From “Eight Days and Eight Prospects”:
Sometimes time reveals itself; light
and snow conspiring sketch the edge
of the Holocene, right before our eyes –
shorelines scoured in the South Hills and a valley
filled with fog: a dozen millennia gone and we’re alive
on the lake bottom. This soot’s
a new silt, we’re the ebb and fill.
For the casual reader who keeps seeing more and more books by writers from western Montana, it can easily seem that the Missoula area is full of aspiring novelists from places such as New England who showed up to do the Master of Fine Arts in writing at the University of Montana and settled down afterward to write their award-winning novels.
And then someone such as Melissa Mylchreest shows up to smash the stereotype.
True, she’s a Connecticut native who moved to Montana in 2006, but she’s a poet, not a novelist, and she came to Missoula to study in the environmental writing program – the MFA in poetry was just an after-thought. But the thing about awards? That part is absolutely true.
Most recently Mylchreest won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize from Bear Star Press in 2014 for a collection of poems that press published, “Waking the Bones.” Earlier she received the University of Montana’s 2012 Merriam-Frontier Award for writing, awarded to an undergraduate or graduate at UM. And back in 2008, Mylchreest was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize for Poetry that year, along with a cash prize of $7,500 – the highest cash award that year, given to only three poets in that contest that awards various sums to winning writers.
She also won the Obsidian Prize for Poetry two years in a row, 2011 and 2012, from High Desert Journal – selected by different judges each year. And she won a residency at the Hall Farm Arts Center.
But oddly, for an award-winning poet, Mylchreest – who also keeps busy as a freelance writer – has mixed feelings about poetry.
“I tend to be pretty cynical about poetry in general. I think the audience is pretty small,” Mylchreest said. But, she added, she’s continually surprised at who buys and reads poetry. “Maybe I should be less cynical about the reach of poetry. It’s doing relevant work.”
In an interview posted online at http://latenightlibrary.org/, Mylchreest cited Missoula poet Richard Hugo’s “The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir” as an influence for her “Waking the Bones.” In her conversation with Corridor, Mylchreest added that her other influences include people such as Joe Wilkins – “He writes Montana better than anyone, I think” – and the poet and translator Robert Hass. She likes James Welch and Jim Harrison. She also reads a lot of nonfiction, especially nonfiction about science.
She added that Missoula poet Greg Pape, a former poet laureate for the state of Montana, has also been important.
“His approach to writing and the world was certainly an influence,” she said.
So was poet Joanna Klink. Both Klink and Pape teach at the University of Montana.
But an even more important influence than other writers, for Mylchreest, may be landscape – especially the newfound landscape of Montana that she had never even visited before she arrived in the state in 2006. It was the first place where she had ever heard “neighbor” used as a verb. And the wilderness in western Montana goes way beyond her East Coast visions of “rural.”
“I love that it’s still pretty darn wild,” Mylchreest said. “You are not on top of the food chain. I love that about this place. I think it’s a place that gives you room to be who you are.”
Her own writing, she said, doesn’t happen at a steady pace.
“I’m definitely not one of those people who are constantly writing. I’ll go through long dry spells and then I’ll write constantly for a month.”
Coming from a musical family, Mylchreest adds that for her, the music of language is a crucial part of the poem.
“The content of poetry is important but perhaps secondary to the sound. I want to make a reader listen.”
Mylchreest’s collection, “Waking the Bones,” is available at Fact & Fiction Bookstore in Missoula, 220 N. Higgins Ave.; at Shakespeare & Co., 103 S. Third St. W. in Missoula; at the University of Montana bookstore; or online.
Even if nothing matters:
This morning, fifteen ravens
over the gulch, talking. This morning,
a hawk alighting in pines. Fog
in the creekbed and horse
silhouettes on the ridge. Breath
condensed and the heart working
loudly on the hills.