Melanie Perish: Writing Rivers

Recently,  poet Melanie Perish talked with Literary Arts & Wine about her poetry, her inspiration and why rivers are so prominent in her work. 

How did you find your way to poetry? Or, how did the impulse to write in verse-- rather than in prose-- find you? 

I found my way into poetry through reading it and keeping journals.  Verse found me because I loved the short form of poetry and the music of it.  Later, I realized that the root of poetry was conscious choice – saying much in a shorter space.  Conscious choice is one of the core values I’ve had since the fifth or sixth grade.

Cheryl Lundstrom, in the preface to your poetry collection Passions and Gratitudes wrote that the people who appear in your poems "flow like rivers." What draws you to the image or essence of a river so much so that it is a recurring one in much of your work? 

Rivers appear because I’ve lived near them, but they became critical and constant after my move West. I moved from New York City to a tiny town in Southwestern Utah.  The early fishing poems I wrote were the way to understand and synthesize a very urban past with a very rural present. The fishing poems taught me what I needed to learn.  Then they taught me that all the poetry I write – the finished poems especially – all teach me what I need to learn at that moment in time.  I like the silence of fishing and the conversations that happen when fishing with friends.  I hope the fishing poems reveal that for the speaker, fishing is a meditation and a conversation of pairs or clusters of ideas:  Nature and human nature, past and present, urban and rural, fear and faith.  The river continues with us and outside us and without us.

You have several poems which circle around fishing-- the physical act of it, yes, but also the "trope" (or, expected trappings) of it.  How did fishing find its way into your poems?  Is the intersection of what is typically a "male" activity challenged or reframed in your poetry, in which the "fishermen" are women? (One example which comes to mind is the poem "Your Mother Taught You How to Fish.") 

In rural places where farmers and ranchers may be land-rich, but cash poor, fishing is not as much a male activity.  Men and women fish and men and women hunt just as men and women herd sheep, move sprinkler pipe, mark calves or lambs.  Marking is the process of castrating, inoculating and sometimes docking the tails of animals.  In the sheep sheds where lambs are born – often in cold March days – men and women are out there lambing.  That said, in urban or suburban settings, it’s often men who pursue fishing – although fly fishing guides always have stories of great women who fish and fish regularly.  
A woman taught me how to fish and her mother not only taught her how to fish, but taught both sons and all grandchildren how to fish.   I was fortunate enough to help teach several of the grandchildren how to fish.  But in “Your Mother Taught You…”, there’s the same casting into past and present, the same trolling for meaning, the same surprise that all this also describes the hook and catch of language.  The “you” in the poem learns to fish and learns that language is part of every cell of her being just as the fish will become part of her body. She learns that language will include struggle, skill, and it will rush with joy.  Somehow, language will always be shadowed by life and death. 

Who do you consider your artistic/poetic influences? How does their work inform your poems and/or your approach to poetry? 

Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Marge Piercy, Cheryl Lundstrom, Sallie Ann Harrison, Joan Larkin, and Valerie Kern are important poetic influences and have been since 1975 when I began writing poetry regularly.  Adrienne Rich’s “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” laid out a feminist imperative:  tell your truth – break open lies, secrets and silence.  Audre Lorde echoed words from the Civil Rights Movement:  speak Truth to Power.  As a Black lesbian feminist with a White partner, she shattered stereotypes regularly.  Marge Piercy and Judy Grahn made working class subjects poetic subjects.  Joan Larkin, Cheryl Lundstrom, Sallie Ann Harrison, and Valerie Kern articulated “the personal is the political” in their work and in their lives.  All these women wrote in accessible language. It made me wonder if I could do that, too.  It made it possible for me to do this.  When I read, one of the greatest joys I have is for someone to come to me afterward and say, “I think I can write poetry because I think I can do what you do.”
It’s also important for me to note and acknowledge the women’s writing workshops that I’ve taken and taught from 1975 – 1983.  I’m a product of women’s writing workshops where an important opinion was:  writing is solitary, but thinking is collective.  Early in my writing career, there was great strength in knowing there was a group waiting to read what I’d written and that their critiques were vehicles to empower one another, not to inflict power over one another.  Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker challenged the poetry establishment in the 1970s.  The year they were all nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry, they talked with one another (although they were not necessarily friends at that time) and decided to share the prize.  The committee relented, but was confused since the “power over” structure works on the principle that there’s a peak of greatness and only one can stand at the top of that pinnacle.  Being at the top of the pyramid was the goal.

As you continue to write, do you notice an evolution in the poems you produce? Are the images and ideas you are drawn to now the same as, say, two years ago? What about them, if anything, has changed?

Photo by raywoo/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by raywoo/iStock / Getty Images
I have experienced an evolution in my poetry.  Part of that evolution is to participate in the evolution of the poets and writers that grounded me in the beginning.  It also means that there are other poets whose poetry and working ideas about poetry influence me.  Some of these live in other places and some are Nevada or California poets and writers. 
Again, writing workshops have enhanced and improved the poetry I’ve written in the last 7 years.  I belong to a monthly writing workshop with excellent poets and writers who helped make several poems in PASSIONS & GRATITUDES much stronger poems.  When I retired in the fall of 2014, I was finally able to take the Advanced Poetry Writing Workshop with Gailmarie Pahmeier. The writing and critiquing from that group improved my work.  The poetry and the process derived from Gailmarie’s organization, assignments, text, and suggestions were revelatory.  I’ve taken that workshop in the fall of 2014, 2015 and am currently enrolled again.  Gailmarie is a great teacher.  She is generous with her time and talent, careful in her preparation.  Further, she creates and maintains a kind of learning momentum in the class that provides a structure for success, learning, and evolution. 
Billie Collins has had a huge impact on my work.  His work gave me permission to include a gentle humor in some of my poems. Since writing and reading poetry are an important part of each day, I’m glad for that permission.  Shawn Griffin, Gailmarie Pahmeier, Mary Nork, Gemma Hartley, Melanie Peck, Tom Meschery, Ben Rogers, Steven Nightingale, Ross Cooper, Kat Terry, Bob Gabrielli, and Joe Crowley are all poets and writers whose work I wait to read.  They’re Nevada or California writers. Some have books and some do not, but I seek out their work on the internet or in small press publications.  
The two women I’m reading with are stunning writers and Katherine Case is also a fine visual artist.  Rebecca Eckland’s essays and blog repeatedly show me an evolving definition of the strength inherent in and cultivated by younger women.  I find the honesty and elegance in their work important.

How do you begin the process of writing a poem? Do you write from an idea a feeling, or is the process more autobiographical, or research based? In other words, what is your artistic process, and is it always the same for every poem you write? 

The process of writing poetry for me comes from all the sources you mention:  feelings, ideas, autobiographical moments, and research into topics that interest me.  Sometimes a poem comes from language – in something I read or hear – a new word or phrase that involves a meaning I’d like to examine.  Sometimes poems find me in dreams and in daily thoughts.  Sometimes I unconsciously write in the cadence in a piece of instrumental music.

Your poems, at times, hold conversations. Sometimes those are with a named person in the poem's title, but oftentimes, your poems speak to an unnamed "you" or "her." What draws you to this conversational mode? Is there something important in the unspoken exchange of honesty, of ideas? 

One of my favorite poets is John Donne.  He was a master of “the dialog of one” – especially in his love poetry – less so in his religious poetry.  I like the sound of voices – both external and internal.  Sometimes I’m drawn to the internal voice of one and the external voice of another. I think people often do this personal voiceover.

Have you ever written a poem you didn't expect to write? Meaning, I guess, that in  its own composition, it took shape in a way in which you weren't expecting-- as though it came alive?  Or, do the forms you poems take-- even the way they appear on the page-- known to you even at their inception? 

A few times, I’ve written a poem that felt as though it had been dictated by Grace. It was an unmerited reward – a poem that taught me something and came with incredible ease – an ease beyond thinking.  This is rare. I like the voice in poetry.  I also like the voice in formal poetry. Forms are a challenge. I’m especially drawn to the Shakespearean sonnet.  When I deal with “big ideas”: love, death, change. They help me focus what I have seen.

What literary project are you working on now?  

I’m writing poems where the dramatic situation (place and time, speaker and listener) involve driving.  It may become a series for a book or chapbook.  I’m also writing haiku daily – at least two and sometimes as many as eight.  I write them in my head as I walk or hike. 

Tell us something about you or your poetry that most people do not know.

Sometimes when I write, I feel as though time is suspended. Working on a draft in time-suspended brings a kind of joy there are no words for.  It is one time I feel as though body, mind, heart, and spirit are integrated and I am whole -- whole in a way that can’t be replicated in any other part of my life.

Melanie Perish is a writer, student, and teacher.  Her latest chapbook is The Fishing Poems (Meridian Press, 2015). Melanie is a member of Poets & Writers, Inc., has done Poets in the Schools in New York and Utah, and has served on the Scholarship Committee of the Women’s Writing Workshops in upstate New York (1978 - 1983.)  Her poetry collection Passions & Gratitudes was published by Black Rock Press in 2011. Her other chapbooks include Notes of a Daughter from the Old Country (Motheroot Publications) and Traveling the Distance (Rising Tide Press). Her poems have appeared in Utah HolidayCalyxSinister Wisdom and most recently in the Austin International Poetry Festival 2016 Anthology, di-vêrsé-city .  She is Director of Development, Emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno.