I’ve known Melissa Broder for almost a decade. I invited her to my first book party because I was a big admirer of her writing and I wanted to meet her. She was smart and funny and I could tell she wanted to know something about what any of us are doing here (which is also something I want to know). Over the years she’s become a real friend and I’ve continued reading her with even more interest. Her new book Superdoom is a selected poems, offering the best from her last four poetry collections: When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother, Meat Heart, SCARECRONE, and Last Sext. She’s also written two novels, is one of the few non-cringe voices on Twitter, and is at work on multiple projects in Hollywood. What I most value about Melissa is her kindness and how no bullshit she is. It’s a combination that makes a great friend and poet. Here’s a conversation we had in July of this year. -- Alex Dimitrov
AD: You're one of my favorite writers and one reason is because your subjects are god, death, sex, and obsession. They're more or less my subjects also and it's probably why we're friends. Through the four books of poems you've written, what has changed in how you think about those subjects? I'm not really sure I've learned too much by writing about them. If anything, I kind of feel like I know less and less.
MB: I think the knowing we know less and less might be the knowing! The wisdom of knowing we know nothing. This leaves room for the mystery, and what I love about the poetic form, is that it allows for—and celebrates—mystery: negative capability, learning to love the questions themselves, or at least, to sit with them. A poem is a realm where we can live in a question—and generate only more questions—and that’s a complete work of art.
I will say that there is one thing I have learned about obsession (though not through poetry) and that is: the day after you have a romantic dream about a person, do NOT contact them.
Something I have learned about god (though not through poetry): god’s will is never urgent.
Love: love is a verb, baby. I want it to be a feeling, a drug, but it’s a damn verb.
Something I’ve learned through death: that I am a person who will talk to a tree.
AD: I'm glad to hear you say that. We seem to be in a moment culturally where everyone "knows" something and wants to tell us about it with a kind of certainty and vehemence that, as a poet, I am very distrustful of. I always think about those lines from Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." What do you trust and what do you distrust as a writer? And I'm also thinking of when you sit down to write too, not just in the world. I don't even trust the narrative of my own life sometimes. Probably trust that the least of all.
MB: One thing that probably should not be trusted is an author interview—or any public conversation. Like, I love that we are simultaneously talking on the phone and texting each other about personal injuries we have encountered as of late (my father’s accident, half-year ICU journey and death, as well as my resulting grief, and my fear of my own grief; the loved one of yours who betrayed you, and why it took you a long time to perceive it as a betrayal—because it’s more familiar for you, and for me, to feel shame rather than hurt) while this Google document bound for APR is being constructed, as though in a separate universe. Even now as I synopsize our text exchange, I do it with the public in mind. It’s not the raw goods, which I suppose I must not trust are “palatable” or “interesting” or “literary enough.”
I like that Yeats quote. I’m going to go quote for quote with you in trying to figure out for myself what I do trust.
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wish I could just get directly to the gods, in writing and in life. But for me as a human being it seems I have to go through the half gods and their destruction in order to get to the gods. I don’t always trust that I’m going to get to the gods. Sometimes the destruction of the half-gods feels like the end of me. But I keep going. So it’s like my feet trust, or—in the case of writing—my voice trusts, or my fingers trust, even though I don’t.
Someone once said to me that faith is a muscle. And I think this is probably true in my writing and my life. You just keep going.
Oh yeah, also, I would say I distrust blurbs.
What are some things you trust and distrust?
AD: I also distrust blurbs and to be honest, I don’t really read them. I decided after my first book that I never want another blurb on any of my books. There’s something embarrassing and who cares about it all, you know? I haven’t had blurbs for a while now. These last two books have none. I said to Michael, my editor, I just want a poem on the back. That’s it. I didn’t want any quotes from reviews or anything like that either. I guess that’s another thing I don’t trust. I don’t trust reviews. So little about aesthetics or what’s on the page gets said anyway. Literary criticism isn’t criticism anymore. It’s just like, a PR sheet.
I was thinking though, as you were talking about our texts and phone calls and just how we are in regular life and not in interviews, that you’re a writer I really trust. Trust in the sense that, you don’t bullshit. On the page but also at events and in general. I remember I flew to LA once just to read with you at some bookstore because I knew I would have dinner with you after. And you’re one of my favorite people to have dinner with. I was going to ask you that really cliche question about dead writers and who you would invite to a party, but both of us prefer one on one stuff and parties annoy us. Partially because everyone’s so fake! So if you could have dinner with any dead writer who would you choose? I would love to eat steak with James Salter. I remember when you were reading Light Years and I was just waiting for you to finish it because that book changed my idea of what a beautiful sentence is. I couldn’t recover! I’m not even straight and it’s about straight people, not that it matters, but it was just so beautiful. When you encounter an actual art object, something gorgeous and well-made, it’s such a relief.
MB: Hahaha, I love that your blurb is your own poem. You are stronger than me. I just looked into my soul and realized it’s blurbs of other people’s books that I mistrust. I must confess that I suspend cynicism for blurbs of my own books, because--I’m insecure and external validation gives me five to ten minutes of relief. But I think that if I chose to live in a blurbless world--like, if I wasn’t asked by a publisher to pursue blurbs, or if I made the decision to just go poem or text excerpt on the back, then the five to ten minutes of validation would no longer be a priority. I think the five to ten of validation is a response to the encouragement to chase blurbs. When it’s blurb time, I begin from a place of fearing rejection--and so any blurbs procured are a relief. But I’d love to not engage in the entire blurb system, thereby circumventing the fear of rejection in the first place--and alleviating the need for its relief by way of a blurb.
Light Years is a great work of art, as is A Sport and a Pastime--one of my all time faves.
I like having dinner with you because you celebrate both being funny and laughing--giving and receiving humor--and that is one of few attributes that makes the company of another human being preferable (on occasion) to being alone. Also simpatico; no small talk; straight to the vein.
I would have dinner with Isaac Bashevis Singer at an old New York dairy restaurant I used to love as a kid, Ratners, which is gone now. I’d have gefilte fish and creamed pickled herring, then feel shame re: the fish, because Singer was a veg, and I wish I was still a veg (and I could be, easily, but am still fucking with beef jerky). Maybe one day soon I will stop eating dead animals again. Singer would get the vegetarian meatballs, and we would share noodles with cheese and apple cake in honor of my Dad (it’s fantasy-Singer so he’d be totally supportive of my desire to make our lone dinner together a food memorial to someone else, and he’d also give me some Yiddish aphorisms about grief that don’t necessarily relieve my fear of my own feelings, or even help me stop judging them, but help me to at least laugh at the fear and the judging, and remember that I am part of a long line of fear and self-judgment, and that fear and self-judgment are probably the flip side of some positive trait, and that I don’t have to judge the judging so harshly). And of course, the hot Ratners signature onion rolls would be served. With pats of cold butter. I’d drink Diet Coke. I imagine he’d have tea and orange juice, but maybe he’d hit the Diet Coke too.
Do you know where you would have dinner with Salter? And how about a dead poet? I’d have roast chicken and sex with Emily Dickinson, I think. In the attic room. Or just sex with Lord Byron, though it’d be an emotional nightmare after when he didn’t text after (he wouldn’t). Would it be worth the comedown? Not sure. I feel like Emily could get clingy after, but probably only in an epistolary way--which is fine, because my love language is verbal.
AD: I love that. You know I always associate you with Diet Coke. Actually Coke Zero. I feel like more writers should be associated with drinks. I would preferably have a drink with Salter, actually. At Temple Bar, which used to be on Bleecker and Lafayette but it closed at the end of 2017. That last week I was there almost every night and they were like, what is this guy gonna do when we close. God help me.
I wanted to ask you how you chose the poems in your new book Superdoom. It’s a selected, so it’s kind of like a greatest hits. How did you feel looking back at the four poetry books you’ve put out in the last decade? You’re writing novels now, you’re writing screenplays, you left New York for Hollywood though you’re the most New York person I know, honestly. Was going back to the poems strange?
MB: May god help us all. So, yes, I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2013 because of my partner’s health. We needed to be somewhere warm and more easily navigable for someone disabled. I was really scared to leave the New York poetry world and its context. Creatively, I feared that I would be wearing dangly earrings and selling my poems on the beach by way of typewriter within a year. I had this dread that my poems were going to become the literary equivalent of a bad Jim Morrison mural. But I moved here anyway. I was able to keep my day job, and I had no intention of writing screenplays, let alone prose.
As I talk about in the introduction to Superdoom, I used to write poems in motion in New York--frequently on the subway. I’m a perfectionist so I prefer to do my first drafts in places where I’m not necessarily “supposed” to be writing (like on the A train or in the bathroom at Cheesecake Factory) rather than at a desk. I actually don’t even have a desk. When I moved to LA, I could no longer write while in transit. Like, it’s just not safe to be typing poems while driving down Rose Ave. So I began to dictate my words while driving, or walking, using Siri and a free notes app. All of my line breaks disappeared. The language became more conversational. It turned into essays. That’s how I wrote the book So Sad Today. Or it wrote me.
After I wrote So Sad Today, I had an idea for my novel The Pisces. It sort of came to me whole on the beach in Venice. But I didn’t know if I could write a novel. So I just tried it, doing what I had done for So Sad, which is dictating. I dictated three paragraphs a day as an experiment. It took me about nine months to write the first draft that way. While The Pisces concerns Sappho and is hopefully at its best lyrical, it’s definitely prose. And I think it was during this time that my poetry energies began to drift into prose. I don’t think I’ve written a poem that I’m happy with since 2016. I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write a poem.
I would say that the poetry collection Scarecrone is my favorite book I’ve ever written. But it’s out of print. Meat Heart is also out of print. So after Tin House published Last Sext--my last collection of poems, which came out in 2016--we talked about doing an anthology of my out of print work, plus the best from Last Sext. Also some poems from my first book, When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother, which is sometimes in print and sometimes not (and definitely the work I feel most meh about--probably because it’s my earliest--and which appears least in Superdoom). Greatest hits!
The way we chose the poems was I went through all of my books and picked my favorites. Then the Tin House folks did a comb through and picked their favorites of those I’d chosen, plus added some of their favorites that I hadn’t chosen. And we went from there. It was easy.
As for screenwriting, that came about as an offshoot of my prose. There was interest here from different production companies in optioning and adapting my work for the screen and TV. We kind of decided that I would be best to adapt it. As of today, nothing I’ve written for the screen has actually been filmed--yet. Things are brewing and more will be revealed. But, Hollywood isn’t like the book industry. If a book publisher buys a piece of work, they will be publishing it. If a studio, production company or network options a piece of work, or even commissions you to write a pilot or screenplay, there’s no guarantee it will ever get filmed. There are a lot of “working writers” in Hollywood whose scripts have all turned into ghosts. But they aren’t starving. They’re eating off the ghosts. Personally, I love the ghosts! The ghosts have been keeping me in health insurance for a few years.
AD: To me you’ve always felt like a poet even in prose. There’s an overall largeness that I start thinking about when I read your work. It goes beyond the self and beyond place and into things like death, love, the afterlife. Often through humor, too. And I was going to ask you, I mean, you’re so funny in life, but sometimes people who are funny in life are not funny on the page. You are. How do you think humor helps you access those most difficult and unknowable subjects? I think it has something to do with the fact that humor doesn’t try to teach you anything explicitly. It’s not preachy. And it often makes you consider the exact opposite of what you believe.
MB: I get my sense of humor straight from my Dad, who was dry as a bone. One time I went to an Irish mystic and we discovered a “shield-shaped being” in the soul globe behind my chest (don’t you love symbols!) that had been passed on in my family for generations, and I think that’s the sarcasm. Maybe it’s the nicotine addiction. Both are longstanding Broder family traditions. But I definitely use my humor as a shield; also as a sweetener. When you fear vulnerability (well, the rejection that might follow a moment vulnerability) and have a simultaneous desire to connect deeply with others, humor allows for those two states to co-exist. It’s a bridge. And as for considering the exact opposite of what you believe, definitely. I tend to live in a state of believing multiple things at the same time, I think. Or maybe disbelieving multiple things. Both. A gullible skeptic. It’s just how I’m wired. Infinite sides. Learning to love the questions. Negative capability, baby.
AD: The Irish mystic! I remember going to so many Bulgarian and Russian mystics as a child. Maybe they wouldn’t call themselves mystics. Maybe they were witches. Anyway, sometimes I really think those experiences had a lot to do with why I’ve followed poetry as far as I have. Who knows if I’ll keep following it. But I wanted to end on something big, like we began, because I know we both hate small talk. What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about being alive? My least favorite is that we don’t know anything about death. My favorite is having the ability to experience people through time and to actually begin to see them, for whatever they actually are. Though sometimes you never see someone, no matter how long you know them.
MB: Likes: being in a flow state. Dislikes: fear. Also, want to hear more about the Bulgarian and Russian mystics but we’ll take that offline.