MELISSA LEE-HOUGHTON INTERVIEW
Hello and welcome, Melissa! It’s great to have you here. So, your debut collection of poems, ‘A Body Made Of You’ was published on April 1st. How does it feel having a poetry collection out there?
On the run up to the book being published I felt so nervous and vulnerable, as though I was going to appear on tv naked. A lot of what I write comes from a place not even I am comfortable with. Having the book out there does however feel amazing, and I really want people to read the book and enjoy it, and connect with it. I feel like my book is a drop in the ocean, but I hope it will reach people. I don’t expect everyone to like the book, but I do imagine there is something in it for general poetry readers, the non poetry reader and discerning poetry readers alike. It is also a relief to see the book as a physical thing, in print, as it felt so fragile before, and I had invested so much, emotionally, into it. I feel more detached from it now in a strange way; I feel very happy to have achieved it.
Could you tell us a little about it? What kind of poems are in ‘A Body Made Of You?’
The book consists of fifteen portraits, a number of them sequences. The poems range widely, as did the portrait sitters; different people from all different walks of life. What brings them together is inquiry; what things make up a person, their personality, their sexuality and their experience. All of the poems explore intimacy in one form or another. There are some lavish and image-laden poems, there’s some more difficult and some sexually charged pieces, and there is sadness and some more minimal poems. It’s very varied. There are a couple of the poems on Peony Moon at the moment. ‘laid out’ is rich, not quite lucid and tender. ‘Rumi’ is tighter, and I wrote it in a more disciplined way. I think I went through so many fluctuations in style, mood and expression while writing the original draft that I surprised myself when it all started coming together.
And how do you write them? What’s your process? Where do you meet your muse?
The process for this particular book involved corresponding and interviewing the sitters, looking at photographs and in some cases, writing/artwork by the sitters. This was a vastly rewarding process for me. I worked intuitively on long sequences of poems, of up to ten poems in a sequence, for each sitter. I made many sketches and wrote many fragments, all of which I keep as the original text, the book is like all the best bits, a selection. I don’t need much to begin writing, a cup of tea and some silence normally suits me. I like to walk and let ideas roll around, and I have a lot of what I want to write in my mind generally, before I come to sit and write it. I think that ninety per cent of a poet’s work is thinking, and then there’s the writing and editing. I don’t tend to carry notebooks around with me or anything like that. I don’t often get taken by a line I have to get down on paper. I just have a theme or a question, a mood or an experience that I have on my mind for a while. I can save it all up for those moments when I find some space and let it all bleed out.
How would you describe a typical (if there’s such a thing) Melissa Lee-Houghton poem?
Intense. Stubborn. Emotionally tuned. I find that my work varies so much that there aren’t many typical aspects. With the portraits, my writing was intuitive, and the poems happened in concentrated bursts of inspiration that were quite overwhelming at times. I was so into the project at that time. It meant a great deal to me, so I pored over every word, until the poems would hardly budge. I suppose a lot of what I write is unsettling. Not written for the sake of being unsettling but I do like to touch a nerve.
What does the word ‘poem’ mean to you?
A poem, to me, is an exchange of language from one person to another whose interpretation depends on a myriad of things, all of which are subjective and all of which involve a gut reaction.
Any advice to any poets out there?
Learn to accept rejection. Take rejections with comments as a wholly positive thing. Editors don’t waste their time and if they have anything to say at all, that’s a good thing. Read widely, even if it’s not all poetry. Read as much as you can and be disciplined. Write regularly, all writing is good practice. Work primarily for yourself, don’t get caught up in worrying about where or if your work will be published while you are writing. The main thing is to have written anything at all. Poetry is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself. Enjoy your writing. It should be immensely pleasurable.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a second collection but this could literally be years in the making. I’m not forcing it, but have already written a good deal. I am really going to take my time with my work and see what happens. It’s best when I can surprise myself and go down avenues that aren’t predicted. I am a mum to two children and so have my work cut out at home. I also write short fiction and reviews, and wish that I could exploit the same discipline I have for my poems, with my stories. I’m a very lazy, pedantic fiction writer and I’m never satisfied with a draft. I’m happy with the thought that I can work on a second collection indefinitely, without pressure and hope that I can push myself further this time.
Anything you’d like to add?
The launch of A Body Made of You is on Saturday 23rd April at 7.30pm at Nexus Art Cafe, Dale Street, Manchester. All are welcome and the event is free. I will be reading and signing copies and there will be readings from the stupendously talented Annie Clarkson and Michael Egan.
Melissa Lee-Houghton’s poetry and short fiction have been published widely in magazines including Succour, Tears in the Fence, Magma and The New Writer. Her work is upcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, La Reata and The Reader. She is a regular reviewer for The Short Review. Her debut poetry collection, A Body Made of You was released in April with Penned in the Margins. She lives in Blackburn, Lancashire.