Lauren Gordon is the author of four chapbooks, Meaningful Fingers (Finishing Line Press, 2014), Keen (Horse Less Press, 2014), Fiddle Is Flood (Blood Pudding Press, 2015) and Generalizations About Spines (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). She is also a Contributing Editor to Radius Lit. In this interview, conducted by Lizi Gilad, she talks about her recent chapbook, a collection of persona poems inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.
Gilad: First things first: why Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Gordon: I grew up reading the Little House on the Prairie series, so the poems originally began from a place of nostalgia and love. As a character, Laura Ingalls Wilder (and I feel the need to delineate between the person vs. the character since the series was fictionalized) spoke to me in her need to always to be a good girl. I understood Laura’s existential crisis on a deep level, even as a young reader. It is one thing to have the knowledge of right and wrong and another to weld behavior accordingly. I began re-reading the series for pleasure when I was a graduate student and going through a divorce. I had just relocated to Wisconsin and lived across the street from a small, undeveloped prairie. And I found myself getting annoyed with those re-readings. Where were the outhouses? In a house full of women, why does no one ever discuss menstruation? Or the death of Laura’s brother? Did Laura’s mother have “the talk” before she married Almanzo as a teenager? In my own grieving over the dissolution of my marriage, I had a strong desire to recreate a more adult version of Laura and after a few experimental series poems, the project took shape.
As I read the chapbook, one word of several that immediately came to mind was ‘ekphrasis’. The poems that make up Fiddle Is Flood absolutely engage with the material of Little House on The Prairie but at the same time, very much are their own thing. The reader need not be familiar with Wilder or with her books to appreciate your poems. I’m wondering if you can discuss a little bit about your engagement with the material—did you set out to do ekphrastic work? Was it the LHOTP collection that sparked engagement and led you to create this work, or were you more interested in having a “conversation” with Laura Ingalls Wilder?
Thank you for saying the reader does not need to be familiar with LHOTP – I was not sure of that, so it’s nice to hear it. Persona poetry is interesting as a subject and these are definitely persona poems that are mostly Laura, but her daughter Rose appears in a line or two and there is also a narrator occasionally. I definitely used emulation in language to create the persona. I like the idea that it’s a conversation, but truthfully it is probably closer to appropriation than an exchange. I inhabited the character to give it a voice it could not have had; to create a safe space where a thirteen year old invention could filter sexuality, gender, loss, racism… it is occasionally painful to read the LHOTP series now as an adult with the context of the history that was actually occurring around the family’s migrations. Now that the annotated biography has been released (and boy did that feed my desire to know “the truth”) the books can be read with a different lens. That was really my intent when writing these poems. I just wanted a darker Laura to come home to. I’m also interested in the blurred line between fact and fiction, how my Laura is sort of an unreliable narrator which makes you realize the Laura in the books is also sort of an unreliable (though likable) narrator.
One of the things that seriously seduced me about this chapbook is the darkness, discomfort, and eroticism you evoke in each poem. For example, the final lines in “Ma Scraps the Boiled Orange”:
I listen for the Indians
press a cold tongue
to the ceiling of my mouth
lay a hot hand
to myself under
the piecemeal quilt
Or, from “Pa Sent Me to Town”:
look at me strangely, Ma
say it with biscuits
say it with blackbirds sweet
are the uses of adversity
if you live like a barren field
lit with prairie fires
there isn’t a single rabbit left in this country mother
And, from “Then Grasshoppers Crawled Over the Baby”
to fuck their way west
and lay quivering gray jelly
in the hot earth
These lines recall to me Roland Barthes writing about the pleasure of the text—“that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas I do” because my body reacted to your poems in ways I wasn’t necessarily prepared for or interested in: a flush in the face, perhaps a quickened pulse. But these unwanted physical reactions, their disturbing the air around them with sexuality, violence, and darkness are I think part of what makes them so successful as ekphrastic pieces.
I feel like I need to go back and reread Wilder’s books! When I think about her work, especially LHOTP, I feel nostalgic, warm, and happy. My memory of reading Wilder is joyful and nourishing, sure, yet quite simple and uncomplicated. Reading your chapbook complicated my memory a bit. What did I miss, I wondered, and what belongs solely to the poet’s imagination? Would my reading of Wilder as an adult be more nuanced and complex? I’m thankful your text complicated things for me, muddled my memories and led me to darker, stranger “prairies”. This is all a long windup to ask you to discuss the edges in these poems, your apparent desire to subvert the texts (our memories of it), to dirty and cloud and storm.
Well, definitely go back and read the series – but I don’t know if you will find too many sexy parts! I mean, there are a lot of awkward sleigh rides and a little jealousy when it comes to Almanzo. But I think you nailed it, that the books are a comfortable, safe, happy, and warm space, until you impose Truth. Then they start to cast a shadow and it’s hard to un-see the shadow in the re-readings. As a comfortable, sheltered white kid, even I knew that the scene where Pa is in black-face yukking it up at church, was “controversial” (to say the least) but it has a different overtone in a contextual reading. There is a consistent theme of the Other in these books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a racist. She was kind-hearted and loving and clever, but let’s be clear about it – she was racist and her family was racist. We are talking about systematic, fundamental racism. When writing the poems, it was easier for me to inhabit taboo sexuality and puberty and to insert Rose as a counter to Laura’s “fond racism” (think of Laura wanting to own an Indian infant because of its “inky black eyes”). The poem about the Indian who predicts the long winter (who has remained unnamed, despite the annotated biography research) is an important one in the manuscript, because without those pointers, it is too easy to slip into the romanticism of prairie life, when it was anything but. My version is also not the Truth. It’s just a spin.
I’m not going to win any brownie points for creating Laura Ingalls Wilder as a masturbating racist, I know. I don’t think I had to manipulate the texts too much to even bring the racism into the forefront. I wish sexuality had been less taboo, because it is so hard for me to fathom being a sixteen year old bride, and I am a rubbernecker for the nitty gritty. Her courting period was full of a lot of angst, with little talk of choice or love. That grew from circumstance maybe. Almanzo steps in as a new sort of father figure. Grief and sex are tied together. The loss of her brother (and her own subsequent miscarriage, which is another sub-current in the poems) is another lever for subversion. In her annotated biography, the death of her brother is reported in one sentence and is rarely dwelt on again: “one terrible day, he straightened out his little body and was dead.” That sentence rocks me. It minimizes the grief while at the same time explodes it – it happened on one terrible day, his body was little and stiff and that was that. I became a mother while revising and writing this manuscript, so the persona’s grief is really my grief of course. But it’s an interesting idea that there is a text within a text and both can be mixed together or re-imagined for a new perspective. And I might have a little bit of a warped sense of the world.
I noticed in your acknowledgments sections you thanked a few people for letting you “talk about this manuscript for the last six years.” I am fascinated by this declaration of love—I mean, love for the work you were doing, love for LIW. Can you talk a little about why you stayed with this project for that period of time and why/how were you so committed to it?
Sure. This started as an experiment under the tutelage of Ilya Kaminsky, who is an incredible poet and an even more wonderful person. He encouraged me to keep going with it and see where it would take me. It went through a lot of changes and I became that one guy at the bar that just gets drunk every night and tells the same story over and over again about how his wife left him and took the dog. I worked on this manuscript and then I shelved it. And then I worked on it again. And then I shelved it again. And I had a hard time publishing individual pieces, because the poems all ran together like a bad watercolor. And the pitch “these are Laura Ingalls Wilder persona poems” has few editors hurrying to publish. One very renowned publishing house wrote to me and said they could see it having great YA appeal. It made me wonder if they had even read the manuscript. So this manuscript (in all its variations) really went through the ringer until it became what it is now. And the few wonderful journals that did run these poems have my undying gratefulness. I am lucky to have such talented and kind poet friends – friends who said “this is good, don’t give up” and friends who said “it isn’t about where you publish or who you know, it’s about having people in your life that believe in what you’re trying to do.” So I kept those kernels of wisdom close. This is what we do for our art, right? We create it, we throw it away, we look at it again, we salvage it, we shelve it, and then we shoo it out the front door à la Anne Bradstreet.
Then, if you happen to be a glutton for punishment, you revise it for a full length manuscript.
Your attention to sound and wordplay is delicious. I have a sense that perhaps the language of that time and place may have been the first seed for this whole collection. Certain words that just feel very Wilder, very LHOTP. Calico, jug, butter, fiddle, grass, chirruped, pail, pa, ma, mud, etc. Well, obviously some of these words are not at all just of this time and place, but amiright? The particulars of the language specific to that time and place, were they your muse?
You have a good eye! Thank you. A lot of the language is straight from the books. That was important to create familiarity and to then do a little twist through repetition, alliteration, consonance and rhythm. You see Pa call Laura “little half pint” but it takes on a sort of sinister crumbling in the poem. I mean, sure, you wouldn’t read the words “spawning ovum” in the Little House series. The repetition was key to the song-like quality. I wrote the first series poem as if it were a hymn, like I was singing the verses. Ilya was, of course, the perfect foil for that kind of work, because his own poetry sings. I always say he taught me how to sing, especially when I didn’t think I had a voice. The language operates as a metaphor for the family’s endless traveling, in a sing-song way that mimics Pa’s fiddle. Music was an important part of Laura’s life. It just made sense that the manuscript should honor that.
I believe this is your third or fourth chapbook, yes? What are your thoughts on the chapbook form? Do you prefer to work smaller? Do you think the material in Fiddle Is Flood required a briefer manuscript?
Yes, this was chapbook #3 out of 4. I love chapbooks. I love reading in small bites. I love the affordability and the art and love put into them. No one is starting a chapbook press because they want to make money. It’s purely for the love of the art. I don’t necessarily prefer to work smaller, but it just happens that way! Fiddle was a long series poem at first, and then it evolved into a chapbook manuscript – and then I wrote for another year and it grew into a full length manuscript. After sending it out and getting a lot of honest feedback (YA appeal, lol) I cut it back down to a succinct chapbook manuscript. I thought it would be neat to see a handmade chapbook for this manuscript with a small press and I was lucky that it won the contest with Blood Pudding Press. The editor, Juliet Cook, makes really lovely handmade chapbooks and I’m so happy with the finished product. It seems like something that is true to the art. I also created the artwork for the cover. It’s a combination of images from a children’s nursery rhyme book from the nineteenth century. Hidden in the scroll-work are the names of my husband and daughter, and the blackbird is homage to Blood Pudding Press’s journal, Thirteen Myna Birds.
Did I veer from the question? I was very invested in finding the right home for it. It is now part of a full length manuscript (I am shopping) that combines this chapbook with another I published last year with Horse Less Press called “Keen” – persona poems about Nancy Drew. I swear I never meant to become this gimmicky. So I like the idea that chapbooks can become full length manuscripts with the right maneuvering. And I’m nuts – I am so delighted with the idea of bringing Nancy side by side with Laura. It changes the entire conversation about authorship and literature for young girls.
What’s the last best book you read?
It’s a three way tie, is that ok? “rel[am]ent” by Jamison Crabtree, “Last Psalm at Sea Level” by Meg Day, and “The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison” by Maggie Smith. I will gush. I am very close to gushing. Three wonderful, important books and poets.
Are you working on anything new?
I am. I am trying to publish this full length of Fiddle and Keen, and also sending out two other chapbook manuscripts – one is experimental poems about the dissolution of marriage through addiction and the other is more formal poetry about relationships. Hmm, thematic. I am going to the Tin House summer workshop in July to work on a full length manuscript I have been laboring over for about five years now. I just want to get this thing finished and polished and into the world. This one is my heart and soul on paper. It (I) needs resolution. I get to work with Natalie Diaz and I am already sweaty and nervous and giddy. Isn’t poetry wonderful?
Is there anything I neglected to ask you that you’d like to address?
Do you think a Choose Your Own Adventure anthology of poetry would be insane? Like one poet writes one poem without an ending and another poet writes an alternative ending and then another poet writes another ending or another beginning and maybe there is artwork and… children’s literature, it’s a whole plum ready for picking.
Fiddle is Flood is available from Blood Pudding Press.
Lizi Gilad’s recent work can be found in Dum Dum Zine, Forklift Ohio, and Poor Claudia. Her first chapbook,Hyperion, will be released by Big Lucks in the winter of 2015.