Rough Guide to the Rainforest
The boy with the glasses can teach you to swim.
Get there first.
Bring your lunch with you. Here there is only pizza and bagels and hard boiled eggs.
1000 jellyfish in the bay.
Walk the back way, through the woods.
The coffee cart will be indispensible.
That tree would be a bush at home, that wood would be a heater.
Listen to the messages from your mother.
See that car there? That car is a highway at home.
The boys pound drums.
Don’t lose your breath. An overhand crawl will get you there every time.
Rough Guide to Rosewood Street
For two weeks after departure, you will not know you have left.
You can never have enough novels.
Your debt will never be repaid.
Forget this now. Try anyway.
The bathroom is in the back.
Exclaim over the food. Nod as the recipe is recited. Repeat it aloud with wonder. It doesn’t matter that you don’t cook.
Concentrate on your good fortune at finding such a chef.
The houses are short and squat. The grass is cut stubby, looks pained, like a boy’s first crew cut.
The air is overrun with ghosts.
Try the taco salad, the banana salad, the chicken noodles. Try the crab dip.
A guestroom has been provided.
Rough Guide to Sacramento
There will never be enough to drink.
You can smash the phone. It’s yours.
The house is cold. Bring a stocking cap.
Don’t worry about the living room with no furniture. Lie on the rug to watch tv.
The dark wood is beautiful but it will not save you.
You have done unforgivable things here. You will continue to do so.
From the third floor, all you can see is trees.
Sit on the back porch over the alley with a coffee, a man, a drink. Watch the rats run down the edges. Wait for the garbage truck.
Buy a table with pink legs for your birthday, throw a dinner party. Invite your friends.
Remember your father’s hand across your chest like a seatbest. Strap in.
Q & A with Melissa Walker and editor Joanna C. Valente
JV: I notice in both of these poems, you write using the second-person perspective. What draws you to this point-of-view?
MW: Writing in second person is a way of objectifying the self or an experience in order to gain some distance and perspective. It’s like when we tell ourselves “It’s going to be ok,” the “you” is implied. “You” are speaking to someone. So there is a you speaker and a you listener. If I am speaking to myself there must be a you to whom I am speaking.
The short, the quick, the dirty. The directness of communication, of sentiment, of experience.
How does Chicago influence your writing? Is there a poetry community that fosters your work?
Chicago influences my writing because anything is possible here. And the truth is, anything is possible anywhere, but Chicago’s scope makes this obvious. This anything-is-possibleness translates into an experimental approach wherein I am always finding scraps of some new idea to craft into something new.
There is likely a poetry community here, but I don’t have a lot of interaction with it at this point.
What made you decide to earn your MFA? How was your experience at The School of the Art Institute?
I was working as a barista before I went to college to do my undergrad (at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA), and then I was working as a barista in Seattle after I graduated from college. I had plans to go back home for a family reunion that summer and I just couldn’t face the idea of going back and saying I am still working in a coffee shop. So, pride gave me the idea of going to grad school. And so the MFA idea was born. The next step was to research programs and I looked up Beth Nugent, whose brilliant book, City of Boys, had been the first time I really saw myself on the page as a young American girl. She was teaching at the Art Institute, so I applied.
The School of the Art Institute was a great place to write. It was an incredible program that encouraged us to experiment so much. It was very student led in that way. You could take real risks – you were really required to take risks. And we were encouraged to think of words as material, rather than to think of it as existing in the tradition of literature. We were more encouraged to think of writing as being akin to sculpture, to some kind of mixed media mash-up.
Do you feel more pressure as a female poet? White men have historically dominated the poetry field, and while that is changing, it is only a recent break through. Have you experienced this change first hand?
I feel pressure more as a non-straight person writing. I feel some pressure to change pronouns for clarity for baffled and sheltered readers. I was recently submitted a piece in an online forum and had a reader write a long critique about how my piece didn’t adequately address my confusion over my identity and sexual orientation but that must be what the piece is about since I wrote about my wife in the piece. So her confusion was projected onto me. I sometimes feel like I need to “straighten up” just to be published, to not annoy editors by making them read a piece twice.
One of the things that may be unique about my experience is that although I completed an MFA, I actually never wrote poetry before the last year or two. And then it was because I was revising a draft of a novel and it was so unfun, so labored. And I thought why not try some poetry? I have no ideas about poetry, I don’t feel like I “know” anything about it, so I really don’t have any criteria for what I should be doing or should be able to do. So it’s still fun. To answer your question, I feel very outside any questions about the poetry world politically. I don’t know what is happening in poetry. And while I don’t feel like I don’t care, I do feel like it’s better for my writing for me to remain in the dark about this.
Editor's Note: This feature appeared on our old site.
Melissa Walker is a writer and artist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in several outlets, including the Denver Quarterly, Sentence, Parable Press, Diesembodied Text, Ignavia and Wunderkammer Poetry. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute and teaches writing in Chicago.