Local poet Melissa Barrett gets playfully serious in first collection

Joel Oliphint
Melissa Barrett

Melissa Barrett was ready for an adventure. After growing up in Kent, Ohio, and attending Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, she had plans to go to the Arctic Circle and work as a librarian.

But in her final year at Wittenberg, Barrett also uncovered a latent love of poetry through an independent study with poet Jody Rambo. Though Barrett’s mother is a poet, she hadn’t considered pursuing the art form until the experience with Rambo, which led Barrett to apply to MFA programs. She ended up at Sarah Lawrence College in New York — a far cry from the Arctic Circle, but an adventure in its own right.

“I kind of got my butt kicked [at Sarah Lawrence] because I was the youngest person in the program, and I arrived to poetry late,” Barrett said in a recent interview Downtown. “I’d read classical poets like Shelley, but I didn't know contemporary poetry very well.”

After grad school, Barrett wrote love poems and poems grounded in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, particularly President James Garfield’s assassination. Along the way, Barrett sought the counsel of poet friend Anthony Madrid.

“He saw how I would craft emails to him, and then he'd see my poems, and he's like, ‘Why don't you write more like how you write me when we're just talking about stuff? You're kind of writing poems that you think are “poetic material” — important and fancy and flowery,'” Barrett said. “He challenged me for many years to switch how I was writing and what I was writing about.”

Eventually she took him up on the advice and embraced a breezier style that delights in the English language. That word play is all over Moon on Roam (Gold Wake Press), Barrett’s first collection of poetry, which will see release on Thursday, Aug. 1.

Palindromes inspired the poem “Lived on Decaf, Faced no Devil,” which begins by exploring the history of umbrellas and eventually becomes an examination of history itself, and time, with plenty of palindromes along the way (read that poem title again). She writes,

“So the rain fell harder: the gutters churning,

worms upending—hours later the puddles were clouds because

everything gets flipped around like that. Like my little cousin

Hannah, the brat: named the same way forward and back.”

“I was reading Proust when I wrote a lot of these, and his whole thing is obviously, like, time. … But a common narrator or speaker of the poem is someone who's questioning relationships — questioning marriage, questioning monogamy, questioning the typical conventions,” said Barrett, who’s also the principal of a local middle school. “I was writing this right after I got married, and thinking about [artist] Pete [Burkeet], my partner, if we wanted to have a kid and things like that. It was that kind of moment of my life.”

That questioning spirit crops up throughout “Cross-Examination”:

“Studies show that people who use air quotes are full of shit.

Other studies show that people who curse openly

tend to be more honest, that women who wear make-up

are perceived as being more trustworthy. Figure that one out.”

“There's a really great book that informed this book called Madame X by Darcie Dennigan. It's such a brilliant book about all these wacky characters,” Barrett said. “I think I tried to steal from her a bit in how she set that book up and just how weird she was willing to go. … I try to make a joke out of more serious things.”