In Trace, debut author Melanie Figg explores the complex emotions of being a survivor of sexual assault. In the powerful feminist poetry collection, Figg “kindles broken, dying embers into a roaring memorial for the voiceless,” per Kirkus Reviews. The book won the Many Voices Project Prize from New Rivers Press, a validating experience for the poet, who worked for 15 years to publish her book. Figg, who has a master’s in fine arts in poetry, was also the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts poetry fellowship.
What was the writing process like when tackling difficult topics like sexual assault, mental illness, and loss?
I like to explore an issue over time to find emotional clearings. I like to tackle big ideas or trace complicated emotional shifts in my poems. How does one move from being a sexual assault victim to a survivor, from feeling fragmented to being whole, from being overwhelmed with grief to cultivating a daily relationship with absence? What does that process look like? Poetry can articulate that complicated process and show us how to engage in, and with, ourselves and the world in a way that is thoughtful, curious, and hopeful.
Trace has been hailed as a feminist work depicting various kinds of women and their relationships. Were there other, similar works that you had in mind while writing your book?
The long poems of Larry Levis were important guides—in their length, use of space, and how they braided stories. But mostly, visual artists were my main companions while I wrote this book, such as Doris Salcedo and David Maisel. Over a dozen poems in Trace are ekphrastic, including the two long poems that anchor the collection—so the book is really in conversation with the visual arts. A lot of my poems braid the visual arts, personal and global history, and myth to launch lyric investigations into the stuff I’m interested in: identity, loss, memory, forgiveness, and the creative impulse.
Spirituality and religion are evident throughout, starting with the first line in the collection, “God save the devils.” How much of your work reflects your own beliefs?
I’m not religious at all; I am a preacher’s kid. I trace the musicality of my poetry to that immersion in spoken word and ritualized song. But in my poems, I use religion more as a trope to talk about forgiveness and redemption as well as power and abuse.
I have a very strong sense of the spiritual—in nature, in art, in meditative acts of communion—and I hope that comes through in my work. I search for ways to include absence as a formal element in a poem. White space or fragmented phrases and images not only sit in for what is absent, but also create momentum. Space, whether a visual absence or a syntactical loosening, becomes a way for form to document a growing acceptance of loss and create the place—the space on the page itself—where confusion and hope can reside. For me that’s a spiritual endeavor.
What was most challenging about writing this collection?
The most challenging aspect was getting it published! Part of me is embarrassed to confess that, but the braver part of me knows it’s important to share how hard this process can be, how essential it is for writers to have faith in their vision, to be fierce advocates for their own work. I really believed in these poems and wanted to do right by them.
I had actually stopped sending out my manuscript for a few years. But that decision broke my heart, so I got back on the horse. In the same week that I won an NEA, I also won New Rivers’ award to publish Trace. This may be a “debut” book to readers, but for me this has been a “long experience of love,” a face palm, a WTF, a blessing, a long-ass time coming.
You’re a poet, teacher, and personal coach, and in your bio, you talk about finding mission-driven work; did you create this project with that same intention?
If Trace is on any kind of mission, I’d like it to be as an ambassador for poetry and the power of the arts to lance and salve and heal us. Art offers us tools with which to do the difficult emotional work and craft something powerful from the journey. That’s why, despite the content of what I tackle, I want my poems to be full of music. Song and image can lead us into difficult places, and they will lead us out.
Virginia Isaad is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles focused on lifestyle and culture content for women and the Latinx community.