3 Questions and a Poem–in which one of my favorite poets is interviewed and shares a poem.
What do you consider the three most important elements of a poem?
The number one experience I need from a poem is to see the world in a different way by the time I’m done with it. A poem that is beautiful words about a beautiful garden isn’t very engaging to me after a few lines. There has to be something new you’re showing me. Either show me a new idea, or have me face something new about myself, or show me a connection I hadn’t made before, make me think about that beautiful garden in an unexpected way…that is why I come to poetry as a reader. And what I hope to put out into the world as a writer.
Another thing that excites me most about poetry (and it’s often how my first requirement is achieved) is an imaginative leap. Instead of wells or pools or windows, can your lover’s eyes be pancakes or raccoons or grocery carts? Can the snow blowing around the parking lot be skittering like the sound of a banjo? Can I hear a clock ticking inside a tree? Poetry, more so than any other genre, is unbound and limitless. It’s the only place your lover’s eyes can be grocery carts. Why not capitalize on that freedom and leap far and wide and see where it takes the poem, the readers, and yourself as a writer?
And poetry has to be embodied in the physical world. I don’t do well as a reader floating through the clouds of theoretical thought. I need concrete images to pin those ideas down to the world, to the human experience, to things I know and understand. A poem can wax philosophical about faith or despair or even love but I don’t know what any of those things really mean to me let alone what they mean to the poet. I need to see that to this poet, faith is a spiderweb being built and torn down and rebuilt. I need to see that despair is grieving the absence of their ex-wife’s dirty coffee cup in the sink. I need to see that love is the act of watching someone die. Then, I have experienced something. I have learned something. I have gone on a journey with the poem.
What’s your best advice for writing poetry?
I don’t think I have anything new to say about this. First, read poetry. All kinds. A musician should listen to music. A chef should eat new recipes. A poet should read poetry. We can then see what’s possible. We can refine what our poetic vision is. We can gather ideas and words and images that we compost into the soil we grow our own work in. It puts our work into conversation with our community. It makes us better poets.
And we need to write poetry. All kinds. It seems dumb to say, but how many of us at times have NOT written for whatever reason? Lack of time or energy or emotional bandwidth… there’s always a reason to not write. But if we only write when “the muse” descends or we are sitting in a beautiful room with a beautiful view with our steaming cup of beautiful tea, we write the same 4 poems over and over. We need to find things to write when we don’t want to, when we think we have nothing to say, when we’re angry and tapped out and rushing through life. We need to give ourselves deadlines or prompts or find a buddy who will nag us. It makes us live poetry when we’re looking around for it all day long, not just catching it with a net when the easy ideas flit by at the right time.
And be brave. Write what you’re afraid to write. What you’re ashamed to admit. What you would hate for someone else to read. First and foremost, the writing of the poem needs to be for the poet, always. It’s usually crap if we write it for someone else before ourselves. It never needs to be seen by another human. But after writing through a poem like that, after being brave and facing something murky or sharp, the poet is different. And that newly born poet can be even more brave when writing the next poem.
What’s the one poem that everyone should read today?
Oh goodness. That’s like asking what my favorite kind of cheese is. A poem that recently blew me away was “Irises (1889)” by Sara Henning published by Still: The Journal. (You can read it here: https://www.stilljournal.net/sara-henning-poetry2023.php .) When I started reading it, I didn’t know it was an ekphrastic poem about one of Van Gogh’s paintings. It takes us through the painting to see the artist and then to ask the unanswerable questions about Van Gogh (and by extension, broader humanity). It’s such a layered experience… we’re looking at the small iris, then at the painting, then at the artist, then out to humanity, and then crashing that final question into my our lives. It’s an amazing example of the kind of journey a poem can take a reader on. If the poem had just described Van Gogh’s painting to me in beautiful words, I wouldn’t have remembered it.
& a POEM
I Wouldn’t Think Any Less of You by Melissa Helton if you admitted that actually, some babies are ugly, if you admitted you once called in sick at work saying your dog had broke its leg when it hadn’t, or that you secretly wished for a disorder so you’d have an excuse for the way you act. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you told me you were growing a little pretentious about butter after watching a Youtube video of this old French place and its old French butter-making ways which seemed mesmerizing and romantic. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you said you couldn’t respect your alcoholic cousin, or if you said you don’t think you loved her anymore but you visit anyway to spend time with her arthritic border collie and to make your uncle happy. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you stole from Walmart and refused to use their self-checkout because you’re not going to provide free labor to increase their profits when they won’t pay their employees a living wage. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you wished you were queer because men can be so scary, that you’re tired of calculating which seem to be humans, and which monsters, while you’re out looking for someone to love. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you were near phobic of herringbone, or that when that certain country song comes on over the ceiling speakers, you walk out of the restaurant or hardware store to wait until it’s over. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you said you weren’t afraid to die, that the idea of quietly sleeping in the dirt wrapped in a quilt your momma made is an alright end to your story, that you don’t really expect you’ll miss anyone, not even me.
Troublesome Rising: A Thousand-Year Flood in Eastern Kentucky
Melissa Helton is editor of the forthcoming Troublesome Rising: A Thousand-Year Flood in Eastern Kentucky, Fireside Industries (imprint of UPK), due out summer 2024.
In July 2022, the attendees of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School survived a devastating flood that destroyed property, buildings, infrastructure, and claimed the lives of over 40 people across multiple counties. Through essay, fiction, poetry, and photography from established and emerging writers, Troublesome Rising explores and documents this flood, as well as other floods and natural disasters throughout Appalachia and beyond, the causes of these increasing disasters, the impacts on Appalachian culture and communities, and how the region responds to rescue, uplift, and rebuild in such times of crisis.
About the Author
Melissa Helton is Literary Arts Director at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Norwegian Writers Climate Campaign, Appalachian Review, and more. Her chapbooks include Inertia: A Study and Hewn. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she has called eastern Kentucky home since 2010.
Hindman Settlement School: https://hindman.org
HSS literary programming: https://hindman.org/literary/
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