Inaugural Michelle Boisseau Prize winner Megan Merchant on a life in the pines, unexpected left turns and the magic your children expect of you
To Uncork a Bottle with a Stone
HE: Balancing the real world and the dreamed can sometimes feel like the real work of an artist. You are a mother to two children and a wife. How does your balancing act play out?
MM: The balance, for me, (especially these days) is holding enough headspace for my own thoughts. My children’s needs, fears, laughter, distance learning and curiosities are loud and persistent. The desire to have a connected and shared experience with others takes residence as well. Even when I do have the rare moment to sit down and write, I have to wade through a lot of the other roles I play before I can catch a glimpse of myself. But my family is also what keeps me present in the world, where I am collecting the images, sounds and lines I might otherwise miss. I have learned that the work isn’t separate from life, but finding the time to get it to the page can be tricky.
HE: It's obligatory: the question about your influences. I'd wager you're a fan of Mary Oliver? I'm happy to be wrong if you tell me all your inspirational secrets.
MM: I do greatly appreciate Mary Oliver, but she’s not a voice I keep close by. As for go-to favorites — the work of Jack Gilbert, Lorca, Anne Sexton, etc. but I’ve been finding inspiration in subjects other than poetry. I like field guides and resource materials. The moment that my brain is able to latch onto a new concept, I might find a whole series of poems there. It’s like that gem of information is the key to the junk drawer in my brain and then I am able to see how those forgotten items connect and play off each other.
HE: The end of the road: Where is this artistic journey taking you? Is the teaching poet the life for you? What you are you on the way to becoming?
MM: I am a big fan of holding that space open for becoming, for growth and possibility. I also like weird left turns and recently took one into visual art. Pre-Covid, I had never drawn or painted, but something in me decided that was the right vehicle for the moment, the one that will help keep creative expression alive during what feels like a very stifling time. I will probably follow that for a bit and learn as much as I can about it. As for writing, the world has shifted and changed so drastically that I feel like language and poetry will find a way to rise up and meet that. I am very curious to see what that will look like.
Haines Eason: Let's talk about the person behind "how to make / a slip knot from a bra strap, how to uncork a bottle / with a stone." To me your winning poem has the weight of autobiography. The speaker is so engaging because they have lived beyond the page. If I'm on the right track, how are these lines connected to your own life, past or present?
Megan Merchant: When my son was little, he came to me one morning with an apple and cup of yogurt, held them up and very sincerely demanded “donut." He thought that I was magic enough to be able to produce what he wanted with those ingredients. I wish that I was. Especially now. I wrote this poem during quarantine and these lines echo that feeling of searching, deep into that part of collective knowledge and resiliency, for the magic and wisdom to make it better, to make it feel safe, and how to fashion the right tools for the task.
HE: Talk to me about your love of nature in general. Two questions: When and how did the natural world seduce you, and which writers help you keep this seduction going?
MM: Ravens are very seductive. We moved to Prescott almost six years ago, and having a small piece of property in the tall pines has ruined me forever. I have fallen in love with the trees, the hummingbirds, the moths, ravens, crows and bats — they fascinate and thrill me. I’m grateful for that connection, to be able to live and be present with nature in a way that is interconnected, but it is also heartbreaking. I am very aware, like so many others, of the shifts and breakdowns of a natural world that is in deep crisis. That connection recently inspired me to take an eco-poetry class online. I greatly admire poems and work by Stacey Balkun, Camille Dungy, and Gary Snyder — just to name a few.
All photos credit Megan Merchant.
Megan Merchant lives in the tall pines of Prescott, Arizona with her husband and two children. She holds an M.F.A. degree in International Creative Writing from UNLV and is the author of three full-length poetry collections with Glass Lyre Press: Gravel Ghosts (2016), The Dark’s Humming (2015 Lyrebird Award Winner, 2017), Grief Flowers (2018), four chapbooks and a children’s book, These Words I Shaped for You (Philomel Books). Her latest book, Before the Fevered Snow, was released in April 2020 with Stillhouse Press. She was awarded the 2016-2017 COG Literary Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera, the 2018 Beullah Rose Poetry Prize and most recently, second place in the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is an Editor at Pirene’s Fountain and The Comstock Review. You can find her work at meganmerchant.wix.com/poet.