Heavenly Mother in the Life and Poetry of Melody Newey: A Dialogue (Part 1 of 3)
by Martin Pulido
As part of the A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest, I have been trying to highlight historical and contemporary artists that have already portrayed or referred to Heavenly Mother in their works. I really wanted to interview Melody Newey, who has written several poems about Heavenly Mother in the past twenty years, to not only draw more attention to her work, but to also have a better understanding of how she explores the divine feminine in her writing. I wrote Melody, and gratefully she was more than willing to fulfill my request. After some e-mail correspondence, I called her on a Sunday morning and had the wonderful opportunity to get to know her and her work. The dialogue that follows below shares much of what I discovered.
PULIDO: Melody, before I delve into your poetry, I’d like to learn more about the poet. I’m a firm believer in context, and I think knowing more about you will help us (me and your readership) better understand your work. So if you’ll humor me, please tell us a little about yourself. What is it you would like us to know about you?
NEWEY: The short answer is that I love Jesus and babies and flowers. I am a very simple person, although like everyone I have complexities beneath the surface, which I explore in my writing. I was born in Baltimore, living the first six years of my life in Alexandria, Virginia. Then I moved to Utah and have stayed there. So most of my memories are of Utah. I come from a traditional LDS family, and yet my siblings are fairly open to new ideas. It was and is a huge blessing. They don’t bat an eye when I mention that I am writing about Heavenly Mother.
I work as a Registered Nurse, so I write poetry in my spare time. That’s when I’m not building sheet-forts with my grandchildren. I teach Sunday School, grow a respectable garden, and hike the trails of the Rocky Mountains most of the year. While I write poetry, I haven’t received a formal education in it, besides attending writing workshops. My poetry has appeared in Irreantum, Segullah, The Exponent, Utah Sings Volume VIII: An anthology of contemporary verse by Utah poets, and in Utah Voices 2012, among other places. In addition, I blog for The Exponent and Envision Home Health.
PULIDO: That’s pretty impressive given the lack of the formal education. Tell us, how long have you been writing poetry, and why did you begin? Were you the sort of kid who tried to string rhymed words together at a young age, or the teenager that spaced out in class and covered sheets of paper with melancholy verse?
NEWEY: Well, all poets seem to have a similar history. I wrote my first poem in second grade. I was seven. Here it is:
Halloween night so dark and gray,
it’s not like Easter, light and gay.
With ghosts in the brush
you hear a silent hush
But my wonder about the written word began earlier. In the first grade I remember being in awe that the symbols on a page could be combined with other symbols and that together they made words, and you can say things with them. I remember thinking that this is the biggest miracle in the universe! Evan at five-years-old I loved words. Really loved them and saw them as profoundly important to my future.
I wrote a little in high school, but it wasn’t a passion of mine. I began writing poetry in earnest in 1986 when I was 25-years-old.
PULIDO: That’s somewhat surprising. Did you read a lot of poetry before writing it yourself?
NEWEY: Not a lot. I mostly read fiction as a youth, although I did relate a lot with artists. But I also connected with brainiacs, and people of that ilk. I see both art and science mixed in with my chosen vocation, nursing, so I guess that’s no surprise.
PULIDO: So what got you writing at 25?
NEWEY: I was in the midst of dealing with the residue of childhood trauma. . . looking back on that time I can see my poetry was really an involuntary, reflexive response. It was a God-given vehicle, opening up like a flood gate, which propelled me to freedom and enlightenment. I don’t know how else to describe it. It helped me resolve that childhood trauma, to tell the truth, “but tell it slant” as Emily Dickinson said, since I couldn’t always directly confront truth even as I unearthed it. It still serves this purpose in my life at times. I feel happy and free when I’m writing. Almost more than at any other time. Poetry allows me to transform a painful reality into something simultaneously beautiful and ugly, and digestible. I think that writing poetry was given to me before I came into this world to help me survive in it.
PULIDO: I’m glad that poetry’s been a successful vehicle for dealing with your tough childhood experiences. I can relate to the therapeutic impact of writing; there’s something powerful about having to coalesce yours thoughts and feelings into something that can be seen on a page, and that you can read back to yourself. It’s a mirror to your own mind, even if it’s a distorting one like at a carnival. Not that distortion is necessarily bad, as one might assume. Exaggerations sometimes help us understand a universal best. I bet many of us might experience the therapeutic element of writing with a journal, but it’s definitely different with the more… selective wording and imagery of poetry.
So since 25, what has the general corpus of your poetry been about? What are the recurring themes that you see therein?
NEWEY: During the first several years, every poem was related to that childhood pain. I literally have hundreds of poems documenting my healing journey. As I became more at peace and got through that part of my life, poems reflected more generally on things like God, nature, relationships – all of which helped me heal, but which I now write about in a different context. I write about lived experiences, dreams, spiritual themes, and occasionally political or social issues. It seems like most poets cover essentially the same ground – really, what else can we cover?
PULIDO: Humans do have a lot of overlap in their experience. So tell us about one of the favorite poems that you have written. What do you like about it so much?
NEWEY: One poem I particularly love came to me in the middle of the day while working in my kitchen. The first line is also the title: “Winter heard me call your name.” As I began to write, it flowed out in a matter of minutes onto the dry-erase board I have on the kitchen wall. And that was it. Done. It was perfect. When I first looked at it, I thought I might be channeling someone who had spoken from the great beyond, because the poem was about the death of a child and I had not lost a child to death. But later, I discovered the poem was highly metaphorical and it actually came from my own unconscious mind. It was about the universal experience of loss of innocence. I liked it because it demonstrates the process of revealing universal truth through art. Sometimes unexpectedly. We also reveal ourselves through art; we cannot help but do so. Something comes out of us, which we see is beautiful, and we don’t see ourselves in it until later.
PULIDO: So far, I’ve seen you point out the transformative, therapeutic, and we might say “archaeological” elements of writing poetry. I wanted to see if you might have anything more to add about why you write poetry. What is it you think poetry accomplishes, as an art, and for yourself?
NEWEY: Poetry does what every other art form does: it translates our experience or idea into (hopefully) a universally understood representation of that thing. Art transforms the intangible into something tangible. I see art as a way for heaven to spill into earth – through earth’s inhabitants. We transform the planet with art. We are helping the earth become celestialized through art.
Art asks and answers questions, enriches, enlightens, enlivens, amuses and befuddles us. I love art for all these reasons.
Last year I attended a brief workshop at a local public library where Terry Tempest Williams was presenting and reading from her latest book. She asked the attendees to state in as few words as possible their own motivation for writing. Mine was, “Write or die.” I write poetry for the same reason I breathe and eat and sleep and poop – because I can’t be healthy or fully alive if I don’t. It is an internal compulsion that drives me. While I have written a lot for people who have made requests of me, say for funerals or relief society events, it’s mostly internal. I have to write.
This concludes part 1. In the next part, we learn about how Melody goes about writing poetry, and begin the discussion of her treatment of Heavenly Mother in her poems.
Martin Pulido is a businessman by day, LDS scholar by night, who has extensively researched Mormon belief in a Heavenly Mother. He co-authored the BYU Studies article, “A Mother There: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” with David Paulsen, and has organized the A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest with Caroline Kline. The “A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest” is looking for 2-dimensional visual arts pieces and poems that portray Heavenly Mother. The contest will accept entries up until March 4, 2014, and over $2200 in prizes will be awarded when the best entries are announced on May 11, 2014. For more details, visit www.amotherhere.com. The contest is being sponsored by Exponent II, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, Peculiar Pages, LDS WAVE, and Segullah.