Artist Interview: Sensational Imagery With Melissa Spohr Weiss

The passing of beloved poet Mary Oliver was a tremendous loss to all factions of our country’s writing community. In addition to being beautifully nature-based, her verses were visually-saturated, and had a knack for drawing quiet relationships between humanity and the natural world. Though she was inarguably a romantic poet, I will forever view her as a semi-imagist writer. Of course, imagism only came about to be in contention with romanticism, but I can’t stop myself from feeling as though Oliver blended these opposing styles within her work. The language through which she discussed and explored the natural world will always resonate with me as crisp, clear, and invigorating. I know some may disagree, but in the end, it all comes down to a simple matter of opinion.

These days, one doesn’t see much contemporary romantic writing, especially if one is evaluating submissions for an undergraduate literary journal. In today’s poetry, sounds and sights pop more brilliantly, and it all seems to happen with less pomp and circumstance than it used to. I personally don’t mind the increasing lean towards lingual smash-cuts and blinding colors. In fact, I daresay I enjoy it. I’m one of those readers with an accursedly short attention span. Therefore, a piece of poetry that can keep me on my toes, is a piece of poetry I’m bound to read the whole way through.

During our evaluation of submissions for the 2019 issue, no poem embodied this style of “jarring imagism” better than Melissa Weiss’ piece, “You, Me, And Betty White.” The title alone was enough to pique our interests, as Mrs. White doesn’t make many cameos in our submission box. But as it turned out, Betty wasn’t anywhere near the central, or even the most engaging, aspect of this piece. The poem’s relatively minimal and consistent form is betrayed by the chaos in its lines, which are themselves enjambed to the point of causing (pleasant) visual whiplash. At the heart of it all lies a failed dinner between the speaker, their ex, and Betty, but what really compelled our staff to say yes was the flashing imagery and the stretches in logic, which interspersed and saturated this improbable encounter. The fragmentation of thoughts, the dino fangs and dove feathers, they all came together in a blur of sound and sight, the likes of which we’d not previously seen.

When we inquired about the nature of her writing style, Weiss admitted that flashing imagery was a staple of her work, and that poets like Larry Levis were her stylistic inspirations. Levis’ work, similar to Weiss’, is grounded in the practice of using clear, compelling images to move readers through a variety of dramatic situations. Yet the beautiful difference between Weiss and Levis, as far as I can discern, is that her poetry seems to speak in a rush of breath. Her poetry twists and lashes like a snake caught in a trap, and I admit I prefer this kind of writing to Levis’ undoubtably beautiful, but slightly steadier, style. Weiss’ piece, which wriggles and shouts on the page, is something to be admired and repeatedly enjoyed.

Melissa Spohr Weiss holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Recently, her work has been published in CV2, Prairie Fire, Sky Island Journal, The Maynard, Oakland Arts Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry placed 2nd in Into the Void‘s 2017 poetry contest, and was shortlisted for CV2‘s 2017 2-Day Poem Contest. In 2018, she was nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. For the past three years, Melissa has co-edited One Button Press in Kelowna, BC. This Fall she will be moving across the country to start the Masters program in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.

(OAR Interviewer): We’re dying to know, where did Betty White come from? She’s not exactly the first person you’d think to put in a poem, and yet, that somehow made this piece all the better. Was it strictly for comic effect, or was it for something more?

(Melissa): Often, a particular image or word will pique my interest, and that’s where a lot of my poetry stems from. I remember the summer I had written this poem, I was spending a lot of time watching classic gameshows from the 70s – so much so that Betty White was starting to make appearances in my dreams. In one in particular, Betty and I were eating Italian food together; I woke up in the morning and my first thought was, “this absolutely needs to go in a poem.” The comic effect Betty gave was a nice bonus, and worked well to get the poem’s message across.

There’s lots of rapid imagery in this poem. One minute readers are looking at “beautiful rivers” and the next we have “wanderlust bullshit pen strokes.” Is this rapidity unique to the poem, or is it part of your writing style?

The rapidity is very much unique to my writing style. I tend to latch on to bold images, often bouncing them off of each other to build emotion. I look up to poets like Larry Levis, who incorporate strong image chains into their work, and try to emulate that in my own poetry. This particular poem hinges on a more sarcastic or abrasive tone though, which perhaps accounts for the brashness in the image changes.

It seemed to us that the poem was intended to be a critical commentary on a younger generation of cliché-obsessed teens, but maybe that wasn’t what you were aiming for. Was the poem meant to be critical?

Like a lot of poetry these days, this poem actually started off as a criticism to one of my ex-boyfriends. He used to tell me he loved me “from the moon to mars,” but when we had a rough end to our relationship, I decided to play off of the (what felt like) triviality of that phrase, and build it into a poem. Pretty soon it expanded more into a commentary on declarations of love through the context of young relationships. Maybe it’s a bit cynical, but it made me feel a heck of a lot better after I wrote it.

What’s your creative process? How do you go from a rough draft to a polished poem?

Throughout the time it took me to earn my Creative Writing degree at UBCO, I’ve found my writing process to have changed quite a bit. I used to be so careful (maybe that’s not the right word. Meticulous?) with my work, that my rough draft and final draft were the same. I wouldn’t move on to the next line until the one I was working on was “perfect.” But now I give myself a lot more room to work. Usually I start with an image, or a list of images, that I think will be important for the poem. Then maybe I write a couple lines (but I rarely start at the beginning). And then I’ll build the poem around those things I really want to say. It’s more of an adventure, because sometimes the poem goes in a totally different direction than I was expecting it to, and usually I just kind of go with it.

-Olivia

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