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Interview with Melissa M. Crowe

Melissa Crowe is a poet and a coordinator of the MFA program at the University of UNC Wilmington, where she teaches poetry and publishing. Her collection Dear Terror, Dear Splendor was published by the University of Wisconsin Press 2019. She was born in Maine’s Great North Woods, but she has lived in the south-Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina--for most of her adult life. I caught up with Melissa to talk with her about her work, writing, and the importance of being a writer and creator.

What inspired you to start writing? How old were you? Was it a book or (books) that sparked your interest or something else?

Melissa: It’s hard to trace the origins of my intention to become a writer, but I was always a lover of books, and my mother tells me I commanded her to take my stories and song lyrics down in dictation before I could write them myself. I do remember what feels like an important moment in my development as a poet—when kids turn thirteen in my hometown, they’re allowed to browse the library’s mezzanine without an adult, and on my first trip up there, I came across an E.E. Cummings collection. I was astonished by the imagery and music, the combined delicacy and power of the language, and the familiar strangeness of the voice, even the unconventional punctuation. I checked the book out and painted some of the lines on my bedroom wall, including, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” From then on, I was more or less obsessed with figuring out how to make this kind of magic myself.

What is the writing process like for you? What is your view on the classic “writers block”?

Melissa: I understand, for sure, the anxiety that committed writers feel when they go for long periods feeling uninspired or unmotivated, but I don’t experience anything I’d call writer’s block. Partly this is because I’m not a daily writer. I’m a daily reader—of poetry, historical nonfiction, experimental novels, lyric essays—and I spend much of my professional life engaged directly with the work of other poets, including my students. I’m constantly talking about and thinking about writing, and I make a lot of notes. When I have an idea for a poem—even if it’s just a first line or a phrase or a single word—I always write it down. I don’t put any pressure on myself apart from the dedication to write when I want to; luckily, I want to a lot. In practice, I tend to compose new work mostly during the summer months, when I’m not teaching, and I do a lot of revision during the school year. Revision is probably the closest thing I have to a regular practice. At any given time, I may be actively revising as many as three poems, and when I have time during the week, I open each document in turn, spend maybe fifteen minutes or half an hour fiddling with it, push a little past my comfort level, and then move on to the next. I almost feel like I bypass anxiety by sneaking up on poems, not ever telling myself, “Now I’m going to write a poem.”

Are there certain activities you do on your own to spark creativity? If you write fiction, do you model characters on people you know? If you write nonfiction, how do you work to tell the truth in compelling ways? Since you write poetry, do you lean to poems inspired by your own life, or do you tend to look out to the world for ideas?

Melissa: This an old chestnut, I know, but I find taking a long walk tends to loosen something in my mind—I’m not a person who makes notes on her phone, so often when I get home from a walk, I have to sit down at my desk and do some writing before an idea escapes me. Reading other folks’ poems—especially really, really good poems—is also a way to put me in the right mindset to make poems myself, perhaps because I’m thrilled again, as I was when I first encountered cummings, at the prospect that I might be able to make something beautiful myself. I find, too, that engaging with almost any form of art—film, music, visual art—sparks my own creativity.

My poems are, I’d say, a sort of alchemized version of things I’ve experienced; if my speaker isn’t me, she’s very like me, but poetry isn’t autobiography. It makes no contract with the reader vis-à-vis the facts, unlike nonfiction, which promises to be true, or fiction, which claims to be invented. The liminal space is so rich and so full of possibility, and I take advantage of it by drawing from memory, history, current events, and imagination in pursuit of something that rings true on an emotional level.

At what certain point in time did you officially begin to call yourself a writer and not an aspiring writer? How do you not let rejection get to you as a new writer in the field?

Melissa: I like this question—it really speaks to a kind of timidity folks often feel about declaring themselves writers, maybe because it’s not like you get a credential or a job and are suddenly, officially, a writer. You’re a lawyer, I guess, when you graduate law school, and you’re a teacher when you get hired by a school, but writers are mainly doing a self-directed kind of work that nobody pays them to do, at least for a long time. My guess is that a lot of people feel comfortable calling themselves writers only when they’ve achieved some measure of success—usually publication. And I’d say that’s true for me, too. I pursued two graduate degrees in poetry, and I don’t remember if I publicly referred to myself as a poet until my work started to appear in magazines. It didn’t feel entirely comfortable until my first chapbook came out, and it’s easier still now that I have a full-length collection in the world. And here’s something—you’re referred to in the writing world as an “emerging writer” if you have only one published book. I don’t mind that notion of emerging- finding my way, through my own long effort, to the surface, seeking air and light. I might feel like I’m doing it forever, to be honest. I’m cool with that.

That said, here’s what I’d recommend: you are a writer by virtue of the fact that you’re dedicatedly pursuing your craft, whatever that means for you. You’re a writer because you’ve decided to make writing central to your life—because you write.

You can purchase Dear Terror, Dear Splendor here at the University of Wisconsin Press

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