“All the time in the world”: An Interview with Melody S. Gee – Curated by Wendy Chen

Melody S. Gee is the author of three books of poetry, The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat (Driftwood Press, 2022); The Dead in Daylight (2016, Cooper Dillon Books); and Each Crumbling House (2010, Perugia Press). Her poems and essays appear recently in Commonweal MagazineEssay DailyLantern ReviewRappahannock ReviewRuminateThe Academy of American Poets. Melody is the recipient of Kundiman fellowships in poetry and fiction, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband and daughters.

Wendy Chen: Congratulations on the recent publication of your chapbook The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat through Driftwood Press this past June! I am so struck by the ways you depict the body—human and animal alike—and its complex relationship to woundedness, pain, and healing throughout this chapbook. Were there any writers or texts that you were reading while putting together this collection that particularly influenced your writing?

Melody S. Gee: Thank you, Wendy! I wrote these poems over a period of five years, between the release of my second book in 2016 and when Driftwood Press accepted my chapbook in 2021. During that period, I was reading a lot about bodies. It definitely shows in my writing. Titles that come to mind are Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski; The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk; Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel; Hunger by Roxane Gay; The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser. They were books that took to task the way we separate our minds from our bodies, the way we prioritize and prize the mind over the body—things I certainly did all my life. After my girls were born, I was able to begin seeing my body differently, less as something to control and make acceptable. I think I was reaching for books that would help me understand my body—the language it speaks, the work it does, the knowledge it carries. I wouldn’t say I’ve come all the way to a full and healthy relationship with my body, but I’m definitely more generous and appreciative of it now.

WC: There are so many different ways you explore metamorphosis and transformation—of the caterpillar turning into a butterfly, of the human body undergoing pregnancy, of a fawn whose hide changes colors. What does the idea of metamorphosis mean to you?

MSG: Yes, a lot of my themes involve transformation, sometimes painful or frightening ones—immigration, cultural assimilation, pregnancy and childbirth, adoption. When it comes to my conversion, however, I experienced a tension between embracing and resisting change. I was drawn to the church, there was no doubt that I felt led into a new faith life. I wanted something more, but that desire felt like such a betrayal. I loved my life before conversion—a beautiful marriage, two daughters, a home, a career. My life was deeply good. Conversion scared me because I didn’t want to turn away from or lose anything that I loved. And yet, every Sunday at Mass, every Saturday at the food pantry, every conversation with my spiritual director, every person in my parish I was getting to know—all filled me with real consolation, a sense of groundedness and belonging, along with real demands for radical love and welcome. Writing about different metamorphoses helps me reconcile with change.

WC: What are the most formative experiences to your development as a writer? 

MSG: The first was discovering e.e. cummings in middle school. He took my breath away and gave me permission to do strange things with language, space, emotion, expression. 

And then, up until I went to college, I felt determined to be a writer but couldn’t find outside affirmation for my goal. Believe me, I tried very hard to be seen as a writer, but always came up empty. This all sounds so self-pitying! But I lost every contest I ever entered, never got anything I submitted published in the school paper, never got identified as one of the “good writers.” I swear, my classmates’ essays got comments like, “You’re such a gifted writer,” and I got, “Thanks for working really hard on this.” My junior year, one assignment was to write an original poem, with no guidelines or restrictions. I turned in what I thought was the best thing I’d ever written. My teacher wrote, “You used a lot of metaphors.” Of course, I’d like to believe they all just couldn’t handle my genius. More likely, my writing just wasn’t good. But for some reason, I kept at it. It’s funny because I’ve gotten feedback in lots of other areas—sports, music, dance, drama—where people said, you have zero talent for this, please stop. And I listened, without any hard feelings. But writing was something I held stubbornly to. I kept trying, I never wavered. Maybe in the end, I just willed myself into being a writer. I’m totally okay with that. And I think it’s helped me withstand all the rejections from journals, MFA programs, jobs, residencies, presses—very normal but still discouraging parts of writing and publishing. 

WC: This collection also explores the rituals—religious and otherwise—that define our lives. Are there any rituals that surround your writing practices? If so, how have they evolved over the years?

MSG: I am a very disciplined writer, but not a very ritualistic one. I can stick to deadlines and word counts, but never the same way two days in a row. I need variety in where and when and how I write. I also need to feel like writing—either by chance or working my way into writing by reading, editing, journaling. There are some rituals I’ve picked up—carving time away from work, going on a retreat, meeting up with fellow writers. That last one has been transformative for me. I used to be a purely solitary writer, but about two years ago something shifted, and I wanted all the friends. I started gathering with other writers, whether for writing time, workshopping, or just coffee, and it has become the biggest gift to my writing. Despite being very much an introvert, I find these writing meetups energizing, encouraging, and important for my own accountability. It’s something I look forward to and make sure I do regularly now.

WC: One of my favorite poems in this collection is the last poem “Whether And,” which ends on a note of hopeful intimacy and potentiality of the body. How did you decide upon the order of the poems in this project? Were there poems you decided, ultimately, to exclude from this collection and, if so, why? 

MSG: I wanted very much to end on a note of hope—thank you for noticing this! I did it in my second collection, on the advice of my editor at Cooper Dillon Books. He saw an image of light in an earlier poem, and suggested I put it at the end instead. He saw a hopefulness running through the collection that I didn’t see, and I’m very grateful. In The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat, I wrestle with the grief and the hope of conversion. Grief is always there, and while hope doesn’t win out, per se, it is a daily choice.

To answer your other question, there were no poems that didn’t make it into the chapbook. I used every last poem I had written. I am, quite literally, now all out of poems. I’m lucky they all worked together, and it was good for me to do that. It made me feel like I could turn fully to my next project, which is in prose. I’m writing scraps of poems and keeping lots of notes, which is how all of my books began, so I know there will be more poems once this memoir is done.

WC: What was your revision process like for these poems? How do you know when to step away from a poem? 

MSG: I have a much better sense of when a poem is done now than when I first started writing. I always used to believe my poems were done when I shared them with peers or in workshop and I was confounded when readers told me there were gaps, inconsistencies, or something else lacking. At the time, I thought that if I conveyed a strong emotion with some beautiful language, the reader would be moved and my goal would be accomplished. Over time, I learned to stay attuned to emotion and language, but also pay attention to grounding poems in time, place, relationships. My first big influence was e.e. cummings and in imitating his style and his voice, I often left readers confused. So, my first lesson in revision was to go beyond startling phrases and surges of emotions and invite a reader into the poem’s story. Now, I know when a poem is done when it takes a reader from one place to another with a clear beginning, middle, and end; if it asks an important question; if it has language that makes the ordinary strange and new; and if a reader can be both swept away by the language and clear about what is happening, to whom, and where. 

WC: Are there any other projects you are working on? Are there any dream projects you hope to tackle one day? 

MSG: I’m writing a memoir in essays right now. I’ve been fortunate to receive some funding and now have a bit of dedicated time to write, which is a dream come true. Also, I desperately need the time to read and learn more about prose and creative nonfiction as I write. This memoir feels like my dream project. It’s a story I very much want to tell and can’t tell in poems. But my secret dream project is a novel. I went to the Kundiman Asian American writer’s retreat in 2019 with this little scrap of a novel idea and some characters who I already love, and I got supportive and encouraging feedback. It’s the story of my family’s restaurant—not what really happened but what I wish our story could have been. The idea of learning to write fiction thrills me. I would love to become a student of fiction. I have so much to learn, and even though I have less time ahead of me than I did when I was 20, I have a completely different sense of that time now. Of course I want to publish. I want to put my work out into the world. But it’s more important that I write well and that I spend my life writing. When I think about it this way, I suddenly have all the time in the world.