Melissa Studdard will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, March 10, 2016 from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.
Melissa Studdard is host of VIDA Voices & Views, an editor for American Microreviews and Interviews, and a judge for the monthly Goodreads ¡Poetry! Group contest. She is also the author of the novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah, a poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, and a collection of interviews, The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award and the International Book Award, among others.
Her poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Poets & Writers, Tupelo Quarterly, Psychology Today, Pleiades, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day. Of her debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, Robert Pinsky writes, “This poet’s ardent, winning ebullience echoes that of God…” and Cate Marvin says her work “would have no doubt pleased Neruda’s taste for the alchemic impurity of poetry.” Learn more at www.melissastuddard.com.
CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What drew you to writing?
MS: Reading drew me to writing. I have always loved reading, and, as a kid, I read way more than I watched television. I was that weird person who read War and Peace over spring break and several volumes of Remembrances of Things Past over the summer. I remember my aunt laughing and asking, “A little light reading for the holiday?”
The thing is, I didn’t know you could become a writer. Writers weren’t actual, living people, as far as I knew. They were were dead and had been so for a long time. So, it never even occurred to me that I could write too—not until I started to meet living writers in my early twenties in my master’s program at the University of Houston, and they demythologized authorship for me. The funny thing is that I was writing in my head all along—I just never thought to put it on the page.
I didn’t start thinking of myself as a writer until I was in my later thirties, though. I’ve been a single mom for decades, and I spent all my time taking care of my daughter and earning a living. It wasn’t until she was older and loved reading too that I sat down and wrote a book. I guess I was trying to impress her—and it worked until she became a teenager. Then I was uncool again.
CH: What led you to choose Sarah Lawrence for your MFA? How has that experience shaped your work as a writer?
MS: I mentioned above that I got my first master’s degree at the University of Houston. As long as I’ve been on the scene, there’s been a well-lit path between Sarah Lawrence and the University of Houston. I walked it backwards—most come from Sarah Lawrence to UH. But it was an easy choice. During the time I was working on my MA at UH, I was surrounded by Sarah Lawrence grads. I even wrote short stories featuring characters who were Sarah Lawrence alums.
When I finally got there for real, it was everything I wanted and more. The environment was one of total support, and there was a vibe of freedom and mutual respect. It was a creativity sanctuary. You were to be authentic, daring, and real. As well, the college helped instill a sense of purpose and social service. Gifts were to be shared. These ideals were not unique to the writing program; they were at the very heart of what it meant to be on that campus in any capacity.
That experience shaped my life as a writer by granting me permission to be who I am in my writing—to be weirdly and happily me instead of trying to write something appropriate or mainstream.
CH: You’ve published a novel and a collection of poetry, as well as a collection of interviews. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? If so, what would that be?
MS: Right now I’d have to say no. In my physical life, I’m a bit nomadic. I like to travel around. I like to meet new people, try new things, have new experiences. I think it’s just who I am. It’s no coincidence that my debut collection is called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast. I’m hungry. It’s about creating, giving, changing, trying new things. I think there are obvious reasons many of us write—to share, to connect, to make art—but pulsing beneath it all for me is a desire to set myself free and to find my courage. Aren’t they one and the same, anyway?
CH: What inspired you to write Six Weeks to Yehidah? How was that process for you? How did the idea for its companion, My Yehidah, come about?
MS: As I mentioned above, when you get right down to it, I wrote it for my daughter. But, as you know, inspiration is multifaceted. I was inspired by the children’s books I had been reading her—things like The Phantom Tollbooth and The wizard of Oz series. I was also inspired by non-fiction books I was reading about wisdom traditions. I wanted to share those traditions with kids and young adults in a fun, exciting way. One last cone in the inspiration potpourri was that I was in a writer’s group, and I was assigned to read The Oxford Book of Fairy Tales and write a short tale. That’s how the book began. It was just a short tale, and I fell in love with the characters and kept going and going. I had a friend who was also writing a book then, and we exchanged a chapter a month. It kept me going. The book is 19 chapters, and I wrote it in 19 months.
The companion came about because I knew this fabulous artist, Cheryl Kelley, and I was struck by the idea that with her illustrations, we could offer a journal and workbook that could personalize the main character Annalise’s journey for kids.
CH: I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast has been very well-received. How was this book conceived? What was your process in putting it together?
MS: The publisher, Ron Starbuck, said he’d like to bring out a collection of my poems, but I didn’t have one yet. I’d just been writing poems between stories and chapters, and though I really wanted to write a book of poetry someday, I didn’t think the poems I’d written made that—a collection, a complete thing. When I started looking at my poems I began to notice patterns, and I wrote poems to fill in gaps. It was really important to me to have a loose, organic sort of cohesion, and I worked hard for about a year to achieve the kind of associative and unconscious logical connections between poems and sections that was in the poems themselves. Here’s an article at Shewrites that details my exact process, with all the birthing pains and small victories included.
CH: How did you become interested in being an interviewer? How has your work as an interviewer influenced you as a writer?
MS: I was an editor at Tiferet Journal at the time, and the publisher, Donna Baier Stein, wanted to start a podcast and asked me to host it. To this day I’m surprised and flattered that she chose me. She said my voice was warm. That was really a lovely thing to say. So, I said “YES!” Flattery will get you far with me. Eventually, she started to co-host, and then it finally became clear to me that she was doing a great job with it and didn’t really need me anymore, so I started doing VIDA Voices & Views instead. I also curate interviews for American Microreviews & Interviews.
Interviewing is a great passion of mine. I try to interview people who I truly want to study and who I believe have a lot to share. I read everything I can by them—not just their books but their interviews and articles too. I read reviews of their work. I watch their podcasts and listen to their recordings. I tell you this because the answer to the second part of your question is tremendously. When you study someone to the extent I do to interview them, you learn their style and their obsessions and how they approach their subject matter. You even learn, to some degree, how they think. It’s a great honor to interview someone and learn from them in this way.
CH: When I look at your website (melissastuddard.com), I find myself thinking you must be incredibly busy with your work as college professor, interviewer, writer, and editor. With all that going on, how do you create balance in your life?
MS: I won’t kid you—I feel utterly overwhelmed at times. But I love the work, so the work itself reenergizes me. I also make time to rest. Doing nothing, meaning staring at a bird hopping along a limb for an hour or watching a fire crackle, is one of the most soul nourishing, creativity nourishing, and important activities a writer (or human!) can engage in. We need time to daydream and fantasize in order to be creative—even to creatively problem solve outside of the arts. We need time to listen to the earth and the sky and the hum of humanity. It’s sometimes hard to claim that time for ourselves, because we fear we are not doing anything, but we are.
I also meditate and do yoga. I go for a bike ride several times a week. I walk around my neighborhood. I believe in recreation and rest as vital aspects of life and creativity. I say all of this as a reforming workaholic, of course.
CH: What are your current writing projects? What do you see on the horizon in the next couple of years?
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 sort of 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.
CH: Which writers have been your strongest influences? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
MS: The most recent book of poetry I’ve read is Behind my Eyes, by Li-Young Lee. It was a re-reading. I love him. He’s definitely one of my favorite poets. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I put one of his readings on YouTube to soothe myself to sleep, which is kind of funny because he has a poem called “Virtues of the Boring Husband,” in which his talking makes his wife fall asleep. He’s not boring though, I can assure you. His lines take twists and turns and make associations I’d never have foreseen—all so gracefully, so elegantly, so naturally.
Other favorites (which are also influences, of course) are Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Gabriel García Márquez, Amy King, César Vallejo, Audre Lorde, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Dorothy Bryant, Yehuda Amichai, Lucille Clifton, Alejandra Pizarnik, Carson McCullers. I could list so many, but those are the ones who come to mind just now.
CH: What advice would you give a writer who is interested in working in a genre that is new to them?
MS: Know what you love to read in that genre and why. Do you love a writer’s voice? Their character development? The way they handle metaphor? Figure out exactly what thrills you about the books you love, and then you go do it too. You have the opportunity to thrill someone the way your favorite writers have thrilled you. You have the potential to be someone else’s favorite writer. Isn’t that wonderful?