“In Ancient Rome or on Saturn”: A Conversation with Lynn Melnick — curated by Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Lynn Melnick: I began writing Refusenik with the intention to write about my own Jewishness and Americanness and the complicated relationship and history I have with both. As I got further into it, I realized the work continued my interrogation of rape culture and my history as a survivor of violence, as in earlier books, and then by the end of the writing process for Refusenik, I realized I was also exploring what it means to be a middle-aged woman, and a parent, inside of all these systems and identities. I wasn’t expecting so many themes to end up in one book, but it happened very organically.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

LM: My last book was entirely made up of poems in couplets or single line stanzas, so this time around I really wanted to have some adventure with form, and, fortunately for me, the poems accommodated that want, and the forms are very varied. I write my first drafts in just a big jumble on the page and once I see what it is that the poem wants to be, I let it reveal its form to me. This often takes many tries, and I am often quite wrong at first. I almost abandoned the title poem of Refusenik and started over because I couldn’t get the form right and I thought the whole poem completely tanked. But then, when I finally did get it right, it was thrilling—and the whole poem (which is very long, about 400 lines) felt different even though I’d just changed the form, and not a single word!

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

LM: My poems are autobiographical, and I am the “I” and I am the speaker and at the same time the “I” and the “speaker” are constructs. That sounds like the most annoying riddle, but I write from my life but in real life I am a less condensed person and, on the page, the “I” is living a heightened reality. Admitting the “I” is basically me is tough because people often assume women who write about themselves are just going full “dear diary” with our words and not carefully crafting them into art, but I also refuse to be shamed into pretending that what I have experienced didn’t actually happen to me.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

LM: A few times in my career, men have told me that, while they admire my work, it didn’t feel like it was for them. I wrote my last book, Landscape with Sex and Violence, for all of us who have survived inside the rape culture which regularly tries to destroy us, but I also wrote it for cis men, so they could experience, just for the duration of the volume, what it is like for the rest of us. With Refusenik, I had similar audiences in mind, but in my heart, I feel like this book is for my fellow Jewish people, especially those who have been fighting misogyny inside the religion and its culture and yet still feel deeply connected to it. It has been incredibly rewarding to me when I hear from those for whom this book was a companion. But I want to say for certain that this book is for everyone, the way all poetry books are.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

LM: Coming to the page is always exhilarating and terrifying. If being forthright about one’s own experiences is risky then I guess that? 

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

LM: When I’m writing I try to tell the truth about my life and beliefs in an artful and beautiful way, but I don’t intellectualize the process all that much. It always feels very instinctual to me.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

LM: Oh, a very big part! I read every draft out loud many times, and when I’m finishing the book, I read the whole thing start to finish out loud many times to see how each poem bangs against each other sonically. The music is the magic in poetry, I think, and it just is or isn’t right. When it’s right, you know it, and when it’s wrong, you really know it, and have to just keep working on it until it’s where you want it.

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

LM: That’s an interesting question. I think one of the joys of poetry is that you can time travel within a book, or even a poem, or even a stanza or line! I love that in poetry we can bend time and all sorts of other fixed notions. It’s very handy. So, I can be back in my childhood city of Los Angeles in one line and then poof! I’m in my daughter’s bedroom in Brooklyn. I could be in ancient Rome or on Saturn if I wanted to be. Poems are awesome that way. 

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

LM: It’s funny, I love structuring other people’s manuscripts, and my own, but I couldn’t tell you how I do it. I mean, I teach manuscript workshops, so you’d think I’d have a fab answer for this, but I think mostly it’s like revising a poem, you have to listen very closely to what it wants and needs and then let it tell you how to shape it. This maybe sounds goofy but it’s how I do it. I let the poems guide me and tell their story and then somehow I just know. Refusenik had several different orders; I tried so valiantly to put the damn poems into sections! I had two sections, three sections, four! And now there’s just one long section and I think it works so beautifully. I was refusing to listen to it at first, but once I did, everything fell into place.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

LM: I wrote almost the entire book while on a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers (inside the famous building with the lions out front), so millions of books kept me company, as did the staff there and my fellow Fellows, particularly the fiction writer Melinda Moustakis, whose office was near mine and who checked in with me in so many ways every day. Coffee kept me company. Items from my late grandparents’ apartment, which I had just helped to clean out, surrounded me in my NYPL office. Dolly Parton kept me company, as she always does. 

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

LM: Well, I finished Refusenik in early 2019 and immediately began working on the proposal for a book which would become my forthcoming memoir, I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, which will be out this October from the University of Texas Press’s American Music Series. So now here I am for the first time in my entire writing life with no project I’m currently working on. It is an odd and not especially great feeling, as I’m better when I’m writing, but I also feel a bit burnt out so I’m trying to rest my creative self. Still, I hope to write some poems this summer. Nothing gives me quite such a high as writing a poem.