Last Sext, Melissa Broder’s latest work of poetry, is a deep dive into the underworld of the erotic.
For those of us who’d just as soon hop into a super toxic relationship as peruse a denim section, one of the greatest gifts of poetry is its role as container to all the obsessions, the addictions, the longing. As I learned in my convo with poet Melissa Broder, that’s exactly the kind of experience she had writing Last Sext, a collection rife with the grotesque aspects of human love and sexuality (read: that fuckboy loin-fire you hide from your girls but shamefully, hopelessly harbor). The Philly-born Vice columnist, Lenny astrologer, and soon-to-be fiction writer (her debut novel, Pisces, will officially be released this month), weaves a surreal landscape of visceral images, lurking terrains, and no-bullshit diction that sucks you in and spits you out, sometimes all in the same line. I sat down with Broder to talk about why dreams are actually kind of fucked, the trouble with suicide packs (besides the obvious), and poetry as alternative to effing, snorting, and impulse buying your way through life.
Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be a poet?
Yes for sure. In the 3rd grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Hovey who I thank in the back of all of my books. I was a really bad student and had a very short attention span; I was always in space and in my daydreams. But Mrs. Hovey noticed that I was good with poetry, so she gave me a white, hardcover book with blank pages to write in and told me I had talent. And I really enjoyed writing, too, so it was kind of that combination of loving something plus someone telling me I was good at it. That was all it took; I’ve been writing poetry ever since. Shout out to Mrs. Hovey.
Whose styles influenced you when you started writing?
Sylvia Plath had the most impact in terms of the music and the rhythm. She’s the dead poet who became a north star for me. And then of course so many contemporary influences, Dorothea Lasky is a poet I love, and Ariana Reines.
OMG I love Plath so much, too. I feel like she created a sort of tunnel, like, where there was no space before, she created space for a voice that had never existed before in poetry.
Yes! That’s exactly right. She had a major impact on me for sure.
Do you have a favorite Plath poem?
Hmmm, probably “Crossing the Water.”
Ok, let’s talk about Last Sext. It joins your book of personal essays, So Sad Today, and your forthcoming novel, Pisces. What do you get from writing poetry that you can’t satiate writing essays or fiction?
We’re in an age where it feels like there’s such a need to know. We’re given a glut of information; there are so many think pieces that round things out into conclusions. But poetry is a writing of questions and of mysteries. Sometimes I’ll write and find out something I didn’t even know that I knew or thought; sometimes I’ll write and discover questions that I didn’t even know I had. There’s also space for this weaving–the dark and the light, the good and the bad–they can coexist. I feel that especially now with how quickly we are able to gain information, which can sometimes be the whole picture and sometimes not. In poetry, I’m not attempting to sum anything up or to convey a moral. It’s much more of an exploration, and questioning, and parsing of layers. That to me is so beautiful, that nuance. We can leave a poem with more questions than we had going into it.
I love that you bring up darkness and light because one of the questions I have is about the poem “Cosmic Ditch.” It works with polarities: darkness and light, old and new, shittiest and best. Talk about what you were looking at in this poem.
This is a poem exploring false gods. I actually explore this theme a lot. It’s getting at the notion of artificial light, or something that feels like it’s going to be the answer or the thing that heals you or will render you whole, but then turns out to be another ephemeral addiction–whether it’s a person, a place, a substance–something that is not the eternal quenching we’re looking for. It’s another realization that something is a false god, and that it’s not going to provide the miracle. So it’s reckoning with that, and it’s about the discovery of a new god within myself, a much quieter god. The thing is, as a human I’m probably going to continue to look to those false gods for the rest of my life because that is what humans do. A higher power is so nebulous, whereas these shiny things that feel like they’re the answer–could be sex, a person, success, drugs–are right there and easy to get, but they’re never satiating. So it’s also getting at the desire for that old god, acknowledging that I’ll probably still look in the wrong place, and accepting that. It’s not a moral; I know to go for the real god inside and not the one that can be purchased, fucked, snorted, drank–but guess what? I’m a human, so I’ll probably keep looking in the wrong places.
There’s a violence underlying this collection that intersects sexuality. I really see it in “Innocent Ground,” for example. Were you interested in excavating the relationship between those two in these poems?
I would say it’s less about the violence of sexuality and more about the violence of my own craving. The violence of desire, the way we can be tortured by craving. And sometimes when we don’t feed the craving, that can feel more violent because it’s so painful, when actually it’s soothing the craving (especially if it’s a craving for another person who will always only generate more craving). So it’s also the violence of putting something into the hole to assuage that feeling and only making the hole bigger, even though it feels good in the moment.
“Innocent Ground” also looks at dreams. I’m starting to maybe get over the fact that fantasy can’t be reality, but definitely my book Meat Heart ends with an anger or inability to understand why fantasy can’t be reality. Especially as human beings, it’s like, we’re probably something imagined by something else, so why can’t fantasy be reality? I also explore that a lot in The Pisces because I really want to look at why fantasy love feels so much more delicious than love as a verb, as responsibility. In “Innocent Ground,” there’s a powerlessness over the fantasy. In the poem, I’m someone who’s been good all day; I haven’t tried to fill that void with a boy, but at the same time, dreams come and sort of fuck me up anyway. There have been many times when I’ve been trying to get over a person–like last night even, I had a dream about an ex-boyfriend who I haven’t had any feelings for in a really long time. But when I woke up, it left me with all these cravings for this person and all this sentimentality, and I don’t know if it was already in my psyche or if was manufactured by the dream. I can remember a time when I was about 11, I dreamed about a person I had a crush on and heard “Hip Hop Hooray” in the dream. The next day I was in the car with my mom, and when “Hip Hop Hooray” came on the radio, I felt so crushed and nostalgic.
So there have been times when I feel like I’m doing a lot of work to heal, but something will enter in a dream that fucks me up, and that’s really what this poem looks at. You can be doing everything you can to get well, and then something in a dream sets you back. You just feel like, “Fuck dude.” It’s an anger at the universe, a feeling that it’s not your fault. So you can still be on the map of want even if you’re doing everything right because a dream can thrust you right back in there.
Ugh, I totally relate to the violence of desire and the sort of emotional hangover it leaves you with. There’s this sense of victimization that comes up; it feels like the universe is sabotaging your efforts to let something go, even though it’s simultaneously telling you to let that thing go. It feels sadistic.
Yeah, totally. That’s something I grapple with, too. In all the great love stories, there’s this intoxicating love that your therapist would probably be like, “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa.” Especially suicide packs and all the things I love in art. My therapist would be like, “No no no,” to all my romantic obsessions, so there’s that feeling of trying to do the things that will keep me alive and healthy versus art. But I think art is a very healthy place to channel those destructive impulses. Like, I can still fuck up in a poem all the time and not have repercussions.
Something that’s super striking about these poems is the way they ask spiritual questions by looking at the body and at the physical. (I’m thinking specifically of “Along.”) I’m curious if you see the body as a poetic vehicle for godliness, in whatever way that word has meaning for you.
Honestly, I used to see spirituality as something that would relieve me from being a human. I thought I wouldn’t have to feel my own humanity. My ideal spirituality would be sitting on a lotus apart from humanity on heroine or something– that’s spiritual as fuck. But more and more, it’s about the challenge of a spiritual being having a human experience and living comfortably in the body, which has never been a comfortable place for me. Spirituality is connected to the body because I live in a body, I don’t live on cloud nine, as much as I’ve tried to. So a lot of these poems look at the earthy things that can make my bodily experience peaceful and give meaning to the fact that I have a body instead of making me feel like I need to get the fuck out of here. Spirituality is about feeling peaceful on earth, not about doing something for the afterlife.
Judaism comes up in some of your poems–are you Jewish?
I was raised Jewish, and I feel very connected to Judaism in terms of food and my cultural history. I just watched Fiddler on the Roof the other day and it made me think about how much I love my people. But in terms of religion, I haven’t felt connected to Judaism in a long time, particularly in terms of the Jewish God. It’s a pretty punishing God, it’s the predecessor to Christianity, so all the issues one might have with a Christian God, a Jewish God has, too: a lot of jealousy, a lot of smiting. And with the way I already beat myself up, the last thing I need in my life is a God who’s judging me.
And maybe that speaks to this next question: There’s a really powerful merging of religion and sexual desire in this collection. The poem “Mercy Fuxx” almost seems to imply that only a spiritual savior is worthy of the speaker’s sexual desire. Was that your intention?
That poem is about fighting with one’s own desire, having that will to make something happen even if the universe isn’t on board. I’ll know if something is my will or the universe’s will because if it’s my will, I’m forcing it to happen. The poem starts out “God wants me to have a lemon tree or else I wouldn’t have it” – I wrote it right after I moved to California. I was scared to move here, so that was me giving lip service to accepting the way things are when it was actually like, “No dude, I want something to rescue me.” And again, something that’s a false god can feel so holy, especially in fantasy, and can feel like the right thing. It’s a fight with one’s self, like, “Fuck it, this may not be what the universe wants, but come rescue me anyway.” As if any other human can do that, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want it. At the end of that poem, it comes back around to an acceptance of the way things are because there’s a moment where the speaker thinks about being rescued, thinks about what it would really be like to be in bed together, and that wouldn’t work either. I think that’s where you’re gleaning the idea of the savior. It’s not that you have to be holy to fuck, but everyone is human, and we make the people we sleep with into false gods.
Since we’re on the topic of the universe, you also write horoscopes for Vice. Your work feels very Scorpio to me–like it wants to turn a spotlight onto the things people would rather ignore or hide from. Was there a catharsis for you in writing these poems? And do you have Scorpio in your chart?
I do. I’m a Virgo with a Scorpio moon, so that’s where that Scorpio energy come from. It’s an interesting combination because on the surface, Virgo has this desire for order and doesn’t want to reveal too much; it wants structured chaos and salvation through order. That’s the great gift of Virgo. But Scorpio wants to turn over the rock and look at the worms underneath–it’s all things chaotic. So I’m living with this intense emotional life that has to come out, Virgo be damned. In terms of catharsis, there always is for me. Especially when it’s from that violence of craving. When I write a poem with a feeling instead of trying to manifest it on earth in a physical way, that probably won’t be satisfying in the end, but there’s always a satisfying feeling in a poem. A poem isn’t going to try to hurt me. And you’ve created something, which is always nice.
If you had to create a symbol to represent your relationship to poetry, what would it be?
Horses have always been an important animal in my life. I would say a Pegasus because it can carry you on land but it also has the ability for transcendence. Transcendence is very important in my work.