Lynn Melnick is the author of Landscape with Sex and Violence (YesYes Books, 2017). She is a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Lynn Melnick about her second book, Landscape with Sex and Violence, and the importance of anger in making poems and understanding a world so deeply entrenched in rape culture.
TL: If someone asks me, “What does this book mean to you, after having read it”—for one thing, it makes me care about the world with the empathy of rage, which is beautiful. A lot of it too is speaking from this singular experience of a singular body, whoever’s body that might be. How did you find yourself writing these poems?
LM: When I finished my first book, I felt sort of freed up to write whatever I wanted because I had been so nervous to publish a book. I was thirty-nine when my first book came out, and you know, the sky didn’t fall after the first book, so I thought, “I’m just going to write all the things I meant to write in the first book.” I love my first book, but with my second book, I did all this stuff that I really had wanted to do in the first book but was too scared. So, that’s what was behind my wanting to write it, and the whole time while I was writing it. Also, publishing seemed so far away at that point because I had just published another book, so I was like, “Whatever, I can write whatever I want, no one’s gonna read it.” And then of course, years go quickly and people are reading it and I’m like, “Holy shit!”
What I wanted to do is tell a focused, almost relentless story about what patriarchy and rape culture, as you say, did to one body. So every poem in the book is about that. It’s not a hodgepodge of subject. Which may be a little much, I don’t know.
TL: I think it works really well, and is tied together really well with the “Landscape” poems. And it seems like the landscape is this thing that infiltrates so completely as to be unnoticed, which seems like a metaphor for everything you’re talking about too.
LM: Well, I think it’s sometimes hard to separate the memory of one’s body from the physical places the memories take place. I do feel like rape culture infiltrates everything, so you’re not just in a parking lot—you’re in a parking lot where rape culture is happening. To me, it’s hard to separate mostly California landscapes from my own trauma. And for some reason I had to write about it that way, because it had become in my memory so large. It’s almost like my memory is a photograph, so I’m remembering scenes. I have a poem that takes place on a Greyhound bus and for me that’s just a snapshot of like, “Ok, here’s this landscape, we’re going through the desert on this bus,” and all the poems in the book have that to them. I’m also hoping to play on this idea of the California Dream, the myth of California. It isn’t always as beautiful as sometimes people think it is.
TL: One of the things I’m thinking about too in this book are secrets, for lack of a better word—the things that we choose not to say, and then to say them. I guess the big question is, How do you choose what you’re saying?
LM: You know, I don’t think I do. It’s so corny, but I think it chooses me. I think, probably, people would be surprised I’m a pretty private person, which is sort of at odds with the kind of work that I do and how blabby I am on social media. (You could ask my husband, who has to live with me.) I’m very guarded, and I don’t really like talking about myself or my feelings. So in terms of secrets, I actually feel better when I’m keeping secrets, just because I feel safer. And not secrets like deep, dark secrets even, just really random shit, like, “I bought new shoes.” As far as the book went, I knew I was gonna have to let some stuff out, but it mostly just flowed from me, from the landscape. I would think about an image and what happened in a particular scene, and then it would just come out. There are things in the book I’ve never actually spoken about out loud to anyone, and I don’t plan to, but they’re in the book. Obviously I have control over it, but I didn’t want to sacrifice the poem for my own hesitance about sharing. Also, it’s a poem, you know. It’s not a memoir. So you can hide behind that a little bit.
TL: In “Poem at the End of a News Cycle,” there’s that one line: “tonight I’m wondering if it’s time to tell everyone.” Was the timeliness of these poems specific for you, or you just needed to write them?
LM: Did I choose to sit down and say, “Today I’m going to write X, Y, and Z poem?” No. For a long time I was just incapable of writing any other poem. I knew that all these poems were gonna go in this book, and then one day I was just done (and then I still needed to write one or two more and was like, “I’m tired of this!”). And well, this year I have a fellowship so I have an abundance of time to write, but in my normal life, I have very little time to write for myself, so I schedule it into my to-do list, which is such a dorky thing to do. I actually write “Poems” on my to-do list, and every week I make sure I write a poem. When I was writing this book, over the course of the week—I feel like I write a lot in my body, like I’m just coming up with these feelings and lines and images in my body as much as my head over the week, and then when I sit down to write, it all comes out. It’s usually just one specific scene that I want to say something about, and that’s mostly how it happened. A lot of it comes from anger too. Especially when I started “Poem at the End of a News Cycle,” which does have that line, “I am just going to tell everyone // everything / that’s ever been done to my face.” And that’s exactly how I felt. I was angry about the profiteering off of play-acting as sex workers—pole dancing classes and things like that. There’s a cache to being a fake sex worker, but being an actual one, you really are very marginalized. I was just angry about that kind of thing, and so I started writing this poem, and didn’t realize it was going to be as long as it was. But weirdly, I wrote it years ago. It was also spurred on by that shooting at the Kansas City Jewish Center several years ago, but it could’ve been written yesterday.
TL: It’s interesting. Anger is always sort of timeless that way.
LM: Oh yeah. Like, almost everything I write is spurred on by anger. I’m just a very angry person! And I feel like I have every right to be because I have been mistreated. I’m angry on behalf of myself, and I’m angry on behalf of others who have been mistreated by patriarchy. I’m just kind of a pissed off lady. But it’s not like I walk around angry all the time. It just comes out in the poems.
TL: Yeah! Like I was saying before, that empathy of rage, that’s my whole through-line for reading this book. The idea that rage can lead you into this productive space, or just understanding.
LM: Yeah, I was just saying that to someone. I don’t know if you saw, my book was sort of put in smut-jail by Amazon. It’s out now, but it was hidden for being adult content, and I’m so mad, I wrote this essay. I was looking up men’s, pretty much pornographic, literature that has not been smut-jailed on Amazon, and has been praised by this fancy place and that fancy place. So I tend to write best when I’m angry.
And I always tell myself, which is probably foolish, but I always tell myself that I don’t have to publish it. I mean, no one’s making me publish anything. It’s not like anyone’s making money off my poems, and I’m not going for a tenure-track job here, so I don’t have to publish my poems if I don’t want to. I love the act of writing. I find it enormously pleasurable, but I don’t like publishing as much because it’s, well, less pleasurable. I tell myself it doesn’t have to count if I don’t want it to. Although it usually does. And that’s part of the rage too—I feel like people need to read this shit.
TL: Right. So who are your influences then, for poems or just being angry in art?
LM: One that I say the most is Diane Wakoski, because she was the first contemporary woman poet I came across as a teenager, and she’s angry, really angry. If I hadn’t come across her, who knows what would’ve happened. Her work was very important to me in terms of anger. Anne Sexton, who is also kind of angry. I have very complicated and mixed feelings about Allen Ginsberg, but he was an early influence, just in style and the way he goes from thing to thing. I’ve recently realized that Twin Peaks was a very big influence, and David Lynch in general. One reason is that it was a very formative viewing experience for me, but also because it writes trauma so well. The sort of surrealness of it, and the everpresent-ness, and the confusion of it. Very few things, I think, get to that. It’s hard to get to it in a straightforward way, and he really does in Twin Peaks. Early on (and still!) I loved Alice Walker. I’ve been re-reading Ntozake Shange; I don’t know why I put her down.
TL: Well, thinking again of the unknown or secrets, some of the poems have a subversion of the public eye or expectation by this personal interruption. In “Some Ideas for Existing in Public,” the speaker is making this address and then in the parentheses is that sort of personal anecdote.
LM: I think that’s me attempting to connect the past and the present. I do that a few places in the book, where I’m just trying to note, “same as it ever was.” And a few poems in the book, I’m talking to the reader as if they’re an asshole, but it’s not every reader. It’s just trying to implicate us all really in rape culture, because we all participate in it. We all participate in patriarchy in various ways. Mostly the “you” I’m angry at though is a male “you,” and, based on the creepy responses I got from readers of my first book (which was pretty tame, in comparison to the second one), a sort of anger at these lecherous men who would be reading this one too.
TL: And it seems like that clear-eyed representation of trauma, the past and present coming together.
LM: Yeah, most of it is in the past. The book seems more present than ever just because of our current political climate, but it’s just always been the same shit. Hopefully it won’t always be, but I’m not feeling especially optimistic right now.
TL: One of these poems that’s always been with me in this book—well, since I saw you read it, like, three years ago—is “One Sentence About Los Angeles.”
LM: That was the last one I wrote, and so it’s the last in the book. I was just like, “I’m just gonna wrap this up, I’m tired of writing these poems.” That one to me seems weary and angry at the same time. I mean, I was feeling weary, and thinking of my imagined reader, thinking, “You know, you’re never gonna get what you want from this,” from the book. “[Y]ou are probably waiting for confession / because you think that’s what I’ve been doing here all along,” and all that. It’s never gonna be what you think. “You’re never gonna get me. You don’t get all of me,” is what I’m trying to say there. “We’re wrapping this up now.” So that was my version of a happily ever after.
TL: It works beautifully. It’s a staunchly singular perspective, and it claims itself as itself.
Well, thanks for taking time out to talk with little ole me. It’s been really nice to speak to someone else so angry in poems!
LM: I’m a big fan of anger! There’s a journalist named Soraya Chemaly, and she’s working on a book about female rage specifically, and I’m really looking forward to what she has to say. I feel like the way that we talk about anger and rage is really one-note. We tend to talk about a certain kind of toxic male rage, and that’s it, in terms of what captures the media’s imagination. I feel like we should focus on other forms of male rage, and female rage. It’s important and necessary.
I don’t know if it’s inflammatory to say we should all be angry. But we should be.
Tim Lynch has published poems most recently with Yes Poetry, Luna Luna, tenderness, yea, & Occulum. He has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He would be delighted to meet you on Twitter & Instagram @timlynchthatsit.