A 2nd Interview with Melissa Fite Johnson

Posted in: Books, News

Some of you may remember the first interview we did with Melissa Fite Johnson – her book, Green, was the first collection the press published. Melissa took a chance with a brand new press and we’re delighted it has turned into a true friendship and a great working relationship. We were especially delighted when she let us read her new collection, Midlife Abecedarian, and that she said yes when we offered to publish it. We truly love her poetry and are so happy to continue our publishing relationship with her!

We’ve asked a few, new questions so you can learn a bit about her and peek into her writing routine and life. You can pre-order her new collection here!

How long did it take you to write Midlife Abecedarian? What was your process for pulling it together?

I almost can’t believe it, but it only took three years start to finish. This book taught me not to make assumptions about myself, as I would’ve guessed I’m a poet who needs 6-7 years between books, probably because that’s how much time passed between my first and second full-length collections. However, I’m a much more dedicated writer than I used to be—and more importantly, I’m so much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve taken a lot of the torture out of my process. Instead of hesitating to call myself a poet like I did for more than a decade, now I just accept that I am one. I let myself experiment and play. I’m part of really supportive (and not at all competitive) writing communities that inspire and motivate me. All this to say, once I got out of my own way, it took me by surprise how quickly I had about eighty poems that were contenders for a collection. Then I hired an editor to help me make cuts and shape the book into what it was meant to be. Lynn Melnick was that editor, and her feedback was invaluable.

What’s a favorite poem from the collection? Why?

It’s hard to choose because they all represent such different parts of myself, but I’m especially proud of my poems about being a high school teacher—“A Student Stops by My Classroom,” “The Gap,” “My Students Read My Chart to Me.” For a long time my poetry focused so much on who I used to be, and on the most traumatic events that have shaped my life. And don’t worry, that’s all in the book too! But I’m finally able to see the value in my life as it is now—quiet, secure, fulfilled. Being a high school English teacher is my life’s work, and I actually used to be embarrassed about that, because I felt that real poets were academics, professors. A turning point was when I admitted I’d be totally happy in my career if not for the fact that my job isn’t “prestigious.” I realized how petty that was and moved past that way of thinking. I’m really lucky to love my job. It feels good to finally be writing poems for and about my students—and to be writing poems about my joyful present (not just my painful past).

What’s your writing routine look like?

I’m so grateful to finally have a steady routine, one that I keep even during my busy school year. This is my eighteenth year of teaching, and I wouldn’t say I let my job be an excuse for not writing in the past—it’s more like I couldn’t figure out how to do both at once. I tended to totally put myself on the backburner during the school year and then put my writing first only in the summer. The problem was that didn’t allow me to grow as much as I could; it felt like I was always starting over. My New Year’s resolution for 2023 was to go to my favorite coffee shop and write once a week, and it’s the first time I’ve ever kept a resolution. My husband was a big part of that—I’m really fortunate to be married to someone so supportive. During a weekend walk with our dogs, he’d always bring it up—which night that week made the most sense for me to go write? Often we’d pick a night when it was raining, when we wouldn’t be able to walk the dogs anyway. That worked perfectly, because is there anything better than sitting behind my coffee shop window on a rainy night, looking for poems? No, there is not.

Melissa with her husband, Marc, and their three dogs

We were fortunate enough to publish Green, your second collection of poetry, and we’re delighted to be publishing Midlife Abecedarian. What do you see for the future of small presses and poetry?

I’m taking the long way around on this question. About a month after I signed with you, I happened across Jessica L. Walsh’s essay “Shrink” in Whale Road Review, which echoed the reasons I decided to send my manuscript to you first. The essay opens on Walsh explaining the poetry business to her therapist: “In poetry, you get published, then you’re supposed to try for the next tier of journals and presses. You climb the ladder.” And her therapist pauses and says, “Climb. To what?” The essay is incredible, and it gets at the heart of what I struggled with for so long. I used to look at publishing as a way to be validated. I hoped the gatekeepers would let me in, and I thought if they did I’d finally feel like I mattered. But I had it backwards. I felt I mattered once I stopped chasing validation from strangers and realized what I wanted is what I already have—Riot in Your Throat, my home, my family. I could cry thinking about how lucky I am. I have friends who’ve published with bigger presses and didn’t have a great experience. They didn’t feel seen or supported, especially compared to my dream experience with RIYT. I think the kind of support, attention, and care you offer is why the future of small presses and poetry is so bright. And OK, since I’m obsessed with pop culture and this book is largely about how I see the world through that lens, maybe the best way I can put it is that it’s how I felt the first time I watched 13 Going on 30 and realized that Jenna and Matty were actually the cool ones, not the Six Chicks or Chris Grandy.

What are you reading right now?

This is a cheat, because I finished it a few weeks ago, but I have to recommend Carolina Hotchandani’s The Book Eaters (Perugia Press, 2023). I don’t remember the last time I loved a book like that. Every single poem resonated, even the ones that had nothing to do with my lived experiences. For example, “Self-Portrait as a Woman’s Intention to Write” is about all the reasons a mother has trouble finding time and energy to write—and on a deeper level has trouble being a person in and of herself. I’m not a mother at all. I literally couldn’t relate to one specific in that poem. Yet I absolutely could relate to all the ways women let the world stop them from being their truest and brightest selves.

As for your actual question, tonight I started Brett Elizabeth Jenkins’ Brilliant Little Body  (Riot in Your Throat, 2023), and GOOD GRIEF—one of the reasons I’m so proud to be part of RIYT is that you publish books I absolutely love. I’m only a few poems in and I’ve sucked in my breath more than once. The last line of the first poem—“Windows open and shut. I’m beautiful. We have all this”—makes me feel like crying. And I know, I’m quoting it out of context and it’s really most effective as this climactic moment. But even on its own—wow. I can tell this is going to be one of those reading experiences where I end up feeling more connected to myself somehow.

Tell us something good – doesn’t have to be poetry related, just something that’s bringing you joy right now.

I mean, first of all, I just spent the past hour or so answering these questions and thinking about this book that I am unbelievably excited about. I’m literally smiling to myself. And this lovely night isn’t over—two of my three dogs are asleep and pressed against me, and I’m about to drink a glass of wine and watch an episode of Friends. It’s a small, perfect moment. My life is full of those. I finally know to appreciate that.

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