Home // November.14.2016 // Susan T. Landry

The Linen Way: An Interview with Melissa Green

I “met” Melissa Green online, several years ago; she was a friend of a friend, who often referred to her as “the sparrow”—a nickname crafted from the nom de plume that Melissa was using at the time for her blog writing. I was curious about this sparrow woman. My friend told me that the sparrow had recently been the focus of a rather stunning tribute at Boston University: Melissa Green was a poet of singular reputation who had been waylaid by illnesses; on the publication of her new book of poetry, a great surge of fellow writers had turned out to celebrate her and to offer her their collective support and love.

I signed up to become a follower of Melissa’s blog, and eventually became an appreciative, although shyly in awe of, friend of Melissa Green’s. I read the poems she published in her blog, often struck by the thread of commonality we shared as native New Englanders, with all the attendant prickly associations—the unwritten rules, the judgments. But we also shared a deep pleasure in our wild landscapes and were lucky enough to stumble through the doorway to salvation for so many kids like us, the limitless world of reading. - SL [writing in August 2013*]

The Squanicook Eclogues by Melissa Green

Mentioned: The Squanicook Eclogues. Publisher of reprint edition: Pen & Anvil, 2000. Paperback $13.95, 88pp.

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The Linen Way by Melissa Green

Mentioned: The Linen Way by Melissa Green. Publisher: Rosa Mira, 2013. Ebook $9.99, 90pp.

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Color is the Suffering of Light by Melissa Green

Mentioned: Color is the Suffering of Light by Melissa Green. Publisher: Touchstone, 1996. Paperback, 368pp. OOP; available from resellers.

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SL: Melissa, you have not one but two books that I am pleased to say fall under the umbrella of memoir, which is our not-so-secret passion here at Run, Nellie. But you are primarily known in the world of clued-in literati as a poet. I read your first memoir, Color Is the Suffering of Light, quite a while ago, and for me, two reactions stand out: the quality of the language, the pure and relentless flow of one beautiful word after another detailing the story of a child, a little girl, and her early years. The kicker for the reader as she becomes engaged with the writer who has this amazing power over language is the realization that these lovely words, these finely crafted sentences, are used to knit together a story that is not so pretty. My second reaction, on finishing your book, was how did this girl grow up to become Melissa Green, the extraordinary poet. it seems to me that The Linen Way helps the reader understand, to some degree, how such an accomplishment unfurled.

Would you talk a bit about how you see the two books in relation to your life: are they two pieces of the same story? Does the maturing Melissa Green, in The Linen Way, feel more like “you” as you are today… or is that a false distinction? Are both Melissas, both memoirs, critical parts of the whole story of Melissa Green the poet? The reason I ask this is somewhat personal, as I struggle at times in reviewing my own life to try and make sense of all the parts. Some stages of my life feel so foreign that they may as well have been fictional. In fact, I have difficulty writing about those parts. Does that sound at all familiar?

MG: I can’t divide the child Melissa in Color from the older Melissa in The Linen Way—though the little girl, while still me, does seem quite far in the distance—because of the way my life has always kept the two selves enmeshed, like a rush seat in an old chair in the attic. It seemed inevitably to happen that a new project would appear on the horizon just as the present one was being completed, and during the writing of each book, I was lucky enough either to have had a companion to whom I could read every page, or unhealthy enough to be incarcerated in a locked hospital ward where the staff would encourage me to work on the current book as part of my treatment. My writing is always interlocked with therapy in my mind, the presence of a caring, sensitive other ear.

In 1987 when I finished The Squanicook Eclogues, I ended up spending nearly eleven months in a psychiatric hospital. At that time when I was so very ill, I was convinced I would never write anything again, certainly not a memoir. But when I finally began to get better during the last ten weeks of my stay, I started to write what I described to myself as ‘the oldest stories,’ meaning the stories I knew best, personal memories that defined my extremely small corner of the world. The hospital staff was very aware of what writing meant to me—by the time I’d left, most of them had read The Squanicook Eclogues as a way to understand me—and someone found me a little table and chair, bookends for my books, and that unusual nook was respected by my caretakers. I was encouraged to work there whenever I was able.

After I’d returned home from the hospital, I sent the first drafts of what turned out to be Color to my editor at W. W. Norton, Kathleen M. Anderson. She couldn’t have been a more perfect reader for me. She was as wise and sensitive as any of the psychiatrists who’d helped me in the hospital, which gave me the courage to tell as much of each story as I could. She was a brilliant and exacting editor. Under the eaves here are boxes of drafts of Color with her pencil marks on line after line, deleting a lazy phrase in order to rebuild one of substance; a good word excised out and the best one inserted. To this day I credit any gift I have in writing strong or luminous prose with her having been my teacher.

In 1995 when Color Is the Suffering of Light was finally published, I was often asked if I planned to write another ‘volume’ as it were of my life, and at that time and for many years later, I was certain I would not. In 2011, after writing four other books that were not memoirs, I began The Linen Way, and found it was not the stories in Color that I would interleave in this second volume, but instead it was my first book of poetry, The Squanicook Eclogues, that play a pivotal part. I worked on it all summer in a hypomanic state and by September when it was finished, I had to be hospitalized again.

SL: I just read a book by the physician and writer, Rachel Naomi Remen. She is widely considered to be one of the early proponents of the philosophy underlying the evolving academic and pragmatic movement known as narrative medicine. To be embarrassingly simplistic about what she believes, it is this: that in telling our story we come to be more fully ourselves, and in the process we become healers of our own broken lives, damaged souls, diseased bodies. Her focus now is primarily with cancer patients (and often practitioners), working with them to find their story, address their illness as a portion of their narrative—not the beginning, not the end—and to help them understand the meaning of their life. She is a very wise person, and I can’t help but think that you could be one of her stories in progress. I am curious about how your illness affected you as a writer of memoir, and I was not sure how to address this with you. Reading Remen’s book made me wonder if you already know this, intuitively; that writing about your life and your periodic battles with mental illness is a path to becoming whole. Would you mind talking about that?

MG: I am not familiar with Rachel Naomi Remen’s work or the term narrative medicine, though intuitively I understand it and believe I experienced its benefits through an intensive 25-year therapy, frequent hospitalizations, and a best friend who also wrote, each of which overlapped, helped me not only discover and carve out in language the lineaments of an accurate self-portrait, but to carry and practice bearing up under the elements necessary to the person who was meant to live an artist’s life.

I have met with my present psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Ann Katz since 1986. During that time, besides delving deeply into my psyche and rigorously exploring what we found there, as happens in any good therapeutic relationship, we discovered another way in which our weekly sessions could be profoundly useful: I read to her. Every line of every poem, every paragraph of every essay, each chapter of each novel. I read Color Is the Suffering of Light to her, in all its versions and revisions; I read The Linen Way to her, in all its guises. Over the years, I have read her everything I’ve ever written, so not only has my broken self been healed within the parameters of my own personal narrative, I have learned, by reading to another, to hear better, to think better, and to heal the sad and frightened writer in me.

During another stay in the hospital, I blocked out much of the Très Riches Hours de la Belle Héloïse on a big graph. Rather than work with gimp or yarn in Occupational Therapy, I was encouraged to fill in the chapters, represented by the boxes, though if I spent more than half an hour on it, I became acutely suicidal, and needed to be taken to the Quiet Room and heavily medicated. The exercise brought up all the pain I’d ever felt around my writing: every dream and drama I could envision I was convinced would never come to fruition because I was too sick and weak to ever be a real writer. The staff helped me titrate the powerful story, to modulate the power it had over me, and during the course of repeated hospitalizations, I learned to manage telling the story, both my own or another’s.

I would add a third piece, though perhaps merely a kind of repetition, to my own personal ‘narrative medicine’: during the same 25 years I worked with my therapist and over time began to heal in hospital stays, I had the privilege and enormous good fortune to meet my best friend, George Kalogeris, also a writer. While we each had our own narrative to tell, the one that would heal our broken selves, we started out as artistic siblings, of the same age, at about the same skill level, and for the past 25 years, we have spent most Saturdays at my grandmother’s oak kitchen table reading to one another, growing, revising, teaching one another to write better, learning to listen, learning to think, learning to tell our own narratives and those of others with more clarity, more strength. He has heard every poem, every paragraph; all of the Heloise, all of The Linen Way, and has ‘read me back to myself.’ If our narratives are better written, it seems to me, the healing could only be deeper.

SL: Finally, I would like to focus on The Linen Way. Even though it is very newly published by Rosa Mira Books, the news that you had written a second memoir had already trickled out to the literary world, notably as an excerpt featured in the current issue (Volume 33) of Herbert Leibowitz’s Parnassus. The excerpt in Parnassus reveals some of the book’s story about your friendships with Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky. However, my favorite part of the book, I think, is the incredible, luminescent translation you wrote, and include in the book, of Rilke’s poem, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” Can you tell us why this poem spoke so strongly to you? Can you connect the dots, if there are indeed dots, between the story of this poem and the story of your life?

MG: I’d read this gorgeous poem before I met Derek Walcott, but under his tutelage we read Robert Lowell’s ‘imitation’ of the poem, which gave me my first taste of what a literal translation could do and where the imagination could take a tale first written in another language. I couldn’t quite have said why I’d chosen Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.” until I was nearly finished with the writing of the The Linen Way, but when it came time to parse the poem, I saw clearly that the three main characters, the journey down to and back from Hades, are all facets of myself.

Eurydice represents the hurt, sick Melissa, the one whom the asp of mental illness has despoiled, Demeter’s daughter, doomed to spend six months a year in hell, the mute and broken girl-child who must be rescued. Orpheus represents both the power of language itself, and the courage of any who would be a language-bearer. A poet must seek to move the world with the beauty of his/her song and, through the journey down to the soul’s self by therapy or narrative medicine or meditation, gain admission into its own Hades and with a full-throated plea, and reduce the denizens of Hell, including the Fates, to tears. And in so doing, arrange the rescue of the hurt self and bring her back to earth with love. It is the love of the lost self and the reclamation through language that I perceive my Orpheus-Melissa doing. Hermes represents my own agency, the power that has accrued to my soul through years of work, of therapy and writing, to bring myself up from the burning coals of despair—back to the light of earth.

* Susan T. Landry formerly served as editor of the now-defunct journal, Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie, in which this interview originally appeared. It is republished here with her kind permission.

Banner graphic source: A page ("May") from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, painted by the Limbourg Brothers in c.1412-16. This image sourced from Wikimedia Commons has been in the public domain for a few centuries.

See also: [NERObooks homepage] [interviews] [tag:poetry] [Sean Campbell on Melissa Green, August 2016] [Nora Delaney on Melissa Green in Jacket, 2009] [Other memoirs recommended by Melissa Green: Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee; Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson; Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen] [Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen] [An excerpt from The Linen Way in Parnassus]

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