Poet Spotlight: Melissa Eleftherion on survival and how language reshapes our perception of the world

Melissa Eleftherion is a writer, librarian, and a visual artist. She is the author of field guide to autobiography (The Operating System, 2018), & seven chapbooks, including the recently released little ditch (above/ground press, 2018). Trauma Suture is forthcoming from above/ground in 2020. Her poems have appeared in many journals including Berkeley Poetry Review, and The Tiny. Born & raised in Brooklyn, Melissa now lives in Mendocino County where she manages the Ukiah Library, teaches creative writing, & curates the LOBA Reading Series. Recent work is available at www.apoetlibrarian.wordpress.com.

Please tell us about the genesis of your new chapbook, little ditch. What is the collection about and how did it come into being? 

little ditch is a chapbook about survival through sexual abuse, rape culture, & internalized misogyny. This is also a book about being sexualized as a young, non-binary person growing up in rape culture. About being a preteen on the verge of something shattering. About the fur.   

As I was completing my first book, Field Guide to Autobiography, I was visited by these urgent, dark spells or calls to action to write a way towards these poems. These poems felt caked in dirt, but very alive – I felt the need to dig deeper. Using various creative exercises like trance, tarot, & cut-ups, I tried to summon the hidden. There were times where I’d not be able to recall anything, other times I’d feel immersed in sense memory. All these gaps and leaks where trauma holds in the body. I later referred to these as “the ditch poems.”

Many of the poems in your collection explore the intersection between body and the natural and human-made world. What drew you to this imagery? 

Many of the poems in this collection are based on a type of mineral. The more I explored the language of minerals, the more I came to see the connections between that vocabulary and the oppressive vocabularies of patriarchy. Using found language from field guides, these poems tell a story of the nature of patriarchy; how we build upon & reinforce this hegemonic palimpsest. It also begins to explore how the sedimentary foundation of American rape culture is inherent in mineral structures of the Earth’s crust. This book is about trusting yourself enough to claw your way out.

Do you feel that writing and engaging with poetry is one of the ways a person can help find their way out of these structures? 

Yes. I think poetry allows us to reimagine and reshape how we perceive language, and the larger world. I’ve found this to be especially true of experimental poetry, which sometimes feel to me like a great puzzle, or an algebraic equation. Poetry = music + math. Wrestling with diction or meter can lead to creative solutions or enhance our understanding of the world of a poem, and that praxis forges new neural pathways in the brain that expand consciousness as we know it.

How did you get started as a writer and what keeps you writing? 

I started writing here & there when I was a very young kid; mostly I remember rewriting existing rhymes and parts of songs. Then, there was a long gap where I didn’t write again for years, after I caught my mother reading my diary. At 17, I became very depressed and self-destructive after a number of traumatic incidents. I reached for my notebook & began to write again. It was during this time that I rededicated myself to a writing life. Writing was a way out. A long longed-for catharsis. I wrote often & furiously in a series of marble notebooks for years, never sharing a word for fear the bubble might pop.

In my mid-20s, I mustered the courage to send my work out to journals, and got a few poems published. I continued this self-education by taking myself on artist dates to readings in the Bowery, and at the Poetry Project. Later, after I moved to San Francisco I started self-publishing chapbooks of my poems to sell at readings, and eventually got my first feature. I went on to study with Diane di Prima who encouraged me to continue.    

At its root, I suppose what keeps me writing is a fear of death. On a conscious level, I write to engage with language, and to cultivate a greater understanding of the world.

You mention that one of the things that keeps you writing is fear of death. How does writing help to stave off that fear? 

Writing portends the possibility that our documents, our records of living history, our poetry, our arts, our fictions, will live on after our deaths to tell our truths and our lies. This possibility allows us to hope that we will somehow leave a mark, or contribute to a lineage. Or, at least the chance that we have added something unique and meaningful to the conversation.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Yes, I do believe community is important for writers. Naturally, writing can be such a solitary activity which can breed loneliness or contempt. Having a support network can be critical. In terms of my writing practice, I’m still looking for a good support network. I do participate in several online writing groups which helps me stay connected. Locally, I serve as the Library Liaison for our Poet Laureate committee and help plan poetry events like our annual Haiku Festival. I also run a reading series at my library (LOBA).

One of the projects that you’ve worked on in your career is the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange. Can you talk a bit about the project and how it aims to help support the poetry community? 

The Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange is a community-curated archive I created and co-developed (with Elise Ficarra) for poets to convene, correspond, and collaborate via the currency of the poetry community: chapbooks. The model for the chapbook exchange was catalyzed by the need to invigorate poetry collections in public libraries and was expanded to include extant poetry communities. Our mission is to promote, maintain, & preserve online access to small-press and out-of-print chapbooks to foster readership of contemporary poetry, and support its availability and circulation for use as free & educational teaching resources. 

Began as a community-curated chapbook archive created in 2012, by poets recommending other poets using an each one-invite one model, the PCCE has grown into a more inclusive model, and features an annual fee-free open reading period. We are the vinyl LP to the literary journal’s poetry mixtape.

We’re actually open for submissions right now so I’ll include our guidelines below.

*All rights remain with the author upon publication. Poets whose work we have published have gone on to place their chaps with print presses. 

Visit https://poetrychapbooks.omeka.net/ to sample offerings.

Submission Guidelines:
Length: 10-40 pages
Currency: Original, new work (written within the last 5 years); and/or published work that’s fallen out of print.
Aesthetics: seeking a range of forms, approaches, hybrids.
*There is no reading fee!

As a librarian, what is a poetry book (or few) that you would like to guide readers to? 

As a librarian performing reader’s advisory, it really depends on the individual requesting the book recommendation. There are a set of “neutral” questions we ask to guide patrons in their search. Though, I am always happy to recommend poetry books I’ve enjoyed as well! Some poetry books I’ve read recently that I would recommend are Magical Negro by Morgan Parker, The Riot Grrl Thing by Sara Larsen, and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith. 

What can the world expect from you in the future? 

I’ll have another chapbook coming out with above/ground press in early 2020. trauma suture is a book of erasures and remixed poems that grapple with toxic masculinity and just being a woman trying to like, fucking live in the world without somebody trying to colonize your space or memory. 

I’m also working on a second book, which is a full-length version of little ditch, and deals with mineralogy and rape culture; trauma and rebellion; caves and capitalism. It’s tentatively titled happy birthday to my glamor adolescence.   


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