A CONVERSATION WITH LYNN MELNICK
BY LAUREN R. KORN
Lynn Melnick is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence and If I Should Say I Have Hope and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation. Her poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, A Public Space, and elsewhere, and she has written essays and book reviews for Boston Review, LA Review of Books, and Poetry Daily, among others. A 2017-2018 fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
First, congratulations on the release of Landscape with Sex and Violence—it’s a collection that had (and has) me re-examining my body’s space in the world through the lens of your written confidence and your speaker's experiences. Mary Jo Bang has called it “unswerving.” Laura Kochman has called it “relentless.” Each time I read one of your poems, I am reminded that the word “landscape” exists with many meanings. I see city-scapes and head-spaces—physical and emotional spaces that are hard to escape. The politics of the body are impossible to ignore, too, both as women and as people who exist in a political and cultural climate serviced by ignorance and by misogyny. In this way, your collection is timeless; in this way, your collection is timely.
LM: Thank you very much! I appreciate your saying that. I started writing this book in 2012, but most of the poems take place in the 20th century (a few are present day), because it is a book inspired by my own youth. Little has changed, though, unfortunately, in terms of girls and women and how our bodies are perceived and used. There was a moment where I, with hope, felt like this book could be a lesson in history, but it seems more and more clearly to be a catalog of current events.
I think, in that way, it will be preserved as an artifact of America’s (turbulent political) history. And just as it prompted my own re-examination of both the physical and political spaces my body inhabits, I am positive it will prompt others to do the same. It is important.
LM: Thank you, truly.
Shortly after your book’s release, Amazon rendered the book invisible on its site, citing the book’s “adult” language. How did this effect you?
LM: It was actually labeled “adult content.” Amazon never gave me an explanation, so I don’t know if it was the language, or what.
And I was upset! And I was outraged. And I was confused; my book is not pornographic. There is sex in it, but it is not porn. I have watched porn, I have read porn, I have, in fact, even been paid to write porn. I know what adult content is! How dare they confuse my art with porn. I felt humiliated, once again sent to the slut-shamed corner. I felt raw and shamed and, like, why can’t my book be like all the other books and just be for sale, regular? I sort of felt 15 again and like the speaker in my book.
The writer and activist Soraya Chemaly, of the Women’s Media Center, reached out to me and asked me to write a piece about the experience, which I did, and that helped me articulate a lot of what I felt.
As a former independent bookseller, I cheer at the prospect of your book being solely available via independent retail outlets, but as someone who knows their reach, not having Amazon’s customer base seems a hard hit to book sales. How did, and how has, the censorship affect(ed) your book’s reception? I saw in Amazon’s censorship an exemplification of everything you’re attempting to elucidate in Landscape, and while it must have illuminated a particularly frustrating irony, it must have also urged book sales, as well. Have you seen a noticeable upswing in book sales since your book was made visible, again? Is this information you’re privy to as an author?
LM: I don’t know what my book sales are. I haven’t asked. When this Amazon shit went down a lot of people kept telling me that, ultimately, it would be a good thing (any publicity is good publicity, etc.), but the damage it did to my stability was not worth book sales and the shame was super triggering to me.
Of course I’d prefer people buy my book in the way that makes the most money for my publisher and independent booksellers, but I also would like my book to be as available as any other book. I heard from several people (mostly men) suggesting I cared too much about Amazon, like I was some sort of corporate sellout or flunky for capitalism! And then I’d check, and their books were, of course, available on Amazon. So these people basically wanted me to be above it all and too pure for the platform that they readily used to sell their own books? Seriously, fuck off.
I apologize if my question seemed to negate the emotional impact the censorship had on you; it certainly was not my intention. (It’s the bookseller in me who wants to know the extenuating circumstances surrounding a book’s shelf life.)
How or where did these conversations with “mostly men” take place? How much room do you give men in these conversations—that is, do you engage these men in conversation, or is it one you’ve had so many times you leave their comments unattended or unanswered?
LM: Oh, no, your question didn’t negate the emotional impact! I think we are all sort of trained via various media to think about sales (and especially if your sales experience is with books!). I actually wasn’t quite so aware of this tendency until this Amazon thing happened because of the number of people who thought it was a good thing, to be banned in some way. Although, I’ll tell you this, when my YA poetry anthology, Please Excuse This Poem, came out, my co-editor, Brett Fletcher Lauer, and I used to joke that we wanted the book to get banned in various school districts to increase awareness. (It hasn’t yet been banned, FYI.) So I get that scandal sells. It’s just that, in this case, with Amazon labeling my book smut, basically, it tapped into the kind of name-calling and slut-shaming I’ve been dealing with most of my life. So it was triggering, and seriously un-fun.
Re: the “mostly men” who contacted me, I got one message via my website, but mostly it was via Twitter DMs, and I know you might be thinking, “Why the fuck do you keep these open?” The answer is that occasionally someone who has suffered trauma reaches out to me there, and I want to be available if a stranger in crisis needs to reach out. It’s worth the foolish men who want to explain things to me. And, no, I don’t respond to the foolish men, it’s a waste of energy. They don’t want to hear me.
YesYes Books, your publisher, played an active and vocal role in speaking out against Amazon’s censorship. Was it their calls to action (asking their readers and social media followers to speak out against Amazon’s decision) that ultimately made Amazon re-list the book?
LM: Well, I actually don’t know because, as far as I am aware, Amazon has never acknowledged or explained their action to restrict the book as adult content or to then remove that restriction. Plenty of more explicit content exists in a searchable way on Amazon. But YesYes was crucial and tireless about getting the word out on social media about this debacle. And KMA Sullivan, YesYes’s publisher and also my editor, knew how upset I was, how thoroughly exhausted by patriarchy. She, thankfully, kept telling me I didn’t have to fight, that they would fight for me, and, wow, what a thing to hear and see. Because I’m really fucking tired. So, if I had to guess, I would say their calls to action made my own voice able to be heard again. I’m very grateful.
What an incredible, symbiotic relationship you have with YesYes. Your previous book, If I Should Say I Have Hope, was also published by YesYes in 2012. What have your experiences been, working with them to publish your manuscripts? They seem like a generous, hands-on publisher.
LM: Oh, they really, really are. I was so happy to be with YesYes again, and happy that they wanted me back. I published the anthology I mentioned, Please Excuse This Poem, in 2015 with Viking and that was also a great experience (my editor there, Sharyn November, was fantastic and loves poets and poetry; I’ve been blessed with amazing editors!). But that experience taught me a lot about how big publishing works, which is very much based in commercial realities and marketing potential. With Landscape with Sex and Violence, I was relieved not to have to prioritize that, and delighted to work with a press that knows me, believes in my work, and believes in me. It’s definitely harder for small presses to compete with larger presses in terms of distribution and promo, but YesYes works so hard at all aspects of the process and, I think, gives more to their authors in terms of individual support than any publisher of which I’ve heard, big or small.
Your poem “Losing the Narrative” was featured on the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day page in October. In it, you write, “I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t understand plot.” As a poet, how do you understand plot and narrative, and how does that understanding inform your poetics (your form, style, or otherwise)?
LM: I was being quite literal in that line. I have been told repeatedly that I don’t understand plot! I’ve tried my hand at fiction and I’ve heard back that my writing is lovely but there’s not enough plot. Or, another example is if I watch a detective TV show or movie, I just can’t see how everything relates or foresee the obvious plot twists. I suppose I have a poor imagination for action. I do like writing prose, but I’ve begun to write essays and prose-poemy things because if I’m recounting actual events at least I’m starting from some sort of plot base.
“Losing the Narrative” is, too, a telling poem—telling of your poetic style and telling of themes that run throughout your book-length collections. It, as well as the poems in Landscape, seem(s) to be broadly applicable to the female experience (combining what Calista McRae at the Boston Review identifies as authority and uncertainty), but you are careful not to make those sweeping gestures explicit. Can you explain your process in writing these poems, specifically your want to write a speaker who is resolutely singular but who speaks to a broad experience? There seems to be tension between these two urges. I was prompted to look more closely at persona as it pertained to Landscape, because upon reading a review of your book in Publishers Weekly, I noticed the following end note: “This review has been updated so as not to conflate the poet and the speaker of the poems.”
LM: My process for the “Landscape” poems was always the same: some image or memory popped into my head and then I’d try to recount it as best I can, being both faithful to my history but also trying to get at the larger issues that concern me. Like, in the first poem in the book I was remembering being very, very high and feeling very triggered about recent traumas; I was leaning against a stucco building in L.A., sort of meditating on some weeds growing, the kind of thing that high people do. It was very painfully sunny, as L.A. is. But the larger point I wanted to make was that I was an obviously fucked up kid slumped against a building and no one stopped to help, and the larger point still is that I was an obviously fucked up kid in general and no one stopped to help.
In regards to Publishers Weekly having to correct their review, yes, they originally kept referring to the I of the poems as me, and not the speaker, which honestly I don’t think I would have had a problem with if the review itself hadn’t been so troubling and misogynistic. It mocks the book for its “parade of I.” It #NotAllMens the book by complaining that my experience is only mine. It, very troublingly, states that I depict men who harm women as “undeserving.” As ever, those reviews are anonymous, and I do get why they do that, but that means that the editor or editors of that section are responsible for allowing the misogyny to run unchecked. And, you know, I was prepared for pushback on the book but that was like wow, you all aren’t even trying to hide your disdain for women!
How do you prepare for “pushback” with a book like Landscape? You’ve already used words like, “damage,” “stability,” “shame,” and “triggering.” I’m sure every poet’s process is different when it comes to mentally and emotionally readying oneself for the reception of published work—what’s yours?
LM: Well, I was prepared for pushback in that I knew I would get it, because I’ve always gotten it, but I wasn’t emotionally prepared for how lousy it feels, even though I am familiar with how lousy it feels! I think what I didn’t expect was very clear institutional pushback. Like, institutions can reject my work by not supporting it in less obvious ways, not acknowledging my work’s existence, but, in this case, I was being actively knocked down by powers-that-be. I wasn’t prepared for that giant middle finger in my face.
To further the subject of persona: I recently read your 2013 “Poets’ Roundtable on Person and Persona” over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which you write in the introduction, “Even if a poet writes her or his poems based on certain experiences and recollections, it’s still a kind of invention. Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy,’ arguably the most well known Confessional poem, has only tangential relation to her actual autobiography (even though it is frequently confused for such).” Roundtable participant Amy King writes, “There are ultimately no easy divisions once we get past the immediate superficial division of poet versus poetry.” I am reminded not only of Sylvia Plath, but of poets Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton (among many). Their histories have informed the critical reception of their work and, ultimately, have colored the way in which their crafted personas are read—as autobiography. Cate Marvin’s piece, “On Being No One” seemed to speak to the idea most pointedly. Can you elaborate on this particular idea—that one’s art can exist apart from its maker in this way? Did your own views on persona change after the Roundtable, and have they changed (or solidified) since the writing of Landscape?
LM: That roundtable was so important to me as I began writing Landscape with Sex and Violence because I knew I was embarking on this very personal, explicit, story of my earlier life, and yet I am a very private person! I learned so much from all the participants and it was often a comfort to me. People are often surprised, when they meet me in person, that I am not as tough and brash as my poems. So although these poems are about me, they are not about every aspect of me, I was using my own history, and, um, my skill with language, to tell a story and make a point. If I were to write a straight-up narrative recounting of that same time it would have many dull passages of me sitting around high, of me working crappy jobs, of me on the bus endlessly, of me eating crappy food. Real Lynn was, and is, not as energetic or insistent as the speaker in this book, though that speaker is definitely a part of me. And there are just feelings one can tap into that need the twisting of language to fully bring out, because trauma and its aftermath often feel surreal.
Going back to the PW review and the “parade of I,” women, as well as writers of color and marginalized writers in general, are often expected to write their own stories and then they are often criticized for that narrow focus. The art and craft it takes to weave the personal into art is often diminished. White men’s “I’s” are taken as the universal I, so it is less of an affront to the patriarchy when they use it or don’t use it. Whatever their choices, they have assumed import and gravitas. They control the narrative and what history remembers as central. Meanwhile, I use the “I” and I am shamed for it. Kaveh Akbar was recently shamed for his use of the “I” in a dreadful and mean review of his terrific book. I’m so fucking pissed off about all of this.
I want to go in a few different directions with your response: First, have you spoken to Kaveh about the review? (It seems like a perfect conversation starter for a Divedapper interview.)
LM: I sent him a quick note just to give my love and support. Because, no matter what kind of accolades you’ve already gotten, it’s still really fucking awful to get crapped on in public like that.
Second, you wrote in the aforementioned article, “Shame on me: My time in Amazon's penalty box,” that, during your time as a student, when a professor would tell you to stop writing poems about sex and violence against women, “I would [have rather been] silent than shamed.” What or who urged you to break from that idea—what or who reversed your attitude?
LM: Back when I was a student (decades ago) I was still in the midst of my trauma. That professor had to have known something was going on with me because of the injuries I kept showing up to class with, but there was no way I was going to talk about any of it, it was a miracle I was even trying to write about it. But it didn’t take much of anything to shut me down in those days because I had no strength or faith in myself. It took decades, then, for me to reverse this attitude, and there are many extraordinary people and situations that brought me out of my shell, but a lot of what gave and gives me strength is time, healing, my husband, and my children.
Third, what role do reviews play in your writing life? What role do you believe reviews should play in the literary community at large? The debate over the necessity of bad book reviews, specifically, is one I find engaging but one in which I haven’t quite picked sides.
LM: Reviews play no role in my writing life in that I certainly don’t think about them when I’m writing, nor do I expect to receive any, though I should definitely mention that I have gotten many reviews of Landscape and I am very, very grateful. This certainly was not the case with my first book! I’ve also been told twice, by well known book reviewers, that my new book isn’t for them to review—whatever that means.
In general, and I say this from my own experience reviewing books, book reviews take a lot of time! If you want to really engage thoughtfully with the work, as it relates to other poets’ and other of the poet’s work, it takes a lot of actual effort. It can’t just be dashed off and summed up in a few easy sentences with buzz words or slapped onto a list of top whatever. I write promo copy as one of my freelance gigs, so I know how to dash that shit off, but to really review something requires much more effort and time than most people can afford, most poets especially, and it’s mostly poets who review poetry because mainstream outlets don’t really review much poetry unless it’s a rare breakout book. So we end up with a lack of poetry reviewers and reviews, and that’s too bad. And it also makes bad reviews so much more devastating because they are weighted more heavily in a small market.
In Landscape, you have created a space where sexual bodies are at odds with their sexualization. It’s a tension that is woven through each of the poems in your collection but that exists in difference forms, e.g. the aforementioned lyric and confessional speaker, or the poetic form you’ve chosen for this collection—your two line stanzas seem measured and tidy in a way that their subject matter is not. Can you speak to either that tension or your form—or to both?
LM: I think that tension will be ongoing in me forever. The title poem of the book is the first poem I wrote for the book, and I wrote to try to understand how sex with a former lover could have been so mind-blowingly good when, at other times, he often physically hurt me quite severely. And then many of the other poems in the book are trying to grab objectification back in some way. My poems can be very dense and tangly, so I chose the one and two line stanzas as a way to air them out, to give each word and thought more space. Also, I wanted the poems to be constructed in a very careful way because, in order for people to hear women, to really hear them, they have to take them seriously, and I have struggled with being taken seriously as long as I can remember. I wanted the skill of these poems to be tight, confident, beyond a doubt.
Understanding the necessity for confidence and for the care of craft makes me enormously grateful for the women writers who have informed my work and have taken me on as a student or as a workshop peer. How have other women contributed to this particular notion—either as enforcers of the idea or as supporters of your “very dense and tangly” style? I imagine there are those who could and would want to argue either side.
LM: I think the best readers meet you where you are. That is, they don't try to change your approach, but work within your style to help you improve. Whenever I've been in workshop environments as a participant (which hasn't been all that often in recent years), I've found it most unhelpful to receive comments like "I would put this in quatrains" or "maybe make this a prose poem." When I'm teaching, I say, "maybe try this in a few different forms and see which one feels most right." Because I think writers run on instinct and figure it out for ourselves, sometimes with some gentle guidance.
I don't know how to assess if women are better readers for me than men, or more accepting or whatever, but my most recent workshop experience was with a group of other poet moms, right at the beginning of my writing Landscape, and the best help I got, as I said, met me where I was with the project.
One of the most eloquent (that’s not even the right word, but it’s a good word) poems in Landscape, particularly in regard to the “tight, confident” craft you just spoke of, is the last poem, “One Sentence About Los Angeles.” In it, you write, “and, while you’re probably waiting for metaphors / because you know that’s the most respectable skill I have // this is not a story about cages….” Readers of poetry will see in your collection a conspicuous lack of metaphor—so much of Landscape reads as narrative; but these lines exemplify your skill as a poet and see you exerting your careful and confident hand in a way that brings together each of the poems into a space you—as Lynn, as poet, as woman—have created. In that same poem, you write, “and, while you are probably waiting for confession / because you think that’s what I’ve been doing here all along // this is not a story of how my body was first held down // …this is the story of how I got to live….” Here, again, you are performing magic. You are prophetic! It occurs to me now, after having had this conversation with you, that in these lines you prophesied the above-mentioned “pushback.” I don’t have a question for you after all that, just awe.
LM: Thank you so much! I think a lot of the time, while I was writing, I was addressing those who I knew would push back. I had already experienced this negativity via my work with VIDA, my first book, individual poems. So I knew that trolls and other assholes were just out there waiting, and I wanted to kind of wave and say hey.
As far as metaphors go, yes, I wanted to write Landscape with Sex and Violence without using metaphors for the violence. I wanted to just write the violence and make the reader confront it without sugarcoating it in any way. Maybe that was a mistake, in that maybe readers might be more comfortable with metaphor and would take the message with that spoonful of sugar, but I think I was too angry while I wrote this to give a shit about what would go down easiest for all the bystanders.
Most of the poems in the book bear a title that begins with “Landscape with…” (there are, by my count, ten exceptions). Did you set out to craft Landscape with Sex and Violence as a “project” book? Or did the naming of these poems, and the book as a collection, come together after the poems had been written?
LM: I wanted to tell my story, but I didn’t think of that as a project. The first poem I wrote for the book was “Landscape with Sex and Violence,” and then “Landscape with Smut and Pavement” quickly followed. I kept that title structure for many of the poems in no small part because it amused me, and it was interesting to me to write the poem and then see what its landscape was. I always knew that when I told my story, this part of my story, that it was going to be through the lens of the landscape of where the story took place, because you can’t separate the two.
That’s an interesting point. Your book, for me, is one of duality: the duality of form and content, the duality of sexual bodies and their sexualization. In thinking about the ways in which narratives are inextricable from the landscapes on which they occur, I’m forced to look more closely at your word choice: “with.” To me, aside from your own amusement and the play on titles sometimes given visual art, to use “with” implies that the landscapes—both of the body and of the earth—are mutable. You could have titled your collection “Landscape of Sex and Violence” (and your poems similarly), and in doing so created inseparable bodies—but you didn’t, and the duality created with that decision fascinates.
LM: Yes! I was trying to suggest that the physical landscapes changed for me because of my experiences within them. The landscape isn’t inherently made up of, say, sex and violence or smut and pavement. People did that to the landscape.
I feel as though that particular perspective is one that makes your book ripe for an eco-critical reading. Do you have any specific education in eco-poetics or eco-criticism?
LM: No, not at all. I’d be curious about an eco-critical reading, but I was not trying to make a specific point or statement in that direction with this book.
You grew up in California, yes? And you now live in Brooklyn? Aside from the relationship with landscape that you illuminate in your book—a relationship of physical exploitation—what is your current relationship, physical or emotional, to the natural landscape?
LM: Yes, and yes! I love city landscapes, New York City landscapes—I love sidewalks, and subways, and the skylines during sunsets, and rows of brownstones, and city playgrounds. I love the smell of hot garbage in the summer! I’m twisted. I do love natural landscapes (especially the desert) when I find myself in them, but they don’t swell me in the same way. And I sometimes dissociate in comfortable sunshine, which kills the mood.
When I visit L.A. now, it’s the beige-ness of the buildings, those apartment buildings with small windows with which I am so familiar, the blandness of so much of the architecture and then those unexpected moments of beauty—that’s what gets to me. And then, yes, also the trees, the phenomenal, almost otherworldly flora all around. It’s really something. I am contradicting myself, perhaps? Calista Rae, in her Boston Review review explained it better than I could, or have, when she said “trauma has put this speaker in a terribly defensive relation to her environment.” Yup.
I’d like to get back to the “parade of I.” Poet Rosebud Ben-Oni, an Editorial Advisor at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and a writer for The Kenyon Review blog, wrote about your [two-part] book in a two-part essay. In it, she writes, “In the very last poem of Part I, ‘Landscape of Blood and Boondocks,’ the speaker tells us that ‘[a]ll the cats compass out at night to verify / my homelessness though you can’t / expect me to claw for food while most everyone else is sleeping.’ And that while earlier she didn’t find ‘salvation, just my own voice / coming to’…. She is back to first person. She has reclaimed the ‘I.’” Reclamation is a word for the marginalized body (again, of human bodies and of the earthly body). Do you agree with Ben-Oni in her statement? Is, or was, reclamation always your intention?
LM: It was certainly one of my intentions. I wanted to name and detail my traumas, and the traumas of rape culture in general, quite plainly, and not run from them or be ashamed of what was done to me, or to women in general. I wanted to reclaim my power as much as possible. Which I think goes back to what I was saying about metaphor, and why I didn’t want to use it so much in this book. All that said, I still don’t like talking to anyone about my own traumas, but I hope the book goes some distance.
You, too, are involved with VIDA. You’re on the Executive Board. What are your responsibilities, and how has your participation and inclusion contributed to your evolution as a poet?
LM: Working with VIDA has been enormously rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to make space for writers who have been marginalized and to help keep the lit world accountable. I handle a lot of the outreach and much of the social media, and I’m involved in the general steering of the organization. It’s a lot of work, and we could always use more help! I don’t know that working with VIDA has changed the trajectory of my writing, but it’s certainly brought me close to the amazing poets and prose writers with whom I work on the board.
I’m not familiar with Jared Farmer, whose “…there is no such thing as an innocent landscape” creates one of two epigraphs to your collection. Tell me about your experience with his work and how you see it representing your book.
LM: Jared Farmer is a historian who writes often about landscape and the American West. I happened upon his work randomly; one of my freelance promo copy gigs sent me a galley of Trees in Paradise: A California History as an uncorrected proof right as I was beginning my book. It traces the history of the state where I grew up via its landscape, and recounts the beauty and the underbelly of that landscape. Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to think about the landscape, but it formed so much of who I am just by surrounding me. So, reading Trees in Paradise felt, in a way, like reading about myself. Farmer’s meticulously researched facts informed a lot of my poems, and the passage I use as an epigraph could not have been more perfect for my project. I don’t know Jared Farmer, but I am so, so grateful for his work. He’s a beautiful writer.
How do you and your husband, poet Timothy Donnelly, navigate both your physical and your written spaces as poets? That is, what are the differences in your writing practices and writing spaces, how do you work as one another’s (assumed) readers, and how do you go into that practice as loved ones? Do these experiences differ from, say, your writer-reader experiences with friends or with other female poets?
LM: Since I met him, Timothy has always been my biggest fan and my best reader. I’m his biggest fan and I hope a good reader for him too! We share a two bedroom with two daughters, so space is not the easiest to find. We both write in the living room. I’m usually on the couch, he’s usually on the floor (although we rarely write at the same time). He works well into the earliest morning and I write whenever there is a bit of time. (This academic year I’m on a fellowship at the NYPL, so I’ve had my own office for the first time ever, but after May I turn back into a pumpkin.)
I have several beloved and trusted writer friends who see many or most of my poems as they happen, but I trust Timothy’s judgment and opinion more than anyone’s and I mean 100% what I say in my book’s dedication to him: “everything and always.” For a gazillion reasons, I owe Landscape to him.
Which poets, writers, or collections have you been gushing about lately? Which poets, writers, or collections heavily informed your writing experience of Landscape?
LM: I guess I’d say everything that I’ve ever happened across informed my writing experience for Landscape because this book feels like the soul of me. As the last one did. I’m a tumbleweed, I guess.
I’ve been gushing over Raena Shirali’s Gilt and Brandon Courtney’s Inadequate Grave. These two are my pressmates at YesYes, and I got to tour briefly with them this past fall and hear them read their work many times. It was amazing. Raena’s poems burn shit down and I have yet to not cry when Brandon reads his.
I’m in the middle of Melinda Moustakis’ Bear Down, Bear North, a book of linked short stories; her prose out poems many poems. Her sentences are extraordinary.
And I’ve been reading memoirs lately—re-reading Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is a Book of Rules and reading Myriam Gurba’s Mean for the first time, and I’m trying to learn more about that form and what we can say and what we can leave out. I just reread I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because I bought it for my 12 year old and now I remember again why it changed my life.
When you say, “…what we can say and what we can leave out,” what do you mean? The conversation surrounding memoir is usually, what can be changed (abbreviated or exaggerated or combined), and what cannot—what changes constitute fictionalization, and which do not. Most poetry, I think, fits so easily into this conversation of fictionalization and lived experience.
LM: Oh gosh, I’m so new at this, I hadn’t known that fictionalization was an option. It is? I mean, I get that dialog is recreated from faulty memory and perspective is just that, but we can’t just change stuff, can we? I need to read more, and then more. What I mean by “what we can say and what we can leave out” is, well, like I wrote an essay called “My Last Black Eye,” and it’s all about what the title suggests, but I wanted to write it without talking about any of my other black eyes. Can I do that? Or, I wrote a hybrid prose poem/essay sort of thing about my experiences in a strip club in L.A. in the early ‘90s and I wrote it without ever explicitly naming certain experiences there. I don’t even know if that makes sense. I think I both over- and under-share!
I mean, I think that the option of fictionalization is a part of that conversation. The abbreviation, exaggeration, or combination of actual events read, to me, as (slight) fictionalization, and yet, as a reader of memoir, I am entering into something of a contract with the author. I am reading their work knowing and understanding full-well that what they’ve written can never be exactly what happened. That’s sort of the beauty of memoir, right? That it’s the memory written? I don’t know about yours, but my memory is hardly exact—when it shows itself at all.
LM: My memory sucks! I have huge gaps. And of course my memories are always going to be personal to me and through the lens of what mattered to me then and what matters to me now. Like, I’m not going to remember meals I had but I’ll often remember what I wore. But I like to think this slight fictionalization is an accident of faulty memory and not intentional, because that would make it fiction, no? Or some kind of hybrid or “inspired by actual events?” I’m sure I’m not qualified to talk about this with any kind of authority, though.
In your Notes at your collection’s end, you cite a number of songs as the inspirations for your poems. Were these songs you listened to while in the process of writing these poems, or songs from which you merely pulled fitting lines? If the latter (and this is pulling a page from Largehearted Boy), what did you listen to while writing and compiling Landscape? Further, what do you suggest your readers listen to while reading it?
LM: The epigraph I use from Hole is huge for me. I really feel like I must have written those lines myself. And the Live Through This album was in my mind, and in my ears, a lot when I wrote. So was Cyndi Lauper, from whose “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” I quote in one poem. Her work, especially on the She’s So Unusual album is so fucking feminist. I bought my first Ms. Magazine because Cyndi was on the cover!
I also quote from the Bob Dylan song “Things Have Changed” which a really brilliantly written song about a certain sort of middle aged manhood. So it didn’t exactly fit in with the book, but the “fuck it” message of the song, mixed with the idea of wanting to, but not being able to, get away from oneself, spoke to me as I was writing the book.
Besides these songs I listened to endless Dolly Parton, of course, because Dolly. I’m kind of a dork about music, but, really, the songs I listened to on replay while writing this were all over the place. A sampling: “When You Were Mine” by Prince, Sinead O’Connor’s version of “House of the Rising Sun,” Tracy Chapman’s “Bridges,” Brandi Carlisle’s “Josephine,” “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, and all of Live Through This, as I mentioned, but also Hole’s next album, which is the underappreciated Celebrity Skin.
I’d recommend listening to any of the above, but I don’t think my readers need to listen to anything while reading me. Or, I should say, I don’t listen to music when I read—it’s distracting!
Thank you so much for allowing me to throw my long, convoluted questions at you, and again, congratulations on your beautiful and necessary book!
LM: Thank you so much for these seriously fabulous and thoughtful questions, and for your serious attention to my book. I’m grateful.
* * *
Lauren R. Korn also interviewed KMA Sullivan, Lynn Melnick's publisher at YesYes Books.
As Lynn’s publisher, were you notified when Amazon rendered Landscape with Sex and Violence unsearchable on its website? If you were contacted, or if you contacted Amazon, what reasoning—other than “adult content”—were you given for their decision?
KMAS: YesYes was not informed that Amazon had rendered the title unsearchable and was not contacted when it when the book went back up. I contacted our distributor, Small Press Distribution, but they had no explanation for why Amazon had done this.
What was the reason the book was re-listed? I follow YesYes on social media and was aware of your calls to action, re: re-listing the book. Did these Instagram and Facebook posts—which may have resulted in many readers taking a stand—result in the re-listing?
KMAS: There were a number of people who contacted Amazon directly and were patient enough to get through many layers in order to talk to an actual human, including poets Timothy Donnelly and Tanya Olson, but they were not given an explanation as to why the book had been removed from direct searchability.
YesYes editors focused their attention on getting the word out and putting social media pressure on Amazon by calling them out directly via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
How does YesYes gauge book sales? Are you able to look at the sales and distribution numbers for Landscape and see that the Amazon censorship and subsequent media surrounding that censorship effected book sales, either positively or negatively?
KMAS: This is difficult to answer since there was a healthy anticipation for Lynn's second book. Sales have been strong, but it's not clear what, if any of that, has been due to the Amazon situation.
Do you have any additional comments or information about publishing Landscape or working with Lynn you’d like to share?
KMAS: It is an absolute gift to work with Lynn. Here poetry is powerful and necessary. Beyond that, she is a writer of immense integrity and courage. I'm not sure people understand the amount of horrific shit she fields because of her relentless support of women in art. The trolling is shocking and disgusting. We all benefit from Lynn's work with VIDA and with the literary community at large. Someone should send her on a vacation!
Thank you for the opportunity to answer a few questions about Lynn's amazing second collection! And thank you for your time in getting the word out even further for Landscape with Sex and Violence.
Lauren R. Korn is a writer, reader, and graphic designer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming.
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