Melissa Crowe’s Aroostook Upbringing Inspires Her Award-Winning New Poetry Collection

“Every time I write about the people I grew up around, I’m writing a love poem.”

Melissa Crowe
Photo courtesy of Melissa Crowe
By Michael Colbert
From our July 2023 issue

Born to a teenage single mother, Melissa Crowe lived with her grandfather and four uncles in a two-bedroom house on the edge of Presque Isle, by an abandoned airport. Winters were long, and she slept in her snowsuit on nights when the oil tank went dry. From a young age, she saw the spiraling relationship between poverty, alcoholism, and other chemical dependencies in her community. But she also found a great deal of comfort in that community: devouring red snappers at cookouts, swimming in Echo Lake, whiling away days fishing with her uncles. Today, Crowe teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, but she’s often back in Maine to visit family and friends, and her Aroostook County upbringing looms large in Lo, her new book of poetry, which won the University of Iowa Press’s 2022 Iowa Poetry Prize. Crowe’s gentle lyricism takes in the landscape and the people of her youth with a mix of nostalgia and unflinching honesty, a clear-eyed homage to her roots. In one of the collection’s first poems, she writes: “Maybe home is what gets on you and can’t / be shaken loose.” 

Lo, by Melissa Crowe
“A love song with a haunting melody” is how one Iowa Poetry Prize judge described Crowe’s new collection, which takes the poet’s Aroostook County upbringing as source material.

What’s it like for you to write about Maine from afar? 

I think it becomes more mythic to me. The images of the place stay archetypal, and they repeat: snow, fish, trees, water, the woods. There’s an almost fairy-tale quality to the way I’m engaging with the landscape. But as much as the physical place is present in my work, I maybe even think of Maine as more present in the people that I write about. Every time I write about the people I grew up around, I’m writing a love poem. I’m not always saying things that other people would find complimentary, but telling the truth about people and the ways that they’re complicated, to me, feels like a kind of love — like an honoring of lives that might not otherwise wind up on the page or be understood in much detail. 

Did you work from particular childhood memories?

Rather than thinking, “These are the memories I have of Maine,” it’s like, if I’m hungry, I look in the refrigerator and try to figure out how to make a meal out of whatever’s there. So when I open the refrigerator, what’s there is the landscape of my childhood and the things that happened to me. Those things are just available to me when I’m trying to say something about the world. I’m a person who lives an almost paralyzingly reflective life. And I do think about wanting people to understand something real. I come from a different Maine than lots of people are familiar with. It’s not where the Bushes have a house. I’m interested in the way that poems like these can convey a richness or complexity about the place that otherwise people may not encounter. 

You write that, now, traveling home feels like traveling through time.

When I go back, one thing I always wind up writing about is how long it takes to get there. In one poem, “Little Deprivation in the Big North Woods,” this idea that there’s no more highway, no more Target, no more Starbucks — so many of the markers of civilization are dropping off. I always kind of feel like I’m driving backward. There’s a little bit of alarm in that when you’ve become accustomed to this other kind of life, but also a tremendous sense of relief. In Maine, I think I turn into a different person physically. I think I breathe differently. I’m somewhere that makes sense to me on a really deep level. 

And yet your formative years weren’t always easy. 

In “I Want to Tell You What Poverty Gave Me,” for instance, I insist on the real impacts of inequitably distributed resources in this culture, but the poem also says that there’s something beautiful about being able to operate in certain ways outside of capitalist imperatives, even if you don’t have a choice. What I wanted to be very careful about was never to romanticize that thing. I don’t live in poverty now. I hope I don’t ever live in poverty again, but I don’t want to unlive it. I don’t want to be a person who didn’t grow up in the way I grew up, because it lets me see things. Other people’s suffering is never hypothetical to me. If you’ve experienced violence or poverty, you generally don’t have to be convinced when other people talk about their own pain, grief, or trauma. I’m hoping I can make it, through the power of art, less hypothetical, even to people who haven’t experienced it. 

Lo ($20, University of Iowa Press) landed on bookshelves in May.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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