Lynn Melnick Talks Feminism, VIDA, Please Excuse This Poem, & If I Should Say I Have Hope
Sarah Marcus: You do incredible work on the executive board at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and you focus specifically on Social Media and Outreach. After my year as a VIDA Counter and two years as a Count Coordinator, I think our current literary landscape needs VIDA now more than ever! Can you tell us about how VIDA is changing the way they count? Why is counting so crucial, and how can writers help keep this conversation moving forward?
Lynn Melnick: Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m very proud of the work I do with VIDA, and of VIDA’s work in general. And, as much as I sometimes complain about the troll situation with social media, I love that I get to interact with our amazing followers every day and spread the word about VIDA and about bias issues in publishing in general.
I also want to thank you, Sarah, for the work you’ve done with VIDA as a Count Coordinator! Without that (likely often tedious) work, none of this would be possible. And I’m endlessly grateful to all the people who volunteer with us for the greater good, and not for their own personal gain. It gives me hope, and furthers my passion for this work.
I’m especially glad to be working with VIDA as we embark on a more intersectional approach to the VIDA Count. The next count will include numbers on race, disability, and the LGBTQ population. Counting is crucial because it often verifies what we suspect – that there is a bias in the literary world against women and other populations.
Counting moves the conversation forward away from speculation and into fact.
We’ve seen in the last two VIDA Counts especially that editors have begun to realize the importance of diversity. There are so many literary venues that are running their own internal counts now, which is wonderful. It is starting to really matter to the literary world that all voices are heard. And writers can help keep this conversation moving forward by holding editors and other gatekeepers accountable for whom they promote.
SM: You co-edited the beautifully fresh anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking Penguin, 2015). This is a diverse collection of 100 poems from 100 poets that moves from war to race to gender to sexuality to lost childhoods and through open wounds. I loved using this book to teach my senior Creative Writers because these poems were so relatable and so right now. Tell us how this project started. Who do you see as this anthology's intended audience? Why is it important to continue to teach and represent these specific voices?
LM: It makes me so happy to hear that you have read Please Excuse This Poem with your students! They are exactly the readers we (my co-editor Brett Fletcher Lauer and I) had in mind when we set out to make this anthology. The goal of the book is to make poetry relevant to teenagers the way songs are so relevant to teenagers. We wanted to make poetry cool! And so it thrills me that your class found the poems relatable and of the moment. We worked very hard to include a range of voices, backgrounds and experiences because this is a diverse world we live in and the literature our kids are taught should reflect that, I think – and yet it so rarely does.
The idea for Please Excuse This Poem started basically out of years of conversations Brett and I had about our own difficult adolescences and the poetry that rescued us. And then we were like, “hey, what if we edited an anthology specifically with teenagers and their concerns and worries and experiences in mind?” And then we did!
We were also very fortunate to find an agent and an editor who totally understood this project and were as passionate as we were, even though you can imagine that poetry anthologies are not exactly the thing keeping the YA book industry afloat…
SM: Your poetry book, If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), was a Coldfront Magazine Top 40 Poetry Book for 2012! This book seems to accomplish so very much connecting physical space to memory while addressing a consistent uneasiness and the sorting of feelings and stories. What is your favorite poem in this book and why? What do you want your reader to walk away with?
LM: Ah, you say such nice things, Sarah!! Thank you.
You know, I’ve never been asked what’s my favorite poem in the book! I’m not sure, actually. I guess it would depend on my mood. I can be a little hard on myself (or a lot) so I don’t often sit back and think “fuck yeah this is awesome!” but let me give this a shot.
Well, the last poem in the book, “Wallflower” was written for my husband and is basically about me thinking “holy crap someone sees me and respects me and loves me and holy crap maybe I deserve that.” So that’s a nice one to be a favorite, right?
My favorite poem to read at readings might be “Superstar Hollywood Home Tours” which is just a catalog of my misspent youth but in a really light-hearted way for a change, plus there’s hot pants in there and I really wanted hot pants in a poem. But sometimes I feel self-conscious about reading so many dark, heavy poems when I give readings so I’m relieved to also have this somewhat more fun one.
But this week – I’m answering this question the week after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage – maybe “Town & Country” has been on my mind the most because I wrote it thinking about my friends who died of AIDS in the ‘90s and how they were so marginalized and things have changed so much and I wish they were all alive to experience it. So perhaps that’s my favorite poem at this particular moment.
SM: How do you feel inclusive feminism informs your work today? How have your views been impacted by the literary community? What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
LM: Inclusive, intersectional feminism is crucial to the many kinds of work that I do and I’m terrifically grateful to be a part of such a passionate, engaged literary community. My work with VIDA depends on it, of course. And in terms of what I read and what I teach, it is very important for me to listen and learn from all feminists.
And even in term of being a mother to two girls! For example, there are a lot of books about women’s suffrage for tween readers and my older daughter has perhaps read them all but one huge thing they tend to leave out is that no, not all women were granted the right to vote in 1920, it’s a terribly white-woman-centric feminism these books teach. It’s that kind of thing I try to correct if/where I can.
What’s next is I’m finishing up my second poetry collection! It’s kind of intense, mostly about sex, violence, sex work, and the landscape of California – and of course how language and memory both fail and enable the conversation around these complicated things. My obsessions rarely change, and my history of course hasn’t, but this new book will be a lot more fearless.
Lynn Melnick is author of If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012) and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). She teaches at 92Y in NYC and is the social media & outreach director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.