Melanie Jeffrey Interview, with Nicelle Davis
Your poetry has echoes of Gertrude Stein and Claudia Rankine. How have these women helped shape your poems?
I read Tender Buttons as an undergrad at UCLA, and I loved the way Stein used each word as the start of an equation of sorts—make sense? So each word always equals at least another and then one more because that's what language is: the start of something, part of a symbolic system—a bit like math—and so within this system of symbols individual words can have multiple meanings, but also mean no one thing, which makes accurate language so difficult to achieve. So I think of each poem as a project in trying to find the exact way to express something. This is probably why I am a better writer than talker.
In graduate school I read Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely and realized I had been writing the wrong thing all along. I wanted to write something like that—there is such preciseness in her voice.
Beyond the echoes of influence, your voice is uniquely vibrant and visceral. How did you find this voice?
I am a very slow-one-painful-word at a time kind of writer because I am still learning not to be afraid—and accept that everything I say is not going to be what I want, so I might as well say it, even though I want it back as soon as I’ve said it.
Your gorgeous poem, “Pressing Leaves,” ends with the word “lid.” What is hidden with such a word choice? What could be revealed with this word choice?
Because I am always trying to disappear or take back something as soon as I’ve said it—it sounds weird, but some of the most devastating losses in my life have been the stories or words I’ve shared with people who didn’t deserve them. There are also all these rules to language and conversation and who gets to say what and what gets to be said and the most important conversations always end up being the most heavily edited. And so “lid” is cast-iron and heavy but it is also protective.
Talk to me about the word, “Pyrrhic.” (You use this word so well in your poem “Learning to Hear with My Head Voice.”)
Pyrrhus was the king of Epirus and during the Pyrrhic war, he would win these battles against the Romans, but it cost him so many men; in the end the Romans had a bigger supply of men to replenish their armies than did Pyrrhus, and so his victories ultimately lead to his defeat, hence the phrase “pyrrhic victory.” Also, a pyrrhic foot in poetry is a foot made of 2 unaccented syllables. It was a way for me to express my real relationship with words. That poem is really about me trying to come to terms with the fact that I will lose my hearing at some point in my life. I have been losing it slowly most of my life and at 32 I was told I did not need a hearing aid “yet,” but would soon. This was devastating to me because I love music and language and the thought of not being able to hear it one day frightened me (it still does). And so do I throw myself into language?
What new poetry projects are you working on?
I am finishing up a chapbook that looks at the nature of desire and space.
I papered my walls and windows
with them, these neglected selves
turned outward—and then
a piece of green thins
into the blue.
I rub it between my palms
turn it, fold it;
I flick it down
and write. I call
Learning to Hear with My Head Voice
“An aging woman finds no shelter in language.”
—Eavan Boland, “Anna Liffy”
on Pyrrhic feet,
murmur and wilt
before I can wrap
them in meaning.
past me and I am
only thirty two
on karaoke night
at the Tipsy Bull
because the silence
it couldn’t be helped
onto an endless
page of question
and faint reply