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In Conversation with Melissa Balmain

Author and poet Melissa Balmain humors us with mother-daughter travel tales from her book "Just Us" along with her other amazing accomplishments as well a few poems written recently about life during the coronavirus.

Marjorie Martay–

I’m pleased to be speaking with Melissa Balmain who is an amazing humorist, journalist, and teacher. She received a BA from Princeton University. She is an adjunct professor now at the University of Rochester. She taught writing at Yale University and University of California, Los Angeles. Melissa, talk to me a little bit about your teaching experience?

Melissa Balmain–

I teach writing courses, I’ve taught courses in feature writing (for newspapers and magazines), poetry, and humor (which is a course I do every spring at University of Rochester). I have to say it’s much needed right now. It’s been an interesting time to be teaching and learning.

Marjorie Martay–

You really enjoy it?

Melissa Balmain–

I love teaching, I really do…As you know, writing and editing are fairly solitary pursuits most of the time and teaching gets me out in the world, interacting with students and other faculty. My husband also teaches at the University of Rochester, we get to have lunch. It’s adorable.

Marjorie Martay–

What a wonder opportunity... that you all get to teach at the same university.

Melissa Balmain–

Yes, it’s not a coincidence! But, it’s been a wonderful thing, and we love Rochester. It’s been a great fit.

Marjorie Martay–

Well that’s great. Since 2012, you’ve been able to edit Light which is the longest running journal of light verse? What has that experience been like for you?

Melissa Balmain–

Correct. That has also been wonderful. It’s been a lot of work, but quite wonderful. Light was founded in 1992 as a print journal. The founding editor had asked me if I was interested in taking over. Before we could really finish that conversation, he died. I never got to ask a lot of key questions like how long does it take to edit this journal each week! But, it quickly became apparent that if I didn’t step up, the journal was going to go away. So I found a wonderful team to work with me. I have a great managing editor, contributing editors, and I brought it online with their help (and some other great volunteers). It’s an entirely volunteer-based operation, like most poetry journals. There is not a lot of money in poetry as you know. It was a big thing to move it online, but we are lucky to still be getting the very best writers of comic poetry in the world. It’s a real pleasure and honor to work with them.

In 2016, it quickly became apparent that people were hungry, not just hungry for funny poems, but topical funny poems. They wanted to respond to what was happening politically and in other ways in our country. We launched a weekly feature called “Poems of the Week.” So every Monday we post new poems that I call breaking verse (responding to news of the day). As you might guess, a lot of it is about politics. Right now, a lot of it is about coronavirus. But, we also get a lot about news of the weird–animals doing strange things, weird happenings all over the world, so that’s been another big thing. This coming Sunday I’m launching a new reading series called “Light verse in Dark Times” which is going to be on Zoom. I’m very excited about it. There has been a spate of online poetry readings since the quarantine began. It seems like a lot of people are happy to participate, and right now, every chance we get to laugh is a good thing.

Marjorie Martay–

It’s so admirable that you’ve taken this project on, and it’s been going on for a number of years. For someone who cares about something so much and volunteers their heart, soul, knowledge, space, to do something that is pursuing your passion and trying to make a difference out there. My hat is off to you!

Melissa Balmain–

The same goes for you. I think your own project is quite wonderful.

Marjorie Martay–

What’s so amazing about you, Melissa– you’ve received so many national honors for your journalism including multiple Pulitzer prize nominations and in poetry, you won the Sea Sonnet Award?

Melissa Balmain–

Oh yes, the Poetry by the Sea Sonnet Award. That was a nice thing to win. I’ve had a few lovely honors for the poetry, but of course, what keeps me coming back to poetry is not the prospect of occasionally maybe getting lucky enough to win a prize. I have to do it.

Marjorie Martay–

You’ve also had a number of humorist pieces published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Melissa Balmain–

Yes, I’ve published in a lot of newspapers and magazines– the things I did for the New Yorker were Talk of the Town pieces, humorous, and I’ve done a variety of things for other magazines and newspapers. In The New York Times, I’ve written articles, feature stories, humorous essays. In The Washington Post, I’ve had a lot of things published in the Style Invitational which is a weekly humor feature, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys laughing by the way! Some of it is prose, some of it is verse. That is just a delightful thing they do every week. Then I publish in a variety of poetry journals and magazines online and in print.

Another one I would like to highlight is the American Bystander which is both print and most recently, online as the Quarantine Cavalcade. It’s a great dose of humor every time it comes out. They have contributors who have done things for places like the New Yorker–also, McSweeney's, The Simpsons, late night comics. There are wonderful cartoonists. Roz Chast has had some stuff in there recently.

Marjorie Martay–

That’s wonderful. I love when you combine writing with cartoons– gives levity to certain situations. It’s so important.

Melissa Balmain–

I agree. It’s a really fun combination.

Marjorie Martay–

Talk to me about a little about ”Walking in on People”– you actually won an Able Muse Book Award for Poetry for that? What is the poetry book about?

Melissa Balmain–

It’s a combination of things. A lot of the poems are personal– having to do with various life stages. Most often inspired by things in my own life–everything from marriage to parenthood to pregnancy. I guess I got that out of order, didn’t I? But those kinds of things! Then, being in a long term relationship. There are poems having to do with social realities, more focused on human nature and society at large– technology, weather, animals– throw out a topic, it might be in there! So yes, it runs the gamut. The sections are by and large organized by life stage.

Marjorie Martay–

That’s fabulous. Could you do us a big favor and read us a few poems from “Walking in on People.”

Melissa Balmain–

I will read you a couple. The first one is the title poem from ”Walking in on People” and I will tell you it is definitely inspired by my real life, and nothing in it is invented. So here we go:

Walking in on People

by Melissa Balmain

It’s just a talent that I’ve always had—

though not, thank God, around my mom and dad.

They did the deed; as living proof, I knew it.

And yet I somehow never saw them do it.

The same cannot be said, regrettably,

of roommates, colleagues, hosts and two or three

romantic pairs whose panting thrusts and reaches

were glimpsed by me on isolated beaches;

of poets who—shared sitting rooms be damned—

I witnessed at a conference, enjambed;

of friends rebounding from a recent breakup;

and, once, two mimes in nothing but their makeup.

(They goggled up at me with mute surprise,

their mouths dramatic O’s that matched their eyes,

his hand suspended in midair to pet her.

Marcel Marceau could not have done it better.)

Why me? Why all this unintended shock?

I wish I knew—I don’t forget to knock,

I never tiptoe like a ballerina,

and still I’m like some Peeping Thomasina.

My consolation is I get for free

a version of what some folks pay to see:

instead of porno actors in flagrante,

I’m bound to catch a glimpse of someone’s auntie—

and though it will humiliate us both,

while prompting an unconscionable oath

from Uncle Irving, Archibald or Maury,

it’s guaranteed to make a better story.

© 2014 Melissa Balmain

From Walking in on People (Able Muse Press)

Marjorie Martay–

Melissa, that was so great. I have to tell you I’m sitting with the biggest smile on my face!

Melissa Balmain–

Well thank you that’s very nice to hear. Now, I have one that’s also personal but with a different tone or flavor. It’s called “Love Poem.”

Love Poem

by Melissa Balmain

The afternoon we left our first apartment,

we scrubbed it down from ceiling to parquet.

Who knew the place could smell like lemon muffins?

It suddenly seemed nuts to move away.

The morning someone bought our station wagon,

it gleamed with wax and every piston purred.

That car looked like a centerfold in Hot Rod!

Too late, we saw that selling was absurd.

And then there was the freshly-tuned piano

we passed along to neighbors with a wince.

We told ourselves we’d find one even better;

instead we’ve missed its timbre ever since.

So if, God help us, we are ever tempted

to ditch our marriage when it’s lost its glow,

let’s give the thing our finest spit and polish—

and, having learned our lesson, not let go.

© 2014 Melissa Balmain From Walking in on People (Able Muse Press)

Marjorie Martay–

That’s wonderful! Wow! That’s so special. I am so happy to have you be part of this wonderful project to connect exceptional women artists like yourself to have you recite your poetry and your verse is very special... thank you!

Melissa Balmain–

Well, thank you... it is a true honor to be here with you.

Marjorie Martay–

Talk to me about the wonderful book written about you and your mother “Just Us”, a journey right? You’re traveling through North America with your mom?

"Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter," by Melissa Balmain, published 1998

Melissa Balmain–

Starting when I was in my late 20s and she was in her mid 50s, my mom and I began doing these outdoor adventure trips together. We were living across the country from each other. I was living in California working for a newspaper, and she was living in Brooklyn. We were looking for an excuse to see more of each other. We were looking for a way to do that where the men in our lives would not feel dissed. I was hoping to get to know my mother more on an adult level. Obviously, we were both already adults, but we had always had the mother teaching the daughter kind of relationship. I felt like traveling together might be a way to get to know her more fully.

The vehicle we chose was these outdoor adventure trips just for women, so my dad, brother, and husband really couldn’t go! It was pretty funny sometimes. We went fly fishing in Idaho. While we did that, my husband and dad went shopping! We did our first trip together, dog sledding in Minnesota. All of these trips we did together by the way were new to us, except for hiking to some extent, but not as ruggedly or long. So we went dogsledding and we really liked it– it took a while for mom to warm up to the dogsledding. She was allergic to dogs, but she thought she could avoid them. You really can’t. You think you’re outdoors and you’re being pulled around by them, how much could they breathe on you? But, it turns out that the dogs were indoors too and the dog hair is everywhere and mom got herself all spaced out on antihistamines…but despite all of that, it ended up being a good experience and we kept taking more trips! Despite the drama, there was a lot of that on the first trip. We did llama trekking, they lug your stuff. We did sea kayaking, sailing, all kinds of stuff. I really do feel as if we got to know each other better through these trips, and my mom is no longer with us so I’m incredibly grateful we got to do these trips.

"Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter," by Melissa Balmain, published 1998

Marjorie Martay–

What made you decide to do an adventure trip versus more of a cultural trip (museums, meals, concerts, etc)?

Melissa Balmain–

Now that you mention it….why didn’t we just do that?

Marjorie Martay–

If we had “Women We Create” at that time it would’ve been a perfect trip for you two to go on!

Melissa Balmain–

I think part of why we chose these trips was the novelty. I’ve been very lucky throughout my life to have taken trips with both of my parents including a lot of the cultural kind of things you mentioned– wonderful meals, entertainment, etc. That’s the sort of thing I’m still lucky enough to do with my father, but we hadn’t done this sort of thing very much. Part of it was the novelty of the adventure travel, and the women’s only travel tended to go in that direction. There are other trips for women only– journaling, watercolor, painting. We had talked about doing a painting trip, that was something we still had on the table and then it never happened. We both already were immersed in creative pursuits– writing for me, painting and writing for mom. It wasn’t necessarily something we also wanted to do on vacation, and we both really love the outdoors. Except neither of us was super knowledgeable about how to be a gung ho outdoorsy person and sometimes it was very challenging, especially on some of the trips for my mom because she was less active than me. I really have to hand it to her for doing it anyway!

"Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter," by Melissa Balmain, published 1998

Marjorie Martay–

What did you learn about each other during these trips? What an experience to be able to say you did all of these incredible adventures with your mom. What did you learn about your mom and what do you think she learned about you?

Melissa Balmain–

Well I wish she were here to tell you what she learned about me; I would love to hear that actually. I would love her version of this book. I learned a lot about her. I learned how gutsy she is or was. She really threw herself into new experiences knowing very little about what to expect in some cases and in other cases, maybe being delusional about what to expect (in the case of the dogsledding). But, she just did it! She went to the Wallowa mountains of Oregon with me. She went to sail off the coast of Maine with me. She got on dogsleds (not with me, we were never on the same dogsled). They wanted one expert on each sled. It’s more dangerous than you would think. You can get flung off and wrap yourself around a tree–which did not happen, to us! But, I learned a lot about her bravery and her kindness. I knew she was kind. She was a wonderful mother my entire life, but her thoughtfulness. She always came equipped with extra stuff for me. She would have extra candies for me, or “hey, I got you this extra pillow to keep you comfy in your sleeping bag.” It was a really terrific experience and I really recommend it to other mothers and daughters. Although, I think mothers and sons and fathers and daughters could have fun too. I’ve actually had a great time traveling with my father as well– again, very different sorts of trips, more cultural stuff but it’s terrific. I think you can learn a lot about your family members when the whole family is together, but it’s more intense learning when it’s just two of you.

Marjorie Martay–

Definitely. It is very important for every family unit– if you have a number of children, it’s important to separate them at times and have a one-to-one relationship and experiences you can always remember. I know that’s true in my life, and as you’ve mentioned, it was important for you with your mother and father. Did you mother see the book when it finished?

Melissa Balmain–

Absolutely, not only did she see it, she illustrated it with wonderful pencil drawings. I gave her the manuscript before it was too late to look through it to see if there was anything she wanted to veto. She had given me permission to do a warts and all account of our travels, but I still wanted her to have that power if there was anything she felt uncomfortable with. But got to love her, she really let me put it all in there including a really bad fight we had in a kayak. Now that I am a mom of a growing daughter myself, I appreciate this more than ever and perhaps I’ll get my payback one day when my daughter writes a book about me! But, yes, she saw everything– we were interviewed together after the book came out. We were on radio shows together. Linda Wertheimer interviewed us for “Fresh Air” on NPR. We were on local affiliates. We were on TV. That was great fun and continued the whole mother daughter travel thing, where we would meet up to do interviews here and there.

Marjorie Martay–

How fabulous that your mom could actually do these incredible black and white illustrations? You think about travel books and mostly it’s photography, but it’s so nice to have beautiful illustrations or funny illustrations to supplement the wonderful experiences you were having together. And the funny prose you were writing as well! It’s a great combination to have your writing and her visual touch. I would love to know, how are you doing with the coronavirus? How is it effecting you and your family?

Melissa Balmain–

First of all, I feel very lucky. For the moment, my family is sheltering safely (so we hope) in place. Like so many other people, we are venturing out when we have to get groceries, but we are doing hands free curbside pickup and that kind of thing. Daily walks are very sanity preserving out in our neighborhood and we are continuing to do our jobs, teaching, and our kids are attending class online through their schools. We feel very lucky that for now we are all healthy and trying to contribute in our own ways. Yes, this has definitely affected my art. I’ve written a number of poems having to do with the coronavirus. It’s not always easy to find the humorous side of the situation, and not at all to minimize the absolute horror of what’s happening because of this virus. But more to give people a respite from it in reading something humorous. Also, this is a way for me to cope with this pandemic, is trying to find humor. That has been a lot of what I’ve been doing along with launching the reading series to try to bring more laughter to more people and also to give an outlet to more poets. Once classes let out for the semester, I’m going to look for volunteer opportunities that seem well suited to me. I think my journalism background makes me suited for some of the things that involve interviewing people and helping doctors get the information they need from people who think they may be symptomatic. That is something I am hoping I can do. It’s been a shift!

Marjorie Martay–

But, it sounds like it’s been a good shift for you. Obviously, it’s been difficult for all of us. But for you, it seems to be a very creative time as well. I would love very much if you could read some of the poems you have written because of the pandemic.

Melissa Balmain–

Yes and both of these have appeared in the American Bystander in this free newsletter that they are publishing daily (and sometimes more than once a day) with humor inspired by the pandemic and they are poems, prose pieces, and cartoons. It’s quite wonderful. People should look up American Bystander, Quarantine Cavalcade. These are two poems that have appeared in there and I have another one coming out soon in it.

The first poem I’m going to read is Contingency Plan:

Contingency Plan

by Melissa Balmain

If I come down with it and don’t recover, I hope you’ll find yourself another lover— somebody smart and kind and never rowdy whose inner weather isn’t ever cloudy, who cooks as if she sprang from Julia Child and sings so sweetly, thrushes are beguiled, who doesn’t make you fix the lamps and plumbing or clean for guests you’d rather weren’t coming, who finds your point of view completely valid re: eating Oreos instead of salad, who reads the same archaic tomes that you do and likes to pair them with erotic voodoo… in other words, your dream girl to the letter— except she looks just like an Irish setter.

© 2020 Melissa Balmain

First published in The American Bystander’s Quarantine Cavalcade

The next one I’m going to read is absolutely inspired by scenes in my neighborhood recently and possibly in your neighborhood–

Sidewalk Face-Off by Melissa Balmain Look! From opposite directions, wearing masks to thwart infections, two athletic pairs of spouses march past neo-Tudor houses. Sneakers pound and pulses quicken: it’s a game of COVID-chicken!

Who will keep on striding forward, chin and eyeballs firmly lowered? Who will scurry six feet over to the dog-doo-studded clover, fearful that they’ll later sicken thanks to playing COVID-chicken? Every day the teams assemble. Every day their innards tremble like the innards of scared rabbits, but they keep their walking habits: in a world that’s stalled and stricken there’s no sport but COVID-chicken.

© 2020 Melissa Balmain First published in The American Bystander’s Quarantine Cavalcade

Marjorie Martay–

Melissa, you are incredible! What I love is that you bring such joy and laughter to a very serious situation. That’s an amazing talent to have, and I’m so happy to have you part of this!

I have so much respect for what you’ve done in your career and balancing that with teaching, being the editor of Light, thinking about the summer and how you can volunteer when you have time off, getting more involved with the community, even when you mentioned taking your talents to interview patients and doctors– that says so much about you, the breadth and complexity of who you are as a person. I am so happy that you are one of these exceptional female artists that I featured! I only wish you the best in all your future writing and your incredible life you’re living!

Melissa Balmain–

Wow! I hope I can live up to all of that, Marjorie! It’s such an honor to be a part of this, and it’s really a terrific project and I so enjoyed reading through some of the profiles so far. I am looking forward to reading more of them– thank you so much for including me!

To read more of Melissa Balmain's work, please visit:

Please explore her poetry magazine, Light:

Subscribe to The American Bystander's Quarantine Cavalcade where her work is featured:


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