One of our favorite things to do is ask our favorite writers for the names of their favorite writers. We asked Shannon Cuthrell, author of the forthcoming mental health poetry book The Great Repression, for hers and she said Megan Falley. We’re so glad she told us. Falley is amazing to read. She’s a poet of inordinate gifts. She understands pacing and rhyme and narrative and humor. She’s not afraid to tackle tricky and painful topics, such as body-weight shaming, bipolar disorder, rape, family dysfunction. She’s also a legend on the poetry slam circuit. Her performances behind the microphone are electric, such as the one of her reading of “Fat Girl.” She’s a two-time winner of the Write Bloody Open Book Competition and a fierce talent. We traded e-mails about her poetry books “After the Witch Hunt” and “Redhead and the Slaughter King,” Lena Dunham, Lana Del Rey, and how she hates to see her car parked in the snow in front of her house.
TP: The first line in your poem “Backhand Apology” is so striking: “I am sorry I am woman.” I’m curious when you knew that was the line that would open the book, that sentiment.
MF: I wrote that poem in a workshop led by the poet Angel Nafis, who is a genius and a literary hero. I had no idea that it would make it into Redhead and the Slaughter King at the time. When I was setting up the conceit of the book — the five chapters told in reverse chronological order — I knew I had to open with something that brought the reader into exactly where I am right now, at this moment. And that was the place. A false apology for my existence, which ends with bleeding on everything.
TP: Some of your poems are upsetting, but beautiful, and brave. I’m thinking of “Alibi” for one, which deals with rape. Do you find some emotional release when confronting such pain in your work? Or can the writing be triggering?
MF: Since as early as I can remember, writing has been cathartic, an act of bloodletting. After I write something and I know that I’ve said what I came to the blank page to say, I often laugh after. It is a release. I always feel better for having pinned the beast down — but whole weeks have been ruined by keeping it in my throat.
TP: You’re such a dynamic performer of your work at poetry slams and readings. I’m wondering how this informs your writing, and editing of your work? Do the poems have to sound great out loud for you to call them done?
MF: I think one of the best ways to self-edit your work is to read it aloud at first. If I consistently stumble over some phrasing, I cut it. If it isn’t musical or sexy, I rewrite it until it is. I like to imagine that all poems are shared, that the reader brings the poem to a lover under a tree somewhere, or stops a stranger on the bus and says, Just listen to this. If it is not beautiful hanging in the air like that, it doesn’t serve me or the universe in the way I think that poetry should.
TP: You’re intense about your family relationships in Redhead and the Slaughter King, particularly your brothers, and I think that’s marvelous as these things have to be said, and shared, as it helps others deal with their own challenges. Has writing poetry been difficult in your personal relationships, or do you find they strengthen them, or at least better define them? People can be defensive.
MF: I get this question a lot. You and I have been e-mailing back and forth, I don’t know if you noticed the Anne Lamott quote in my e-mail signature, which is this: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly of them, they should have behaved better.” I believe that. I also believe, while I definitely shine one of those awful, pore-enlarging, bright-light magnifying mirrors over the people in my life, it is often to get a better look at myself. To understand who I am through the complex tapestry of my experiences. While I can be ruthless to certain people, rapists and rape apologists come to mind, the exploration of my family and the darker elements of our collective story have always been, albeit intense, an act of love. A kindness in the seeing. There’s a favorite family quote of ours, something picked up in some treatment program or another—what is it? “Secrets keep you sick.”
TP: I delighted when you would follow up with a poem with a retraction, such as you did with “A Gentleman’s Agreement.” It would allow you to comment on the first poem and then land some more insights. I’d love your thoughts on where you came up with that idea, and the idea of using a little irreverence in that way?
MF: The first time I wrote a poem as a retraction was after a poem about my mother that later became “Company” in the book. My mom was upset that I chose this story, out of all our good memories!, to document. And she was right in a way. I have a really excellent, loving mom. So I wrote my first retraction about how rad she could be— namely the time she stormed into my place of employment after I told her about an old man who grabbed me inappropriately while I was working and she cursed him out something fierce. I realized that I do that a lot, tell one side of the story when everything that has ever happened in my life is a prism. I am not one of those writers who think you can only have one poem on one topic. I tell the same story a hundred times, acknowledging each tiny nuance of it. I am endlessly fascinated in the role of the writer and how that shapes every experience we have. For me it is impossible to live any moment separated from the fact that I am experiencing it as someone who may very well experience it again on the page, or stage, so to not include that in a collection that is so personal, so much about understanding the self through childhood and inherited traits and memories, would be a disservice. I’m not sure I would call these retractions an irreverence; I think I am respecting each story more by lifting up each fold to see the underbelly.
TP: Would you mind sharing with us the role poetry plays in confronting negative thoughts and mental illness?
MF: I think a lot of poets have or have experiences with mental illness, and writing about it is a way of debunking silence and creating some visibility for those dear hearts. Often it is a hushed topic and the fact of that is almost violent. I think the more people read about mental illness the less alone they might feel. I’m far from the most qualified writer on the subject, but I have been broken open by poets like Shira Erlichman, Andrea Gibson, Lucille Clifton and Jeanann Verlee on the topic.
TP: I’m curious about your first slam experience? It obviously pointed you in the right direction as you’re such a natural and electric performer.
MF: I discovered poetry slam and spoken word in my first week of college. I was a member of the competing team at SUNY New Paltz for four years, went on to coach the team, and then I have been on several NYC based National adult-level teams. I am in a relationship with slam and it is complicated. Next question.
TP: Your work on body-image obsession is so valuable — I’m thinking of the poem “The Skinny Girls at Fat Camp.” When I read your work I also think of Lena Dunham, who I think is also holding up this mirror to society through her art. Are we progressing as a society at all in this discrimination?
MF: On an individual level, a lot of people are progressing. Although there are some controversies around Lena Dunham — some earned, think, some just deeply misinformed and misogynistic — the first time I saw her do her thing on screen was one of the first times I personally felt represented on television. And like, I’m an able-bodied, cisgendered white woman. I have a lot of privileges in this world, but realizing that I’d never felt represented by TV before as a starring role that could be sexy and sexual and lovable and flawed, not just the funny fat friend, blew my mind. I think people as individuals are fighting against the patriarchy in their life and their art for sure. The body positive movement is particularly inspiring. I see women, every day, wearing crop tops even though society tells them they shouldn’t, posing naked when society would prefer them covered up, being sexy and suggestive on crutches and in wheelchairs and generally giving the middle finger to the beauty ideal. I think we are all waiting for society to catch up to these pioneers of body acceptance, you know? I am curious how these feminist badasses will take over the more mainstream.
TP: I’ve read that since reading Stephen King’s writing book you’re making an effort to write one poem a day. Great discipline! Does the practice give you a daily sense of accomplishment? That alone is valuable.
MF: In 2014 I wrote more than 365 poems. A poem for every day of the year. As someone who used to take long breaks between writing, months, it was really important and revolutionizing for me to really make writing part of my daily routine — a practice. It was always more about that then the accomplishment aspect. Some of the poems made it into Redhead and the Slaughter King; “Bad Girls,” “Honey,” and another collection I am working on. And some royally suck. It was never about glory. Now, in 2015, I write less poems of course, but I have a tenderness for each one penned and I feel more equipped with the tools of language now that I have honed that muscle for so long. I’m also dabbling more in fiction and I feel like I have an extra eye on my head now — I see everything. It’s all so open.
TP: I’ve read that you’re hard on yourself, and that your self-criticism has fueled both awful and incredible things. Are you learning to be more kind to yourself as an artist?
MF: It is a ride. The other night I came home from a show feeling so confident and proud of myself that my partner told me I made Madonna look like a Virgo, meaning I’m the Leo-iest Leo he knew. Other times my hair is offensively unwashed, there’s food stains on my sweatpants, and I think I am a completely worthless fraud whose best works, at 26, are behind her. So you know. I’m hoping that my two selves balance into a generally well-adjusted individual with a healthy relationship to her creations.
TP: I love what the Write Bloody Publishing folks do. Can you share with us what they’ve meant to you? And I’d be curious your thoughts on the life of the touring writer, as you seem relentless. Do you love the travel? Most writers hate it.
MF: Write Bloody has been a family for me. Publisher Derrick Brown always addresses my book shipments to different names: “Megan Fancy Falley”, “Megan Party in the Valley Falley” “Megan Falley Cat”, etc. I don’t know what it would be like to run an entire press basically by myself but Derrick makes it fun as hell and I love him for that. I feel an immense loyalty and love for Write Bloody — most of my favorite humans have books on the press and go out of their way to support each other. I could get weepy thinking about it. As for touring, it is my favorite part of what I do. Being a full-time writer, for me, also means that I freelance teach poetry online, do a lot of my own public relations and marketing, write obviously and everything in between — but getting to do shows and performing is, without a doubt, the whole fucking cake for me. After those 100 days on the road, I am sure I had real solid reasons to return home and feel relieved, though I can’t think of any of them right now — and my car looks awfully bored just parked in the snow like that. Hmmm …
TP: You write so eloquently about surviving unthinkable circumstances. I’m curious about the reaction you get from readers who relate to your poetry? It must be intense. Does it ever feel a bit much when fans thank you for writing about difficult topics? Do you have to set boundaries? It’s not easy being brave in the first place, but for public figures it’s not easy being brave publicly. How do you handle your private and public selves, or do you not mind blurring it all up?
MF: I don’t really feel brave when I write or perform, if that makes sense. It’s what I love to do most in this world, there isn’t really a bravery involved for me. Everyone who has ever come up to me after a show, except the people who tell me that I’m not fat, I’m beautiful, in response to “Fat Girl,” has been awesome. I have held crying audience members and cried with them. I think I blur that line a lot — fans have become friends, students have become interns, etc. I really like connecting with people in that way and I wouldn’t make the art I do if I didn’t want to reach people — though I do know writers with much larger fan bases who have had problems in the past with people who inhabit a certain brand of fanaticism that can turn cruel. I don’t think I’m famous enough for that.
TP: The poem you wrote for Anderson Yeh is really beautiful.
MF: Thank you.
TP: How regularly, if much at all, do your poems change in meaning to you after you write them? I’m thinking of your earlier work, from “After the With Hunt” for example. If you were to read now would the meaning be 90 percent the same, or does your life experience change your experience? Of course it must, but as a poet, I’m wondering how much?
MF: (Un)fortunately most of my feelings from my first book are still pretty relevant, though I am thinking of a poem called “The Honest House” in “After the Witch Hunt,” which I wrote after an ex cheated on me. The poem is really enraged. It’s funny when I read it now because cheating is so tiny compared to what came after that. So yes. Things evolve, but I can often transport back to where I was when I wrote them if the emotion is real. If I can’t really access that place, I stop performing them. Why share something I’m not really IN?
TP: I admire your devotion to Lana Del Rey.
MF: Oh my god. Recently I discovered with a friend that I can do the most spot-on impression of her ever. I’m going to use it in all my performances now. She is the best muse I’ve ever known and I have a deep love for what she has done for my writing — a permission to have fun, to be naughty, to sparkle, and to cross over into fiction for awhile. She’s going on tour this summer with Courtney Love and if I don’t see her I’ll scream. I hope everyone has a love as real and inspiring as mine is with the Queen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.