Open Alphabet welcomes Megan Merchant and her recent book Gravel Ghosts,
published by Glass Lyre Press (ISBN 978-1-941783-17-7).

Megan Merchant

Megan Merchant's poems and translations have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Kennesaw Review, International Poetry Review, First Literary Review East, The Poetry of Yoga and others. She has two recent chapbooks, Translucent, sealed and Unspeakable Light. Her poem Filling Station God won the Las Vegas Poets Prize, judged by Tony Hoagland. She received her MFA from UNLV.

Megan lives with her family in the tall pines of Arizona.

I hear the Japanese maples
slowly growing, dancing close
and shallow with the moon
under courtyard windows,
open to the trains.
-- from Asking, Leaving

Open Alphabet: Do you remember when you started writing poetry in earnest? What motivated you? Gravel Ghosts

Megan Merchant: After completing my MFA degree at UNLV, I went right into teaching. Then into learning and teaching yoga (I am a RYT 200), then into "adulting" (marriage and children). I wrote sporadically through it all, but really devoted my time to asana practice, learning as much as I could about yoga and creating a yoga/poetry mash-up that plays with chakras, poses and imagery. The whole time I felt a lot of guilt about neglecting my craft. So, I signed up for a Poetry Barn workshop four months before the start date. I selected a workshop about Confessional Poets. I was raising a tiny human at the time and loved the irony of feeling like my brain and identity were being absorbed by feeding schedules, diaper changes and other motherly tasks, while reading Plath and Sexton. I thought tapping into their voices was an opening back into writing, back into feeling like "myself". I had no idea that was really just the beginning. A month later, I tore the labrum and rotator cuff in my left shoulder doing a home yoga practice and had to have surgery. To top it off, I suffered frozen shoulder after that and had to have a mobility chair brought to the house. I was prescribed six hours a day of sitting in an awful contraption that manipulated my arm with a slow, annoying hum. Coincidentally, the very same day that the chair was delivered, the online workshop started. It saved me in so many ways. I fell in love with poetry again. I also realized that I had been through enough life experiences to return to the page with something to say. When I was completing my MFA, I was still learning how to create and structure poems. How to find the music, the images, and breath of each piece. It took living, loving, suffering a bit, and becoming a mother to grow the content for those poems. And I haven't stopped writing since. I guess that sometimes the universe redirects in painful ways, but I am very grateful to be on this path.

OA: How did Gravel Ghosts find Glass Lyre Press? Were there any surprises in bringing your book to publication?

MM: The poems in Gravel Ghosts survived ten years of rejections, close calls as a finalist in a few contests, a trip to the Colrain Manuscript Conference, and more revisions than I can recall before Glass Lyre Press accepted it for publication. So, I'm pretty much the poster child for insane determination and being at ease with rejection. Thankfully, I met the wonderful editor, poet, and human being, Cindy Sostchen-Hochman, in the Poetry Barn workshop; she was the one who suggested that my work might be a good fit for GLP.

I think the biggest surprise in bringing the book into publication was how fluid of a process it was. The staff at GLP are very professional, diligent and kind. They are prompt with communication, have a keen eye and make such beautiful books. They made the process very stress-free. That was the best kind of surprise.

OA: Do you have a daily writing practice? Has it evolved with the release of your book?

MM: I have a daily writing practice that looks different every day. Raising two young children, my writing time is not a priority. I have learned to squeeze it into the smallest openings so that I'm still present for the time that I share with them. I often write while they are taking a bath (which is pretty risky considering the unhappy marriage between a laptop and water), during the increasingly rare nap, or while they are engaged in an activity. There are days when I don't get the chance to sit down long enough to get a poem out and part of the process is learning to be OK with that. Since the release of Gravel Ghosts, I've shifted a lot of the focus to how my brain works, so that I'm at ease and know that the poems will be there when I am ready. I'm fascinated with the Buddhist concept of "store consciousness" -- that at a subconscious level, I'm absorbing and processing images, music and content -- storing seeds of information that will grow into poems when I am able sit down and direct my attention, breath and energy into them. My husband likes to say that I'm always working on a poem. I just might not be sitting down writing one.

OA: You have a refreshing way of promoting your book (the Facebook travelogue). Where did this come from and how is it working for you?

MM: I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read when I first moved to Prescott. She shared the ways in which her poems have grown beyond her and taken on lives of their own. I thought this was brilliant and when my book was released, I wanted to create a way to follow my poems as they ventured out into the world. So, I created a Facebook page and contest called "Where in the World is Gravel Ghosts" -- a very Flat Stanley sort of travelogue where readers posted photos of their copy of Gravel Ghosts having adventures, (drinking mostly), hiking the Grand Canyon, sightseeing in Paris, Lithuania, Maui, Nantucket, and other wild places. The contest is over now, but images of my poems are still popping up on social media. For me, it was more about connecting with readers, but it worked well for promoting the book too.

OA: A thought experiment: If you project yourself into an idealized future for a moment, what are your feelings as you look back on this, your first book?

MM: When Glass Lyre Press accepted Gravel Ghosts, a newfound sense of freedom emerged. After ten years tending to these poems, there was a lot of relief in letting them go. I don't have to think too far ahead to be able to process my feelings about my first book. I think there will always be an overwhelming sense of gratitude and validation. I believed in this book for so long and it was never an "if" but a "when". There's so much gratitude there -- for GLP, for my teachers, and for my husband who supported me through each rejection. And there's validation in my persistence, regarding the level of my work, and in the importance of not giving into difficulty, or doubt. I am honored to be able to exemplify these lessons for my children. When I look back at these poems, it's like reuniting with an old friend -- one I love dearly. I recognize the person who wrote them, with fondness, but already from a distance.

OA: Raquel Reyes-Lopez recently stated that "I believe no walls should stop Los Angeles poets from writing the uncomfortable because we have an audience that constantly welcomes our truth." Are you comfortable writing the uncomfortable? Here, I am thinking specifically of the last section of your book. and the emotional arc that runs through the poems Dry Storms, He Said, Small Birth, Traction, and Prayer to Our Lady of Expectation.

MM: I had an unfortunate number of miscarriages along with a complicated medical history. Each time, I carried just long enough so that friends and family knew I was pregnant, but would then lose the baby. Each one was an impossible loss, one that was literally internalized. It's not like when an older relative passes and there's a big funeral, or celebration with stories and memories to share. Miscarriage is the kind of loss that is deafening in its isolation. My body became a sort of grave. And people, for the most part, weren't sure how to respond, or what to say. So they didn't, or it was trite. And that's OK. A lot of the time compassion echoes as trite expressions. But, it's a very lonely loss and one that still has a cultural stigma of silence surrounding it. So, I gave myself permission to write those poems as a way of healing. While I was building the walls of the poems, I was very much allowing my own walls to crumble. Once they did, I decided to go ahead and include them as a way of connection. I thought that if they resonated with a reader and made them feel understood, or gave them a place of refuge, or a launching off point for a discussion, then it would be worth exposing that wound. Even at the cost of being uncomfortable. I think that suffering can make us feel the most human, the most connected... but isn't that one of the aims of poetry? Not only to expose and pull on those common threads, but to tap into this human experience? I think it's the poet's job to provide the language, the images, or the music for what makes us uncomfortable. That's how we grow together.

OA: Is there a particular poet, contemporary or not, who you see as your closest kin? desk

MM: The talented poet and Comstock Review Editor, John Bellinger, approached me about two years ago with the idea of dong a collaborative manuscript. We've been working together pretty much non-stop since then. He has become one of my greatest teachers and a close friend. I have learned so much from him: about poetry and life. I think that one of the most daunting aspects to writing is the isolation. In working with John, I get to escape that. I have someone who inspires me, offers criticism and advice that I trust, and sets the bar really high. I think he fits as an answer to your question about the poet I would claim as "my closest kin"... just in a different way.

OA: What books are on your desk? What are you currently reading? Who do you recommend?

MM: I am always reading ten different books at once. My current obsessions are Jennifer Givhan's Landscape With Headless Mama, Chloe Honum's Tulip Flame, and Amy Strauss Friedman's new chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander. I must say that my favorite go-to poetry books are Rebecca Lindenberg's Love, an Index, and Claudia Emerson's Late Wife. Those two books are never far from reach and offer something marvelous and layered with each read.

OA: Now that your book is in circulation, what is next for you?

MM: I have a lot coming up. I'm calling this my chapbook season. I have a chapbook, Unspeakable Light, coming out in a few days with Throwback Books. It's about my son's sudden speech loss and I'm still really close to those poems. I also have a chapbook, In the Rooms of a Tiny House, coming out through ELJ Publications in October. Those poems are a very modern-day Adam and Eve story. Then in December, A Thousand Paper Cranes, is going be published with Finishing Line Press. One that I'm absolutely thrilled about, my second full-length collection, The Dark's Humming, will be published in 2017. That book won the 2015 Lyrebird Award and will be published with Glass Lyre Press. I also have a children's book coming into the world with Philomel Books. I have so much coming up that I like to tell people that I'm mostly forthcoming. I'm hoping that trend continues. Right now, I have three full-length manuscripts that I started sending out to contests and open submission periods. I love them too. There are a lot of poems in there that fit into the "uncomfortable" classification. Those poems came into existence as a means of connection. I am hopeful and excited to see what they can do out in the world.