An Interview with Megan Denton Ray

August 20th 2019

Get to know 2019 New Southern Voices Poetry Prize winner Megan Denton Ray, what she's reading, and a little about her book, forthcoming this March!

Tell us a little about your manuscript.

Mustard, Milk, & Gin began as my thesis when I was a graduate student at Purdue. I have to immediately give Kaveh Akbar credit for being the most amazing, encouraging, generous thesis advisor. He trusted my weird ideas, I trusted his weird ideas, and here we are today.

Anyway, the book—my whole life is squeezed into this space, separated into three sections. First and foremost, the book is an exploration of language and metaphor, a playground of sorts. Juxtaposed with this playfulness are many heavy topics, many uncomfortable moments. This book is a journey through many rooms: addiction, depression, spirituality, sexual trauma, sexual healing, empowerment, wholeness, brokenness. Somehow there’s a botanical thread that holds it all together. I still can’t explain it well. This is my best attempt.

What/who are you reading right now? What inspires you?

Right now, I am re-reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Also reading Exit Pastoral by Aidan Forster and Louise Glück’s The House on Marshland. Also reading/always re-visiting this book of essays called Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams—which is a good example of what inspires me. I’ve used dreams in my work for a really long time, and I don’t plan on stopping that anytime soon. A dream journal is always a good idea, but I have never been good at it. I keep an “image journal” instead, which is the daytime version.

Other than that, I am always listening. You never know where you’ll hear (or see) a word that triggers an idea for a poem.

The New Southern Voices Prize features emerging Southern writers. Can you talk a little about how the South and place in general inform your poetry?

Growing up in East Tennessee, I was always barefoot. My parents and grandparents always had gardens, which is where I spent most of my time. Behind these gardens were forests, and behind those forests were mountains. It was a perfect environment for me, and I realized this when I moved to Indiana for grad school.

When I left for Indiana in 2015, I was ashamed of the South. I couldn’t wait to leave and go somehwere completely different. I was so wrong. My tornado phobia, plus actually having real winters and real snow, affected me more than I expected. I realized that I was no longer inspired by my environment, which made it very hard for me to be creative. I had to trick myself into being inspired. Indiana is ugly, brown, flat, cold, smelly, and very racist. Just overall very yucky.

After the first year in Indiana, I couldn’t wait to come home. I realized what I had taken for granted my whole life. What surrounds me (nature, climate, people, culture) informs my work tremendously. I am so proud, now, and so glad to be back in the South. Minus the humidity. And mosquitos!

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

Well, I’m usually working in my garden. This time of year, I’m searching for monarch eggs on my milkweed and desperately trying to keep everything watered. I also very much enjoy playing Wheel of Fortune on Nintendo Switch, cuddling my 2 cats, and honestly, just spending time with myself. I’m really practicing self-care these days, and sometimes (for me) that means taking a break from writing for a couple days. Or wandering around in an antique mall. I have nothing to give to my poetry if I don’t take care of myself first. And also pulling weeds is the best free therapy there is.

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