Melissa Ginsburg is the author of the poetry collection Dear Weather Ghost (Four Way Books, 2013) and the noir novel Sunset City, forthcoming from Ecco Books this year. Her poems have appeared in Fence, Blackbird, Denver Quarterly, Berkeley Poetry Review, and other magazines. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Her poem “Séance” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the May/June 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Séance”?
I was walking on a gravel road through a field and the shadow of a buzzard crossed my path. Many elements of the poem occurred at once: the image itself; the understanding that buzzards and other birds ride thermals, the columns of warmer air that keep them aloft with little effort; the understanding that the presence of buzzards indicated the recent death of some animal in the fields below; the idea of death and of ghosts. In imagining the thermal as something tangible that connects the circling bird to the earth and to the death of some creature, I couldn’t help but see it as a form of communication, a transfer of energy. The buzzard seemed held to the earth by the thermal—which was made visible to me via its shadow—rather than to be riding on top of it, which is the more conventional way of thinking of that phenomenon.
To what extent is a ghost required for the “Séance” of this poem? Ghosts seem to be present in the piece, but are not being overtly summoned nor asked for, and instead speak with one another. Is this due to a deficiency in the caller or a lack of a caller altogether?
The idea of animals having ghosts is very comforting to me. That the mundane lives and deaths of animals create an intricate web of energy transfer that forms the world we live in—this feels accurate to me and I don’t feel any pressure to try and access it or understand it. I don’t mean to sound so mystical here. All I mean is that the fields surrounding my house are alive in lots of ways I can’t see. It’s a way of talking about nature, about landscape. A dead field rat speaks to a buzzard but not to me. A live field rat speaks to a hawk but not to me. The presence of a column of warm air has meaning to a bird’s experience, but may be less noticeable to me. Unless it melts an icicle that falls while I am nearby, or creates wind that knocks an icicle from a tree. I also like the idea that ghosts are present whether we ask for them or not.
Do you see the act of reading and processing this poem as a way of engaging in a form of séance because of how the reader summons meaning, and maybe even summons humanity when they think of the author, from of the words that you’ve laid down?
The idea of a traditional séance always seems sad to me—calling for a spirit who is probably not able to hear you, out of longing, grief, desperation. And there’s always an element of the hoax about it—you need a medium who can speak to the dead, who can hear them and translate. You have to trust that person, you have to believe in spirits. I think literature works more democratically and more viscerally than that. The speaker of this poem has a direct experience of the world, and I hope that is made available to the reader, too. I love this idea, though: poetry as a successful séance. Poems as ghosts everyone can hear.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best advice I have gotten—and that I tell students all the time—is to ignore your feelings about what you are writing. Like many writers I have mercurial and intense emotional responses to my own work at every stage of the writing process, and those responses are hardly ever helpful, even if they are occasionally accurate. If I am in love with a piece I have written, it might be a pleasant feeling, but it doesn’t help me revise. If I’m embarrassed or disgusted or fearful or bored, it can prevent me from writing something that could be good. My moods can’t be trusted, so I try to set them aside and do the work anyway. I can always cut something later if it’s terrible, and knowing that allows me to take more risks. I’m also a slow writer; I like to let a lot of time go by before I know if something is finished. That way my relationship with the work can withstand a gamut of moods and I will get a sense of what’s really on the page, independent of how I feel about it.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I am writing a bunch of new poems but it’s too soon to know what they are, exactly. And I’ve started a new noir novel set in New Orleans about a teenage girl living with her grandmother. It deals with murder, music, and art, and how memory forms identity.