Thursday, 14 May 2020 10:51

Melissa Diem: what it means to be human

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Melissa Diem: what it means to be human

Fran Lock continues her series of interviews with under-represented feminist writers and artists, with an interview with the writer, artist, film-maker and photographer Melissa Diem

Melissa Diem was born in New York and has lived in Ireland since she was twelve. She has a degree in psychology and an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, and was awarded a Bank of Ireland Millennium Scholarship. She has published the novel, Changeling [Pan (UK) and Gill & Macmillan (Ireland)] and poetry in several journals including Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, The Shop, The Sunday Tribune, Rival and Lighthouse 4th. She was the Featured Poet in The Stinging Fly Spring issue 2010. Melissa has exhibited visual media throughout Ireland including at the RHA, Iontas, Guinness Hopstore and The Ark.

She began making poetry films based on her poems which have been screened at the Belfast Film Festival, Filmpoem Festival in Scotland, Timeline Festival in Manchester, The Body Electric Poetry Film Festival in Colorado, selected for the Cologne OFF in Germany and a finalist at the La Parola Immaginata- Trevigliopoesia Italy and she was commissioned by Filmpoem and Felix Poetry Festival in association with The Poetry Society UK to make a film. She has also created the book, This Is What Happened, a collection of visual artwork and poetry published by The Poetry Bus Press in 2020. Recently, Melissa has returned to sculpture working with ceramics, metal and found objects. See here for more detail on Melissa's work.


Hi Melissa, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, This Is What Happened. I'm wondering if you could start by saying a bit about the genesis for this particular text, and also where it sits within your wider practice as both a novelist and a visual artist?

This Is What Happened as an overall story follows a romantic relationship through snapshots of experiences. The first section tells the story of the speaker’s background and how their past experiences shaped them, which naturally comes into play within the relationship. The story continues through the various ups and downs of the relationship, branching out into different directions until it reaches its conclusion. The natural starting point for me to explore the romantic relationship was poetry.  Along that creative journey I began to make poetry films based on poems in this collection. At that point the visuals and the poetry became one in my mind. So that when it came time to pull those poems together in a collection, visual materials naturally came with the poems and developed in their own right. In regards to the various art forms I work with, I tend to work from a need to express something and that something determines the materials and media. For instance, my novel Changeling is mainly about my daughter born with a severe intellectual disability. I needed to express what I felt about what is a largely misunderstood relationship. I needed 60,000 words to say what I had to say. A lot of my work is linked to a similar if not the same source but some is not connected. The poetry films are directly linked to this book while at the same time some experimental films that developed alongside the poetry films move in their own direction. At times I have no words at all, and then I turn to sculpture.

One of the things that makes This Is What Happened so exciting is its sense of hybridity: a meeting and merging of genres, voices and forms. Describing it as a 'book of poetry' doesn't really seem adequate. There is such deft attention to the substance and shape of the poem on the page, to the poem in its visual aspect, while your images seem less illustrative than lyrically associative. I'd be curious to know how you yourself would characterise this work? Would you feel comfortable with a label like 'experimental' or 'avant-garde' for instance, or does that feel too prescriptive and limiting?

I have always been very visual and it wasn’t surprising that I began making poetry films. I think of This is What Happened as a poetry film on paper or writing embedded in a painting where visuals and language are allowed to develop alongside each other in two creative interactive streams, rather than as a linear narrative in which one clearly determines the other. Although the visuals and the words are two different mediums, they are stemming from the same source, extending the ideas and images in both similar ways and their own unique ways. The book to me, like all art, begins to take on a life of its own and although I would have had an end vision, I also allowed it to develop in the way it needed.  I could be described as experimental in my work but I think that the act of creating is experimental in itself.

MD 025 Snapshot 6

Photo: Melissa Diem

 At a slight tangent from the previous thought, one of the things that struck me about the book was the way in which it reinvigorates the idea of reading. It is beautifully put together, and I think it releases the possibilities of the page in ways that are potentially very radical. I don't know if you'd agree, but I tend to think of the typically linear lyric poem as inviting a somewhat passive reading experience, with the poet sliding their insights past us unchallenged. There's something Lyn Hejinian says about “the coercive epiphanic mode” prevalent in particular strains of contemporary  poetry, and their “smug pretension to universality” which always struck me as being at least half right. I'm wondering if you had any strong feelings about the politics or ethics of these kinds of aesthetic choices? Are you consciously speaking back to those more – for want of a better word – mainstream lyric forms?

It is not so much as speaking back as knowing that it just doesn’t work for me. It’s not a rejection. I like to do things my own way. For instance, there is this expectation that you give readings of your own work in the poetry world. What they are asking for is a public performance. Writing and performing are two very different things. At first, I did attempt a few readings which I found very stressful and I couldn’t see a benefit from it. Then I decided I wasn’t going to force myself to do something that goes completely against my nature. I decided to work with myself rather than against, even though reading is expected in poetry, and so I made began to make poetry films.

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Sketch: Melissa Diem

The book's inventive qualities, its material presence, also seems really important because we live now in a culture that really valorises the virtual as everything that is egalitarian, expansive, and exciting, while casting the print medium as elitist, closed, and staid. Do you think there is still something particular to the physical book as an art object that isn't quite being accommodated by its online iterations? And do you think there is enough creativity and risk taking in poetry publishing in general with regards to form?

In my experience there is not enough creativity and risk-taking by publishers at all. Many publishers have a particular house style that they want you to fit in, some even going as far as editing to such a degree that the poet’s voice is tampered down, shaped to the voice of the publisher rather than the poet’s own individual voice. Collette and Peadar at The Poetry Bus Press gave me the artistic freedom to create This is What Happened in the way I wanted it be. I don’t know of any other poetry publisher who would have taken that risk. I knew what I wanted to create and if Collette and Peadar hadn’t given me the opportunity then I would have made the same book that I did and left it in a drawer.

Although the virtual world adds unquestionable value in our lives, we tend to move quite rapidly through images and written words on the screen. Colours do not reflect their true values, reading is harder on the eye and we tap on to the next item before we’ve fully taken in the last. There is a quietness about the experience of a person alone with a book. A book can be a work of art in itself. I feel as though, in a sense, I am finished with this book. I have brought what I could to it and now it begins its own journey out into the world. Hopefully, people who do get a hold of it will make some sort of connection. I think that to hold a book gives more space to the relationship between the material and the viewer and that is where art really exists - what you bring to a book and what it brings to you.

MD the beauty of the book

Image: Fran Lock

Thinking not only about This Is What Happened, but about your work generally, there is a real sense of a preoccupation with or exploration of identity, and identity as something porous and shifting and malleable. That being the case, I don't know if you have any strong feelings about the way identity has become such a prominent feature of (especially) poetry publishing in the last decade or so? For instance, whether you feel that the need to tie poetic projects to a stable speaking subject, or a particular performance of identity is a positive development or not? Sorry, that's really thorny! I admit this one is difficult. I go back and forth: wanting, for example, more open and explicit visibility for working-class queer writers, or Traveller writers, but also feeling really hemmed in and trapped by the assumptions that go along with those categories. Your poetic approach to identity is so rich and nuanced, it would be great to get your take on the issue.

I suppose I’m somewhat naive when it comes to categories defined by identity. I expect to be received as an individual or not received as that same individual.  My preoccupation with identity has two strong elements to it. The first stemming from my family of origin is a refusal to be defined by others. It is my personal identity that was denied in childhood and part of this journey would have also involved thinking through feminist and cultural issues as I grew into adulthood. I resist being defined or limited by my family of origin, my dual nationality, culture, religion, as a woman or as an artist. It is important to me to be my authentic self.

And the second element would be making my own authentic journey through life, my internal life, life with others and the world. That being so, if I were to identify more with any one particular standpoint then I would see myself as coming more from an existential perspective in exploring what it means to be human. I wouldn’t feel limited by this label knowing that all life is experienced by others and that others may connect with my work. The only time I have really fought for a group of people was on my daughter’s behalf, who did not have a voice of her own or any other standard means of communication. 

I feel like I could speak about this book all day, but I'll confine myself to one more question. I love the ephemera that appears in this work, the objects and machines, the aspects of the built environment that orient the speaker and anchor her to particular moments or landscapes. One of my favourite sections is 'An empathy for small machines', where the voice of the speaker begins to take on the qualities of the sewing machine. I wonder how much the book as whole is also about the process of making, or artifice, and how much you see the poet as a kind of small machine?

MD Vintage Sewing Machine

Image: Fran Lock

An empathy for small machines explores a question of existence and our place amongst objects. The sewing machine has a life of its own with its own purpose. The poem is a reflection on the awareness of things in themselves, not necessarily in relation to us. The speaker is able to guide the machine back to its purpose of existence and the speaker at the same time has a touch of envy for the simplicity of the machine’s life. Its only purpose is to sew. 

This Is What Happened is available here.

Read 1986 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 May 2020 14:24
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.