We’re back with part 2 of the poet conversation between myself and Laura Madeline Wiseman! Part 1 can be found here. Onto the conclusion!
LMW: I love characters! When I was writing my first book, Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012) the central character in that series obsessed me for two full years. I couldn’t even stop by the grocery story for bing cherries and clementines without the character telling me I needed to write a poem about buying fruit. The strangest thing was that once the character had finished speaking, the character vanished.
Likewise, in my chapbook of Martian poems in Stranger Still (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Martians literarily walked into my poems after a series of extreme storms in the Midwest and demanded I follow them around, writing down each scrap of poem inspiration they dropped—ideas about pollution and frog depopulation, about art in the sculpture garden at the Sheldon Art Museum, about abduction, crop circles, and cinematic manifestation of aliens like Enemy Mine and E.T. Then one day, I supposed they boarded their mothership and left me in Nebraska to write other poems, other characters.
This is true of the character Geo W. Felts in my series on the suffragist, lecturer, and poet Matilda Fletcher in Men and Their Whims (Writing Knights Press, 2013). My dissertation focused on Matilda, but some of the people in her life became strong characters of their own when I was writing. Geo, Matilda’s brother, was one of them. He was charged with murder when he was in his sixties. Geo’s character urged me to figure out what circumstances in his life would bring him to that moment outside a saloon, in a night without moon or stars, and with two other men in the dark when no one else could see. He urged me to figure out what circumstances between Matilda and Geo would bring her to write an entire book about him, the last book she wrote before she died.
The process of writing Matilda’s character was a little different. Though I wrote dozens of poems in her persona and about her life, it wasn’t until I visited the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum this summer in Washington D.C., a site dedicated to the National Women’s Party, the headquarters where Alice Paul and her crew pushed and ultimately succeed in securing votes for women, that Matilda’s character solidified. Matilda had begun her career with the fight for women’s suffragist, but because she also did so many other things, and I as the poet-researcher was trying to make sense of those other things and why she might be driven to speak on a multitude of subjects (e.g. education, marriage, politics, murder) her initial focus on suffrage got lost in the shuffle. But once I visited that museum, once I re-remembered Matilda’s place on the stage among Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton throughout her career, Matilda’s character came alive and I knew how to tell her story.
As for Lilith in First Wife, I’d thought for a time that it would be funny to write poems in the persona of Eve, a sort of riff on marriage, on gardening, on innocence and loss, but though I still think that would be funny, I couldn’t and still cannot get inside the character of Eve. However, when I started writing from Lilith’s perspective and thinking about Lilith as this strong, feisty, real woman who isn’t interested in following the rules, one who sees the rules as arbitrary, that her character arrived.
I researched the Eden story, the Lilith story, scholarship and the critical and literary interpretations. In the Eden story, the fall from grace is the eating of the apple—the disobeying, the knowledge revealed, Eve giving the truth to Adam—but in the other creation story known as the Lilith story, there is also a fall from grace. In this account, Adam and Lilith were made from the same earth. They were equal. Lilith is told to “lie beneath” Adam. She rejects that and is thereby cast out and banished to the desert.
To me, the huge fall from grace, the knowledge revealed is not sexuality or nudity or shame, among other things, as it is for Adam and Eve, but is the fall from trust. Lilith’s lost innocence is that she learns she can no longer trust Adam, trust men, trust the (male) creator. It’s that loss of one way of understanding the world and entering into another, more complicated one, one where she has to learn to re-trust herself that I explore in First Wife.
I’m interested in exploring what it means to be female in today’s culture, whether that is by exploring female characters in the literary past like Lilith or the historical record like Matilda. I’m curious about what types of stories that you find yourself writing—and publishing—and why you think this is so?
MB: I feel like you did a truly excellent job of characterizing Lilith, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that we’re of a mind when it comes to character in poetry.
I just finished up my first full-length manuscript this past summer, revolving around the intersections of 8 different characters – 4 men and 4 women (well, one of the women is a taxidermied bird and one is a monster, but that’s neither here nor there) – as they pass through this haunted building that acts as both a sort of liminal space and a trap simultaneously. The characters struggle with internal and external forces, including one another, as they attempt to escape being devoured by the building or give themselves over to it. I think I write and publish a lot of stories about horror – the things we don’t want to look at, the things we don’t want to admit live inside ourselves.
Honestly, I often find myself writing things that terrify me. A friend of mine told me a little while back that my work reminds her of French horror films, and then showed me two of them – Martyrs by Pascal Laugier and Trouble Every Day by Claire Denis. Both films were truly terrifying (I would only recommend Martyrs to someone with a very strong constitution), and she was absolutely correct. I saw exactly what she meant.
I tend to go for work with Hyacinth Girl Press that contains that same acknowledgement of underlying horror. Lisa Ciccarello’s Sometimes There Are Travails and Lauren Eggert-Crowe’s The Exhibit are both excellent examples of that predilection. It’s also what drew me to your collection, His Late Wives, which, not to get too far ahead of ourselves here, is set to wrap up the 4th year of publishing over at Hyacinth Girl Press. Oooh – so much fabulous awfulness in that book!
With that said – what are you working on right now? Anything close enough to finished that you don’t mind talking about it?
LMW: It’s too soon to tell, but excitingly, my chapbook Spindrift, a series of poems about mermaids, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press. It should be released early next year.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of ten collections of poetry, including the full-length book Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012) and the chapbooks Men and Their Whims (Writing Knights Press, 2013), First Wife (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), and Stranger Still (Finishing Line Press, 2013). She is the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Currently, she is a fellow at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com
Image: art by Megan Loudon Sanders, design by Sarah Reck
Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micropress Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. She misses the Midwest. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl