This year I made an Advent calendar of witches I learned about while writing The Witch of Eye, because their defiant resistance is light upon light. Today, behind door number 2, I put Walpurga Hausmännin.
For thirty years Walpurga Hausmännin worked as a licensed midwife, which meant induced labor, pain meds, birth control, fertility treatments, and abortion. It meant woman who gives you choices you didn’t think you were allowed to have. It meant woman who knows more of death and birth than anyone else in a village in a century when everyone knew so much of both.
The way the story of the court records goes, when she was newly widowed, Walpurga cut corn for Hans Schlumperger. In that field she made arrangements for sex with Bis in Pfarrhof. “Him she enticed with lewd speeches and gestures.” But instead, at the agreed upon hour, a demon named Federlin came to her in this man’s clothes. After fornication she felt the cloven hoof of the whoremonger, who promised to save her from her poverty. She flew with him sometimes on a pitchfork.
It’s hard to resist the sense that you can hear truth inside the confessions. Far more likely you’ve just caught an echo of something about yourself. For example, I think Walpurga had feelings for that corn-cutter who turned out to be something else altogether. I think for a time she felt wanton and reckless and happy. And that she was sorry about it later.
She says she is sorry so many times in these records. She seems to really believe she deserves what is happening to her. Centuries later, I want to absolve her of this cruel spell the judges put on her. To say, ‘Walpurga, who among us?’
After they tortured and burned her, they dumped her ashes in the nearest flowing stream. This last part at least seems right to me. After absorbing every crime the village had ever known, every stillbirth, every miscarriage, every sick cow, so the inquisition of Dillingin, Germany could be snuffed out with her, she ought to be have been set free to wander the aimless drift of water down through one forest and field after another.
This year I’ve decided to make a little Advent calendar about accused witches I learned about while writing The Witch of Eye. Because their defiant resistance against various forms of oppression is light upon light.
From each witch they interrogated the inquisitors needed something old – a Sabbath orgy or blood oath or cat demon or wolf-faced baby or some other verification of the stories they already believed. But they also needed something new, so they could feel with each trial and execution as if they were making progress.
Elizabeth Styles’s addition to the canon: She let a demon disguised as a butterfly suck her blood.
Elizabeth Styles was accused by a 13-year-old girl also named Elizabeth. This other Elizabeth had been having strange fits lasting three hours or more and when the episode had passed she’d have holes in her hands, wrists, face, and neck. There would be thorns in her flesh. For this she blamed Elizabeth.
In addition to the butterfly business, Styles confessed that the devil had appeared to her about ten years since in the form of a handsome man or sometimes a black dog who promised her money, she said, and that she should live gallantly and have “The Pleasure of the World” for twelve years if she would blood sign his paper handing over her soul to him.
When I see the woodcuts of these hand-tied women waiting for their stick of flame, I wonder why they couldn’t just keep it to themselves. Is it really so hard to pretend?
And that’s the reason I like these failed witches so much. It feels hard to me to resist invention because it really is. Like a moth to the flame, so many of us seek after the inventions that disturb the norms, the statutes, or the rules.
I’ve been zooming into lots of classes this semester (thanks for teaching RUE and inviting me, profs!). A common question I get, since I wrote poetry and creative nonfiction, has to do with how I know what genre a piece of writing should be in. Here’s a video of a reading and q&a I did for the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series at Penn State –Behrend where this question came up.
One answer I have given to this question is to say that the work will teach you its form, to just write, and see what shape it takes on. For example, I was struggling to write this essay about the English spy Tilly Matthews, who was committed to an asylum after he witnessed many atrocities during the French Revolution. He had delusions and conspiracy theories about the origin of human suffering that were both highly improbably, but that also made a lot of sense to me, insofar as human suffering really makes no sense at all. I struggled to convey the complex relationship between madness and reason in his story for a long time, until I tried using the poetic form of a pantoum to shape the prose essay. I found the relentless repetitions, the highly ordered nature of that repeating, and the disorientation of encountering a poetic form in a prose genre to be an excellent way to convey those parts of the story I was finding so hard to express.
Or check out this essay, or this one, both by Traci Brimhall, that borrows their forms from the ghazal form of poetry.
But other times it can be really inspiring to choose the form first and discover the limits of your imagination as you reach for lines to fill the form. When I set out to write this essay about St. Dorothy, who was accused of witchcraft, I decided early on that I wanted to write an essay about her that would borrow its form from a crown of sonnets. I committed myself to creating fourteen stanza-paragraphs with 14 sentences each, and I paced each paragraph using the thesis-antithesis-volta-synthesis structure of a sonnet. This forced me to research St. Dorothy, other saints’ lives, the names of roses, witches broom and related plant disease, mystic poetry that references the rose as a symbolic image, and folklore related to the rosary which is a poetic form of prayer closely associated with sonnets crowns and roses. The essay exploded and I eventually published it using this form at Cleaver magazine. However, more recently, as I was revising essays for inclusion in my forthcoming book,The Witch of Eye, I found the sonnet forms was forcing me into an unnecessary wordiness. The new version of the essay is only a quarter as long as the earlier draft and has a much more open form, but it still draws together all of the threads the crown drew out of me.
So I would add that another way to decide what form you should be in is to experiment and play as you go, and to think of each form a piece takes as a necessary part of its metamorphosis. Love what you’re writing when it’s a nymph and then let it molt and become the dragonfly or grasshopper or jellyfish or barnacle or whatever final adult form it is reaching for.
Another observation I’ve shared about form and genre is that you can generate some really productive tension in your work by either leaning into or thwarting the expectations a reader may have. I note that readers typically come into a poem expecting to be given some intense emotion, meditative reflections, and a patient expectation that what they read will not necessarily make sense immediately or easily. Obviously not every poem fits these parameters, but this is a kind of idea about poems in the culture that readers bring to the page. And as a poet, I find it really satisfying to totally subvert those expectations by making my poems really chatty, incorporate rhetorical analyses and summaries of historical or scientific material, or offer lists of species with Latinate names. I like the way these unexpected modes can make the poem feel bracing and jolt the reader into a heightened state of attention. Here’s a poem of mine operating in this way. Daniel Borzutzky is one of my favorite poets who subverts readers’ expectations about poetry – “The Book of Non-Writing” is another good example of this.
With that same spirit of jarring the reader with a kind of oppositional-defiant attitude towards genre, I often approach essays, which I think readers expect to be narrative and/or educational, with a highly poetic tone. The ellipticism I tend to avoid in poems, I bring with glee and reckless abandon into poems. I sprinkle inexplicable images liberally, juxtapose unrelated observations wildly, and embrace the sonnets, pantoums, odes, and sestinas that I find too constraining for a poem. Here’s one of my contrary essays throwing all its poem feelings at the reader. When I’m trying to think about the potential in unexpected forms, I often look to the Mita Mahato’s work as a comic artist, which often crosses over into the realm of essays or nonfiction. You can see an example here.
I was really delighted to have the chance to do a reading and conversation with John Gallaher about conversational rhythms, tones, and rhetorics as sources of inspiration towards poetic forms. John’s new book Brand New Spacesuit, is excellent and his previous collection, In a Landscape, was an important influence on me as I was writing RUE and looking for ways to weave intellectual and personal materials into poems that can hold my love for scholarly discourse and foul language, not to mention rhetorical flourishes and genuine authenticity, in the same breath.
Danny Caine of The Raven Bookstore (who also writes chatty poems that weave the political with the lyrical like these) hosted us via crowdcast. Before the reading, John and I put together a list of books that have influenced our thinking about talk. We touched on lots of these titles in the course of the hour, which you can watch a recording of here.
Here I want to share our list (my part was made by pulling books off my shelf about which I thought I might have something to say, until I had a very large stack), and reiterate a few of the comments from our talk, as well as elaborate on some of the works we never got around to discussing in depth. You can support The Raven, a fantastic independent bookstore that so generously nurtures writers and literary communities, by ordering a few of these books from them directly at https://www.ravenbookstore.com/.
Lyn Hejinian, My Life – Conversational poetry, sometimes referred to as Ultra-talk, is often understood as an extension of narrative poetry. However, in our conversation John cited a number of poets more commonly associated with experimental poetics as important influences on his work. Our conversation suggested that many poets working with a conversational tone as much or more influenced by performance art as they are by traditional notions of narrative in poetry. Cole Swensen, Claudia Rankine, and David Antin are other writers on the list, sometimes thought of as experimental, who often cross over from literary spaces into the world of visual arts and performance art, or vice versa.
Adrian C. Louis, Ceremonies of the Damned – Ultra-talk is sometimes presented as being an apolitical mode (you can read one of the definitive critical articles on the style here), though I’d argue there’s no such thing as an apolitical mode, only the mode of being problematically in denial about the politics one is enacting. The lack of engagement with politics in the writings on this style makes me reluctant to enthusiastically claim the moniker “Ultra-talk poet!”
Personally, I see a lot of aesthetic similarities between the ultra-talk and other kinds of conversational poetics (the Gurlesque is just one that comes to mind) in which casual talk is used in a decided political way. Adrian C. Louis is among the writers I see attending to how language that spirals, like conversations tend to, among the political and the personal and the friendly and the ticked off. In this collection he has a really long poem, “A Colossal American Copulation,” that creates a litany of f*** this and f***. The lines move between cursing the encounters with racist good ole boys at the carwash, against genocides and thefts of land, against petty domestic inconveniences, against ducks, against the dementia that has taken the beloved’s memory – I very much admire the way this poem, and some of Louis’s others, move between small griefs and massive historical ones, between the personal and the collective, and the way the poem captures the simultaneity of being people in societies, in ecosystems, in history, in family, in friendships all at once.
I see a similar capaciousness in the voices, lines, and subject matter of Jaswinder Bolina, Daniel Borzutsky, Tommy Pico, and Denise Duhamel on this list.
Cathy Park Hong, Dance Dance Revolution – In Dance Dance Revolution Cathy Park Hong created a new dialect for a tour guide to an invented city. Many of the poems in the collection are monologues spoken by this tour guide. I am mesmerized by this book every time I pick it up. At first I found the dialect difficult to understand, but was drawn in by the way the poems were enacting a post-colonial critique of language as an engine of empire and a method for its transformation. As the book went on and I was immersed in the language I felt as if the poems were teaching me how to read them. I loved being carried into meaning and into a language that put itself in a complicated and critical position towards English as a language of colonization. The experience made me think differently about the work conversational syntaxes and grammars are doing to hold us to each other in conversation.
I think there is a similar kind of aesthetic effect in Jos Charles’s book Feeld, also on this list, which borrows from middle English to create a non-binary language the exposes all the ways grammars can limit or open up one’s capacity to imagine possibilities in and around gender, but also love, identity, community, the spirit.
Bernadette Mayer, Poetry State Forest – Ultra-talk poetics are often positioned as descendants of New York School poetics. Kenneth Koch’s playful, meandering poems do model a kind of carefree relationship to language, the line, and formal discourse. And you can hear me go on about Frank O’Hara’s brilliant and funny “Personism Manifesto” in the crowdcast. Of all the New York School poets, Bernadette Mayer (who I first learned about via Maggie Nelson’s groundbreaking Women of the New York School) has been the most influential for me. Her poems sound more like a person talking to herself than to an audience, like the raggedy edges of a conversation had in and with your own mind. They are exciting in the way they catch a kind of addled disjointed inner monologue, one I recognize well as common among those of us raising small children, the attempt to find the thread between politics, art, feelings, and laundry. I found a great deal of inspiration and permission in the way she cultivates a kind of rhetorical honesty.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
John Cage, Silence
David Antin, Selected Talk Poems
Jaswinder Bolina, The 44th of July
Jos Charles, Feeld
Douglas Kearney, Patter
Mark Halliday, Jab
Denise Duhamel, Blowout
Cole Swenson, Gravesend
A.R. Ammons, Tape for the Turn of the Year
Mary Ruefle, Dunce
Craig Morgan Teicher, Brenda Is in the Room
Jillian Weise, Cyborg Detective
Rachel Zucker, The Pedestrians
Tommy Pico, Nature Poem
Becca Klaver, Ready for the World
Leanne Howe, Savage Conversations
Anne Carson, Short Talks
Daniel Borzutzky, Lake Michigan
Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
John Gallaher, In a Landscape & Brand New Spacesuit
I’ve had a few requests for materials I can share with book clubs reading RUE. And I was so excited because BOOK CLUBS ARE READING POETRY?! I mean, of course they are, poetry is great. But apparently I’ve been underestimating poetry AND book clubs.
So I’m making the book group discussion guide for RUE available here for anyone to use. And I also want to share a couple resources for book club organizers who might be wondering how to have a great discussion about poetry.
Below are some questions groups are welcome to use to get the conversation going about RUE. If your group likes to incorporate writing exercises into the evening, I recommend modifying this one to suit your needs.
Discussion Questions for Book Clubs Reading RUE
Poets’ voices are often described as lyrical, impressionistic, allusive, narrative, confessional, or intimate. Nuernberger is often described as a “chatty” poet. How would you describe her voice in these poems and how does that style serve the subject?
Do you think anger ever has a purpose? After reading RUE, do you think Nuernberger would agree with you?
Nuernberger frequently references feminist theories and key feminist thinkers like Adrienne Rich. A key feminist principle is that “the personal is political.” To what degree are the very personal poems in this collection political?
What poem was the most challenging for you? Which one was the easiest to understand or relate to? Why?
There are a number of poems in the collection that are about plants historically used for birth control. Before talking about them, think of a flower you recently saw in bloom and google its folklore. Share these findings with the group. Then talk about what kinds of relationships between people and the natural world you see Nuernberger imagining or proposing in these poems.
The book is dedicated to Maya Jewell Zeller and a character in the one of the central narrative poems of the book, “When We Dead Awaken.” How do themes of love and friendship intersect in this collection?
Nuernberger also writes essays. These poems are very conversational and long by poetry’s usual standards. Why do you think she chose to use line breaks? Would the poems work without line breaks?
Are there other writers, artists, or films RUE reminds you of?
I spent this week attending the thesis defenses of my graduate students. I don’t love the word “defense” in this context, as it implies an adversarial stance between mentors and student and suggests that an authority’s approval of a creative work matters. I tend to think to think the task of an artists is to imagine a way through and beyond what has been done before; “defending” requires very opposite impulses.
But I do love defenses!
Specifically, I love the craft talks the students in our program give. I love learning from them and the way the delivery of public craft talks is an invitation to faculty to reverse roles and become a student once more. I love the way I spend a week each May reminded of my own teachers, who once nudged and challenged and nurtured me up to the point of my own thesis defense, and then beyond. And I love that we have a ritual in which we remind students their voices, their aesthetics, their path through the writing life must become entirely their to chart and that there is nothing about the fact of that path they need defend.
Another of the pleasures of defense week for me is that task of writing questions for defenses. I like my questions to serve as jumping-off points for self-reflection. I try to craft questions akin to the ones I ask myself when I feel I am a crossroads in my own writing practice – at the beginning or end of a series, sequence, or manuscript; also when I am thinking about abandoning a project.
While many of my questions this week were personalized to my students’ particular theses, some I think could serve as useful provocations for anyone making a transition in their writing. I’ll share those here:
I often ask students to write imitation poems as a way to build muscle memory for certain kinds of craft techniques or rhetorical moves. To do an imitation you have to read a writer closely and deeply to understand how their styles and themes, syntax and sensibilities are interwoven. How would you go about writing an imitation of yourself?
Whenever I read a poet’s collected works I like to look for poems I think of as vestigial tails – pieces that seem odd or distinct from the other works in the book where they first appeared, but fit in nicely with a book that came after. I love this reminder that writers seldom know in real time who they are becoming and even masterpieces are the result of fumbling in the dark. What poems or pieces of poems in your body of work are outliers that might be pointing towards the voice or style or approach you are growing towards?
What was a particularly challenging poem to shape or craft or articulate? What did you learn from making it work that you have or could apply to other projects?
Describe a piece you tried to make work that never came together. Why did you ultimately decide to abandon that work and what are some of the works that succeeded during or near that time you were struggling? Is it possible that feeling of seemingly fruitless struggle might have made other kinds of work possible, and if so what and how?
When have you been most productive as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that? When have you been most joyful as a writer and what circumstances contributed to that?
As we near the end of the semester I’ve been busy having conferences with students finalizing their senior theses. A lot of these conferences include a conversation about whether students are ready to start submitting their work for publication and what the risks/benefits of that process might be at their stage of development as a writer.
Rejection is a major part of submitting so I think one important question for writers to consider is whether a rejection will make it hard for them to keep writing or not. A lot of newer writers admit that they still feel vulnerable about their work and suspect a rejection might make them question whether they can or should keep going. I admire that kind of self-awareness and think it is really important to protect your psyche as you develop both your voice and confidence as a writer. It is okay to keep your attention on the art itself and save publication for later.
Other students are hungry for an authentic audience to read their work and feel that the idea of an editor reading their work, even if they ultimately decide to pass on it, would be invigorating to their writing and revision process.
Whether or not you are seeking publishers for your work, studying the publishing landscape can be a really helpful way to imagine how your work might speak to its readers. There are so many fantastic magazines with such a diversity of aesthetics flourishing right now. But this abundance can make it hard for emerging writers to find the writers, publishers, and readers who will be most inspiring to them. To help navigate this terrain and find their place among the many writers flourishing right now, I give students the following assignment:
Finding Your Readers by Reading Your Writers
Start by reading a single literary magazine published in your community. (I used to assign my students Pleiades: Literature in Context, because it was the magazine affiliated with my university and many students worked as interns for the publication. Now that I am in Minnesota I might recommend Conduit, Mizna, Water-Stone Review, or Great River Review, though Pleiades continues to be an reliable source of brilliant new work I will never stop recommending.)
Pick 1-3 writers whose work you enjoyed. These form the trunk of your reading tree. If you’re using Pleiades 40.1 to start this project it might look like this:
Look at the bio notes for each of those writers, identify other literary magazines where their work has appeared. Branch out and read a bit of those literary magazines, looking for more writers whose work you like. Your tree will begin to look more like:
Just keep reading and exploring:
Eventually you’ll run out paper and have to let this process of branching and discovering become an ordinary part of your reading and writing life. As a practical matter, this list will help you know which magazines you are most likely to have success submitting to, because if you like what the editors choose to publish, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be drawn to what you are writing. But reading with an eye towards finding those writers who can be models and inspirations to you will also make you a better writer, someone whose craft is always deepening and growing, which will in turn, make your work more likely to be published when you decide to submit.
For years I’ve been starting my writing practice every day by walking to the woods (when I lived near the woods), the meadow (when I lived on homestead in the prairie), or the community farm (when I lived in the city), on the lookout for a plant that lit a spark in my mind. I’d come home and research the plant and then poems would start to happen. (If you’d like more details on this creative practice, I wrote a post about it here.)
Even though I can’t imagine writing poems about plants again after writing about them so much for RUE, I still love the rabbit holes botany research sends me down. Did you know quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, which the post-colonial historian Rohan Deb Roy described in Malarial Subjects as “symbiotic with Empire”? I didn’t, until the day I wanted to know something about liverworts.
I’m a recent convert to Instagram — I missed the pictures-of-food years — but I have loved transforming my private practice of spotting and researching plants into a more public one that incorporates photography into the exercise. This practice has been reminding me how much the craft of poetic imagery overlaps with photographic techniques.
When I started trying to make the camera see what I see in the plants every day, my friend, the filmmaker Polina Malikin, suggested I try to see the plants from below and also at their eye-level. (Or do I mean leaf-level? root-level? blossom-level?) I spend a lot of time these days contorted oddly in the grass at the park, but it really helps my writing to practice so many different ways of seeing.
Louise Gluck’s “The Silver Lily” is a great example of how this videographic approach to poetic imagery can work. The poem begins with tactile sensations in the body:
The nights have grown cool again, like the nights of early spring, and quiet again. Will speech disturb you? We’re alone now; we have no reason for silence.
Then she moves on to an establishing shot of the moon over the garden:
Can you see, over the garden—the full moon rises. I won’t see the next full moon.
We get a sequence of close-ups — snow drops opening and closing, maple seeds falling. There are daffodils in the crook of a tree trunk which the reader sees as if peering over the shoulder of the newly risen moon:
In spring, when the moon rose, it meant time was endless. Snowdrops opened and closed, the clustered seeds of the maples fell in pale drifts. White over white, the moon rose over the birch tree. And in the crook, where the tree divides, leaves of the first daffodils, in moonlight soft greenish-silver.
And then we return to the sensations in the body — fear, trembling, longing:
We have come too far together toward the end now to fear the end. These nights, I am no longer even certain I know what the end means. And you, who’ve been with a man—
after the first cries, doesn’t joy, like fear, make no sound?
Creative Revision Exercise: Choose a poem that isn’t quite working and try rewriting it with three new close-ups. Add an establishing shot and a shot that moves in some way. What happens to your poem if, as in Gluck’s, you frame it with lines situated in the sense of touch or sound, before you turn the camera on?
Regretfully the Spring 2020 book tour for RUE had to be cancelled. It was a bitter pill since I had planned to drive around the country in my used 2002 Coachman RV (we call her Baba Yaga’s House of Poets), picking up friends to read with in different cities along the way. But I am loving the unexpected joy of getting to attend virtual readings during this time of social distancing. I feel closer to the literary community than ever.
Since I’ve been loving the way virtual readings give these lonely days a jolt of unexpected human connection, I wanted to shout out a few of the other online events I’m looking forward to in a couple weeks:
I’m really excited to have my essay, “Medusa and the Poetics of Spells” up at Guernica today. You can read it here. The essay began as a craft talk for a poetry class and evolved into something much more historical and much more personal, so I thought I’d share some outtakes of poems and essays that informed the earlier, more crafty version.
One definition of magic is “making things happen.” Under that rubric a spell is “words that make things happen.” In this context, a political poem can be understood as a spell. Especially the most powerful ones like:
Loricas and caims are ancient forms of protection spells that use litanies as a way to make a circle of language, to have the lines wrap their arms around the speaker. One famous example is St. Patrick’s lorica, also known as “The Deer’s Cry.” The story goes that St. Patrick recited this poem-spell to disguise himself and his followers as deer. I call bullshit on the suggestion that the enemies they sought protection from were druid warriors, though, or at least declare any enemy of a druid is an enemy of mine. Jennifer Givhan’s book Protection Spell is rich with more contemporary examples how the circle of a poem can become a shield. Here’s one.
I wrote a book-review essay on other contemporary poets whose work might be interpreted as spells for West Branch, available online here. Faylita Hicks, Kenji C. Liu, Gala Mukomalova, Ariana Reines, and Janaka Stucky’s work, reviewed in that essay, is always in the back of my mind when I’m writing and thinking about spells.