INTERVIEW: Melissa Broder, Author of MEAT HEART
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Julia Jackson
Melissa Broder is one of those bright spots on the publishing scene — she’s really sweet and well-dressed and smart and funny, and is involved in a ton of cool stuff. Example #1 of said cool stuff: She runs Polestar Poetry Series, which is monthly and usually at Cake Shop. Example #2: She co-edits La Petite Zine, which “seeks to be un-boring, a panacea for your emotional hangover” (and succeeds). Example #3: She’s a regular contributor to one of my favorite (and quite possibly yours, too) literary websites, HTML Giant. Example #4: During the day, she is a publicity manager for Penguin, with authors such as Emma Straub and Danielle Evans. And Example #5: She’s an accomplished poet herself, with publishing credits ranging from Barrelhouse, Guernica, The Collagist, PANK, to The Awl.
Like a lot of fiction heads out there with our heads stuck in a short story collection (replace “a short story collection” with “our asses,” if you prefer), I have a difficult time with modern poetry. With most of it, I can’t really tell if the arrangement and choice of words makes it good or merely pleasant. But this isn’t the case with Broder’s work. In Meat Heart, her second collection, which came out a few weeks ago from Publishing Genius, Broder’s words slay. Here is a definitive voice, one with a sharp edge, a dark, hallucinatory vision, and a punk rock attitude. And, hidden among the jagged pieces, is beauty, and a very serious sense of humor. In a world of poetry that I feel mostly confused by and ambivalent about, here is something I most certainly and definitively like.
Julia Jackson: You open the collection with a T.S. Eliot quote that says: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.” Despite the dreamlike logic that many of your poems seem to follow, these poems appear, to me at least, to be chock full of reality: Slim Jims, Kurt Cobain, crackheads in Penn Station, and vomit. Are these almost hyperreal details non-reality, somehow?
Melissa Broder: To me that quote addresses a human desire to escape the constraints of the body and other laws of this dimension. Eliot tried to do it through Christianity. Others use different vehicles. All of the images that you bring up, while grounded in the concrete, are concerned with escapism. Kurt Cobain, the social romanticism of his suicide and his use of heroin to get out of darkbrain and stomach aches, embodies one type of flight. Slim Jims, within the context of the book (and in some people’s mouths) possess magical pleasure-powers. Vomiting is both a primal and purifying act. So all of these images address the conversion of the tangible to the transcendental. Whether that conversion is successful or lasting is a different story.
JJ: One theme I noticed is how you treat cowboys as a near-mythological creature. This is something I can relate to: Cowboys — in my head, at least — seem so masculine, noble, and pure (and also sexy) that they simply can’t exist in real life. Which makes me think of one of my Favorite Songs of All Time, “Cowboy Song” by Thin Lizzy, which has always struck me as sweet and hilarious because it’s a black guy from Ireland singing about and idealizing the life of a cowboy. So what is it that you are trying to capture with cowboys?
MB: I’ve always been drawn to the cowboy myth too, especially when the cowboys are hot like in Young Guns II. In MEAT HEART the cowboy is a human who embraces reality. He is good at being alive. He is someone whose outsides you might compare to your insides and feel shitty. When the speaker tries on the persona of cowgirl, she renounces earthly concerns only to discover there really is magic right here on the planet. The cowboy knows this already.
JJ: God/spirituality/religion and meat appear in many of your poems, and seem to be treated similarly. Do you see a relationship between meat and God? (Or, at least, the way we as a society perceive meat and God?) If the savior comes, should we nail him to a beef cross?
MB: This is a good question and I don’t know if I have an answer. But I can tell you what the relationship isn’t. It’s not about the function of meat in traditional religions, like the dietary restrictions of Judaism and Islam, or the lamb of Christianity, or the sacred cow. It might have something to do with the heart, the limitations of the heart, and that it is made of meat. As for the language of religion, the churchiness, I was born and raised Jewish. But the type of Judaism I was brought up in was very secular and not super-spiritual. So I’ve always been a seeker. I don’t ascribe to any one religion now but I am fascinated by church imagery, in particular: megachurches, superbelievers, glossolalia, pot lucks and cults. I fetishize cults. I would love to be brainwashed. It is a fantasy of mine for someone to think for me. So there is this kitsch appeal surrounding organized religion. At the same time, I have an ongoing relationship with a god I don’t understand that is not rooted in any one religion. I get to explore all that in my work.
JJ: When do you write your poems? Normally, I would assume that a person managed to accomplish so much by simply not having a social life, but you seem to be everywhere, all the time.
MB: I write on the subway and I write walking. I don’t have an iPhone ’cause I need the old school Blackberry keyboard to type.
JJ: I know you’re slowly but surely working your way through a poetry MFA at City College. What’s it like to study and write while having a full-time job? Have you gotten to meet and work with anybody who’s particularly awesome?
MB: I don’t know a life other than constant motion. I have to meditate in the morning, because otherwise I’d never allow myself to get quiet. That pause is clutch — especially as a compulsive person. At city I’ve gotten to work with awesome poets: Marilyn Hacker, Elaine Equi and David Groff. They let me go slow.
JJ: What are the last five things you fell in love with?
— Melissa Broder is the author of two collections of poems, MEAT HEART and WHEN YOU SAY ONE THING BUT MEAN YOUR MOTHER. Recent poems appear in Guernica, Court Green, Redivider, The Missouri Review, et al. She edits La Petite Zine. By day she is a publicity manager at Penguin.
— Julia Jackson is the editor of Electric Dish. Find her on the internet here.