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

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

Saturday 11 February 2017

Review by Beth Gaylard of "Collegiate" by Natalie Beech, Brigitte Adela and Written Foundations Theatre Company

Collegiate is a production by Written Foundations Theatre Company, a partnership of director Brigitte Adela with playwright Natalie Beech.  Original music (by Selim Ben Rabha and Matthew Daly) and lighting were elegantly worked out to complement the drama, without distracting from it. I saw it in the Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester.

Set on a campus in freshers’ week, Collegiate is a story about friendship and pseudo-friendship, as well as sexual politics. At the heart of the play is a rape, which is not accepted as such by any of the characters, not even at times, by Tash (played by Rebecca Tubridy) to whom it happens. The brutality of the assault (not portrayed graphically) is matched by the nastiness of Tash’s and Kev’s friends. Tash’s friends scrutinise her behaviour and withdraw their affection in the aftermath of the assault - while Kev (played by Stephen Love) is the butt of more savvy young men, whose laddism contributes to the events. It’s the laddism that is really under scrutiny here – the play effectively challenges assumptions about sexual consent.
The portrayal of Tash’s situation (and its consequences) avoids the ‘victim’ stereotypes associated with those who’ve suffered a sexual assault, focussing on the personal horror – the uniqueness of the experience and the isolation it brings in its wake, as onlookers decide for themselves who’s at fault. 

All this is conveyed through a fast-moving script and excellent acting. There is humour in the piece, but like the music, it complements the story and never detracts from the serious subject – and both actors convincingly portrayed the dilemmas of Tash and Kev.

This is a piece of work that deserves a wider audience – particularly of the young people it’s aimed at, so I was pleased to hear from Written Foundations hope to stage Collegiate at the Edinburgh Festival in August. Catch it if you can. And incidentally, if you happen to have any links with sixteen plus education, it would be well worth booking a performance workshop for your students, as they think about heading off for university themselves.                                     
About the reviewer
Beth Gaylard is a teacher, writer and MA  student at the University of Leicester. She lives in Leicestershire in a weird modernist house that will one day feature in a bestselling novel or film, hopefully her own.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “A Monster Calls” (2016, film, directed by J.A. Bayona)

In what seems those distant days before CGI, Walt Disney introduced to popular cinema, with Song of the South, the combining of live-action and animation, and a signature lightness of touch in doing this was further developed in Mary Poppins. Now, with CGI, it has proliferated, and sometimes applied to more weighty themes. This is the case with A Monster Calls.

Set in contemporary England, a boy, Conor O’Malley, struggles to come to terms with his divorced mother’s cancer, an apparently unsympathetic maternal grandmother, and an ultimately disappointing visit from his father, remarried and living in Los Angeles. He also has to live with the attentions, including physical violence, of a school bully.

The nightmarish CGI sequences are transformations of features Conor can see from his house: a hilltop church with a graveyard and yew tree alongside it. The tree becomes the eponymous monster, voiced in ways both threatening and avuncular by Liam Neeson.

At intervals, the film includes the monster telling Conor three stories, related in an oblique way to his situation. These stories also take the form of animations, but they are in a very different style to those of the main plot. They are more like looser, sketchbook illustrations. In the final sequence, this storybook style makes sense while simultaneously providing mystery (I will avoid the detail of this, since it would be a spoiler). The monster demands of Conor that after the third story he should tell a fourth, working out the underlying truth behind his own terrifying visions.

A Monster Calls has some excellent performances. Lewis MacDougall, as Conor, succeeds in communicating awkwardness and aggression while remaining a character who is essentially likable. Sigourney Weaver gives a focused performance as the controlling grandmother, but with her own stresses and frailties occasionally showing. Toby Kebbell pitches it right as the well intentioned but failing father, and Felicity Jones, as the mother, further establishes herself as one of our finest screen actors, conveying the weakening condition of cancer in a poignant but unsentimental way. There is a brief scene where we see her naked back, and just through Jones’s posture we can believe in the seriousness of her character’s illness.

A Monster Calls has not been a box office hit, possibly because the writer, Patrick Ness (adapting his own book), and director, J.A. Bayona, commendably avoid easy answers, and as an audience we are confronted with both sadness and rage. There is also, though, hope when the difficult relationship between child and grandmother is resolved. It is, for sure, a film worth seeing, and there is a depth of purpose to reflect on, not least the way stories can interpret, and even negotiate through, life’s tragedies.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and he is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).