On March 24th, the English Department welcomed students to a poetry reading by the dynamic young poet Melissa Range. Born and raised in east Tennessee, Range credits her own hometown vernacular and Old English poetry as the main linguistic influences of her award-winning debut collection, Horse and Rider.
“I’ve got nothing against polysyllabic, Latinate words, but this kind of stuff just feels real and palpable,” she explained. “There’s kind of this grim fatalistic sense of humor in Old English poetry that’s also in Tennessee vernacular.”
Range laughingly acknowledged that her accent often becomes stronger when she reads poems like “The Conversion of Saul, Imagined as a Scene in a Western.” Range also read from Scriptorium, a sequence of sonnets about the pigments used by medieval monks to illuminate manuscripts. Her love for Old English poetry and her fascination with medieval art glowed through the bright alliteration and sensory attentiveness of these devotional poems.
From a later section of Horse and Rider, Range explored violence, purpose, and history through poems like “The Rope,” written from the perspective of an ordinary object pressed into service as a lynching noose:
“Sometimes a crowd takes strands of me
for souvenirs. In another life of rope,
I bound saints to the stake.
Twine wasn't made for this. I should be baling hay."
Range explained how her historical poetry often draws attention to what we choose to forget. When asked why she chooses to write from perspectives outside her own, Range responded, “Wouldn’t you rather hear about Frederick Douglass?” In this spirit, she concluded the reading with her newest work, a series of poems about the American abolitionist movement.
After answering questions from the audience, Range joined Dr. Brett Foster’s Poetry Writing and Criticism class for a post-reading chat about inspiration, craft, and finding one’s poetic voice. Range, now a professor of English at Lawrence University, earned a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Old Dominion University. The Tennessee native earned a B.A in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee, and also holds a Master of Theological Studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
Melissa Range’s collection Horse and Rider is now available at the Wheaton College Bookstore.