Eating words 

Common turns uncommon with poet Melissa Mylchreest

Ask award-winning Missoula poet and budding gourmand Melissa Mylchreest which is harder, cooking a good meal for six or writing a poem from scratch, and she won’t so much waffle (okay, that’s bad), as say she’s on the fence.

“Writing a poem from scratch is generally harder, but it’s a question of constraint,” she says. “Once a meal is cooked and eaten, it’s over. There’s no more tinkering to be done. With a poem, however, it’s often hard to declare, yes, this poem is finished.”

For Mylchreest, recent recipient of her second Obsidian Prize from the Bend, Ore.-based High Desert Journal, cooking offers a rich contrast to the making of poems.

ERIC ORAVSKY
  • Eric Oravsky

“When I’m cooking, I’m constantly thinking about my audience,” she says. “Poetry, on the other hand, for me, is much more personal. Even though there’ll eventually be an audience, I don’t think about it at all. It’s internal, quiet, measured, intensely idea- and sound-driven; the poems I write are intensely ‘mine,’ even after they enter the public eye, I think.

“I love that there are no hard and fast rules for either,” she adds, “but there are guidelines that dictate how the machine of the poem or the machine of the meal work—complementary flavors, complementary words, frameworks and techniques.”

A 13th generation New Englander turned Rockies transplant, Mylchreest graduated with a master’s from the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program, then worked the freelance writing circuit for a spell, publishing in Big Sky Journal and High Country News among others, before returning to UM for her master’s of fine arts in creative writing. (Full disclosure: Mylchreest also occasionally contributes to the Indy). Last spring, her poetry thesis manuscript was selected as the University of Montana’s Merriam-Frontier Award Winner, and was recently published as the chapbook Reckon.

Rife with rough-hewn language, a pleasant density and vivid sensory images from the physical world, the poems in Reckon are guided by a voice that hasn’t merely visited the West, but inhabited it. “The Gap-Tooth Girl,” for instance, epitomizes the collection’s ability to illuminate (without sentimentalizing) what poet Ted Kooser called “local wonders”:

The gap-tooth girl is dancing, and the man


in Wranglers holds his arms around her like 


a loose hoop of rope, a snare for her tight

two-step. The band will never play better


than this town limits, and still it’s sweeter


than the sounds the country makes, gumbo mud,

trains coupling, a wild Chinook, a place laced

with ice and barb-wire singing.

With titles like “Driving the Eastside Highway to Threemile,” “Bitterroot and Sweetgrass” and “Frenchtown,” Reckon plants itself definitively in western Montana, but its nuanced themes remain philosophically universal. In the opening passage from “Frenchtown,” a harrowing ballad to the going and the gone that, like “The Gap-Tooth Girl,” rhythmically channels the ghost of Richard Hugo.

They shutter the mill and still the mill


stink settles in this valley, and men

soured—thirty years of a sure thing


and now this shame—turn to their old friends

and then the bottle and for a few

there’s finally the certain comfort


of blued steel.

In “Frenchtown” and throughout Reckon, Mylchreest uses the common—Swiss chard, crows, moons, chickens chasing grasshoppers, etc.—to escape the commonplace, a practice 17th century Japanese poet Basho urged his budding haiku students to employ. The result is a collection that both the distinguishing and uninitiated poetry palates will enjoy.

Mylchreest, who tends a blog called “Bricolage and Breakfast” (bricobreakfast.wordpress.com), says that she can spend hours creating a poem or creating a meal, and end up feeling like only minutes have passed. Readers who immerse themselves in Reckon will no doubt share this sensation.

Reckon is available at Missoula bookstores.

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