Elizabeth Vignali and Catherine Kyle
An Interview Between Elizabeth Vignali and Catherine Kyle
Elizabeth Vignali: In the collection Fiolet & Wing: An Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry, editors Stacey Balkun and Catherine Moore say they “gathered poetry from women using fabulist techniques as a means of writing deep anxieties: those so close to home they can barely be named.” Your own work seems to touch on writing the anxious almost as a spell, a warding-off of all the terrible—and terribly common—things. What power do you think lies in writing the anxious?
Catherine Kyle: I think of poems that examine sources of ongoing anxiety as a kind of flashlight. They illuminate things, and in doing so, they allow for a clearer reckoning. There have been things in life I wouldn’t have been able to name, much less face, without writing poems. In that way, the poems become reckonings in themselves: attempts at finding language to not only articulate what happened—or what is still happening—but come to terms with it, or at least begin to. It lets you know what you’re up against.
I think there’s a lot of power in this. Like the editors of the anthology say, writing the anxious through a fabulist lens allows people to approach subjects and feelings that are often silenced. They also say they see fabulism as a form of “pushback against unspoken boundaries,” and I love that. In cases where realism might not allow for certain things to happen, fabulism can step in. It’s like Maggie Nelson says in her introduction to The Seas, a novel by Samantha Hunt, fabulism can paint “a portrait of human psychology that imagines emotion as an elemental force on par with air, water, and fire.” I keep returning to this quote—I think it expresses perfectly what’s drawn me to this genre for so long. Basically, fabulism invites a lot of freedom in dealing with fears and other forms of pain.
Catherine Kyle: In your poem that appears in Fiolet & Wing, the Fates hang floral wallpaper in a bedroom. This juxtaposition of mythological figures and contemporary domesticity shows up in other poems of yours I've read, too: Medusa washes windows in a suburban home, Valkyries watch football on the weekend, and more. What appeals to you about this style of writing? How did you first start writing it?
Elizabeth Vignali: At the time I started writing these persona poems in which mythological women perform household chores, I was the stay-at-home mother of two toddlers. As someone who’d had a career for the whole of her adult life, it was surprisingly hard to come to terms with how small the world suddenly became. I was “just” a mom, spending much of my day cooking and cleaning and tending to the needs of other people. It got me thinking about how I felt like I’d given up my power in some way, and what that might look like in more extreme terms.
Putting powerful mythological women—sorceresses, gorgons, witches, goddesses, etc.—in the mundane boxes we put modern women in allowed me to play with what that might look like. The incongruity of Artemis mowing the lawn or Medea doing the laundry is so startling it’s almost funny, which is kind of my point. We’re supposed to be moving beyond this, but even now women are generally made to feel as if motherhood is the highest calling. Putting these badass women in uncharacteristically domestic situations allows us to question the smallness of that role not just for these fictional characters, but for all women.
Elizabeth Vignali: Your poem in the anthology, “Ode to a Parallel Universe in Which I Make My Point,” seems to be a struggle between good and evil both on the domestic level and the spiritual. The scene is shot through with elements of fire and water that highlight the dissonance between the speaker and subject: Whiskey and burning photographs, ships and smoke. “I fishtail down / the hall. Water rises from the drain to baptize all / your scorch marks.” What was your inspiration for the poem? What would you like readers to take away with them?
Catherine Kyle: This is an older poem, so it took me a minute to remember this, but the Carrie Underwood song “Blown Away” was one source of inspiration! In that song, a tornado sweeps away a house containing the speaker’s abusive family member, and I just remember feeling shocked the first time I heard it. Rather than being self-conscious or understated about her hurt and anger, the speaker welcomes the tornado with open arms and gains catharsis from the entire house, along with its history of trauma, being dismantled board by board. The whole thing felt mythic, like a fairy tale.
In this poem, I didn’t want a tornado to blow away the house—I just wanted to invoke the wind as a force that would make the painful situation it describes stop. That’s the idea of the speaker “making her point”—that she wanted to make her point as loudly and nonnegotiably as a force of nature. It isn’t about meeting aggression with aggression—it’s about being heard and respected.
A few years ago, I wrote a handful of parallel universe poems that allowed me to revisit past events and explore completely hypothetical ones, discerning different feelings as I went. If I could have readers take anything away from the poem in Fiolet & Wing, it would be that poetry can function as a kind of parallel universe, one where they can explore various versions of themselves and perhaps begin to heal old wounds. It can allow for a return to the past with greater perspective and control.
Catherine Kyle: Another major theme in your work is conservation. Several of your poems focus on endangered species, highlighting their beauty and their plight. Others examine the consequences of unchecked waste and consumerism. What do you see as being the relationship between poetry and environmentalism?
Elizabeth Vignali: I think artists have always paved the way for action. Generally, the scientists or activists are at the forefront of an issue, and artists are the ones who package the information in ways the public might pay attention to. Even the largest societal change begins with the tiny connection each person has to make between themselves and the subject. How does this affect me? How does this affect the people I love? It’s not easy for people to make the leap from a potentially polarizing issue to recognizing the changes they need to make—and then even further, to make those changes. Poetry is a way to reach people on that level. To take the global and make it personal, make it something tangible.
As for environmentalism in particular, it’s a subject I care about more than just about anything. Nature is us. We are it. There’s no separation there, and yet humans are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Even if we look at nature from the self-centered viewpoint of what it does for us, study after study indicates the necessity of nature for our well-being in every way, physical and emotional. The natural world fills me with absolute wonder, and I want to do everything I can to bring that wonder to others, especially those who don’t seek it out. What’s good for the world is good for us too. No one wants to be preached at, but if I write about my own wastefulness and why I try to do better and it makes even one person reach for a reusable shopping bag or decide to get the lipstick without the palm oil in it, I’m happy.
And honestly, ecopoetry practically writes itself. Botanical names are already poems without me even trying: awned halfchaff sedge, Barret’s beardtongue, coastal silverpuffs… I mean, aren’t they marvelous? When it comes down to it, maybe we nature poets are just big cheaters.
Catherine Kyle: Vulnerability seems to be another topic you grapple with in a lot of your poems. In fact, in your collection Endangered [Animal], you have a beautiful epigraph by Madeleine L’Engle that says, "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable." What drew you to this epigraph? How do you think it relates to your approach to poetry?
Elizabeth Vignali: What drew me to Madeleine L’Engle’s words is that I believe she’s saying vulnerability is what gives our lives meaning. When she says, “to be alive is to be vulnerable,” I feel she means alive alive. To live an invulnerable life is to live an untouched life. And while we may go through painful times when the painlessness of invulnerability is downright seductive, our job as artists is to remind people why vulnerability is worth it.
Something that fascinates me about the word “vulnerable” is that it once meant not only “capable of being wounded,” but also “capable of wounding.” It’s so interesting how that second definition fell away. I get why it would; we have plenty of inefficient multi-definition words still in use that would save time and confusion if they only meant one thing—but I love the idea of the pause between reading/hearing the word “vulnerable” and then making the decision of which way it’s being used. And while I’m fairly certain L’Engle wasn’t using the archaic near-opposite definition of “vulnerable,” I feel it’s just as true that way as the other. As much as we want to, we cannot be alive without causing harm. And it’s our job to sit with that knowledge sometimes. To acknowledge that, and then continue trying to do our best to live a kind life, and an open one. All the good things about life are bittersweet.
Elizabeth Vignali: In much of your work, there are elements of ritual contrasted with the tangible mundane, such as “Candle and Laptop” or “Tarot Reading for the End of the World” in Shelter in Place. How does the fantastic figure in your own daily life? How does fabulism enhance your writing in ways that sticking to “real life” wouldn’t?
Catherine Kyle: I’m pretty obsessed with fantastical narratives, so my life is touched by fabulism’s influence daily, even if only in small ways. For instance, my office is covered in images from fairy tales, sci-fi, and fantasy. There are etchings of Persephone from 1917 alongside prints from Spirited Away and postcards of the new She-Ra cast. I love tracing magic through different genres and seeing how it’s treated—sometimes as something playful and whimsical, but sometimes as a rich, emotionally complex allegory. For me, fabulism is almost synonymous with creativity or hope. To allow for magic is to allow for change and disruption. It means things don’t always have to be the way they are. This is thrilling to me—it means the world isn’t set in stone.
Consequently, fabulism shows up in my writing a lot. I find poetry exhilarating partly because it’s a space where anything can happen—we can bend old rules and envision new futures. Our hearts can become tornados. We can greet the world as new, transformed selves.