Melissa Range

Interview: Melissa Range


Interviewed by Russ Brickey, Editor Emeritus

What were you thinking of when you wrote Horse and Rider? Did you deliberately set out to create a discussion about the inherent violence in human nature, or are you making an argument against violence?

I wrote Horse and Rider over the course of nearly eleven years. The oldest poem in it, “The Canary,” was written in 1998, when I was at the tail-end of my MFA program at Old Dominion University; the newest poem in the book at the time it was accepted for publication, “The Conversion of Saul Imagined as a Scene in a Western,” was written in the spring of 2009. Because the book took so long to get right, it went through many different versions. Violence was always a theme, just because it’s often a theme of my poems, but I didn’t realize that that’s what, at its core, the book was trying to become until 2007, when, after nine years of working full-time, I was lucky enough to receive a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I quit my job, moved up to P-town, and during the first week of my fellowship, when I finally had time to spend more than an hour here or there on the manuscript and really sit down and look hard at it, I had kind of a Homer Simpson “D’oh!” moment. I sat down with the version of my manuscript I had at that time and started putting the poems into piles according to theme: some were about violence and religion, and some were about language and religion (religion being a theme I can’t seem to stop gnawing at). I looked at the piles and saw they were each about 25 poems long. And the poems about violence were all older, and I thought, “Well, I need to go back to this thing I started and then somehow didn’t see all the way through.” So I put the other stack of poems aside for the moment (I’ve since returned to them; I’m finishing up that manuscript now) and started thinking about what it was about violence that interested me. And it’s both of the things you asked about: I am making an argument against violence in the book, it’s true. Yet I also recognize violent tendencies in myself, and obviously there’s so much large- and small-scale violence in the world that happens every day that we as humans must have at least some violence inherent. Whether we learned it or were born with it, I don’t know. Mostly in the book I just wanted to turn ideas about violence over and over and look at them from a lot of different angles. But I only set out to do that once I got to Provincetown (and about half of the poems in the book are from that time—I threw out a lot of early stuff).

How much did 9/11 affect your poetry?

At the time it happened, I was 28 years old, living in Atlanta, and adjuncting at a community college. I remember that autumn, I wrote a couple of poems that addressed 9/11 in metaphorical ways (“September Trees” and “October Trees” were my way of trying to come to terms with it in some small way.). I can see that the poem “Horse and Rider,” which I wrote in 2006, was influenced by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though when I wrote it I wasn’t consciously aware of that—I was just trying to work out one among many Bible stories that has always baffled me, the Exodus story (and more specifically, the idea that God chooses some people for God’s own and then annihilates the rest).

When I first started writing poetry, it was often celebratory, full of wonder, rarely angry, rarely political. After 9/11, my poems changed, and I can only really see that now, looking back on the last eleven years or so of writing. I think the change has also been gradual and had to do with other factors as well (the loss of religious faith, for example, changed my poetry in huge ways), but the national loss of innocence that followed 9/11 was one thing that took the innocence out of my poetry, although I didn’t realize that at the time.

Stylistically, you join a relatively small and very well respected cadre of New Formalist poets who successfully write with rhyme and meter. Could you give us some sense about how one uses metered verse and the language of “wit”? Was this something that came naturally to you or were you drawn to Formalist poetry for another reason? How long did it take you to come into your own stylistically?

I didn’t start out writing rhyming or metered poetry or even wanting to or thinking that I could; I started writing poetry when I was 20, and in the poetry workshops I was taking at the time, my teachers taught free verse poets and usually emphasized free verse in their own instruction. Rhyming and metered poetry was considered old-fashioned in those workshops (which were very helpful to me in countless ways). I hadn’t read much poetry at this point, and certainly hadn’t read much of Dickinson or Hopkins—two poets who taught me, later on, how important sound could be in verse. I started paying more attention to sound when I was in my MFA program, but I didn’t start writing much rhyming poetry until I had been out of my MFA program—so, not until my late 20s or so. And it really was because of Hopkins and Dickinson (the two poets I rip off the most and also love the most) that I started rhyming and using other forms of soundplay. For Hopkins, sound is explosive and passionate; it makes up the bones of the whole poem. For Dickinson, all of that slant-rhyming offers a chance for wit and surprise. I read these poets a bit during undergrad and much more during my MFA, but it really wasn’t until I’d been out of school for a few years (so, in my late 20s and early 30s) that I started letting sound have its way with my poems. No one was there to say, “Rhyme is old-fashioned” or “Contemporary poets don’t rhyme.” I hadn’t discovered the work of the New Formalists and wouldn’t until a few years later.

For me, writing rhyming poetry came gradually and somewhat naturally (which is funny to say, since rhyme is often considered an artifice). Once I let myself start doing it, I did it all the time. And once I did, I think I truly did find my poetic voice, probably around the age of 29 or 30 or so, although I can look back and see that it was lurking around in the other poems I’d been writing. That being said, I don’t consider myself a New Formalist. I’m not sure they would take me, though I’d be honored. I do think that I naturally tend toward iambic lines, but I’m not a strict metricist by any means; I always think of myself as a ragged formalist with respect to meter. I doubt that any of my poems are perfectly metered, because I’ll always choose the word or the line I want over the number or arrangement of syllables per line.

Of the poets typically called New Formalists, Mark Jarman and Gjertrud Schnackenberg have been most influential to my own work. I think that’s just as much because of the way they tackle religious subjects as because of their incredibly rich, skillful, and satisfying work with meter and rhyme.

Could you explain a little about your epigraph from Exodus (“Sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has cast into the sea.”)? What is the significance of this passage to you, either personally or stylistically as a poet? (Perhaps Mr. Fink’s interpretation in his introduction is the most relevant?)

To answer this question, I’ll have to back up and say a bit about the title poem of the book. I got the idea for the poem “Horse and Rider” (which is working directly with that epigraph) after taking Hebrew language classes at Emory University (where I got a theology degree) with Brent Strawn, a brilliant and cool Hebrew Bible scholar who’s also a poet and a lover of poetry. In class one day, Brent told us that some scholars thought that this verse from Exodus was the oldest fragment of poetry in the entire Bible—that perhaps it was even carried over from an older oral tradition. The idea that perhaps an entire people’s identity and history (not to mention a couple of religions) sprang out of this verse that’s both praising and violent was astounding to me.

Practically, I chose this epigraph after I had decided that the poem “Horse and Rider” would be the title poem of the book (and the book had many failed titles before it). The epigraph went with the poem, so it was already there, but as I started thinking about it, I realized that much of the book is a critique of that quotation from the book of Exodus. What does it mean to worship a God who uses violence at a whim, who just kills horses and boys and young men as he pleases? This is the Old Testament God that my progressive social-justice church (a wonderful place I eventually left after I became an agnostic) never talked about. It’s a wonderful notion that God is all-loving, but then what do you do with the rest of that Bible, when God’s cutting deals with the devil, smiting folks, smacking down Israel’s enemies, then turning around and smacking down Israel, pretty much having his way with whoever, just because he can, because he has the power? And are we, as humans, made in that image? I wanted to explore that. For me, the book is both critiquing that idea of a violent God and also acknowledging that, historically, violence and religion have unfortunately often gone together, and still do.

I remember taking another class at Emory on the book of Job with Carol Newsom, a renowned Hebrew Bible scholar. In the class, one of the students kept trying to justify God’s behavior toward Job, and Carol looked right at him and asked, “At some point, you have to ask yourself how far you’re willing to go to let God off the hook.” That stuck with me. It affected my poetry—I started asking myself the same question when I’d write a theological poem.At the time, I was also reading a lot of Dickinson, and admiring how she never, ever lets God off the hook. And so my poems starting getting more critical, more theologically daring, but also much darker. I wrote the poem “Horse and Rider” about a year after I took that class on Job, and I can see the relationship between that class and the poem and that verse from Exodus.

Texas Tech’s announcement for Horse and Rider mentions many of your influences. Could you tell us more about some of them? What are your five favorite poems?

I’ve already mentioned my three favorite poets: Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. I am always stealing from them. All three of them write with an explosive passion that I really like (I do agree with Dickinson’s assessment that poetry should take the top of your head off, and all three of these poets do that for me). From Dickinson, I learned how to combine passion with wit and surprise; from Hopkins, I learned how to let sound drive the poem; from Schnackenberg, I learned how the historical can be deeply relevant to the present day. All three of them also write a lot about divine and mysterious things, and since I often write about religion, they’re influential in teaching me different ways to do that, as well. Obviously, the Bible is in influence. I’m also greatly influenced by my study of Old English poetry, which I think is apparent in my choice of diction (lots of one-syllable Germanic words predominate, fewer polysyllabic Latinate words) and, again, the sound in my poems. In my second manuscript, which I’m finishing up now, the debt to Old English poetry is clear both stylistically and with respect to subject matter (much of the manuscript is about medieval history, literature, and art). In Horse and Rider, the second section of the book, in which various weapons (or ordinary objects used as weapons) speak and tell about their attitudes toward the violence they’ve been created or forced to do, is directly influenced by the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book, in which inanimate objects (and sometimes animals) speak about themselves in a playful and highly metaphorical way.

I don’t know if I could ever pick my five favorite poems, but here goes: Emily Dickinson’s “I had not minded walls,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wind-Hover,” Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “Supernatural Love,” the Old English poem “The Wanderer,” and Beowulf.

Which poem of your own is your personal favorite?

I don’t really have favorites—usually my favorite is whatever poem I happen to be working on at the time. I have a soft spot for “The Canary,” simply because it’s the oldest poem in Horse and Rider, and I wrote it when I was 25 or 26. It was a much, much better poem than anything I’d written before, and it was really better than anything I was able to write for several years afterward. It felt like a fluke and a gift, and the fact that I still like it nearly 15 years later is saying something, I guess.

It seems to me that you have written poetry that is very accessible to many readers, even those who may not be fans of poetry. And it seems that you are writing specifically about issues very relevant to contemporary geopolitics. Are you specifically writing about the contemporary milieu?

I hope that my poems are accessible—I want them to be, even though I’m often to be found writing about archaic subjects!
I don’t think I’m not writing about the contemporary milieu, but I do tend to approach larger issues I’m interested in—social justice, equality, the environment, violence, religion, language—from historical and literary perspectives. They are timeless issues, as well as issues for our own time. Horse and Rider draws a lot from the Bible and from other mythologies as it tries to work out the connections between violence and religion, and the questions I have about how people exploit the natural world. The manuscript I’m currently completing (called “Scriptorium”) is, as I’ve mentioned, largely about medieval topics, but in it I’m trying to work out questions of religious authority and linguistic authority that I think are still relevant (as in, who has the right to speak about God? who has the right to decide what God is or isn’t? which languages do we value, and which languages do we let die—or worse, try to erase, or to standardize out of existence?). This summer, I’m going to the American Antiquarian Society to do research on the abolitionist movement. For me the issues that were relevant for the abolitionists are still relevant today: for example, how do we as a country (and not just our country, but the world) achieve an equality of all humanity when so many people seem against it? These may be naïve questions, but I care about the answers. For me, looking to the past is how I try to find those answers. That being said, I do have a few poems that speak to contemporary issues (like mountaintop removal coal mining, for example).

 


Melissa Range’s first book of poems, Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010), won the 2010 Walt McDonald Prize in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in 32 Poems, The Hudson Review, Image, New England Review, The Paris Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Originally from East Tennessee, she is finishing up her PhD in English at the University of Missouri.
Melissa Range