The Ms. Q&A: Inside Lynn Melnick’s “Landscape with Sex and Violence”

Years ago, when I was completing graduate work in feminist literature and gender studies, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts blazed onto the literary scene. I was thrilled to see the emergence of “the count,” in which VIDA published color-coded pie charts revealing what a small helping of pages women were getting in contemporary journals—and I became aware of Lynn Melnick’s foundational work with VIDA just as I realized I had missed knowing her in New York City, where we were both grad students in the same MFA program, albeit at different times. 

Melnick’s first book of poems is If I Should Say I Have Hope, and she is the co-author, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem, an anthology geared towards younger readers.  I have followed her work with interest, and was excited to interview her for Ms.

Landscape with Sex and Violence is such an inherently feminist book as you present what it means to viscerally move through the world within a woman’s body—the vulnerability and the danger. I love the specificity of your language, such as in: “let the riffraff envenom my body.” 

Your book came out just as #MeToo was breaking. Can you say more about your vision for this work, and the work you want it to do in the world?

Yes, it did! It oddly came out the very day that the #metoo hashtag blew up on social media, which was about 10 days after the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the New York Times. I’ve been writing these subjects for years, it’s what I write about, in part because I want people to have to acknowledge, confront, accept the many horrific realities of rape culture. I spent decades not being acknowledged or believed, even in more progressive circles, and certainly elsewhere. It’s good progress that these issues are being talked about more openly now, but we still have a long road ahead. I hear a lot about how intense my book is and I’m like, yeah! It’s intense living in rape culture! But I also hear from scores of people about what my book has meant, how it has made people feel companioned, and that fills my heart.

This book covers so many intense subjects—violence against women, sex work and patriarchy, to say the least. Can you say more about how the themes of the book intertwine and the vulnerability and courage it takes to voice these subjects? Just hearing these themes spoken clearly seems radical to me, and it surprises me that this is so. Do you see it as a work about girlhood or young womanhood? The work of speaking out?

What’s interesting is that it’s the poems about abortion that have seemed to most offend audiences, or else when I’ve read those poems that’s when people walk out. But I think that may be because it’s the subject we’re most comfortable talking about and having an opinion on. We don’t talk enough about violence against women and girls. And sex workers are among our most marginalized populations, although the discussion over decriminalization has been more vocal and mainstream lately.

To answer your specific questions—yes! I see this as a work about what it is to exist as a girl and then a woman in this country, because so many of the daily microaggressions, not to mention obviously the many actual aggressions and harms, go unnoticed.

And yes! This book is absolutely about speaking out. Every poem in the book addresses rape culture in a hard and unblinking way. That was intentional. And it did take courage and it was, and continues to be, very vulnerable and unfortunately sometimes overwhelming. But worth it, for sure.

You grew up in Los Angeles. In what way do you see this as a California-based book, if at all? 

I did. And I’m missing it at the moment, especially for its preferable weather! (I type this on the east coast the day after Christmas.) I view Landscape with Sex and Violence as a very California book, and specifically a Los Angeles book, because that is where I grew up and this is a book sprung from my autobiography. And it’s often very specifically about the landscape of California, which is both burned into my memory and, I’m sure, changed by time and trauma. I wanted to explore all of that in the book.

I think a lot about poetry that can be classified as “gurlesque” and the differences between flippant “girl power” activism and bona fide empowerment. Can you speak to the positioning of the girl or young woman in this book?  Is she representative of myriad forces that press down on girls. The phrase “She’s going to do something amazing” contrasted with harsh realities felt very prescient to me. 

Oh, I can’t fucking stand the whole “girl power” thing. It’s such absolute vapid, pandering bullshit. I have two daughters. They were fed phony girl power from when they were very young via toys and books and TV. But the messages they get everywhere else tell them otherwise. And once they get to middle school and begin to exist in the world as objects to others, they learn really quick, if they haven’t already, that there’s not a lot of power in being a girl in this country. What we need to do—and what I tried and still try to do with my children—is prepare girls to steel themselves against the realities of rape culture and patriarchy, to teach them how to fight back against micro-aggressions, to realize it’s not them that is the problem.

Like, let’s not pollyanna this girl power shit. Let’s give them real power. So, to get to your questions (ha, sorry, the phrase “girl power” gets me all worked up!), I was trying to position girls and women in this book the way they actually are in the world. 

How did you decide on the form of the book? I loved the use of refrain “Landscape with…” and how the second part of this sentence kept evolving the book’s meaning. I didn’t read this device as ekphrastic but rather one that reveals the fractures and facets of possibility—a panorama of landscapes that represent so many sides of the speaker’s experience. The use of couplets also gave such openness to the book—room for silences and absence that was reflected in content that was both written and unwritten but present. Stylistically, can you say more about what you were trying to do?

Thank you! I thought a lot about form and style with this book. I wanted the poems to have only couplets or single line stanzas because the poems are so dense and they needed space. And I also wanted all the poems to be in the same style so they seem of a piece, and so they feel relentless. I wanted many of them to be landscapes because I can’t separate trauma from the landscapes on which it was enacted, and, no, it was not meant as ekphrastic, but maybe a way of saying, you know all those pretty landscapes?

Uncountable horrors have gone on and are still going on there. Which is also a reason I wanted to write about landscapes: I didn’t get a chance to notice them growing up because I was too busy trying to survive.

How long did you spend writing this book and is there more about your vision to still tell?  What’s next?

I spent about four years writing the book and yes, there is definitely more to tell about rape culture. I think it’s my life’s work to tell these truths, as painful as it often is for me to do so. My next book of poems will explore rape culture as it intersects with my Jewishness. And I’m writing a book of prose now called I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive, scheduled to be published in 2022, which also delves into these topics via both memoir and an exploration of the life and music of Dolly Parton, basically exploring how Dolly’s music engages trauma—delving into sex, violence, class, nostalgia, religion, aging, addiction and motherhood. 

I do want to say that I remain hopeful that things have improved and will continue to improve in this country in regards to rape culture, though there is certainly several lifetimes of work left to do.

About

Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic, and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a Research Scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Writing Workshops Los Angeles. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.” She recently served as a poetry mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer program and in April 2016 was elected the new Poet Laureate of Altadena and will hold community writing events throughout the next year.