For this installment of Sundress Publication’s Lyric Essentials series, we’re joined by poet Megan Merchant, who reads two poems by Laura Van Prooyen. Megan shares the ways the poems resonate with her own experience as a mother, why the collection they belong to is one of her favorites, and details about her own upcoming projects. Thanks for reading!
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems?
Megan Merchant: There are poems that I come across that spark a little sucked-in breath of resonance or awe. These two, in particular, caught me in that way—they drew my attention from the machinery of the poem to the visceral way that I was experiencing it in that moment, especially in the last few lines of “Undoing Her Hair,” when the poet confesses, “She can’t believe / she ever thought / this girl belonged to her.” To borrow the phrase “they stopped me in my tracks” falls short of describing their impact and importance to me as a reader, mother, and poet.
Let me try it this way—I’m learning how to play the ukulele. It’s my first venture into music and music theory—which escapes me. I can hear and intuit when something is working, or when it’s off, but understanding the Circle of Fifths feels unattainable. However, once I learn a song, really learn it, so that becomes part of my body, then there’s the moment at the very end, when the last note or chord is winding into silence and the music is still vibrating my ears and the small bones of my chest—that moment is the closest I can come to explaining how these poems make me feel. They make me want to unpack everything and move into that space that was just opened by a shift in frequency.
RS: In our emails, you mentioned that you picked Our House Was on Fire out of your list of favorite poetry books. What makes this one of your favorites?
MM: I keep the same few books close to my desk, even though I can move through their poems by memory. They are not a reference, but more of a reassurance, or a community of sorts. I will pick them up, read a page, think, Look what this poet did—it is remarkable, then start to negotiate with the white space in front of me.
Some of what has claimed space in that pile has to do with life-timing. I came across Our House Was On Fire when my youngest son stopped speaking. Our lives became a swirl of doctors, sleepless nights, and a narrowing into a diagnosis. I was writing through it all, but wondering how I would work those poems into a collection without overwhelming a reader, while also sustaining their impact. I wasn’t sure how much to divulge for the sake of clarity and still guard his privacy. Meanwhile, life was moving forward and poems about other aspects were wandering into the collection I was working on, asking for equal space.
I picked this book because of the way it flows together as a whole. I was very taken with how her poems, which vary widely in their subjects and images, play off of each other, how they build and root deeper as they progress. For me, the poems about her child are interspersed in a way that feels like everything else is suspended by that gravity. And while she entertains other preoccupations—loneliness, love, heartbreak, memory, the natural world, and domestic life—that dull ache of motherhood is always just under the surface of image and sound. In raising a child with a diagnosis, I’ve learned how that becomes subtext to absolutely everything—to mundane food prep, to navigating relationships, to quiet moments between intimate partners, to hawks and ravens shadowing the trees. It’s more than background—its patterned into the fabric. Her book is a physical manifestation of that.
RS: “Plum” offers an intimate, rather unsettling look at so-called “domestic” moments, like the shadow puppet theater put on by the speaker’s daughters and her husband painting the walls of the bathroom. How do you think Van Prooyen makes these poems accessible even to readers who, for instance, may not have children or be married or otherwise involved in that kind of traditionally “domestic” life?
MM: There’s a willful abstraction at play, one that creates a layering of meaning in these poems. Take, for example, the last few lines: “In the dark / the sound of your painting mimics breath, / and I listen: grateful we are together even like this.” Her placement of “even” both holds the line and breaks it wide open. Throughout the book, she offers enough footholds so that the intended moments carry weight and have impact, but also offer enough freedom for interpretation. Instead of narrowing down, the poems expand. Also, within the domesticity and themes of motherhood, there are the fingerprints of tenderness, loss, fear—all very relatable human experiences. These feel more like codes in our DNA than in our life designs.
RS: Has Laura Van Prooyen’s work influenced your own? And, going along with that, do you have any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to tell us about?
MM: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be influenced in this distressing time in history, where we are being targeted by constructed narratives specifically designed to play upon our emotional states and beliefs in order to sway our thinking.
However, one beautiful aspect of influence in art is that it’s not trying to sell you a life philosophy, or membership to a limited way of thinking—it is asking you to engage critically and be open to possibility. It’s showing you how one voice found an authentic way to express what it means to be human in this world. It’s not asking you to parrot, or steal—but to be bold enough to open to your own expression. In order to do that, though, you have to first be awake and able to simultaneously hold dynamic and opposing facets of thinking and being.
Laura Van Prooyen’s collection achieves this with grace and heart. I am grateful to have found this poet and her work, to have the opportunity to engage with it and, in doing so, gain insight into how another mother shapes language and imagery to express her experience with what can be overwhelming concepts—love, loss, vulnerability, memory, and strength.
As for my own work, I have a few projects that are currently competing for time. I’ve been working closely with my editor at Stillhouse Press, doing line-by-line edits for my forthcoming book, Before the Fevered Snow. That will come into the world in March 2020.
I’ve also just finished reading submissions for Pirene’s Fountain‘s “Bridging Divides” and will be working with the incredible staff at Glass Lyre Press to help bring that into the world. But, right now, my favorite project is working with my father to transcribe my grandfather’s letters home from WWII. He was prolific, so there are hundreds of letters, but almost all written in pencil and most on aged and torn paper. The work is a bit tedious, but I’m getting to know him and his history, as well as the details and mentality of war, in a very beautiful way.
Laura Van Prooyen is a poet from San Antonio, TX. Her first poetry collection, Inkblot and Altar, was published in 2006 by Pecan Grove Press. Our House Was on Fire, her second collection, won the 2015 McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press and the 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Poetry Book Award. Van Prooyen earned her MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson College and now teaches in Miami University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, AZ, with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA degree in International Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), and Grief Flowers (2018), along with four chapbooks and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera; the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize; and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.
Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.