The Write Stuff: Melissa Stein on the Literary Mood Swing

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.

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Trish Tunney

Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collection Rough Honey, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. A freelance editor and writer in San Francisco, she is a longtime member of the editorial association Editcetera and the poetry group Thirteen Ways. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. She writes only at midnight using squid ink.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them ... ?

I'm a book editor -- freelance -- and a writer. And I teach editing and business writing. To me, this question sounds like "What do you do to pay the rent?" Except at an artist residency or in a lit-event context, I probably wouldn't think to answer "poet."


What's your biggest struggle -- work or otherwise?
Being present (instead of in my own head). Sticking to any sort of schedule. Choosing just one thing, ever. I'm a consummate commitmentphobe.


If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
If they're referring to the writing life, I'd say simply to keep writing and reading and sending your work out and going to readings and meeting and hanging out with other writers. Sometimes doors magically spring open, but more often than not it's knocking on them over and over again that does the trick. Confidence is helpful, but not strictly necessary. Hating your writing -- the literary mood swing -- is a natural part of writing. Writing 24/7 isn't necessary. Persistence over time seems to be the key.


Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Over the last few years, I've had moments here and there when it's hit me that I'm living the life I've always wanted. From day to day, though, who knows? I like to keep in mind that one reason overachievers achieve so much is that they never feel like they've done enough.


When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I don't think I turn to YouTube for mood management... but a few favorite videos that come immediately to mind are Ken Block's Gymkhana 5 (below, especially the move that begins at 5:38), Danny MacAskill's "Way Back Home," Ryan Woodward's "Thought of You" and Azealia Banks's "212." Also, this song by Joe Purdy is gorgeous and addictive. And this first-time collaboration by Jake Shimabukuro on ukulele and Charles Yang on violin continually blows my mind. (If you're wondering why I've provided so many links, see answer to "What's your biggest struggle?" above.)

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I have a great fondness for my maternal grandfather, who died when I was in high school. He escaped from pogroms in Russia around 1920 and came to the United States. He eventually owned a deli and a check-cashing agency. He was a fabulous woodcarver and adored opera. He smoked cigars and pipes, and I still love those scents because I associate them with him.


Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
My first thought was "Is a poetry reading a striptease?" I guess it could be said that all public performances are stripteases in some sense. Or not.


Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Poetry.


What is your fondest memory?
In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the character Lily Briscoe muses, "Love had a thousand shapes. There might be lovers whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers, and love plays." My fondest memories are those globed compacted things.


How many times do you fall in love each day?
I latch on to scents/sights/sounds all the time, but I wouldn't use the words "fall in love" quite so lightly.


What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Maybe it's like that infamous definition of pornography: I can't define it, but I know it when I see it (or feel it, in this case). For me, art involves the heart and gut as well as the brain. Creative expression is as natural and necessary as breathing. Art is necessary to express or capture what couldn't otherwise be expressed or captured. But creative expression isn't necessarily art.


What are you working on right now?
Poems. They're building into the manuscript of my second book. I'm not in a hurry.


What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
Ideally? Write poems that are the love-children of Hopkins, Plath, Millay, Cummings, early Louise Glück, Linda Bierds, Gerald Stern, Alice Munro, Laura Kasischke and Robert Thomas -- all wrapped into one. I'd be such a badass.


If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I would give San Francisco real summers, of course. Warm, narcotic days and nights, thunderstorms, maybe even fireflies. But that wasn't my first thought, which was to do something else with all the money that's thrown around here. I'm weary of "gentrification."


What are some of your favorite smells?
watered hay vanilla beans a good steak lavender roses rain-on-hot-east-coast-summer-day-pavement caramelizing onions honeysuckle a certain men's scent I'm embarrassed to disclose


If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
What a question. I guess I'd travel all over the goddamned planet. Then I'd spend a year somewhere gorgeous and remote, writing.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. This interview conducted by Sarah Ciston. Follow Litseen at @Litseen.

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