Lynn Melnick: How I Wrote "The Night of the Murdered Poets" / by Peter LaBerge

BY LYNN MELNICK

  “  Leonid , ” by Maggie Chiang, from  Issue Fourteen .

Leonid,” by Maggie Chiang, from Issue Fourteen.

The Night of the Murdered Poets is the name for the execution of thirteen Soviet Jews in a prison in Moscow on August 12, 1952. The defendants were accused of crimes such as espionage and treason. Stalin thought that if he destroyed the intellectuals, particularly the Jewish intellectuals, it would put an end to any rebellion or dissent. It is shocking to me that poets had that much influence, but apparently, they did. (The historical truth is that those who were murdered weren’t all poets, but that name stuck, and it also works as a title for this poem.)

When I wrote the poem, I had just begun a fellowship year at the New York Public Library and suddenly, for the first time ever, I had so much time ahead of me to write and to think. It was September and I was in a nice office in a huge library and I began to request from the catalog a pile of books containing, hopefully, the secrets to unlocking my heritage. How do I fit in? How does my story fit in? How do I tell my story in light of all these other stories? My overall project rested somewhat vaguely in my head, but I knew I wanted to finally take on the issue of Jews and Jewishness and Americanness and my Jewishness and Americanness. Most of the poems I wrote last year are about some aspect of these issues and I was always thinking a lot about how much I don’t know. Investigating and acknowledging the scope of what I don’t know is very important to me.

When I wrote this poem, I had just spent a quick weekend in California, the state in which I grew up, and I was in the confusion of all that air travel. Plus, a trip to Los Angeles always mindfucks me and makes me think about my personal history. I bring up photos of myself early in the poem because I’m trying to conflate the historical events I describe with the historical events of my own life. I do that in my poems sometimes. Here, I’m switching back and forth between this historical story and my story, trying to make connections between things that maybe don’t always add up but they’re like puzzles I’m trying to solve because my gut tells me they add up.

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Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence and If I Should Say I Have Hope. A former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also teaches poetry at Columbia University and the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92Y, and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.