Growing up queer in Brandon, Mississippi, Michael Martella felt as though his experience was nonexistentin literary texts. Thus, he decided to employ his voice to show others like him that they are not alone.
After graduating in 2016 with a double major in English and Biology, and teaching science for two years at Holly Springs High School, the passionate UM Honors Alumnus is back cultivating his voice inthe English graduate program.
Michael’s unique story is an inspiration for writers and readers alike, making him our graduate student of the month.
“The Pit”by Michael Martella:
Michael shares his poem that is centered around a childhood memory. Michael’s poem, “The Pit”, can be found in his 2016 Honors’ thesis, Restraining Order.
Reflection on the “The Pit”:
Interview with Michael Martella:
Tell me about being a UM Honors Alumnus:
The Honors College was the thing that sort of kept me plugged into the university. Being gay and being at Ole Miss is a very interesting experience, and I think it has changed since I started. I think it is consistently changingfromwhat I have observed. But when I started here, the community was not super solid, at least to my knowledge. There was no real cohesiveness to the community. So, I found a lot of ways to get involved on campus were things that were not necessarily actively exclusive of gay people, but there were sometimes tacitly exclusive. And the Honors College was not. It was very actively inclusive of people from all different backgrounds, and that is something I really cherished in the Honors College.
And then it was also rigorously, intellectually challenging, which I loved. I thought that was fun. The course I referred to with Dr. Wigginton was an Honors class that sort of opened my eyes to new ways of approaching literature that islargely one of the reasons why I’m sitting in this office right now. At the Honors College- the classes I had- I really got to know the professors, which had a lot of different impacts. One of them was I got to see what exceptional teaching looked like. And in my years after Ole Miss, I taught for two years. So, I had wonderful examples of how to conduct a classroom and how to connect with students intellectually, but also as humans. So that’s one of the big things I took away from the Honors College for sure.
What are your thoughts about the Ole Miss English Department?
The faculty in the English Department are just tremendous people. They are very supporting, kind, and encouraging. They are just wonderful, and I am just thankful that I was and am again a part of that Department- a department that places such value on its students and the growth of their students.
What has shaped you as a writer?
I did not write, what I’m going to qualify as poetry, until college. I wrote down little feeling journal things like everyone did in high school. But when I came to college I took an Introduction to Creative Writing Course with Blair Hobbs and really thought that there was something to it. I did not write great things. I wrote some interesting stuff in terms of the ideas behind it butdid not execute any of it really well. Immediately after that, I decided to attempt a poetry workshop with Dave Smith. He is a fairly well-known poet in the poetry community. I don’t know why he let me into that workshop. I think it was more just like ‘This silly, young persistent kid wants to try his hand at poetry. Why shoot him down? Why not give him a chance?’ It wasn’t pity, but it was kindness more than anything. Maybe he saw something in what I was writing too. And so, I took that class with him and spent a lot of one on one time in his office and in that class. I learned a lot of difficult lessons about poetry, learned some not so difficult things. But his mentorship was important to me because of how upfront he was.
I also worked with Ann Fisher-Wirth here, who is much different than Dave and approaches poetry much differently than Dave. I got very interesting perspectives on poetry from those two professors. And Ann actually directed my thesis here in undergrad and was just extraordinarily supportive- both of them- of my writing and helped me understand what it means to write a poem and how you can make anything into a poem if you work at it. It takes work, and I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned. It’s not always fun. You’re not always going to enjoy writing. Sometimes it is laborious, but ultimately it ends up being worth it.
Lastly, the book, Crush, by Richard Siken, has been very influential to me. It won the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 2004, and it is just a devastating book about violence in queer relationships and the relationship of violence to queerness. Some of the violence is external to queer relationships and the queer individual. It’s really moving and evocative, but it has been very influential to me.
What would advicewould you give to English majors and writers?
Literature is one of those rare things that has the capacity to vastly expand a person’s empathy. And I think that is something that is really lacking in today’s society. So, I would say if you want to make change, as far as change can be made in this world, English is a great way to do that. It is a great force for change, and it always has been throughout history.
As far as writers go, my advice is different for different writers. Specifically, for queer writers in Mississippi, write your experience and write what you know because it matters to other queer people growing up in Mississippi. To my knowledge, there are not queer voices that are widely circulated from the state of Mississippi. And that makes a difference for people growing up queer in the state- to have that void. I remember growing up and reading wonderful texts that did not reflect how I felt internally. They did not reflect how I inhabited the world. So, it was always difficult to imagine growing up and living in that world- the world that is reflected in literature- because I didn’t see myself in it. And it was also weird and difficult to imagine being a writer in a space where there is no representation. So, I would say for queer writers specifically, write your experience because it is important that you have a voice and that you share that voice because other people need to hear it.
What does it mean to write a poem?
I think it’s going to differ to different people because everyone has a different idea of what you should bring and what a poem should bring to theworld. What I hope for my poetryto do is to provide a voice to experiences that don’t have a voice otherwise. Not everybody’s poetry aims to do that. I also hope that by the end of reading a poem that I have written, the reader is able to have experienced some emotional stirring that changes or at least complicates their perspective towards what I’m writing about- toward identity, toward sexuality, toward place- toward their relationship to their own life or somebody else’s life. But again, that’s not everybody’s poetry.
Tips for applying to graduate school:
It is stressful for sure, and it will make you question yourself and the validity of the endeavors you are proposing to pursue. But persist.
So, applying to graduate school was a long process. It takes a long of time, and there is a lot of waiting involved. I think it is different for different versions of grad schools. So, I thought before coming to this program, that I might apply to programs in applied plant science or ecology, evolution, and behavior. I also applied to MFA programs, and the application for those two things are so vastly different. I ended up only executing the applications process for MFA programs because they are so different.
For MFA programs and writing programs, one of the biggest things is the writing sample. I would say, for that, it is so important to be honest to who you are as a writer and what you want to write and not to worry about writing or exposing something that is not true to yourself. There is a personal statement you must write, and I was also explicitly honest in that and very, very personal. Since it’s called a personal statement, why not be personal? So, I was very true to myself, and I think that is an important thing to anyone going into grad school because it is a rigorous endeavor. I don’t think that you want to be in grad school on the pretense that you are something that you are not. I think that applies across the board to all different types of grad schools.
Congratulations to Michael Martella on being our Graduate Student of the Month!