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.
Life is strange. A few years ago I did not know your name, and then I knew your name but had not read your work, and then I purchased a book of your poems but it troubled me and I struggled with it. And then something happened, what happened, not only did I know your name but your name I called teacher, and your work I called teacher, and I returned again and again to spend time inside your poems. Your poems which continue to trouble me and struggle me, but which also light up my mind and language and sound in ways I’ve come to need.
And then (to continue my life is strange is story…) a professor (M Zapruder) wrote to let me know about a course you were teaching on James Schuyler and I wrote to you and you responded. Now your name, your poem name and teacher name, were in my inbox and every time I saw your name in my inbox I laughed. Because how wonderful your name in my inbox, along with emails from my daughter’s school letting me know about the latest fundraiser or emails from my love asking about a charge on the most recent credit card bill or linking to an article he thought I might enjoy or emails from facebook letting me know I’d been “tagged”. Your name in the electronic hubbub of my life. And then I was your actual student, virtually joining your other students in your Toronto living room on Sunday afternoons to read James Schuyler’s Collected Poems and look out your living room window into your Toronto snow while the Southern California sun beamed down on me in my airless den. Life is strange.
I just read over the above paragraphs and now I’m cringing that maybe it’s too much, the repetition of your name, the word “need”, the “I” and “you” over and over again. I’m well aware that one’s literary heroes are available on the page more than in “real life”. I’ve also learned that just because you love a poet’s work doesn’t mean you love the poet, even though sometimes the distinction becomes blurry. And most importantly–familiarity, intimacy with a poet’s work should not assume intimacy with the poet. So I cringe at all of the above, not knowing how you will receive it, if it is too much or if you will be bothered by it, but I’ll forge onward because your work and your teaching has had a significant impact on the way I read and write. I’ve been your student as a reader of your work and as a participant in your living room salon; I’d like to tell you a little bit about what it has been to be your student.
If you don’t mind, I’ll share with you a piece of a letter I wrote to my current poetry teacher, Anthony McCann, in which I discussed my initial response to reading As Long As Tress Last:
“I can’t stop thinking about the following line in Cage’s Indeterminacy lecture: ‘…all things—stories, incidental sounds from the environment, and, by extension, beings—are related, and that this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.’ God, that idea is enough to keep me grinding my teeth for the next six months because I think I don’t allow things to stand on their own in my poems without connecting dots or establishing relationship. How does one do that? Perhaps it is only true artists (poets) who have that ability and vision?
I think I saw idea this “in action” numerous times in both Minnis’ and Nguyen’s work. Two examples immediately come to mind. First “The Problem” by Hoa Nguyen:
The problem of money soap dish
Want to make a soap dish out of a flat
rock Need a new notebook
And what does it mean to not want
A bouquet of planted succulents
with preserved moss (dark)
Using cotton panties
for a poetry bookmark
What. The. Hell. I don’t get it. But it makes me feel and helps me look at “the problem of money” (and lack and desire) in a completely new way. I have no idea what the relationship is between the various components, but somehow it doesn’t matter. And I can’t get out of my mind the image of cotton panties wedged into a book of poetry. Strangely perfect.”
In that letter, I also wrote:
“There were several instances in reading Nguyen’s work that I felt unable to enter into the poem, to grapple with it or live in it. Take for example “Dirt-Under-Nails Dirt”.
Green bathroom floor
rug and the yellow mug
you loved Cutting stop
Stop her there like a
Long hair when mine is
We love are
We love are folds
around the stripes of being
We can We love
are slung nests
Vireo eye masks
Reading these lines feels like ice-skating over a smooth, unbreakable surface. There’s no cracking into them for me. It bothers me a lot when I feel unable to enter a poem. I feel bad not “getting” it and I feel bad not knowing what makes this a “good” poem. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I did experience a shift in perspective while reading Nguyen’s collection. Around page 28, I started to notice my unfortunate tendency to question the relation between each line (“what does this have to do with this?”). I immediately returned to the Cage passage I began with: “…this complexity is more evident when it is not oversimplified by an idea of relationship in one person’s mind.” This realization feels very important to me: I am constantly trying to establish the relationship between each word and each line, oversimplifying, instead of letting each line simply be therefore allowing its natural complexity. By page 28, “Absence And A Cushion,” I began to read each poem as a miniature Joseph Cornell box. This was an exciting transformation in my reading. Perhaps this is not the “right” way to read a poem, but letting go of the need to “understand” relationship or establish it for each line of the poem makes me feel giddy with the possibility of what this might open up.”
I wrote the letter above not too long ago, actually, about 8 months ago. Since then, I’ve spent virtually all of my creative time exploring “the possibility of what this might open up” and the shift in perspective I experienced reading your work has remained–not only has it remained, it has completely altered my experience and pleasure of poetry. I dwell in your poems for the sounds they make, the world of moments they let me inhabit. Now I think I’m no longer satisfied with thinking of your poems as a miniature Joseph Cornell box—as much as I appreciate the work of Joseph Cornell, your poems take me to a different space, a different location of experience and perception, and forcefully resist framing/possession: I can enter your poems, submerge myself in their liquid and dirt, feel held or carried by them, but I cannot “keep” them the way I might keep a talisman, a work of art hung on my wall, a line by Hopkins “Glory be to God for dappled things—“. Your poems feel to me as if they are happening in the present moment I read them in, constantly moving and changing like a river. Even though the words are the same each time I open one of your books, they change. They are a different color each time, a different song, a different taste. Or am I the one who has changed? But not all poems move with me, or move me (that is, my consciousness) the way yours do.
Your poems have made me want poems to work harder. I don’t want narration. Poems stuck in single time with chronology that moves in a single direction make me cranky. Is there really such a thing as moving directly from point A to point B? I don’t think so. I think poems exist in compressed space and time, in pendular or circular or jagged movement. I’m curious to know how you see the time and space of a poem (and of life).
Your poems have given a rhythm and a sound and a feel to the way life unfolds and encircles. I return yet again to the strangeness of life. I resist the laziness of explanation, the desire we all have for reason. Reason as in the way I first read your line “Thus began my habit then/of stealing certain things from men”: ashamed to admit I thought, “oh, she stole from rich men because she was poor” and also a judgment “Hoa Nguyen stole?”. This line for me now hums with resonance and I don’t need to know whether it is autobiographical or symbolic or both—it just is. My tendency is to want meaning, reason, to see things as I want them to be, not as they are, and if I can’t do that to disavow their existence. Your poems have given me the ability? eyes? language? spirit? desire? to be with the world and name it as it exists, at the very least in my writing, if not my life.
Thank you, Hoa, for making my life stranger and thus more beautiful.
With sincere admiration and affection,
Lizi Gilad Silver
Lizi Gilad Silver holds an MFA from UC Riverside’s low residency program. Her work has appeared in Amethyst Arsenic, A-Minor, burntdistrict, The Rumpus, Weave, and others.