Lynn Melnick [photo credit: Timothy Donnelly] is the author of the poetry collections Landscape with Sex and Violence (2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (2012), both with YesYes Books, and the co-editor of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in APR, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and elsewhere, and she has written essays and book reviews for Boston Review, LA Review of Books, and Poetry Daily, among others. A 2017-2018 fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she also teaches poetry at the 92Y and serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Born in Indianapolis, she grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, If I Should Say I Have Hope, pushed me out into the world in a firm but gentle way, and I needed that. My second book, Landscape with Sex and Violence, is the book I have always wanted and needed to write but I had been too afraid until my first book came out and then I was like, fuck it, I’m gonna write that book now! I can tell you that having a second book doesn’t feel any less terrifying and vulnerable than having a first book did.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Come to it in what way? I didn’t read poetry first, I read both fiction and non-fiction first. When I started writing, it was poetry, though, and it was only much later that I tried other genres.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every book and poem is different. Most poems come to me quick and then I revise endlessly. My first book took 15 years to finish. My second took 4 years.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I knew early on what I wanted Landscape with Sex and Violence to contain. I always saw it as its finished book. Right now I only have a vague idea but I seem to be writing towards two separate things so I roughly separate new poems into one of two possible book folders, but who the hell knows what will happen.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My creative process? No. And I wouldn’t say I enjoy giving them because I’m actually a lot more shy than my poems are. But I’m happy people want to hear me read my work, that means a lot to me. Seeking out readings is my worst poet skill, but I almost always say yes when invited!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I tend to write about that which I have a complicated relationship towards, and about my own history. I guess the question I am always trying to answer is, why do we treat each other so terribly, and how do we survive that?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I do think poetry is having a more visible moment in our culture at the moment, because everything is so out of control and poets have a way of making sense out of the absurd or overwhelming. And poetry can be inspiring, or comforting, in a way nothing else can.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never been heavily edited, and I have a very firm idea of what I want, but I am always so grateful when someone edits me as I might have edited me, and my editor at YesYes Books, KMA Sullivan, totally sees where I can be better at the thing I do. Good editors are so important.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When she turned 90, my grandmother said to me, “I’d give anything to be 50 again.” And she could have said any age! But she said 50, which is still several years away for me, and I just thought, wow, middle age is really the best.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to reviews)? What do you see as the appeal?
I guess I would say very easy because I just write what I need to write when I need to write it. That’s for poems and essays. Book reviews and drier prose like that is a different part of my brain and I have to force myself more to the page.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’ve learned in the last 12 years (since becoming a parent) to be able to write in small bursts and very much make the most use of my time. This academic year I’m on an amazing fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, so I’ve been able to take a break from many of my freelance gigs and just have time and space to write and it’s been a dream – and I’ve been writing my ass off. No way I’m going to waste this opportunity. But, regardless, my days usually start with getting my kids up and out the door to school.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Myself. I’m like, just fucking do it, you don’t have a lot of time!
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have an absurd fondness for the smells of NYC in the summertime, even when those smells are subway tunnel piss and hot garbage.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
David Lynch’s work has been a huge influence on the way I see the world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh there are far too many to name here (I am very fortunate, I know), so I will just name Timothy Donnelly, who is my husband, my best friend, and my favorite poet and who has been very important for my work and my life outside my work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Dollywood. The good news is that I’m (knock wood) doing that this summer!
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
In my fantasy life, I’m a social worker.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not sure. But it was always ever writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. I don’t get to a lot of grown-up movies but Paddington 2 was terrific!
20 - What are you currently working on?
What I think will be two separate books of poems, and then possibly a book of essays.