Interview with Melissa Barrett

As we prepare to release Best New Poets 2013, we thought our readers might enjoy learning more about this year's group of writers. Please enjoy our 2013 interview series, starting with poet Melissa Barrett.

Melissa BarrettColumbus, Ohio


Melissa Barrett

Tell us a little about yourself.

I live with my partner, visual artist Pete Burkeet, and our two dogs, Pearl and Mr. Chow. The four of us just bought our first house, which we will be moving into on Halloween. I am addicted to strong coffee and seltzer water. I am a vegetarian for life, though right now our refrigerator is empty. Chris Kraus’s book I Love Dick changed forever how I write and view the world. I also adore Lucie Brock-Broido, Darcie Dennigan, Anthony Madrid, and Gary Lutz.

How did you begin writing poetry?

I began writing (bad) poetry after listening to Beck’s breakout hit from 1994, “Loser.” I loved how unpredictable and rambling that song was/ishow it includes everything from phrases in German and Spanish to lyrics like “Plastic eyeballs, spray-paint the vegetables, dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose.” Beck remains one of my favorite “poets” and a major influence.

My mother, Karen Barrett, also helped foster my identity as a poet by reading poems to me and writing poems with me when I was a child. For every birthday and every holiday, my mom has always given me books. She herself is a fantastic poet, art historian, antiquarian, and librarian.

Tell us about “The Invention of the Metal Detector,” the poem that was selected for Best New Poets 2013.

“The Invention of the Metal Detector” was just a thought in my head for long timeD.A. Powell was the one who ultimately convinced me to write it. I took his workshop for a week at the Tin House summer writer’s workshop and was torn between writing two different manuscripts. He pushed me in the right direction, and even suggested the title for this poem. 

Put simply, the poem is about Alexander Graham Bell’s dreams before he invented the metal detector. Bell was asked to invent a contraption that would locate the bullet lodged in President Garfield’s back. Garfield was dying a slow, painful death after being shot by a mentally ill fanatic, and his team of doctors thought if they could just find and remove the bullet the president would survive. 

Though Bell’s device was successfully tested, it failed to work at the White House. After Garfield’s death, it was discovered that his bottom mattress contained metal (something unheard of at that time). 

When I first learned that history, I was so spellbound that Pete and I drove to Baddeck, Nova Scotia just to visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum.

Part of the poem’s last line comes from Bell’s 1883 article in The Electrician, “Detection of Metallic Masses in the Human Body.”

What question do you wish I’d asked? 

What is your current favorite poem and why? Wallace Stevens's "Negation," because the first word is "Hi!"

Learn more about Melissa at, or follow her on Twitter: @melburkeetRead "The Invention of the Metal Detector" and 49 other poems selected by Brenda Shaughnessy by pre-ordering Best New Poets 2013.