I have so enjoyed preparing for this interview with my friend, the poet and editor Maria Melendez, who presently lives with her family in Pueblo, CO. Welcome to this Bookjoy Creativity Salon, Maria.
I've just finished re-reading your two poetry collections. Bravo! Such variety you offer readers.
PM: When did your deep attention and connection to nature begin?
MM: Thanks to some good urban and suburban planning, and to my parents’ motivation for picnics or hikes outdoors, I experienced wonder in wild nature throughout my childhood in the East Bay area of Northern California. Sunol Regional Wilderness, Del Valle Reservoir and Sycamore Grove Park inhabit me “deep in the brain, far back” (as Roethke says).
PM: Why poetry? I have a friend who teases me that he wonders why I don’t just write in sentences and paragraphs, why don’t I just write prose?
MM: That is such a loaded question for me; I feel I have to answer it every time I sit down to create new work. There are so many anti-poetry forces swirling around us/me, that I’m always having to talk myself into poetry. Well. I undergo something, in the process of working on poetry, that I don’t undergo at any other time—a suite of sensations. I tried to write about this in an early poem called “Poeta Falsa,” which appeared in the Swan Scythe Press chapbook Base Pairs. It ends with this answer to the persistent “Why poetry?” question: “because at no other time / am I as half-assed and ragged / as the early draft, / or as mammoth, as orchestral, / as the near-end.” Ooh, I really get the willies when poets quote themselves, and here I’ve gone and done it.
PM: I was struck by the boldness of your work from incorporating scientific terminology to juxtaposing Our Lady with web lingo. In “Catamite,” you write, “Where do you get the strength to be you?” Where do you get the strength to be the poet you are?
MM: When the writing process is hot and cookin’, I’m surrendering to the interests and concerns I’ve been given. More than in everyday life and conversation, in poetry I’m free to link them together, as they always are in my emotional life. I’ve been really enjoying the idea of writing as surrender, rather than as an exertion of strength or will.
PM: You are the editor of Pilgrimage: Story • Spirit • Witness • Place. How long have you been the editor and what intrigued you about doing this work? In my experience, editors don’t edit my poetry. They may make suggestions on my prose and copyeditors made plenty of suggestions on the definitions of poetic forms in Dizzy in Your Eyes, for example. How do you see your role as an editor?
MM: My family and I became Quakers, and that’s occasioned my renewed attention to “spirit/Spirit” in contemporary writing. The areas of emphasis outgoing editor Peter Anderson brought to Pilgrimage (story, spirit, witness, place) appealed to me as a Chicana writer interested in the environment and as a po’ biz playah who had grown tired of the purely secular efforts of professional striving I saw in so many literary magazines. While the s/S-word rarely appears in work I select, presences or processes bigger and greater than a human individual are implied throughout the essays and poetry I publish. I’ve usually done some “hands-on” editing for about 30-50% of the contents in any given issue. My suggestions involve condensing, expanding, or re-wording sections that don’t hold up to an individual work’s best moments. I so enjoy this dynamic engagement with literature that I’ve begun my own individual editorial consulting practice. I work one-on-one with writers preparing nonfiction or poetry manuscripts, and I try to help these clients make their work as artistically viable, moment to moment, as they want it to be.
PM: In your poem “Ars Poetica: Platanus Racemosa,” you write “listen/for what’s asking to be written.” So, what’s “asking to be written” in your life now, María?
MM: I have a new book of poetry that’s in the sludgy, murky, chaotic phase—I’ve fished about a book’s worth of drafts from my stream of notes, journals, fits and starts. Knowing I have to intuit some sense of artistic coherence from this heap feels daunting—but as a friend reminded me today, at least by now I know enough to know this phase will pass. The murk, though it returns with regularity, always yields something new.
PM: What do you, a busy mom, wife, editor, poet—what else am I missing?—do to refresh your spirit and to nudge you back to the page?
MM: Reading and re-reading literature I love helps refill the well. Moving around also helps. I walk on the bluffs along the Arkansas river at the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo—alone, with family, or with doggie—and I’ve also become very reliant on some Tai Chi classes and practices to shut off the anxiety-generating crawl that runs across the screen of my consciousness. This shut-off allows my awareness to return to physical experience and to my sub-conscious, two muses with more clarity and vision than my intellect can usually offer.