October 2, 2006
love with language
Melissa Range sees poetry everywhere: in the spine of a book she is cataloguing in the Pitts Theology Library; in the lyrics of a song; in nature. In fact, the Emory employee, alumna and poet is at this moment somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cozied up in a cabin with nothing to do but focus on the “long poem” she is writing. “It’s just me and the long poem—we’ll see who comes out of the mountains alive,” she joked.
The reason for her week-long “writing retreat”: Range recently won the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, presented annually to women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers.
Range joined the five other recipients to accept the award—which includes $15,000 in grant money—in New York City last month. Writers are nominated in anonymous fashion, so when Range was notified by the foundation in June, it is safe to say she was pleasantly surprised. “It was like a magical thing. The day the director of the foundation called me, I said ‘Good Lord, this is the best thing that has ever happened to me,’” Range recalled.
The purpose of the award is to give writers the time to write, Range explained. She wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, but had only been in her position at Pitts for about six months. “Fortunately, I have such supportive colleagues; they’re really encouraging of everyone’s pursuits,” she said. “That gift of time is so important for writers. Especially for poets, you get so used to the idea of having some sort of day job, and I’m lucky to have a fantastic one.” Range is now working part-time, and is using her grant to concentrate on her poetry.
This includes two works-in-progress. One—which she has been working on in various versions for about eight years—is a collection of poems that takes as its major theme “language as expression of the sacred, and language itself as the sacred.” The central image of the collection’s title, “Scriptorium,” is drawn from the word’s definition as a room where monks in medieval times copied manuscripts, she said. Some of the poems contained in the 70-page manuscript draw on Range’s studies of Biblical Hebrew while earning her masters of theological studies at Candler School of Theology.
Range is also working on a second manuscript, “The Lay of Wandering Edris,” which she said is “a long poem about the Appalachian South. The work has its roots, and its tongue, in East Tennessee.” She described it as a cross between “Beowulf” and “Hee Haw,” that combines “archaic diction with the Southern slang and Appalachian expressions that I grew up hearing.” That voice, she said, “pays homage” to her roots growing up in the northeastern-most corner of Tennessee, in a small town tucked in the foothills of Appalachia. She hopes her poem will “honor and preserve the language and heritage” of the region.
Range will also put the Rona Jaffe award toward a two-week research trip to East Tennessee, where she will peruse East Tennessee State University’s Archives of Appalachia in search of primary sources. One of the things she has learned in her work in libraries—which includes a stint in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library—“is that primary sources allow you to read real people’s words.”
She is particularly interested in the African American experience in Appalachia, and will use her newfound knowledge to develop one of the characters in her “Edris” poem, an African American child. “Where I grew up there was not a lot of racial diversity,” she said, “and one of the reasons why I left was because I wanted to meet people who did not look like me.”
Range also wants to learn more about regional issues such as coal mining, “though I know plenty about tobacco farming, because my grandpa was a small tobacco farmer. The farm was small, not my grandpa,” the language lover added with a smile.
Range hopes these research and writing retreats will further her poetic aspirations. “My goal is to keep writing better and better poems,” she said. “I’d like to publish them, but that really is not the most important thing at all.”
Yet her poems have already turned up in such high-profile publications as The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Western Humanities Review and Poetry London. In fact, Poetry London invited Range to England this past summer to participate in a poetry reading. “It was a blast. British poets are really cool,” she said.
Range also recently served as a poet-in-residence for a Candler course on the Bible as poetry. “I was there to contextualize the poetry part from a poet’s point of a view,” she explained.
Range graduated from Candler in 2005, and earned her M.F.A in poetry from Old Dominion University in 1998. In between, she held a variety of jobs ranging from an adjunct instructor of world literature at Georgia Perimeter College to a full-time post at Decatur CD, her favorite record store. She received her undergraduate education at the University of Tennessee, where she majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing. It was here Range first started writing poems.
She knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of 10. Yet she had always imagined herself becoming a fiction writer, not a poet. “I was always writing”—plays and stories and such—“I just hadn’t found the right genre.” Then, “on a whim” she enrolled in a poetry course in college “and after that I was converted.”
Range finds that she writes best on Sundays, when the obligations of the rest of the week subside. She listens to artists like Neko Case or Sufjan Stevens as she writes, and that music often “infuses the poem.” She also “loves the music of language,” and said she is “obsessed” with language itself. She admitted: “I read the dictionary recreationally, it’s true.”
Her poetry is not restricted to any one form. “I typically write in disciplined free verse,” she said. She likes to challenge herself with a sonnet, villanelle or terza rima, the form Dante used in writing “The Divine Comedy.” But, like Emily Dickinson, Range said she is “not afraid to slant rhyme,” for example pairing the word “dagger” with “tiger.”
The major theme of her poetry, Range said, revolves around a religious impulse. “I am not writing from a place of religious faith, though I used to. What I’m really interested in is how to capture what is ineffable, elusive and sacred in the world,” she said. “A teacher once told me that we write about our obsession, and I seem to have a religious obsession.”
That interest lends itself to Range’s work at Pitts, where her main task is to assign Library of Congress call numbers to books. Above her desk hang her muses—photocopied cut-outs of her favorite poets: among them Gerard Manley Hopkins and Marianne Moore.
She draws daily inspiration from these masters, another favorite being Gjertrud Schnackenberg. “I find their poetry so rich and meaningful and beautifully done,” she said. “I have absorbed their aesthetics, and it informs what I do.”