An Interview with Melissa Studdard
Sarah Marcus: Cate Marvin wrote of your stunning debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press), “In so many ways the poems in this book read like paintings, touching and absorbing the light of the known world while fingering the soul until it lifts, trembling.” Which is exactly how these poems made me feel, but I also had the sense that the “known world” was also somehow secret. The poem “In Another Dimension, We Are Making Love” ends with: “Everything we need to remember/ can fit on a scrap of paper/ smaller than your hand.” Which feels so impossible and so true! Can you tell us about this collection and your process of poem-painting?
Melissa Studdard: Of course you’re right—it’s impossible but true. What’s known touches the boundaries of secrecy, and what’s secret is also subconsciously known. That paradox, that interplay, is part of what thrills me about poetry. We can get right up to the edge of something and feel it deeply and still not fully figure it out, and that ambiguity is not only okay; it’s pleasurable. I like your phrase “poem-painting” in this context too, because in the dream-logic of poetic composition, ideas and concepts are often nestled inside images and metaphors. Therefore, we must paint poems in order to unpack the images.
In my process, a poem usually starts with a phrase or image rather than an idea. The process of writing the poem instructs me as to what it’s about. I rarely know before I begin. I’m usually just struck by something—a fist of leaves unfolding, a plastic Jesus hanging from a rearview mirror, the instant between a smile and when the smile fades—and I write until I know why the image ignited me. I often do that part of the writing with pen and paper, and then, when I figure out why I’m writing, I move to the computer so I can edit more easily as I go along.
And thanks to both you and Cate for the kind words about I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast! As I’m sure you can tell from the collection, I love art and ekphrastic poetry. Many of the poems are responses to art and enact a hunger for it and a desire to eat it and everything else that the cosmos contains. So, fundamentally, the collection is about an appetite for beauty and art and love and sex and life and divinity and even suffering and death. And of course, food. We cannot forget food.
SM: You are also the author of a bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah and a companion journal, My Yehidah (both on All Things That Matter Press). I think that this work is especially important because it is so empowering for young women. Can you tell us more about this book, your inspiration for the main character, and the awesome companion journal?
MS: Six Weeks to Yehidah is the story of ten-year-old Annalise, who, after being caught in a flash flood, finds herself thrust into a metaphysical dreamscape. She meets one challenge after another as she encounters underwater cities, cloud kingdoms, magic labyrinths, and an eclectic assortment of eccentric characters. It was critical to me that Annalise model empowerment not by putting others down or beating them in the traditional sense but by accessing the wisdom and independence within herself. Rather than looking outward or to others, she looks inward for solutions to all manner of problems, ranging from her own to other people’s to bigger societal issues and issues inherent in the human condition.
In many ways the tale is allegorical, and Annalise herself is largely archetypal—the Everygirl next door. In that sense, she’s a fusion of the traits of many people, but some of her more unique characteristics, the ones that aren’t universal, such as her musical and linguistic talents, are based very loosely on my daughter. In fact, the poem Annalise recites in the first chapter was written by my daughter when she was just nine. While all the other kids were drawing and coloring, she wrote it with crayon on the paper tablecloth in a restaurant, and, smitten, I took it home to include in the book.
My Yehidah is a journal and workbook I designed with the wonderful visual artist Cheryl Kelley to help kids recognize that they possess the same internal resources as Annalise and to help them tap into those resources through drawing, writing, and reflecting.
SM: As a host for Tiferet Talk Radio and The Tiferet Talk Interviews, you have had the opportunity to interview notable writers and spiritual leaders who have shared their thoughts on writing, tolerance, and the world we live in today. How did you get involved with this project? How does this series influence your writing and your perspective as a feminist?
MS: I started with Tiferet as an editor, and after a few months, the publisher told me she wanted to launch a talk show and she hoped I would host it. I’d never done anything like that before, and I have no idea what made her think I could pull it off. But I’m glad she had faith in me! It’s been a great experience and a tremendous gift to my writing. The Tiferet Talk guests have shared such insights regarding the magic and craft of writing—and the wonder and sorrow and exhilaration of being human—that conducting the interviews regularly holds me in a constant state of creative awakening. And, of course, that translates into greater depth and meaning in my own life and writing.
When Ed Hirsch was on the show, he spoke of the magical, irrational element in poetry, and how the poet, like a priest or shaman, performs the vital function of bringing information back from the unconscious realm to the material world. He talked about how dangerous it feels to venture into that territory, and I felt this huge relief in knowing that the process of entering into unconscious territory feels so imperative and yet so dangerous to other people too. So, what I’m saying is that one of the most important things the show has done for my writing is simply to make me braver.
Now, about feminism—that’s an interesting question. Because Tiferet is a spiritual journal, I think what has influenced me most is the realization that Tiferet’s hope for a better, more peaceful, more tolerant world can best be met by both men and women embracing, enacting, and—yes—asserting, a lot more of the values and traits that have been traditionally thought of as feminine. As well, through Tiferet’s emphasis on tolerance, and through watching my girlfriend’s activism regarding issues that don’t directly impact her, I’ve come to realize how important it is for feminists to act as allies to other marginalized groups and to learn from and accept support from them as well. Great change can happen if we are open enough to take up causes that are not our own—because the truth is that all the causes are our own. Whether we are black or white, canine, equine, or human, we are all made of the guts of stars. We all breathe and live and long. We are all kin.
SM: Your work embodies inclusivity, and as feminists we often discuss the vitalness of this practice, but I'm wondering as a writer, what value do you see in fostering exclusivity within our writing community?
MS: So, at first this is going to sound like it contradicts what I just said, but it doesn't. We may all be kin, but we’re individuals too, and not everyone acts like kin. Having exclusive relationships within the larger whole is natural and appropriate, especially now, when there is still so much work to be done. I particularly think it’s a good idea when we’re talking about creating and maintaining safe spaces for people within marginalized groups to come together to support one another. In the same way that Ed pointed out that the poet brings information back from the unconscious realm to the material world, these groups can engage in meaningful dialogue and planning and then bring the fruits of their conversations back to the world. As long as any groups of people are oppressing any other groups of people, exclusivity among the oppressed will be a vital means to restoring balance. If our writing community and society at large ever evolve beyond oppression, we can re-think exclusivity. For now, however, I think it’s important for the members of any group to remember that in addition to advocating fiercely for each other, they are part of a larger organism, and they are ultimately working for the health of the whole.
SM: What are you working on, and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
MS: I’m completely obsessed (in the best way) with a series of poems I’m working on about a couple that finds an abandoned girl on the side of the road. She’s mythic and mysterious and terrifying and innocent all at the same time, and I can’t quit thinking about her or them or what they all mean to each other. I think it’s growing into a book.
Usually, I work on poetry and fiction simultaneously, but right now I’m wholly driven by poetry—and I like to be a good passenger for the muse.
Thanks for asking, Sarah. And thanks for this lovely interview.
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.