Megan Merchant is a 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poems have most recently appeared in publications including Red Paint Hill, Rat’s Ass Review, Mothers Always Write, Crack the Spine and First Literary Review East. Her poem, “Filling Station God” won the Las Vegas Poets Prize, judged by Tony Hoagland. Her book, “The Dark’s Humming” was the winner of the 2015 Lyrebird Prize (Glass Lyre Press, 2017). She is also the author of Translucent, sealed. (Dancing Girl Press, 2015), In the Rooms of a Tiny House (ELJ Publications, October 2016), and Gravel Ghosts (Glass Lyre Press, Spring 2016). She has a children’s book forthcoming through Philomel Books and teaches at Prescott College.
Fem: What is the most challenging aspect of writing/publishing a chapbook?
Megan Merchant: For a long time, I wrote poems that weren’t really connected and then tried to make sense of them in manuscript form. I would try to thread narratives and create an internal order of sorts. Recently, a very magical thing has been happening when I sit down to write—the poems have been coming out in a series, in order, and flowing from an evolving narrative. The other day I sat down to write and a half an hour later, I had seven poems and the beginning of a new chapbook. I love the cohesion and tension that reside in shorter collections. I love that I can develop a theme without overexposing it, and then be free to move on. The downside, for me, is that the writing process is more intense. It feels as though each poem in a chapbook has to be richer, has to carry more weight, than in a full-length collection where there is breathing room and time to develop images and themes. As for publishing chapbooks, I’ve noticed that they can carry a less-than stigma and are looked at as weaker works of art. I have read so many incredible chapbooks by writers I admire, and can assure you, they are not.
F: Who or what inspires your poetry?
MM: I love this question because it’s one that I’ve been chatting with a lot of people about. I’ve spent a fair amount of time questioning the idea of “inspiration” and what that means in relationship to my writing. For me, inspiration is a word that strikes up a lot of fear. You see, the way that we talk about inspiration—as a short burst of creative activity struck by some remarkable or moving experience, idea, image, sound, or memory—means that it has a varied and unreliable shelf life. And I’m not comfortable with that. I’ve never been one to pray to the muse, need a quiet space, put on a ragged bathrobe (although I happily reserve that right one day), or sit and wait for the right mood to strike. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand how my brain works, so that I don’t have to be afraid of being out of touch with “inspiration”.
I’ve found that, for me, there are two ways to enter a poem—one consciously with a little more force, and secondly, subconsciously, as a meditative process. As in, when I sit down to write, I grant permission for the bodyguards of consciousness to step aside and allow the poem to unfold without restrictions, or logical constraints (those come in during the revision process). The more that I make writing a daily practice, the easier the second approach becomes.
For me, developing an understanding of how my brain works while writing is far less frightening and reliable than waiting for a strike of inspiration. Also, as a mom of two young boys—I don’t have a lot of flexibility when it comes to writing time. Most of my poems unfold in everyday lulls and highs, in our shared human experiences.
For me, inspiration is the bold act of showing up to the present moment and paying attention, trusting that subconsciously, I’m storing, sorting and processing what’s unfolding.
F: Are there any common themes in your writing?
MM: I write a lot about motherhood, loss and landscape. My first full-length collection, Gravel Ghosts, (coming out this spring through Glass Lyre Press), is pulsing with desert poems. I spent so many years living in Las Vegas, and the images of barren landscape kept seeping into my work. Sometime as a form of loss, other times as beauty.
I try to notice these common themes and words for a few reasons; first, to see how they develop and grow in relationship to the narratives that are threaded throughout the work. So many times I am surprised by what the poem reveals to me. I’m not unaccustomed to re-reading a piece and having a very “ah-ha” moment of understanding that illuminates the “how/why” I feel the way I do about an experience, person or memory. I’ve learned so much about myself as a mother through writing. The experiences that make it to the page tell me a lot about what I value, what I hold onto and where I’m trying to let go.
Secondly, I feel like those gems of repetition are there to teach to me something. For instance, I’m working on my third full-length collection right now and “salt” keeps reappearing. I am by no means a cook and have little affiliation with “salt” in my daily life. Yet, it’s present…in heaping spoonful’s. I’m excited to learn why.
F: Are there any surprising similarities between writing poetry and writing a children’s book? What motivated you to write your children’s book?
MM: When my oldest was a toddler, I started to write little stories for him about experiences we were struggling through. I found it was an easier way to share advice about specific life-lessons that applied to his individual leaning style and needs. I wrote one about his “listening ears” and another about the owl who lived in the tree outside of his window. At the time, he was having terribly vivid nightmares about owls, how they would come and peck at his fingers while he was sleeping.
Later we discovered that his window was broken and on windy nights the air narrowed through the opening, making a hooo, hooo sound. Also, my husband, who had no idea this was happening, would go and check on him when he got home late from work, and kiss his hands goodnight. Hilarious in retrospect, but at the time these were big struggles. I think that creating stories which spoke directly to him were a huge help. As I did this, I began to see how many of the issues and growing pains that we were navigating are universal. The book I wrote, that will be published through Philomel Books, is actually a poem about a mother’s love and how she uses language as a way to protectively share the fears and magic of world with her child.
F: Do you have any advice for emerging poets?
MM: I learned a lot in the ten years it took to have my first book accepted for publication. I love what my husband used to say, “It only takes one yes, you just have to have the determination to get through all the no’s to find it.” That advice helped me to deal with years of rejections and close calls. I think that’s really important to remember. Also, find a teacher/mentor, someone you trust to read your work and challenge you. I’m grateful that when I needed one, a wonderful teacher showed up and has become one of the voices in my head, pushing me to be better.
Two of my favorite pieces of advice came from my mentor in graduate school. She told our tiny workshop, “When you finish a manuscript, put it aside and start another one right away” and “Go where you are loved”. I think there’s a lot of wisdom there in regards to giving yourself permission and the freedom to stop revising and move along into new territory. Her second piece of advice works well for placing poems and, generally speaking, as a way of living.
Also, don’t be afraid to throw entire manuscripts away and start over. Trust your instincts. Write everyday without judgment, or expectation. Give yourself permission to write without the logical bodyguards judging and directing. Don’t wait for that bolt of lightning to strike, instead participate with the world that’s unfolding all around you. Do so without trying too hard to make sense of it, without collecting or grasping at it. Allow yourself to feel deeply and know that it will all be there when you sit down and face off against the blank page.