Sunday 19 February 2017
Interview with Melissa Studdard
About Melissa Studdard
Melissa Studdard’s debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, was recently released by Saint Julian Press. She is also the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah; its companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press); and The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and two Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards. I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was listed as one of Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts' Best Books of 2014-2015. Melissa’s poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies, including Tupelo Quarterly, Psychology Today, Connecticut Review, Pleiades, and Poets & Writers. In addition to writing, Melissa serves as the host of VIDA Voices & Views and an editor for American Microreviews and Interviews. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence college and is a professor for the Lone Star College System and a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. Her website is https://melissastuddard.com/
Here, Jonathan Taylor interviews poet and novelist Melissa Studdard, whose collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was reviewed in October 2016 on Everybody's Reviewing here.
JT: Melissa, I hugely enjoyed your poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, which seemed to me original, strange and often sublime. At the same time, your neo-Romanticism is also accompanied by an eye for the beauty of the everyday - so that the sublime mixes with the mundane ("Washing clothes ... is an act of prayer," you say in one poem, and another is entitled "Starry Night, with Socks"). For me, I would say this was one of the hallmarks of your style - but do tell me if I'm wrong. How would you describe your style?
MS: I love that assessment, Jonathan - especially that you called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast “strange.” In pointing out the commingling of the mundane and sublime, you nailed not only my style, but also how I experience the world. I grew up in a secular home. My father is agnostic, and my mother is spiritual with a deep curiosity about supernatural mysteries. We didn’t go to church, but I would sit at the top of the jungle gym in my back yard and talk to god. I believed and still believe that god is in my backyard. That’s part of it. Also, there’s something a monk said to me years ago when I was learning Buddhist meditation. He said, “When you learn to relax inside your mind, you can be on permanent vacation, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” You don’t need to go anywhere or seek anything. The beach, the flower, the mountain - they are all inside you. So, yes, I carry them with me when I vacuum and put on socks. Then I realize that vacuum cleaners and socks are sublime too. So, I think I would describe my style as you have, except to also possibly add that I think figuratively. I’m sure I have driven people crazy with my constant metaphors and analogies in everyday conversation, but if I want to understand or explain something, my mind almost always reaches for a comparison.
JT: Clearly, there's a lot of cosmic and creation imagery in the collection. What themes and ideas were you exploring in this respect?
MS: I was exploring a feminine, cyclical conception of god, time, and the universe. Rather than fashioning my poetic god in man’s image, I fashioned her in woman’s image. It was important to me that she be god and not the diminutive or adjunct “goddess.” I wanted to convey her as the origin and the all powerful, but I also wanted her to be present in the whole of everything. So, in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, most everything is pretty much a microcosm of the divine and the all. That’s why a pancake is creation flattened out. It’s all interconnected, all divine. As well, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast plays with ideas of reincarnation, god birthing the universe, and god attempting to parent the world.
JT: Would you describe yourself as a political poet? It seemed to me that the poems were sometimes overtly feminist, constructing alternative matrilinear historical narratives and creation myths, which were very powerful.
MS: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Second wave feminism said that the personal is political. I certainly embrace feminism, as anyone who knows me knows. But is the spiritual political too? I guess I resisted it for a while. I didn’t want my spiritual to be political. But it is, and the more overt I allow these connections to become, the richer and more fruitful their unions. As well, the poems I’ve written since I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was published and since Trump’s election have become more and more overtly political. It’s hard to look at anything the same way anymore when every day feels like a new political emergency. So, all of this is a long way of saying “yes.” I would describe myself as a political poet, and more and more so all the time. Yet I would not categorize myself as a political poet, if that makes sense.
JT: How does your poetry relate, do you think, to the other forms you write in (for example, novel-writing)? Are there major differences, or do you find they overlap? How does teaching help or hinder your work?
MS: I like to think of writing in different forms as cross-training. When I talk to my students about it, we talk about how football players and runners, for instance, sometimes practice ballet and yoga. I live in Texas, so sports analogies go a long way towards aiding student understanding. We talk about how cross-training keeps you flexible, fluid, and fit. There will always be something you learn in one genre that you can carry into another genre. In particular, poetry teaches me to trust the rhythm of my thoughts - to know that I can cultivate what is arising organically instead of trying to impose too artificial a structure on my longer works. Following poems to completion time after time grows trust in the process. Though, I must say, it’s never easy. Teaching helps my work in that it inspires me, but it hinders my creative work in that sometimes I give it far too much of my time and energy.
JT: There are quite a number of ekphrastic poems in the collection, which are inspired by particular pieces of visual art. Why do you think this is?
MS: Painters like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington just light up my imagination. They’re like magical beings bringing the dream world to canvas, and when I see what they’ve done with their canvases, I want to do the same thing with the page. I just have to sit down and write.
JT: What are you working on at the moment?
MS: I’m happily embroiled in poetry at the moment. I do plan to write more fiction in the future, and possibly even a memoir, but I think the next two books will be poetry. I’m working on them simultaneously. One is a book about a girl who is sort of half-myth and half-dream. She has suffered some abuse, and the book is almost an out-of body response to that abuse, though there are other characters and multiple viewpoints. The other book is all the poems I am writing that do not fit into that book. Like with I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, I’m trusting that the organizational path will appear when I put my foot on the ground.
About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.