Melissa Tuckey Interview

The editorial staff of Miracle Monocle was pleased to secure poems from the poet and activist, Melissa Tuckey, for publication in our eleventh issue. But we wanted to hear more from this writer. Fortunately, she was willing to share her thoughts with poetry editor, Grace Ann Rogers. The following is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity: 

Grace Ann Rogers: In reading your 2013 book, Tenuous Chapel, alongside these more recent poems that we are publishing in Miracle Monocle, I am struck by your ability to meld the daily experiences of modern life with subject matter that is clearly driven by environmental and social justice activism. It feels incredibly important to be writing pieces that make their political nature clear, but also draw on emotional experiences that pull readers into the flow of gratitude for the diversity of life on this planet. I instinctually think of these elements in your poetry as two different pieces of a whole, but I’m wondering if you see them as separate aspects of your work, or if you feel any distinction between them? How do you feel that the syntactical and emotional function of your poems relate to the political claims that they make?

Melissa Tuckey: I came into poetry after working for ten years as a writer and organizer in the environmental movement. For much of that time, I was working for an organization that was fighting for safe disposal of chemical weapons. It was intense work. I do think when I first starting writing poetry, coming out of that work, I was puzzled by how to meld these experiences. As a graduate student in Ohio in the late nineties, I was also in a workshop environment that was fairly apolitical, and in some ways hostile to the idea of political poetry. I was glad that one of my teachers led me to Adrienne Rich as a model, and from there I found other models for socially engaged poetry. Rich’s book of essays, What is Found There, helped me understand what it meant to be both politically engaged and a poet. She writes,

“The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet."

I’ve always liked this as a way of explaining political poetry—poetry is embodiment and a world-view.  It’s not something outside of ourselves. The melding is in the body itself; it’s of our life experience.  That ability to hold all of these separate interests in one work (emotional experience, politics, nature, history, etc.) is part of what I love about poetry. I also love that poetry can move by association and grapple with the inexplicable.  

There was a time when I felt divided, as if political were some kind of separate work from poetry. And it’s true that political speech is very different from poetry. But neither is really separate from the other. Finding a community of socially engaged poets—and seeking out poets to read in the lineage really helped me expand my understanding of what a poem could be. At this point, I would say that love of the natural world, love of justice, and awareness of emotional experience are not separate for me. I’m very interested in how these connect, which is partly what drew me to poetry.

GAR:  What issues have you focused on primarily in your activism over the years, and how has your poetry interacted with this activism? I’d also like to know a little bit more about the work that you do with the organization Split This Rock. How did you come to co-found the organization, and how has it rewarded and challenged you since its founding? 

MT: My work as an activist has been in social justice and environment. These interests fuel my poetry. Not only in Tenuous Chapel, but also in my most recent project, as editor of Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (UGA 2018). That project is a deep exploration of the relationship between the environment and social justice and it’s fed my own work considerably. I created this book because it did not yet exist and most of the eco-poetry anthologies I had read were fairly apolitical. I picked up one collection of poems in reference to climate change for example, and the poems were mostly inspirational nature poems—not poems grappling with history or politics. These collections were culturally limited. I wanted to create an anthology that responded to the complexity of crisis we are living in and I wanted to include poets who were writing from diverse cultural perspectives.

I became involved with Split This Rock via Sarah Browning and DC Poets Against the War about 12 years ago. I had recently moved to DC and I contacted Sarah and asked how I could support her work and she asked if I would be willing to coordinate DC Poets Against the War because she had another project she was working on. That other project became Split This Rock and soon I became engaged in that as well, which was to organize a national poetry festival calling together “poets of provocation and witness.” It was a collective endeavor of local poets who met monthly to plot it out, and a few of us, eventually became a volunteer staff. Our first festival took two years to plan and involved more than 27 featured poets. Hundreds of poets came from around the country to participate and many said they felt like they had found a home for their work.

After the first festival, we committed to founding a non-profit organization so we could continue the work and I served as founding co-director with Sarah. I’ve stayed involved with Split This Rock these last ten years in various capacities, board member, curator and Eco-Justice Poetry Coordinator.

I feel lucky to be part of this vibrant community. It gives me hope—we are a multi-cultural community engaging with all kinds of issues and intersections in a deep way. As bad as things are politically, we are shifting as a culture in some positive ways, and poetry is part of that change. 

GAR: While organizing this interview, we briefly floated the idea of conducting a roundtable discussion with a number of poets who use their work to further activism, but we ran into some obstacles during that process. I know that there must be so many artists working in justice-oriented modes, but it feels like they often slip through the cracks of institutional education for young writers and readers. Whose work is exciting you right now, and whose books do you feel should be on the radar for readers interested in social and environmental work? 

MT: Some books and writers important to my own work, have included Audre Lorde, Sister Outsiders: Essays and Speeches; Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics; Gloria Anzuldua, Borderlands: La Frontera; Muriel Rukeyser, Life of Poetry. Other forebear activist and socially engaged writers I’d recommend include James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Denise Levertov, and Grace Paley.

And of course, I also recommend the book I edited: Ghost Fishing: Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology.

There are so many poets whose work I am excited about in this moment. Here are some recent environmental and social justice related books I’ve been moved by:

Danez Smith, Don’t Call us Dead

Jennifer Elise Foerster, Bright Raft in the Afterweather: Poems

Aimee Nezhukumatahil, Oceanic

Brenda Hillman, Extra Hidden Life, Among the Days

Camille Dungy, Trophic Cascade

Esthela Calderon, The Bones of my Grandfather

J. Michael Martinez, Museum of the Americas

June Jordan, We’re On: A June Jordan Reader

Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin, Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields

GAR: In this intense political moment, it seems that many organizers are experiencing burnout, and finding themselves unable to continuously function in the mode of activism. How are you combatting this issue in your own life, and are you able to maintain self-care practices amongst all of the work that you are doing for other people? Do creativity and poetry have a role in that process, or do your poems feel ingrained in the activism as well?

MT: What a great question, Grace. I think it’s helpful to take a long view–social injustice and environmental crisis didn't begin in this most recent election. We are part of a movement that began before us and it’s work that will continue after us. I try to think strategically about the best way to contribute to the overall work and I try to think holisitically. I don't try to do everything. I make time for my own creative work, my home life, and self-care. I try to keep things in balance. I've found ways to incorporate poetry into my activism. I remind myself that cultural change is real change. It's fundamental to the whole process of change. It is not something separate from it. I take breaks from the news. I take time to read poetry and go for walks and do yoga and eat healthy. I take time for my own creative work. Poetry has been a vehicle for me to explore the complexities in the issues I’m concerned about—and it’s been a way of more deeply connecting to others around these concerns.