Rachel Mennies is the author of the poetry collections The Naomi Letters, released in 2021 from BOA Editions, and The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, the 2014 winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry at Texas Tech University Press and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Her poetry has recently appeared at The Believer, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere, and her essays, criticism, and other articles have appeared at The Millions, The Poetry Foundation, The Kitchn, LitHub, and numerous other outlets.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first, and only, chapbook came out in 2012—No Silence in the Fields, a digital-print hybrid—and I remember the joy of mailing around postcards with the cover and URL on it to friends and seeing them move around the country. It showed me that creating a work that others might love was possible.
The Naomi Letters, my most recent work, feels distinct from all of my other previous works in its formal approach. It’s a book entirely composed of epistles, and I’d never undertaken a full-length project that dedicated itself to a single poetic form before this book. I love that I’ll probably never write another book like this one again, either. A singular creative moment.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry found me, and it’s never left me. I can’t take any credit for it happening, and I don’t understand why or how it did.
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?
I try to write into an unknown space for as long as I can before calling it a “project,” lest I cut my imagination off too soon. This is an impulse I’ve had to work towards, to learn, as my MFA (like most, I would think) coached me to write a thesis, a chapbook, a book, as opposed to writing into something you can’t fully yet see or name.
The pandemic has corrupted my writing practice, for sure, but I’m finding my way back by writing in small spurts early in the morning, by hand, a few days a week when possible.
My poems change a whole lot in revision, especially when I’m going from a first draft or a pre-draft into a second or full version. I work from notes, reading, and research heavily, even if I’m not “researching” something deliberately. I also do a lot of opening beloved collections to random pages and writing back to a line or two, especially when I’m stuck. Striking up a conversation, perhaps.
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?
The former. Even with The Naomi Letters, whose formal uniformity may make it look like the book arrived whole as a project, I was writing these short letter-fragments for a few months before I was willing to call them a “book,” or even a singular project. I try to commit to a blank, open mind in the early writing stages, to serve what comes on the page without a previous agenda. It’s hard, but it’s important for my work.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have come to love virtual readings, which are a hallmark of our current world. Before COVID, I would get pretty nervous before readings, especially if I were the featured reader; I wouldn’t call them part of my creative process, but I do love hearing others read their work, capturing that key aural dimension of experiencing poetry.
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?
With The Naomi Letters, I felt preoccupied by the question What does who you love, and how you love, tell you about who you are? In the new space I’m tentatively writing towards, the question has become What does my brain’s suffering mean, and how does it matter? I’m feeling more drawn to examining the stakes of my mental illness, of connecting fear, joy, and grief together along the thread of my particular biochemical inflections.
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?
There’s no one answer to this, as I believe that different poets approach their relationship to culture and the world (importantly) differently. For my own poetics, I’m ongoingly drawn to Carolyn Forché’s lens of the poet as witness, though I’ve been asking myself lately, in the wake of the pandemic, about an “interior” poetry of witness, which dovetails with the confessional to consider how what we might witness, honestly, about the self could (possibly) bring light to communal struggles or suffering, in my case along the lines of mental illness.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Essential, always. I cannot ever express my gratitude to the editors who’ve helped to steward my work into the world.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Write without an agenda for the eventual outcome of your writing. Be willing to discard drafts, manuscripts, to move on when you’re ready; to serve the work and not the vita.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t move out of poetry all that much, and to be honest, a lot of the essay writing that I do I see more as part of my “day job,” my freelance writing work, as opposed to the spaces where I take the most risks and play the most freely. But I dream of writing an essay collection, or something like it, someday. I took Alexander Chee’s nonfiction writing workshop virtually this past fall, and I still fantasize about how generative his prompts were, even if they ended up taking me to poetry-based places.
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 feel the most alchemical, when it comes to seeking inspiration or beginning from “nothing,” a blank page, early in the morning—as close to dawn as I can manage. Anxiety chases me pretty quickly, especially if I feed it (news, social media), so if I can outpace my neuroses, I write with the most focus and am then the most “likely” to begin somewhere I wish to keep following.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The work of other poets I love. A closed computer, a long walk.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Freshly baked bread. Lavender.
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?
Music is a huge one for me. I cannot write in silence, so I often rely on music to help me set a mood and keep my focus when I’m working. One of the things I miss the most about pre-pandemic life was wandering around art museums with a notebook, also, hoping to catch an idea. Being around visual art always makes me hyper-attentive to language.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Where to begin? I’ll keep it short, lest I fill up a whole page: I’d say the poets whose work made mine possible are Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Toi Derricotte, Li-Young Lee, and Robin Becker. There is no poetry, for me, without their example.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Maybe someday, write a book of nonfiction. I’d like to learn to ride my bike better, and to bake a Paris-Brest, and to travel more. I feel starved for temporary life in a new city other than my own after the past year, to live somewhere just for a week or two.
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?
I fantasize often about becoming a baker. I have no idea what I could possibly have done if I hadn’t been a writer, though. I have no imagination for a life outside of writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I genuinely have no idea.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading Anne Carson’s NOX right now, which is helping me to grieve the past year, to understand the shape and texture of my grief. Once I finish it, it will be one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, I already know this.
Two dear friends of mine, the poets Sumita Chakraborty and Sara Eliza Johnson, and I have started an informal horror-movie watch-club, thanks to all the new COVID-spawned shared streaming-from-afar technologies—they’re seasoned experts in the genre, especially Sara, whereas I’ve always avoided horror movies, partially out of anxiety. We watched Midsommar and Hereditary recently, and both films leveled me. I still catch myself thinking about moments in Midsommar at random times. The first major-plot scene especially, which I will not describe both for spoiler and trigger reasons—the enormity of the pain that he captures there, Florence Pugh’s reaction and how it echoes throughout the remainder of the movie, it’s something I flash onto when I think about grief, illness, and pain in my own writing.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The most true answer is nothing, but I am writing. I’m beginning to write again after not writing much for the past year. I’m sitting at the work’s feet waiting to see where it takes me.
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