“Robert Frost never tried a Deep’n Delicious cake”: An Interview with Melanie Power

I met Melanie Power for a Monday morning interview in downtown Montréal, a city we both now call home, though we were born and raised elsewhere.

I met Melanie Power for a Monday morning interview in downtown Montréal, a city we both now call home, though we were born and raised elsewhere—Melanie in Newfoundland, myself in Rio de Janeiro. Places and dislocations are at the heart of our works. I had suggested we talk in person, so Melanie recommended Leaves House because it was quiet and had good coffee. For an hour and a half, the sounds of an espresso machine—and a bird that managed to enter the café—formed a chorus with our back-and-forth about the significance of home, humour, and processed food in Melanie’s debut collection, Full Moon of Afraid and Craving (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022). We ended up pairing celebrities and foods, so it felt appropriate to borrow a line from Melanie’s collection to use as our conversation title. Prior to this interview, I hosted Melanie at Créatique, an event series organized by SpokenWeb which interrogates how artists combine research and creation.

The following is a transcript of our chat, edited for length and clarity.


Carlos A. Pittella: There’s this podcast I really love called The VS Podcast, produced by the Poetry Foundation. It used to be hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi and is now hosted by Ajanaé Dawkins and Brittany Rogers. At some point, they started asking this question: What’s moving you these days?

Melanie Power: What really moved me recently was this line that I can’t get out of my head. It was an ad in the St. John’s Airport a few days ago. It was in the passageway, just as you are about to board the plane … And I feel it relates to my book, but it was a government tourism message of some kind and it said: “Does it feel like you are going home—or leaving it?”

Carlos A. Pittella: How do you interpret it?

Melanie Power: Well, it’s making you confront what you invest in each place—and what a hometown means. It’s basically the thesis of my book. I think it’s a question that has everything in it.

CAP: But couldn’t it backfire? Couldn’t it be read sarcastically? Because it depends on who reads it too.

MP: I know. I’m the ideal audience, really, because I’m a nostalgic mainlander now.

CAP: Mainlander?

MP: Mainlander is a term for someone who lives, or is from, outside of Newfoundland.

CAP: Even though you are literally on an island right now?

MP: Going to the mainland means just leaving Newfoundland.

CAP: Of course, if you are Indigenous, you may read that message differently.

MP: When you think about belonging and any kind of post-colonial angle, it infinitely complicates …

CAP: But it’s an interesting question, because it doesn’t judge.

MP: It has potential. That's the kind of question it is: you impart meaning on it, depending on your perspective—as well as your idea of place, and your cultural or personal definition of home.

CAP: When you presented at Créatique, I remember you saying something about how to recognize a Newfoundlander …

MP: How do you spot a Newfoundlander in heaven? They’re the ones trying to go back home.

CAP: Do you think that sense of home will ever change? Or is home always Newfoundland for you?

MP: It is one home, or one idea of home. But I also have another idea of home, which is Montréal. And, at different stages of my life, I’ve considered the East Coast more “home” than not. And at certain points, being in the place I grew up gave me the most primal feelings—those can be painful, so I don’t want to necessarily live there.

CAP: It can still be “home” but you still might not want to be there.

MP: It’s hard to put that in a nuanced way enough not to offend people who choose to live a certain way. Even with the most divisive cities, like New York City, people are allowed to say, New York City sucks.

CAP: But only if you are from there.

MP: Exactly. It’s also more acceptable to have polar opinions of bigger places.

CAP: Maybe it’s a tiered system. I’m from Rio de Janeiro. I can say that Rio sucks. But I can only say it to people who are not from Rio. If I say that to people from Rio, they can still kill me if they want.

MP: Exactly. You can’t say it publicly. You can’t declare “Rio sucks.” And you wouldn’t want to, because it is a message you want to put in safe hands.

CAP: I know too much about it. I’m not a tourist in Rio; even though now I feel like one. I’ve been away for a decade and a half and, one day, it’s gonna switch—the amount I’ve been in Rio and outside.

And, after Rio, I’ve only lived in cold places—Rio is too hot for me now. Your body adapts. Do you feel like your body adapted to Montréal?

MP: Yeah, I think it did. I developed a fondness for hotter places. But, on the inverse, I developed an unexpected nostalgia for foggy places. So, whenever I see a place that’s foggy, overcast, and kind of damp cold, it very acutely reminds me of the past. Newfoundland is a cold, wet, foggy, rainy, drizzly place.


CAP: I’m going to make a risky move here and use the fog to think about your poetry. You play a lot with tone, you create layers—and it occurred to me that fog may be a good metaphor to talk about your poetry.

MP: I can see the fog, in that it’s obscuring something. I can see it functioning in my poetry as maintaining a distance from a subject. And ambiguity of tone might also appeal to the fog aspect of it.

CAP: What about that distance? The distance from Rio allows me to say things I couldn’t say otherwise. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to see it; and I wouldn’t be able to say it. In Montréal, a polyglot place, do you think language + distance—or “linguistic distance”—may give you ways to talk about St. John’s?

And this also raises the question: is it fair to talk about a place from a distance?

MP: I think it’s not only geographical distance that has given me enough perspective to be able to talk about where I grew up, but also the distance of time. It’s been over a decade—and kind of an important decade, my twenties. So, it’s not always a comment on the place; it’s more a commentary on my life in that place, and the life that I led, and how I created meaning. But it definitely helped to move away from my hometown and have that perspective.

I think it’s not only geographical distance that has given me enough perspective to be able to talk about where I grew up, but also the distance of time.

As to whether or not it’s fair, of course it’s fair. I think no one should take my perspective on a place as law. And, whenever I’m reading someone else’s depiction of a place, I always assume there are biases and complicating factors. Objectivity is probably impossible, but I think I err on the side of objectivity when I can—while also presenting an extremely subjective point of view, ha!

CAP: But we do serious research; and our research has to consider ethical implications. There’s something about being an archivist that your poetry does so well. When I write about Rio, I think, “I have to document that; people there may not realize it is important because they don’t have the distance.” The archivist feels the urge to preserve. We know we are biased, because we are not there; but we’re also seeing what people there don’t, because they are caught in the middle of it. There’s this paradox of distance.

MP: I certainly have a documentarian impulse. Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, at times, has a similar encyclopaedic, archival quality to it, and I consider her an inspiration. There are aspects of my particular experiences in the place that I grew up that I felt compelled to highlight, and perhaps people currently living in my hometown wouldn’t necessarily highlight those same details. A distanced perspective, and an up-close perspective, are both valuable in ways—and when combined (maybe I’m being idealistic here) they create a more complete viewpoint.

CAP: In the odes in your book, you’re obviously idealizing, but you’re not hiding your artifice. Perhaps because you’re not hiding it, this idealization becomes less … idealized? A lot of Latinx poets romanticize Spanish, French, Portuguese, and even put those languages above English, but they are all colonial! I try not to romanticize Portuguese—because, if anything, English allows me to talk about those complicated relationships from a distance. When you romanticize and say “Hey, I’m romanticizing this!” your humour creates a critical distance. Your humour becomes critical.

MP: You can use humour to express a judgement in a softer way. There are many ways to deploy humour. That is one function: a way to soften the reception of something. It’s like sweetening poison so it goes down easier. Culturally, it’s a tool that Newfoundlanders employ—using humour to make things more palatable.

CAP: Not to get too much into the mystics of writing a poem, but do you set yourself to write a funny poem, or does it just come across as funny? Are you intentional about it?

MP: No. I think it’s just the particular perspective that I have taken, which is informed by the culture I grew up in—and specifically my parents who are chronically unserious people. They are hilarious. I’ve also always enjoyed comedic takes on serious subjects. I think all those things have given me a natural voice that is light-hearted and irreverent. And then there’s a part of me that I think is more naturally reverent, and deeply feeling. So, I think there’s a bit of a tension there.

CAP: I totally see it. There is a reverence in that irreverence. Or a reverence to the irreverence. A seriousness in the humour. When you were reading at the Créatique event, people were laughing loudly, snorting—you yourself were laughing at people laughing. Does that surprise you? And you weren’t gimmick-ily reading it; you were just reading your poem with a regular tone of voice.

MP: Yeah, it surprises me if they laugh, but it also surprises me if they don’t laugh. I’m surprised when people say my poetry is funny, and I’m also surprised when they say it’s dark.

CAP: It might be both?

MP: It is both, or it is like one dimension is trying to subsume the other. And that’s a fight as well—the whole book is a struggle, basically.

CAP: So, you were not going for comedy, necessarily.

MP: No, I’m genuinely not. I wasn’t like, Oh this is gonna really crack people up; people are gonna really find this funny.

CAP: Because you play it serious, you play it cold …

MP: I’m being serious. These are serious poems!

CAP: There is an uncanniness there. People don’t know if you are being serious or not. It creates this uncomfortable place that is full of tension—perhaps that’s why we laugh. I was there, and I’m laughing just thinking about how much I was laughing!

We must talk about Aubrey Plaza. She says that even when she’s being serious, people don’t know if she means it. I think your tone has something of Aubrey Plaza.

MP: It’s not my fault I was given an unstable tone, okay?! I am being serious, a lot of the time. I’m always shocked when people are like, Are you joking? Also, I happen to be pretty gullible. It’s really funny: sometimes people assume I’m hard to fool, but it’s not the case; I will believe almost anything. I immediately trust people’s tone. It’s kind of a contradiction.

CAP: Somehow it’s in your poems as well, because of the layers. Just a straightforward ode might not be that interesting, but once you have an ode to a processed food that obviously isn’t healthy—but you still love it—it brings up all these complicated relationships to home … You have layer upon layer.

Diana Goetsch, a dear mentor, calls it “emotion switching”: you write something you should feel a certain way about but with the “wrong” emotion; that becomes interesting. It creates …

MP: Dissonance.

CAP: Yes, there’s this dissonance that is rich; and makes you keep reading it again and again.


CAP: You mentioned this idea of the poison—humour sweetening the poison. Let’s talk about processed food then. During your reading at Créatique, you presented processed food as an ars poetica. You said you wanted your poem to be as smooth as a processed food. What did you mean by that?

MP: A processed food is something that everything has been extracted from. All that complicates it, in a way, has been extracted. You look at processed white bread: the wheat germ—and all that complicates it and makes it valuable to digest—has been removed, and you’re just left with the carbohydrates and additives. You read the ingredients and it’s like, But wait, this thing that is so consumable and simple—and has literally been engineered to want to be consumed in excess—is actually quite complicated.

There are a lot of invisible hands, but you don’t see them when you get that perfectly palatable food, sweetened and seasoned to the most perfect degree, which makes you wanna eat it in excess. When I joked that my poem was like a processed food, I meant it is easily digestible; but then, in retrospect, you are like, Wait, what did I just read? And I just enjoy simple, lucid language. I wanted to imbue my work with a fable-like ease and depth.

CAP: I love this explanation. I love that, at some point, I didn’t know anymore if you were talking about the food or your poems. I see that the language is not complicated, at first sight; and that it’s very consumable. But, if you look at the ingredients, the poem is engineered. If I break down the turns and breaks, there’s a lot going on there: internal rhymes, alliteration, etc. There’s nothing simple about it! But it is somehow easily digestible, as you said. That brings us to the form itself: you have clean lines, couplets, for most of the book. Is that something you associate with simplicity?

MP: I find that two lines is just the perfect amount of packaging semantically. You can have enough in two lines that it creates its own logic within the couplet. And I like that it’s an even number as well. It felt right to put it in couplets. Eventually I just started writing more in couplets. Often the form could dictate how it was written.

CAP: You started thinking in couplets?

MP: Yeah. It’s an easy way to think, cause it’s basically one sentence, right? A couplet is usually one sentence; it’s usually one portion of semantic meaning at least, so it’s kind of perfect. I love the couplet.

CAP: Do you think you’ve exhausted the couplet?

MP: No, I still like it. I think there’s enough wildness that the couplet can still offer me.

CAP: It has also allowed you to extend the lines quite a bit. Because of the spaces in between, it’s easy to read, it doesn’t get overwhelming. Perhaps the couplet is the ultimate processed-food form.

MP: Definitely. Not as much with other forms; it’s harder to think in them. Even sonnets, I wouldn’t think in a sonnet. But the couplets, definitely—thinking in couplets. Especially with the long poem from my book, I just began thinking entirely in neat couplets.

CAP: Do you have a unit in your head, the ideal couplet? It does this and then moves on? Do you equate it to a paragraph?

MP: Yeah, kind of like a paragraph. A couplet is a more compact thought; something that was usually bigger and got reduced down to a punchy iteration. Not as much in the odes, but in the long poem—that feels like a lot of thought simplified, reduced to its essence.

CAP: Since your first poem ends with Robert Frost—and I don’t normally go around citing Frost—he used to say, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” When I read your poems, I think you are somehow surprising yourself as you write it. Even if the result may be an utterly digestible pre-packaged food, I think you are discovering things along the way. I don’t see it as overly planned. As a reader I see this, so I wonder if you see it as a writer as well. Do you feel like you surprise yourself writing? Do you go to places you didn’t expect?

MP: Yeah, I’ve had actual revelations. I’ve started out to write a poem about one thing and then literally realized something as I was writing it. I don’t see myself as this master puppeteer creating these poems. I think it’s a more humble process of trying to say something, and getting somewhere else; or saying something and realizing, “Wow, that was a flawed line of thought!” My poems often have speakers who are judging themselves.

CAP: That is perhaps part of why I think your poems are so alive.


CAP: I went through your book and made a list of names of poets, lyricists, artists that you cite. Can you tell me which processed food would go best with them? You don’t have to explain, but you can explain if you want. Let’s start with James Joyce.

MP: Salt beef. It is meat that is cured and comes in a big bucket in Newfoundland. Reminds me of Plumtree’s Potted Meat from Ulysses and the jingle Joyce invents: “What is home without / Plumtree’s Potted Meat? / Incomplete.” It’s the same with salt beef.

CAP: Robert Frost?

MP: The most natural combination is Deep’n Delicious Cake. Because it’s the most unnatural thing I can imagine. The combination thrills me because that’s something that Frost would never have incorporated into his work: a branded processed cake. It’s all birches and apples and drama in his poetry.

CAP: How about Patsy Cline?

MP: I’d say the Billot Log, because I associate my mom with Patsy Cline, and that one is her favourite. She’s a big Patsy Cline fan, her favorite song is “Three Cigarettes in the Ashtray.” I think Pasty Cline would love Billot Logs.

CAP: Fiona Apple?

MP: I’d say the ½ Moon, the chocolate one. Because she’s dark and enticing.

CAP: Anyone else here that would deserve a processed food?

MP: Dostoevsky … Just because that’s the most comical example, I would give him the Jos Louis, for similar reasons to Fiona Apple. He’s relentlessly dark, but with a real streak of subtle comedy (like the white icing!).

CAP: The VS Podcast inspired my first question. In another nod to them, because they always pit categories against one another, I want to ask you: who would win in a physical fight between processed food and the sonnet?

MP: Processed food.

CAP: Why?

MP: It’s really hard to say. I think processed food, because nothing can defeat its disturbing technology. Also, the general public enjoys processed food, but the same can’t really be said about sonnets. They’re both built to last, but only one sells well.

About the authors

Carlos A. Pittella (he/him) is a Latinx poet and the recipient of a Frontier 2022 Global Poetry Prize. Born on traditional lands of the Tupi, Guarani, and Goitacá (Rio de Janeiro), he lives in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. His writing is haunted by borders, having recently appeared in Frontier, Radar, Acentos, and The Capilano Review.

Melanie Power is the author of Full Moon of Afraid and Craving (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2022). She is from St. John's, and lives in Montreal (Tiohtià:ke).