I learned a lot about the poet activist from reading the blogs of Melissa Tuckey, a blogger at Everyday Citizen. Melissa is a poet who strongly believes in the power of poetry to act as agents of change, to engage readers in many of the important issues of society. This philosophy led Tuckey to serve as the events coordinator for DC Poets Against the War and to serve as a founding co-director of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival, while she was living in Washington, DC. She has written a chapbook, “Rope As Witness” for Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in the Southeast Review, Poet Lore, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Terrain: A Journal of Built and Natural Environments, and others. Melissa currently lives in Ithaca, New York.
How did you become interested in poetry? Was it something that you first loved when you were in school?
I first encountered poetry at about age 14. I had a teacher who was a poet and he introduced us to Whitman and Dickinson. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson. Her sense of isolation matched mine, and the mystery of her writing was intimate. I slept with her book. My teacher Robert West, was very supportive, he read every poem I wrote and would meet with me during office hours to discuss books.
As a poet/activist, you are walking in a long and proud tradition. What poets have played a strong influence in your duel roles as a poet/activist? Are there any particular poetry books that have had a profound influence on you?
As far as politically engaged poets who have influenced my work, a few include Wendell Berry, Mahmoud Darwish, Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Forche, June Jordan, WS Merwin, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, and many others. The styles of these poets differ, but each has given me a kind of permission in my writing. June Jordan was the first poet I heard read who made me realize poetry could be both passionate and political, that it could be urgent and necessary; it could move you to tears or make you jump up and want to do something. Grace Paley brought so much joy to her writing as well as politics. I love her short stories and read them again and again. And I admire the fierceness of Adrienne Rich’s work, her refusal to look away, her commitment to language. Adrienne Rich’s prose been influential, starting with “What is Found There,” which is a book about the intersection of poetry and politics.
Your poetry appears in magazines like Southeast Review, Poet Lore, and the Belway Poetry Quarterly. What is your process for writing your poems? Do you have a favorite spot to write or draw inspiration from?
My writing process is not very romantic. I sit at a computer and write. I keep a small notebook with me to jot down phrases and ideas, and I’ve started keeping folders to hold converging ideas, notes from readings, and poems. Over time, I’ve learned that poetry doesn’t come when I call it, or when I sit down with an “idea” to write about. It comes from a feeling, or a sound, or word, or maybe a question or an image, a starting place that opens up in some way to surprise me as I am writing. There are themes I am interested in, and my goal is to find ways to approach, a sideways glance, an open window, a list of words.
You were the events coordinator of D.C. Poets Against the War, a group of poets who used their poetry to protest the Iraq War. What was that experience like? What was it like meeting other poet activists and hearing their poetry?
It was necessary. I felt so depressed by the wars, and when Sarah Browning asked me to help coordinate, I was glad to have some way to speak out. The first time I attended a DC Poets Against the War event, I drove home weeping and realized that no one around me had been talking honestly about war, not the newspapers, not friends who opposed the war, not those who supported it. Poets were bringing a profound empathy through their poetry, and challenging the dead language of war.
One of the highlights of our work was to march with signs carrying lines of poetry at protests. At one point we had maybe 70 poets marching together. People were happy to see us, though it was disappointing we could not get a national poet on the stage at the march. There were too many people representing too many organizations to allow room for a poet, even a nationally renowned poet. Too much talking, not enough poetry!
In a January 4, 2009 blog for Everyday Citizen, you mention the power of words to shape how we see a particular issue, in this case the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. You’ve also contributed to the poetry anthology “Poets For Palestine”. What has led you to be interested in this particular issue?
I’ve been interested in this issue for years. I’d say my main enthusiasm for the issue comes from having met Palestinians and heard their stories, and little by little having learned the history. I feel strongly for the people who have lost their homes, who are losing their homes, who are imprisoned, or living under occupation. It reminds me of the plight of indigenous people in the United States and elsewhere, and I feel it’s a great loss to destroy such a beautiful culture and people. My love for Palestine is also influenced by it’s great poets and intellectuals, and I am moved by the incredible cruelty against these people– the ripping out of hundreds of years old olive trees to break the bonds of people to their ancestral land, the bulldozing of homes, the closing of schools. And in Gaza, control of their borders is a crime against humanity.
What has it been like teaching in Ithaca College and the University of Maryland? Has the exposure to young students been an invigorating experience for you?
I’ve taught at a number of universities and I really enjoy it. I view the classroom as a dynamic experience, where students play an active role in shaping the conversation and we all learn something. Many young people are bored and not engaged intellectually, and I enjoy the challenge of tapping into their curiosity. I also love being part of a conversation about literature or writing or language.
The Split This Rock Poetry Festival sounds like a wonderful gathering for poets and activists to get together to socialize and learn from each other. You served as assistant festival director and a founding co-director. Would you tell me how you got involved in this festival? How did this festival come into being?
I became involved with Split This Rock when Sarah Browning asked me to take over organizing responsibilities for DC Poets Against the War, so she could work on creating a national festival. A small group of poets began to meet to talk through the logistics two years ahead of the first festival. We came up with a list of our favorite politically engaged poets and sent letters to invite them, never expecting that every one would agree to participate. We had no money to pay them. We had no venue. We had no idea who would attend and all 27 of our poet-heroes agreed to participate (!!), and then we began to hear from people around the country who also wanted to participate. It was a stampede. Eventually, everything came together, we raised the money, we recruited volunteers, participants traveled from across the country and the first festival happened. There was a synergy to it, all the right energies coming together. In the process we decided to create not just a festival, but an organization, something that could carry the momentum forward.
It was a huge success because it answered a need in the poetry community, to speak out, to engage, to build community, not just in opposition to the war, but in celebration of the great tradition of politically engaged poetry. Split This Rock also answers a need in the activist community, for vision, imagination, empathic engagement. In addition, it’s one of the most culturally and poetically diverse poetry festivals in the country, and this is a strong part of our mission.
In the Split This Rock Poetry Festival website, it mentions that you are a co-translator with Chun Ye and Fiona Sze-Lorrain of Chinese poet Yang Zi’s collected works. I’m not familiar with Yang Zi. Would you tell us a little about Yang Zi and his poetry?
Yang Zi is a contemporary Chinese poet. His poems confront rampant consumerism, materialism, destruction of the environment and culture in China. His poems are lyric and moving, a singular “I” speaking back in an era of rapid deterioration. For example, he writes, “what a city. / eight million people dream the same dream: money, money, money!” I find his book to be a dire warning.
This year, the Split This Rock Poetry Festival will celebrate the life and work of poet June Jordan. Would you tell us about June Jordan? How would interested people participate in this year’s festival?
June Jordan was a poet, writer, teacher, activist who continues to inspire both activists and poets. This is the tenth anniversary of her death, and she is deeply missed by the poetry community. The festival is from March 22-25, and lasts four days. There are panel discussions and writing workshops during the day, and readings in the evening, featuring such poets as Homero Aridjis, Alice Walker, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sam Hammill, Sonia Sanchez, and more. There will also be a “money is not speech” protest in front of the Supreme Court. It’s going to be an inspiring event. All are welcome.
Full registration is already sold out, but limited day passes are available, get yours today at
A YOUTUBE VIDEO OF JUNE JORDAN
YOUTUBE VIDEOS FROM PAST SPLIT THIS ROCK POETRY FESTIVALS
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen