Thursday, September 3, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Melissa Eleftherion Discusses Pigtail Duty

Pigtail Duty

Author: Melissa Eleftherion

Publisherdancing girl press

Publication date: 2015

epithelia by Melissa Eleftherion

           The thin connective tissue a wedding song
                      Outside, an organism –
                                  Gregarious leaping from branches
           A dull musical hum

           All coordinates marry distance
                      Measure hostility of an old heart
           Slowly – a meat snap

A stitched wedding dress
           The heart now feathers for plucking

(Originally published in Menacing Hedge.)

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Melissa Eleftherion grew up in Brooklyn. She is the author of huminsect (dancing girl press, 2013), prism maps (dusie kollektiv, 2014), Pigtail Duty (dancing girl press, 2015), and several other chapbooks and fragments. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Delirious Hem, Entropy, Manifesting the Female Epic, Negative Capability, Open Letters Monthly, Poet as Radio, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, So to Speak, Tinderbox, & TRUCK. She works as a librarian with Mendocino County Libraries, and created, developed, and currently manages the Poetry Center Chapbook Exchange.

Author blog: A Poet Librarian

Twitter: @apoetlibrarian,



Instagram: everlib ,

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[This interview was conducted via email in August 2015.]

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Pigtail Duty.

ME: Pigtail Duty began over 8 years ago as an attempt to piece together identity as a feminist suddenly married and mothering. In relearning to define myself, I incorporated found language from my autobiographical dictionary – a source text I’ve compiled of words new to me discovered through reading. Identity being a continuous state of becoming, the work evolves as the dictionary grows. How we take in or retain the memory of learning that new word - even if we had to look it up a hundred times to retain its meaning. How that word impacts the extant vocabulary word cloud, how a single word can help us change.

While writing Pigtail Duty, I occasionally used the autobiographical dictionary as a compass or jumping off point to write the poems - randomly opening it & free-associating from language found in the definitions. I found this incredible synthesis in that my chance experiments usually resonated with something yet to be excavated deep within the grave of my belly. Language began to reshape me in ways I hadn’t yet experienced.

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

ME: The title derives from a line in the title poem that arcs in couplets throughout the book: “When I wear pigtails it is to be pleasing. I want to pleasure your mouth to be smiling.” I wrote that poem in the park one day waiting to pick up my son from playgroup, & all these conflicts arose in relation to the concept of duty and heteronormative “women’s roles” many women including myself were raised to portray. These figures clashed with the woman I felt I was becoming as a wife & mother.

There were all these selves taking shape too, & bumping around one another, beginning to fuse a little bit but hardening around the edges. Growing more assured & solid. At times, I felt inter dimensional & weary from so much time travel - yearned for an escape to a carefree childhood in pigtails. Though, that carefree childhood barely exists for most kids - the four year old pigtail I was watching my father deal coke to a friend’s mother, among other shitty things I witnessed.

The perversity of maturity - how one can feel a sense of duty at a young age. So, I was grappling also with the residue of being a responsible child vs. a responsible adult. Vowing somehow to do better for my son.

NCL: Recently, another poet asked about the cover of your chapbook, specifically “how you arrived at the cover and what it symbolizes?” If it’s ok with you, please share your answer with us here and/or say a bit about the cover.

ME: The cover was designed by Kristy Bowen (design maven!) of dancing girl press based on my request for the cover to incorporate pigeon feathers, blood & card catalogs. Ha, I realize that probably sounds insane. As the book is an accretion of fragments (or at least felt that way while writing it in between feedings, playdates, etc.), I thought of the many ways I (and probably many other women) compartmentalize items, textures, objects, emotions - so card catalogs (plus I'm a librarian so that was easy). Plus, I have recurring dreams about a giant, grand bureau with many little drawers for ephemera. The pigeon feathers are symbolic of my Brooklyn hometown - growing up there I knew no other birds besides ravens and crows, birds were just birds then. And blood = obligation, heredity, all that reckoning that women in particular do when starting their own family or at least begin to individuate.

How the body is branches and compartments of pigeon feathers. Pigeon feathers and dust. Vocabulary and wine stains.

NCL: What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (or what is your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be?


The body met with an alter of the image of the body
What we see when we seek reflection

The ever a whisper an incandescent eye droop
Gravity seeking its own breasts cupped so the light can laugh too

How time makes us empathic for women we once reviled
Neglect and its chambers of dropped infants

The insouciance of stubbed cigarettes as woman spooned the creamed peas
Time is making my ankles heavy where I ripped and ripped out my roots

Extirpated that woman in the kitchen smock
Extirpated that idea of seeking permission

This poem was originally published as line/limn in Menacing Hedge, an awesome journal created & produced by Kelly Boyker Guillemette, Craig Wallwork, & Gio Guillemette. While it isn’t my favorite poem, I think it’s a critical piece for the denouement of the voice in Pigtail Duty. Her new sense of becoming emboldens her to have the courage of her convictions, and stop seeking validation in other female figures she either identifies with or resents. She gains a sense of security that only a strong backbone can provide.

NCL: The tag line for your blog is “a portfolio of my fragments” and recent blog posts include shaped poems of rocks and minerals, poems with fragments of lines like mineral shards, e.g. “rhodochrosite,” “azurite,” “cassiterite,” “leucite,” and “abalone.” Please say a bit about the importance of the word ‘fragments’ and what it represents for you.

ME: I return again and again to fragments & feel sometimes like an eroding igneous rock. There’s just so much conscious wearing away of little ignorances & little malnourished egos in these selves (read: identity roles) that have formed around me. All the chipping away leads to just me writhing in a ditch & the poems get more honest.

Fragments are also a way into the poem for me, as a perpetually “busy” working mom. If I can write a line or two on the bus to work or during my lunch break, eventually I can get somewhere close to a poem. When I was writing Pigtail Duty, I participated in & later organized a poetry postcard group. Writing poems on postcards & immediately mailing them off was very liberating for a person who often fusses too much about diction. Receiving poetry postcards or any kind of mail art is also a fantastic way to co-opt & resist the usual dread of junk mail & bills, & possibly share poems with disgruntled postal workers who can’t help reading them. Several poems in Pigtail Duty were begun on postcards during stolen moments (breastfeeding, nap time, on the bus to work, in the middle of the night…)

NCL: What are you working on now?

ME: At present, I’ve just completed a third round of edits on a full-length manuscript titled field guide to autobiography. In this work, I'm exploring the inter-relatedness of various species through accreted fragments toward autobiography.

How does a person begin to enumerate the many fragments & fractals that comprise a life? This book is an attempt at memoir through the lens of various animals & minerals including katydids, wrens, abalone shells, and apple trees.

The first section: auto/ is comprised of poems that incorporate more found text from from my "autobiographical dictionary.” The second section: /bio incorporates language from a variety of field guides, and explores morphological and sociological relationships of various genera, while personifying their unique attributes.

 I’m beginning work on two other projects as well - the first is titled flowers from the gut & deals with gut microbiota & class issues. Another series is titled the ditch poems.

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