Thursday, October 13, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Feature Melissa Studdard is the author of fives books, including the poetry collections Dear Selection Committee (Jackleg Press, May 17, 2022) and I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2014), the poetry chapbook, Like a Bird with a Thousand WIngs (Saint Julian Press, 2020), and the young adult novel Six Weeks to Yehidah (All Things That Matter Press, 2011). Her work has been featured by NPR, PBS, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Houston Matters, and has also appeared in a wide variety of periodicals, such as POETRY, Kenyon Review, Psychology Today, New Ohio Review, Harvard Review, New England Review, and Poets & Writers.
CH: It’s delightful to have you back with us, celebrating the publication of Dear Selection Committee. Our last interview was in 2016, so I want to start with your multi-genre book, Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings, which I understand was written to accompany Christopher Theofanidis’ The Conference of the Birds for string quartet, and came out from Saint Julian Press in 2020. Please tell us a little about the book. How did the collaboration come about?
Thank you—I’m delighted, as well! I met Chris Theofanidis at The Hermitage Artist Retreat in 2019, and we began collaborating almost immediately afterwards.
Theofanidis’ piece, released in 2018, is inspired by Aṭṭār’s Conference of the Birds, the 12th Century Sufi allegorical poem in which all the birds of the world convene and decide that they need a ruler and that they will make a pilgrimage to a distant land in search of the mythic and divine bird, Simorgh. Their journey leads them through seven valleys of understanding, the first of which requires them to cast off all the preconceived ideas and dogma in their thinking, and the final of which requires annihilation of the self in order to attain complete communion with the divine. Theofanidis’ piece traces the metaphoric journey of the birds in seven short character pieces, each lasting between 1 and 3 minutes, and each focusing on a highly defined musical personality evoked by the corresponding valley. As he says in the introduction, “Much of the string writing is inspired by the flocking movement of birds; that is, there is a ‘group logic’—a kind of unity of movement and purpose in which all the parts are highly interdependent.”
I wrote Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings quickly—in about a week—because the Argus Quartet contacted Theofanidis asking for poetry to be recited between the movements of Conference of the Birds.
CH: Because your poems were written to accompany the musical composition for string quartet, and the music was written to trace “the metaphoric journey” of The Conference of the Birds, I find myself wanting to call your poems here an “ekphrastic translation.” Tell us a little about working in the dimensions of sound and text in the service of accompanying the musical composition.
MS: Yes—ekphrastic translation is an interesting way of thinking about it. I wanted to create poems that provided a lyric complement to the music, rather than retelling the story, so I decided that above all else I would focus on capturing the personality and spirit of each of the different movements in Theofanidis’ Conference. My goal was to provide language and images for ideas and moods—to help contribute to contemplative reception of Theofanidis’ music and Attãr’s themes. To keep the answer from getting too long, I’ll give you examples of my thinking for two of the seven valleys.
For The Valley of Knowledge, my goal was to evoke the harmony that comes up from below constantly and redefines itself, and I wanted respond also to the searching instability between the harmony and melodic line. So, I had the birds toss jewels around and drop them and pick different jewels back up—a bird might drop a diamond and then, in scooping, find not a diamond but a ruby. I also wanted to have the birds pass the jewels around in the same way the rising line is passed around among the different instruments, like a collective set of questions.
In The Valley of Unity, bird note is spatial and passed around among the birds. The grace notes create flutters that I wanted to honor with chirps coming from various places in the trees. It’s a feeling of echolocation within a smallish area and then the sounds coming together. For this, I brought in the idea of a second person human presence, a You inside of which the birds are singing. But the You is also inside the singing birds.
CH: Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings came out near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the plan to get the book (and the music) out into the world change in response to the pandemic?
MS: Oh gosh! It was really something. Thank you for asking. Originally I wrote the poems to be recited only, but one thing about concerts is that people like to have something to take away with them to remember the evening, so we decided to make a chapbook to have on hand at the performances. We raced to get it done in time for the first concert at The Kennedy Center in April of 2019. But that performance was cancelled, as were many others. Because our main intent was simply to have a physical text as a memento of the performance, we never had any kind of publicity plan in place, and when the pandemic hit, I was focused on holding my life together, transferring my classes online, taking care of my family, and co-authoring pandemic poems with Kelli Russell Agodon. So, aside from a lovely virtual release party co-hosted by Malaika King Albrecht, and my publisher, Ron Starbuck, there actually was no publicity for Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings. Gradually, though, people have begun to find the chapbook, and quartets have begun to perform the music and poems. Argus performed it online at the Raritan River Festival, Electric Earth performed it in person at Jaffrey Center, and Ciompi Quartet did a sunrise performance of it in person at Duke University.
It’s a physically beautiful book, which, in addition to the poems, contains pieces of Theofanidis’ score, snippets of Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Conference of the Birds, and artwork by Elisa Vendramin—I have faith that it will continue to find its way.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of your new collection, Dear Selection Committee, just out from Jackleg Press. Please tell us a little about the book.
MS: Thank you! Dear Selection Committee addresses a number of personal and societal concerns, like loss, gender identity, wavering faith, the nature of pain, climate change, and the difficulty of modern distractions. I think because the quarantine was a time when the workforce as we have known it was disrupted, and people began contemplating the role they wanted work to play in their overall lives, I liked the idea of using the model of a job application as a vehicle for poetry. I mean, do we want to allow work to structure our lives, or do we want work to fit into the structure of our lives?
What are we really building and doing? Like most people, I feel unqualified for my own life, but I also know that for all the anxieties and difficulties we may experience in this chaotic world, we can find balance by striving for connection, compassion, humor, and justice. So, ultimately, Dear Selection Committee uses the structure of a job application to contemplate, mourn, and celebrate an imperfect journey through an imperfect life and society.
CH: In an editorial review, poet Diane Seuss says these poems “unearth the incorrigible self and bury conventionality and its offspring, shame.” How did you decide on the job application as a vehicle for these particular explorations?
MS: Almost immediately after I wrote the titular poem, “Dear Selection Committee,” I knew it would be the defining poem for my next collection. Part of the work of poetry, for me, has been an attempt to liberate myself from the impairment of rigid, overbearing societal conventions. When the poem “Dear Selection Committee” came along, it 1) basically flipped the bird at the kind of exploitative capitalism that harms workers by trapping them in unfulfilling, unappreciated jobs, and 2) irreverently and unapologetically prioritized and seized back female gratification in a context in which women’s bodies have been so frequently commodified for the pleasure of others. The poem flips the system so the interview is no longer about the woman/applicant having to accommodate someone, but instead about the woman/applicant being accommodated. When I got a taste of the liberation “Dear Selection Committee” offered, I wanted more, and I trusted it to guide me in creating a collection that would follow suit.
CH: I understand you’ve performed in a number of virtual and in-person events since Dear Selection Committee was published. How has it been to return to in-person performance?
MS: Wonderful! I love both in-person and virtual events. They each have their own, unique kind of spirit and energy. In an online reading, you can really see people’s faces and how they’re responding to a reading, as well as receiving and giving in-the-moment comments—I love that. In person, though, there’s a collective energy and a sense of community that comes from experiencing something together, in the same physical space, and I love that too. I’m grateful for all and any of it. In general, I think people have a renewed sense of gratitude for events that bring them together.
CH: In addition to your teaching and writing work, you’re currently on the advisory board of the Roulah Foundation (https://www.roulah.org/roulah-foundation/) . What inspired you to join this board? How does the work you’re doing there fit your larger vision for the work you want to put into the world?
MS: Roulah works with victims of self-immolation, domestic abuse, underage and forced marriages, and child-labor, as well as women and children with disabilities. For me, there was never a choice. As soon as Sheema Kalbasi contacted me and told me that she and Shaghayegh Moradiannejad were founding Roulah and wanted me to join the board, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
As a writer and a teacher of literature and writing, much of my work is about helping others to be heard, and I’m painfully aware that there is so much of the human experience that has not been expressed or understood. Through working to excavate hidden voices and create platforms and audiences for silenced voices, people in the literary field can help foster a greater understanding of the human condition, and that, in turn, grows awareness and compassion. That’s part of the work Roulah does, and it’s an investment in a better future. Roulah also strives to help victims to a place of physical and emotional safety.
CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?
MS: I’m always reading about 20 books at a time—scattered all over the house in little piles near anywhere I might sit down. The stack next to me now has Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn; Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss; The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, which is edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser and has a foreword by Toni Morrison; Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962 – 1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik and translated by Yvette Siegert, and Drunk by Noon by Jennifer L. Knox. I love all of these poets for so many reasons, but thinking about them together, I’m struck by how they all have a kind of wildness that is metaphorically brilliant but not overly crafted.