INTERVIEWS November 5, 2021

A Conversation with Melissa Lozada-Oliva

A Guatelombian (Guatemalan-Colombian) American poet and screenwriter, Melissa Lozada-Oliva lives in Brooklyn by way of Massachusetts. Author of the poetry collection peluda and co-host of the podcast Say More with poet Olivia Gatwood, Lozada-Oliva’s work explores the intersections of Latina identity, feminism, and what it means to belong. Her new novel-in-verse, Dreaming of You, has received praise from Oprah Daily, Vulture, Autostraddle, and more. Called “an enjoyably madcap journey through the wasteland of fame, popular culture, and feminine identity in a post-colonial world,” Dreaming of You spirals through the impossibilities of communicating our thoughts in a world where we are all performing for one another, especially in pursuit of love.

Hannah Rego : Dreaming of You is a novel in verse, which is a category that excites some people and gives genre purists conniptions. I think that genre labels exist for the market more than for the reader, and that everyone is too afraid of having fun, but not you—you describe the book as a rock opera. A chorus of chismosas narrates events that occur between poems. For me, the book reads like a classic epic, like The Odyssey. Can you speak to what a novel in verse, a rock opera, or any of these categories mean to you?

Melissa Lozada-Oliva: One time my mom’s boyfriend took us to see Les Mis, and I was like, “Why isn’t anybody talking? That’s so annoying!” But then I cried. Around the same time—I was thirteen or so—I was listening to Green Day’s American Idiot, My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, and The Killers’ Hot Fuss. Each album is a rock opera or a concept album that involves a character going through this journey to hell and back. On a metaphorical level they’re all dealing with death, loss, desire, and the Iraq war in some way. Each song can stand on its own and is an absolute bop. I could go on and on about how “Whatsername” by Green Day, “Helena” by My Chemical Romance, and “Andy, You’re a Star” by the Killers all had their hand in putting this book together.

The issue with novels in verse is that a lot of pressure gets put on the poems to move the plot forward, and because of that, the poems aren’t able to sing. There is a definite plot to Dreaming of You, but more importantly, each poem sings. Each poem is a little stop on a carnival ride, a little charm on a bracelet keeping the chain together. No one is going to pick up something called Dreaming of You: A Concept Album, though, so my editors called it a novel in verse. One of my favorite books growing up was a novel in verse, but I just thought it was really fast and short. It was called What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones, and it was about a horny teen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who just wanted to be loved.

The thing I’ll say about epics is that Ovid is a spoken word poet who is a nosy little bitch who loves drama. That is evident in Metamorphosis, where everyone is sucking and fucking and killing because of the sucking and killing that came before them.

HR: The poems in Dreaming of You employ many poetic forms, including sonnets and contrapuntals, as well as devices borrowed from many genres. One of my favorite poems in the book, “A Star Is Born Again,” is formatted as a screenplay. For me, this poem is what allowed the form of the book to click into place, and I realized there was no other way to tell the story of Melissa than through a disrupted narrative, a polyphonic set of speakers, and the dazzling precision that poetry affords us. When did you realize there was a “cast of characters” in this book, or in what way was the project itself a task to name them, to understand these characters as both you and not you?

MLO: This book was a puzzle from the beginning. I wanted to be smart about it, and I think that was detrimental. I wasn’t letting myself have fun. The idea I had in the beginning was that Selena comes back from the dead during Halloween, shows up at a Halloween party, and sees a bunch of bitches dressed up as her. Everybody thinks she has the most authentic costume, but she’s just being herself. But I also had this alternate universe idea where her killer, Yolanda [Saldívar], gets away with the crime. She steals a maid’s uniform after the murder in the motel and runs away into the sun.

And I thought, how could those be related at all? Should I write some essays in between, explaining myself and my identity? I was running away with myself completely. Matthew Rohrer, my thesis advisor [at NYU], really helped me. He encouraged me to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do, which is, ultimately, having a blast, casting spells instead of writing self-aware essays. I stopped explaining myself, and I was freed.

The chorus was initially me, in all caps, like a weird narrator in a crime novel. That didn’t make sense. Rachel Kim, my agent, was like, “Is this actually a Greek chorus?” Of course it was! It was a self-aware entity with multiple heads that wasn’t me but, rather, was created by me, that was all-knowing and teasing, looking affectionately at Melissa. And that is still me too. I’m looking back at myself with humor and love, shaking my head, happy I have perspective.

HR: In Josh Bell’s essay “What Do You Think About My Epigraph,” he writes that “all epigraphs are a mistake.” Knowing that you had to remove a My Chemical Romance quote from your book due to copyright laws, I thought of you when reading Bell’s edgy takedown of one kind of epigraph: “Sometimes the poet, in addition to a learned quote, might also quote a line from a popular song, thereby signaling that the poet likes to go to libraries as much as to rock concerts . . . And this is the Epigraph of Personality, and you know who you are.”

Fabulously, you do know who you are, and it’s the strong personality of character-Melissa that narrates much of the book. That’s one way I see your book being a novel in verse, through the way a poetic consciousness merges with a narrative voice that is too strong to belong to anyone other than a character. Did you experience any tension between a “speaker” and a “narrator” while writing this? How do you conceptualize your own voice, in the majority of the book in which you’re writing as “Melissa”?

MLO: I don’t know. That guy sounds right. My whole personality is epigraphs that are song lyrics, because I was the kind of bitch who would go on AIM, see somebody’s away message about some band, look up that band, and copy/paste whatever lyrics I found into a chat with this person so we could be friends and I could be cool. But because of that, I know a lot about music, weirdly, and history.

I was taught—and still believe—that the writer and the speaker are different. Whatever you put down on the page becomes different from you and fuses away from the flesh of you to become a living, breathing thing that will outlive you. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t responsible for whatever comes out of you, though.

Now I want to tell an old boyfriend story. One time my ex-boyfriend—a fabulous, wonderful person—after a dinner where I was talking a lot, making jokes and interrupting people, said, “It was the Melissa show all night.” That made me feel bad, but also, I was really putting it on. I needed attention, and I was nervous because we were around new people. I was acting differently than how I did around him, and that really freaked him out. Another time, in Puerto Rico, we were sitting on a curb, and he was narrating what was going on inside the head of this white spotted sato dog playing with a bone. “Hello, everybody,” he said as the dog. “I am here! Why can’t you see me? Can I show you my bones? Surprise! It’s been me the whole time!” And I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and I felt so in love with him. And that rang in my head forever: It’s been me the whole time! The dog was lonely, stupid, and trying to do something special by way of surprise, the way my sisters and cousins did at family gatherings when we’d pop into the living room to perform a dance. And he was projecting himself on the dog. I don’t know why he was mad at me about doing that with myself, but we’re broken up, so there you go.

HR: It might be easy for some readers to reduce your book to issues of representation, because the trap of representation as a Latina poet who performs her own livelihood for money has determined so much of how others perceive you. Consciousness, desire, and social experience occur in a political feedback loop for everyone, but in a hyper-scrutinizable way for anyone in the spotlight—whether you’re on Instagram or singing karaoke at 2 a.m. I feel this in the book’s plot, of course, as well as exemplified in interior moments like, “It feels good / to have all eyes on me. It feels better to blow / them all away like ladybugs,” “Spanish songs are all so fucking dramatic. Every thing is a stage, I guess, or the altar we die on,” and “What’s the difference between anyone / and an Elvis impersonator?” Did Dreaming of You feel like a departure, a continuation, an evolution, or a rewriting of your previous work about race, gender, and American culture?

MLO: All four! I am departing from identity-politics-driven poetry about being “seen.” I was seen so much on YouTube by strangers, all of them relating their experience to a three-minute thing I wrote to be in competition with other people. This book is also an elegy to identity. Like, goodbye. Let’s get away from the self, she’s hurting us! Or at least identity in its relation to capital. I want to get to be complicated, messy, and fucked up instead of screaming about how because I am hairy, a few white boys did not love me. The latter is easy.

I wanted to investigate the ways in which celebrities and villains are given only easy histories, ones where they are celebrated or hated and that’s fucking it. And that is dehumanizing, to be remembered only for all the good you did, instead of the one time you got too drunk and made out with your best friend’s crush. That’s the type of stuff I love: the mistakes. I want to lean heavily into that because it keeps me from getting pigeonholed. I’m a child of Guatemalan and Colombian immigrants, but if I wrote about that all the time, I would be failing myself as a writer. I am always trying to depart, continue, evolve, and re-write.

HR: In Brooklyn, in 2018 or 2019, I was lucky to see you perform some experimental comedy poetry, and I’ve been wondering whether embodying your comedy-poem character, Cordelia, contributed to your process of writing this book? I see echoes of her in poems like “I’m So Lonely I Grow a New Hymen” and “I’m Not a Virgin But.”

MLO: Cordelia is a tragic virgin suffering from tuberculosis who has fabulous tits and is on the verge of death. The only way to cure her is to fuck her or write a story about her, but the cure also kills her. Sweet salvation! She is a character I invented who is based off of, like, three thousand characters who are sick and beautiful in the time of tuberculosis. I recently read something in the New Yorker about how tuberculosis was considered a “beautiful disease.” Because it inspired art? Because if women were sick, they were beautiful?

Anyway, Cordelia definitely had a hand in making this book. Beautiful girls make everybody think of dying, and people should be more honest about that. The hymen/virgin poems just happened to fit in the book. I was thinking about my body being in its prime and how I wanted to use it before it was used up.

The “Hymen” poem is after a Sandra Cisneros poem called “I Am So in Love I Grow a New Hymen.” She was saying, “I’m so in love I’m ready to be a virgin for you,” and I was saying, “I’m so lonely I’ve completely closed up.”

HR: The chismosas say, “We all have holes / and we are all a little / Haunted.” Toward the end of the book, Melissa mourns all the harm she causes in resurrecting Selena, blaming “my desire / to turn a mirror/ into a person.” Is there anything you want to say about the relationship between mirrors, holes, doors, and ghosts, or about what it means to be haunted in the context of desire, or about how horror is hot?

MLO: Horror movies statistically turn people on. People get scared, their adrenaline rushes, they go home and fuck. The unknown is all at once horrifying and pumped full of desire, which is kind of like falling in love. The eroticism in the beginning of a new relationship is so strong because you’re so caught up in imagining the other person, because you don’t know them yet. I think that is what “Dreaming of You,” the song, is about too: there’s no place she’d rather be than in her room dreaming about her lover. Same! Naturally that initial mania fades, and what takes its place is a beautiful, eventual relief: the lights have turned on, and you’ve come home. You are safe and known. And I think that’s love.

I wrote Dreaming of You with the phrase “Every ghost story is a love story” banging around my brain. They’re both about energy that keeps coming back, because whatever was down there was too damn good to leave.

I also am obsessed with holes: hymens, mouths, big nostrils, assholes, all of the openings into us that allow things in, but also all of the holes we go down when we’re spiraling and all of the metaphorical holes you have to make to let people inside. My mom wouldn’t let me answer the door when I was home alone because she was convinced I would be kidnapped and murdered. For me, the doorbell is haunted for that reason.

And mirrors. My whole thing with mirrors is extremely long-winded. I almost don’t want to explain it all, but that part is basically about the conversation around representation from 2013 to 2018 (give or take) where it was really important to see yourself reflected more than anything else. Another thing that banged around in my head was a line from a Jenny Lewis song, “Melt Your Heart,” which goes: “When you’re kissing someone / who’s too much like you / it’s like kissing a mirror / when you’re sleeping with someone who doesn’t get you / you’re gonna hate yourself in the morning.” I want to make love to the mirror and then take my chances on my seven years of bad luck by smashing it. And look, it’s so beautiful, all of the pieces shining on the ground!

Hannah Rego is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. They are an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona and a founding editor of ctrl+v, a journal of collage. Their work appears in Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, Best Small Fictions 2020, BOMB Magazine, and elsewhere.