by: M.M. Wittle
Melissa Frederick’s work has appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, The Cream City Review, Kalliope, Astropoetica, and the Mid-American Review. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press.
Wittle: As a writer, what about the genre of poetry draws you to write a poem? Also, what about the genre of Creative Nonfiction draws you to write a Creative nonfiction piece?
Frederick: For me, part of the appeal of poetry is its density and economy of language. Every word counts in poetry. Every word must move the poem forward. Without question, that appeals to my obsessive editorial side, but I also love the way that poetry distills human experience. Emotions, time, thought—everything is condensed into these small bursts of language. When I want to explore a moment, a single thread of ideas, I turn to poetry. It’s also helpful when I need a break from prose or academic writing or the complications of life in general. Then, poetry refreshes the creative center of my brain. Generally speaking, when I’m busy with other things, I can’t write anything but poetry.
Creative nonfiction is something I go to when I want to explore a broader range of ideas or something with a more narrative bent. As a writer, I definitely fall on the memoir/personal essay side of the creative nonfiction spectrum, rather than on the literary journalism side. But even though I work mostly in poetry, my creative nonfiction tends to turn out looking more like a story than one of the more circular or meditative pieces that often verge on prose poetry.
Wittle: Briefly explain your writing process. Does it start with a stolen phrase mumbled into a cell phone as you sit down on a park bench? Then how does the idea form into a piece?
Frederick: I have to say, I do love the scraps. I love found items: the random bit of dialogue, the previously unimagined fact, the memorable dream. I used to watch a lot of late-night cable when story shows were on a constant loop, shows like “Biography” or “True Hollywood Story.” I got a lot of mileage out of those. These days, my (almost) three-year-old son generates the truly mind-blowing, unexpected nuggets of linguistic gold. In the past few weeks, his imagination has gone from 0 to 120. So fast I can’t keep up, but I do try to cull some of his best work.
After I have that one little starting point, I jot it down in a notebook, turn it around in my brain, do some freewriting and see if anything jiggles free from my subconscious. I try to figure out if anything about the idea suggests a structure, traditional or otherwise. After that, it’s all drudgery and struggle and wallowing in self-castigation when things don’t work and taking long walks and brushing my teeth and just generally waiting for something to click. A lot of my best ideas come to me in the bathroom, taking a shower or flossing or whatever. Most of the time, when I’m in front of the computer, I’m twiddling and tweaking and/or beating up on myself for being a worthless hack. Somehow, a poem emerges from all this chaos.
Wittle: In your opinion, what is it about poetry that makes it easier for a poet to also write Creative nonfiction?
Frederick: I think the bottom line for poets is their familiarity with writing autobiographically. Not all poetry is autobiographical, of course—not by a long shot. But these days most poets are used to writing about themselves, their relationships and inner lives. In creative nonfiction, the power from the piece comes from the author’s ability to say, this is true, which is quite a bit different from fiction, where writers project themselves in pieces onto artificial people in possible worlds and situations. Also—and this is just my take—creative nonfiction as a genre seems more open to experiments with structure, like time compression, density of language, listing, and other techniques that are more often used in poetry.
Wittle: Your poem, “Pantoum”, (http://www.literarymama.com/poetry/archives/2010/02/pantoum.html) is a very personal and moving poem. With this particular poem, what moved you to write about this subject in a poem instead of another genre?
Frederick: Definitely it was the form that hooked me. At the time, I was teaching a seminar on formal poetry at Rosemont College. (A really, really small seminar, by the way—even poets run like hell from writing in form!) In class, we were working with a book called The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry, who not only knows an astounding amount about poetry but also happens to be an amazingly funny British actor. I’d discovered Fry’s book the summer before. (Terrific bedtime reading!) When I started teaching from Fry and putting my students through the trenches of formal poetry, I decided it was time to put my own butt on the line and do one of the exercises myself.
I’ve always admired the pantoum’s repeating line patterns, the way the same phrases crop up in different contexts and bring out different shades of meaning. The relentless march of repetition also made me think of my adventures as a first-time mom. My son was about ten months old then, and I found myself constantly collecting, sweeping, washing, wiping, powdering, changing, and rocking. Over and over and over. It was hypnotic, like living life according to a pendulum, which has the same back-and-forth regularity that runs through the pantoum. The subject matter fit perfectly. I composed a lot of this poem in my head during the day. I discovered I could cut through all the sameness and tedium by playing with rhymes in my head and counting out syllables on my fingers.
Wittle: In “Earth at Night” (http://www.philadelphiastories.org/poetry-4) you use alliteration. Have you found yourself using alliteration or any other poetic device in your creative nonfiction?
Frederick: You know what? Before I read your question, I’d never thought of “Earth at Night” as an alliteration-heavy piece. I even had to look it up to be sure, but you’re right! The alliteration is there. I think it’s a lot easier to lose track of the specific techniques you’re using when you’re writing poetry than when you’re working on prose. It’s certainly possible to incorporate poetic devices into prose, including creative nonfiction, but you have to use a light touch. In poetry, technique ideally gets absorbed by the music of the line. Prose is less forgiving, less flexible. What works really well in creative nonfiction are some of the larger structuring elements that come from poetry. Repetition, segmenting (working with sections or other kinds of breaks), condensation of time and thought, and a sense of musicality and rhythm can make the difference between a good essay and a great essay.
Wittle: How important is word choice to you in poems and creative nonfiction pieces?
Frederick: Word choice is almost all important. That goes for anything I write: academic papers, poems, short stories, memoir, whatever. I spend a lot of time on thesaurus.com digging around for the right words. It’s not always because I need a precise term, or to clarify my own train of thought, although that’s usually part of it. Sometimes the search is about varying the texture of a passage or stanza, finding sounds that fit better, looking for the right amount of syllables or a phrase that packs a punch rather than spooling off into a long string of Latinate verbiage. Word choice makes such a big difference in the quality of a person’s writing. Fumbling around for the right words might be frustrating and slow, but if you don’t go through the process, it shows.
Wittle: Who are the most influential poets to you and why?
Frederick: That’s another enormous question! I’ll try not to make this into a laundry list (or worse, an Oscar acceptance speech). The first of my influences would have to be the very non-PC group of six Romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. Despite their many failings, these guys knew how to put together beautiful images, wide-scope philosophy, and turns of phrase that make you want to cry. They were self-conscious innovators. Byron’s “Darkness” is maybe the first example of a science fiction poem, his own bleak vision of what would happen on Earth the day the sun finally dies. They also turned the spotlight on their own inner lives and included these dazzling emotional breaks that made it seem as though you’re right there in their heads listening to their internal dialogue. (Here, I’m thinking of Keats, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” when he exclaims “Already with thee!” as his mind leaps into the branches where the bird sits, and Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” when Wordsworth is moving along describing a physical world drained of the spiritual and suddenly throws in a “Great God!” that shows how much he feels this loss.)
I’m also always going back to the so-called confessional poets of the 1960s, who re-introduced autobiography into modern poetry, although they’re not always respected for that now. What I really love about their work, particularly that of Plath, Sexton, and Lowell, isn’t necessarily the autobiography but the myth-building—the transformation of personal history into myth. At the same time, I’m inspired by Wallace Stevens for his sheer lack of personal involvement, his cool, detached observer’s eye.
As far as poets writing today go, I absolutely love Li-Young Lee’s work for its beauty and spareness. His work does so much with such small moments. I’m absolutely in awe. I love Sherman Alexie for his scope, power, and sheer ballsiness. Linda Bierds’s work on science and the history of science is thoroughly fascinating and encapsulates some of my own poetic interests with enormous skill. I’ve come to appreciate modern haiku and senryu writers; their work with the very small is like stumbling across another universe under your feet. And, if I may, I have to throw in a genre-transcending work that includes poetry, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, one of the greatest novels in the English language and an achievement I can only hope my own writing comes close to one of these days.
Wittle: What poem do you wish you would have written and why?
Frederick: Can I pick more than one? This happens to me all the time, even when I’m just poking around the Internet. I’ll come across a piece like Amanda Auchter’s “Tether” (http://rhinopoetry.org/poems/2010/auchter.pdf) and think, Damn. There are also a lot of poems out there I wish I could have written but don’t have the guts to live the life that produced them. Anne Sexton’s “The Music Swims Back to Me” is elegant and heartbreaking, but I would never ask for the experiences that gave rise to that desolation. Just about every poem in Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us I wish I’d written, if only for the economy and power of Forché’s language. But many of the poems in that book explore her time documenting torture and political oppression in El Salvador in the 1970s. I’m not sure I’d make it through something like that. Or if I did, I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to write about it. The best writing takes a lot of courage. I’m always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. I can’t say that I always succeed, but the process is more important, not to mention more fulfilling. If you don’t push yourself, why bother?
I would like to thank Melissa Frederick for taking the time to discuss these questions with me.