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Before Order: A Poet’s Tale
Contributor
Written by
Melissa Studdard
October 2014
Contributor
Written by
Melissa Studdard
October 2014

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” —A. A. Milne

 

I wrote my novel by the seat of my pants. I created characters I was in love with, and I let them tell me what they wanted to do. It was easy to “organize.” There was a plot, and I rolled along, adventure after adventure, discovering the way as I happened upon it. Organization was holistic, organic—as easy as breathing.

But that’s not to say the prose always flowed. There were times my mind wouldn’t turn that way, and I’d find myself instead engaged in a wild, messy, passionate affair with poetry. Between scenes, between chapters, between scraps of dialogue, I’d sneak off to a café and flirt with a poem.

Over time, I found myself thinking about poetry more and more. It was unpredictable and exciting. I never knew when it would show up or what kind of mood it would be in. A poem might spring fully formed from a dream, or it might haunt the edges of my mind until it demanded expression. Some poems were sexy, and others were somber and wise. They were alternately formal and informal. There were socio-political poems and intimate revelations.

So, when a publisher came to me with the request to release a collection of my poems, my first reaction was elation, and my second was run-from-the-room fear. How would I get those highly individualized expressions organized into a cohesive whole?

I have to admit that completely independent of its adorable diction, the Milne quote now makes me giggle. Back then, though, it troubled me. It was the operative word before: “Organizing is what you do before you do something.” Milne was right. It was going to be all mixed up. I knew it. 

In the beginning, the process felt like trying to herd a group of unruly children on a playground. As soon as I thought I had a straight line, one of them popped out and had to be coaxed back in.

I went through a period of serious doubt. I made social media declarations that I’d changed the title from I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast to Some Crap I Threw Together. I called the publisher and told him I couldn’t do it, that I needed another week, another month, a year. I worried that people would find the collection too soft, too rough, too cryptic, too accessible, too plain, too convoluted, too . . . everything. It didn’t even make sense—I was worried about issues that completely contradicted each other.

Then, finally, it came to me that my concern about excess was really about balance. For me, organization had to be about order and balance.

I’d already had the idea to structure the poems in a life cycle—from birth through the various ecstasies and sufferings of life—to death—to rebirth. But I didn’t want to be obvious. I wanted it loose and organic. I decided that rather than overt section titles, I would employ poetic lines to hint at the phases. Section I, for instance, begins with birth, and the following lines are offered as an invocation to the muse:

Green shoot,

unfolding town of dark leaves,                                                 

birth my tiny, cosmic tongue.

To keep the organization loose, I chose to not have the all the poems in the first section literally address birth. Instead they would be about beginnings. Consequently, I placed poems about birth in other sections. As well, the last section would not be literally restricted to reincarnation, but would instead contain poems about various forms of renewal—new hope in love, regeneration, the changing of seasons. 

Next, I began to notice recurring motifs—things like hunger and food, romantic and sexual desire, references to the divine, and cosmic imagery. Once I identified these key elements, I wove them through the book in overlap with the main organizing principle of time—thereby creating texture and enhancing the cyclical feel of the collection.

The only thing left was to nail the balance by setting tone. I knew I wanted the first poem to invoke both strength and deep empathy. I decided to start with a daring, gritty poem, in which a female god gives birth to the universe. In college, I’d been fascinated with the philosophical problem of evil: How could an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity exist in a world of suffering? Easy: God is a mother, who, looking at her imperfect world, believes it to be perfect. She has the power and benevolence to change it. She just doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with it.

Once “Creation Myth” set the tone, everything fell into place. I knew what I had to do. I had to make God a woman through the entire collection. I didn’t care that many of the poems had been published multiple times in anthologies and magazines. I changed them. The book was its own entity, and in it, I created a unified conception of the world, confirming, in the process, that order is not always what happens before.

                            *     *      *      *      *      *                                            

“Melissa Studdard’s high-flying, bold poetic language expresses an erotic appetite for the world: 'this desire to butter and eat the stars,' as she says, in words characteristically large yet domestic, ambitious yet chuckling at their own nerve. This poet’s ardent, winning ebullience echoes that of God, a recurring character here, who finds us Her children, splotchy, bawling and imperfect though we are, 'flawless in her omniscient eyes.'” -–Robert Pinsky

www.melissastuddard.com

 

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Comments
  • Melissa Studdard

    Philippa--So looking forward -- :)

  • Melissa Studdard

    Donna, Thank you so much for stopping by to comment. It means the world to me that you love the poems!

  • Melissa Studdard

    Thanks for the compliment, David.

  • David Hillstrom

    In Another Dimension is an excellent poem.
    "An exhausted cloud passed out in the courtyard
    With a thunderbolt curled up by its side."

    Fantastic verse. Surrealism at its best.

  • Donna Baier-Stein

    I think this is such a beautiful, articulate description of what can be a daunting task... organizing poems written at different times, from different aspects of ourselves, into a cohesive collection. Your poems are exquisite, Melissa... and I am grateful that you took the time to describe the process of putting them together into a wonderful book. Thank you,

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    I'll be interested in your opinion Melissa. Thank you so much, always a red letter day! I was going to make a similar comment to David, about the difficulty of what might be called the God semantics. If anything his poem reflected an integration that presupposes a unity, just differently defined. It was a good poem, interesting.

  • Melissa Studdard

    replaced *them* with a skirt

  • Melissa Studdard

    Hi David--Thanks for posting you poem. I enjoyed it. The only reason I felt you needed to be countered is that you made a judgment based on one poem without really taking into account the nuances of the collection and what the concept of god actually means in the book. It is closer to Philippa's description than yours, which seemed to me to indicate that I'd simply removed the pants from the Judeo-Christian God and replaced it with a skirt. But, of course, I understand a lot more about where you are coming from after reading your poem.

  • Melissa Studdard

    Thank you, Philippa. I so appreciate it, and I just ordered your book! 

  • David Hillstrom

    Sorry you felt I needed to be countered. I have a different perspective than the rest of you it seems. Let me share it here:

    Atheism

                                                                                                                                      Together with gods

                                                                                                                                                               and other myths

                                                                                                                                                               dies the self.

     

    The winter of crusades and occupation:

    Packs of children roam outside.

    Gunfire and moans rule the streets.

    Hunger creaks ever louder on the stairs.

    Still stars cast their light.

    Half the earth moves in darkness.

    Desert winds and mountain crags tempt nomads.

    Rivers plenish valleys with fruit.

     

    No wood for the fire,

    the furniture long since

    ground into flour,

    we tore pages from the bible

    and with the rising smoke

    lifted our battered cheeks in defense.

    In Spring the aggressor was gone.

    Still stars cast their light

    and the living bury their dead.

     

    Millions of years in nature’s womb

    suffering a fatherless existence

    in common with all creatures,

    extant, extinct, endangered, embryonic.

    Millions more and our lives

    frozen into the rocks,

    the refuse of our civilization

    still turning up in the surf,

    now icy and motionless.

    And stars explode into the void.

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    Melissa, I have recommended your book to several others ( on the strength of the first few viewable poems). I am always bashful at doing this but you may be interested in another attempt to convey (to half the population) the internal reality of childbirth and its huge creative experiential connection with Creation as a whole. If so, you can find it here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadow-Yucatan-Philippa-Rees-ebook/dp/B00LL4BE5Y

  • Melissa Studdard

    Dear Lois--It's great to see you here. Thank you for the kind words. I cannot wait to see what magic transpires with your arrangement of poems. xox

  • Melissa Studdard

    Thank you, Patricia! So happy to meet you here! 

  • Melissa Studdard

    Hi Topazshell--I'm so happy to hear you are feeling inspired to write poetry again--and thank you about the title and cover! I chose that painting after someone noticed that woman looked like me and introduced me to the artist, Eric Anfinson. 

  • Melissa Studdard

    Hi Philippa, Thank you for the kind comments! I loved hearing about the connection between our books and the new (black) Madonna you are writing about. Also, thank you for your eloquent counter to David Hillstrom.

  • Lois P. Jones

    Since I am suffering the same blows of manuscript arrangement I could completely relate to your metamorphosis Somehow in the chrysalis we feel safe, before the poems need to stand side by side and speak to one another. I think poem order is perhaps the most difficult task editing task.  Also when it's a a first book which is usually somewhat autobiographical we have to find a way of bringing all of these voices and events together. I appreciate the fact that you melded the poems to fit the gender of the theme of the book. That is creative creationism at its best The proof is in the pudding and of course we know how tasty it is!

  • Patricia Robertson

    P.S. - I also love your title!

  • Patricia Robertson

    Love your image of God - "God is a mother, who, looking at her imperfect world, believes it to be perfect. She has the power and benevolence to change it. She just doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with it."

  • Topazshell Norman

    Reading about your poetry book encourages me to go back to poetry. I would like to write parts of my life in free verse like a memoir, but I don't want to use prose. I should stay up here and get help. I like the title and cover of your poetry book.

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    I was blown away by the original poems accessible on Look Inside' and had to buy the book. Its instincts so echo my own but without the need for narrative (as in my case). The imagery is often very domestic which evokes the Divine Feminine throughout, and although this is the new (black) Madonna, ( so much exhortation to correct the Shiva with more Shakti) it does so with such a light and self deprecating touch.

    I disagree with David Hillstrom that God has been deposed. He has been subsumed, renamed, Shamanised but is very much alive and well, just less autocratic.

  • David Hillstrom

    I saw Amy's comment on poetry and then read the opening poem on Amazon. The twist of a female God is clever giving a new explanation for Voltaire's satire. In one sense portraying God as a female is the ultimate coup for feminists. The only problem is that God has been deposed for decades. Why put a woman into an anachronistic role?