Miranda Mellis is the author of Crocosmia (forthcoming, Nightboat Books); The Revolutionary; Demystifications; The Instead (with Emily Abendroth); The Quarry; The Spokes; None of This Is Real; Materialisms; and The Revisionist. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in the woods in Olympia and teaches at Evergreen State College. mirandamellis.com
Her poems “Utopia,” “No One Told Us” and “on the difference between choreography and improvisation” appear in the thirty-eighth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Utopia,” “No One Told Us” and “on the difference between choreography and improvisation.”
A: “No One Told Us” explores how difficult it can be to take in and relate to material realities and alterities–however actual, persistent, present, and communicative–for those raised to think and read reductively, and literally, for example, those who read the bible as literal.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t wisdom traditions with prescient sacred texts that illuminate reality. In The Lost Steps (1953) Alejo Carpentier described the sacred K’iche’ text Popol vuh as “the only cosmogony ever to have intuited the threat of the machine and the tragedy of the sorcerer’s apprentice.” The “doll people” / robots of the Popol vuh (which you can read as AI or as people who behave mechanistically without heart) are punished for exploiting animals, whereas in the bible Adam is given ‘dominion’ – leave to dominate. Domination reified as ‘natural’ and the overinflation of the singular authority figure (‘the cult of the soul’) forecloses openness to the multidudinous play of voices which together generate open ended questions and living knowledge, which is shapeshifting and changeful. This, in addition to a dearth of affordances for democratic power sharing, in a political economy dominated by the imperatives of capital, is impasse-making. That is, the poem is about mystification.
“On the Difference Between Choreography and Improvisation” takes up the possibility of animal liberation as an artwork that combines choreography (a plan, a scheme, a developed ethics, a useable concept, a mobile framework) and improvisation (the kairos moment; the time of action, with its energy of response and imminent intensity, opening the window, leaping out of the lab).
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: I’m writing a novel, Crocosmia [due out from Nightboat in 2025]. The poems are transiences–switches that open and close with quick little currents. The novel, by comparison, is (an) enduring. It entails, for me, unusual writing problems. Or, a poem is poring over a card, a novel is building a house of cards.
Writing poems feels as intimate as thinking and breathing, whereas writing a novel (at least at the moment) feels like constantly falling, with no ground in sight. It feels impossible!
Q: If poems are poring over cards, how do you see your unit of composition? Are you the author of poems, of chapbook-length manuscripts or of book-length manuscripts? Do your poems begin as solitary creatures that eventually cluster, or pieces of a much larger whole?
A: The poems ‘begin as solitary creatures’ as you nicely put it. Most often they remain that, alone on the page in a file or on a piece of paper somewhere forever, lost to the middens of time or my chaos. The poems in Unconsciousness Raising clustered, like magnetic filings, over a concerted period of time during which I just found myself writing, or catching, poems, one after another, without knowing exactly why they were flying in the window. Almost like a kind of harvest, these poems . . . fruiting bodies!
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Are there particular writers or works at the back of your head as you write?
A: Bob Glück’s sentences are a model for me of how much poetry, mutability, and emotional complexity a completely original sentence can hold, from sorrow to comedy. I like a sentence that swerves unexpectedly. At the level of story, from the beginning of my life as a reader I was ‘imprinted’ (how a young animal learns who and what to trust, described as a process of being written upon!) by such a wide and various readings that I wouldn’t know how to locate a singular model. That said, I feel kinship with what I’ll call mutant feminism, for example, Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig, as well as the radical, prefigurative, anarchist Ursula Le Guin novel The Dispossessed, which was formative.
Prefiguration, prolepsis, and enactment are keywords for what I am attempting in my current novel, while living in a complex forest ecosystem which is regularly subject to the harms of clear cutting is motivating the political desire and rage the novel enacts, and seeps into its style, as well as the imagery.
Q: What is it specifically about the lyric sentence—something I’ve been the past decade exploring as well, via models such as Rosmarie Waldrop, Anna Gurton-Wachter and Julie Carr, for example—that appeals? What do you feel is possible through this level of sentence-attention that might not be possible through, say, a scattered or fragmented line-break?
A: Long ago I read an interview with Lydia Davis about translating Proust and in that wonderful conversation she says, a sentence is a thought. We could ask, of a sentence, what kind of thought is this? How many layers of thought can a sentence hold? In the case of Proust, or, for that matter, Marquez, Beckett, Nanni Balestrini, or Thomas Bernhard, where sentences can be chapter length, or book length, we could say that thought is unending, not periodic, so, no periods. Line breaks and scatters give us gaps, breathlines, pauses, emptinesses, breakdowns, ruptures, quietnesses, simultaneity. In “Bewilderment” Fanny Howe writes “Like a scroll or a comic book that shows the same exact characters in multiple points and situations, the look of the daily world was governed only by which point you happened to be focused on at a particular time. Everything was occurring at once. So what if the globe is round? The manifest reality is flat.” If everything is occurring at once, then what shall the subject, so to speak, predicate, and how? For Howe in that essay it’s an ethical, ontological, and spiritual question. Making choices doesn’t end bewilderment, characters, as she writes, remain as uncertain at the end as they are at the beginning.
Like many writers, I also have been making collages and painting for decades, a welcome break from discursivity and conceptuality, a different kind of sense-making and improvisation, yet there is something similar, at times, about the kinds of moves you might make with an image as the moves you might make with sentences–being surprised by a comedic accident, or some unexpected candor, digression or errantry that is satisfyingly exact, open and generative. When a sentence can be experienced as complete, lucid, and yet unfinished and alive at the same time, that’s what delights.
To try to answer your last question regarding what might be “possible through this level of sentence-attention that might not be possible through, say, a scattered or fragmented line-break” I wonder if it has something to do with our expectations of sentences, the pointed way a sentence addresses the reader, in contrast with the poem’s more ambiguous sense of address? We expect the poem to do something unexpected, we know that we don’t know where it will go. Perhaps with a sentence, when it does something unexpected, we are more surprised, for example when the second clause relates only in the most elliptical way to the first, and the third one goes somewhere else entirely. I’d wager that people who do this kind of thing with prose sentences by and large began (and continue) as writers of poems. In other words, poetry is a constant.
A sentence that seems to exceed its various parts, that feels like the work of more than one writer, as if multiple instruments are sounding, combines the pleasures of prose with the pleasure of music, which is to say, of poetry.
Q: With a handful of books and chapbooks under your belt over the past fifteen years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: In terms of changes, The Revolutionary (Albion Books, 2022) was a departure for me in two ways: it was autobiographical and, unlike other books and chapbooks, which took a while to write and even longer to be published, The Revolutionary was written in a short amount of time and published directly after it was written, during (and partially about) my father’s illness, and after his death in 2022. Crocosmia is my focus at the moment. I have been collaborating on an epistolary piece with Rick Moody, a kind of correspondence of short essays. I don’t know where that will wind up, but I do know I’d like to do more collaborations of all kinds on and beyond the page.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: I can’t help but circle back to and refind Etel Adnan, Cesar Aira, Alexander Kluge, Bob Glück, Thalia Field, Renee Gladman, Michael Eigen, Lisa Robertson, Cecilia Vicuña, Shahrnush Parsipur, Lorraine Daston, Giorgia Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Knausgard, Kafka, Lacan, and lately Alejandro Zambra. Along with tarot and the I-Ching, over the years I dip in and out of The Shaman’s Body, by Arnold Mindell, a kind of handbook. I find his articulation of the ‘second attention’ helpful in all kinds of ways. Most recently I read, with great pleasure, About Ed by Bob Glück, City of Incurable Women by Maud Casey, and Glacial Decoys by Luke Roberts. As far as essays, Patricia Lockwood and Jenny Diski are particular favorites.
For research for Crocosmia, most recently I’ve been reading Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body, by Elizabeth A. Wilson, Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World by Gaia Vince, Hexen 2039 by Suzanne Treister, and various writings by Suzanne Simard, Isabelle Stengers, and Karen Barad. An article on fulminology (the study of the science of lightning) and various readings on ecological remediation and cooperativism have been useful.