Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ with her husband and two children. She holds an M.F.A. degree in International Creative Writing from UNLV and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), Grief Flowers (2018), four chapbooks, and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). Her latest book, Before the Fevered Snow, is coming into the world in April 2020 with Stillhouse Press. She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize, and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an Editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It took ten years of submitting before my first book, Gravel Ghosts, was picked up for publication by Glass Lyre Press. That acceptance opened a door of permission that I didn’t even know I was waiting for—one that allowed me to move forward in creating my second book, The Dark’s Humming. The work came quickly after that, in a relieved rush. However, Before the Fevered Snow wasn’t created at that same pace. Those poems demanded that I hold them longer. They took a different shape in my mind and in conversation with what they needed to be (mostly because I wrote them as my mother was dying). I shared the book with a friend the other day, when she held it in her hands she said, “These poems are different, they feel different”. I think it will take me awhile to understand exactly how—I am still so close to the work.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was younger and kept diaries, they were always in poem form. I had no idea what I was doing, without any reference for how to do it beyond the elementary school exposure to the stiff and starched texts that my teachers offered. But there it was. My tween and teenage angst expressed itself in free verse.
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?
Almost all of my chapbooks have come out whole, in order, and require little editing. It’s a weird thing to tell people that I spent the day writing fifteen poems in one sitting. When that happens, it feels like a miracle.
My full-length collections are slower to come together, and usually go through a few incarnations before I’m ready to send them into the world. That’s my favorite part though, sitting with the poems, pulling threads, connecting and developing themes, trying to weave them into a whole.
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?
Some poems began as a sound, others a line that tugs something deeper, or a feeling of urgency that’s unlike anything else. That, for me, is the most human feeling—holding those poems until I can sit down long enough for them to take shape. While Gravel Ghosts was a collection that spanned years of work, my second book, The Dark’s Humming, came together during six months of my son’s nap times. It started as a joint project (with Comstock Review Editor John Bellinger) about madness--we were exploring all the soft and sharp edges of it and when I started writing poems about postpartum depression and motherhood, I knew that I had been swept into another book. Writing Grief Flowers was a very similar experience.
At the time that I was writing Before the Fevered Snow, I didn’t know that it was a book, I just knew those poems were saving me. When it did come together, it was an entirely different manuscript I had titled Paper Mother. That was actually the manuscript that the editors at Stillhouse Press accepted. But in the months between submitting and the acceptance, I kept writing, and noticed that the newer poems were stronger, more focused. So, when I got the phone call to discuss publication, I had to find the courage to tell them that Paper Mother had been dismantled. Somehow I managed to ask them if they would be willing to read a whole new manuscript.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I view the opportunity to share my work as the reward. I love connecting with the audience, allowing those poems that I labored over to have their moment. Sitting down to write, showing up to the page, and being present with the poems = the work.
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 am always looking critically at the perspective that I have to offer, in authenticity, at how I relate to the world, at how specific language can create or destroy, can be inclusive or exclusive, at how I am representing the themes that I address (motherhood, autism, cultural violence, grief). I have had to closely examine how much of my truth I am willing to put into a poem with regards to my family members who might read that work, and how much I am willing to risk. When I do write about my children, I try not to write about their experiences directly, but about my experiences with them as I watch them navigate this world and all of the challenges they face.
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?
To create. The framework of the artist/writer in terms of their role in our culture is dynamically unfolding and so many artists and writers are contributing in powerful and meaningful ways—sharing their voices, stories, and gifts. I think the main responsibility for the creative soul is to create—for their own integrity and well-being, as well as for the ripple effect of their contribution to our world. Each offering is so much more than just adding beauty, or making a statement—when we have the opportunity to listen, or hold, a perspective or story that is different than our own, then we can start to open into empathy.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. I have had the great privilege of working with tremendous editors (those at Glass Lyre Press, Cindy Sostchen-Hochman, and Tommy Sheffield at Stillhouse Press), but have had radically different editing experiences. So far, my experience with Stillhouse Press has been the most intense. I spent weeks working directly with Tommy via phone calls, going line-by-line through each poem in Before the Fevered Snow. He is amazing! I would make a suggestion and he would instantly come back with something to the tune of, “Well, you already used that word in the fourth stanza on page twenty-three, so …”. It was a giant refresher course in grammar, and I learned new ways to think about and look at my work by engaging so closely with the poems, how they moved, and why they worked (or didn’t). I started to understand more about the choices I had intuitively made along the way. I learned how to dance between defending my work and letting go. The book is stronger because of his insight and effort.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Go where you are loved.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to children's books)? What do you see as the appeal?
My children’s book is really a poem, so there was little transition there. I am working on fiction these days though. And that is a whole new world. It’s so appealing because my brain doesn’t speak that language fluently—I struggle to think in terms of character development and plot. It’s a challenge, which keeps it interesting.
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 work at home, writing and editing, while raising children (one with special needs), so I have learned to create in the slips of time that aren’t accounted for. Now that both of my children are in school, there is a wider breadth, but the majority of my books were written at a desk in the corner of the kitchen, sitting next to the tub while my children bathed, in the car waiting to pick someone up from school/a music lesson/therapy/or swim practice. I learned how to be present with life and the needs of those around me while holding the poems until I could find enough time to give them shape on the page. I didn’t apply any guilt to the process, or an expectation that I would write every day and in that way, when I could carve out the time, it felt like a gift.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to engage with new experiences, conversations, adventures, and as much nature as I can without having an allergic reaction. I am also learning how to have patience for the wisdom and perspective to come into view. I see a poem as having two parts—the container (language, shape), and the wisdom/heart of it. I view the periods of quiet as spaces for that wisdom/understanding to grow, and then when it does, I get to play with the right way to express it.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of ponderosa pine after the rain.
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?
I have been learning how to play musical instruments (ukulele and guitar) along with some music theory and everything in my world has shifted. Also, I spend a lot of time outside in our yard, communing with the ravens and hummingbirds. They have taught me a lot and I have found that when I am able to sit quietly with them, I can begin to hear the poems.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am deeply grateful for the community of writers and editors that I have been able to connect with via social media, AWP, readings, etc. Somewhat recently I connected with Connie Post, former Poet Laureate of Livermore, CA and fellow Glass Lyre Press author. She has been a remarkable mentor and friend in terms of all things writing, navigating raising a child with autism, and general life advice. Regarding books, there are a few I keep close by—Collected Poems (Jack Gilbert), Love, an Index (Rebecca Lindenberg), The Carrying (Ada Limón), and Our House Was on Fire (Laura Van Prooyen).
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Sleep in a houseboat in Amsterdam.
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 another life, I would want to work for the CIA in forensic linguistics to solve mysteries and fight crime.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I traded a promising career in marketing for my MFA in International Creative Writing, I learned how to follow a path simply because it made me happy.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I have a long-standing love affair with the movie Wonder Boys and am currently reading Pema Chödrön's Welcoming the Unwelcome, which is pretty great.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Happiness. Healing. Balance. And also, I am writing ukulele songs for kids on the spectrum that are fun and instructional—my favorite so far is called “Appropriate Shoes”.