I had the pleasure of interview Melanie Jordan about her debut poetry collection, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, now available from Sundress Publications.
Kate Belew: The Ideas of both home and childhood seem to be important themes within your book Hallelujah for the Ghosties. How do you see these two ideas working in your poems and what do these images mean to you?
Melanie Jordan: Well, I had a really great childhood, a great home; of course, many craft books talk about this, but childhood and adolescence are so rich, they’re almost unavoidable. The choice is whether you’re going to be up front about that armature or filter it through some more “adult” lens. Are you writing “In the Waiting Room,” or are you writing “Adolescence II”? Are you writing from a more extrapolated set of images, or are you grounding so concretely that it’s a transparent biographical callout?
In my case, I’m doing some of both. My speaker is a little more disaffected or amnesiac. I grow tired of transparent biography, but I grow equally tired of writing removed from a human, so I’m still working that balance out.
It’s true that so many first books reflect on home and family in whatever way, and I was hellbent that I wasn’t going to write a collection like that. Not because it’s “bad” but because I wanted to do something different, and I was still wrestling with how those poems might be received or interpreted. I think, even if you move toward a third option, obscuring the biographical armature entirely, you’re still writing about those experiences that filled you up.
KB: Other than other poets or writers, what or who was the biggest influence on your writing?
MJ: Expected as it might be, visual art jumpstarts me–paintings, sculptures, photos, glassware. The first time I saw or heard of Henry Darger’s work, I saw it hanging in those giant sheets, double-sided, in a museum. I just stopped dead in my tracks, with no context, mouth open. I don’t say this to sound pretentious, but museums for me are holy spaces, like libraries. I also mean museums devoted to other kinds of artifacts: the anthropological, the historical. I’m an armchair anthropologist and naturalist. I love mummies and reptiles and all sorts of forensic mysteries.
A collection, a devoted space to art and artifact, opens up a different space, mentally and emotionally. I can meditate there, even with other people around. I’m just blown away by old things that connect to lives. Perfume vials from the Titanic, freckle cream jars on Nikumaroro, ancient Egyptian sandals, a petri dish full of salmonella, a prehistoric sea turtle skeleton, a diorama of a Neanderthal funeral—those things light my imagination.
I can also remember being in high school, with the old-school VHS player, pausing and rewinding movies just to hear lines delivered a certain way by my favorite performers. Too, growing up at a remove from but with the knowledge of a certain East Tennessee way of speaking—certain inflections and words from the old-timers—just turned me on to language, to my own fascination with weird words and uncommon ones.
KB: This collection is lacted with maps, states, state lines, and distance, how important to your metaphorical landscape is your physical landscape?
MJ: This is a tough one. I’d like to think my immediate environment is irrelevant to some bigger impulse to write poems, and maybe it really is, but as I’m getting older, I’m way more aware of space and how it impacts me. I’m getting crotchety about natural light, for example. Most of the writers I know have been migrants, tooling around in pursuit of the poem, the job, the relationship, whatever. So I think I’m one of those, even though I was raised in such a stable environment that it still seems strange to be unsettled every few years.
I went through a phobia about flying (brought on by a horrific flight during two converging storm systems over Texas) that really wrecked my natural inclination for travel. I was embarrassed and horrified by it, but it also made me return to an old love of road trips.
It made me sit still for a bit and to try to process and work from one spot and not to depend on travel to unstick me, which is what I think a lot of us do. I didn’t want to have to be “entertained” to write, but it’s just unavoidably true that a change of scenery will light that fire. You’re right, though—distance is always there, and it always hurts.
KB: Why a Hallelujah for the Ghosties?
MJ: As a worldview, this line from Vic Chesnutt’s song “Stupid Preoccupations” strikes me right. I’m indebted to him, because it bundles together so many of the poems in the book, many of which revel in the imperfect or awful. They don’t wallow, I hope, but they acknowledge different kinds of monsters: the delicious horror-movie kind but also the less monstrous ones, the spirits of lost and distant loved ones.
Also, so many monstrous things lurk in us and in our relationships, “under the boiling seas,” as Vic says. All that stuff is below the surface, but it’s no less beautiful and odd, often, than the palm tree or the aria. So the hallelujah a form of gratitude. It’s also just funny—if you know Chesnutt’s songs, they’re wry and crazy, witty, a little self-deprecating. So I’m piggybacking there, paying homage to his song, which is really a toast to all of our ghosts and peccadillos.
KB: The speaker in your poems stays up late What do you do when you can’t sleep?
MJ: Whatever you call daydreaming at night. I read, I enjoy the quiet—no demands, no rush. I think. It’s the only space I have in which I can be still, which is wholly mine. I think a lot about people I know or miss. I read. I play games, which is similar to walking or working out in terms of the brain being able to clear itself, reset.
That’s it: I reset. I remember hearing Jorie Graham say once in a lecture that longer lines write themselves into the subconscious, that those lines come late at night like that, and I tend to think that’s what I’m doing up late, whether I’m writing a poem or not. I used to write almost exclusively between 11pm and 3am, though that seems to be changing.
KB: We see a lot of common mythological and historical characters in this manuscript. Can you tell me how these archetypal stories have influences your own work?
MJ: Well, I know it’s a conversation we’re still having, whether Western figures of classical mythology and so on are relevant, but Medusa’s been with me a long time, since graduate school, at least. I got into Ovid’s version of her story, the awful irony of the goddess turning her great beauty monstrous after she was raped—and that was considered only fair!
So many women writers identify with Medusa: Plath, Bogan, Patricia Smith, Carol Ann Duffy; that list goes on and on, and I just discovered a whole book of Medusa poems last week, by Melissa Dickson. In my book, Medusa was originally Lot’s wife, but that just didn’t feel right—I don’t have a connection with Lot’s wife.
Medusa, though? She’s irresistible—her duality, how she retains her dignity over and over in the face of the monstrous feminine, how she becomes the ultimate talisman of power on the face of a shield. As for some of the others, Sobeknefru ruled Egypt very briefly, but we still have a record of her, and we think she wore both male and female clothes as ruler.
She’s a lady Ozymandias (Ramses II), for me, the acknowledgment of a bit of usually-unsung history that shows us a little different version of the stories we usually know. I’d say the same for Venus and the costumed woman who appears near the end of the book.
KB: How did you first know you were a poet? And what did you do to develop your distinct voice into what it is today and in this collection?
MJ: I spent a lot of time writing in a voice that wanted to be Woody Guthrie, a 50-year old male coalminer, or Tom Waits. At some point, I had to stop what was ineffective mimicking and come a little closer. That’s always the challenge—stepping a little closer, being there, being more open, and more immediate on the page.
To even hope to get there, I had to become really baroque and perform what Rodney Jones used to call “virtuoso shit.” He was probably the first person to identify it and to tell me to cut it out when it wasn’t effective. I was making the kind of move that could be resonant, but burying the move in a heap of similar moves.
It took a long time, but I began to pull back on it in places until I could wield it a little better. But that process was a macrocosm of the overwriting/contraction model we practice on a single poem.
I’ve no idea when I knew I was a poet. I can tell you that I spent several days one December while I was in elementary school copying poems from one of those “treasuries” out in longhand. I liked the incantatory, the weird, stuff that can capture a kid: Alfred Noyes, Poe, Dorothy Parker, even Basho, I think.
Later, I distinctly remember checking Richard Shelton and Alice Walker’s poems out of the Putnam County Library. Not too shabby, considering I was just guessing, just picking things up that interested me, without any sense of Poetry with a capital “P.” But I was still fighting the label in undergrad, doubting and hand-wringing and all that.
KB: Do you have any last advice for aspiring poets?
MJ: Read living poets. Find a voice you adore, and stalk that poet.
Read dead poets—you’ve got to know what you’re up against.
Copy your favorite poems out in longhand. Seriously.
Find teachers who know everything about poetry. Go there.
Trade work with the best readers you can find.
Do what you do, even if your best friend, your great aunt, and Professor Q don’t “get it.”
You can buy Melanie Jordan’s collection from Sundress Publications here: https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications/hallelujah-for-the-ghosties-by-melanie-jordan-pre-order
Melanie Jordan’s chapbook, Ghost Season, is available from Ropewalk Press; her work has been published in the Iowa Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Southeast, Third Coast, DIAGRAM, Southeast Review, and others. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga before receiving her MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her doctorate from the University of Houston. She currently teaches Creative Writing, literature, and composition at the University of West Georgia. Her debut collection, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, is now available from Sundress Publications.
Kate Belew is an editorial intern at Sundress Publications and a student of Poetry at Kalamazoo College where she studies with poet Diane Seuss. She interns with the reading series at The Kalamazoo Book Center, and received the Nature in Words Fellowship at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute where wrote in the woods all summer. She has been published in journals such as The Minetta Review, Collision Literary Magazine, and Cliterature. When she’s not writing she’s dancing, hula hooping, or reading tarot cards. She is a firm believer in duende.