Melissa Broder puts it on the line—practical fantasy, art as oppression, pasties and pole dancing, cross-genre collab, faith, fashion, booze and acid, brooding teens. Yeah, and poetry.
Poetry can get tiring. Writing it. Reading it. Writing about reading it. Reading about reading it. Writing about writing it. Reading about writing it. There’s a whole mess of big poems, little poems, middling poems—a crushing, extant lot of beauty and ego to reckon with or not, to revisit or forget about. The stacks—if not the stakes—of poetry keep rising, and the restless complex of it all goes on shape-shifting, calling out codes for radical consciousness from the void that serves as base and vertex. It consumes lives, and its feed can make a grotesque lattice to relax in. Mortals like us, though, we prefer some meat on the bones. Because we don’t only get weary—we stay hungry. And with all this word around to always catch up on, it feels damn fine finding a rare slab of poems fit enough to eat.
Melissa Broder’s Meat Heart embodies that strain of sustenance, that sort of psychosomatic excitement most valiant art more or less tries to pull off. It’s her second full-length book, and as with the first, When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother, it’s a sleek machine hauling gnarly cargo—persons, places, things, things, things. “Championship,” which falls toward the opening of Meat Heart, likely puts it better, just about rallying, “Let’s / write a love song for heavyweights / and by heavyweights / I mean everyone.” Because Melissa’s projections—more pop personist than personal—lay forth, and are laid upon, a sense of spirit contingent on body, we get more than love songs. We get skewed prayers. We get banquets. Transfigurations and showdowns, tough ghosts and fake heavens, escapades through culture-struck waking dreams and flaming cities of memory. Her poems don’t bore or bear down. They beam oracle energy. They pump a music of visions for the life-lusty death dance.
But it’s unsurprising that Broder should be responsible for poetry that shoves a live wire into the premise of its making. She’s run a reading series for years. She holds down a day job at one of the biggest book publishers in the world. She edits a fierce and lasting online literary magazine. She’s pursuing an MFA. She tweets like you wouldn’t believe. She backs other writers’ work, and her own is a force of exact and exuberant play. Her poems are made of worlds. Melissa walks the walk, and here, she talks the talk.
Peter Moysaenko Your poem “Blue Period” opens up, “I know / I am menaced / by art.” By what degrees might you say your writing practice figures as diversion or confrontation? And would you say the bulk of your writing practice eventually leads toward or ultimately centers around poetry?
Melissa Broder In “Blue Period” I imagine being attacked by classical pieces of visual art—like literally getting eaten by museums. I’m not really into the traditional museum experience, because as a kid it felt so oppressive. Adults tried to “culture” you with Mary Cassatt, but I just wanted to be in the cafeteria eating pudding. I felt like I was dissolving with ennui. That is a negative experience of disintegration. But on the flip side, there can be a very euphoric form of vanishing, which is what writing does. It validates the itch. It makes the itch worth something. And it gets me out of my “me-ness” enough to enjoy being on this planet, where I’ve never felt particularly at home. So I think my writing practice figures as an integration. By vanishing, it’s the wholest I can get.
I’d say most of my practice eventually leads toward poems. I’m pretty utilitarian for a fantasist. I keep a lot of scraps around—pages of hoarded nouns, half poems that never made it out alive. I don’t like seeing anything go to waste. A lot of my work is surgery, or alchemy—fusing salvageable lines together from dead poems or taking a journal entry and replacing any “me language” with nouns thefted from a home and garden statuary catalog (i.e. crypt, panther, sphinx). Poetry can grow out of anything.
PM You’ve mentioned, more than once, that you’re apt to write poems while in transit. I wonder, is such approach strictly a matter of convenience or expediency, or does your sense of poetics link firmly to such fleetingness?
MB I’m a perfectionist. A nice desk in a pretty room doesn’t work for me, because the expectation that IT’S TIME TO MAKE ART is too high. I have to outwit myself and act casual—to approach with a sense of play. That doesn’t mean I never get “serious.” It’s just a question of outrunning the shit-talker within. There’s something about writing on the subway, or while walking, that frees the subconscious. It’s sort of a rebellion thing, like, I’m not really supposed to be doing this here now. I should probably pay more attention to my surroundings. But I get really entranced by the work. And the utilitarian in me feels good to be using every moment productively.
PM What does a poem offer you that a song or a film or a painting or a sculpture or an industrial park or a skyscraper or a mattress or a rendered whatever can’t or doesn’t offer?
MB If I had an ear for music I’d be in a band for sure. Poetry is all I know how to do. It’s the tool I was given by something bigger than me, so I use it. I do love the intersection of mediums—where one informs another. Recently I’ve been using Tumblr image blogs to write ekphrastic pieces. Here is where I hoard images, many of which are NOT SAFE FOR AN OFFICE PARK.
PM Do you imagine that recent ventures to bring poems or poets into realms of film and video at all enhance poetry’s broadcast and influence?
MB Okay, so while I like ekphrastic poems or cinema-inspired poems, my favorite place to encounter a poem is still on a piece of nice paper. That being said, San Francisco poet and video artist D.W. Lichtenberg and I just did this sweet collaboration. I wrote like, what, 50 words? And he spent hours and hours making the animation, the original track.
PM I was recently reading about this high-end restaurant, housed in an American-owned hotel-casino complex in China, that keeps on staff a so-called poet whose job it is to compose personalized verse for VIP guests. Does this sort of kept-poet gig strike you as deeply perverse? Or does it seem no worse than, let’s say, a regimen of chasing grants and juggling adjunct teaching appointments?
MB That casino sounds nuts. I bet it’s crazy inspiring with its glitz and weirdness. I am visualizing a giant buffet with gold glitter sauce. But the poet doesn’t sound perverse enough. I am hoping the poet wears pasties with tassles, vintage Vegas style. That would definitely be preferable to teaching freshman comp. Actually, a friend of mine has been taking pole-dancing classes. The pole-dancing school made her sign an agreement that she would never do it for money. That’s kind of like adjuncting, right?
PM What’s a favorite noun of yours, common or proper? And can you think of a verb that trumps it?
MB My favorite noun is probably me. A verb that trumps it is surrender (can also be a noun).
PM Surveying trends in attire and grooming, as far as you’re concerned, what are some all-time fashion bungles? Bustles? Wooden clogs? Dressy cargo pants?
MB Honestly, I don’t think there can be a bungle if it’s on the right person. Adam Robinson, who runs Publishing Genius Press, has a sweatshirt covered in acorns that he makes look very chic.
PM So what’s the difference between style and art?
MB I don’t know. God?
PM Is the myth or reality of the doomed but brilliant poet—or, let’s say, the poète maudit—gone for good? And for the better?
MB Nah, as long as there are 16-year-old boys with angst and Moleskines the poète maudit lives on. And there’s something beautiful about that. We can rub our emo phases together and make a shared past. But I don’t romanticize the effect of substances on creativity anymore, because I can’t afford to. It stopped working for me.
I read this quote recently, something John Lennon said about the impact of drugs on The Beatles, and I found it interesting:
It’s like saying, “Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?” What does that have to do with it? The beer is to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. The drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. They don’t make you write any better. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid."
I mean, I don’t think that tells the whole story. John said this in 1972, in hindsight, after the experiences had already been had. It’s like, Come on, John. Those experiences did expand your mind. They took you through another door—they showed you that other doors even exist. But you can definitely access some pretty trippy creative portals through meditation, art, other avenues. You really can. It’s way slower, but you get to keep it. Also, when you’re fucked up all your fresh ink looks genius. You fall in love with the crappiest shit. When you’re sober you know to give it some time before deciding what’s good.
PM I’m wondering, what do you make of faith—how might you describe the idea or experience of faith in relation to those of compulsion, mania, fear, shame? Does passion ultimately win out over reason?
MB I think faith is a muscle. You gotta work it. Mania, fear, and shame are doing push-ups right alongside it. And faith can definitely contain both passion and reason. Like, there are the occasional peak experiences, the moments of pure serenity or grace. I live for those, because I like highs. But then there’s the practice of it, which is quite—well—practical. Prayer, for example, is a very reasonable thing to do if it sustains you. If it works, do it—even if the only cosmos it affects is your brain.
Melissa Broder is the author of three collections of poems, most recently SCARECRONE. Poems of hers appear in Guernica, Redivider, Court Green, The Missouri Review, et al. She edits La Petite Zine. By day, she is a publicity manager at Penguin.
Peter Moysaenko is from Cleveland, home of American Greetings. He has been living in New York. He is moving to Iowa City now.