First Book Poets in Conversation:
Marie-Elizabeth Mali & Melissa Stein

Marie-Elizabeth Mali is the author of Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011) and co-editor with Annie Finch of the forthcoming anthology, Villanelles (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets, 2012). She serves as co-curator for the Page Meets Stage reading series in New York City and her work has appeared in Calyx, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others. For more information, please visit her website at, and her blog at
Melissa Stein's poetry collection Rough Honey won the 2010 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Mark Doty, and was published by American Poetry Review in association with Copper Canyon Press. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2009, Harvard Review, North American Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She has received residency fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Djerassi Foundation, and her work has won awards from Spoon River Poetry Review, Literal Latte, and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, among others. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of California at Davis, and is a freelance editor and writer in San Francisco. (

Marie-Elizabeth Mali: Hi Melissa! Thank you for agreeing to do this First Books Conversation with me. I want to start with several 101-type questions: Did you submit Rough Honey to many contests before it won the APR/Honickman Prize? Did you also submit to open reading periods? What's your take on getting a first book out there into the world? Is the contest the main way to go at this point in time?
Melissa Stein: Delighted to be chatting about our books! Jumping right in: I submitted Rough Honey to a rather alarming number of contests over a period of 15 months before winning the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. (Imagine how many contests would seem like a lot to you, then double it, at least.) That was after submitting earlier incarnations of the manuscript—including two full manuscripts at one point—to a vastly more frightening number of contests over several years. During open reading periods I sent manuscripts to Four Way Books and Tupelo Press (who also run contests), and I sent to Ausable Press as well. Quite often I thought about submitting to Graywolf Press and a handful of other publishers that look at unsolicited manuscripts, but I never mustered the courage. For better or worse, my thinking was that with contests the readers and judges were continually rotating, whereas I'd probably only have one shot at sending directly to publishers. I wanted to wait until I felt certain the manuscript was ready—although who knows when that would have been! I guess the truth of it is that I had to feel ready.

In an ideal world, the best work would immediately be recognized, but any quick look through literary history—or art history in general—shows that's not the case. Especially since definitions of "the best work" are always changing. With first books, having a strong manuscript seems to be just part one of the story; part two is being in the right place at the right time. I've always thought—or at least wanted to believe—that if authors are persistent and resilient enough, the books that should be published will eventually be published, whether through a contest, a small press, a collective, or another route.

What was the publishing path of Steady, My Gaze? About how long was the manuscript in development? At what point did organizing principles arise, and was there a time you felt the book was "ready"?
MEM: After graduating from Sarah Lawrence in 2009, I sent my MFA thesis to a couple of established poets for their critique. I then revised it and began sending it to contests in the fall. I, too, sent it to open reading periods at Tupelo Press and Four Way Books, as well as to a ridiculous number of contests over the course of one year. It was a finalist in one and semi-finalist in another (from which it was withdrawn when it was accepted by Tebot Bach).

Steady, My Gaze went through two title changes and three major overhauls since the first version I sent out in the fall of 2009. I continued to get critiques from a few other readers over the course of 2010, which helped me continue to refine it. The manuscript was in development for about four years (including the two years of my MFA program), with organizing principles coming in once I started ordering my thesis. Thesis poems (heavily revised) make up about half the book and the rest were written since I graduated. It's feels funny to say this, or maybe it's normal, but each time I overhauled the manuscript, I felt it was "ready," until I looked at it again a few months later with fresh eyes and could see what else needed to change.

A friend, poet Brendan Constantine, contacted me in January of 2010 to suggest I send Tebot Bach my manuscript, having gotten their permission to do so. When it went to the next round of readers in May, I sent a revised version. When they accepted it in September, I sent the final revised version (cut WAY back and re-ordered). I added three new poems in November, just before it closed to changes, which I'm very glad they let me do, since I feel those final poems really brought it together.

I agree with you that a book being published is not only about having a strong manuscript, but also about "being in the right place at the right time," as you said. I feel like that's how it happened for me, with Brendan playing a crucial role in making the introduction to my publisher.

Back to Rough Honey: In the introduction, Mark Doty mentions that many young poets choose a "controlling project" for their first books and how you seek "out whatever [you] can use for the needs of a particular poem" instead. I'm interested in this tension in contemporary poetry between the book-length project and a collection of poems. My book, like yours, is a collection of poems, but before it got taken, a poet-friend said I should focus my energy on writing a book-length project. Did you ever consider writing a book-length project as your first book or were you always clear that this book would be a collection of poems? Where do you stand on the topic of "controlling projects" versus collections?
MS: An intriguing topic! I'm curious to know the reasons your poet friend gave for his/her advice—was it artistically driven, po-biz-driven, based on something you'd already discussed…? And what were your feelings about following that advice?

I was really grateful for Mark Doty's discussion of "project books" in the introduction he wrote for Rough Honey. He mentions two advantages: "the poet gains leverage for the making of more poems… And the book can be readily described, both by poet and publisher." These are no small matters! But Rough Honey would never have been a project book because—so far, at least—that's just not how I operate as a poet. I write intuitively and move from obsession to obsession. Sometimes this produces a poem series, or a group of poems related to each other in ways overt or subliminal, but quite often each work is its own little world. (I often call myself a writing commitmentphobe and joke that this is why I can't see myself writing fiction—I'd be constitutionally incapable of sticking with the same characters and plot for the necessary length of time. Keeping lots of poems going at once suits me well.)

While I have a few ideas for long poems and series that I hope to have sustained enough time/imagination to work on at some point, when I think of a book as a coherent project it becomes a task with blanks to fill in, and something in me rebels. In his introduction, Mark hit the nail on the head: "As soon as I decide to make a book of short lyrics, or to develop a long sequence attending to animal lives, my imagination seems to insist on something else." I can see that for some poets a project might instead be a springboard, in the way that I view traditional forms, for instance: there is a measure of comfort in knowing there are parameters, and those parameters can free you by taking you in directions you otherwise wouldn't have gone in. That's the best of both worlds. But (so far) not how it works for me. So again, I was delighted to see Mark's comment "Coherence has its virtues, but perhaps a market economy in which a plethora of poets strives to be noticed tends to overvalue them.…Perhaps, out of…variety, principles of unity emerge which are subtler and more complex than those consciously chosen."

Reading Mark's introduction did reinforce my notion about the right place and right time, as for quite a while I wondered whether my book was "the kind that would win a contest," since in some ways it works against identifiably "winning" criteria (certain kinds of coherence being high on the list). When he chose my book for the prize, I felt a certain amount of relief that books like mine, however that can be defined, do have a chance at publication. A manuscript may have one strong poem after another, but if it requires deep reading/repeated readings to see what holds them together—exploring rather than answering what is this poet saying?—it seems to me there may be more of a chance of it being passed over in the evaluation process, especially if the one doing the evaluating is faced with a stack of 20 or 50 or 100 manuscripts. When we make choices that are public in some way, we often need to defend them; what is challenging to articulate may be difficult to defend.

Switching gears: I've been in several discussions with other poets lately (including in an AWP panel) about the issue of persona and the relationship of the poet to the narrator of her/his poems. My take on this is that every poem is a persona poem in a sense because we process our perceptions, emotions, and thoughts through language. Even when I'm writing about events from my life and feelings I had about them, there's still a remove because they become language that I consciously work into a poem. (Plus there are the things I just plain make up in the service of what Julie Sheehan calls "poetic integrity"!)

Many of the poems in Steady, My Gaze have an intimate, confiding voice and details that appear to be biographical, and I'd guess that many readers are likely to interpret the narrator of the poems as being Marie-Elizabeth Mali. How do you feel about that, and how does it relate to your intentions for the book and your writing in general?
MEM: With regards to your first question, my friend's reason for suggesting I create a "project book" was that, in his opinion, most poetry books that win major awards tend to be cohesive projects. I felt overwhelmed by his suggestion to take the one or two best, most representative poems and start over with a "project book," so I didn't end up taking his advice. But our conversation did inspire me to overhaul and streamline the manuscript in a necessary way.

I, too, was really grateful for Mark's discussion of the topic in the introduction to Rough Honey, because it gave me another point of view on the subject, one more aligned with my typical creative process since I'm also unable to corral my imagination in a particular direction for a sustained length of time.

Ah, what a great question about persona and narrators! I, too, see every poem as a persona poem in that ANY speaker is, by definition, a construct, even one who is very close to my actual "I" and even when the details in the poem happen to be factual. I, too, will make up details if it serves the poem at hand.

I don't have a problem with people assuming the narrator is me, although I do take any opportunity I get to make clear that my relationship to the speaker of the poems is as removed as my relationship to "me." Sometimes I'm very enmeshed with "me" and sometimes I'm aware that "me" is a conglomeration of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and memories, i.e., not something fixed or even entirely real. I'm now thinking that perhaps that sense of distance I feel from the "I" allows me to be more intimate in my work with less regard for what people will think.

When I write, in addition to sound and imagery, both of which I'm always attuned to, I'm striving to reach an emotional core, to discover some deeper layer that will hopefully resonate with a similar place in the reader/listener. Basically, I think that the deeper one goes within oneself, into one's own specificity, the more one begins to access a place that is universal. I want people to see themselves in what I write, so if that makes my writing more intimate and confiding, then so be it. I don't feel much need to clarify what's factual and what's made up, figuring that if it touches on some kind of truth then I've done my job. I also have a feeling that my work will most likely become less autobiographical as I move forward, although my obsessions will always find their way into the work.

I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about persona and the narrator if you want to respond to anything I've said. And my next question is: How do your poems find their forms? In Rough Honey, some have long lines, some short, some are fixed forms (I see we both like the pantoum!), some free verse, some are lists, some narrative. Does the form a particular poem wants to take reveal itself as you're writing it or does that come in later during the editing process?
MS: That's such an interesting parallel, comparing your relationship to the narrator of your poems with the relationship of your actual self or being (however that is interpreted) to your shifting identity as an "I." Back to that a few paragraphs down, but it does touch on something I found surprising with Rough Honey (likely because it's my first book), that once the poems came together and found their ways into the world in book form, they became separate from me to a degree far beyond anything I'd experienced with individual published poems. I love that—how the reader completes the circle, making the book so much more than it started out.

I write lots of persona poems. Some of the narrators in Rough Honey are a butcher's daughter, a teenage murderer, a considerate thief, a man at a peepshow, creepy prodigy twins, someone involved in a calamitous whitewater rafting accident, and a woman talking about rough sex (in iambic pentameter). I think I write so many persona poems because to some extent I'm more interested in what my imagination can come up with than in the details of my own life. I love to invent characters and inhabit them, building little narratives—maybe as close as I'll come to writing fiction.

In most of my poems, developing a strong emotional core is an essential goal, and I agree with your statement "if it touches on some kind of truth then I've done my job." I don't worry too much about being misinterpreted, though I'm sure I see my work as far less autobiographical than most of my readers would. When my mother called me after reading my book for the first time—she's seen very little of my writing over the years—she said in this freighted, apprehensive voice: "I just want to ask one question… All these things in your book… they didn't really happen to you, did they?" It would be hard to describe her relief when I said "No."

The question about form is a challenge to answer because my poems take shape in so many different ways (which is possibly why I have so many different forms of poems!). I do a lot of freewriting, both with line breaks and without, and poems often wriggle out of those. "Whitewater," for instance, began as a single block of prose and I thought of keeping it in that form, but after some experimentation I decided that line breaks gave it more momentum. "Eight questions" began more or less as separate poems and when I realized (over several years) that they coalesced as a series, I revised toward making their forms more similar. "Ars poetica" started out with line breaks and after a partial first draft, pretty quickly fell into three-line stanzas.

At times the shape is dictated by an exercise I'm doing—I'll start out with a line or two and say "I'm going to try a pantoum/sestina/ghazal," or there will be other formal constraints built in. (Sometimes I'll get a "real" poem out of this; sometimes they're dead in the water and/or become amusing doggerel no one but me will ever see.) I write quite a lot of sonnets, and even these vary—I might realize that I'm already writing in iambic pentameter and continue in that vein, or after writing a draft it will occur to me that maybe the poem is really a sonnet, and I'll work in that direction. Overall, though, I'd say that most often, the poems themselves dictate their own shapes and forms.

Back to Steady, My Gaze… Your book is suffused with spirituality and religion in so many forms, especially in the sections "O Three-Eyed Lord" and "Silent Retreat," and the beginning of the first section, including the poem "The Questions Themselves." Many of your poems do seem to explore and grapple with the relationship of self to "self," and the place of those selves in the wider world. Can you talk about the place of spirituality in your writing? Are there other poets/writers who have influenced you in this regard?
MEM: As I was thinking about how I would answer this question, I came across this quote by Mary Oliver in her interview with Maria Shriver for the April 2011 issue of "O" Magazine: "You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about." Regardless of what anyone may think of Oliver's poetry, or of this issue of "O" featuring poets (discussions I'm not going to get into here), this quote encapsulates how I view spirituality in my writing and in general, as something inseparable from and necessary to living in the world.

Most of my work is concerned with finding those deeper places of connection beyond name and form, the glimpses of something beneath the surface that has the potential to open and reveal itself if I just stay with the moment long enough. The poem of mine you mentioned, "The Questions Themselves," references turning to Zen books in my teens, which I did, as a way to try to make sense of my mind, the world, and this unknowable thing called "God." I'm fascinated by the relationship of self to "Self," by those moments when I feel in touch with something larger than my personality, and by those moments when I experience another person as being in touch with that, too.

I no longer consider myself a part of any one religious tradition, though I resonate with elements of most of them, while rejecting the way religions instigate war and havoc in the world. My relationship to spirituality now has less to do with trying to make sense of anything and more to do with wanting to be present to the mystery of things and people as they are, to be alive to the "full catastrophe," as Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it. Practice and writing help me do that. Scuba diving is another vehicle for me. There's something about the buoyancy and the teeming world under the surface of the water that we can visit but never fully inhabit that allows me to open up and be present to a sense of wonder.

I think the act of deeply looking and hearing, which is something most poets are attuned to, is ultimately a spiritual act. I think the world is worthy of witness and that witnessing ALL of it is ultimately a spiritual act. It's so easy to go through life skimming the surface, not noticing the man on the subway and the care he took in folding an orange handkerchief into his navy suit pocket, or not stopping to watch two sparrows mating and fighting for ten minutes on a NYC sidewalk before flying away, singing. Poets tend to orient us to a multi-sensory experience of the world, which I think is ultimately a spiritual act. And also the most mundane act of all.

Mark Doty's work has influenced me, especially his poem "A Display of Mackerel." That poem holds the singularity and universality of each living thing in a way that I aspire to in my writing. Other poetic influences are Marie Howe, Kim Addonizio, Nick Flynn, Patricia Smith, and Ada Limón. Influences on my way of thinking include Brian Swimme's book, The Universe Is a Green Dragon, Ken Wilbur's Integral work, meditation teacher and scholar Sally Kempton, and the texts of Kashmir Shaivism.

Back to Rough Honey… I love the poem "Galileo," the way it moves from the neighbors' fight in the present to brain science, to "The wisdom keeps changing, jostling / the prior wisdom out of the nest…," back to the present fight, away again to a meditation on the word Galileo and landing on the terrific ending. I think part of why I resonate with it is that it conveys a similar view of theories as does my poem, "The Questions Themselves," though they land in different places by the end. Please talk about how that poem came about, the stages it went through, and how those various threads got woven together so well.
MS: I wrote "Galileo" a few weeks into a stay at Yaddo one summer a few years back. I sat down at my laptop to see what might happen, and after one random line came the words "one flight down they were fighting again." A first draft of "Galileo" unrolled from there. While I can't remember the thought process (or lack thereof) that led to the poem, I do recall a few elements involved.

First were my downstairs neighbors back home, a young couple who had truly epic fights at all hours for months on end. The fights were upsetting on so many levels, including worrying that they would physically harm each other and feeling unsettled in my own home because I just never knew what would come next. (One day I slipped a printout from the website of a local couples counselor under their door in the hope that it would wake them up a little: their "private" drama was affecting other people's lives, too. No such luck.)

Another element: At some point I'd read a news story about anthropologists flying over an uncontacted tribe in the Brazilian-Peruvian rainforest. The story showed photographs of the tribespeople in brightly colored body paint with spears and longbows drawn, prepared to shoot arrows at the plane, which (according to the anthropologists) they probably thought was a spirit or a large bird. The thrust of the article was that about a hundred uncontacted tribes still exist, and their territory must be protected from loggers and other incursions. The photographs were remarkable, and it was impossible not to think about what it must be like for someone who has never been in contact with the outside world to see something as technologically advanced and inconceivable as a plane.

A few tentative lines about the tribespeople made it into a second draft of "Galileo" (they were gone by the next draft), but their real influence was in my musing about how various phenomena we now explain scientifically must have seemed before they were understood, and what strategies we evolved throughout history to cope with them. It's fascinating to me how, over and over again, "proven" research that becomes extraordinarily influential common wisdom is eventually debunked, such as the right/left brain distinction and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. These were facts that I grew up with, so in a way it felt destabilizing to learn that current science just doesn't support them. It's hard not to wonder which of today's facts and theories are next in line for obsolescence.

A third element: I was reading and rereading Gerald Stern's American Sonnets while I was at Yaddo. The tenderness, the generosity of these poems, the way they turn language on its head on the way to making so much sense at the deepest levels, continues to stun me. I feel their subterranean influence in "Galileo."

Stages of the poem: It went through 35 pages of drafts. The line of argument, or maybe I should say stream of consciousness, stayed more or less the same through to the final draft, but this was one of those poems that starts out "eh" and that over time (10 months in this case) gets hammered into a poem. At one point I realized that the poem fell quite naturally into quatrains—always a lovely thing to behold!—but that impulse didn't last long, as it hindered the momentum. Bringing the fight back in toward the end was a suggestion of my writing group for which I'm very grateful.

"Galileo" is a lot talkier than much of my work, so the challenge for me was to try to infuse music into fairly casual language. Especially since—against the heartbreak of people who can't stop wounding each other and the sheer terror of unknowing—the narrator's impulse is to escape into language or music, something irrefutably and irrevocably beautiful.


One flight down they're fighting again,
really going at it, with much slamming
of doors and hurling of heavy objects,
and I've turned up my Bach but can still hear it
you're an idiot    don't talk about my stuttering,
I told you never to   fuck you just fuck you you fucking fuck
and it almost makes my own fights seem
civilized, as if I've finally learned something,
though it's more likely I simply lack the balls
I had 20 years ago, the righteous conviction,
my frontal lobe still a work-in-progress—
yes, that's the latest young-adult-research
breakthrough. I just read, too, that the venerable
right-left brain distinction is a fallacy,
maybe southpaws aren't really more creative
(a blow to my ego, but I will weather it—
especially as there are no longer stages of grief).
The wisdom keeps changing, jostling
the prior wisdom out of the nest with entitlement
and later amused and sometimes tolerant
condescension, the world was flat
and the sun went around, etc., etc.,
the burning chariots and the spirits
in the trees, the humours and the vapours
and the leeches, the lead-white
faces, the terror of the night
and terror of the day, which is why
we peopled them with gods, and music,
and science, and
get away from me you little bitch
you don't even have a job
and what is it about the word
Galileo that has such richness? It's parchment
and vinegar, ground glass and oiled copper,
it's the sun through a leaf jaundiced by autumn—
Isn't that what we do, stuff the void
with string theory or bling theory,
though we don't even know
where we put the keys last night,
or why no beauty's loud enough
to drown out rage and drown out sorrow.
You mentioned the importance of being fully present and alive, and how scuba diving puts you in touch with that. Looking deeply under the surface of things also means opening one's self up to the presence of harm and loss, and Steady, My Gaze confronts this complexity with tenderness and compassion. Your gorgeous poem "The Diver" contains so many of the elements that suffuse your book—this heightened attention to the natural world and our impact on it, to human stories sweet and tragic, to the intersection of sensuality and violence. The poem begins so quietly with its underwater tableau and builds to a stunningly fierce ending, "Maybe the only perfect thing in life is longing. / Praise this beautiful, terrible world where we are opened / and crushed." How did "The Diver" originate and find its form, and can you say something about how your work approaches the world's darker beauty?
MEM: I wrote "The Diver" in spring 2007, about a week after returning from a dive trip in which I was saddened by the obvious deterioration of the coral from the previous time we'd been diving there. When we bought our house in MA in the fall of 2006, the owner had indeed gone blind from an operation for a recurrent brain tumor. It made me think about how one family's misfortune becomes another family's gain, in that they moved to Portland so that his wife could have more help with their three year-old daughter even though they so clearly loved every inch of this house. We lucked into a gorgeous, well-made, well-loved house as a result of their necessary move, for which I was grateful, but also sad. From there, the ending flowed easily, since the futile (and puerile) wish that no harm ever come to anyone had to get grounded in reality.

It was one of three poems written prior to starting the program that we were allowed to bring in to our first conference with Marie Howe, during my first semester at Sarah Lawrence in fall 2007, and she skillfully suggested I add "maybe" to the line in that draft, "… but the only perfect thing in life is longing." That insertion of uncertainty on the part of the speaker made the poem more effective. The poem was twice as long before she took her hacking-pen to it, with too much exposition and a third story. It also had a horrible title (too wretched to share here!), which Marie thankfully nixed. It was published as "Diving" in Canary, but I later ended up changing the title to "The Diver" for the manuscript. It always had long-ish lines and was always in couplets.

I don't want my work to be overly simplistic, so while I may occasionally write a purely celebratory poem or a purely "dark" poem, most of my poems end up attempting to engage with the contradictory, complex nature of life and the world. I often find myself in that kind of inquiry—as a person trying to be as awake and open to the everythingness of it all as I can manage—how to find beauty HERE… and HERE… and even HERE?… without shutting my eyes or ears to the often terrible underbelly of that same beauty. But some days I can't manage much more than lying under a blanket with a lavender eye pillow on. Really.

The Diver

In this underwater world with its lobed and convoluted coral,
ferns that sway beside fields of garden eels, I float

toward a swath of bleached coral, no fish around, and ask myself,
how long before this sand is all that's left?

Back home a week later, I clip lilacs, their scent diffusing through
the room, marvel at the first open peony, its heady perfume,

and decide to leave it in the garden with the budding lilies,
all planted by the previous owners, his blindness—

second brain tumor at 36—forcing them to sell
the home they'd built to live in all their lives.

Most days I long for perfection, for everyone to be safe.
Maybe the only perfect thing in life is longing.

Praise this beautiful, terrible world where we are opened
and crushed, where the kiss comes from a mouth that bites.

Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Melissa. It's been great to dive into our work together!
MS:Thanks for inviting me—it's been a pleasure to learn more about your process and your work. Here's to doing what we love!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761