Poems Need Weeding: A Conversation with Melissa Goodrich

Melissa Goodrich grew up in a dome on a hill in Minnesota and now calls the southwest home. She is the author of  Daughters of Monsters (Jellyfish Highway Press) and is at work on a collaborative collection of magical school stories. Find more at melissa-goodrich.com or  @good_rib.

Her poem, “Stardew,” appeared in our  Next Gen Temple Issue. Below, she talks with editor William Hoffacker about escapism, reincarnation, daughters, and more.

What is it about  Stardew Valley that made you choose it as a subject for your writing? What’s special about this game that lends it well to poetry?

I’ve played close to 300 hours of Stardew, and it’s because it makes me feel peaceful, cheerful, satisfied. It’s like deeply breathing. There is something serene about the soundscape, the way it feels when a day begins with rain, or you crack open a geode, or wrestle with a difficult fish. The game’s premise is escapism—in the opening sequence you see yourself at a gray cubicle amongst hundreds of grey cubicles, and you open a letter from your grandfather—and he’s willed you his Stardew farm. The game lends itself toward that fantasy of abandoning your old corporate-driven life to tend to something. To build a life upwards with the tools in your sack. I guess poems are that way too—poems are structures you build with your hands. Poems need weeding, need their geodes cracked. Poems need seasons, and magic, and rain.

The poem’s speaker describes the things she wishes to do but never does, the things she does instead, things she loves, things she hopes for, things she fears, etc. The game has a player and a player-character, while the poem has an author and a speaker. How much of a divide do you perceive between the two, in both cases? When you wrote the poem, did you imagine the speaker’s desires or transcribe your own (or some of both)? When you play the game, do you act according to what you think the protagonist would do, or is the character merely your avatar in the virtual world (or some of both)?

This is a great question. I love absorbing myself into the world, and letting the world absorb back into mine. I will refer (in real life) to my Stardew kids, or my escaped goats. I’ve made lists of the townspeople’s birthdays, and their favorite gifts. I’ve wondered, “Where is Leah all day? I can’t find her anywhere in the forests.” And I will feel real-me dissolve when I shear the sheep or jump down a hole in the Skull Caverns. I think there’s a mutual joy in poetry and in gaming to allow that boundary of ‘who you are’ to muddle. You are neither the speaker nor the author, and you’re both. The same thing happens as a reader—it feels like your world the whole time you’re in it, and even after you’ve left.

One thing that surprised me about your poem is how the speaker’s motherhood appears only near the end, and then questions and images surrounding the daughter dominate the final two stanzas. Why did you decide that the poem should take this new turn, and how did you choose the right moment to make it?

Daughters are extensions, right? So are sons, but I’m a daughter—I feel the extension of being a daughter. All of my Stardew children are daughters. I didn’t choose this. They arrived in the night. Stardew-me didn’t once swell with pregnancy, but here they were: tiny swaddled girls. I’m not sure if real-me can mother, so I’m not sure Stardew-me can either. I’ve never seen my Stardew children leave the crib. I get antsy and start a new game. It’s somehow a relief to go back to the simple cabin. One bed. One chair. A single window. A pack of parsnips. A fireplace I can light with a touch.

But back to extensions—there is this natural progression to extend beyond one’s life. And I felt kind of bad for my Stardew kids. They wouldn’t get the pleasure of building-from-the-ground-up. I explored the whole world already, I moved every obstacle. They wouldn’t even be strapped for cash. I felt a little like I’d robbed them of something, these pixel-kids of mine. It’s a turn in the poem because it’s a turn in my head. The world is bigger than the ‘I.’ And suddenly the ‘I’ wants to live through the extension, the daughter. And the ‘I’ can’t sense a world in which that daughter doesn’t ‘walk through her.’ It’s something I think about regarding real daughters. It’s something I think about when I’ve sunk 300 hours into a video game.

Your book, Daughters of Monsters, is a collection of short stories, mostly of a fabulist nature, guided by a lyrical voice. If you had to adapt one of those stories into a video game, which one would you choose, and what would that game look and play like?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. I think a strong contender would be “Super,” a story where a character dies repeatedly and reincarnates into different objects. I think that could make for an interesting indie game. The goal to die instead of to live. Making it tough to die. Coming back as a cabbage.  Coming back as a cigarette. A zipper. An egg. It would be weird like Undertale, and maybe a little sad.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m wrapping up a collaborative collection of magical school stories with the phenomenal Dana Diehl. Seriously, she’s like my favorite living writer. Working with her on this project is so liberating and joy-filled. I adore the stories we make together, as we build on one another’s strengths and instincts and obsessions with being in school. I’m not sure what comes after that.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which was absolutely powerful and important. The House of the Scorpion was awesome. Zach Doss’s short story “Bespoke” (and all of Zach Doss’ boyfriend stories, really). Any poems that pop up on my Twitter feed (I recommend reading all the poems). And I’m re-reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and figuring out how fabulists become novelists, so if you (like me) are terrified of novel-writing, might be Step 1.