For this special issue of Umbra, we interviewed three NOCCA Creative Writing alums for this special issue of Umbra about one of their poems published in previous editions. We gauged their initial reactions to re-reading their high school poems, asked them about their experience at NOCCA, and other reflections on their work as young poets. We chose Melissa Dickey’s poem “Thumbelina” from the 1998 issue of Umbra.
As I try to fall asleep in my walnut shell crib, my silky hair and tiny white hands swallowed in a blanket of violet petals, I often think I can feel your eager stare feasting on my soft beauty, and I fear opening my eyes to face your giant mouth open wide as the ocean and eyes like two moons. Then you lift me with fingernails larger than my head and lay me down in the hard palm of that monstrous hand, while I imagine the sound of my bones crushing to bits as your fingers close and make a fist.
What was your first reaction to rereading this poem after so many years? Can you reflect on how you feel about the poem now? I had forgotten that it’s a sonnet! That’s cool. I’m sure that was a teacher’s workshop advice, to shape it that way. The first phrase of this poem has been burned into my memory for some reason, but I’d forgotten the violence of the ending – intense! I notice the strong word choice, line endings, and imagery. NOCCA taught me how to get super concrete; that really comes through here.
Do you still connect with the emotions/thoughts you were trying to convey with this earlier piece? What I connect with most is the desire to make a solid art object out of words – I remember so clearly that need, when I was first writing poems. It was already intrinsic to me, but NOCCA and workshop provided the external containers. I wanted so badly to write something expressive, evocative, something that passed the tests of form (in line, image, diction, rhythm) but was also emotionally meaningful to myself and others. That remains a big part of what I want and try to do with my writing.
What class or readings at NOCCA do you think influenced the poem? What strikes me now, too, is something I never could articulate fully when I was a teenager, but always my imagination has been haunted and obsessed by patriarchy – still write about that all the time. Sublimated it then.
Louise Gluck’s “Gretel in Darkness” absolutely influenced this, and I still love that poem. In that first poetry unit, my first year, we discussed a few persona poems and wrote in the voice of a character – a great exercise!
Do you have any advice for your younger NOCCA-poet self? I would tell her to try to get more sleep, skip less class, and be kinder to herself. Things will work out; you needn’t beat yourself up.
Melissa Dickey is the author of two books of poems, Dragons and The Lily Will. A third is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press in 2023. Her writing has appeared in Bennington Review, The Spectacle, jubilat, and Interim, among other publications. A recipient of multiple fellowships in writing, she now lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.