Today marks the release of Melissa Broder’s Superdoom, a collection of poetry drawn from her first four books. In the introduction, excerpted below, Broder looks back over years of writing and publishing to consider the mysterious genesis of her poetry.
ShaiHuludKitty, NYC Subway Car at Sunset, 2019, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As of today, March 26, 2021, I no longer know how to write a poem. I have no idea how I wrote the poems in this book.
In some ways, this state of unknowing is exciting. A poetry teacher of mine once said, quoting the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “You need only be a scarecrow for poems to land on.” Perhaps, then, my amnesia as to how I made these poems indicates that I’ve been, at times, a scarecrow: a landing place, a vessel, a channel for poems. I like that. To me, it seems preferable to be a channel than what I usually am: a self-will-er, a scrambler, a filler of holes, a looker in “glittery shitdoors” for love (as I note in the poem “Man’s Search for Meaning”).
To be a channel is great, actually. To be a channel is to be reminded that I do not need to struggle to fill the holes inside with anything glittery. It is to be reminded that I actually like going inside the holes. I just keep forgetting I like it in there.
As a daily reminder that I actually do like the holes, I’ve been reciting the Prayer of Saint Francis for sixteen years. The first line of the prayer asks that I be made a channel, so my attention is directed right away to that emptiness as something ideal.
The prayer asks for a lot of other things, too: that “where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,” and other challenging aspirations for a human like me. As I note in the title of my poem “The Saint Francis Prayer Is a Tall Order,” the Saint Francis Prayer really is a tall order. But I’d like to think that when it comes to the channel part, some of these poems are a reflection of my prayers. I mean, I don’t want to be a spiritual materialist. But all of these poems were written between 2006 and 2016—at the height of my Saint Francis Prayer-ing. So, maybe.
I also like framing my amnesia as to the creation of these poems in terms of mystery. Mystery is an element I’ve always loved about poetry: the space a poem makes for the unknown. In a time where certitude is very trendy (maybe it was always trendy, but it feels especially hot now), I love that a poem can be a vessel for living in the questions themselves, a sphere of ambiguity, a celebration of negative capability, a field for the beginner’s mind, a braid of darkness and light, a little fortress of sacred pause. Reader, do not doubt that you can fully experience these poems without “understanding” them intellectually or drawing any conclusions about them. I invite you to do whatever you want with them, of course. But know that I am re-experiencing them now without understanding how they happened.
And yet, it has always been my fear as an artist that one day I will just lose it. This itness is hard to define, but it involves the muse, the gift, the way, the talent, the ability, the inspiration, the craft; any multitude of its, really, intrinsic to creation.
Creative friends tell me this is not possible. You cannot just lose it. Sure, sometimes when you turn on the proverbial creative sink, a little rust comes out. But it’s just a question of leaving the faucet on long enough to let the rust run out. Then, the pure water comes.
Still, I lack faith in the inevitability of pure water. And when I look at these poems and do not know how I wrote them, or if I would have the capacity to write a strong poem again, I feel concerned. What will disappear next?
In all fairness to the faucet, the Muses, and I guess, to myself, I haven’t been actively writing poems since the last of these were written in 2016. I have since turned to the dark side, which is to say, I have been writing prose.
When I lived in New York City, I used to write my poems on the train. I am a perfectionist, hard on myself, and so I’ve always preferred to write my first drafts while in motion or in a place where I’m not supposed to be writing (like a funeral), rather than at an “official writing place” like a desk. This is because I need to trick the critic within me into letting a first draft just be whatever it is. If I don’t encourage messiness and imperfection, there will be no first draft at all.
In the fall of 2013, I left New York and moved to Los Angeles—not for the sake of my writing, but because of my partner’s health. In LA, I could no longer write poems while in transit. It’s just not safe to be typing up poems while driving on the 405. Instead, I found myself dictating words into my phone using Siri and a free notes app while I drove. The geographic change, and resulting dictation, altered my writing. My line breaks disappeared. The language became more conversational. What was once poetic output became essays. The essays became a book called So Sad Today.
During this time, I completed the poems that appear in Last Sext. But after Last Sext, my remaining poetic energies were redirected as I dictated the first draft of my novel The Pisces. While The Pisces celebrates Sappho, and hopefully, at its best, resonates with the rhythm and music of lyric poetry, it is decidedly prose.
The writing of prose finally allowed me—in my midthirties—to become a full-time writer, able to support myself on writing alone. Let’s be honest, poetry doesn’t make it rain. And I love that these poems were absent of profit motive. Did I write them to survive? Yes. But the survival was psychological and spiritual, rather than a question of putting food on my table. I was always a poet with a day job.
When I look back over these selected poems, I see the same psychospiritual and mythopoetic themes that inspire my prose writing. We write our obsessions, and mine seem to be—in these poems and now in prose—sex, death, consumption, God, spiritual longing, earthly longing, and holes. It’s nice to know that being able to eat off my creations hasn’t changed my preoccupations. But, when art and commerce mix, there is inevitably another internal critical voice that joins the chorus of internal voices appraising our text. The voice says, “Can I eat off this?” In these poems, that voice was beautifully silent.
This brings me to the one element that I do remember about the creation of these poems. It isn’t a process, or a craft note, but a feeling. Many nights, I wrote on the subway between 137th Street in Manhattan and Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. I remember feeling, at times, during that commute, like I was disappearing in the best of ways. On these rides, flying through the darkness of the tunnels, I would become obsessed with a piece of a particular poem I was working on: a syllabic beat, or finding the perfect word.
On the subway, I would disappear into rhythmic counting or the hunt for the word. I would forget that I was riding in a subway car. In a way, I was no longer riding in a subway car but riding in a poem. This is the best kind of vanishing. This is my favorite transcendence.
It would be my joy, reader, if you find in some of these poems a bit of transcendence for yourself. I wish for you only the very best kind of vanishing. If you need respite from the body, I hope you get it. If you need freedom from the space-time continuum, that, too. I won’t even mention the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
At the very least, I hope you enjoy a few of these poems, once written by someone, who I’m told is me.
Melissa Broder is the author of Superdoom. She has also written the novels Milk Fed and The Pisces, the essay collection So Sad Today, and four poetry collections, including Last Sext. Broder has written for the New York Times, Vice, Elle.com, Vogue Italia, and The Cut. She is the winner of a Pushcart Prize for poetry. She lives in Los Angeles.
Excerpted from Superdoom: Poems, by Melissa Broder. Printed with permission from Tin House. Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Broder.
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