Every new place I’ve lived has an impact on my writing. Spending nearly a year living near the ocean in Provincetown, thanks to a nine-month fellowship, was a profound experience. Not only was the landscape very different from Washington, DC, but living near the water and having a daily view of the horizon was transformative. The fellowship gave me time with no responsibilities other than writing. As someone who has worked my way through school and had a job since I was 14, that expansiveness was new to me, as was being regularly near the rhythm of the tides.
I felt very free to experiment and go to more emotionally vulnerable places in my writing. I was very physically present in Provincetown. I wanted to know it deeply and as much as possible in a short time. So, I spent a lot of time exploring the landscape.
Provincetown gave me a lot of time for reading too. My most memorable reading moment was one morning at about 4am. Coming back from the dunes where we had staked out a spot in the darkness with a thermos of coffee to watch a meteor shower, I decided to do some reading as the sun came up over the water. I picked up a book by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, and I felt I was living his poem as the sun burned over the water. It seemed the perfect way to read Ritsos. I once had a similar experience with Neruda on a beach with crashing waves, and I wonder if there is a landscape or moment in time in which a poet’s work can be most intimately experienced? Or maybe any poet is best read on the beach!
So, how did all of this impact my writing? I feel more free in the poems now, more open to mystery, less rushed to come to some conclusion in the poems. Much of this has to do with the support that fellowship provides. I also learned a lot about my writing process. Writing every day was a humbling experience. Did my writing style change? I feel like it did, but the change probably has more to do with my writing process. I found myself writing more in sequence and exploring longer poems.
We’re now living in Ithaca, New York. We decided to move here as an opportunity to continue to live close to nature and lower our bills (compared with DC), and though there is no ocean here, I am glad to be near the lakes, with a pond in our backyard, hiking trails, and a huge sky. Being here at this moment in history, as our environmental regulations are unraveling, and the pressure to destroy what’s left of the planet—our air, our water, our natural resources—intensifies, I find myself searching for language that can describe the immensity of what is happening. What does it mean to be alive as the icecaps are melting? So much is happening quickly. The BP oil spill was such a profound event to witness and I don’t think we have words for what we are experiencing. Certainly, we should be saying “No” and “Stop,” and working for a different future, but it’s hard to face. These concerns don’t appear directly in my poems, but they are at work beneath the surface trying to find language.
In Ithaca, we grow some of our own food, get dirt under our nails, put up food for winter, spend more time outdoors, even in the winter snow. All of these experiences are part of my current writing (when I actually have time to write—looking forward to winter!).
Living in DC taught me that poetry matters. It shaped what I expect from a poem. I feel all writers (and all humans!) have a social/political responsibility. But it’s harder to avoid political realities in DC. The disparity between those with power and privilege and those without is extreme. In such an environment, the arts and poetry are vital to keeping the city, its human stories, its cultures, and its young people, alive. I experienced that working with Split This Rock and with DC Writer’s Corp. I am grateful for these experiences and for my time in DC, including exposure to the city’s lively, living arts culture. DC is also a historic city, it’s significant that Walt Whitman, arguably the father of American poetry, lived in DC and tended the civil war wounded there. Poets today in DC and across the country continue the tradition.
Melissa Tuckey is a poet, activist, and teacher. Her chapbook, Rope as Witness, was published by Pudding House Press. Her poems have also been published in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Poetry Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Painted Bride Quarterly, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She’s a founding member of Split This Rock and teaches in the writing department at Ithaca College.