Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “I Am Giving My Planetary Embryos to the Soil” begins and ends with an image of planting sunflowers, which is almost surreal in its rendering of hope and desire for a child in the speaker. How did you arrive at the interplay of eyes, flowers (with its possibility of “son” implicit in “sun”), and embryos?
Melissa Studdard: When quarantine began, I decided to really nurture the small patch of earth I live on—to create beauty, grow food, and make a habitat for all kinds of little creatures. I started the easy way—with transfer plants—but when I read about sunflowers, I discovered that they grow better from seeds. So, I pushed some seeds down into the ground but couldn’t even begin to imagine that they would really turn into anything.
Then one day I went outside and saw the sunflowers coming up. It happened so fast! I was just in awe of them. I kept sending pictures to everyone, saying “I made those. From seeds!” Then the phrase, “apple of my eye,” popped into my mind, and it was all over. I started associating the flowers with my kid, the seeds with embryos, my womb with soil. I was struck too, with the idea that not only was I growing the flowers; they were also growing me. I was planting them in soil, and they were planting beauty in my eyes and expanding my sense of wonder.
RR: We love the play of associations in the poem, starting with quarters and the cascade of quarter-X images, eventually taking us to quadruplets, then to fives and quintuplets, and finally sextuplets. In terms of numbers, is there a particular reason that four starts it off?
MS: Yes! What a great question. I went out to the garden one day, and there were these strange little caterpillars eating all of my parsley. They were so cute and hungry that I decided they could just have all of it, and I would plant different parsley for myself. I cannot even convey how much they ate—I mean I’ve never seen anything other than a teenager or a dog eat that much or that fast. I literally never saw them not eating. I googled “yellow, black, and white striped caterpillars,” found pictures, and discovered that they were going to become monarch butterflies. There were four of them.
RR: There’s so much momentum in terms of sound and image in this poem. What does your drafting process look like?
MS: The process isn’t always the same, but this particular poem had internal momentum that, once set in motion, took off on its own. Putting the title on the page was like planting the sunflower seeds—after that, the poem was going to push itself into being, and quickly. I think I wrote it in about 20-30 minutes. It was birthed more than written.
RR: What is it you love the most about sharing your writing with others?
MS: I love it when people connect to the writing. And I love it when people share insights and ask great questions, like y’all have done here. I don’t always think about what drives a poem or how it was made. It’s a real pleasure to do that.
RR: This has been a hard year for so many reasons. Have your writing practices or your poems changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
MS: I think my poems have felt at times a little less civilized than they did before the pandemic, which, paradoxically, has made them feel more human to me. I’ve had more space to bounce around in the rhythms of my own mind and ideas and to discover the shapes of my own thoughts, and I have felt a lot less of an urge to revise the life out of them.
Melissa Studdard’s work in Issue 8.1: