“As I was raising my toddler… I was being raised too – by people on my street, by old and new friends, by Arkansas, by a culture I felt both outside of yet influenced by.”
Animal Unfit (Belle Point Press, 2023)
Could you share a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
After he was scooped
out of me
like the most delicious red
of a watermelon
I wanted to flee
still splayed open
so that what was left
could slink out
onto the operating room floor.
I did not want to remain
a bowl for tragedy
pouring itself daily
into my son’s rooting mouth.
“Rind” first appeared in Feed Lit
Why did you choose this poem?
It appears early in the book and inspired the cover. It’s a good representation of the book’s main preoccupation: Can one avoid passing their errors onto their child?
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I was obsessed with understanding what it means to be an unfit mother and what it means to be raised by one. How does one make themselves a fit mother or friend or human (or human animal, which my son was learning is what we are).
I was interested in how grief and time rewrote my memories and perceptions of past relationships. Those shifting narratives created a lot of dissonance for me and I feared how my child would perceive me as he grew older. How would he remember me if I died young?
Becoming a mother made me want to forgive every misstep my parents had made, not so much out of genuine empathy and understanding, but out of a superstition that suggested that if I stopped judging them, my son wouldn’t grow up judging me.
I didn’t understand (I’m not sure I do now) how to carry all the truth and contradictions at once: People are flawed, forgive them. People have harmed, don’t excuse this. You are flawed, forgive yourself. You must do better, don’t become complacent.
I was also obsessed (and continue to be!) with my neighbors and with the general idea of “found” or “made” family. As I was raising my toddler at the time, I was being raised too – by people on my street, by old and new friends, by Arkansas, by a culture I felt both outside of yet influenced by.
I was surprised to see how little “raising” I was doing for my son, or rather, how much is done by family and friends. Our neighbors, friends, cousins, community are responsible for so much of his happiness and personality. I’ve been lucky (and I hope thoughtful) when it comes to who he’s surrounded by – which I believe may be my greatest duty as a parent. Perhaps more influential than anything I say to him is who I chose to include in our lives.
What’s the oldest poem in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The first poem is the oldest and was also my first poetry acceptance (“Outside, in the bright light” published by Pretty Owl Poetry). Every time I read that poem I am surprised I still enjoy it. Given enough time away, usually I find I don’t care for what I’ve written. I think “Outside, in the bright light” was the first time I wrote something honest.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
With immense help from poet Jessica Lohafer. She suggested the title after workshopping my poem “Summer Vacation” and reading the line “We’re not being hunted but we are animals unfit.” She helped me arrange the poems. She’s been my coach and mentor for years, and truly I wouldn’t have started publishing if it hadn’t been for her guidance and support.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“What You Need to Know” was written while my son and I were staying with a friend who had had a pretty rough fall. I began the poem one night while listening to my son and friend sleep. The poem is a kind of ode to the street I live on and perhaps a kind of prayer to what I most want to worship.
This poem is also meaningful because it was published by Iron Horse, who I had received previous rejections from. I’m a huge fan of the journal and their poetry editor, Geffrey Davis. So much of why I submit poems is simply the knowledge that editors I admire may read them (even if they ultimately reject them). When an acceptance comes from a writer I really respect, it’s all that much more meaningful.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The book ends with a sonnet crown titled “Describing the soul to my son.” I finished it after I finished the book and the publisher was kind enough to add it in, even though the contract had already been signed.
The book is preoccupied with grief and resilience and parenthood, and so of course is the crown. But the crown is written more directly to my son, to a child, and is a sort of grief manual – a summary of whatever wisdom I think I have gathered regarding loss.
It felt like a more hopeful ending. And it felt as though I had become a real “adult parent” by the end. “Look at me, giving advice to my child, instead of second guessing, instead of running to an elder for the answer.”
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?
I started writing the poems that appear in this chap at the end of 2019. Many poems were written outside while I watched my son play in the kiddie pool or with neighbor kids. Poems were edited while he slept or while I waited at school pick up – at least in the beginning. As he got older I was able to take online classes. The first from Hugo House taught by Gabrielle Bates, which inspired many poems in the chap. I also took “The Sonnet” taught by Gregory Crosby from Brooklyn Poets, which was also very generative. Throughout the process, I sent poems to Jessica Lohafer every other month or so. She helped me define my tastes and understand my instincts.
I am very lucky to have made poetry friends online who I regularly exchange work with. I’m included in some editing collectives and poetry chats. Community has played a large role in the chapbook, both in terms of content and in the writing process.
What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
Casie at Belle Point Press has been very patient and generous with me. I was worried we wouldn’t find a cover because it turned out I only knew what I didn’t like, but had no helpful ideas about what I wanted. Eventually I decide to smash a watermelon in the driveway, and Casie picked the best photo from that experiment. She made all the right choices about editing, font, layout, etc.
My friend and poet Skanda Prasad made astute suggestions about the inside layout that I passed on to Casie. I’m terrible with details, particularly when it comes to visual things, so this chap could only exist with the help of others. In no universe could I have done it alone.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
I am so proud of what publishing my book represents to me – commitment, selfhood, a kind of watered-down bravery – but whenever I remember that others may read it, I feel embarrassed. Creative writing is vulnerable and I’m humiliated to be perceived as a person who not only feels, but ruminates on those feelings (which is to say, a person at all?).
What I want is for someone to ask if I wrote the book in jest so I can say “Yes, absolutely!”
Unless of course they like it, in which case, obviously I’ve always been sincere.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to read more. I’m attempting prose.
What question would you like to ask the next author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What books do you return to when you feel uninspired or disillusioned?
Megan Nichols is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Animal Unfit (Belle Point Press, February 2023). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry reader for Variant Literature and River Mouth Review. She lives in the Arkansas Ozarks with her son.