Attention, people in the Missoula vicinity: Melissa Mylchreest will be reading from Waking the Bones this Saturday evening, September 13, 7 pm, at Shakespeare & Company, along with poet Chris Dombrowski. You won't want to miss this! There's a nice little review of her book here in the Montana Independent:
And here's an interview with Melissa conducted a few months ago as we were preparing the book.
Q: Though you were raised in Connecticut you now live in Montana. Would you talk about the aspects of these very different places, how they’ve shaped you?
Sure. I’m a 13th-generation New Englander on my dad’s side - our ancestors arrived in Massachusetts in 1635. I grew up surrounded by the stories and ghosts of generations of family, which I think fundamentally shaped the way I thought not only about history, but about myself. I feel linked and accountable to all of these ancestors, for better or worse. I was steeped in “Yankee” traits: self-sufficiency, quality craftsmanship, hard work, humility. I can be reserved and quiet, which I definitely get from that side. My mom’s side is Italian and Sicilian; from that side I get a love of cooking, and a propensity for hanging around in the kitchen with other women, telling stories. Also, silliness, a fierce loyalty to family, and a fondness for wine.
But the West had always been calling to me (perhaps because of all those “Go West”-type books that I read as a child), and when I started applying to graduate schools, I only looked beyond the hundredth meridian. I wound up at the environmental writing master’s program at the University of Montana in Missoula in 2006, and, although I had every intention of returning east on the completion of my degree, I stayed put. It took a while for me to learn to love Montana, but now that I’ve been here for eight years, I am infatuated with the place. It has made me understand myself much more completely, and I think I understand the world better for having lived here. I appreciate the independence of people here, and the community. I don’t have to pretend that I’m somebody else here.
Q: At some point you decided to get a second degree, in poetry and nonfiction. Why?
I decided to pursue my MFA at the University of Montana mostly on a whim; I was only working part-time, and I thought if I could get a teaching assistantship to cover my tuition, another degree might be worth having. Though both of my advanced degrees are in writing programs, I focused my studies pretty heavily outside of the programs: I took extensive classes in environmental studies, Native American studies, literature, anthropology, archaeology, and history of the American West.
Q: And somewhere along the way you picked up a little Arapaho as well. How did that happen?
I took a couple of semesters of Arapaho here at the University of Montana. The professor (Arapaho himself) has developed his own version of an immersion language program, and for me it worked really well. I loved learning it, and the very different worldview that is necessary to understand it. For instance, Arapaho contains different verb forms for animate and inanimate objects. This is fine and all, until you realize that so many things are animate in the Arapaho worldview - cars, trains, trees, water. It’s fascinating.
Q: Yes, and speaking of fascinating, you have synesthesia. Please talk a little about how that affects your own worldview.
I see all letters, words, and numbers as colors. I have a hard time remembering peoples’ names if the color of their name doesn’t seem to be right for them. On the other hand, I often forget names, but can remember the color of the name, which helps me recall. For instance, if I’ve forgotten Joe’s name, I’ll likely remember that it’s sort of blue-green. The word and the color are inextricable from one another, so it’s hard to describe to other people how it actually works, and it’s hard, in some ways, even to be consciously aware of it. I know I’ve always been this way, though. I remember having alphabet magnets on the fridge when I was a little kid and being a little irritated that they were the wrong colors. Which is weird, thinking that perhaps the letters had colors before I even knew how the letters worked.
Incidentally, I think synesthesia, at least the kind I have, can be really useful for language acquisition, especially if you’re learning a language orally, without books. That’s how I was learning Arapaho, and I leaned really heavily on color-memory to remember words phonetically. What really threw me off, though, was when I started to explore written Arapaho a little bit - the alphabet is the same, but the sounds are a little different, and I was totally lost! For instance, the verb phrase “to fly by” in my mind sounded like “jebEEohut” but in Arapaho it’s spelled “cebihohut” - the “c” sounds more like a “j”, so I hear the word as blue-green, because that’s the color “j” is. But “c” is yellow in my head, which changes the color of the whole word, and screws things up. Complicated!
Q: What poets do you turn to for inspiration?
There are a handful of poets I love and read often. Richard Hugo is near the top of the list, and not just because he’s Missoula’s darling. I like the way his gruff, conversational aesthetic takes these unexpected, elegant turns toward grace. I like how he inhabits meter in a roguish way, and talks about the spirit without sounding precious. He’s so completely human - flawed, haunted, crass, hopeful, hopeless, not so broken that he isn’t struck by beauty. Other poets I really appreciate, and I return to again and again include Jim Harrison, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Melissa Kwasny, Merrill Gilfillan, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lucille Clifton, Pamela Alexander, Gary Snyder. And the ancient Chinese rivers-and-mountains poets, like T’ao Ch’ien and Han Shan.
I’m a big fan of some of the newer generation of American poets, too: Joe Wilkins and Chris Dombrowski are two that I read a lot during the writing of my manuscript, maybe because they write about Montana, too. I just discovered Mary Szybist, following her National Book Award win, and I really like her as well. Mostly I think I carry around memories of specific poems that I’ve read and long since lost track of, and I use those for inspiration. I also glean inspiration from novels - those by Louise Erdrich, Debra Magpie Earling, and Carolyn Chute come to mind - and nonfiction, too: scientific articles, the newspaper, public radio.
Q: How did you become interested in geomancy? Did the process of writing the Messenger series lead you to favor a particular figure? If so, which one and why?
Several months ago I wanted to challenge myself to write a really long poem, and, as I rooted around for ideas, the word “geomancy” kept popping into my head, and it wouldn’t go away. So I started researching geomancy, and it seemed like as good a framework as any for a long poem: sixteen figures, all related in some regard, but all representing different views of the world. There are a lot of different types of geomantic practices, associated with many different cultures. That’s part of what I thought was so interesting and what made writing the poem really fun: I was able to pull characters and attributes from different cultures. Each figure is also associated with different parts of the body, and with different characteristics (good luck, bad luck, etc.) as well as different elements (earth, air, fire, water). Each section of the poem is more or less the result of my overall impression of the research I did on that figure - so the sections don’t really represent anything other than a character I created out of certain attributes that I found compelling.
I don’t know that I have a favorite, although, while all the figures are separate, I imagine them all inhabiting the same world, and some of the sections may even represent the same “people” at different stages of their lives. I say this because I kept coming back to these twins - when I realized it, I sort of began to think of the poem as being snapshots of some epic tale in which twins are born, grow up, and carry out some mission while meeting the other figures along the way.
Q: The writer Rebecca Solnit speaks of “a nature that tells its own stories and colors ours, a nature we are losing without knowing even the extent of that loss” (A Field Guide to Getting Lost). You have a degree in environmental writing. In terms of where you now make your home, can you comment on the ways it’s changed over time, what it’s lost or is in danger of losing?
There is a lot at stake here in western Montana, a lot to lose, and a lot we have already lost. We’ve fragmented habitat, fouled our water with mining runoff, logged irresponsibly (mostly in the past), polluted our air, left heavy metals in our soils, introduced non-native species of all kinds, mismanaged both predators and game species, drastically altered natural fire regimes, and melted our glaciers. And these are all really lousy, awful things. We’re losing something else too, though. Put succinctly, I’d say we’re losing the ways of life that connect people to the natural landscape. Whether it’s a rancher whose family-run operation is no longer economically viable, or a tribal member whose cultural connection to the landscape has been severed, I see it all over Montana.
For me, this is a really important part of the equation. I don’t believe in an environmental ethic that excludes people - I believe that in order to fully appreciate - and protect - nature, we need to have a reciprocal, attentive relationship to it, whether through work, spiritual practice, aesthetic appreciation, recreation, whatever. If we want to save a place, we need to save the people of that place, too. And, I think here in Montana, we’re seeing daily evidence that this approach works. Collaborative conservation efforts, divergent viewpoints, people coming to the table and talking, landscapes being protected - things are happening because finally, folks have wised up and realized that this is an environmental story and a human story. It’s not just environmentalists versus hunters, conservationists versus ranchers, it’s Montanans agreeing that this place is special, and being willing to compromise their very human beliefs for the sake of a healthy, sustainable landscape. We’re never going to save the world from ourselves if we don’t start talking to each other first.
On top of all that, I believe we have a deep and basic connection to the natural world, if only we’d let ourselves remember it. I don’t know if we still can. But I hope so.