Amorak Huey and Laura Madeline Wiseman
"They Wouldn't Be Poems If I Didn't Make Them": A Conversation with Laura Madeline Wiseman
Ed. note: We have included some bonus poems from Laura Madeline Wiseman here.
Amorak Huey: I'll start by saying that I have really enjoyed getting to know your work and your chapbook FIRST WIFE. My first question is about chapbooks generally, because I'd like to get your take on the form. Do you read chapbooks yourself? What do you find appealing or special about the concept of the chapbook?
Laura Madeline Wiseman: I love reading chapbooks. I've read (and own) well over a hundred and I just started collecting a few years ago. I've been running a blog series on the chapbook and your second question is a version of a question I sometimes ask my interviewees. I love chapbooks because you can often read them in one sitting (Amy Monticello's chap Close Quarters is an exception to that I've found). Because chapbooks are generally shorter, they often seem to be on one thought, idea, or meditation. For a reader, it's nice to have this small, condensed meditation (e.g. I think of Grace Bauer's chap Where You've Seen Her, a series of poems from or about the perspective of the women in Cindy Sherman's photos, or Cati Porter's echapbook what Desire makes of us, a metaphorical journey to and with the personified creature of desire). Because chapbooks are short and can be read quickly, a reader gets to stretch out on the couch with feet kicked up and think, Okay, I get what you're doing, poet. I see how this is working together. A reader can hold all the parts of a chapbook in her/his head and see how each poem is talking to the poems that precede it and the poems that come after it. Certainly some chapbooks become part of books (e.g. I mentioned Grace Bauer's chap. Many of the poems there later appeared in Beholding Eye. My book SPRUNG collects some poems that first appeared in my chapbook MY IMAGINARY) but even so, chapbooks stand alone. Beyond the ease of reading a chapbook, I love how chapbooks are often beautifully made. Maybe it's the girl in me, but I thrill at the chapbooks that come with ribbon binding (e.g. Finishing Line Press, Hyacinth Girl Press), sequins, stitching, and beadwork. I'm always delighted to see the art on the cover of something often saddle-stitched and handmade or to see the proof of countless hours put into creating a collection from an offset printer (e.g. Gold Quoin Press). A chapbook is a lovely, ephemeral object. One can't help but collect them. And I love the spirit of the presses that produce chapbooks, especially those that produce chapbooks exclusively.
AH: Wow, I really appreciate how much you've clearly thought about the chapbook as object, as a particular kind package for poetry. Moving from approaching the chapbook as a reader toward approaching it as a writer, when do you decide what you're working on is a chapbook? Do you begin with the project in mind, or do you write individual poems until you see threads of a project emerging? How do you decide when it's a chapbook and when it's a full-length book?
LMW: When I was writing SPRUNG I was writing poems. For SPRUNG, I was driven by a character, a voice, a personality that drove me to write each poem. It was an interesting experience for me because I'd never had a fully embodied character while writing poetry. Suddenly, the character appeared and demanded I write. I felt more like I was being attentive to this character's moods, ideas, and impressions. My job as the poet was to get the poem onto the page. I think the character in SPRUNG hung around for two years and just as suddenly the character left. It was only then that I began to think, okay, what do I do with these sixty-plus poems? Are they a book? A chapbook? I first started sending them out as a chapbook and was delighted that MY IMAGINARY was a finalist in four national contests and picked up by the delightful Chicago-based chapbook press Dancing Girl Press. A few months after it was accepted, I looked at my stack of poems in that series and wondered if there was a book in there too, and if so, how does one put a book together? I had no idea. I began doing a lot of reading and research on what makes a book. I think part of the pleasure of reading for me is that I always read as a writer. Though I may pick up a book purely for the enjoyment of reading it, I never completely turn off the writer's mind that encourages me to notice what's working in a poem, what's working in a sequence, and questioning why an author placed one poem in one location and another poem in another. Once I'd researched the genre of "book" and shuffled the poems a few ways, I sent SPRUNG out. I was delighted when it was a semi-finalist in a contest and picked up by San Francisco Bay Press.
However, not all of my collections of poetry were so character driven, or if there were characters in the series, the characters didn't arrive complete and demanding as they did in SPRUNG. Though I talk a little bit about this process here, I put together the chapbook FIRST WIFE while I was a resident at the Prairie Center of the Arts during May and June of 2012 and wrote there, for example, the poems "The Apple: Lilith Remembers" and "The Tree." I'd been thinking about the sacred and spiritual in poetry for some time. I took a master poetry workshop with Bruce Bond in 2008 and another one with Alicia Ostriker in 2011. Both of these poets helped me to reflect deeply on the topic, suggested other poets who were doing this same work, and in their workshops, assigned writing prompts to inspire poems on the sacred. For example, in Alicia's workshop I wrote the poem, "Lilith Imagines Her Headstone" following one of her prompts. Fast forward one year and I was a writer-in-residence at the Prairie Center. During the residency, I began doing extensive research on the Lilith myth and wrote poem after poem, sometimes five or six poems a day. It was a startling experience and utterly prolific. Once I had enough poems, I began shuffling them into a chapbook. I knew FIRST WIFE was a chapbook, a longer chapbook, but a chapbook. Once it was finished, I sent it to Margaret Bashaar, editor of Hyacinth Girl Press, a micro-feminist press that focuses on the spiritual, myths, and retellings. She loved it and accepted it. I was thrilled.
AH: One of the things I am struck by in reading FIRST WIFE is how that Lilith story interacts with so many themes that are more personal. Pieces such as "Engagement Photos"and "Newlyweds," for instance, seem quite autobiographical, by which I don't necessarily mean true to your own life, but that sort of intimate first-person narrative that we tend to assume is autobiography. Lilith appears in titles, in epigraphs, in the poems themselves, sometimes as speaker, sometimes as character, sometimes seeming of her own time, more often engaged with our time. Could you talk about how you negotiate that space between the mythical and the personal? About how Lilith helps you make sense of the contemporary relationships you explore?
LMW: For my dissertation, I researched and wrote about the suffragist, lecturer, and poet, Matilda Fletcher Wiseman (1842-1909), who was also my great-great-great-grandmother. In doing that research and writing poems about her life, I began to also research other ancestors. It's a strange thing doing genealogical work. There are so many astonishing people you meet and unexpected places to which the research takes you. One of those people I encountered was my great-grandmother Lucile Swayzee Wiseman (1899-1992). Several of my relatives generously shared their information about her and photographs taken of her. I started writing ekphrasis poems in response to the photos of relatives like Lucile and the information I learned about their life. My poem "Engagement Photos" responds directly to Lucile's engagement photo and makes reference to some of the aspects of her life that I learned, such as she did drive a model-T to college and after college, she did teach Spanish in Des Moines, Winterset, and Centerville, Iowa. The other poem "Honeymoon Album" responds to an album from a trip my great-grandparents took to Bermuda and makes reference to a photograph of twin beds in their hotel room, my great-grandfather's bowtie, and Lucile's cat-eyed sunglasses.
To answer your question directly, though I did know Lucile when she was alive (my father would sometimes take me to visit her in the nursing home on Sundays), researching Lucile and Matilda felt like researching myth. With Matilda, I tried to negotiate between the stories family members told me about her (stories passed down through the generations), accounts of her life written down by other relatives, and what I could prove with fact and corroborate with the research I did in historical documents. Writing my dissertation and the other poems I wrote about relatives was a constant negotiation between myth and fact, personal and cultural/historical/social. I found myself asking: what is true? what is fact? what is myth? how does the poet decide what goes into the poem? how much literary license does a poet have when writing about a real, historical figure, especially in the form of a dissertation? how does the poet decide? Like Lilith, Matilda, and to a lesser extent, Lucile, were mythical to me because I never felt I could pin down "Truth." Facts felt debatable. My research also showed me how much Matilda and Lucile were like Lilith because they challenged gender expectations. Matilda was the breadwinner in her family, argued for women's suffragist, and possessed that business woman's savvy to make a living by her words. Likewise, Lucile graduated from Drake University in Iowa in 1922, worked outside the home, and was named the Advertising Woman of the Year in 1963. To do the things these women did in the time period they did them made me realize what powerful women they were, powerful women in my family I didn't really know about until I started writing the dissertation.
AH: What I'm wondering, then, is how you think your own self emerges in these poems. How do you make room for yourself, the poet-self, among these powerful women? How much of the voice in these poems do you think is your own? I mean, obviously, it's all yours. But are there places where it's more openly yours and less masked by persona or research? How do you explore your own concerns through the concerns of Matilda and Lucile and Lilith? I'm asking because as a reader, I'm interested in those women's stories, but I'm also interested in what I see being revealed of the poet, the writer, you (or at least, "you"). Or do you think this is an unfair question to begin with? It's not, for instance, the kind of question one might ask a writer of historical fiction. But it is, I think, reflective of how many readers (not just me) approach poetry.
LMW: Tim O'Brien said to me, "I got you just in time." I was taking his master fiction class at UNL in the spring of 2008. He said this during our one-on-one tutorial and after the workshop of my piece. We sat outside on the concrete benches beneath budding trees and beside the glass doors of Andrews Hall while he smoked a cigarette. I'd reveled to him that my short story was basically true. He asked me about myself, how I became a writer, and where I wanted to go with my writing and then, as he exhaled a stream of smoke he said that: "I got you just in time." Tim, of course, is known for blurring fact and fiction, the character "Tim O'Brien" with the real "Tim O'Brien." As I sat there, students in red hoodies entered and exited the doors amid the soft greening of campus on one of those perfect spring days in March when everywhere all over the city daffodils toss their yellow heads and the air is heady with the perfume of hyacinth, and I didn't know what to make of his comment. Got me just in time? In time for what? Was I going somewhere I shouldn't go? Where was Tim suggesting I go instead? Did I want to go there? Where is the line between fiction and nonfiction? And why was he smoking? Who smokes anymore?
I think there is a tendency to view writing—prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction—as "Truth," as autobiography, as this is what happened. Most writers can point to places in their work where real life events became inspiration and fodder for there work. There's this wonderful moment in Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild that I think about in terms of the fact/fiction discussion and the way that section of her book is so artfully crafted. In Wild, after she's hike a full day, two hunters stop her and ask for water. She shares her water purifier, but one of them jams the filter into the mud, the only source of water for miles, and breaks the filter. She shares her iodine tablets. Once the tablets have a chance to work, the men leave. Because the muddy pond is the only source of water, Cheryl intended to camp there. She makes camp, undresses, and brings water to boil for dinner, when suddenly one of the men returns and reveals he's watched her undress. It's a chilling, creepy moment and the reader is sure she's about to be assaulted by this hunter, until his friend also suddenly arrives to take the first man back to the truck. The hunters leave for a second time. In Wild she writes:
I stood for a while the way I had the first time they left, letting all the knots of fear unclench. Nothing had happened, I told myself. I am perfectly okay. He was just a creepy, horny, not-nice man, and now he's gone.
But then I shoved my tent back into my pack, turned off my stove, dumped the almost-boiling water out into the grass, and swished the pot in the pond so it cooled. I took a sig of my iodine water and crammed my water bottle and my damp T-shirt, bra, and shorts back into my pack. I lifted [my pack], buckled it on, stepped onto the trail, and started walking northward in the fading light. I walked and I walked, my mind shifting into a primal gear that was void of anything but forward motion, and I walked until walking became unbearable, until I believed I couldn't walk even one more step.
And then I ran. (288)
It's a stunning, wonderfully wrought moment in Wild, alluding to fear and sexuality, independence and the natural environment, the difficulty of the trail and human vulnerabilty, women's freedom to come and go as they please and a patriarchal culture where some men still view women as sexual objects. Did she really run after walking all those miles? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it's this perfect, precise ending to a moment many women and girls share—that threat of violence from men simply because of gender.
I feel like as a writer that I have this wonderful job where I get to describe and make meaning about events, places, people, emotions, and characters that might be true and/or that might leap into the realm of the imaginary, myth, sci-fi, historical fiction, and elsewhere. Certainly there are true events in my poems, but they wouldn't be poems if I didn't make them.
AH: I am interested in the concept of the rhetorical triangle—author, audience, text—and how that applies in creative writing. We seem to have covered author and text, so let's close this interview by talking about the reader—your readers, in particular. Do you imagine an ideal reader when you write? What role does the reader play in your writing process? What do you expect or hope your readers' experience will be like as they negotiate these poems you have made?
LMW: When I was writing the poems for my dissertation on Matilda Fletcher, some of which are now in my collection UNCLOSE THE DOOR (Gold Quoin Press) I wrote several epistolary poems, poems that are letters written to a specific someone, a precise audience. During my research on Matilda I read things written about her (newspaper accounts, critical reviews), things written by her (letters to the editor, poems, books), and things written to her (letters from family). Matilda and her second husband, William Albert Wiseman, wrote a book on murder The Trial and Imprisonment of Geo. W. Felts (Rockford, Illinois, 1907). Matilda's younger brother and closest sibling by age, George W. Felts (1843-1921), had been sentenced to life in Joliet prison for stabbing a man, who bled to death from the wound. Matilda's book argues for Geo's innocence and against the Illinois court that failed to accommodate Geo's disability. He was deaf due to his service in the Civil War, hearing loss due in part to cannon fire and in part to measles contracted in the field. Throughout the trial, Geo was never given a written account of the charges and no one ever spoke into his ear tube, a device through which he could hear imperfectly. Her book included letters written by Geo to her while he was in Joliet describing his military service and the event. Geo argues he was jumped. It was dark. He couldn't see. He didn't know who the men were. He neither felt his knife enter the man's thigh nor slice into the femoral artery. From his real letters, I wrote found epistolary poems such as "Onset" from Geo to Matilda. Writing epistolary poems in persona was a way into the character of Geo as he wrote to his famous sister. In UNCLOSE THE DOOR I wrote epistolary poems in Matilda's voice to her first husband, John A. Fletcher. John also fought in the Civil War where he contracted tuberculosis, a disease that ultimately killed him at the age of 38 and when Matilda was only 33. Matilda writes to John in "Debut" as she describes her first lecture in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1869 and begins her lecture tour that would support them both economically. "Baggage" describes Matilda's invention and patent of a traveling trunk for women, but is also epistolary as she writes from Pennsylvania where she's speaking and to John within months of the end of his life. Both of these are collected.