On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South
Poet Melissa Range talks to Stephen Burt
Melissa Range is the author, most recently, of Scriptorium, a collection that combines Appalachian colloquialisms with reanimated Old English to explore questions of religious and linguistic authority. In the words of Tracy K. Smith, who selected it as the winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, Range’s “most sacred text—the one inspiring the most rapt devotion—is the very vernacular we live, love, grieve, fumble, and forgive in.” As she explains in a statement on the collection, Range is “interested in speaking about environmental injustice and poverty in outsider Appalachia,” as well “in interrogating the ways religious doctrine, art, and language can silence people.” In conversation with Stephen Burt, professor of English at Harvard University, she discusses using poetry to address doubt, her love of rhyme, and America’s sudden fascination with rural identities.
Stephen Burt: The book has two sequences: sonnets about medieval pigments and stanzaic poems about Southern speechways. Which came first? Did you know that either, or both, would be a sequence when you wrote the first one?
Melissa Range: The sonnets came first—I began them in 2008 when I was on a residency at the wonderful Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I had been reading books about illuminated manuscripts for probably a year before I undertook this residency. I had a job as a cataloger at a theology library, and books about illuminated manuscripts started showing up on my cart. I had always been interested in them, especially Anglo-Saxon insular manuscripts, and the more I learned about how they were made the more I wanted to write about them. I was hoping they’d be a sequence, because I knew there were a lot of pigments I wanted to write about. But I didn’t go in with a big plan. If I had, I might’ve tried a crown of sonnets (which I am working on now—damn it’s hard, and requires so, so much planning). I just wrote one, then another one, then took a break and tried not to worry about it. Over the course of quite a few years, the sequence took its shape.
I did think of sonnets as the first form for this sequence, for several reasons. First, I just love them. They’re my favorite received form to write in. I love the challenge of such a short poem with a tight rhyme scheme, and I love the problem-resolution structure and the turn (I love a good sharp swerve in a poem). I knew I wanted to write not only about pigments but also about my own turn from Christianity to agnosticism that had happened a few years before. I thought of the sonnets of poets I loved who had also wrestled with faith and doubt: Herbert, Hopkins, Mark Jarman, Geoffrey Hill. So it seemed the right form. I wrote “Verdigris” first, which is about my grief at being unable to believe something I once did.
The southern slang poems have been a long time coming. I think you see hints of it in some of the poems in Horse and Rider. I had less of a sense of them as being a sequence, though it did turn out that way. I’d been wanting to write more in my vernacular for a long time (and I do have a back-burner project, a long poem which is really, really twangy and slangy—we’ll see if I ever finish it; it’s kind of a train wreck right now). I actually had more than one well-meaning elder poet discourage me from doing so. One called the southern poems “corn pone” and another called my use of dialect “insulting.” Another cautioned me not to write these kind of poems because I would get branded a “regional” (and therefore lesser?) poet. A couple of things pushed me to write these poems in the end. First, the death of my maternal grandmother in 2007, who used the phrase “flat as a flitter” (among many other great Appalachian phrases) with aplomb, whose language I wanted to preserve; second, going back into the academy to get my PhD after a long time away, and discovering all over again how my accent and my ways of speaking might sometimes prompt mockery or incredulity (as if no working class rural people ever were part of the academy, or as if all people with southern accents are stupid?). You get sick of that after awhile, and get mad, and as I think you can see from my work, I write a lot when I’m mad!
SB: You’ve studied Christian theology with some seriousness; did your scholarship help you with these poems? how?
MR: I’m not sure I studied theology with seriousness, but I did study it. I have a master’s of theological studies from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and this definitely influenced both this book and Horse and Rider (I was finishing Horse and Rider and starting Scriptorium at the same time, and themes overlap; some poems also moved back and forth between manuscripts). I took a course on mystical theology, which influenced all of the theology poems in the book (and quite a few other poems I wrote but which didn’t make it to the book). I took Hebrew the whole time and wrote a bunch of poems about that which, alas, also didn’t make it into the book. But they share concerns with the poems I’d write later about Old English, southern slang, and other vernaculars—the big question is, how can we use language to talk about God?
More practically, my stint in theology school precipitated my crisis (that’s probably too strong of a word—“petering out,” maybe?) of faith. I’m a total cliché in this regard. So I guess you could say that I owe the whole book to going to theology school.
SB: Most contemporary American poets who publish books don’t use much rhyme or meter: for you, both are often essential. Can you talk about what they do for you? Who are your peers or contemporary models in your generation (more or less) in the use of these pre-modern tools? (A. E. Stallings?)
MR: I suppose I like rhyme for the same reason I like sonnets: it’s fun. So much of poetry, for me, even when writing about serious subjects, is a play with language. I’m a poet who starts with sounds—many of my poems begin not with an image or a phrase but with a thought along the lines of, “These words sound good together.” Then the idea proceeds from there. I love the playfulness and the surprise of rhyme—you proceed with sounds and see where they might lead you. (Although I do often write in meter, I am not a strict metricist and never have been—I think of myself as a ragged metricist, happy to switch things up as they suit me.) I am influenced less by contemporary rhymers and more by favorite poets from the past. Dickinson, Hopkins, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks—they all use rhyme in such playful ways. And I love the more melodic and even the more predictable rhymers from the 19th century, too: Whittier, Longfellow, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler. And I better not forget Phillip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop, while I’m at it—great rhymers, both. I love the ways that rhyme can punctuate a poem, and I love the relationships between rhyming words that happens in a rhyme (that is A.E. Stallings’s idea, from her fantastic “Presto Manifesto”).
In the generation above mine, my favorite rhymers are Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mark Jarman, Andrew Hudgins, Marilyn Nelson. Natasha Trethewey doesn’t always use rhyme or write in form, but the way she does it in Native Guard in particular has had a big impact on me. I love A.E. Stallings, and as for other contemporary poets in my generation using rhyme and form, I am a big fan of Erica Dawson, Randall Mann, Joshua Mehigan, Jehanne Dubrow, and John Murillo. I love the way Ida Stewart and Hastings Hensel and Katy Didden (though not necessarily writing in form) use sound, too—there’s a lot of rhyming and chiming within the lines.
SB: There’s been a lot of attention lately to rural identity. What do you want readers from other backgrounds to know about your “mountain home,” your “stiff-necked mountain town”?
MR: This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.
I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.
I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.
SB: “Negative Theology” is a ghazal, ending with “nothing”; “Pigs (See Swine)” uses monorhyme; there are sonnets. . . Does each form feel very unlike all the rest? When you start a poem, do you know what form you’re going to use?
MR: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. Usually, I don’t. If I’m mad or curious or obsessed about how something works, I will often try a villanelle, which I think is a great form for all of these things. If I have way too much to say, I will probably start in free verse, maybe try a sestina if I sense my words are getting really repetitive (but sestinas are rough for me; I don’t normally gravitate to them). I might also try a triolet if I have way too much to say, because it will force me to try to say it in eight lines and rhyme twice and repeat a refrain. The restraint is good. Sometimes I’ll set out to try different forms because I’m curious about them, poetically and historically. So, for example, right now I’m interested in ballads because I’m reading (and teaching) a lot of 19th-century poetry, and I’m also writing poems about the 19th century. It makes sense to me to use a form that so many poets from that time period used themselves. What I do really does depend on the poem—sometimes I go into it with a plan, and sometimes not. I would really like to write a rondeau someday—but I figure that if that ever happens, it will not be an accident.
SB: Where else can we read about the ofermod, “over-proud” spirit you praise, and tease, in “Ofermod”?
MR: I think mostly what I’m doing is critiquing it, actually! At least that was my feeling when I wrote the poem. Or having a love-hate relationship with this infernal pride that seems to have been born in the blood, although of course it was taught.
The place ofermod comes from, of course, is Old English poetry, and after “The Battle of Maldon,” which “Ofermod” is based on, I’d say, look at Beowulf and Genesis A. I’d also recommend some other Appalachian poets (because I’m construing “ofermod” as an Appalachian ethos in this poem—of course it is more than that) who think through this sense of grim, resigned, destructive, yet almost irresistible pride in their work: Maurice Manning, Ida Stewart, and Rita Mae Reese. And Memphis-born poet Heather Dobbins has a great flatlands, Mississippi River approach to this theme. It feels very much rooted in class, at least to me, so I don’t think it’s just an Appalachian or a southern thing. I would reckon that many working class poets have reserves of ofermod. The idea is that you don’t have much, but by God, you won’t ask anyone to give you anything, and you’ll be damned if you’ll let anyone put you down even if you are down. “Prideful,” my partner calls it, and I guess that’s right.
SB: Your sonnets use elaborate, bejeweled language; your other new poems, often only demotic terms. Can you talk about that contrast? Do you see them as serving different emotional purposes, or amounting to two different aesthetics?
MR: I definitely don’t see them amounting to two different aesthetics or as serving different emotional purposes. I think words and word origins are so interesting, and I don’t value one kind of language above another kind. I think it’s so fun to rediscover some archaic word and throw it back into a contemporary poem, and for me it’s also very important to preserve the vernacular of where I grew up in East Tennessee. (I love vernacular in all of its forms—slang, accents, all of it—and one of my favorite things is traveling and hearing local slang phrases folks use in other parts of the country.) I don’t mix the two kinds of language much in the poems in Scriptorium, but I do sometimes mix them in other poems I’m working on (particularly in this aforementioned backburner project).
SB: “Biblia Pauperum,” which is my favorite poem in the new book (and tied for favorite Melissa Range poem overall), is a beautiful monument of soundplay but also a poem of righteous anger about economic injustice. Can you talk about the role of justice, and of economic justice in particular, in your view of the world, and in your approach to art?
MR: My class background and the poverty I saw all around me growing up definitely formed who I am, as did working with refugees in Atlanta in the early 2000s, as did struggling economically myself my entire adult life until I got my first teaching job two years ago. My Marxist version of Christianity did the rest, I guess. (I call myself an agnostic now, but I still believe in a Christianity of radical social justice, of a dismantled class system, and all of that being wrapped up somehow in radical love of one’s neighbor as one’s self—I believe in all of that with my whole heart; I just can’t believe in God, though I would like it if I could.) The people who inspire me the most are activists who fight for social justice—that’s why I’m writing about the abolitionist movement right now, I suppose. In Horse and Rider, I was thinking about violence and war, but also about environmental destruction. In Scriptorium, I’m thinking about poverty, definitely, but also about injustices done at the level of language. All of these things are bound up together. As for the role of justice in my own work—I still do believe in the idea of the “beloved community” despite all evidence that tells me I should not. I want to believe that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but [that] it bends toward justice.” I think poetry has a stake in bringing this about. At least, I feel that as a poet, it is my job to try, to do my small part.
SB: “Sometimes/ you can hit hit”: that’s a joke, in a serious poem. Can you talk about humor, or lightness, or light puns? Do you collect them, or seek them out?
MR: All of my friends will tell you I’m a joker, always wisecracking and punning. I just can’t help myself; it’s my way, I guess, to see the humor in most situations. I wouldn’t say I collect or seek out humor, lightness, or light puns, but I like them (again, thinking about Dickinson and Dunbar here as two 19th-century poets I love who are not afraid to be funny in some poems and deadly serious in others—and sometimes to be both at once; I love Langston Hughes for this, too). Rhyme’s inherent playfulness also leads me to some of these humorous moments in my poems, I think.
SB: You write about the South, adapting Faulkner, “I’m damned if I don’t hate it, and damned if I do.” How has living in Wisconsin changed your view of the South from which you came?
MR: I’m not sure it has yet—I didn’t write any of these southern poems in Wisconsin (in fact, I wrote them in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Missouri, so all over, geographically). The poems I’m writing now (historical poems about the abolitionist movement), while offering a critique of 19th-century southern slave culture (as well as the flaws and the good points of northern activist movements), aren’t offering any kind of critique of the south that I hadn’t thought of, and expressed, when I lived there. I’ve always had a frustrated relationship with where I’m from, the good things about it mixing freely with the bad—like everyplace on earth, I might add, not just the south. That line, “damned if I don’t hate it and damned if I do” also (and probably moreso) refers to how the place I’m from is perceived. The south (which is an awfully big and diverse place with an awful lot of different kinds of cultures, viewpoints, and geographies—as I’ve said, I can’t and don’t want to speak for all of it or even for my tiny Appalachian part of it) is often—I’ve noticed as a southerner traveling around—the scapegoat for the rest of the country’s racism. This poem definitely comes out of this feeling, but again, it’s not a new feeling for me. I will also say that this poem is influenced mightily by Natasha Trethewey’s wonderful poem “Pastoral”—speaking of a southern poet who has a fraught relationship with her homeland.
SB: In “Shell White,” which I think is a sonnet about the loss of (a certain kind of) Christian faith, you label yourself “your thankless monk.” Do you see yourself in the monks and scribes of this book? How often (I think it’s often) do your poems contain figures for you?
MR: When I was a young poet, I read Marianne Moore’s poem “A Grave,” and it had a profound effect on me as a writer. The poem begins, “Man looking into the sea, / taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to it yourself, / it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, / but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” This poem made me wonder what would happen if I tried to write poems where the “I” isn’t always standing in the middle of the poem, and sometimes simply isn’t present, isn’t filtering everything through itself. So over the past twenty years, I have been experimenting with this. I didn’t give up “I” completely, but I don’t write that many personal poems. The dramatic monologue figures I sometimes work with aren’t all stand-ins for me, necessarily, but I do feel a kinship with the monks in Scriptorium, who after all were trying to figure out God, and to make something beautiful, with the materials they had. They put God at the center of their work, not themselves, although I’m sure who they were worked itself into their artwork. So I suppose I’m the same way. I’m not interested in laying bare every part of myself on the page, because there are more interesting things in the world to think about, more important things. So no, every dramatic monologue character doesn’t automatically equal me (I really do like imagining characters) but sure, I’m in there somewhere.