Interview with Melissa McGraw

“Gender Roles” and “We Don’t Watch the Weather”

I thoroughly enjoyed your poem “Gender Roles.” It provides some deep insight into society’s structure and idealization of gender norms. Were you ever concerned by how this poem would be received by the audience?

“That’s an interesting question. Maybe it’s a bit self-centered, but I don’t think about the audience when I write my poems. I write what I feel, what I believe to be true, and every once in a while, I decide to share it with the world. If people like what I have to say, that’s wonderful. If not, no worries. That being said, I wasn’t always so self-assured. As a younger writer, especially in a college classroom, I was very concerned about how my peers would receive my work. It is harder to be fearless when you are part of a writing group, and when their comments are delivered straight to your face.

As I have matured, I have been fortunate enough to find creative friends whom I trust enough with my early drafts. It is because of their feedback that I am better at my craft.”

Both of your poems “Gender Roles” and “We Don’t Watch the Weather” are beautifully written and have a unique structure to them. I’m curious to know, how do your poems develop over time? What stages do they go through before being considered complete?

“At this stage in my life I don’t often write new poems. Anything I have deemed ready for submission is usually at least five years old, maybe more. But every time I prepare a submission, I revisit the poem and try to determine how it can be improved.

Both of these poems were heavily edited before I sent them to Portage Magazine. I cut superfluous words, restructured stanzas, revised metaphors and honed adjectives. ‘Gender Roles’ was first written when I was about to complete my undergrad. It is based on a conversation I remembered having in high school. It has certainly evolved over time. But do I consider it complete? Ask me again in five years.”

You have a strong writing style. Who are some authors or poets who inspire you?

“My poetry mentor Professor B.J. Best. It was in his classroom that I discovered Cathryn Cofell, William Taylor Jr., Michael Kriesel, Karla Huston, and B.J. Best. All living poets who I have had the pleasure of meeting in real life (minus Bill Taylor, who is a true San Francisco beatnik). We are friends on Facebook. I own their books. I go to their poetry readings. They are my poetry heroes.

I owe a lot to Cathryn Cofell. When I first read her poetry, it was like a bolt of lightning. At the time I was an adult learner in B.J.’s classroom, embarrassed to be outed as a staff person retaking Poetry 201 (because my first pass at the class was before Carroll’s Writing major existed, and I was eager to learn poetry from a real poet the second time around). ‘Sweet Curdle’ felt like everything I wanted to say, but didn’t feel like I could. I was trying to be a nice girl, a professional woman. I couldn’t write about lust, or being a feminist, or how I really felt about my family. Or could I?

Today I am honored to consider Cathryn a friend and a trusted reader of my work. Her edits were crucial to getting ‘Seven Digits’ accepted for publication (thank you, Portage Magazine). I will gladly take a road trip to see Cathryn read in Appleton, and it’s even better when she visits Madison. I treasure every book she has published and every dedication she has written. You bet your ass I ask for her autograph. Every time.”

As a writer, I’m sure you have experienced writer’s block. What are some ways you remedy a creative block?

“As Wordsworth once said, ‘Poetry is […] emotion recollected in tranquility.’ When I first started dating the man who became my husband, I tried to write a love poem. It was terrible. Honestly. I tried to write in blank verse but I hadn’t gotten the meter right… which was painfully pointed out to me by a former Poet Laureate known for her command of formal verse.

I didn’t choose to quit poetry then, it just kind of happened. I was moving to a new city, taking on a new job, juggling a freelance writing gig, and falling in love. Seven years later, I still haven’t written a successful love poem about my husband.

‘We Don’t Watch the Weather’ is based on an ex-lover I knew almost a decade ago. ‘Gender Roles’ is an amalgam of my prom date, college boyfriend, and men in general. ‘Seven Digits’ is a story from my sophomore year of high school.

So, what I’m trying to say is that my remedy for writer’s block is time. Get busy doing something else that feeds your creative spirit. I love eating delicious food, holding a salon in a local brewery with my brothers, taking artsy cell phone photos, playing with my dogs, and reading (poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, magazines, inspirational quotes, Instagram posts, tea tags, road signs… you name it, I’ll read it).

And pay attention. When a song lyric strikes me, or I overhear a phrase that brings my inner commentary to a halt, that’s when I know I am on the brink of a poem. I try to grasp that inspiration with both hands, jot it down in a notebook or a digital note to self, and then maybe someday I’ll return to it and write something wonderful. Or maybe not.”

Poetry is a very popular industry, and poets are subjected to a lot of judgement. What are some tools you use when handling rejection or criticism?

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t get a lot of rejection. That is because I rarely put myself out there. I write for my own fulfillment, and when it feels good, when it rings true in my head, sometimes I gather enough courage to share it with my writing group. If they’re not too busy with their own lives and creative pursuits, hopefully they send me some feedback. And if I can make time to make edits and meet a submission deadline, then I might actually try to get published. So far, I have been lucky enough to have my work accepted most of the time.But that’s not always the case. Years ago, I thought I had a gem of a short story, and my professor encouraged me to send it to a literary journal he had learned of that specialized in YA themes. My piece was solidly rejected. But it wasn’t a failure. The editor was kind enough to send me her critique, and even encouraged me to send the revision when her submission window reopened. I have yet to take her up on that offer. Maybe one day I’ll have the patience to return to a longer form. In the meantime, I’m content to write social media updates and the occasional poem.

Melissa McGraw earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Carroll University. She has been published in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Anthills, Arbor Vitae, RE/VERSE, The Shout, Portage Magazine, Century, and Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar. She lives in Madison with her husband and two rescue dogs, seeking aesthetically pleasing adventures.

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