An Interview With Melissa Fite Johnson

Posted in: Books, News

Melissa Fite Johnson is the first poet that Riot in Your Throat is publishing. Her book, Green, will be published 1 May 2021 and is available for pre-order now for only $10! Snag a copy before the price goes up! As a way of getting to know Melissa, she kindly answered a few questions about poetry, her new collection, and some non-poetry related questions.

Melissa Fite Johnson

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

I went through my files to see when I wrote the first draft of a poem in this collection—2013! So I guess it took seven years, though I never set out to write a book. I just write poems, and I’m very selective about which ones to send for publication or put in a manuscript. Probably 70% never get read by anyone but me (should I call them “the diary poems”?), but those poems are essential in their own way. Practice. Making time for writing. Being open and trying and sometimes failing.

My process wasn’t mine alone; so many people helped shape this book. My old poetry workshop group, led by my mentor Laura Lee Washburn. Maggie Smith, who consulted on the chapbook that started this collection. My thesis readers. And Erin Adair-Hodges, who understood in ways I couldn’t (I was too close to it) what this book was supposed to be.

How does this collection differ from your first collection of poetry, While the Kettle’s On?

It’s similar thematically—I write about my life, and I always have. But my first book was the rose-colored version of events. I wrote about missing my father, who died when I was sixteen (and the worst version of myself), but I didn’t discuss the guilt I still feel over not having treated him better in his last years. I wrote about admiring my mother, my father’s caretaker for ten years, but I only hinted at our complicated relationship. With While the Kettle’s On, I was so focused on who in my family would read the book and how they’d feel. I’m not trying to hurt anyone with Green, but I wrote this because I needed to. It’s the most emotionally honest and vulnerable I’ve ever been. And these are my best poems by far.

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

A sad choice, but “The Night Before Our Dog’s Death.” I tried for a year to get it right. My husband and I don’t have kids, and while I don’t equate having pets and children, we were a family of three who became a family of two. It was devastating. Kelli Russell Agodon, a poet I so admire, wrote (in the loveliest chapbook rejection letter of all time), “Your poem about the dog’s death just slayed me…it is so hard to write a well-crafted, well-written poem about a pet (Mark Doty does it well), but most people just fail, but yours was so so good. I am still thinking about it.”

What’s your writing routine look like? How has the pandemic changed it?

The goal is to prioritize writing when I have the time and energy for it, and to be kind to myself when I’m too overwhelmed and emotionally spent to write. Since I’m a high school English teacher, I spend my summers taking workshops and generating new work nearly every day, and I spend the school year focusing more on revising and submitting.

The pandemic has changed where I write, which I know is true for many writers. I loved going to coffee shops, making an event of it. Now I try to find ways to make writing at home feel as special. When the weather’s nice, I love to write in my backyard. Last summer, my husband and I took our dogs (we have three now!) for a long walk each morning and then read and worked outside over breakfast and coffee. That was one of my favorite writing routines I’ve ever had.

Who are your favorite poets?

Sharon Olds is my very favorite. In the summer of 2002, I was twenty, depressed, and rooming with my best friend. I went to a coffee shop every day and wrote some of my first poems—I’d had just two creative writing classes at that point. A lot of my work from that summer is cringy, but reading Olds’ personal poems made me want to open up as much as I could, and no poems have ever felt so healing to me as hers did at that time in my life. That summer I read all of her books she’d written to that point, but The Wellspring was and still is my favorite book of poetry ever. I love that it feels like a memoir in verse. Sometimes I feel a little self-indulgent, writing so many personal poems, but then I remember that all my favorite poets (most of them women) also do that.

Other loves: Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, Rita Dove, David Lee, Anne Sexton.

What are you reading right now? (poetry or otherwise)

I am re-reading Pride and Prejudice (perhaps my favorite novel), as I do every year, because I’m teaching it in AP Lit. And I read poetry books most mornings over breakfast; I just finished Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, which I loved.

A few non-poetry questions:

What’s the first thing you plan to do once it’s safe (i.e. when enough people have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity)?

See my mom! We’ve only hung out on Zoom since March. I want to spend a weekend with her, going to restaurants and having movie marathons.

What is one good thing that came out of the pandemic for you?

Since I know you started Riot in Your Throat because of the pandemic, this book—and meeting you—is SUCH a good thing that came out of it! But to name something non-poetry-related, my pandemic project was starting a TV rewatch podcast, Parenthood Pals, with one of my best friends, who lives in New York. It has been the most fun way to hang out with each other (virtually, of course) during this lonely time, and to catch up with friends and family members, who we have on as guests.

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