REVIEW // By Hannah Grieco

Trace: An Interview with Melanie Figg

Melanie Figg’s new full-length poetry collection Trace gives voice to family, feminism, and individual history through the lens of art. She explores her world with precise, gorgeous language—often through the sculptures and paintings that move her.

‘when love leaves, the body folds in half & that broken
promise descends and breathes softly in the corner, blinking-‘
-One Way Loneliness Falls
Descent from the Cross, 1435, Roger van der Weyden

These poems are deeply personal, combining lyricism and vulnerability, uniting into a collection that both celebrates and mourns what it means to be human, to experience loss and love almost interchangeably.

I try in vain to recuperate
The irreversible, Figg declares in “Untitled,” her tribute to Columbian artist Doris Salcedo.

The birds bang into the windows
all day long here. He mistakes
the sounds of their necks breaking
for visitors knocking, she writes in “Refuse.”

I was delighted to interview Melanie and discuss her new collection, the “I” in poetry, and the process of writing about trauma.

Trace by Melanie Figg
New Rivers Press, $17

Hannah Grieco: How long did this collection take to put together? How did you know you had a collection, or did you write many (or all) of these poems with a theme in mind?

Melanie Figg: This book took over 15 years to get published! It’s been through many, many versions over the years. It has been a finalist for the Pitt, the Whitman, and a dozen others; lots of semi-finalists/bridesmaids, too. In having to answer this question, I veer between sweat-drenched shame, and a cooler connection to reality. So, this is what my writing life looks like. I have taught for 30 years outside academia, won a lot more grants than many (the NEA and others), published over 60 poems, but—no book until now. In the face of a lot of rejection, I stayed committed to getting my work out there. I believed in it. For that, I’m proud of myself. Given how little poetry pays, and how hard it is to build a career outside academia and its (many) exclusive structures, one’s tenacity and being a stand for one’s own creative endeavors is what matters most. I tell this to my clients and students often—we have to do it for other reasons than being published or famous. There’s a difference between being a writer, and someone who wants to be an author.

I tell this to my clients and students often—we have to do it for other reasons than being published or famous. There’s a difference between being a writer, and someone who wants to be an author.

HG: Writing about mental health as it relates to someone we love—that’s such a challenging tightrope to walk! I struggle with this myself, needing to tell my own story vs. someone else’s when our stories are intertwined so closely. Can you talk about? About how you decide what to share, what to only hint at, what stays off limits?

MF: At first, I just wrote them because I needed to work through what was going on; a lot of the stuff I wrote about my sister is not in Trace—mostly because they were more about how my family was/wasn’t dealing with issues, and they weren’t good poems. When Trace was finally going to be published, I sent all the poems about my sister to her. We have a very good relationship and I didn’t want her to think I was making fun of her, or invading her privacy. She is very easy going and was fine with them. Some of the poems in Trace are about another woman in my life, not my sister. But I sent those to my sister, too, since I think some readers will assume they are all about the same person.

HG: What is your response to those types of assumptions from the reader? I’ve interviewed many poets who express frustration about assumptions regarding what is “true” or autobiographical in poetry. What do you think about the role the reader plays in defining a poem’s meaning?

MF: Well, the role of the reader is all that matters, really, in the end. At least if you’re sharing your work with others. The reader is going to bring their stuff to every poem they read (their past, obsessions, blind spots, hang-ups, hopes, expertise, etc.). That’s the magic of all the arts—that one person’s creative expression becomes a bridge to another, and a window if they want it. But I get the frustration of readers collapsing the “I” of a poem with the poet. It seems to be a given. No one thinks Kafka used to be a bug! So why is poetry burdened by this? I think about this often, and I think part of it may be a bit ironic—I wonder if it’s because poetry is practiced by many, many readers in their journals as a way to process stuff and express themselves, so they assume that poetry’s “I” is always the self, and not a persona? Might it have something to do with the sacred role poetry has played for millennia, as spoken chant, as interior prayer? It’s an odd bind for poetry to be so universally beholden—and one that interests me, and excites me far more than it frustrates me.

That’s the magic of all the arts—that one person’s creative expression becomes a bridge to another, and a window if they want it.

I’m fine with people collapsing my poem’s “I” with me, personally, I guess. I mean, it’s a superficial reading, maybe, but it’s not inaccurate. That’s what/how I write. That’s why I cleared the mental illness poems with my sister—even the ones not about her. That’s why, over time, the young poems (those too self-absorbed or blamey without some shift to a wider focus or idea) got weeded out of Trace. But in the end, yes, of course, I want the poems to live in and speak to a wider space than my personal history.

It’s an interesting topic, since at the moment, I’m working on a timeline piece for the memoir and it’s all in the second person! I think it works that way—but, we’ll see. I think there is something interesting going on in the space between first and second person in the timeline. I don’t really want to write about my life in prose, per se—I don’t think of the current thing as a memoir, particularly, about me, so much as about a certain time and place and what was going on around me. My life is some of the material, but not the point, if that makes sense.

HG: Which of the poems in Trace was the hardest to write?

MF: I don’t know about hardest, but “Leaving a Trace” took the longest. Once I saw David Maisel’s lovely photographs, I did a year or three of research and notes/terrible drafts. I won a grant to go to Salem and do more research. I really loved the process of doing so much primary research for a long poem, and immersing myself in the subject—which grew over time to include the Kirkbride architecture of state mental hospitals, moral therapy, the history of mental illness “treatment” in the US and England, cremation, incarceration—all braided with my family history. I think it was that experience that has led me to my current project—a hybrid memoir about my teen years that includes a local serial killer, and an army lab poisoning my neighborhood.

It sounds harsher than it is—but it’s an exploration of being a girl, growing up knowing that assault is sort of a given.

HG: Were there any poems that you decided not to include? If so, why?

MF: Well, this collection spans a lot of time! Thankfully, a lot of the younger “juvenilia” was weeded out over the years.

HG: What do you mean by “juvenilia?”

MF: Some of those poems that you write early in your life, or too early in a certain topic (for example, poems about a sexual assault that is still recent/emotional raw/unprocessed).

I have poems that I wrote a long time ago that are fine, but just are not what I want to do today—they don’t go far enough, into strange enough territory. I like something more braided, layered, that includes space, that doesn’t tie it up in a neat bow, that includes leanings into essays like John D’Agata talks about.

Because I do write about stuff that really happened to me, I think it’s important to make sure the poem is not just venting or unformed—or just a diary entry lineated and printed out. I talk to my students a lot about that—writing is such an important tool to work through this stuff, discover impact and learning, and articulate what you think. All that process stuff is important to do as a person, but also important to work out in order to create something that has emotional power but has had time to “clear” from the circumstances—a piece of writing ready for another to expand upon it inside their own reading.

All that process stuff is important to do as a person, but also important to work out in order to create something that has emotional power but has had time to “clear” from the circumstances—a piece of writing ready for another to expand upon it inside their own reading.

HG: What defines something as a poem? What is it about the form that separates it from prose?

MF: I think poems have a base level of lyricism. Some prose is lyrical, but that doesn’t seem to be the main criteria. I think that a lyric or hybrid essay is closer to poetry than many prose poems.

HG: Where is the line between prose poetry and prose?

MF: I don’t really feel like I understand prose poems very well—for the few in Trace, it just felt like they should be prose poems, not lineated. I know that’s a terrible answer—if a student said that to me, I’d send them back to think it over some more!

But, having said that—my new project is a hybrid memoir that is more about a certain place in time (it includes the history of dinosaurs in New England, etc.), and it has a lot of short prose pieces in it. Fragments. Are they poems? No, I don’t think so, though they have some lyric moments. I’m really excited about them, but I’m not sure what they are yet.

The hybrid focuses roughly on my teen years in New Hampshire/Vermont. I hadn’t written anything in a while after Trace was being published, and then one Christmas, I took my husband to see where I grew up. The housing project had been razed, so I started investigating into the Army lab spill and clean-up. A neighbor of ours who lived there was killed by a serial killer in the mid-80s, and so was a girl from my high school. It seemed weird that I knew two of the seven women. I started researching the serial killer and began to find some similarities, and making some connections. It also includes some stuff about the land there, too, and the fact that underneath the highway is a pathway where dinosaurs crossed the continent. These three strands come together in weird ways; Emily Dickinson is connected to the dinosaur story, and I bring in Harvey Weinstein, too!

HG: Tell us about your process when it comes to writing with visual art as inspiration. Where did you get that idea for Trace and how did you pick pieces, link the poems, etc?

MF: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write ekphrastic poetry. At first it was very basic—describing the painting, or being the voice of someone in the painting. But as I began to get really interested in artists’ processes in general, and installation artists in particular—Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Doris Salcedo, and many others—my writing tried to incorporate the space around the work, the artist themselves, and the process. (If you haven’t read Rilke’s writings on Rodin, you must. Rilke was Rodin’s assistant, and his writing about the space surrounding Rodin’s sculptures…whoa!)

I don’t really set out to write about an artist. I just go to museums a lot; I really like talking to visual artists, too, about their process. (I ran a multi-genre artist group for years in Minneapolis.) I pick artists whose work interests me—sometimes the poems are terrible! Try as I could, all my stuff inspired by Gober’s work has been awful. Doris Salcedo continues to inspire me—she is a giant, what she’s doing in Colombia, and around the world now.

HG: Who was the first poet you read and thought, “I want to write like this”?

MF: In college, I really liked Anne Sexton—so many poets assigned in high school are classic (read: stodgy white dudes). Her direct voice and searing images gave me a lot of permission. When I first discovered Louis Glück and Jack Gilbert, I wanted to write that way, but knew I couldn’t as much as I tried—their minds were just too sharp. When I discovered Jorie Graham and Larry Levis, something broke open for me and poetry—the long line, the gap, incorporating absence on the page, braiding stories—those devises spoke to me in a powerful way about how to begin to talk about loss, identity, memory, and creating energy on the page. Raul Zurita is a powerful, monumental in this regard.

Visual artists, too, are often more important to me—Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, the surrealist women painters, Doris Salcedo.

HG: What poet’s work is on your bedside table right now?

MF: I just finished Maggie Nelson’s jane: a murder—it blew me away!—and Paisley Rekdahl’s Nightingale. And I’ve been reading Allison Cobb’s Green-Wood in fits and starts for a long time now. What she is doing in that book is very interesting to me.