Melissa Reeser Poulin

“I feel like I’m in a phase of creative darkness. Not darkness as in sadness or depression, but darkness like the wisdom of a new moon.”

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 Rupture, Light (Finishing Line Press, 2019) 

Gray Bennett and Danielle Petty: You blend your life as a writer with your life as a mother. What surprised you about this lifestyle, and why? Do you think that the commitments are mutually beneficial, and in what way? 

I do think that parenting and writing are mutually beneficial—and sometimes antagonistic, too. For me, being a mom requires a level of presence that is similar to writing poetry. Kids are really good at being in the present, and they also have many needs. They’re so vulnerable to us and dependent on us, as parents, for just about everything, from their sense of worth and value to their morning cereal and bedtime stories. Every day my kids ask me to step more fully into the present moment, and it’s in those moments—whether I’m parenting or doing anything else—where poetry has most often found me. I don’t always accept the invitation, of course, because I’m human and some days I want to hide from responsibility. Mothering is also an incredibly vulnerable experience. I didn’t know my heart had such a capacity to love until I had my children, and with that love I have felt a corresponding level of fear. I would do anything for my children, and if I lost them it’s hard to imagine how I would survive. The weight of that love can be crushing, so it has been and continues to be a lesson in loving unconditionally and letting go, moment by moment. It has made me more permeable to others’ emotions, and to the significance of our choices as human beings. I am much more socially, politically, and ecologically aware than I was before I became a mother, and more able to see these spheres as deeply interwoven and inextricable from our individual and collective health. All of the ways in which motherhood has expanded me as a person have naturally expanded my capacities as a writer.

And then of course, there’s a big part of motherhood that challenges writing: having the time and energy to write. Mothers especially face a great deal of pressure. There’s this unreasonable burden to respond as individuals to issues that are historical, systemic and oppressive, and that I believe we can only impact and change as  a community. Mothers are disproportionately expected to balance the bulk of caregiving, household, and emotional labor in their homes. This labor is uncompensated and mostly unacknowledged, though I do see signs of things starting to shift. There’s the problem of economics in the U.S., where childcare often costs more than what many women are able to bring home, given continued inequality in earning power between men and women dollar for dollar. So for many women in two-parent homes, myself included, we can’t “afford” to work when our children are small, and that can take a toll on emotional health and creative energy. When I think of the single mothers who manage to work, provide for their children, AND produce creative work, I am just in awe.

So this is all very real and present when I think about how writing has changed as I’ve become a mom. I try to practice lowering my expectations during these years before my kids are school-age, and looking at all of the factors that are impacting the time and energy I have available for writing. I think mothers who write can sometimes feel they are personally to blame, that they have failed in some way, when they struggle to write while raising very young children. I do what I can with what I have, and I trust that the poems will be there when I sit down to write, whether that’s 20 minutes tomorrow or a longer period of time, more frequently, further on down the road when my kids are older. I’ve heard from other writers who are mothers with older children that there will be a season when the writing life once again resembles the way it was before children. I’m trying to embrace what is, for now.

DP: You must have a very busy life. How do you balance writing, motherhood, and all the other things you do? What would you suggest for writers who struggle to balance writing with the rest of their lives?  

I’ve come to see balance as dynamic, in constant movement and flux. When I catch myself thinking or acting as if balance is a fixed point to achieve, some imaginary perfection, then I feel stressed and pulled out of the present moment. It seems so obvious, but it has taken me a long time to understand that it’s not possible to do everything I want to do, at the same time, all the time—and I no longer think of that as something desirable. Maybe it’s our consumer culture that pushes us to think we need to “maximize” our time and that whatever we do should be “productive.”

What does that all mean in more realistic terms? Right now I am beginning a three-year program in community acupuncture. So there is a lot changing in my family as we figure out how to take care of ourselves so I can get licensed and go to work when my kids are in school. “Balance” means letting the scale zoom out and in, if that makes sense. Looking at time in terms of minutes on some days, and in terms of years on other days. It means I can go weeks or months without sitting down to write. It means I sometimes feel disappointed in the level of attention I’m able to bring to my studies. It means our kitchen floor hasn’t had more than a hasty spot-clean in at least two months. It means my four-year-old sometimes watches back-to-back episodes of Daniel Tiger or ABC Monsters so my 2-year-old can have a nap and I can bang out an article for the parenting magazine I write for, so that I can earn money for acupuncture school tuition. Whew. I’m learning to live life messy, to “do it anyway,” in spite of the ideals I might have in my head for any of these spheres. I can enjoy slices of each ideal in turn—making a leaf bouquet with my kids in the fall, being able to immediately respond to a line of poetry popping into my head and draft a poem, having two hours of uninterrupted quiet at a clean desk to study channels and point locations—but I will never live a life of perfectly interlocking ideals. And what kind of human would I be if I could? Would I be able to relate and connect to other humans in the same way? None of us are perfect. My advice to other writers seeking balance is to seek imperfection instead. At the indie bookstore where I worked during college, one of the owners had this little cartoon taped to her computer. It featured a woman trying to knit, and holding up a sweater with three sleeves. The caption read, “An imperfect something is better than a perfect nothing.” That pretty much sums up where I’m at with balance these days.

DP: In a recent interview with Renee Long, you discussed your writing community. You suggest to new writers, “Find your community of writers. Find other writers who are writing the kind of stuff that you want to write and talk to them and learn from them and share with them what you’re writing.” In what ways did this help you when you started writing? Also, have you found any negatives to having a writing community?

Renee is a wonderful friend and a truly gifted teacher. She’s a great resource for new and experienced writers. I learn a lot just by reading her blog and watching her artist interviews. I’m fortunate to have met Renee here in Portland when I was just starting to put together a writing group. My oldest child was a year old, and I was ready to start returning to writing. The experience of carrying a child, giving birth, and figuring out how to parent was such a huge transition for me, in part because there was also miscarriage and the trauma of a car accident all in the same time span. I needed companions as I tried to learn how to write again. It really felt like starting over, for me, in many ways. I am still in awe of the way this group of women came together, and how our personalities and writing styles have complemented one other. I think that’s a rare thing, and it has been a gift. I’ve tried at other times in my life to join or start writing groups, but never really felt at home in quite this way. I can’t think of any negatives to having a writing community that is rooted in love, mutual respect, and a genuine desire to see each other grow and succeed.

It takes time to grow that community. These were women I knew from having published in magazines, from teaching English to speakers of other languages, from teaching creative writing at a high school summer camp, and from my MFA program. All of us can probably relate to that feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel like you’ve known them for a long time, people you can just launch into an easy conversation with. That’s what I mean when I say find your community of writers. It might or might not immediately be a cohesive group. It might be a friendship here, a work relationship there, but when you find someone you connect with through writing, trust that and nurture the friendship.

GB: How have you grown as a writer since the publication of Rupture, Light? What kind of work can your readers expect from you in the future?

This chapbook contains poems from as far back as 2011. I wanted to publish them, in part, because I felt like I wouldn’t be able to write new poems until I had done so. When I began writing again after my daughter was born, in 2015, I only wanted to write essays, and that’s mostly what I’ve written and published in the past few years. Rupture, Light was accepted for publication right after my son was born, in January 2018, and released in January 2019. I started writing a new series of poems on January 7 that year, on my birthday. It was a flood of poems that just started pouring out. I worked on it for about five months and then it stopped just as abruptly. It seems to be a series. I am still working with it, trying to just let the poems come and put them away again when they’re not flowing easily. I don’t feel attached to an outcome or even a need to publish them. 

The thing that seems to be growing in me right now is this question of, What do I really want to do with my writing? When do I feel most alive with poetry and sharing poetry? Where does publication come in, if at all? I don’t have a lot of answers yet, but I do know that I feel like I’m in a phase of creative darkness. Not darkness as in sadness or depression, but darkness like the wisdom of a new moon. Just trying to be in a receptive, hidden place where poems can come to me. I will say that these poems feel much more fragmented, associative, breath-oriented, and yet still narrative. They have a particular voice. I’m excited about them but it would also be okay if they end up just being for me, not something for publication.

Readers can expect to find more mischief and fun from me. I hope so, anyway! I’m looking for ways to share writing more freely, and to be in connection with other writers. I’m no longer on social media. I write a blog post every few months and send out an occasional newsletter, and that’s where I’d like to find some kind of writing exchange. I’ve started to leave my chapbook in little free libraries around town, and I want to find more surprising, joy-filled ways of sharing my poems with people. What good is a book if it just sits in a box in my closet? I feel like I need to add that I am privileged here in some ways, in that I have never depended on my creative work for a living. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs over the years. It’s different if you have managed to build an audience for your writing, and you rely on your work to live. I have great respect for that. It hasn’t been possible for me, and I feel like my writing shuts down when I place that expectation on it. So all of the goals and questions I mention here come from this perspective.

GB: In your blog post “First Book, First Reading,” you mention the task of finalizing cover art for Rupture, Light. What made you choose the earthy, abstract imagery for the cover?

What an amazing gift, to get to choose the cover art for my first book. Not every press does this and I am grateful for the way Finishing Line leaves so much creative authority in the hands of the writers they publish. I had a completely different concept for the cover at first, and my sister, who is a talented visual artist, actually drew up quite a few sketches for me, which was very generous of her. Ultimately, though, what I thought I wanted didn’t seem right after all. The painting “Glow Through the Trees” was painted by my friend Yared Nigussu, a Vancouver, BC-based artist I met in 2007, when I was living in St. Malo, France. I was past deadline for the cover art, and one day I was browsing through Yared’s portfolio and was captivated by the painting. He was gracious enough to grant permission to use the image on the book cover. I feel like it expresses this sense of light breaking through darkness, that ended up being at the core of Rupture, Light. The painting makes me feel like I am alone in a dense, dark forest, and yet there is a hint of light in the distance, at the edges. For me, that has been part of my experience as a person of faith moving through periods of loss and grief. How can faith be expressed even when God feels absent? How is the light of faith present in our darkest moments, even wrapped up in anguished questions like Why? or Where are you?

GB: How did you decide on the order of the poems in your book?  For other poets working on a poetry collection, what advice would you give them about the process of ordering?

My dear friends Caitlin and Jill, both poets, helped me order the poems. For me, this was essential and really eye-opening. I struggled to bring the poems together in a cohesive way, and I wonder if it’s even possible to do that, for a collection that wasn’t conceived as a whole. I understand that there are poets who work on that scale, for whom order is a part of the drafting process from the start. And maybe that will be the case for the series I am working on now. Because Rupture, Light collects poems from as far back as 2011, there were disjointed moments that I couldn’t quite “fit” into the order I originally constructed.

My friends pointed out poems that seemed weaker or that didn’t fit, and helped me find the narrative through-line in my strongest poems. I had initially assembled them virtually chronologically, because that was the way I saw my own story developing. They helped me see a different chronology, having to do with learning to persist in a place of unknowing. When I think about it, I see that’s true of the way poetry instructs me. Poems have come along at different times in my life to teach me the same handful of lessons. So my advice would be, once again, community—connection, respect, listening to different perspectives. Community is everything.

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Melissa Reeser Poulin’s poetry and essays explore creativity, faith, justice, parenting, and sustainability. Her work appears in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Coffee + Crumbs, Entropy Magazine, Hip Mama, Relief Journal, Ruminate, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, Water~Stone Review, and Writers Resist, among other publications. She is the author of the chapbook Rupture, Light and co-editor of Winged: New Writing on Bees. She is currently a student at POCA Tech, learning the art of acupuncture to be part of the movement to provide affordable and accessible acupuncture for all.

melissareeserpoulin.com

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