Where I’m Writing from

Iron Horse Literary Review just released their fantastic April issue and it’s chock full of gorgeous poems for National Poetry Month. I was asked to contribute some photos and a description of my work space. It was an honor and a lot of fun to justify my junk-collecting.

Here are a couple of the pictures, but you can read the whole piece in the new issue of Iron Horse Literary Review.

It is especially fun to see this issue coming out now, since I’ve been on the road for the past 6 weeks doing field research for my new work-in-progress. I’ll pop into my brick and mortar house and every now and again, but most of my writing and living for the next few months is in my 2002 Coachmen class c rv, which I think of as a Baba Yaga house in rubber chicken feet. I love it in here, but I do sometimes miss those shelves full of inspirations. Though I have to say, the backroads, mountain passes, and eccentrics I meet along the way (one campground host walked around with a pet crow on his shoulder all day and did NOT want to talk about it) are pretty splendid muses.

A Little Book Review Love

It feels like one more happy sign of spring that book reviews for The Witch of Eye have started popping up here and there in the world.

I’m so grateful to Geri Lipshultz and The Rumpus for this review of The Witch of Eye. It’s really wonderful to be so deeply, perfectly read:

“This is a book for our time, to help us unpack what we are seeing before our eyes, on our screens, a book to help us survive—to see beyond the smokescreen of what we have been told is true. To be fearless, and by our resistance and our actions, to contest these economies of power that play out on women’s bodies. Nuernberger’s book itself is a charm, as she pulls these disciplines together, weaving them like an artist, like a magician, like a healer, like a witch, her words like stitches into a tapestry.”

And to Lara Lillibridge for this kind, insightful review over at Mom Egg Review:

“The stories of witches truly are the stories of renegade women, and, it turns out, the history of systematic and sanctioned abuse of marginalized people by those in power. Nuernberger masterfully draws parallels between the witch trials and modern day persecution in beautifully lyrical prose. “

It’s such a joy to see this book making it into the hands of readers who get what I was hoping to say, imagine, make thinkable with these essays.

Here followeth various ways witches injure cattle…

I had such a nice time reading for University of Arizona MFA Program’s Distinguished Visitor Series alongside Paisley Rekdal. I read an essay about Lisbey Nypan and another how obsessed witch hunters were with spoiled milk. We touched on some deeply weird shit about the tilberi. Though I’m kicking myself that I forgot to mention one of my favorite tidbits about milk. Here’s a spell from The Long Lost Friend:

To Mend Broken Glass: Take common cheese and wash it well, unslaked lime and the white of eggs, rub all these well together until it becomes one mass, and then use it. If it is made right, it will certainly hold. 

For more on witches and milk, plus Paisley’s deeply moving poems and accompanying videos about the Transcontinental Railroad, you can watch a recording of the reading here.

The Witch of Eye Playlist

I’m so grateful to largehearted boy for inviting me to make a The Witch of Eye playlist.

In “The Invention of Mothers,” an essay from The Witch of Eye that is close to my heart, I wrote about Rhiannon, the fairy queen accused of eating her own child. The victim of a coup, she fell asleep and woke smeared in blood and surrounded by the bones of a dog her accusers said was her baby. For this was she bridled like a horse at the gates to the city until her son grew up to escape from captivity and return home to her. She is best known, though, for having called forth the Alder Rhiannon, those three magical birds who sing so beautifully they send the living to sleep and raise the dead from their slumber.

So of course a The Witch of Eye playlist must include Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” But how to represent so many other wrongfully accused women – the midwives, healers, activists, leaders, philosophers, and successful business owners – whose ways of being in the world gave some priest or friar or judge or king a bedeviled feeling? Whose songs would call to mind Lisbet Nypan, who, even under the most dire circumstances, refused to apologize for herself or for her work healing the sick with rituals of salt. Whose voice could echo that of the midwife Walpurga Hausmännin’s as she confessed to every crime the village had ever known, every stillbirth, every miscarriage, every sick cow or hail storm, so that the inquisition of Dillingin, Germany could be snuffed out with her? Is there a song in the key of Agnes Naismith laying a dying woman’s curse on the mob gathered to watch her hang, then burn?

You can read the little piece I wrote for largehearted boy about this playlist here. Or just go straight to Spotify and start listening here.

Love Spells

Happy Valentine’s Day! Last night I launched The Witch of Eye in the good company of writers, friends, and inspirations who each shared a love spell. I read my essay, “Medusa,” about the poetics of spells, which you can read online here. Thanks to Moon Palace Books for hosting! I thought it was a pretty magical reading and if you’d like to spend today celebrating all kinds of love — between friends, among families, as political action, divine and spiritual loves, as well as romance — you can watch a recording of the event here. You can also order a signed copy of The Witch of Eye from Moon Palace. (Leave a note in the “special instructions” box when you check out to tell me who to sign the book to.)

Image result for morticia addams romance gif

The Witch of Eye and Her Critics

The Witch of Eye officially launches on Feb. 16, but it’s received some generous early reviews, which I’m very grateful for.

In their starred review, Kirkus said: “As she explores the lives of women accused of witchcraft, the author investigates the relations among their experiences, her own life, and contemporary American society, and she brings both a poet’s intuition and a philosopher’s insight to the text…. Part memoir, part cultural criticism, entirely fascinating.”

Publishers Weekly included The Witch of Eye on their list of “Books for Short Attention Spans,” which I appreciated very much, considering how my attention span seems to be crumbling into dust. “In brief, lyrical retellings, she profiles women including Walpurga Hausmännin, a midwife executed for witchcraft in 16th century Bavaria, and Maria Gonçalves Cajada, convicted of sorcery in 17th century colonial Brazil. The stories become a lens on Nuerberger’s own experiences…”

Heidi Czerwiec (whose essay collection Fluid States is fantastic and has been a powerful inspiration for me), reviewing for Brevity, said: “After reading The Witch of Eye, Kathryn Nuernberger’s new collection of meditative and lyric essays about the cruelties inflicted on certain women—mainly “witches” but sometimes saints, though their ends are often equally as bloody—I was furious. As Nuernberger puts it, “I have anger and anger to spare.” Not because of reading the familiar stories—even if the named individuals are new to me, the stories are always “one version of the tragedy after another.” But because of how, as we are reminded in “Translations of the Conclusions & Findings Report for Catalina Ouyang as the True Confessions of Johannes Junius,” a piece on the gross institutional failures of Title IX investigations, words may be used against you: “your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence.” Having experienced this myself, when a former institution I worked for allowed my words to be twisted and violent threats made to me when I followed the institution’s own policies, I know, as does Nuernberger, that even being a writer does not translate to control over your own words, especially within patriarchal systems. The silences from these institutions were telling.”

In Search of an Anti-Grammar

Not too long ago I was asked to be a visiting writer in a technical writing class on grammar and usage. I was nervous about the Q&A because I dangle the shit out of my modifiers, never know when to hyphenate or not a compound adjective, and frequently use the wrong they’re/their/there despite knowing better. So I made a lots of notes, in case I needed to distract people from everything I don’t know during the Q&A.

The visit led to a really interesting conversation and I appreciated the chance to articulate what I think sentences can do and how.

I began my writing life as a poet, which means I think the purpose of writing is as much to disrupt sense, rearrange sense, and reimagine sense as it is to make sense.  To that end, I find agrammatical structures as interesting as grammatical ones. What kinds of truth do double negatives make possible that a positive statement does not? How can you jolt a reader out of their preconceived notions by breaking with parallelism? How can you make something unlikely seem inevitable by maintaining parallelism? Lately I’ve been embracing run-on sentences, because I’m writing about symbioses and I like the way run-ons kind of create a symbiotic merger of two distinct organisms that can’t live without each other. I also have been embracing sentence fragments because I’m writing about loss and grief and somehow the grammar of incompleteness rings more true at times than a sentence that knows how to finish itself.

One exercise I sometimes try when I’m writing is to mess up a sentence’s grammar and see what that does, try to notice what is lost or gained in the process. Another exercise is to do a sentence length and style check. I make a slash in red ink after each sentence and if those slashes are happening at extremely regular intervals, I know I need to mix up my sentence length and structure to create a more interesting variety in the piece. My default sentence mode is approximately 15 words of a declarative sentence set off with a subordinate clause. Too many of those in a row becomes very tedious, so I try to let some sentences get decadently long; turn others into short punchy short declarations. Sometimes this habit of charting my sentences leads moves me towards questions or to combing ideas I hadn’t thought of as intertwined. Changing the sentence structures changes my thinking and can steer a piece in surprising new directions.

I also try to notice when I’ve smoothed out the dialect I use in spoken speech. For example, too often I unthinkingly dumb down my rhetoric because “girls” and people from working class backgrounds are often discouraged from “putting on airs.” My grammar sometimes reveals how deeply internalized those problematic lessons from childhood were. When editing I am sometimes am glad to see I have pulled away from jargon and sometimes I realize I need to remove more jargon still. But other times I see value in leaning into the suppressed impulse to be arch and erudite. There’s something to be said for seeing a woman confidently assert understanding of a deep and nuanced body of knowledge. To see her taunt reply guys and dare the mansplainers.

I’ve also noticed that I tend to default to editing away some unique grammatical constructions from my childhood in Missouri – saying “stoved up” about sore muscles or using double negatives like “never anymore.” A lot of these are beautifully poetic expressions and I’m luck to have been raised among them.

I was taught throughout much of my education to edit out equivocations like “I think,” “I believe,” or “I feel.” Sometimes that lesson came along with the observation that women in particular tend to equivocate this way and we need to be more assertive in our rhetoric, like men. I bought into this for awhile, but these days I’m not particularly interested in writing more like men, and I’m definitely not interested in generating a relentless stream of cocksure certainty. I’d suggest that we might consider what our writing could do for the world if more writers acknowledged their subjectivities and the limitations of their knowing by saying “I think” instead of “it is a true fact that” from time to time.

Attending to passive and active voice is another way grammar can shape a writer’s habits of thinking. For example, I now do rigorous passive/active voice checks of my drafts to see where I’m letting someone (possibly myself) off the hook who should be held accountable. I notice that white writers in particular tend to slip into the passive voice when they are discussing racism. I certainly saw this tick in my own writing when I was working on The Witch of Eye. In my first drafts of an essay on the Salem witch trials, to give one example, I would say something like “Tituba’s daughter was taken,” when what I needed to say was “Samuel Parris, the abusive slavemaster, took Tituba’s daughter.”

Another effect my training as a poet has had on the way I write prose is that I attend closely to silence. I often think about paragraphs as stanzas and wonder how a paragraph break might be used to create a juxtaposition or a sense of rupture. How can the silence of a paragraph break here or there invite a reader into collaborative meditation with the writer? A lot of grammatical rules and conventional rhetorical strategies are designed to convince a reader or just carry a reader along in a narrative flow. In my prose I am usually reaching for the opposite of flow – I am reaching for something that jolts the reader awake and into awareness of their own mind and their own thoughts. Grammar can help in this endeavor too, but it requires that I pay attention to grammar not as a system of rules to memorize, but as a variety of strategies to use in the ways I deem best.

Happy Yule, Bright Solstice!

Happy Yule, everybody! Thanks for following along with my Advent Calendar of Witches. In the spirit of light and gratitude for the abundances of even this hard year, I want to offer a list of witch and witch-adjacent writers and artists who have inspired me.

Taylor Ross is an extraordinary multi-media artist. Some of my favorite works by her include fabric pieces she constructed with sustainably harvested plant fibers. Her photographs are also gorgeous — that’s her ice selfie on the cover of The Witch of Eye.

Maya Zeller’s Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts is such an inspiration when it comes to thinking about the intersection of magic and ecology.

Sun Yung Shin taught me that glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root. And her obsession with Baba Yaga is contagious.

Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, an account of Katharina Keppler is coming this year!

Kate Lebo is my favorite kitchen witch. I’m so excited for The Book of Difficult Fruit to come out in 2021.

Elissa Washuta’s White Magic is coming out soon too! Her essay “White Witchery” is essential reading.

Kenji Liu’s Monsters I Have Been is great meditation on monstrosity. He also curated a feature of spells against SCOTUS and POTUS for Unmargin that is a powerful reminder of how everything is political, especially attempts to harness and wield power.

Annah Browning’s Witch Doctrine is a gorgeous collection.

Kathy Fagan’s The Charm and Nicole Cooley’s The Afflicted Girls are classics of the genre.

Taisia Kitaiskaia’s Ask Baba Yaga is my favorite advice column ever. I just ordered volume two Ask Baba Yaga: Poetic Remedies for Troubled Times.

Sharma Shields’s novels of mythic mothers and haunting landscapes are so great. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac and The Cassandra both bring that witchy energy.

Hyejung Kook has taught me so much about Anglo-Saxon charms and also shared a bit about Korean shamanism with me as well. Her poems are gorgeous. Here’s one I love. And here’s another.

CA Conrad’s somatic exercises changed the way I think, write, and live. I suggest starting with Ecodeviance (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness.

Jennifer Givhan’s whole body of work, which engages with Brujeria traditions and an ecofeminist approaches to science in various ways, but especially Protection Spell.

Jenny Molberg’s voyage into the demagorgon’s underworld is as witchy as it gets, if you define witch as “a woman with power and agency.” Refusal.

Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife!

Becca Klaver’s Ready for the World is such a treat.

Faylita Hicks HoodWitch can’t be missed.

I love Sabrina Orah Mark’s “Happily” column on fairy tales at The Paris Review and Kate Bernheimer’s Horse, Flower, Bird too, for how they reimagine the mythic witch and her forest.

I’m not over Rebecca Tamas’s Witch yet. I don’t imagine I ever will be.

The poet and translator, Lawrence Schimel, has introduced me to so many poets writing about plantlore in gorgeous ways. His translation of Elsa Cross’s Bomarzo is a fantastic piece of witch-adjacent work.

Irem Yacizi is an embroidery artist. Her tiny and meticulous cross-stitched dreams and imaginings are so gorgeous. Whenever I write I ask myself how I can make my words feel like her images. I do not succeed in this endeavor.

Gala Mukomolova’s Without Protection is an amazing collection.

I can’t stop thinking about Selah Saterstrom’s Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics.

There’s so many more! Send me your suggestions and I’ll keep updating.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 22, Marie Laveau

By all accounts Marie Laveau was a profoundly ethical person, generous and kind. She attended mass at St. Louis Cathedral every day, visited the imprisoned, nursed the sick during outbreaks of yellow fever with plant medicines that were far more effective than anything the doctors had to offer, and invited Choctaw women displaced once again from their land by the U. S. government to set up camp in her own front yard.

Though she was known as a Vodou queen, she was also described as a conjure woman. The historian Martha Ward explains, “Conjure is the ‘magical means of transforming reality.’ Conjurers see and understand things most people cannot. They exist in two realities, use two kinds of consciousness – one for consensual realities and the other for the spiritual realms. Thus, a conjurer, like all mystics and visionaries, is two-headed.”

To be two-headed is not the same thing as being two-faced. To be two-faced is, for example, a complicated cotillion of upper crust manners where no one, not even the journalists at the daily paper, ever mentions the 4th of July V.P. Fair you’ve been going to for your whole childhood is a cursory whitewash of an acronym for the Veiled Prophet, a decades old Klan reference of a banner the two-faced person might call patriotism.  A two-headed person, on the other hand, like someone with the double-consciousness W.E.B. DuBois wrote about in The Souls of Black Folks. He explains “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He also praises that sight that aids African Americans in surviving in a white supremacist society, the wisdom to convey different messages to different people at once.

When I heard Marie Laveau’s story, I heard not the secret language in the dance of the snake or the rootwork, though there is an echo of so much beauty there, something for other audiences I am grateful to underhear. But for me the message of the sermon is to look to the jurisprudence of our consensual realities. I hear her saying to get smarter about the system and faster. To understand the man outside the U. S. Post Office gathering signatures for House Bill No. 1427 to amend the Historic Preservation Act is selling another century of cheap sheet-metal Confederates marching across our parks. To know that the procedures to change the name of Robert E. Lee elementary school can be found in the School Board By-Laws under Section F. Facilities Development, sub-section FF. Facility Names.

My formula for understanding witchcraft has been witch = accusation + fire, but no one ever burned Marie Laveau for anything. The whole city of New Orleans, they say, came to her for help or advice at some time or another. And yet she was never hauled before a court. This contradicts everything I have learned about witchcraft, about the cruelty in people afraid their power is slipping, and about the operations of 19th century slaveholding societies.

Nevertheless, the story the archives tell about the charmed work accomplished by Marie Laveau is clear. Her subterfuge in the service of social justice took the form of uncorrupted generosity. And she was loved in return by the neighbors to whom she opened her home and steady listening ear. Not long after her death Lafcadio Hearn wrote in an obituary in The Daily City Item that she was “one of the kindest women who ever lived.”

It feels like magic to read it and magic to tell it; yet also so very ordinary that you or I might even try our own hands at such a simple spell as this. 

You can read this essay in its entirety at Zone 3.

Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 21, Rhiannon

It is very popular to accuse independent women of wanting to murder babies. Such charges were levied against Medea, who I wrote about here, and  Walpurga Hausmännin, who I wrote about here. Agnes Sampson was one of many midwives castigated as a witch for her ability to give women choices about their bodies and alleviate their fear and pain. Other allegedly heartless, careless, or monstrous mothers included Angela de la Barthe and Agnes Waterhouse.

Every morning for as long as I have been a mother I go into a room for a few hours, locking my child out, so I can read and write. Sometimes I have a felt a little monstrous in how I guard and demand those private hours. Sometimes, when she was very small, my daughter banged at the door like someone who couldn’t believe what a monster her mother was. Like a lot of people trying to work from home while my child goes to school from home, trying to make life seem normal and hopeful even as we grieve and miss and yearn, I sometimes feel like a very monstrous person. My own eye is on the stake as I wonder about my crimes.

This is a hard year to be approaching the longest night. So I offer as a balm the story of the fairy queen Rhiannon. It starts with a rough bit of treachery — as she slept her enemies smeared her in the blood and surrounded her with the bones of a dog. They hid away her child and accused her of eating him. For this she was turned into a horse. Sometimes literally, sometimes the story goes that she was punished for seven years at the gate of her castle wearing, like a horse, a bridle and bit, until her son, freed by the Horse Lord from captivity at last returned home. And of course he was first recognized, instantly, by his mother.

She is best known, though, for having brought into this world the Alder Rhiannon, those three magical birds who sing so beautifully they not only send the living to sleep but also raise the dead. There are many ways to imagine that song, but I always hear it in the key of my grandmother humming one of her little made-up tunes as she holds my newborn sister in her arms.