A Glimpse into a Two-Poet Household
Written By: Lori
(Originally Published January 22, 2012)
When I accepted the poems “It Takes More Than a Robin to Make Winter Cold” by Chris Pexa and“Postscript” and “Dear Richard Hugo,” by Melissa Cundieff for the winter issue of The Coachella Review, I had no way of knowing they were a married couple; it wasn’t until their bios came in and Melissa Cundieff turned into Melissa Cundieff-Pexa that I realized there might be a connection. I asked her if she happened to be married to “a guy named Chris.” Indeed, she wrote back, they were married.
It is easy to imagine when two poets marry there would be extraordinary love letters and wild, sexy linguistics, but I could just as easily imagine them channeling parts of Plath and Hughes at some point. So I was eager to take this opportunity and quiz them on what it’s like being in a two-poet household.
I asked them to each answer the questions separately…
Ok, who has more books on their nightstand? How do the stacks differ in content?
CHRIS: If we had nightstands, I imagine them staggered by the weight of trashy detective novels and gardening/seed catalogs (my side), and by Us Weeklies and Dylan Thomas’s Collected (her side). On these figurative nightstands would also be Bolaño and Murakami novels, a Grimm’s Fairy Tales with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, and tons of overdue kids’ books from the library, including three copies ofThe Giving Tree.
Do you edit each other’s work?
CHRIS: No. We read each other’s poems, but avoid anything like an editorial response. For both of us, the temptation to rewrite one another in our own voices is too strong, and too dangerous.
MELISSA: Not really. I certainly don’t edit Chris’s work, and we’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates over edits he’s made to mine. It seems best if we only read each other’s poem and offer a firm pat on the back.
Is there any healthy (or unhealthy?) competition between the two of you?
CHRIS: We write such different poems, there’s not much basis for comparison or competition. I generally find much more to admire in Melissa’s poems than in my own, though. She has this almost genetic feeling for the grotesque, something that comes from her training in art, I think, which I’m totally jealous of, and which is only ever ornamental, not essential, to my own writing. Melissa’s poems are the lovechild of Leonard Baskin and Edward Gorey, who got together on our bookshelf one night, got very drunk on gin, and agreed there should be a literary version of their drawings in the world.
MELISSA: Not at all. We’re very, very happy for each other when something good happens and disappointed when one of us is rejected. The latter is more common, of course. Either way, we take it all in stride.
How much poetry talk in general is there in your household?
MELISSA: Quite a lot. Chris is very resourceful at the library. He comes home with lots of obscure treats. I’m bad about rereading my obsessions, so it’s really nice to live with someone who consistently reads new things. Our poetry conversations happen at night after our daughter is asleep, and more often than not while we’re watching an 80’s horror movie on Netflix. I like to dumb it down more than anyone I know. Chris finds this endearing.
CHRIS: I think Melissa will tell you we prefer talking about really terrible movies more than we do about poetry. But that’s a lie. We love to gossip about the lives of poets we know. Who doesn’t? Is that talking about poetry? I think it is. Middle-school locker-style.
How did you meet?
MELISSA: Oh my. A long story. I was his student when he was getting his MFA at Arizona State University. In fact, he was my very first poetry teacher. It wasn’t until two years later that we got together. Five weeks after that we eloped…on Halloween. At a shrine in Tucson for sinners. Then we got drunk and our friends, the three that were invited to the wedding, disappeared into our hotel room, ate our cake, and passed out in our bed. It’s like we were always meant to be parents.
CHRIS: In scandal. Or maybe, we ended up in scandal, eloping at the only shrine (that I know of) dedicated to a sinner—El Tiradito, “the castaway”—who fell into a tragic love triangle. Anyway, we met when I was an MFA student. Melissa was taking her first poetry workshop. I hardly noticed her, only saw that she wore long denim skirts and flip flops a lot of the time. Honestly, I thought she was Mormon. So when I met her again a couple of years later, dating my best friend, I wondered if he had converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints.
MELISSA: I might add, I never wore long denim skirts. Chris had a thing for virginal, marching band types, and he must have been unconsciously projecting some hopefulness onto me, his future wife. When we met, I was quite literally employed at Hooter’s. Take from that what you will. Oh, and I thought 27 year old Chris looked like Eddie Vedder. I still do, and that is why we are married today.
Describe each other’s poetic style.
CHRIS: Melissa is, just now, loss-obsessed. I would say that she, like so many poets right now, finds the elegy to be the genre that suits a shared sense of certain worlds, certain possibilities, closing down. Even as others, other democratic vistas, maybe, exuberantly open up. And even though she keeps personal griefs close to the chest, she’s able to transport some of their strange, heavy energy into these persona poems that are really moving. I think of Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates existing in tandem with Bright Existence, the huge emotional gesture made between these two volumes. And I think Melissa’s poems now are working toward a similar, and similarly ambitious, sweep—recklessly gorgeous poems about lost brothers, suicides, and carnival sideshow animals. It’s all creepy and amazing.
MELISSA: Chris is much more feral, sometimes vulgar, and comes up with crazy musical lines. He’s like a philosopher pit bull, if you will. We kind of collect stray dogs, so it’s no wonder. He also writes a lot of academic criticism, being a PhD candidate and all. Even his papers are like poetry, and for this I am jealous. I must admit.
There is a long colorful history of poet-couples. What are the challenging and enjoyable parts of being married to another writer/poet?
MELISSA: We say ridiculous things that maybe only the other can appreciate or even understand. We have something of a private language. Our daughter has learned it, enhanced it. She’s a very strange a magical person, and I like to give myself and Chris some credit for that.