Recently, Arkana‘s managing editor Kathy M. Bates sat down with writer and educator Megan Neville to discuss her writing and poetic forms and themes at work in her latest poetry collection, The Fallow.
Transcribed by Melanie A. Wilson.
Kathy M. Bates: We are happy to share in the excitement of your first full-length poetry collection The Fallow. Teaching, writing, contests, traditional and non-traditional paths, tell us a little about your writing journey.
Megan Neville: Writing is something I have done my entire life. I know a lot of people say that, but it really is. I put together little books when I was a kid, when I could barely write words. I did a zine when I was 13, 14, 15-years-old. So, writing has been something that I have always done and it has always been intrinsically linked with teaching. When I really started to take writing seriously, in my adult life, I have to give a lot of credit to the National Writing Project at Kent State University. NWP is an organization that operates on the philosophy that K-12 teachers should be writers themselves–if we are going to teach writing, we need to write. So, I did that in 2007 and that just reinvigorated my passion for writing. That’s when I started to really see myself as a writer again. That’s where the journey to where I am now was rekindled.
KMB: At what point during the writing and organization of The Fallow did you decide on the title? Fallow is in essence remains that are left to restore over time. Tell me a little more about the title and deeper connection to thematic elements within the collection.
MN: Yeah, that’s huge. You know, it was originally going to be “Our Lady of Impermanence”, which is the title of one of the poems. But then I realized that the poet, Traci Brimhall has a book with a very similar title and I obviously didn’t want to be too similar to someone else’s book. I was looking around at other things in the book trying to figure out what was kind of a unifying theme. And the whole idea of fertility is huge in this book, and the intentional non-use of fertility. My poems touch a bit on the concept of motherhood and mothering, and it’s very much a book about the fact that I’m not a mother, I don’t have children and I don’t want to have children. And just kind of exploring maternal instinct and things like that in the context of not being or wanting to be an actual mother.
I also think about it from an agricultural standpoint, because I am in Ohio so that is something that once I get an hour outside of the city I live in, is a big thing. You know, leaving a field fallow is purposeful, right? It’s so that things can regenerate and restore nutrients and kind of nurture the land itself, as opposed to just always spawning things from the land. So, you know, when you first hear the definition of the word fallow, it might seem like something negative like, oh, that’s sad. It’s not bearing anything, but then when you think of the purpose of it, I like to think of that as a metaphor for why I have chosen not to be a mother.
KMB: Let’s talk a bit about how form mirrors content but more potentially exposes context. Namely in “Rotational Fall,” there are 3 stanzas parted by pages as well as appearance. How are your choices informing the underlying story you hope to relay?
MN: I love this because I love to play with form. And I love any way to enhance content. So, when I play around with form, like for “Rotational Fall,” I’m basically trying to let the reader into how my brain is working, like how I’m grouping thoughts together or how different stages of the poem were created and how they play off of each other. With “Rotational Fall”, you have to physically rotate the book while you’re reading it.
That poem was based on a story I heard on NPR about, forgive me, I forget her name, but an actual competitive equestrian rider who died after a rotational fall a few years ago. Just hearing that story sent me tumbling. I used to ride horses when I was a kid, and just thinking how someone could die in such a tragic way, doing something that I did for fun, for recreation. It really threw me for a loop. So just that whole circle and cycle and rotation and the fact that the whole rest of the book is about cycles of violence, cycles of matrilineal turnover and things like that. It felt like it would fit to make people actually turn the book around a few times when they’re reading.
KMB: There are many other poems that use white space, dropped lines, and intentional location. Do you often see these elements in the first draft, or do they come into play upon revision and reflection?
MN: A lot of times when I write a poem, I’ll write it out exactly as it looks in my mind, with pauses, things like that, like visual caesuras and dropped lines, and things like that. It will just come out right away. But then sometimes when I’m playing around with a poem, and I’m not sure exactly how it should be, I actually just put it all together as one block of prose. And then I play around with different ways of using indentation and lineation and things like that.
There are a couple of poems in this book that were originally published differently. Like “Stand Her Ground” is one, for instance. When that originally appeared in the Longleaf Review, it looked very different than it looks now. The other one that I’m thinking of is “Searching Plan B Availability in Utah” which originally was a prose poem. So I think some of them have evolved over time as they live in my mind and they just take up more space, sometimes they need to expand, and I like using blank space in poems in general because they often feel like you need that reflective space somewhere.
And then some of it also has to do with whether it’s a poem I imagined myself reading aloud, in front of an audience, versus if it’s a poem that I picture people reading with their eyes on a page.
I tend to be a very extroverted introvert, at times; I love being around people, but then they exhaust me and I need time to myself. So if I’m in a phase where I’ve been very extroverted, I find that I tend to write a lot of poems that are more traditional looking because I’m going to envision myself reading them in front of an audience. But then when I’m more in my little hidey-hole, I tend to write poems with a lot of visual aspects.
KMB: As a follow-up, considering poem evolution, many writers feel like their work is never really finished. What are your thoughts about that? How do you know when you are finally ready to let go of a piece?
MN: There have been a handful that I’ve let go of, but the vast majority I see as constant works in progress. When a poem is published somewhere I feel like that’s just a checkpoint. That’s where the poem is at that time. It’s like a photograph where it’s like, that’s how this person looks at this moment in their life, but they’re not going to look like that forever. As a teacher of writing for high school, I do a lot of encouraging my kids to know that your work is never fully done. You just write drafts of it. And that’s very hard for them to internalize because they want to know exactly what something’s supposed to look like. And that’s why as a writer, I like poetry because I feel like it can evolve and I feel like all the poems that I have right now, are in a lot of ways in conversation with older poems that I’ve written. So, I feel like every poem that I write is kind of like a little branch, like an offshoot of other things that I’ve written, and little tendrils can come off of them as they constantly evolve.
KMB: What about the process of choosing the order for your poems?
MN: It’s messy and I love it. That’s honestly one of my favorite parts of putting together The Fallow. I print everything out, as I’m sure many writers do, and I spread everything out on the floor. My apartment is not big enough, and plus the cat tries to help, so sometimes I’ll go someplace else where there’s a lot of floor space or table space. And I just spread out every single poem that I’m thinking of putting in a manuscript and I go through and I put little like tags on them, like what are the themes in the poem or the images in the poem and then I start grouping them together. And then once I have groups, I start to tease them out. Then I expand because I don’t want all of the poems with the same theme to be together. I want them to be spread out. So that instead of there being like a clump of poems about one theme and then a clump of poems about another theme, I like to have everything spread out a bit, so that just when you think you’re out of one theme, as a reader, you get drawn back into it again. So there’s this sort of spiraling out or going forward and back and forward and back and forward and back. So that’s how I chose what order they went in.
And then with the two sections, I tried a lot of different ways of doing this. I really wanted the first section to be more about origins and then the second section more about consequences.
KMB: You mention groups and themes, some of those conversations are more difficult than others. Which was the hardest poem to write?
MN: I think one of the hardest ones, I wrote in 2019 in a workshop I was in with Ada Limón. It was the one about “Searching for Plan B availability in Utah because no this is not what you think.” I was writing it in this sort of scathing and angry mood, and I realized the jealousy and suspicion invoked in that poem would cause more of that. And so, that was a poem that kind of ate itself as I wrote it.
And I love that poem. It’s really short and really simple, but that was the hardest one to write because it involves so many things that I wanted to say that I knew I would be in trouble for saying. And as a K-12 teacher, that’s something I’ve struggled with a lot as a writer. Because for some reason, the teaching profession in the United States, I’m honestly not sure if it’s like this in the rest of the world, but teachers here are sort of infantilized. We’re expected to be non-sexual beings and we’re expected to be, you know, prim and proper all the time. I’ve been in education for 18 years but I’m a grown-ass woman, you know, so I have the same thoughts and issues and desires and experiences that any other 41-year-old woman has.
So writing several of the poems in this book, I realized I was taking a risk by putting them out into the world. But I realized that I was taking more of a risk by keeping them inside, so I went ahead and wrote them.
KMB: Looking back, is there anything you would have taken away or added?
MN: You know, there’s the one poem I wish I would have followed a little bit further with is “Body of Knowledge.” It goes as far as celebrating the clitoris, yet there’s so much more to sexuality than just the pleasure centers. I sometimes wish I would have expanded on that one a little bit more. Sometimes I feel like I was a little bit too safe with that one.
One of the ways that I thought about that poem and kind of reconciled putting it in the, despite wishing I’d had gone further with it, is that the fact that it doesn’t interrogate quite as much as I would like it to interrogate. But I think that represents a vulnerability, searching for pleasure and trying to understand my own capacity for pleasure despite not being taught that such a thing exists. I think that kind of leaves open, like, hey, there’s more to learn. I like how that gets represented in the poem.
KMB: Can you isolate a favorite poem from this collection? Why?
MN: I’m gonna have to say they’re all my babies, I love them all. But I’ll go with “Elegy with Apologies to Leon Jakobovits James,” because that one is my 2020 poem. It’s the most recently-written poem that made it into the book.
It’s my locked-down, teaching remotely, trying to live, reflective covid-era poem. And I mean, a lot of people wrote 2020 poems. I think we all wrote some 2020 poems. This one covers everything starting with my father’s death at the end of 2019, right before the pandemic started, and goes both forward and backward in time. I was still grieving for him when the whole pandemic started, and the pandemic has been just a years-long ball of grief upon grief upon grief. The structure of the poem is based on the concept of semantic satiation, which is when you say a word over and over again until it just doesn’t sound like that word anymore. It doesn’t have any meaning anymore. So the idea was, maybe if I talked enough about all the grief that I was experiencing, that it would go away. So, it was very cathartic for me to write and I love the way it turned out.
KMB: With the excitement of a new release, we know the journey continues. What are you working on now?
MN: It’s really interesting because in my own writing process, I go through phases where I write and write and write and I can’t stop writing. Then I go through phases where I don’t write quite as much. Right now I have not written a poem in about five months. But I have a lot of them brewing.
I’m working on some creative nonfiction, though. Right now I’m developing an essay about the intersection between teaching, watching the TV show Euphoria, and texting like a mom–which is something my teenage students say is a thing. That essay is what I’m working on right now. I do, like I said, also have a few poems brewing. I tend to write poems in chunks. I just get a word or a phrase or concept or an image stuck in my mind and I just jot it down, and then I ignore it for months until I have many of those and I start to look at how we put them all together. So I’m in the very nascent phases of writing some poems and then working on a couple of essays, as well.
KMB: Well, it is definitely exciting when it all comes together, and we hope to see more soon!. Thank you so much for speaking with us!
Discover more about Megan and her work here!
Megan Neville (she/her) is a writer and educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Pleiades, Poets.org, Wildness, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2019 Wick Poetry Center Contest for Peace & Transformation and has been a finalist or semifinalist for the Write Bloody Book Contest, the Akron Poetry Prize, the Frost Place Chapbook Contest, the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Contest, the YesYes Books 2020 Open Reading Period, and others. In 2021 received a Best of the Net nomination and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Megan is also an editorial assistant for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter @MegNev.