by Maddie King
Melora Wolff is an author, prose poet, essayist, and professor. She teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. She received her MFA from Columbia University.
Wolff’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Brick, Gettysburg Review, Salmagundi, the New York Times, Best American Fantasy, Best New Writing, Every Father’s Daughter, and elsewhere. She was named a Notable Essayist in Best American Essays 2012, 2014, and 2016, and received Special Mention in Nonfiction in The Pushcart Prizes in 2014 and 2015. She won the Thomas A. Wilhemus Prize in Short Prose in 2015. Her first book, The Parting was published by ShiresPress in 2018.
The Parting is an exquisite collection of prose poems that are as ineffable as they are mesmerizing; delicate and fluid like gossamer, they are nevertheless shot through with steel threads of grief.
Though I never had the opportunity to be Wolff’s student during my four years at Skidmore, it was a pleasure to learn about her beautiful book and her approach to writing through this interview.
Maddie King: You’ve said that in The Parting, you draw from Bruno Schulz, amongst others. It took me a full year to read his collection of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles, not because it is a long or particularly dense book, but because it is so exquisitely rich in images and sensations that to read it quickly would be to eat an entire chocolate cake in one sitting. To some extent, I felt I had to read your book in a similar way, by savoring each piece in its own time. I am curious to hear what your process is when it comes to collecting the narratives behind these pieces and translating them into this unique form. Is it a slow one?
Melora Wolff: I wrote each of these in this form in one sitting. Then I did a lot of revising. I am primarily an essayist and in essays, I begin with a plan. But these pieces started with not much more than an image. It’s a kind of trapeze work—(I have no idea what it’s like to be a trapeze artist, by the way)—but that moment of swing, clasp…and trust that happens from word to word, image to image, is exhilarating. I started these as a daily practice during a poetry residency to clear my head. It’s fun to write a realist sentence like “The fishermen slump in sling-back chairs, waiting” and somehow get to “The churches rise slowly from the sea.”
At first, the piece knows more than I do. Then I start to see the meaning. Where can an image take me? An extended syntax works a lot like a river gathering its own path as it goes. That’s what happens in “Pulse,” where a river collects the debris of a love affair at each turn. Most of these pieces began with motion too—the surging river, the flight of the invisible birds in “Migrations,” the foxes running in “The Parting,” or the tropical night bees foraging in “Dialogue of Bees.”
In my twenties, I first read Bruno Schulz’s stories. I loved his resistance to realism, his textured language. His characters shape-shift and find cosmic, deranging thresholds to other worlds. Fantasy laid Schulz completely bare. So I started to read more writers of the invisible–Marquez, Cortázar, Borges, Nabokov, Angela Carter, Calvino. I didn’t experiment with fantasy or short prose myself until 2005. It was a slow gestation.
MK: What was your revision process like, if you can describe it?
MW: I revise word by word. I find patterns, use homophones, homographs, double meanings that help conflate and overlay images. For instance in “Kiss,” the word ‘rapture’ has spiritual, sexual, and oceanic meanings. In “Chekhov’s Cats,” the phrase “final draft” is both the chill air, and his completed pages. In that piece, I also adjusted adjectives so they might apply to the cats, to Chekhov, and to the wounded characters of his plays interchangeably. I revised for multiple sets of three as well—three plays, three characters, three trees, three gunshots, and his famous play The Three Sisters. I hope that, if the patterns work, readers sense the cumulative effects.. I love needle-threading stuff.
MK: I loved the reoccurring appearances of mothers, daughters, pregnancies and birth throughout the collection. Some of the mothers featured here are tender and sweet, others are frigid and indifferent. There is a real ebb and flow in “Nine Thousand Stairs” that corresponds to the passing of time, and the changes it impresses on a mother-daughter relationship. In the beginning of the poem, the mother is “bent over my body singing: Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite!” But by the end, it is the daughter who pulls up her mother and sings. I find that both touching and a little heart breaking. You dedicate “Migrations” to your own mother. How has she inspired or colored your writing? What other maternal influences inform these pieces?
MW: It is a very female-centric book. The most visible drama is the mother-daughter relationship. It is heartbreaking, the passage from dependence, to competitiveness, to loss. The book ends, I hope, with some acceptance. Without my mother, I would not have loved literature, or teaching at all. Books defined her, and she bequeathed that devotion to me somehow.
I went to an all-girls school for 13 years, which influenced me a lot too. In “Mad River” I recall looking at a plastic model of ovaries in a biology class to learn about conception, and the poem conflates that memory with my mother’s death, years later. She died of ovarian cancer. In “Migrations,” the last poem, the hospital room where she died blurs with the hospital room where I was born. I was with her for both passages. The older I get, the more past and present become one single instant. Time isn’t linear, it’s circular, and that’s a female shape. So the book comes full circle. I’m happy you noticed my mother’s song in that early piece. Songs begin and end the book. We sing lullabies for infants and hymns for the dead. Physical transformations are not fantasies at all. People do turn into grass. When I’m at my parents’ grave, I think, why am I visiting this grass? Why am I talking to this stone? A less rational voice says, this form has meaning.
MK: You write many of these pieces in response to other poets and artists. “Nine Thousand Stairs” is a response to Tanikawa Shuntara’s poem “Pseudo-Anatomical Self-Portrait,” your “Life Studies” is a response to landscapes and portraits in oil by William Beckman. It seems to me that in creating this dialogue between yourself and others, you make transparent the process of influencing and being influenced, and carry that dialectic into a form that bridges mediums and genres. Can you tell us more about how you use words to evoke, for instance, the colors and textures of a painting, or the essence of another poet?
MW: That dialectic probably starts with the way I grew up. My mother was the passionate reader, and she managed an art gallery. My father was a jazz musician. Literature, art, and music were our ways to communicate. Now, when I see a painting or hear music or literature that moves me, I try to respond in my own work. I first saw William Beckman’s landscape paintings when I was about twelve. I met him on a farm in upstate New York. He hiked with me to a huge field that somehow changed into a painting while I was looking at it. The golds deepened, shadows grew, the wind had a color. His presence influenced my vision. “Life Studies” may have details from his work, but it is more about the feeling I get from his art, that in it there are “shadows heavier than oil.”
For me, writing brings together people that have mattered to me, whether I know them personally or not. I want to build a bridge from my world to theirs. The painting “Night for Stars” on the cover is by my friend Robert Valdes, a superb artist whose work has always affected me. Influences are vital. There are others of your kind. You have to find them and share what you have.
MK: Fellow poet, Shara McCallum describes The Parting as being “spun from dream-logic.” But dreams are deeply intimate, and often murky—captivating as they may be. I wonder whether you ever worry about not being understood. If so, how do you overcome it?
MW: Dreams are deeply intimate, but not murky! Dreams are the anti-murk. Emotions, relationships and our daily confusions are murky, but dreams make precise, revelatory meaning from story scraps. I think Shara—who is an impeccable stylist—might use the phrase “dream logic” to acknowledge there are many different rhetorical paths to truth. Campbell McGrath calls these pieces “dream-songs.” His descriptor is a double stop—in musical terms—which is perfect. A dream has literalism and symbolism, bridges and refrains, dissonance and grace. Is it logical that a woman gives birth to a bird as she dies? When you lose someone, to death or by forfeit, the grief feels so primal that it has its own language. I believe readers will understand it in their own necessary ways.
MK: Though this is your first published book, you have had much success in making your writing known and appreciated via prizes and publications in journals, and in sharing your skills and literary insight with aspiring writers as a college professor. Publishing can seem like the sole determinant of good writing, especially to young writers. What advice would you give them about the relationship between writing and publishing? Tell us a bit about ShiresPress and the publication process for The Parting. What is your take on self-publishing and partner publishing in general?
MW: My experience with ShiresPress, an independent Print-on-Demand (POD) press in Manchester, Vermont, has been perfect. After my dad died in 2016, I felt this urgent desire to gather together poems I had published in disparate journals. I wanted to make them a family, so to speak, whole and not scattered. ShiresPress helped me do that. They care about fully supporting a writer’s vision in each way they can. They offer complete in-house design work to all their authors—nevertheless, they gave me the freedom to choose Jason Zerrillo, a freelance designer, to do the book design. That worked out well. There was a fluent understanding between all of us, and Jason does such beautiful work. Everything felt right, the way that making something should feel.
Most serious writers want to have readers, and it’s a different path for everyone. Making something with love and skill, as best you can, is an accomplishment to celebrate. I think that we all feel a tension between wanting to create, and wanting approval and acceptance. Ideally, those two desires balance each other. Publishing what you write is the Big Equalizer. But if you cannot get that balance, do you stop creating? People make choices. We publish. Self-publish. Give readings. Write a blog. Have an exhibit. Have a Salon. Collaborate with other artists. Or, stop writing. That’s an option. What would literature—or college curriculums for that matter—be like without Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, which he self-published? Or without Whitman’s Leaves of Grass? We wouldn’t know the difference! But we would be different, I’m sure.
MK: As I read The Parting, I felt such a rich sense of place. Water is a dominant feature. I’m wondering what kind of physical space and mental space you need to occupy while writing. Is it something you can pick at any time, or at any place, or have you found the need to carve out a space for writing in your life?
MW: Yes, some of the places in the book are real and some imagined. The beach in “Kiss” is in England, and the lore of its churches is real. That interested me—two powerful spaces of nature and spirit joining forces. Is God in the water or in the church? I love to stand in places of intersection, where questions haven’t been answered yet.The crossroad in the title piece is also real, a state highway of sorts for foxes. There are real gardens blooming, real rivers surging, and a hospital room is a threshold too, a byway. Each poem in the collection is set in transitional space, in the split second before the flood comes, or the Garden falls, or the confession happens, or something surfaces. “The water was ink,” is a sentence in one of the poems. When I write, I’m swept along in the crosscurrents of the conscious and unconscious, the ink as the life-line. It doesn’t matter where I am when I write, as long as there’s uninterrupted time. For a teacher, that means summer.
MK: You teach an impressive range of areas including: fiction writing, nonfiction writing, poetry, essay, film. Clearly, with The Parting you marry fiction and poetry, but I would love your perspective, as both writer and professor, on both the limitations and the intersections of genre, form and medium. Does writing today allow for, or necessitate, increasing hybridization?
MW: The words “genre” and “hybrid” actually make me uneasy. “Genre” focuses attention on techniques, histories, masterworks, movements and I do love teaching all kinds of writing. My students teach me more of what’s possible in fiction, in nonfiction, in fantasy, through their dedication and imagination. But when you’re writing, the work doesn’t care what you call it. I’m not advocating for lies being peddled as truths, but to me the word “hybrid” in literature suggests a radically conscious splicing has occurred, which isn’t always the case.
When I got my MFA in Fiction, my thesis reader—the great, formidable Phillip Lopate—told me my short stories were personal essays. After that, when I wrote personal essays, editors told me they were short stories. I felt I was failing. Failing at “Genre.” Failing myself. I studied poetry, and wrote one-act plays, and had good luck with that, but then I left Manhattan, and left playwriting. Later I thought, wait a second, maybe this isn’t a problem, maybe this is a solution. Maybe my “genre” is language. Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family—is it a memoir? A prose poem? The book has its own unique music. Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy is a mini-biography of Joseph Cornell, art commentary, poetry, philosophy. Where do you shelve that? Form has always been supple, for centuries. In his book Save Twilight, Julio Cortázar says—in translation—that he calls his work “prosems.” I like that. He says, “accept…no other chronology than that of the heart.” It has its own plan.
When I was a writing student in college, I had a creative writing professor who influenced me deeply in a casual exchange. He was sitting on a bench on campus eating a sandwich between classes and he called me over to talk about a story I had written. He said, “The ending doesn’t match the story!” I told him I wanted my story to end BIG. He shook his head and said, “Don’t listen to what you want the story to do. Listen to your story. What does it want you to do?” I think The Parting is part of the answer.
Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film.