Welcome to the one hundred and seventieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with poet Melissa Lee-Houghton. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Melissa. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Melissa: I wrote my first poem when I was about seven years old. It was about scuba diving and my teacher stapled it to the wall. When I was a little older I wrote a story about someone dying and won a competition; so I’ve always written, it has always appealed to me. As a teenager, I never had enough discipline to keep a proper journal, but I loved to write letters. I found Sylvia Plath’s collected works in a bookshop with my parents, not knowing who she was and bought the book even though they told me I wouldn’t like it; I loved and treasured it. At college I realised there was a wealth of untapped poetry magazines and writers, more than I could ever wish to read and this excited me. I wanted so much to be a part of it.
Morgen: I’ve had a surprising (to me anyway) number of authors who say they started young… it’s wonderful. 🙂 Poetry is so popular and yet, like short stories, seems so undervalued by the industry. Do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem?
Melissa: I write free verse; I need freedom and room to write my way through an idea with as much space for development as possible. The prose poem / prose thing is complex because I often think that some writers don’t see the difference themselves. What is clear in prose is that it need not employ rhythm, sound and metaphor in the same way a poem would; I feel I would personally look for a contained, fully realised idea or theme in a prose poem. A prose poem requires some element of coherence. It needs an element of poetic inquiry.
Morgen: I’ve never been taught to write poetry (and I write it rarely) but I listen to the poets in my writing group and even the prose they write (more so during our writing workshops) I’d say has those features. It’s a real skill. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Melissa: I edit now more than ever. Working on the final edits of A Body Made of You, really taught me a lot about the careful process of editing work for others to read. I edited a poem recently from 1000 words to 1000 characters.
Morgen: Wow, that’s paring, and about… 200 words.
Melissa: It felt really good. When I began writing and submitting work, the most prominent response from editors was that I needed careful, unsparing editing. It has taken thirteen years to realise exactly what that means.
Morgen: Well I’ve been writing for about six years so I’m half-way there. 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Melissa: I think writer’s block is a very common phenomenon. You have to write your way through it by writing whatever comes into your head.
Morgen: You do, like free-writing… hopefully the subconscious will kick in. 🙂
Melissa: You have to learn discipline and not get complacent. I don’t believe there is always a spark and a constant flow of ideas, you have to put in a lot of hard work. People will say, you can’t force it, but I don’t see why not. You can still write with energy and conviction without that powerful tool of inspiration; use prompts, get someone else to supply them if you can.
Melissa: I find that, like the Surrealists, walking around is an excellent way to go about writing something. If I have an inkling of an idea, I nurture it by wandering somewhere familiar. Sometimes I’m so preoccupied with my thoughts I don’t see what’s going on around me, I just feel the rhythm of my footsteps and mentally build on the momentum.
Morgen: Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Melissa: My husband vets everything. He isn’t a writer, but he makes a fantastic editor and he’s very honest, so I can depend on him for an initial critique. I am so grateful for the many, ‘it’s good, but it’s not good enough’ responses. It’s great when he does really like something his face lights up! It’s wonderful to have that.
Morgen: Isn’t it. I try to get my dog’s face to light with my writing but sadly it still takes the words ‘treat’, ‘park’ and ‘cuddle’ to do that. I get an electronic version from my editor when she particularly likes something I’ve written but again not a substitute. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Melissa: It varies for me. Sometimes the constraint of having noise and children fluttering about helps me to focus. I generally write in my dining room, though I do have a writing room upstairs. Sometimes, any noise disturbs me and I can become very tetchy! I often listen to a piece of music in headphones over and over until I’m not completely conscious of it and write almost to the rhythm. I can’t do this with just any music. There are a couple of songs and pieces by John Cale that always work for me.
Morgen: As in JJ Cale? I like him, especially Money Talks and Teardrops in my Tequila. 🙂
Melissa: If I’m writing from experience, I search my ipod to find a song that reminds me of that time in my life and draw on it for inspiration.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Melissa: I love having an idea to toy with. I like to brainstorm on paper and the initial buzz of getting into a first draft is exhilarating. I hate having ideas in the middle of the night. I used to get up and stay awake all night, but these days I don’t have the energy.
Morgen: Oh dear. I know that feeling. When I first went to creative writing classes I’d send out morse code messages because I kept waking up and switching my light on and off – the dog must have thought I was mad. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Melissa: My first collection started life as a 108 poem manuscript and was whittled down to thirty poems! A lot of them were good poems, but I had to create a coherent manuscript to present to each of the portrait sitters. But all the original poems will remain lost.
Morgen: Oh dear. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Melissa: I have a chapbook-length collection which I’m hoping to have published next year. It’s been two years in the making and I have yet to finish editing it. If a poem isn’t working I just scrap it. I don’t want to be known for mediocre work and I am really hoping that this collection comes together. Then I will work on my second collection. I want to have a clear idea and plan, which takes time. With A Body Made of You, I had a distinct notion; to write portraits of people whose lives or personalities interested me. I like to have a concept or theme in my work. I think my chapbook manuscript has been so long in the making because I haven’t had that. It seems the poems have found common ground organically. Themes crop up and ideas have settled within them.
Morgen: One of my poets has spent six years on her first pamphlet (and six years on one of the pieces I think!) so two years sounds pretty good going. What do you like to read? Any authors you could recommend?
Melissa: There are plenty of new voices in the poetry jungle. I love Salt’s John McCullough, whose collection, The Frost Fairs was released this year and Clare Pollard’s The Changeling by Bloodaxe books. There are always good poetry pamphlets to introduce you to new authors. I would pick Love’s Loose Ends by David Tait, a Smith / Doorstop pamphlet collection. Penned in the Margins, produce poetry to die for. Their author Michael Egan, was recently commended by the Forward Prize for his first collection, Steak and Stations, which I thoroughly recommend. I also read a lot of novels and recently, Lee Rourke’s The Canal was quite special.
Morgen: 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites that you find useful and would recommend?
Melissa: The Short Review is a fantastic index of short story writers and collections and a comprehensive guide to short fiction, which I dabble in when the mood takes me. There are loads of excellent blogs out there. I love Peony Moon which showcases poets and their work and gains a good deal of worldwide interest.
Morgen: Ah yes, I’ve heard of The Short Review (note to self: check them out for my short stories :)). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Thank you Melissa. Good luck with your collection.
Melissa Lee-Houghton was born in Wythenshawe, Manchester in 1982. Her first collection, ‘A Body Made of You’ published by Penned In The Margins, was released earlier this year. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in literary magazines such as Poetry Salzburg, The New Writer, Magma and Tears in the Fence. Her poem, ‘Jim’ was recently included in Starry Rhymes, a chapbook published by Read This Press. She is a regular reviewer for The Short Review.
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