Melissa’s collections are A Body Made of You (Penned in the Margins 2011), Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins 2013), and Sunshine (Penned in the Margins 2016). In 2014 Melissa was named as a Next Generation Poet.
Hi Melissa. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your new collection Sunshine with Penned in the Margins. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you think it compares to your previous collection Beautiful Girls?
Thanks for inviting me! If I answer the latter question first I would have to say the two books, in my opinion, don’t compare. I wrote Beautiful Girls as a heavily sedated person. I always felt I wrote what I needed to at that time with as much lucidity and clarity as I had at my disposal, but it was constrained by many forms of repression and oppression.
I have since stopped participating in the drug regime which rendered those years intolerable expanses of insignificance – I don’t even remember most of a three year stretch of my life. I can’t remember writing a single poem in Beautiful Girls now.
Since being airlifted from that misery and emerging into full consciousness I have become a whole person, a completely in-the-moment fully autonomous person, and that has made this new book possible. I’m incredibly proud of the achievement for personal reasons, having been finally able to write significantly and unguardedly about violence, rape and childhood abuse, and also being able to write about female sexuality in a way which felt completely real.
I have pushed myself in every way in the writing of Sunshine, emotionally, artistically and intellectually. I feel that over the years I’ve been working towards an understanding of addressor/addressee and how the manipulation and development of both works with the reader – this in an inclusive work which I want to be an experience, not a collection of puzzle pieces I’ve had to force together to make fit.
The book is not reportage, as it could be read, and it is not meant to define me or my experience – my aim in my work as a whole is to contribute to the unravelling of the painful issues at the heart of what it is to live in the world today. I have lived through poverty, oppression, violence, abuse, tragedy, pain and many regrettable life experiences, though I still have vast experience of happiness and resolve. The other message is one of love and longing, and how the world would collapse in a day if it weren’t for these two things.
Congratulations too on your Forward Prize nomination for Best Single Poem for ‘i am very precious‘. I get the impression the poem was a culmination of what you wanted to achieve in your writing up to that point. I’m curious if you’ve composed any other long poems like this since then and did you make any revisions to the original version for its inclusion in Sunshine?
I honestly don’t have a conscious thought at any time about what I want to achieve. Perhaps the only conscious ambition I had before I wrote that poem was to develop stamina as a poet so I could write into a theme or idea until it was bled dry.
I write long poems on a weekly basis, far too many to include in Sunshine. They’re not all ‘good’ either, and this is of vital importance to my practice as a poet. I have written all kinds of unsuccessful pieces of writing over the past thirteen years because I realised it was the thing that would create the reserves, the drive and the ability to hit those ‘this is it’ moments.
It’s also very important to write obscene amounts of prose to develop the stamina to consistently commit to writing long poems. ‘i am very precious’ has had edits, yes. The ‘original’ poem was so immediate and in that moment of conception, and I like that, but in terms of a book poem you can’t maintain a work as a whole with intermittent flurries of wayward writing. That being said, not too much has really changed. It’s as charged as ever.
Your poetry is applauded as possessing an emotional honesty and exploring taboo subjects such as mental illness, abuse, and explicit sexuality. Do you think the impulse behind your writing is primarily a means of creating a dialogue with yourself about these difficult topics, or do you always have the reader in mind as well and what is being communicated to them in your poems?
There can be no either/or approach to this – if you lose yourself and the ability to construct a dialogue with yourself in writing the personal then the poem is instantly lost, and in exactly the same way if you lose sight of the audience you have also lost the possibility of communicating something important. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve and I often do it badly.
I can’t stand to hear someone read out a poem which is preceded by ‘this isn’t about me, it happened to someone else’ because it instantly makes me reticent about investing in it. So I know that if I’m going to truly connect with a reader I have to be in that work completely. And they have to be with me, and they won’t be if they are not included.
Readers know when a writer is being phoney, and my aim to be completely authentic in my poetry is possibly why readers invest in it, but it is something that carries a heavy emotional cost for me at times. I always write to ‘you’ and this is important to me. I am writing to particular addressees, shifting addressees, private addressees and universal ones, but always, you are in it with me until the page is turned.
You were named as a Next Generation Poet back in 2014. Did being recognised in this way place any extra pressures upon you or simply reinforce the notion that you were on the right path with your poetry writing?
There is no right path, and there never will be; it’s something we all want to have, but a writing life is punctuated by rejection, failure and loss, and it’s important to have those things because it is a journey. The imperfections are part of it.
There can be no end goal, other than to make the best work you can. It’s not like tennis, or a competitive sport where the aim is universal, to be the number one seed, or its equivalent. This is a path that is going to go awry, and going to trail off, and come back, and climb a million dreary and endless hillsides.
It was wonderful to be included on that list, I felt deeply honoured, confused often, and many great opportunities arrived as a result of it, for which I have been thankful. Accolades are a beautiful thing to receive – it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise as a recipient of one – but it does not mean I am doing any better than anyone who wasn’t on that list or any other list. It means I have had the recognition of some of my peers, which is to be cherished.
I suppose it did place pressures on me, but these were both self-imposed and imagined. I often tell people ‘the poetry world’ is an imaginary construct and we can’t live within it, we can really only live within the community of writers we mutually support and within the work we commit to writing.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are looking forward to?
My autumn calendar is quite full and it seems like it all kicks off then since I have been in hiding, writing, a good deal of this year, or concentrating on other projects. I have a Penned in the Margins launch on 28th September in Manchester, at the Anthony Burgess Centre with Luke Kennard, and the Forward Prize event on the 20th September, which is exciting because I’ve never been to one before.
I really enjoyed Tim Wells’ headline slot at Evidently in Salford in May this year and I was eagerly awaiting Mark Waldron’s collection Meanwhile, Trees. I have now read it through twice and know I’ll never be bored of it.
I was so pleased to be able to see Rachael Allen, Will Burns and Martha Sprackland at the Faber Social event at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge earlier in the year too. The event was also graced by Viv Albertine and Brix Smith-Start and the entire afternoon at the Trades Club was extraordinary. One of the best music venues in the North West, and all the windows were draped, so in the middle of the afternoon it felt like a late night cabaret.
The poetry reading I most enjoyed participating in this year has to be the London Book Fair where I performed alongside my friend Daniel Sluman for the first time. We had a panel discussion with Khairani Barokka and Emily Harrison, on mental health, and I’ll be performing as part of a similar set-up, hosted by Inpress Books, at Durham Book Festival, with Bobby Parker on 15th October.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘Last Trip’ describes with some accuracy a psychedelic experience I had in my twenties, when I had finished Art College, was hideously lonely, hung out with an all-male dropout band and habitually used drugs. I was a chronic insomniac and still am, and found that loneliness had a tremendous weight and it could take me to dark places I’d be willing to go to purely to not have to spend another night alone.
Part of me feels that a great deal of people might read this and feel acutely annoyed by it, or disappointed in me, or think that perhaps I was irresponsible or ‘stupid’ but in fact this is the kind of scenario many of my female peers will be familiar with, whether they are able to be open about it or not.
As a young person, and as a young woman, drugs were freely available, and an incredibly useful antidote to the intense loneliness I experienced, and a useful anaesthetic for all the pain and trauma I’d failed to confront or assimilate, or even acknowledge.
I was raped for the last time aged twenty, by a boyfriend I’d split up with who broke into my house to have his ‘last word’. I didn’t acknowledge what happened as rape, though it undoubtedly was and would be to anyone who had never been previously abused to such a profound level that a less violent rape no longer registered. I didn’t speak of it or think of it again until many years later.
The man who raped me that day contacted me through facebook a few years ago to request I send him a signed copy of one of my books. He had managed to convince himself he’d done nothing wrong, and since I never challenged him, and since he was a skilled abuser who had psychologically manipulated me for a long time, it probably wasn’t that hard for him to escape subjective culpability just as soon as he’d finished raping me.
I was not raped by the man in this poem. Within a month of this happening to me I was sectioned in a psychiatric hospital, though at the time I couldn’t even relate the distress I was in to this experience, it was just everything. Every single thing was wrong.
Any woman who has used drugs and has been in situations where men will take advantage of intoxication or vulnerability will know that this is an all too frequent reality. Does it make me less of a person? A weak, stupid or naïve person? No, it just makes me human. In the pursuit of safety, validation and love I encountered many things that were the contrary of these most necessary elements of all human lives. But I still have love, and am loved, and I’m powerfully replenished and fierce because of it.
The fucked-up kid called me, pissed, three days on a beer binge and no sleep, and his mate Johnny picked me up to go and rescue him. We drove to Clitheroe where the bartender said he’d never seen anyone so wasted. We carried him to the car and drove him to Johnny’s and I, being too high to reason with inhibition, took all the fucked-up kid’s clothes off, then my own and dressed myself up like him. We were all laughing at me in his corduroy flares and flannel shirt, his stupid hat and his only-slightly-too-big brogues. I felt as though I’d been waiting to be a man for someone my whole life. We carried him to the bed in the loft upstairs. It was a big house with lots of mirrors, though largely under-furnished. The wife said we had to be quiet so as not to wake her little lad up, so me and Johnny stifled our felicity but when we got downstairs we were cracking up. ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ was playing on the stereo. They said they’d made chilli, but I was too high to be hungry so we sat around the table talking about their lives, their hungry and successful lives. They talked about money, mainly, and friends that screwed them over. Johnny said things like when I met the wife she was married to someone else but we used to do lines of coke at work and drink whiskey during break and fuck each other so bad, it was seriously the best sex of my life and she loved it, especially when I took her from behind. I was quite taken by the openness of it. I still considered marriage sacred. We drank brews of mushrooms. I had as much as they’d let me, having already developed a love affair with acid, and we waited like children for the effects to take. The wife called me out in the garden, told me to take off my shoes and feel the grass with my feet. It was an awkward request so I did and pretended I liked it, but the textures gave my toes papercuts. The flowers in her garden were luminous and alive, like they were hands or limbs, reaching out, and I laughed my head off. The wife held my hand all the time and we looked at each other in the mirrors, our immense black pupils roaring in their amaranthine dimensions, our faces white and glowing, beautiful; we stuck out our tongues, fell into each other like sisters, our breasts bouncing off each other. I tried to leave the house but she wanted me to stay. I remembered my clothes, I remembered I was a man, I felt my breasts shrink. I sat on a chair with my legs wide open. Johnny got the whiskey out, rolled a joint. I could only think about Love and how big Love was and how I wanted to be a man for her. We were very civilised and talked about their cheap, subordinated Love and I became paranoid. I could see all the colours and the textures in the house in my head, not with my eyes but in the centre of my mind and they swelled like tumours. I smoked more and it made it worse so I closed my eyes for what seemed like hours. When I came round there was porn on the television, two women and a man fucking and moaning. I laughed and said it seemed funny because it did but Johnny took my hand and pulled me into the kitchen where he rammed me against the units, pressed my hand on his crotch at the hard, desperate waste of my time; told me he and the wife wanted to fuck me like the sad, ridiculous bodies in the film, that had begun to take on the appearance of wild animals, fingers inside, pumping fists. His tongue in my mouth felt like a whole inch of pain, and I sucked on it like a sarsaparilla stick.