Laia Garcia interviews SCARECRONE author Melissa Broder
Melissa Broder is a poet. In Scarecrone, her latest collection, she writes poems about right now, modern life, not about phones and cars and computers but the way we feel. The things we tell ourselves to survive, the way we frame our experiences so that we may live with them. When you finish reading her poems, it is very likely that lines that you have just read will bounce around your brain, like lil’ ribbons attached at the bottom of a kite (and that’s how you know it’s real). She also has an amazing twitter account that you should follow because we all need little bursts of poetry in our daily lives. We talked over email about life, magick, and teenage girls.
Laia Garcia: Did you always know you want to be a writer or were there other times were you were seduced by other things?
Melissa Broder: I started writing poetry in third grade. My teacher Mrs. Hovey said I had talent. That kind of positive feedback felt good, because I was otherwise a bad student (spacey, always daydreaming, typical poet). So I kept writing. Also, the act of writing just felt good. As an anxious child who never felt comfortable in her own skin, writing poems offered relief—and poetry still functions that way for me. I fantasized that one day I would grow up to be a poet. At that time the only poetry I had read was Shel Silverstein. My first poems were rhyming poems.
Here is one of my first poems:
The Candy Shop
When I walked into a candy shop the first thing I saw was a lollipop
I think I’ll have some Lifesavers, or maybe a cookie with five different flavors
How about a peppermint stick, or maybe a chocolate Twix?
Cherry candy would be dandy
A chocolate sweet would really be a treat
[something something I don’t remember this part]
How about a cake with honey?
Oops I forgot I didn’t bring any money
Ah, I love this! There is something about it that seems unmistakably yours, even at a young age. Indulging in this fantasy and then real life hits and you’re just like “oh, oh well,” which is a feeling I get in a lot of your poems I think, and why I relate to them. The feeling of “ugh, the world” but instead of “woe is me,” it’s more of an… “ok it is what it is and move on” kind of reaction. More of a fighting feeling, not so much to belong but to exist in the world the way you are.
Yes, it’s a real struggle for me in reality. I think I’m just wired to want out—not in a suicidal way, necessarily, but in a shift-in-perception way. In a relief from self way. I’m always looking for secret vehicles and passageways out. Sometimes the vehicles are dangerous, or like I get hooked on the vehicle itself. I attribute the feeling of escape or pleasure to a particular vehicle, rather than the destination or something that already exists somewhere within myself, and kind of move into the backseat. I forget that there are other vehicles or life outside it. But poetry is one way of getting out of myself that has never hurt me. It can be slower than the other vehicles, but it is very powerful.
Yes, that makes perfect sense. I think in the end everyone is trying to find that vehicle. Sometimes I just want out of my brain, like how nice would it be to turn your brain off for a little while and exist in this sort of, white-out room bliss with nothing else invading your being? I am still looking for my vehicle though, or maybe I just need to take it for a tune-up. (I don’t drive and therefore I’m bad at car analogies). But anyways, I feel that when I read your poetry and I think it helps me escape also. I’m sure it helps a lot of people escape, I mean, that’s why we all read, right?
I recently moved to LA (Venice) and am deep in the car game. One of my favorite things is to drive around LA with the sunroof down and listen to rap. It gives me white-room bliss (you gotta learn the traffic patterns so you can get the open road, but it’s there). I mostly bike and walk everywhere in Venice, but once or twice a week I get out of my neighborhood and go driving and it’s the best.I’m really glad my work helps you (and maybe others) escape. I am all about escape.
I guess having said that, it’s obvious that you write for yourself. Does it ever surprise you when other people identify with your poems and are like “THIS IS MY BRAIN HOW DID YOU GET TO MY BRAIN”? Like the things that are truths to you are also truths to other people. Does it make you feel less alone in the world, like there is a gang of souls roaming around that you are a part of?
Like, I will fangirl out for a minute, because I think it’s important to show people appreciation but in “The Purpose of Ritual” when you say “What does it mean to be so sick/with want that you create rituals/which lead nowhere?” I don’t know what it means but I know what it’s like to ask myself that and also to create the rituals and it feels like something so private and then BOOM! I read that and I understood my feelings and I also felt somewhat validated. Anyways, that may be one of my favorite poems in the book I think.
Thank you for fangirling! That’s the cool thing about poetry. Your rational mind doesn’t have to know what it means. It’s something to be experienced. You can absolutely understand something from a very deep place inside yourself that your logical mind can’t touch. And that’s the place I try to write from. It has to feel true to me. But bones true, not brain-true. And yeah, it’s a blessing that people identify with my poems. That’s all I can say about it. I feel like it’s a great blessing. It’s a supreme gift to give that to an artist.
Have you been in touch with Mrs. Hovey since the third grade?
I’ve thanked Mrs. Hovey in all three of my books. And last year I tracked down her address and sent her a thank you card. She emailed back! I hadn’t spoken to her since I was eight, so that was cool.
Do you think your childhood fantasy of growing up to be a poet matches up with your life now?
It’s very hard for me to view anything that is happening to me as real. Like, when good things happen I either worry about losing them immediately or that I will never create something as good as that particular piece again or that ‘it’s over’ or ‘I’ve lost it’ or ‘this journal that I never imagined I’d be published in is now publishing me, so it must mean they’ve gone way downhill.’ Yet in spite of this self-torture, I try to be grateful, because it is super cool to have a dream and then to have the dream come true. Like, here is an example:
The first time I did a paid reading was at a University in Albany. The reading was to last for 30-40 minutes. But instead of being excited about being paid for my poetry in a university setting I was terrified of having a panic attack. I get panic attacks when I’m in situations where I feel like it would be ‘weird’ if I just left or took a break. And this was a long reading. And I felt like because they were paying me, I couldn’t just walk away from the podium or excuse myself to the ladies room if need be. And in worrying about the panic attack I absolutely gave myself a panic attack. With the second or third poem came shortness of breath, heart palpitations and dizziness. By the ninth poem I was like in full unreality. I managed to power through to the end and no one knew. Afterwards, I felt like I was tripping. I then had to brave a long dinner with my host, another poet and their friends and families, which was terrible, because I was still anxious and having trouble swallowing. But I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a window of the auditorium where the reading was being held. The snow was coming down outside and it was dark out. I saw my reflection for a second and kind of gave myself a nod and thought ‘You said you wanted to be a poet when you were a little girl, and look! You’re a poet!’
"Yet in spite of this self-torture, I try to be grateful" This is so true. It’s weird how those feelings can coincide even though they are seemingly opposite. Like you look in the mirror and think nothing is ever right, nothing is good enough and then there is the disembodied part where you look at yourself from the outside and say "but look where you are" and despite knowing that, the fear and all of the ugly feelings remain. Sometimes I wonder if those feelings are really the way to creativity, even if it sounds like, SO "tortured artist," because what kind of things would you create if everything you made and said was PERFECT! How could it ever go up from there? I like that you said "grateful," I think "grateful" is a good word to remember.
Oh hell yeah. You need the weave in order to make art. At least, I need it. The weave between darkness and light. The braid. Containing multitudes is a bitch, but it’s that bothness of life that creates the friction for me. I’m not good with emotional pain. I’m wired to reach for false lights to get out of the darkness. And then the lights go out and it’s darker than before. But poetry is healthier, because it’s a synthesis. It doesn’t try to stamp out the dark. Or I don’t when I write. Poetry’s got the light and the dark. It’s sustainable.
I was reading your essays about writing for HuffPo and “Scarecrone” made me think of the piece you wrote "The Poet is a Scarecrow" where you quote the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “You need only be a scarecrow for poems to land on.” Do you feel like the poems exist somewhere within you fully formed and you just have to extract them or it more like the idea is there and through words you have to build it a path to come out of you…
Any poem that knows where it is going to end up is probably not a great poem—at least in my experience of writing poems. There has to be an element of magick. It’s just up to me to get my conscious mind out of the way, to channel, to let the the music and my guts do their thing. So I definitely don’t go into poems with an idea. I can’t go in from the head. I go in with a line that I feel, that comes from a dream state or a meditation. Or I take a pile of nouns that aren’t my own, and juxtapose them, and see which story feels true. But true on a bones level, not logically. I feel my way in. I let alchemy do its thing.
So yes, I think my strongest poems are fully formed within me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need chiseling. I’d say I birth the poem from the guts and heart, but then I use my head to edit it.
I like that you said “magick” because sometimes I think poems are like spells, and how do you write a spell?! It’s all so mysterious. Do you set time to write every day? Are there ever poems that feel like they are being more difficult or us that not something that ever comes up?
I try to read poems and write poems every day. But again it’s usually off the cuff—I’m not sitting down at my typewriter with my cats and a shotgun. I don’t think about difficulty when I’m writing, so much as feeling truth. Like I ask, does this feel true? And I don’t mean true in a ‘did this happen’ sense but in a ‘deep in the bones’ sense.
What are you currently reading? Is there a poem written by someone else that you find yourself going back to for inspiration or strength or pleasure or whatever?
I am lucky enough to have received an advanced copy of Dorothea Lasky’s Rome, which comes out in September. #blessed
So many poems. Here is one I love.
Do you write in journals or on a computer/typewriter now? Does it make a difference?
Usually now I write poems on my iPhone in Simplenote. I like the informality of writing on an iPhone, often when walking. It gives me more space for play, rather than sitting down at a desk and writing Poetry with a capital P. That’s way too much pressure.
Are your tweets linked with your writing process or are they completely separate? Like do you think of something and open twitter and do it or do you extract things from your writing and then tweet them…
My tweets are their own entity. I tweet from my brain. I tweet from my ego. I try to be clever, crafty, calculated. I don’t want any of that stuff to touch my poetry. Which isn’t to say that tweeting isn’t an art form. I love it very dearly. And occasionally there is some overlap. I think maybe three or four years ago there used to me more. But as time goes on, the place I write poetry from is very different.
"Hi Humanity" is another one of my favorites in Scarecrone, and although it has nothing to do with the internet, it seems like a poem of now that couldn’t have been written in any other time and it feels like it’s maybe a secret code of communication for all the Tumblr girls that will reblog and add “THIS.” at the end because nothing else needs to be said. You’ve contributed to the Illuminati Girl Gang zine, have you explored the tumblr universe adjacent to that world beyond that? Are you a “Girl at Night on the Internet”?
I am so a girl at night on the internet. And all the time. But especially at night. I have a few twitter accounts but I don’t like to tweet from my primary account until after 7 PM PT. If I start before that, I will be on it all day. It’s like people who try not to have their first drink before 5 PM. So yeah, I don’t start tweeting on there till 10 PM ET when all of the East Coast nerds are in bed, hehe. I have a lot of other ‘rules’ when it comes to twitter that I often break.
I have a Tumblr that I mostly use to collect images that resonate or that I use for ekphrasis. I love teen girls and am a teen girl. I think a lot of people are.
What were you like in high school? What sort of things did you have up on your teenage bedroom walls?
Emotionally, I was a lot like I was as a child and lot like I am now: anxious, not totally comfortable living in a body or on the planet, escapist, prone to fantasy. I sought refuge in cigarettes, an eating disorder and poetry. I fetishized the hippie culture of the late 60s and felt aligned with bands like Pink Floyd, who seemed to be asking what I was wondering, which is, does anyone know what’s really going on here? I asked people if they knew ‘the truth’. In college I got very into psychedelics. For a while I thought I was Jim Morrison reincarnated. I wore bellbottom jeans and orange platform sneakers and gained 40 pounds. I was deep into astrology (I’m a Virgo with a Scorpio Moon and Sagittarius Rising). I came from a pretty sheltered, privileged, non-religious Jewish upbringing and fell in love with a boy who came from the same kind of background. We drove across the country to Angelfire, New Mexico and took Peyote in a teepee. I had all of the bad headshop art: the ‘Dead at 21’ poster with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain together in heaven; the Pink Floyd naked ladies with the album covers painted on their backs. It was black light wonderland.
Wow! The naked Pink Floyd ladies! All the dudes in my freshman year of college had that up on their wall, that’s so amazing. Are you still wondering if “anyone knows what’s really going on here” or have you moved on to other questions? I’ve found that my main interest as of late is “what is real life?” but I still haven’t figured it out.
I don’t practice any one religion, or maintain any strict religious beliefs, in a hard and fast way. I see many aspects of many religions as symbolically useful, archetypically useful, often beautiful. Most of them seem to be pointing at the same stuff, which is ineffable. I do have a god, but I can’t say what it is. And my relationship with it keeps changing, like all relationships change and evolve. Also, I have a morning meditation practice, but it’s not drawn from any one tradition. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just the act of doing it every day—of taking the ten minutes to be still before I touch any technology or let the world into my brain or let my brain into the world. A lot of times my brain doesn’t shut up until the last minute of the meditation. Like, a lot of times I’m meditating on how fucked I am. But if I skip the practice, my day is inevitably worse. This isn’t a woo woo or mystic thing. It’s me who makes the day worse, not some deity in heaven. Meditation gives me like 3% more chance of pausing before acting. And maybe like 4% more space in my mind. But that’s everything.
Did you also know there is a “Scarecrone” Magic, the Gathering card? (I’m sure you do). I think the card is a poem.
That Magick the Gathering card is cool. I didn’t know it existed until after Scarecrone was on its way to the publisher. But physically she totally embodies the fear at the heart of the book.
Laia Garcia is a freelance writer and stylist. She knows it’s a strange combination.