Today’s installment of HOUSE CALL provides a glimpse into the life of poet and educator Tiffany Melanson as she isolates at home with her husband Sean, an orthopedic technician at Nemours, her 18 year old daughter Mia, and 12 year old son Miles. Her work as a teacher at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts has gone online and the beloved Writers’ Festival that she creates has been postponed. Many can sympathize with the the complexity of teaching students at a distance while simultaneously supporting a family who is learning at home during this time of pandemic.
Tiffany is a regular presence at Yellow House both as a poet and as a mentor to young writers who have filled our space with their words. If you experienced the Voices Unearthed exhibition, you saw her influence as teacher and collaborator, as we co-created with her students an exhibition highlighting the visual and written works of the remarkable youth-centered publication Élan. She has also read her own works, speaking stories that are some of the most powerful and prescient ever shared in our intimate space. Recently, she has been supported by grants and residencies that have created space for her to create new work, exploring interconnected themes of race, history, and family.
Knowing her voice is heard all over the country as poet and a teaching fellow, it is an honor to count her as part of our family. And in full disclosure, I not only have high regard for Tiffany as an educator and writer, but consider her a co-conspirator and a friend.
I know this time is filled with so many emotions, can you name one that has been dominate for you and paint a picture of how that has manifested itself?
The emotions I am most often filled with during this time are frustration, anger and exhaustion. Frustration that as an educator I don’t get to end the journey with my student poets the way I had hoped, angry that my incarcerated brother sits in isolation surrounded by sickness in a Florida prison, exhausted from a desire to create but difficulty in doing so. I am not a person naturally prone to optimism. I am a realist with pessimistic leanings. I used to think this was something I needed to change about myself. I now see it as a special skill. This messy world is where I must make a life. I prefer to see it for what it is, which allows me to never convince myself to avoid the truth when confronted with it. I guess that’s why I’m a poet.
I have been thinking a lot during this time of pandemic about community and the need for people to become active in healing our brokenness. How do you think what you do as an artist and a teacher can bring light into the darkness?
The role I play as a poet and an arts educator is to listen to my students express their frustration, be as honest as possible about my own and to remind them, and myself, that we are the lucky ones who have our art as a vessel for that ugliness, that embarrassing humanity that is the seed of all good art. Artists teach us not to pretend we’re hurting or that we’re angry. I hope that my poems and the permission I allow to my students to be messy and maybe even a little selfish in their work helps them acknowledge their own failings so we can leave room for love and forgiveness when others fail us. I’m not sure that’s the right answer for this question, but creating from that mindset is as legit as art making gets for me. This situation is global, but what real hurt isn’t? Acknowledge your own suffering and you give others permission to acknowledge theirs.
Poets and other creators often have the language to help us make sense of the world around us and our place in it. What would you like to offer up to others at this time?
I’d like to say to everyone is that it’s okay to feel emotionally unresolved. I’m an introvert and I usually love isolation. What I don’t love and where I have issues thriving are in situations that are too monotonous. Summer break is hard for me as a teacher because the days bleed and sprawl. This reminds me of that feeling and I’ve been stuck in a weird malaise since the pandemic started. I’d like to share a poem I wrote during one of those times when I was in Tennessee at a writer’s retreat. The place I was creating in had changed, but the feelings of loneliness and sadness that have always been present for me were still there. This poem helped me accept these feelings are part of who I am and acknowledge there is no shame in saying today I’m not okay.
This Time Last Year
the only thing different than today
were my hands, full of my child’s scent
instead of my own. It was raining then
and it is raining now. It was Florida.
Today, it’s Tennessee.
My son was quick to anger
then remorse, like the rain. He would nestle
in the crook of my arm with my breast
as the pillow for his sobbing face.
I woke after ten every morning
with the body of a stone. Behind heavy blinds
the sun would rise or it would hide
and I would wait to be woken
by the urgent needs of a child or a dog
or no one.
This time last year I believed
the blanket of my sadness would cover me
until the sweat bled it out.
I still wear the mask of sadness
like a wound of love. I let it blind me.
It was raining then
and it is raining now. It was Florida.
Today, it’s Tennessee.
Lastly, are there any other artists or writers that are bringing you strength or solace during this time?
The poet Galway Kinnell and his work have always been a touchstone for me. I keep a quote of his in my classroom that informs how I teach and the approach I take to my own writing. The quote is “Go so deep into yourself you speak for everyone.” It’s just another reminder that to my students and myself that to make art that allows others to be seen you have to be willing to be seen first. The art I love takes bravery to create.
Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as @TheOtherTiffany – “As a teacher my social media is pretty locked down, but you can ask to friend me and if you’re not a teenager I teach I’ll probably say yes.”
You can also check out the latest edition of Élan at www.elanlitmag.org
About the HOUSE CALL Series
Yellow House is checking in with the artists, writers, performers, and activists who have filled our space with their works and voices. During a time of crisis, creatives are faced with the same challenges, anxieties, and opportunities as most of us, yet they can offer unique perspectives on how to adjust, evolve, and understand. As observers and empaths, they can help us see ourselves and the world around us more fully. And in all honesty, I just wanted to know how our people are doing during this time of threat from virus, social distancing, continued work, and adaptation. One aspect of community care is to check in our neighbors and we are doing it the way we know how, through a series of intimate glimpses into lives authentically shared.
Interviewed by Hope McMath