We talk today with Melissa Eleftherion, author of “Field Guide to Autobiography,” out this coming week from the OS.
How does a person begin to enumerate the many fragments & fractals that comprise a life? field guide is an attempt at memoir through the lens of various animals & minerals including katydids, wrens, abalone shells, and apple trees.
Juliana Spahr writes, “This book earns its title. It’s a field guide to the ecosystem that is being human. And that means it is also an autobiography. It is unclear in most of the poems where the human begins and ends, and this is how it should be. The world that comes out of these poems is luminous and difficult. This isn’t conventional poetry; it’s a poetry that helps us understand the future and the world that embeds us.”
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson: Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
Melissa Eleftherion: Hi there! I’m Melissa, a writer/librarian/visual artist person.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
So many reasons come to mind, my mental health being primary. I feel more engaged & most alive when I’m writing. It’s kept me relatively sane, & isn’t something I can easily give up.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I was seventeen when I committed myself fully to poetry. It was the middle of the night — I was bereft & scared. My brother had come down with a mysterious illness that prompted my mother to take him to the hospital, and I was home to care for my other sibling. I turned to my notebook again for the first time in 4 years, and have been writing myself out of jams since.
Around age 28 when I began studying privately with Diane di Prima & received some validation/motivation to continue, I became more comfortable privately referring to myself as a poet, but bristled at the sound of the word “poet”. There’s still so much to destigmatize in mainstream culture about what a poet is and does, & it took me a long time to shift my thinking about what the word encapsulates.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
One who seeks to make things better through poetry and writing and art. One who records failures and triumphs in an attempt towards becoming. One who learns how to translate for a reader/viewer what exists in the mind and heart of both the self and the world. One who is compelled to solve problems and experience sorrows and joys through art-making.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
As a librarian and an educator, I see myself working to destigmatize poetry & expanding consciousness about what poetry is & is capable of, particularly for youth in my small-town rural community. I incorporate poetry and poetics into as many programs as possible, and work to engage teens with different poetry practices and methods to help them develop ways to use poetry as a tool for their own self-discovery and growth. I also work as a guest poetry instructor at a local high school where I teach various experimental methods and practices to help the teens gain some insight about the expansiveness of poetry as an art form.
As an archivist, I am engaged with the idea of community curation of the continuous present — something Elise Ficarra and I explore a bit with the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange (PCCE www.poetrychapbooks.omeka.net) The PCCE is a community-curated archive I created and developed for poets to convene, correspond, and collaborate via the currency of the poetry community: chapbooks. In archives, there’s this question of who gets to decide what gets saved? Who are the few elite, privileged voices that determine what constitutes our cultural memory and heritage? With the PCCE, one of my goals was to create a participatory archives as a means for poets to both generate work & build towards this cultural memory document together.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
It was a series of accretions and deletions over a span of eight years. The earliest poems were written while I was finishing my degree at Mills, & became part of my MFA thesis in 2007. Participating in NaPoWriMo in April 2014 allowed me to carve out a space to write many of the poems that would later wind up in field guide to autobiography.
That April, I had written enough that I could began to see a series emerge and possibly a book. With field guide, once I started seeing where things were going, I began to see connections forming between and among the different genera I was reading about in the various field guides I consulted as source texts. I noticed where the characteristics began to coalesce and formed a semblance of self. That was one of the initial writing processes for the book. I like to let the work tell me where it is going, and try to really tune in and absorb what the poem is about and what it’s becoming.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
Yes, though the theme shifted over time. Using field guides as source texts helped me determine the focus for this collection.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
There are a myriad of formal structures I’ve employed in my work — erasures, sonnets, chance operations using the I Ching, tarot, cut-ups, numerical arrangements. For many years, I’ve incorporated found language from my autobiographical dictionaries, a series of source texts I’ve compiled of words new to me discovered through reading.
Studying with Diane di Prima & working as a student-teacher through Poetry for the People helped shape some of my early work which was raw & confessional. Both Juliana Spahr & Will Alexander (along with their work) have had a profound impact on my writing. I’ve also been influenced by Stephen Ratcliffe’s work & his attempts to convey the changes experienced by a landscape over time.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title, field guide to autobiography, grew out of the practice I began in 2014 of using field guides as source texts. Previously, it was titled autobiotionary, then auto/bio, and finally its current title. Autobiotionary was titled for the practice of incorporating found language from the definitions in my autobiographical dictionaries, and questioned the problem of constructing identity around knowledge or ignorance.
With field guide, I wanted to explore the inter-relatedness of various species and in so doing, tell a story about the larger body of which they are fragments. Autobiographies are rife with fractures and missing pieces — fragments as form, then. How to describe, comprise, define a life? How does a person begin to enumerate the many fragments & fractals & do they represent a wholeness? The title began as a means of telling the story of various species, and became a field guide to understanding the self through this lens.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice, history, mission/intentions/hopes or plans?
I’ve had this intuition that we’re all fragments of one magnificent, multi-cellular organism and that was the impetus for this book, which I started writing back in 2007 when I was pregnant with my son. While the book has changed dramatically since then, writing into this spatial continuum has compelled me to continue.
Its fulcrum is the teen girls’ search for identity in other bodies such as the katydid, the chambered nautilus, & trees. As a teen, I sought refuge in the woods — trees became home to my unraveling & working through various traumas. I’m also writing from a space of being displaced from one’s body, from disassociation as after-effect of sexual abuse and assault. field guide is an attempt at reckoning through the lens of various animals & minerals including katydids, wrens, abalone shells, and apple trees.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
I like to think there’s a musicality inherent in the sounding of these organisms throughout the book, and over time they form a song.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
The best possible outcome for this book is that people will read it, and possibly shift their thinking about the need for dominance in ecology to a non-hierarchical, participatory relationship. So yeah, basically — I want to dismantle the patriarchy. In writing field guide, I became more aware of the insidious depths of patriarchal culture & how our many ecosystems are suffused with it.
The presence of this book as an object will facilitate more opportunities to teach experimental writing workshops based on the procedures I used to write it. My hopes are for this book to gain many readers, and to find the stamina & energy to return to working on my latest project, little ditch, a book about being sexualized as a young, non-binary person growing up in rape culture.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
This is a critical time for poetics and creative communities to share resources and support one another against these myriad, heinous assaults on our human rights. There is such strength and resilience and courage in using art to overcome adversity, to educate, to connect, to galvanize, to transform, to activate people to see beyond & keep fighting & caring for themselves and one another. As poets, we have the capacity for shaping language to create new paradigms where racial & cultural differences are celebrated, consent is actively taught to all genders, privilege is acknowledged, and intergenerational communities live among one another symbiotically. Art & language can mobilize people to reshape not only our understanding of ourselves, but also transform our impact as a species.
melissa eleftherion grew up in Brooklyn. A high school dropout, she went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from Mills College and an MLIS from San Jose State University. She is the author of huminsect, prism maps, Pigtail Duty, the leaves the leaves, green glass asterisms, little ditch, and several other chapbooks. Founder of the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange, Melissa lives in Northern California where she works as a Reference & Teen Services Librarian, teaches creative writing, & curates the LOBA Reading Series at the Ukiah Library. field guide to autobiography is her first full-length collection.