melissa christine goodrum’s poetry can be found in journals and anthologies including Urgent Bards, The Torch, Transmission, Rhapsoidia, Bowery Women: Poems, Like Light: 25 Years of Poetry & Prose (Bright Hill Press), and the chapbook a harpy flies down (Other Rooms Press). A collection of her poetry, definitions uprising, is available thanks to NYQ Books. Her literary experiences include co-editor of The Brooklyn Review, designer / publisher / editor of Cave Canem’s “Writing Down the Music” and “Letters to the Future,” co-president of the Cambridge Poetry Awards, and recipient of a Zora Neale Hurston Award from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. melissa’s poem “Le Pas Battu” is published in the latest great weather for MEDIA anthology, Suitcase of Chrysanthemums, and a full-length collection, something sweet & filled with blood, is forthcoming.
Mary Slechta: Hi melissa! Congratulations on the publication of your poetry in Suitcase of Chrysanthemums.
melissa christine goodrum: Thank you, I feel lucky to be included alongside these writers. The poetry is plush, distinct, and oddly beautiful...much like a chrysanthemum.
MS: Thank you for that. We're proud of the work too. Now your poem in the anthology, “Le Pas Battu,” contrasts a delicate image of a dancer with undercurrents of much, much more within the dance(r). What you can you tell us about the process of creating this wonderful poem?
mcg: Sometimes, when I stare for long enough at a work of visual art in a museum, I begin to imagine the world of the characters living within the painting. Sometimes, political issues I was already thinking about leak into my construction of that imaginary world. In this particular instance, I remember thinking about the social, physical and emotional constraints placed on a professional dancer. I imagined what it would be like to be told how to stand, how to move, how (and what) to eat, what to wear and how to wear it. I remember thinking: I would feel like Christ did hanging on the cross. I would feel like a sacrifice to beauty and a crystallized homage to Western ideals of grace. This led me to thinking about the iconography of Catholicism, about the tender right of a woman to protect her body, about Christmas and the shining star people occasionally place on top of their trees.
MS: You have a rich personal history that also informs your work. From what I've learned, the arts permeated your childhood. Do you mind sharing some of that history with our readers?
mcg: Before the age of eight, I remember my family blasting the air conditioning and singing along loudly to everything on the radio as we drove across the country each summer. Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, Journey, or Queen were a few of our favorites. One grandmother lived in Boston and the other in Los Angeles. We drove across the country every summer. My mother and father met on St. Botolph Street in Boston at the ages of six and seven. They had been together forever. They took turns reading Shel Silverstein, J.R. Tolkien and other poets to me at bedtime. These were my formative years. These road trips injected me with wanderlust and a taste for the open road, or at least the open air. My father was in the Air Force, so we traveled quite a bit.
At home (where ever that was), music played a different role. When my mother played her jazz records, she created a more serious vibe within our household. My mother’s father had played the banjo with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington’s Bands. He also composed for and accompanied Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. I’ve been told I’m somehow related to all three. My grandfather died long before I was born. Through his first wife, he married into Holiday’s family, the Fagans. Jazz runs in my family’s blood. Music makes our blood sing. My little sister sat down beside me to play the piano at the age of six. I had just had a lesson and she played an entire riff back at me. I yelled to my mother, “I think she needs these lessons more than me.” As an adult, my sister plays the violin, the piano, sings and composes her own music. My older brother’s hobby is creating new beats. As a pre-teen, I remember listening to him scratch out new sounds on hip-hop and rap records for hours. I still know all the words to The Beastie Boys’ song Paul Revere. For me, there’s always been a great mystery surrounding my grandfather’s adventures, I can see this mystery on my mother’s face whenever she thinks of him. The long silences (which often followed my childish questions about our family) inspired me to begin to create and write at an early age. Listening to my grandfather’s music has always brought out a sense of melancholy, a painfully hungry curiosity about our family history and a great load of “stop asking questions and go read a book” responses.
After the age of twelve, my mother began taking my sister and me to see live professional theatre. I remember the first time I saw the lights, the acting and the costumes of a Broadway show. I immediately fell in love with the transformative costumes, the beautiful scenery and the heartbreaking stories. I was in love. I think all the reading, my love of music and a sense of the performative equally share as continued inspirations for my poetry.
MS: I'm excited to know that you're working on a new collection of poems, something sweet & filled with blood, which is due to be published by great weather for MEDIA in spring 2019. Can we have a peek into what the book is about and how it differs from your previous books?
mcg: something sweet & filled with blood is about the relationship between art, the artist and the audience, or the viewer. These poems are ekphrastic and are inspired by music, the news, visual art and contemporary politics. In several poems, I delve into the uncomfortable spaces created for each visitor by the curator, the artist and/or each work of art. In the third poem in the new collection, “cuento que no está ni deja de estar en mis sueños,” the imagery alludes to the harshness of labels, racial divides, fairy tales and the present day obsession with social media. What happens when people are captured in their saddest moments? I am interested in surrealist artists and their exploration of that tender space between the conscious and unconscious psyche. Sometimes, in these works the viewer is confronted by stark, detailed and private realities. My poem “pajaros” reflects how the world is experiencing an uncomfortable, divided and frightening time. People want what they have earned. People want to be able to earn and provide for their families. Sometimes, the artist intends to signify only for one time, one event and one moment of technological advancement, but the modern viewer may know something (or have experienced something) the artist never will. This knowledge creates a sense of urgency and a great desire for discourse. If they knew what I know now, what would they create next? Walking through a museum, I often ask myself a series of questions as I look at each piece. Who is the ideal viewer? What message is intended and how am I receiving it differently? The answers to these questions invite the politics of gender, race, class, and religion into these poems. Sometimes I imagine that I am speaking directly to the artist…or to the subject.
MS: Some of your poems, although appearing in English, are titled in English and Spanish. I'm curious as to why.
mcg: Several of these poems are inspired by paintings originally titled in Spanish. I’m honoring the painters and enjoying the sonorous quality of the language..
MS: Do you write in both languages?
mcg: I write primarily in English, but sometimes infuse Spanish, Italian, and German into my poems. I was lucky enough to travel extensively as a young person. I have always had a love for languages. My father retired from the military in Germany. I only lived there for one year, but he remained for twelve. I picked up a bit of German from visiting him over the years. Solo, I visited Italy for the first time at the age of fifteen. I wrote an essay and won a trip. I fell in love with the culture, the food and the people I met. I continued to study Italian throughout my undergraduate education. My grandmother on my father’s side was from Puerto Rico. She spoke both Spanish and English to her grandchildren, but since she lived three thousand miles away, I picked up more of the language from attending a bi-lingual middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
MS: You've been so generous in your responses, and I thank you for giving us a look inside your world. Is there anything you'd like to add?
mcg: Thank you for inviting me to share a bit about my work!