Lynn Melnick: “I Believe Words Possess a Magic Power to Make Change”
In Conversation with the Landscape with Sex and Violence Poet
Lynn Melnick’s second book Landscape with Sex and Violence borrows from the gothic pastoral to remind us that a landscape can be conducted in hard grays and the bodies embedded in it are more than its perky dots of color, there to cheer the viewer’s eye. Whether we find ourselves in the parking lot, in the back of a pickup, or in some SoCal stucco backyard, the landscape is that hazardous stage across which one must conduct her female form with equal measures of thrill and fear, equal measures caution and longing. Rape culture permeates the sidewalks, buildings, night air, all hours, really. Reading Melnick’s poems, one remembers that she must keep wits about her in a choke of triggers, but also why, despite everything they tell us, we still go outside. I spoke with Lynn about what it took to write this book, and what it takes to live the lives we do, visible figures in problematic fields.
Danielle Pafunda: A lot of readers will be familiar with the feminist equation of the femme nude and natural landscape in Western art. To these, your book adds the politically crucial cityscape. Each poem issues from this triangulation—femme form, landscape, city—but it’s not just a conceptual equation! It’s as though this triangulation exists as a lump in the speaker’s throat. Would you share a bit about the theoretical and emo origins of the project?
Lynn Melnick: It’s interesting to me that you mention cityscapes and the origin of this project because the project was actually born out of a poem I wrote about being temporarily out of the city, in central coastal California, and how displaced I felt. That poem was “Landscape with Sex and Violence,” which ended up being the title poem. I was thinking a lot about how that sense of displacement kind of mirrored the chaos in my life and also provided backdrop for it. And I wanted to keep looking into that, because what happens to our bodies doesn’t happen floating in space, it happens in a particular landscape and is influenced by it. And most of my life has happened in city landscapes for sure.
Then I wrote “Landscape with Smut and Pavement,” which is about being a promiscuous middle-schooler, but, like, why would a middle-schooler be promiscuous? And then I thought about the landscape in which I moved at that age, about how sometimes it was so bright and green, like sometimes Los Angeles is. So at some point after that I thought I should keep going, because it felt right, like I was making sense to myself. And then good fortune struck when one of my freelance publicity gigs sent me a book to write on and it was Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer, which details the history of trees in California (most of which are not native to California, just as I am not native to California) and what that has meant for the people who live there both practically and, I think, metaphorically too. It’s a marvelous book, almost 600 pages and every one worth reading. It’s brilliantly written and thought through.
And so suddenly I had the framework for the book I wanted to write. You see, getting to your question about the emo origins of the book, the book I wanted to write—the book I wasn’t brave or ready yet to write the first time—is a book about the traumas and the pleasures of the body, my body, and also about what growing up inside rape culture and inside of the unique landscapes of California has done to me. I wanted to write forthrightly about rape and abortion and sex work and, well, sex and violence. But I was scared because, while writing is always exhilarating, one of the best highs, publishing is always terrifying. But the more I wrote of the book the more determined I became to write this book with no holds on myself.
DP: Ah! There’s so much I want to ask you! Let’s start with the last thing you said. What holds did you have to remove or obstacles traverse? What did you give yourself permission or even imperative to write? How’d you do it? I’m also curious about your love of the actual writing process. It always bums me out when I hear writers talking about how much they dislike the actual writing. I can’t imagine dedicating so much of my life to something I didn’t like doing, or quite what would be motivating me in that case. Let’s not bother speculating on why writers who don’t like writing do it—that’s someone else’s interview! Instead, as you answer this question, do you find that your love of writing helped you navigate this brave project? Would you pick a line from the book you found exhilarating to write but didn’t feel immediately bold about sharing with readers?
LM: So I’ve been thinking about all of the above questions, and I think, more than anything, what drives me is my anger. I’m really angry about things that happened to me and things that keep happening to me and to others. I’m angry about patriarchy. I’m angry about rape culture. I’m angry that we don’t believe women and we don’t protect them. So I think eventually I got so angry I couldn’t rein myself in any longer, even when it felt extraordinarily vulnerable or even unsafe to write what I was writing. I am a shy person, and I don’t like to upset people, but I get overcome with anger and I’m just like FUCK YOU to everyone. That’s what happened with this book. I always say my poems are a lot tougher than I am. Like, there are things in this book I’ve never spoken about straight to anyone, even those closest to me. I just don’t usually like to talk about myself but in poems it’s different. And I’m trying to be very open about this book so I can do right by it.
But oh yes, I love writing. It’s like cocaine or sex or both, but better. I feel really good and really strong and unusually confident when I’m writing. I don’t get to write as much as I wish I did, so maybe I appreciate it extra much when I do. And yes, the high of writing helped me get the courage to write this particular book. There were definitely lines I wrote that I was like OH HELL YES when I wrote them and then when I came down from my writing high I was like oh wait what? Someone will read this! or, worse, I have to read this out loud to someone?!
I for certain felt that with the ending of the poem “Poem at the End of a News Cycle,” which is “but if there hasn’t been a moment at your job / where for an extra $10 you let a man spit on your face // and cum in your eye // then I don’t want to hear about all the empowerment // I failed to find.” As I was writing it and just after I finished I was like yup, this is exactly it, I said exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it. I had been feeling so angry and confused by things like the existence of pole-dancing exercise classes and pretend brothel poetry readings or whatever—which maybe I just don’t understand—but they left me with complicated feelings, to say the least. Like why is there some kind of cachet to faking being a sex worker when actual sex workers get treated pretty horribly much of the time and there’s a very real stigma, even years after.
Actually, Danielle, you were in the audience the first time I read “Poem at the End of a News Cycle” out loud! We didn’t know each other well, then, and you were so kind to me. It was at one of those big group AWP readings, and I got up there and began to read and was like “how on earth am I going to get through this?” I wanted to disappear, which was the complete opposite of when I was writing it, when I was pretty sure I could fly.
DP: I remember that reading well! You were astonishing, and as you read I gripped my friend’s arm. I could not stop grinning with that triumph of abjection reclaimed by the imperious unfuckwithable speaker. It’s a happy confluence when a line of a poem resonates the same with writer and reader: yup, this is exactly it. You bring up a pretty fascinating phenomenon, here. In the modern western tradition of pastoral you get prettified, defanged landscape hauled out of time and conceived of as immune to current events. Such conventional pastoral poems get populated by objects not subjects, which is itself fascinating study, but I want to talk about what happens when objects speak. In your poems, a subject insists on being the origin of the poem even as every other figure in the poem blithely assumes her object status. You challenge those figures, and give them room to denounce themselves: “[s]o go ahead, draw me like a cartoon tramp—/ Once a whore, always a whore, Lynn—“ (from that same poem) so that the pastoral subject usurps authorship of the landscape.
In that vein, we’ve got the gothic or feminist pastoral (I’m thinking Dickinson, Plath, Camille Dungy’s anthology Black Nature) wherein the landscape can’t be viewed from the safe pinnacle of ownership, and can’t be ordered (commanded or organized!) not to bite back. As a reader, I find this immensely gratifying. (I just watched The Girl With All The Gifts last night and am feeling very c’mon fungal revolution!) In the second poem in the book, “Landscape with Wonder and Blowback,” the speaker stages herself in a parking lot such that violence reveals itself on every still artifact and in every speaking body. This poem seems to me the vector through which the rest of the poems will burst forth. Does it work that way for you? Can you talk a little about how you simultaneously inhabit the poems in a visceral, moving fashion, and direct the reader from a cool, planetary distance?
LM: Ah! I’m so grateful to have you as a reader. Thank you for reading me so well. That the subject insists on being the subject in these poems was very important to me in writing them. I feel like I have constantly been viewed as an object for others, which is what so much of Landscape is about, but also when my poems are in the world I have been not infrequently objectified around them. I was hit on once during a poetry reading I was giving. I’ve gotten appalling questions at q&a’s. A fairly well known poet once told me he loved my work and later told me that my poems turn him on (I won’t publicly out this person because I know from experience what happens next and am not up for that particular onslaught of doubt and shaming at the moment). I feel like I’ve veered away from your question, but what I’m trying to say is to be seen as a subject, and not an object, is a constant battle. I’m kind of ready for the fungal revolution myself!
To answer your questions without veering: Yes, I put “Landscape with Wonder and Blowback” as the first poem in the first section (there is a poem that comes first, that introduces the collection) because I wanted it to be like, hey, hi, here’s what we’ve got here. And yes what we have here is sex and violence enacting itself on a pretty banal landscape—a parking lot—and when I think back on my earlier life, from which this collection springs, my memory is far better at emotions than visual scenes, I remember flashes of landscapes, almost as if I was seeing a slide show—Look! There I am in that parking lot!—but I remember what I was feeling, and made to feel, exactly. So maybe that is how I inhabit the poems both mushily and from a distance. I think also my anger (that again) allows me to do both, I get rash and then I get like, ok, let’s break this down calmly, I’m not going to let you look away because I sure couldn’t.
DP: That method of inhabiting the poem sounds akin to getting triggered, but this time pulling the trigger oneself? I’m thinking about the way an experience analogous to trauma can bring back flashes of the landscape in which trauma occurred, but also very literally bring on the physical state of trauma—the sweating, heart-beating, mind racing or blanking, etc. Trauma often defies language centers in the brain—refuses to process through them. Here, you’re actively threading trauma through these centers, making it participate in the process. I don’t know if that works or not therapeutically—I’m sure I do the same thing in poems and I’m sure I don’t know if it’s helping or hurting on the level of personal healing, but it gets me thinking about generational healing.
At this point in an interview, some literacy-resistant holdout usually asks us what it’s like to be a mommy-poet. How could you still write? Or, isn’t all your writing about your kids? Or, I was surprised to find out you’re a writer, too, just like your husband/father/lover/friends. I have a better question: has motherhood galvanized your writing practice? When I read this book, I think thank freaking goodness this was written before my kids got to junior high, to high school. One more imperceptible dent in the iron side of rape culture, but also maybe the book that someone finds before they hurt or get hurt. One of the stepping stones from here to a less caustic bank?
LM: Ah! Ok. So much to say here. First, to address the issues of triggering: you know, I never really thought of it that way but, yes, I think what I am doing may be pulling the trigger myself. Writing definitely feels freeing, like I am in control of my own experiences, and the telling of them, and, because writing is so pleasurable to me, maybe this is also a way of healing my body and psyche. I was for sure trying to get at what the brain and body feel like in certain moments, the chaoticness, the franticness, the minute details that loom large.
And oh, Danielle, I have so much to say about the mommy-poet thing. The expectation or belief that moms write poems only about being moms is strange and weirdly prevalent and, of course, sexist as fuck. Like, some moms do for sure! And those poems are important! But momming is not the only subject available to moms! (Exclamation points used here to indicate: duh.) Everything that comes with being a parent of course feeds my work, but I only rarely write about my children.
On the other hand, a friend once tried to add me to a Google group of mom poets, moderated by the poet Arielle Greenberg, and I was denied entry, ha! Maybe there was a valid reason, and people can invite to their party whom they wish, but what if I fit in nowhere? What if I not a mom enough poet or a poet enough mom? I don’t know.
“The expectation or belief that moms write poems only about being moms is strange and weirdly prevalent and, of course, sexist as fuck.”
I published my first book when my girls were 7 and 3, so my mom identity was well established before my career took off, and I never felt that my kids set me back writing-wise, though I certainly can see how one might experience that, and I definitely have less time than I did pre-kids. But I felt quite the opposite. I felt, and feel, like my girls gave me the strength and peace of mind to do what I do. And they also made my work feel that much more urgent. I want the world to be better and I want to do what I can to make it better. Lately, I am surrounded by 12 year olds (my older daughter and her friends!) and so thank you for saying this book could put a dent into rape culture. Witnessing from the parenting vantage point the damage rape culture does to children—and especially once they hit puberty—makes me so enraged and frightened. What else can we do but keep fighting it?
DP: I went to a peace vigil last night with my children and their father to whom I’m no longer partnered. He and I started going to anti-war protests together since we met in Brooklyn in the year 2000. Warfare outlasted our marriage! I could see the narrative of a generation, there. Ours that has spent its entire adult life in a country at war, and that younger generation raised with the fear and hate that feed rape culture, white supremacy, oppression of all kinds. I thought the same thing, what can we do but keep fighting? Poetry remains crucial to resistance. I take that as a given; neither you nor I should waste time nattering over its relevance.
What we’ve discussed here—channeling the experience of writing that untethers us from daily embodied oppression, pulling the trigger oneself as a vital element of resisting dominant narratives—I’m so grateful you’re doing that work! Challenging the familiar narrative can indeed get us pushed to the margins, make it so that we fit nowhere in our own communities. If we really want those communities to be actively inclusive, we’re going to have to keep embracing unfamiliar, daring work. I thought I’d end by asking which poets currently bolster your spirit or practice? What do you think poetry can do that it hasn’t yet, or what might it keep doing to see us through volatile times?
LM: I was just having a conversation with Jen Benka of the Academy of American Poets about how poetry has become more crucial in the national conversation than I remember it being before, in my lifetime anyway. Maybe when people lose all hope they just look to the poets, finally. And the work they do with Poem-a-Day literally gets poetry into the every day lives of so many people. Similarly when the Poetry Society of America puts poems on public transportation—I keep seeing Ada Limón on the A train! It’s so great! Someone I’ve been re-reading a lot lately is Ntozake Shange, who was very important to my development as a writer but who I hadn’t picked up in a while. Even though she was doing very important work decades ago, I think she would be an answer to what poetry can do that it hasn’t yet. She was light years ahead of all of us.
I want to say that, even though there is a lot of work to be done, I think we’re headed in the right direction. Poetry is continuing to be a thing of beauty and change in the world; poets and poetry are becoming more relevant to the lives of readers. And I hope it stays this way even when we (hopefully one day) are not in a crisis moment. There are things poetry can do, and only poetry can do, for our brains and our hearts. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been fighting against the same shit my entire life but I do have an underground streak of optimism and I believe it’s possible for things to get better. And I believe words possess a magic power to make change, I really do.