Thursday, October 4, 2018

#32 Backstory of the Poem "Astral" by Melissa Studdard . . .

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***This is the thirty-second in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

#32 Backstory of the Poem
by Melissa Studdard

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?  I wrote “Astral” in a flash, just a few hours. Poet/editor Sarah Cortez (Right Fair Use) ( contacted me because I hadn’t answered a call for submissions for an anthology, and she was going to press soon and wanted to include a poem by me. Everything I’d written on her subject, Mexico, was already taken by other publishers, so I decided to write a new poem for her.

I sat briefly considering ways to narrow the topic. Since I had to turn the poem out quickly, I decided to use ekphrasis. I knew if I looked at a painting, the images would inspire me. I don’t know how much you know about Leonora Carrington (Left Public Domain)
(, the painter the poem is about, but she was strange and brilliant and feral. She grew up in a rigid environment in England and later immigrated to Mexico after having had traumatic experiences in other European countries during World War II.

So, I decided to intertwine thoughts about her life with images from her paintings. I didn’t know how it would go or how it would end, but I started looking at her work and reading about her and making notes. I knew her life and paintings well already because I love her and I love her work, and I have for a long time. But I wanted to refresh myself and meditate on the images and concepts. (Right:  Leonora Carrington's The Conjurer in 1960-  Fair Use)

After that, it happened rapidly—I started with details from her life; then I wove in visuals from the paintings. Periodically I went back to tighten description and language or rearrange syntax. I wrote and revised at the same time—every two lines or so I would stop and revise. As I moved along, it became clear to me that I wanted to approach her immigration to Mexico as a healing of the damage done to her from having grown up in such a sterile environment. She belonged in England as much as a hyena belongs in a zoo cage or a horse belongs in a stable. (Left: Leonora Carrington's Neighborly Advice in 1947.  Fair Use) 

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail.  I was on my bed with my laptop and cats. I have my grandmother’s old bedframe—a mahogany four-poster. It’s part of the bedroom set she had for as long back as I can remember, and it’s a spiritual and sentimental place for me to write. I was living with extended family at that time—my daughter and both of my parents—and my bedroom there had huge, floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over a patio and yard with towering pines and a Japanese Maple. The
house was shaped like a big U, and I could see an outdoor spiral staircase leading to an upstairs sunroom on the other side of the house, as well as my daughter’s swing set, a ranch-style fence with pink climbing roses, and a trampoline I often jumped on in my dresses when I got home from work. 
(Above Right: Melissa Studdard laying on her grandmother's bed.  Copyright permission granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blog Post Only) 
(Above Left:  Melissa Studdard with her nieces on the trampoline.  Copyright permission granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

What month and year did you start writing this poem?  I’m not sure of the month, but it was written in 2014 or 2015. (Right:  Melissa Studdard in August 2014.  Attributed to Darren Weatherly Trentacosta.  Copyright permission granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?)  I revised as I wrote it, so you could say one draft or thirty-five, depending on how you look at things. I did it on my computer, so there’s
nothing to show in the way of drafts, but I have notes I made before I wrote the poem. I was saving them to harvest what didn’t go into “Astral” for another poem. I’m going to drop them here exactly as they appear in the document, without correcting spelling or anything—you can see how quickly I was working. If something is in quotes, that means I read it somewhere and was trying to digest it.

Meta language interdependence overcoming limitations of space and time

Sailboat, "physical locomotion and changing worlds" 
 (Above Left:  Leonora Carrington's Adieu Ammen in 1960.  Fair Use) 
Items found by her and Varo in markets and transformed into magical images of spiritual ritual

Beliefs that mirrored her own interest in occult  
(Above Right: Leonora Carrington's The Last Fish in 1974.  Fair Use) 

traveling to Mexico in a fish 

"Combine themes of transit and transformation" 

not a muse: n Mexico defined a relationship w ancient healing arts that was different from the surrealist belief in “childlike sourceresses to liberate male creativity”  (Above Left: Leonora Carrington's Operation Wednesday 1969.  Fair Use) 

she and varo--stones, shells, quartz crystals to transform kitchen into a laboratory and stew pot into "alchemical alembic" 

Food creations: White hens, strong roots, heads of garlic, corsets with stays
fake caviar  (Above Right:  Leonora Carrington's Around Wall Street or Portrait of Pablo in NY 1973.  Fair Use.)

mixing: cooking, alchemy, paints

ovoid vessels

painting with egg tempura

painting of the lerma, the jug 

"conscious of the power of space and the things that reside therein" (Above Left: Leonora Carrington's Untitled 1960.  Fair Use)

garlic important

kitchen as oppression, reclaim

grinding corn by hand

comal for peppers

combination of magical and mundane

believed in the 4th dimension, life of spirit as real

  write the landscape wither backwards hands (Above Right:  Portrait of Max Ernst in 1939.  Fair Use)

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us?  A lot of the notes and ideas listed above never made it into the poem, but they inspired other ideas that did go in. I’m going to write another poem that uses the cooking and kitchen imagery. Carrington and another painter, Remedios Varo (Left: Fair Use)  sought to reclaim the kitchen from domestic servitude by creating their own alchemy there. That’s rich fodder for another poem.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?  Your spirit is yours. When safe and possible, resist conforming in ways that limit it. Find the place, the people, the art, and the activities that make you come alive. And if you can’t find them, live alone and dance barefoot in the grass at midnight, and talk to the frogs and all the little scuttling creatures beneath the moon. They will keep you company. And if you are not free to live alone and dance beneath the moon at midnight, develop a rich inner life. Your imagination, like Carrington’s (Above Right.  Fair Use) can provide you with beauty when your outer world is lacking.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional for you to write and why?   “as she removed the sutures of logic / and unbound the lyrics of her being,” Like Carrington, I’ve been impaired by societal conventions and expectations. I’ve felt trapped, controlled, hampered. I’ve been made to feel crazy for being creative, and I’ve seen my light flicker off and almost out.  Unlike Carrington, I’ve contributed to my own mental imprisonment, which is a double death. Deader than dead. I am trying and trying to unbind the lyrics of my being. (Above Left:  Melissa Studdard in June of 2013.  Copyright permission granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blog Post Only) 

Has this poem been published before? And if so where? Goodbye, Mexico:  Poems of Remembrance
(Texas Review Press, 2015)
Edited by Sarah Cortez

Anything you would like to add?  Nope. Thanks for the great questions! I love your blog.


—for Leonora Carrington

Her soul was folklore
and her body was the shadow of alphabet
written backwards in secret code.
I will try to tell you a story:
how the lamp of her
arrived before she did, a ghost
among the masks and tapestries at market—
invisible tongue of quartz, hands like jellyfish,
mouth of inner shell. And how delicate the silver thread
that led back to the flesh-protected skull.
When she first showed up, they were
pouring the Lerma from a big jug
into cuts of land. They were stitching cities
on an old loom. She’d always known it
would take a country to decode her,
and as she removed the sutures of logic
and unbound the lyrics of her being,
she remembered it: Mexico,
the word she’d been dreaming all along.

Melissa Studdard (Right in January of 2017.  Copyright permission granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blog Post Only) is the author of the poetry collection I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast and the young adult novel Six Weeks to Yehidah. 
Her short writings have appeared in a wide variety of journals, magazines, blogs, and anthologies, such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Psychology Today, Harvard Review, New Ohio Review, Bettering American Poetry, and Poets & Writers.  In addition to writing, she serves as executive producer and host of VIDA Voices &
Views for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, president of the Women’s Caucus for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, and an editor for American Microreviews and Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award, the International Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite Award, and others. To learn more, visit  
(Above Left:  Melissa Studdard in January of 2014. Attributed to Jennifer Ayers.  Copyright granted by Melissa Studdard fro this CRC Blog Post Only.
Above Right:  Melissa Studdard.  Copyright granted by Melissa Studdard for this CRC Blo Post Only) 


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018


  1. I remember this poem from the anthology and I love reading how it came into being. Beautiful and haunting work from Melissa!

  2. Melissa shines like new money on this poem. Thank you for the in depth interview accompanying, as well as posting the poem.