melissa thornton ’20: bringing meaning to chaos through poetry

Melissa ThorntonMelissa Thornton ’20 is a current College of Environment Think Tank fellow from Atlanta, Georgia, and a winner of this year’s Sophie and Anne Reed Prize for best poem or group of poems at Wesleyan. A double major in the COL and French Studies, Melissa shared her thoughts on the importance of poetry in times of chaos.

When did you start writing poetry?

I’m not quite sure when I started writing poetry; it was just something that happened in the background for me. One day I sat down to give it a real try after realizing how often writing was on my mind. I’ve been an avid reader since I was two or three, and poetry always seemed to me the most natural way to gather and condense my experiences into something outside of myself, something that could be shared or be meaningful to somebody else.

Who’s your favorite present-day poet?

Ada Limon is my favorite poet, at least right now. When I pick up one of her poems, it feels like it’s just fallen out of her mouth. Her poems are for everyone, which I appreciate especially because I know many people’s experiences with poetry lead them to think that all poetry requires a secret key one must find to get the meaning.

Why is poetry important, in your experience?

In the turmoil of these recent weeks, poetry matters all the more to me for how it gives us a way to shape our experiences and hold onto how fleetingly we understand them, or don’t understand them. Poetry allows us to gather even our most incomprehensible experiences into something tangible. Lately, it seems we all want to give meaning to the chaos we see around us, and poetry finds something worth extracting from these moments.

As a poet from Atlanta, Georgia, why did you choose Wes?

I’d never heard of Wesleyan before my senior year of high school, as most people in Atlanta aren’t familiar with it, but I applied early decision after touring here. I could tell there was a community of people, both faculty and students, who care about what they do, and I wanted to be somewhere that encourages people to think creatively and critically about their work.

Congrats on receiving Wesleyan’s 2020 Sophie and Anne Reed Prize for poetry! Tell us about your award-winning work.

The Sophie and Anne Reed Prize is for the best poem or group of poems. I was one among three first places winners. The poems I submitted were from a collection I wrote during my intermediate poetry class last semester. We worked on a semester-long project of our choice based on the class theme: the “unsayable.” I focused on fragmentation and chose to write about my father’s skin cancer, which is something he has dealt with for most of my life––thankfully, he is now in remission. I used a process of trying to write what comes out of or grows between fragments to talk about the difficulty of processing something so tangible and yet invisible as cancer.

Melissa ThorntonMelissa Thornton ’20, of Atlanta, Georgia, is a poet interested in fragmentation and dissonance in language. When she is not buried in books, Melissa works in the Writing Workshop. In the past, Melissa has worked as a research assistant for the Wesleyan Media Project, as well as for Professor Khachig Tölölyan, whom she helped curate a course on the essay genre as it transitions from print to online. For her senior thesis project, Melissa is studying the relationships between human conceptions of the animal and gender through an analysis of contemporary French literature and theory. She is a current College of Environment Think Tank fellow and a winner of this year’s Sophie and Anne Reed Prize for best poem or group of poems.