What a privilege it's been to work with poet extraordinaire Melissa Green towards the publishing of her memoir, The Linen Way, an account of her friendships with Nobel prize-winning poets Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky, both of whom treated her from her student days as the colleague-in-poetry that she was. Not incidentally, the memoir also outlines her lifelong wrestle with mental illness, an odyssey made on a knife-edge between Thanatos and the Muse, between suicide and poetry.
Melissa, can you recall what prompted you to begin writing The Linen Way?
In 1995, after I finished my first memoir, Color Is the Suffering of Light, people asked me when I planned to write the next installment, and at the time, I was convinced I’d never write anything smacking of memoir again.
It was a gesture that began it.
In 2010, Derek Walcott read at Lesley College near Harvard from his new book, White Egrets. Rather than stand at the podium, he sat ensconced in an elegant armchair center-stage and read in an old man’s rill, a startling trickle of sand where I’d always heard his deep rich basso. In my mind’s eye, Derek was still 53 as he had been when we first met, and though I knew in my head that 30 years had passed and he was in his 80s, I felt terribly moved when I saw how he had aged.
After the reading, Rosanna Warren, George Kalogeris and I went back to the Green
Room and I gave Derek a reprint of the book we’d worked on together, The Squanicook Eclogues. This time it was dedicated to him, as it should have been the first time. He beamed magnificently as he took the book, turned it from side to side, and when he read what I’d written inside, he slapped his hand down hard on the table with joy—exactly as he had when he’d read the manuscript for the first time in 1982—and said in the strong familiar voice of the Derek I remembered, “The Squanicook Eclogues*! The best thing I ever did!”
Joseph [Brodsky] wrote that the "Squanicook Eclogues" were wonderful, that Virgil himself would be proud of them. And he read some of the early Héloïse [mentioned next] and thought those poems were even better than the Squanicook.
with prizes from the Poetry Society of America
and the Academy of American Poets.]
Will you tell us about your most challenging writing project?
The lyrical novel called Très Riches Hours de la Belle Héloïse is the book I’ve spent the most time on and lavished with the deepest love. I gave it a chance to appear in every guise, let it graze in the pastures as it wished, and did not hurry it. It was a very difficult project, presenting me with enormous puzzles I had to invent ways to solve, and taught me a galaxy’s worth about our wonderful English language.
It came to me in 1984 in a stifling attic room on my brother’s farm where I had been struggling for weeks in a very deep spell of despair. It was conquering my speech, my appetite, my movement; it had robbed me of reading, writing, sleep and any self-care. I was too tired to weep, the sorrow was too weighty, and I believed that if the tears began to fall, they would never stop.
One night in the humid silence, I suddenly heard a voice quite firmly and clearly say, “Héloïse and Abélard.” I sat bolt upright, confused and a bit alarmed. Who? Hero and Leander? Tristan and Isolde? No. I’d heard correctly. But what about them? I felt alert, awake for the first time in months. What was their story? I knew nothing about them. I racked my brain until dawn without success, feeling a kind of current course through my defeated self, and as soon as it was decently light, I did what I hadn’t been able to do for months: I washed. Dressed. Made tea and toast. Got in the car and drove to the public library and spent that Saturday sitting on the floor in the stacks reading their beautiful and broken love story. I was completely overwhelmed as my numb fingers combed through the card catalog. The voice in the attic had been forceful and emphatic. Yes, I had been given work. And knew two things: it was an enormous project. And that I wouldn’t be able to write it until I was a much older woman.
I was able to finish Très Riches Hours de la Belle Héloïse during a spell of hypomania, the same summer I wrote The Linen Way, right before I spent two months in the hospital. But it took me 27 years, actually. Like shape-shifting Proteus, the book would not stay still. It metamorphosed from poetry, to prose, to drama, to opera, back to poetry. I couldn’t find its organic form. Héloïse had not appeared much in English literature other than in Alexander Pope’s poem. Whenever I felt like abandoning the project, I found I couldn’t. It sometimes seemed as if she had been waiting nine hundred years for her story to be told. Nine hundred years for me.
What writing pots do you currently have simmering or being filled or even sitting, lidded, on a cold stove?
I’ve just finished The Marsh Poems, much of which was written when I was a member of ‘Tuesday Poem’ and which appeared on my blog, melissagreenpoems.
Italo Calvino wrote a short lyrical essay about Paolo Uccello’s large, crowded and most famous painting, The Battle of San Romano. Vasari and his peers had written that Uccello, which means ‘little bird’, loved birds so much that his courtyard, house and studio were full of them, that they even perched and sang from the top edge of whatever canvas he was working on, yet none appear in any of his paintings. Calvino stood before The Battle of San Romano, and using it as a scrim between himself and the painter, asked him a single question: ‘Where are all the birds, Uccello?’ I can imagine writing an entire book of lyrical essays or perhaps prose-poems on paintings I love in much the same way.
Who are the writers you wouldn't want to live without?
There are writers I go to for the strength and power of the lines, their language. There are writers I go to because they evoke feeling, and their own feelings on the page give me enormous comfort. Theirs are also the books I would grab and run out with if the house were on fire:
G. Sebald’s novels
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
Six Memos for the Millennium by Italo Calvino
Paul Celan, Miklós Radnotí, Czesław Miłosz, Osip Mandlestam, Hart Crane, James Wright, Thomas Hardy, Patrick Kavanagh, Emily Dickinson, Marina Tsvetaeva
Deep Song by Federico Garcia Lorca
Waterland by Graham Swift
Godric by Frederick Buechner
Barbarians in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert
The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch
The Jewel House: Elizabethan London & the Scientific Revolution
by Deborah Harkness
The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants
by Anna Pavord
Furore & Mystery by Rene Char
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
Rodin and Other Writings and Letters on Cézanne by Rainier Maria Rilke
Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth
Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan