their own talent regardless of whether or not they are receiving accolades. There are plenty of writers who have attained both commercial and critical success without having won any awards.
Poems by Melissa Studdard
Everyone in Me Is a Bird
Mind was a prison, ruby lined
in its lipstick noir—everything woman
I was expected to be, trapped between
papered walls. What they said to do, I did not
but only levitated at the burning,
the body a water in which I drowned, the life
a windshield dirty with love. What they
said to think, I thought not but instead made
my mind into a birdcage with wings
*Title is from an Anne Sexton Poem
(Publication Credit: First published in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series.)
Because her body is winter inside a cave
because someone built
fire there and forgot to put it out
because bedtime is a castle
she’s building inside herself
with a moat
and buckets full of mist
because when you let go
tumble over cliffs and turn
into moths before hitting bottom
because their hooves leave streaks of midnight
in the sky
because stuffed rabbits
are better at keeping secrets
than stopping hands
because when the world got
shoved up inside her
she held it tight like a kegel ball
at the struggle Atlas had
carrying such a tiny thing
on his back
(Publication Credit: First published in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series.)
Democracy is a pigeon
looking for a landing.
Consumerism is an accident
from when God fell asleep.
Now the skyline is inside me
like a door leading to someone
else’s bedroom. Nothing on the dresser
is mine. The ornate gold frames
hold other people’s children,
the jewelry box—someone else’s jade.
I move across the carpet
in my slippers and mist, a myth
not yet written. What it is I want
to become, no man can answer
or buy. It’s possible
I’m the mother of vast, dark silences.
It’s possible I will grandparent
a litter of storms.
(Publication Credit: First published in The Journal.)