When Everything Real Becomes a Reminder: A Conversation with Melissa Cundieff

To read Melissa Cundieff’s dynamic debut poetry collection Darling Nova is to disappear yourself into a singular world. Invigorating and fresh, these poems play in daring ways with formal structures and subvert expectations while addressing resonant, relatable topics like family, loss, and devotion. It’s a book I relished reading. And despite having finished it, these poems continue to reverberate in the most pleasing, surprising ways. Melissa was kind enough to chat with me about Darling Nova, radical empathy, experimentation, and working across genres.

Ashley Farmer: What brought you to writing poetry? Could you share a little bit about your path as a writer?

Melissa Cundieff: I wrote bad poems in high school and before that I saw the 1994 film The Crow (when I was eleven) and thought it was pretty amazing. That movie (“CAN’T RAIN ALL THE TIME” reads my favorite black t-shirt, of which I still have so many) made many borderline adolescents want to write poems.

Music influenced me a lot when I was a teenager and on. And of course, my taste varied and was suspicious, though I’m still influenced by the lyrics (and moods) of the first good musicians I discovered in my formative years: PJ Harvey, Modern Lovers, Built to Spill, Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, Silver Jews, Townes Van Zandt, Pearl Jam, Leonard Cohen.

I took Norman Dubie’s intermediate class as a sophomore in college, and eventually he let me take his grad class as many times as I wanted to, and then I learned that poems are written by breathing human beings who have regular lives. I didn’t know about MFA programs prior to college, but I started hanging out almost exclusively with graduate student writers when I was about nineteen. I didn’t graduate from college until I was twenty-seven, because I dropped out when I was a senior. I only finished because I had applied and gotten into an MFA program, and so the universe was offering me the only kind of schooling I cared about (and in the city in which I was already living and couldn’t leave for personal reasons, nonetheless). I got lucky; I finished up my BA online and almost immediately started graduate work. My finished thesis, over the course of five years, morphed into Darling Nova.

AF: You’ve published both poetry and fiction in Juked. Your excellent story “Like a Ghost Eating the Horizon” bears similarities to your poetry: not only the attention to language and surprising images but also the terrain you mine around family and change. I wonder if you could speak to the difference in terms of process when it comes to writing fiction versus poetry? What motivates the choice to work in one form versus the other?

MC: My gratitude, always, to everyone at Juked for being the firsts to publish two poems and then, years later, a story. It really means everything.

I only ever tried writing fiction because I took a few workshops in graduate school, because I thought they would prove more creatively valuable than literature classes--but I didn’t write good stories. One of my professors spoke to me in such a way during my critique (of a really weird “story” in which time and narrative hardly existed) that my peers said it was the most intense and hard assessment they had ever seen. I wasn’t Dylan Thomas writing Adventures in the Skin Trade, after all. My take away, then, was an important one: I wasn’t ready or competent enough to break the rules. I haven’t written very much fiction, and there still isn’t a lot of narrative action in my stories. I think the obsession over every word is the same as it is with poetry. That never changes. With both genres, it’s important for me to try and create a mood, to go into deeply personal spaces, to make metaphors, to hopefully offer some emotional payoff.

I currently far prefer writing sentences and prose over poems. Maybe Darling Nova made me that way, like I have private proof enough that I can write a poem, so my interest in continuing to do so has waned. I don’t know. I hope the urge comes back. It’s funny, actually, because the urge is totally there, now that I think about it, but maybe the ability or mind set is not.

AF: In his review of Darling Nova, Joshua Jones calls your collection a “series of thought experiments in grief.” (They also feel to me like meditations or, sometimes, fever dreams.) Regarding experimentation: what role does it play in your work?

MC: Poems that make experimental, associative leaps are often some of my favorites, and the poets that I admire most offer those turns. Writing my own poems, I can tell you these leaps are arrived at like conjurings; while they may seem random, they’re the byproducts of meditations or meditative obsessions. And yes, I do regard many of these moments as avenues to that mood which surrounds and inhabits us when we experience grief, or even radical empathy. Those moments or turns, like grief, for me, are both unconscious and sought, which is why it’s important for me to carve at and revise them as effectively as I can, to make them the sharpest images of or metaphors for grief that they can be.

So, experimentation is everything to me. I can’t be too gratuitous with it, though. It’s like a drug in that way. I revise out countless, suddenly-arrived-at images or ideas even if I initially think they are perfect and become attached to them. A poem has to function; it has to make a circle. I feel lazy and indulgent if I keep something solely because it seems original or arrives via effortful creativity. I think it’s the overarching metaphors of my poems that rule me and my decisions, even though they aren’t planned either.

AF: Something I admire is the way these poems reflect how, at a time of loss or change, we can straddle both the ordinary, everyday world and also this surreal, dreamlike terrain. That feels, to me, true of the experience of grief. Do you find a challenge in balancing the concrete and physical with the less tangible and (wonderfully) strange?

MC: I think it’s challenging yet instinctual or at least necessary for me to seek that space between the real and imagined, the physical and the unseeable. My favorite poems use images, the stranger the better, almost rhetorically. And that’s kind of what grief is like, when everything real, however ordinary or otherwise unnoticeable, becomes a reminder, a private connection to what is no longer real, no longer here. Like how an ordinary grocery cart can be a reminder to me that I was once small enough to be lifted into it by my parents, and so I grieve for them, the young and healthy versions of them, and I grieve for my own childhood, too.

AF: I appreciate how dynamic this collection is in terms of form. Some poems feel more concerned with maintaining a formal structure while others sprawl, their sections more loosely tethered and associative. Is form something you consciously consider as you write or is the shape a poem takes more intuition than decision?

MC: At some point, formal materials like sound, meter, and internal rhyme became somewhat intuitive to me. The only time that I’m really deliberate is when a poem is close to done, and I go back and think tediously about word choice. I look for overlooked, almost invisible opportunities to play with or improve upon sound. Also, the poems in the book were written over seven or eight years, so their formal differences or inconsistencies are due to that, as well.

The way that my poems look on the page is important to me. Consistent line lengths compete with effective line breaks. I try to give each individual line its own agency, not meaning or sense, but some measure of agency, like each one is a strange banner flown via prop plane through the sky.

AF: As I read Darling Nova, certain images and ideas recurred: references to religion, exploration of the way our lives intersect with nature, the way the body endures and suffers (sometimes simply by chance). Do you feel like certain poems are speaking directly to one another in this collection?

MC: I found ordering the book to be hard, because so many of the poems do speak directly to one another, but not in very obvious ways. There are what could be called themes, I think, like loss and continuance, and it’s my hope that some or most of the poems use similar metaphors and image systems to remind the reader that there is an ongoing conversation happening between the pages. And if that conversation seems abstract then I hope it manifests most as a mood. I like to read a book of poems and to feel my mood shift, however unidentifiably. Like coming out of a dream, the events of which are immediately forgotten but the air or quality of light is not.

AF: What kind of reader are you of your own work? What does the editing process of a single poem look like for you?

MC: I would say that every time I sit down to write, I’m convinced that I won’t be able to. The start is always difficult for me. I wrote best when I was still in school, probably because there was healthy competition. I usually begin with a random line I’ve thought of, which is most often an image, and I try to counter it with something unexpected and weird. I layer images until some semblance of a narrative surfaces. Because I end up writing about something that has really happened and usually about people I know, I use the safety (or risk?) of true, familiar experience to draw on. I eventually arrive at whatever the overall metaphor is; I take pleasure in believing that the poem I’m working on is about something and then that pleasure is one of catharsis. And while I don’t think that every successful poem has to be about something, it is a goal of mine. It’s easy for me to get so lost in language that it kills a poem before it’s ever complete. I want for things to make some sense.

AF: On the flip side: I wonder if you could speak to your relationship with the reader. There’s such intimacy in this work, as well as risk-taking, and I wonder if you have a reader in mind as you draft? Or is this something that doesn’t factor in to your process?

MC: All I want in the world is for a reader to feel something and to be moved. To never feel alienated. I don’t think I’m always successful, by any means, but it’s so important to try.

AF: Darling Nova opens with a line from a Joanna Newsom song, while other poems make reference to real-life events, like the tragedy of the drowned Syrian boy in “Ellipses” and the film The Conqueror—the filming of which took place in areas of Utah contaminated by nuclear tests. What sources—books or music or movies or current events—inspire your work? Is there anything your attention is drawn toward right now?

MC: I don’t seek out material from the news or from cultural happenings, but sometimes something happens or I hear about something that happened a long time ago, and I end up carrying it around with me, fixating on it. The Joanna Newsom song got me through a difficult period, and I at one time wondered if I would ever again let a day go by that I didn’t listen to it at least once, and now of course many, many days go by. When I was living in Oklahoma, that woman crashed her car into the homecoming parade and killed people; she killed a little boy. I was so, so devastated. Everyone was. It was the same with the news of the Syrian boy and that photograph of his body on the shore. Some things I’ve simply been compelled to write about.

I started writing a book about David Koresh and Waco a few years ago; I’d like to finish it eventually. I have and have had so many feelings about what happened then and there. It’s weird, but I think about the Branch Davidians almost every day of my life.

AF: What are you working on these days?

MC: I’m writing an essay about my father’s Alzheimer’s, about abortion, about the things that happen to us or that we undergo which are invisible and no one else can exactly share in, but it has been challenging to revise and finish. I haven’t written a poem in almost a year.

I’ve been drawing some, as well. I’d like to illustrate an absurdist, weird children’s book for adults. Edward Gorey, Barry Moser, and Leonard Baskin influence me tremendously. I’ve drawn three or four illustrations. It’s fun and relatively freeing work that I love very, very much. Best of all, I’ve asked the person that I love most in this world to give my pictures some words.

AF: I’m excited to read and see these next projects. Thanks so much for taking time to chat with us, Melissa!  

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