Interview with Melissa Range

by J. Bailey Hutchinson

  Photo by Justin N. Lane

We often learn and teach that we should read poetry both on the page and out loud, noticing the differences between the personal, internal reading and the public, vocal one—and your work, I think, really earns that dual experience. I absolutely love reading your poems out loud. Do you think about your work as spoken pieces, or more as page pieces? Or is there no distinction?

For me there’s no distinction: when I’m writing poems I am interested in what they do both visually and aurally. They are “page pieces” in that I think you need to see them on the page to see everything they’re doing with respect to line breaks and form. But yes, they are spoken pieces, too, and I do speak them aloud as I’m drafting and revising. My hope is that my poems can be chewy and interesting on both levels. For example, the Birney poem is a ballad, and I would imagine that someone at a poetry reading might hear that first, but not be sure what it is, then look at it on the page and think, “Oh, OK, I see how that’s working.” Similarly, what fun is a ballad if it just exists on the page? Those things were meant to be spoken aloud (or sung!).

I was drawn to Lundy because of my personal connection to the landscape, and also my desire as a white southerner to think about the history of slavery and racism that’s embedded in that landscape...

In “Benjamin Lundy…” “James G. Birney…” and “John Greenleaf Whittier…” we hear from three abolitionists who were all alive when America was still a fairly new country. What drew you to these figures in particular?

For the past five years, I’ve been (very slowly!) working on a new collection of poems, a historical collection about the abolitionist movement. There are many forgotten figures from this movement (including many, many women and people of color, not just the three white dudes represented in these poems), and it’s like a treasure hunt to find these folks, to learn about them, and to see what might resonate from their stories, what might catch my imagination about their lives. I knew I wanted to write about Benjamin Lundy because he lived for a time in Greeneville, Tennessee—about half an hour from where I grew up. East Tennessee was home to a nascent abolitionist movement in the 1810s and early 1820s, and I think most people don’t know that. I surely didn’t learn that in school! So I was drawn to Lundy because of my personal connection to the landscape, and also my desire as a white southerner to think about the history of slavery and racism that’s embedded in that landscape, as well as to think about the Tennesseans (white and black, native Tennesseans and temporary Tennesseans) who were fighting against slavery early on. Plus, I just love his fiery newspaper editorials, which I highly recommend.

With Birney, I was inspired by something I read in The Philanthropist, an antislavery newspaper out of Kentucky that reported on James Birney speaking at an abolitionist rally in Granville, Ohio: “The address finished, Birney and his friends were egged off the ground.” I knew I had to use that phrase—it’s just too good, too nineteenth century, to pass up. (In fact, in nearly every poem I’ve been writing in this historical collection, I’ve been weaving in bits of text from nineteenth century sources, which is super challenging and fun. I want the sounds of these voices to be present in the poems.) And mob violence was a very real threat to abolitionists. I also didn’t want to sugarcoat James Birney, who was a slaveowner his entire life until he was converted to the abolitionist cause in his early 40s, so that’s mentioned in the poem too.

Whittier’s the figure I knew best before research; although he’s not a poet who’s really in fashion right now (which is too bad! Along with Elizabeth Margaret Chandler and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, he is an early model for all of us writing political poetry in this country now), I have a soft spot for him (and actually wrote a big paper on his abolitionist poetry during my PhD program). He gave the first forty-odd years of his life to the abolitionist cause, tirelessly editing journals and writing poems. He was really on the frontlines of the fight to end slavery until his poor health forced him to curtail his involvement in the movement. Whittier’s conflicted, always, because he’s a Quaker and a pacifist, yet he wants slavery to end so badly that (like many other pacifist abolitionists), he tries to justify supporting the Civil War as a means to end slavery. I liked imagining the mental gymnastics he’d have to do to enlarge his position.

So, three very different figures—Lundy the itinerant printer and consummate outsider no matter where he went; Birney the repentant slaveowner who gets caught up in a mob (a mob which perhaps 10 or 15 years before, he could’ve sympathized with); and Whittier the pacifist poet who wonders if he’d personally be willing to fight and die if it meant the end of slavery. These are all figures we can see in our own activism today: journeying organizers and journalists; people who have a paradigm shift and reject the reality they knew before for a cause that has convicted and changed them; and people who wonder how far they are willing to go for a cause they believe in. Social justice movements are made up of such a great variety of people, then and now.

My initial impulse, when I started writing these poems, was not to speak for any of these historical figures, since they all had their own voices...

In these historical poems, you’re writing about actual figures and events as both a first person speaker as well as a “less intimate” (to borrow your words!) third person, meaning we’re shifting between persona and historical poetry. Can you speak a bit about the decision to write both about and from the perspective of in these pieces?

Although Whittier is a first person persona poem—and I think the form of the poem, which is an echo poem, drew me to that “I” voice more than anything else—most of the poems in the manuscript I’m working on are in the third person. There are only a handful of first person poems that I’ve written. My initial impulse, when I started writing these poems, was not to speak for any of these historical figures, since they all had their own voices, and most of them wrote copiously—why should I write a first-person poem about these folks when their own narratives, poems, and editorials are often extant, if you do enough digging? That was part of my thinking. The second part was more of a formal challenge to myself. What would happen, I asked myself, if I tried resisting the lure of that seductive “I” voice? Yes, I could try to do a whole book of dramatic monologues, and that wonderful immediacy and intimacy would be guaranteed, bred into the “I” voice without me trying too hard. But what if I didn’t do that? What would happen if I tried writing a completely different kind of historical poem? What would I learn in the process, and what weird directions would I go in? What insights could I come to, as an outsider, that an “I” voice wouldn’t be able to attain? Those were some of the questions I asked myself when I started out. And thirdly, and obviously, I am also very cognizant about cultural appropriation and I don’t want to do that. I mean, the last thing I want to do in these poems about these people who did such great good, and whom I admire so much, is to cause damage or pain to someone reading them. Whether that means never writing a persona poem from a non-white point of view or not, for example, I’m not sure. That’s something I have to try to figure out from poem to poem. As I’m reading my nineteenth century sources, I’m also reading plenty of contemporary writers on the subject of race and writing (Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s The Racial Imaginary is an excellent book that I think every writer should read, for example; I’m surely glad I did.), so that I’m immersing myself in the conversation.

Of course, about three years into writing these third-person poems, some dramatic monologues did start cropping up, despite my early decision not to write them. (And the Whittier poem is one of these.) Maybe this happens to fiction writers all the time, who knows? I think poets are not expected to be interested in characters—perhaps we’re just expected to write from our own point of view all the time—but I am, for sure. You do a lot of research, you get to know a person’s voice from their own writings—the rhythms, the way they use language—and sometimes you just kind of “hear” them. For me, with the handful of dramatic monologues I’ve written for this manuscript, it was a case of that voice I was getting to know popping into my head and joining with my own ideas and me just deciding to go with it. I figure, it’s always better to let my imagination go where it will, and then, later, if I decide this is not a poem I like, or if I look back and think, “Yeah, this was a good exercise, but I don’t actually feel comfortable speaking from this point of view,” then I’ve learned something there. And the next poem I try, I can apply that lesson. It’s all trial and error and mess, anyway. So, we’ll see. I may go back to my initial impulse and make the whole book third person—it’s too soon to tell. In this, I have a great model in Amy Newman’s fantastic book On This Day in Poetry History—have y’all read that? It’s an entire collection of third-person poems about middle generation poets like Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Jarrell, Sexton, and Schwartz. It’s a tour de force and an inspiration, and it shows some fascinating (and even kooky) things that can be done in the third person voice.

The final lines of “Benjamin Lundy…” resonate so strongly with me; they remind me of something Adrienne Rich said in Defy the Space that Separates: “We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out of control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us kinship where all is represented as separation.” I’ve always found that call to the effective power of poetry—of the written word—to be heartening, and I’ve found it especially powerful in the past few years. Is something similar happening with Lundy in these lines?

…this green state
that may yet be won back from the cudgel,
the fetter, from this trade and barter
in human bones and sinews, if he can trust
in the price of paper, in print so miniscule
it embattles the eye to read it.

That’s super interesting! Yes, I do think something similar is happening with Lundy here. My inspiration for this ending was actually from reading some of Lundy’s editorial work. The phrase “trade and barter in human bones and sinews” is from Lundy, I believe from his newspaper called The Genius of Universal Emancipation, a title I just love. (But of course, did I write down which issue? Of course not. My professors in my PhD program taught me better, but of course when one is a flighty poet, some things fall through the cracks.)

[T]he last thing I want to do in these poems about these people who did such great good, and whom I admire so much, is to cause damage or pain to someone reading them.

The print in those 19th century newspapers is tiny. I’ve looked at hard copies in archives and digitized copies online, and I can tell you that they have worn my vision down. I’ll be wearing bifocals before my time, I’m sure. I liked imagining Lundy’s readers also squinting at his tiny, jammed-up columns of print (the tinier the print, the fewer sheets of paper needed to print the newspaper—and the price of paper was why so many underfunded abolitionists newspapers folded after only a few issues). But, of course, there’s also the many ways a slaveowner’s—or a northern pro-slavery sympathizer’s, or an apathetic bystander’s—eye might be “embattled” by reading prose that might convict them, sooner or later, of their sins.

Can you tell us about what you’ve been working on lately?

I’m sure I’ve already said more than enough about these-here abolitionists! They are what I’ve been working on and will be working on for a while to come. They are endlessly engrossing, not to mention some of the most important people who ever drew breath in our country, and I want to do them justice, so I’ll be taking my time and trying to get it right.

MELISSA RANGE's “Benjamin Lundy Publishes Volume 2, Issue 4 of The Genius of Universal Emancipation on Elihu Embree’s Old Printing Press, Greeneville, Tennessee, April 1822,” “James G. Birney, Editor of the Philanthropist, Is Faily Egged off the Ground after a Meeting of the Ohion Anti-Slavery Society, Granville, Ohio, 1836",” and “John Greenleaf Whittier Argues with Himself about the Uses of Force in the Abolitionist Cause, 1861can be read in the Spring 2018 issue. She is the author of Scriptorium, a winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series (Beacon, 2016), and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech, 2010). Originally from East Tennessee, she teaches creating writing and American literature at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

J. BAILEY HUTCHINSON is a poet from Memphis, Tennessee. She is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she is Poetry Editor for The Arkansas International literary magazine and on the Board of Directors for the Open Mouth Reading Series.