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Goth Tendencies, Cy Twombly, and Turnstile Hearts: a conversation with Dean Rader and Melissa Stein

Recently Melissa Stein and Dean Rader, two San Francisco Copper Canyon poets, chatted at length about short poems, oxymorons, killing their darlings, lyrical gears, and inner/outer worlds on the occasion of the publication of Melissa’s new book Terrible Blooms. Publishers Weekly noted its “brief, lyric poems of dazzling craft”; Library Journal called the poems “rich and sensual and glittering”; and to LitHub, they’re “at once a battle cry and a gentle reclamation.” Stein’s first book, Rough Honey, won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Mark Doty. Rader had three books appear in 2017: Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon Press), Suture (collaborative poems with Simone Muench; Black Lawrence), and Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press).

Dean Rader: So, why are the blooms terrible? What did they do? Or not do?

Melissa Stein: Ah, the world is full of oxymorons. Cognitive dissonance. Light in dark. I’m always drawn to these opposing forces. The blooms have lost their way and found their way. They’re breathing the air we’re trying to take in. They witness things we’ll never see. We struggle out of the soil, too. I guess this is just a way of saying we make the best of what we’re given.

DR: So, when you were working on this book, what do you think poetry or the muse gave you?

MS: A few syllables. Dead frogs. Wild mint. Some hawks and voles. Someone bowed down in a field. Someone raised up by swan’s wings. Storms and a quarry. Nasturtiums. A turnstile heart. The usual?

DR: Sounds like the usual.

MS: As usual as a self-portrait. Speaking of which, how did you come upon the self-portrait as a nucleus for your latest collection? How do you feel about mirrors?

DR: Well, I wanted to explore the ways poetry and painting overlap, so many of the poems in Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry have titles like “Still Life with . . .” or “Landscape with . . .” or “Self-Portrait as . . .” I also am interested in how external things affect internal ones. But, let’s get back to you. What are you excited about in this book? How does it move your work in new directions?

MS: That’s interesting to think about, poems going from the outside in. Do you feel like your current work is in that mode? I feel like mine so often goes from the inside out. So rarely can I start from a real-world object or an idea, even if I want to—I’ll end up resisting it and the poem will be dead in the water. I have files and files of these great ideas that could be amazing if only someone else would write them. But back to your question, the Terrible Blooms book feels tighter to me than Rough Honey in certain ways, and it has fewer narrative elements. Most of the poems are quite short—only 16.4% of them go to a second page. While I can’t say I did it deliberately, I loved exploring this impulse and energy, how many forms a brief poem can take, how much can be made of each image, each line, each syllable.

Did you consider rounding up to 17%?

It seems like Terrible Blooms has fewer poems that are persona poems—not that every speaker in the new book is “Melissa Stein,” but that maybe more speakers from Rough Honey are obviously not Melissa Stein. Was this intentional?

I think your new poems have more . . . play in the voice. They are more willing to be wry.

The poems I’m working on now, by the way, are going in two very different directions. I don’t even know if they are part of the same project.

MS: Fractions can be fun. What are the two directions? It would be interesting to place them next to each other and see what happens, especially if they’re different projects. I feel like I’ve done that with both of my books—let seemingly incongruous poems resonate, create odd or new associations. Isn’t that one of the main things we do when creating a poem? There’s that T. S. Eliot quote: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

There’s very little in Rough Honey that’s overtly autobiographical, and I agree that the poems occupy lots of different personas recognizable as such—a butcher’s daughter, a teenage murderer, eerie twins, a farmer, some guy named Chuck who goes to a peepshow. In Terrible Blooms there does seem to be a narrower range of speakers, or at least speakers that could conceivably be the same. And there are more autobiographical details scattered among fictionalized autobiographical details (my favorite kind), and some dark humor to be sure (not surprisingly, I had goth tendencies in my formative years). I’d say very few of the narrators are Melissa Stein, though they might be interpreted that way, since that inclination seems to be irresistible to many who read poetry. As a writer I think I’m more interested in forming new wholes than capturing things that already exist, which might be why I recoil from capital-I Ideas when I have them.

But I want to hear about how your two directions differ.

DR: I love that Eliot passage. I do believe there is something about how a poet collates emotions, ideas, and experiences—for me poems are about how language finds and even creates collation. I think of the many gears of a watch and how various aspects of our lives contribute to the machinery of a poem. A vast array of gears, each one its own thing (childhood) (everything you’ve read) (politics) (ideas) (memory) (desire) (anxiety) (loss) (landscape) (language) but they fit into each other in just the right way and in so doing actually activate the next and the next and the next infinitely turning the dials of the poem.

Right now, I’m writing longish, somewhat meditative elegies about my father, who became very sick in early 2017 and wound up dying just a few days before Christmas. The poems are pretty intense. In one called “Elegy Pantoum,” (in which I borrow a line from your excellent pantoum from Rough Honey), I link the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert with my father beginning dialysis, the event that would eventually lead to his death. These poems have been sort of excruciating to write but wholly therapeutic. On the other hand, I’ve also been writing very short poems in response to Cy Twombly drawings. In these, I’m really interested in the similarities and distinctions between writing and drawing—the dual acts of making marks and meaning on paper to be both read and regarded.

I’m so interested to see if, eventually, my brain will want these to be part of the same project or if they will remain distinct.

As we are having this conversation, you learned you won a Pushcart Prize for your poem “Quarry.” Congratulations! Maybe you can give us a brief glimpse inside how this poem was made.

MS: This was the last poem I wrote on the very last day of a month-long residency at Yaddo in 2014. Usually at residencies I’ll write a few poems every morning; most are disposable, but some turn out well. This one came out nearly of a piece; I later did some small revisions, tinkered with the opening and closing, but nothing very substantial. I had an image of a girl swimming, “her body / sliced the water / like marmalade / and even the fish / were envious”; I saw her as this bright exclamation mark in dark water. Neither simile made it into the final poem. In writing, so often we end up winnowing our initial impulses—they lead us to the poem, then we let them go.

Terrible Blooms has four poems that take place in a swimming quarry; I’ve asked my family if we were ever in a place like that and was told no. In Rough Honey, I had a farm in my head, and in Terrible Blooms, there’s the quarry. I’ve wondered why I’m so drawn to this image. Maybe it’s the combination of a blasted-out space filled with warm-clear, soothing water. Even in the midst of willed damage and destruction, violence to the earth, the possibility of floating, lightness, freedom—although in this poem, the darkness circles back around.

Short poems seem to be a departure for you—do you have an idea of why your Twombly poems are taking this form?

DR: Well, I like challenges, and as you say, brevity has not been my strong suit in the past. I also wanted to try to replicate or approximate the immediacy of viewing a work of art. I have always been jealous of how quickly you can look at a painting and respond—and respond emotionally. Reading a poem, even a shortish one, can take a while, and then, for many people there is that added road block of comprehension. Sometimes our brains get preoccupied with trying to understand a poem that we don’t enjoy it. So, I’m trying to write poems that are quick reading experiences.

Also, I’ve set myself some obsessive but not random limits. Each poem is eight lines, which corresponds to the four sides of the canvas + the four sides of a piece of paper. Also, first part of an Italian sonnet, the octave, is eight lines, and Twombly spent most of his life in Italy.

So, that’s a kind of guide to my crazy new project. Maybe we can end with a brief reader’s guide to Terrible Blooms. What would you want readers to know as they read this fabulous book?

MS: Oh, I wouldn’t presume to guide a reader through a book of poems. Sometimes it’s better to lose our way. In my writing and my life I like to leave room for possibility. I hope the reader feels that, too.