Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Entanglement of Class and Care: A Conversation Between Sara Henning and Laura Medline Wiseman

Laura Madeline Wiseman: Both you and I have recently had books released from Lavender Ink that focus on the body, love, and relationships that turn violent. My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), addresses a contemporary recasting of the Bluebeard myth, focusing on the romantic encounters of three sisters who marry the man who will murder them. Rather than centering on Bluebeard’s bloody travails, my retelling meditates on love and its exhibitions. Your debut collection, A Sweeter Water (2013), is really an examination of elegy, as it traces a father’s suicide and its devastating complications on a speaker aching to find her voice among loss. Through the book’s development, loss becomes its own lyric predicated by the chimerical dahlia—one part talisman, one part anchor, and one part taboo. Thinking about our books together, I’m curious about the brutality of loss. For example, the loss of a parent is brutal in all its many guises because it’s also the loss of support, including financial. This is especially so for women and mothers. How do poets negotiate issues of class and privilege in their work?

Sara Henning: Oh yes, the loss of a loved one is ruthless. Yet, I agree that loss has far reaching socioeconomic repercussions, especially for women left to suffer with children in the quagmire of patriarchal hegemony. Loss is a rhizomatic conception, an issue important to contemporary poetry because it is as much a psychological issue as it is a class issue.

As a white woman, I will never argue against the fact that I come from a privileged subject position. I have never been watched closely at Walgreens by a female clerk who feared me, due to the color of my skin or my gender. I have never had a well-to-do couple cross the street out of fear that I might stab or hustle them. If anything, the clerk is always friendly and the woman in the couple often smiles or makes pleasantries. To these women, I am simply a sister, a member of their tribe. But I am also the product of an impoverished background, which is an intimidating psychosocial space to incorporate when standing at the staircase of academia’s often lush and exclusionary ivory towers. Without my father, my mother couldn’t make it on her own, and in turn, she was forced to solicit the support of her parents, and as a package deal, an environment of multigenerational abuse. As a motivated child, I often “passed” as part of my general cohort, middle and upper middle class families with a two-parent income, though I felt like a paradox: a member of the underprivileged privileged who belonged in neither world.

LMW: You say this so beautifully. It reminds me of Audre Lorde’s words: “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” Poetry collections like A Sweeter Water are not luxury, they are vital, because if I might quote Lorde again, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

SH: If we are not taking Lorde’s advice, as women, we are failing the institution of poetry and each other. Perhaps by saying this, I can be criticized as essentializing the role of the female poet or confining poetry to an act of agenda. Let me clarify: in a space where we have supposedly transcended race, gender, and sexuality as functional sociocultural definitions, I simply hope that literature that addresses reclamation, resistance, and witness will continue to garner respect. As I was writing A Sweeter Water, I addressed the loss of a father through notions of physical and emotional absence, but I also felt the need to examine next door prostitutes, physically abusive lovers, wild girls who fall by the wayside—our contemporary culture’s very real broken birds.

Since we are thinking about ways that gender and privilege inform art, would you talk about your work with the Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, which directly confronts gender violence?

LMW: My new book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience grew out of my work with WWR. By the time I started researching what would become WWR—a task that took seven years to complete—I already had intimate experience working with survivors and resistors of gender violence. As an undergrad at Iowa State University, I first volunteered in a women’s crisis shelter and participated in events like Take Back the Night. I continued this volunteer work as I completed an MA in women’s studies and a PhD in English. Because I had a small part in the vital force that seeks to help women resist gender violence and because I was now in a privileged place—a doctoral student with an assistantship and fellowships—I wanted to see what else I might be able to do. That what else was the anthology. Since its release we’ve been able to raise money for organizations that support women, donate copies of the anthology to their libraries, and participate in events such as Week Without Violence, One Billion Rising, and Women’s History Month. There have also been readings at AWP, Split this Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness, Omaha Lit Fest, and the Indiana Writers’ Consortium. It’s a privilege and honor to do this work. It is my hope that such events resist gender violence by raising awareness and initiating action.

SH: I am amazed by how your focus on resistance surpasses the page. Literary work that engenders transformation (personal and/or cultural) does so much more than simply being an exercise in mastering metaphor, and this is the timeless literature that demands re-reading. Our mother of resistance, Muriel Rukeyser, would be so proud of you.

LMW: Thank you for that. I’ve always admired Muriel Rukeyser’s work. In the critical introduction to WWR, I quote her words: “If there was no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” She’s right. We hunger for poetry, for what work poetry can do.

In ASW there is this unexpected violence, a disregard for self and place, another kind of class violence. In “Psalm” there are “soda cans floating down river” and a “father shot-gunning beer,” and this is contrasted with a girl trying to save a chicken being hollowed out by maggots in “Three Themes on Rescue.” Can you talk about how care and class are intertwined in offering full portraits of survival and love?

SH: Love and survival are fraught subjects in ASW. In the work, the self is often forsaken for the more immediate goal of subsistence. One could argue that taking the burden upon oneself to alleviate the struggle of others is a way that the collection’s characters often demonstrate love. Your mention of “Psalm,” the fact that soda cans are as conspicuous a part of the natural landscape, as say, oak roots, reveals how far the speaker has internalized an ecological disregard that informs her emotional experience. In this particular poem, a father driven by addiction and self-indifference is similarly normalized, a sentiment that resurrects itself in different incarnations throughout the work.

As you noted, the collection contains poems that, I think, validate an attempt to surpass these attitudes and enact salvation. In “Three Themes on Rescue,” the speaker attempts to rescue an already dead hen in order to preserve her body’s integrity. When she finds the animal already debilitated by maggots, she recognizes that the animal’s steadfast spirit bests any violence inflicted upon her, and that notions of survival and endurance are not necessarily interdependent.

So to answer your question of how care and class are entangled in the book, I would argue that the speaker’s experience is as paradoxical as the hen’s. Through the book, an attempt to champion integrity while normalizing disregard makes for poems that modulate between these extremes, often to subversive ends.

Do you think that violence against women still confounds and surpasses class hierarchy in our contemporary moment? Fatal Effects seems to confront these issues, so could you focus your discussion here?

LMW: Fatal Effects is a campy, contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth that charts the love of three sisters who each marry the same man upon the demise of the sister who preceded her. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but this retelling focuses on the love each of his unfortunate wives felt. As a kid, I was drawn to fairy tales and myth in literature, even though the life presented there was not a life I knew. I’ve never lived in a castle (okay, full disclosure: when I studied abroad as an undergrad at Swansea University, one of the dorms I lived in was a castle, but I’m not sure the co-ed residence halls count as full-castle life). I’ve never kissed a former lover of my siblings—that would be weird. I’ve never experienced the kind of wealth an estate like Bluebeard owned, though I’ve watched each season of Downton Abby. I’ve never married a murderer.

Fatal Effects is not my life, but you are correct to point out that the violence the book outlines is a violence experienced by women across class. My poem “Inquisitive Faces” explores the ways a woman can be trapped in such a marriage permeated by domestic violence, and despite the privileges class may make available to some, the most dangerous time for any woman is when she leaves her husband. About one third of women murdered are murdered by their intimate partners. The poem “Widower’s Insomnia” seeks to capture what has been called the rising action in the cycle of violence, the time between the honeymoon phase and the violent outburst, when the threat of violence lingers, when the thrum of it vibrates even as he sleeps.

Though I’ve written more on gender violence, I am invested in issues of class and the ways in which such depictions are represented in literature and popular culture. In 2012, the Guerilla Girls performed at the local art museum on campus in the city where I live. I was particularly provoked by their skit on what things have changed since the second wave of the feminist movement and what things have not. For example, they demonstrated how despite forty years of feminist work, still today: “Women make less than men.”

Much as I don’t know what it’s like to live in a world of castles and multiple murdered wives of which the current wife is seemingly unaware, I can imagine a world of equitable pay. I can imagine a world where women are not the victims of violence. Part of why I wrote Fatal Effects is that I sought to imagine that world. In my book, violence is the threat that is the unsaid and the undescribed. It lingers. It is not front and center, blood and gore. I wanted to know the life these women lived, not their demise.

 I think one of our jobs as poets is to bring texts into our classroom that challenge assumptions about privilege, gender, and oppression. I’ve taught Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Joy Castro’s The Truth Book, Anne Sexton’s Transformations, as well as books by Dorothy Allison, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marjane Satrapi, texts that have provided rich opportunities for discussions. I’m wondering if you can talk about important texts in your own teaching and why those texts have helped you be a better writer.

SH: Of course. But first, I just want to say, I’ve had a wonderful time discussing these issues with you, Madeline. Your work speaks for itself, and I have enjoyed, and grown from, the candor and rigor that informs your stunning answers.

I’d like to focus my response on texts for a graduate class that I cannot wait to teach: Contemporary Women’s Trauma Literature. In the course, I’m envisioning teaching works such as Edwidge Dandicat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory; Nancy Venable Raine’s After Silence: Rape & My Journey Back; Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth; Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina; the list goes on—works that directly confront loss, violence, and suffering as it enters and antagonizes a woman’s body, and what is left in those traumatic wakes. One cannot be an effective writer without being an effective reader, and the converse application is true—these things necessarily inform each other. The cycle of reading, writing, and teaching should beautifully intermingle. My goal is to honor these texts by writing passionately in their wake and teaching others to grow from their words.

LMW: It sounds like a wonderful class. Your students will be lucky to have such a smart, talented teacher among them. By the way, I know that you are working on a manuscript that involves the themes we have discussed today, and that a chapbook manuscript from the effort has been circulating. Can you talk about it?

SH: Of course, and thank you so much for your kind words. In 2011, I lost my grandfather to implications related to Korsakoff’s Dementia, a condition onset by chronic alcohol abuse. Because he was as close to a father as I had growing up, his loss got me thinking about how drinking affected my familial relationships at microscopic and macroscopic levels. My grandfather was an accomplished professor, but a heartless man. He would often put my grandmother on bare-bones grocery allowances so he could buy top-shelf gin. When inebriated, he would go into rages that would take a physical toll on his daughters. Yet his behavior, and its intergenerational manifestations, are systemic of the larger negotiation placed on families plagued by shame, addiction and the secrets that inform them. Like many with his condition, he had a secret that none of us learned until his death that I am exploring in my current collection. Many of the women in our family, myself included, spent years drawn to addicted men who would be cruel to us, and many of my aunts and cousins never escaped this tendency. My manuscript concerns memory and addiction as embodied processes, and explores the aftermath of their liaison. I also know you have a chapbook of prose poems forthcoming. Would you talk about it?

LMW: Sure! While I was a fellow at a residency program in Taos, I started a new series on death personified and gendered female. My interests in violence against women (done by men) are evident in what we’ve discussed here. I’m also interested in the ways women are violent. While visiting museums in New Mexico, I discovered art and history exhibits from the nineteenth century on la muerta. For years, I’ve been fascinated with stories of female death such as Demeter and Persephone from Greek mythology, and Inanna from Sumerian mythology. A concurrent interest has been the culture and traditions of the Southwest. I studied Spanish in school and I lived in Arizona during graduate work. Suddenly, all these interests coalesced, sparking the new series and forthcoming chapbook Threnody. The lady of death walked into my poetry, a series about finding and inviting those that needed to climb into her cart.

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