If you’ve ever happened upon a tweet from @SoSadToday, you’re already familiar with Melissa Broder’s dark, existential sense of humor. She started the Twitter account anonymously back in 2012 as an outlet for her anxious thoughts, and quickly built an audience of thousands. Her tweets range in subject matter from ghostwriting for Drake, to identifying sexually as “lost.” The nearly 400,000 followers she’s garnered, mostly while still anonymous, point to a big need for public figures willing to talk about mental illness—and unafraid to crack a glib joke about it.
Broder came out as the creator of the So Sad Today Twitter in early 2015, a year prior to publishing a book of similarly dark and relatable personal essays of the same title. Before that, she’d published three volumes of poetry between 2010 and 2014. Tomorrow she releases Last Sext, her latest collection of poetry, and the first to be published since So Sad Today.
Though she grapples with the same issues both in poetry and on Twitter—longing in love, destructive addiction, cosmic wonderings—her poetry is much less guarded than her Twitter persona. In Last Sext she creates a pensive world filled with vengeful gods, fragmented mythology, the shadows of nameless children, the solace of an ocean, and a quiet voice. At the end of many of this collection’s poems are self-aware meditations that sum up much of her mental anguish: “I am never getting over my mind” or “And I have been scared since the day I was born.” She gives over a version of herself in her poetry that is less flippant about her pain; it seems in this medium that she’s more willing to hear herself out.
Broder and I met up in the West Village to talk about Last Sext a few days before its release. She led me to a church garden where, years ago, she would meditate on her lunch hour from her job up the street at Penguin Books. All the garden’s benches full, we opted for a spot on the ground in a far corner, which felt ironically befitting of two socially anxious writers. Her dog, Pickle—who is currently riding the coattails of his owner’s Twitter fame with the handle @SoSadTodog—crawled over our laps while we discussed anxiety, writing in Los Angeles versus Brooklyn, and her new book.
Broder moved between the West Village and the East Village over the first few years of her time in New York, before settling into Boerum Hill for the last five. She lives with her husband in Venice, California now; they moved for the sake of his poor health. When I asked her how the move has affected her writing, and if it was easier for her, too, to be sick on the West Coast, she said, “Well, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten stupider,” noting that the prospect of being dumbed down was exciting to her, as a person with an overactive mind. She initially feared that she’d be unable to escape her feelings in Los Angeles as easily as she could in New York. She likes it as a base now though, and since she’s moved, she’s begun dictating her work to her iPhone while driving. She dictated some of Last Sext, and recently finished a novel this way too.
The novel deals with the same themes she usually gravitates towards—in her words, “sex, death, depression, existence.” Her awareness elsewhere in her work regularly moves back to possession in love and sex, a relentless need to know why we exist, and her disquiet over dying. I asked her what writing about these topics did for her, and she expressed that each genre had its own way of bringing her contentment: “It’s different with poetry or with prose, and I actually found the experience of writing fiction most recently sort of like a hybrid of writing poetry and writing nonfiction…” she said. “With poetry, the act of creating for me, the alchemy of it—it’s such a beautiful experience that it makes me feel okay with staying alive. Because I enjoy that experience. So it’s different. I would say that writing nonfiction gives me some sense, or illusion of control over the narrative of what’s going on in my life and gives it some meaning. And with poetry, it’s just a creative act… the beauty of being a creative human being.”
For Broder, writing isn’t about helping people, and the question of living isn’t about how to live thoughtfully, although, she quipped she “could stand to compost more.” Writing is a means of staying alive. It’s the one obsession among all the addictions that have ambled in and out of her life that hasn’t tried to kill her yet: “[Writing] has always been the thing that’s saved my ass.” She described the act of writing poetry as a spiritual experience:
“I think what I’m doing more is channeling—I’m letting my ego get out of the way. With ego comes narrative, and loyalty to a certain narrative. I feel like I get to channel, it’s like the place I access with meditation, where I’m not trying so hard to control the narrative. I also don’t write poetry from the same place I write prose; I feel like I write prose from my mind, and poetry from somewhere else in my body. In a way, maybe I’m escaping my ego; maybe when I say I want to escape, I’m saying I want to escape my conscious mind, the hamster wheel.”
She began writing poetry in third grade, and continued thanks to the encouragement of a beloved teacher. Her earliest work was “rhyming poetry about candy and food and horses,” and perhaps most surprisingly, “it was a little snotty; the speaker in my third grade poems had an opinion. And less and less do I [now] have an opinion.” One of the most standout traits of Broder’s work now is its irresolution. At some points it reads as though she is yelling questions into a void that has only ever answered in echoes.
There is an archaic feeling to much of this latest collection, due largely to the religious imagery Broder employs. The people she loves are easily disguised by “archetypes or symbols”, and a Christian God—that she doesn’t believe in intellectually—judges and angers at her to no end. That particular god is really a manifestation of her own shame and anxiety, she said. Then there is Bacchus, the Greek and Roman god of wine and revelry, who appears in the poem “Liquid Arrows” to eat and drink with the narrator, before pulling her atop his knee in view of the setting sun, and forcing her to vomit.
The higher powers Broder refers to in Last Sext often signify the ever-shifting, figurative gods of her life: “I’ve made drugs and alcohol my god, I’ve made certain boys my god, I’ve made food my god, I’ve made beauty my god. But my conception of God as non-tangible, destructive things, has also changed a lot.” In her life, “God” belongs to no one religious body of thought:
“What I call ‘God’ is a shapeshifter. I definitely feel like I need a higher power in my life, but it certainly does not belong to any religion, it’s not a dude, it’s not energy… Right now, for me, God is just that quiet voice inside, the part of me that is probably always okay, even though the rest of me does not think I’m okay. That’s a big influence in my life. It was different in my other poetry. I’ve definitely fetishized certain aspects of Christianity or just found them sexy, in an odd way—in a way that maybe only an outsider could. I’m probably appropriating Christianity, but I’m like, well, it’s a huge religion, so it’ll probably be fine if I appropriate it. There’s the idea of God and then there’s also my personal relationship with some inner resource that I have, that maybe I can call ‘God.'”
She handles her subjects with unhesitating honesty. In this collection we find numerous references to vomit, blood, and sickness. And just beside those are “cloudrealm,” and the vanishing saints we make of lovers. It’s as though she skips over the mundane entirely, opting rather to render her life’s vignettes in bones or in stars. The luxury of poetry, Broder told me, was that she can “leave the world without really leaving.” And to her, the draw of it is its “smallness,” the way poetry is “like cutting diamond rather than carving a giant sculpture. I may be delving into the wordier, prosier forms, but I will always have the poet’s pride of: why would you say in 300 pages what you can say in 3.”
Photo of Melissa Broder and her dog Pickle by Kellylouise Delaney