Laura Madeline Wiseman: Ann Patchett talks about the writing advice and guidance she received as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College from Allan Gurganus, Russell Banks, Grace Paley, and more in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Talk about advice you received as a very young writer and how that advice has eventually enabled you to write this book.
Sara Henning: During my undergraduate years, I worked with two poets whom I admire and love as fathers and artists: L.S. Klatt and Brian Henry. L.S. (Lew), the current Poet Laureate of the greater Grand Rapids area and professor of literature and creative writing at Calvin College, was a doctoral student when I enrolled in his introductory creative writing class during the summer of 1999. Though he has since gone on to garner such distinctions as the Juniper Prize for Poetry and the Iowa Poetry Prize, at the time he was a kind and overworked graduate student who did nothing but embolden me. I was scared pre-med student wading in forbidden territory, and he gave me the chance to chase my real desires in an empathic place. While what I was writing didn’t speak toward capabilities I would only discover later, he was the first person to give me permission to write from a place of graceful imperfection.
From Lew’s hands, I passed into an advanced poetry class with Brian Henry. Brian, whose distinctions are too far to name, but include accomplished poet, translator, editor, literary critic and professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Richmond, taught me to be a rigorous reader and a disciplined writer. It was with Brian that I learned to cry and laugh with the poets who would stay in my heart as I continued to write poem after poem, including strong female writers such as Jorie Graham, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Anne Carson. I still have drafts of poems Brian took his pen to, underlining the few promising kernels (and crossing out large sections!), writing in the margins words like “amazing.” I wanted to rewrite the poems for Brian, because Brian was raw, experimental, brilliant, and believed in me in a way that I could not believe in myself. With Brian, I published in Fence as an undergraduate. Because of Brian, I did advanced summer creative writing institutes at the University of Georgia, wrote a creative honor’s thesis of poems, and got into George Mason University. At the last AWP in Seattle, I had the joy of running into poet and artist Tara Rebele, Brian’s wife. It gave me such joy to give her a copy of my debut collection, to tell her what I hope even one future student of mine will tell me: because of Brian, I am what I am.
To sum up my undergraduate experience, Brian and Lew taught me to be fiercely loving to the poems in front of me, to write as scrupulously as I read, and to believe in myself as much as I would learn to believe in my work. I could not have written A Sweeter Water without the humility and tenacity these men taught me, reserves I’d call on to draft, sculpt, and re-write the poems of my father’s suicide over and over, poems that literally taught me that pain can be a catalyst for actualization.
LMW: I love how you describe the examples of what your undergraduate teachers taught you. I have so many teachers I’d like to thank from my undergrad at Iowa State University, but particularly my teachers Deborah Marquart, Fern Kupfer, and Steve Pett.
SDH: I am so excited to hear that you also had wonderful experiences with your formative professors! I think about those foundational influences when I think about how I approach subjects that feel important for me to explore—how I might veer and elide with mentors as I find my own way. This leads me into my next question for you. As a poet interested in the trope of myth, will you speak a bit about your draw to female subjects who have been silenced or unspoken for in your current work? What do you hope to accomplish by the task of reclaiming their voices and/or telling their stories, and do you think that this task is especially exigent in our current cultural climate?
LMW: My mother had a baby blue hardback edition of the Grimm fairy tales, one with gold embossed lettering on the cover and edge gilding. Sometimes at bedtime we were allowed to crawl into her queen-sized bed and she would read us a story from those pages of onion skin, those tiny words, under that soft glow of her bedside light. I’m not sure if she read the versions of the bluebeard story from Grimm to us, but it was a story I recognized later while I was working on my masters degree in women’s studies at the University of Arizona. For my thesis, I was examining the ways in which women authors challenged gender expectations in their work and read Margaret Atwood’s short story “Bluebeard’s Egg.” Later still, when teaching introduction to literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I asked my students to use the Power and Control Wheel to find the ways abusers use gender violence to maintain power and control. I always participate in the activities I ask my students to do. As they worked in pairs, I selected “The Robber Bridegroom” to see how this bluebeard holds his bride-to-be and the elderly woman who serves him restrained by the threat of what he might do by the threat of what he’d already violently done. This past summer as I was writing Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience and after I had researched bluebeard retellings and the scholarship about them, I started looking into popular culture, for though bluebeard existed in the distant past, in contemporary feminist literature, and in literary scholarship, I couldn’t recall a recent movie adaptation of a man who slaughtered his wives. I found two films available streaming and free on Youtube. The first was a bluebeard version made in 2009, one of those wonderful British films on low budget, but no less appealing for its decadent costumes, faux castle sets, and charming accents. I also watched the 1972 American version of Bluebeard with Richard Burton and Raquel Welch.
It’s hard not to be appalled by the depiction of women in television and film, even during times deemed revolutionary, like the second wave of the feminist movement, yet, here was this film. Here, we learn that bluebeard murders his wives at the point at which the wives ask to have sex with him, after all his various attempts to elide such sexual encounters have failed, and when sex is the only thing he can no longer deny, being the husband, as he is, and married, having yet to consummate those holy matrimonial vows. Bluebeard and his wives do not have sex.
Each time, he murders them.
Certainly, the film does fault Bluebeard’s sexual impotency as the site by which we are to understand his violence act—a site and explanation left out of many of the original fairy tales. This 1972 Bluebeard must kill her to save himself the disgrace of admitting, that no, he’s not a man in that (sexual) way. Yet, in the film, Bluebeard tells his last wife about his previously murdered wives—offered to viewers in flashbacks—via his gaze and thus, his rational, as a way for his wife and viewers to empathize with him and the murderous acts presented as inevitable. Of course, he seems to suggest, we’ll believe and be convinced he had to murder them. If the murders of his wives aren’t enough, it is the wife that I’d mark as feminist that he violently and physically beats and eventually drowns, that gives one pause to consider how far the feminist revolution actually extended into popular culture in 1972. This wife—when compared to the other wives who appear in the film in more stereotypical female roles—has a first opening line that she presents from a podium speaking to a crowd where some carry signs that read “Universal Suffrage.”
Her first line: We must rebel against the tyranny of the male.
This is a wife who drinks, drives motorcars, flies planes, and shoots a gun, bull’s-eye, dead center into the paper target of a man. Though Bluebeard calls her “extraordinary,” he explains to his current wife that “she hated men.” This is a woman and wife who says in the 1972 film, “men have enslaved women for centuries,” and, “so called female weakness is a male invention.” Upon her first beating by Bluebeard, she magically appears to want to be slapped, punched, and beaten. She demands, as she tosses her head, that Bluebeard hit her and whip her until her eventual murder.
After I’d watched that film, I turned to my husband and asked, Could bluebeard be remade today, here? I wasn’t sure, for if the answer is yes, what viable reason would Hollywood offer as the legitimate excuse for his murderous acts?
To be fair, the very thought of such a film chills me, for look at the facts. A woman is physically beaten every fifteen seconds in the United States by a man, a father, a boyfriend, a husband, or a lover. Every two minutes, a woman is raped. About one third of women murdered are murdered by their intimate partners. For the majority of women, we don’t need a movie about women being murdered or beaten or raped by their husbands. That’s what we see in music videos, films, television, and advertisements. That’s what we hear coming through our thin apartment walls. That’s what we feel as the tension, that coil of invisible twine thrumming between a couple so taunt all of us fear to touch it. Stand across that room, and you can still palpitate his violence.
But we have to touch it. And by writers, I mean, we have to write and rewrite it. I feel that we as writers have an opportunity to offer other stories, to tell what Bluebeard’s wives might have told had they been given the full opportunity, to break the silences culture routinely keeps to maintain the status quo by filling that silent void with words.
SDH: We do have to touch it, because what is an artist’s goal besides portraying a culture’s contemporary moment? I’m so moved by your process of doing this in your current collection, and I strive for similar goals in my work.
LMW: And I too am moved by the beauty you present in telling the story of suicide and its aftermath on family in A Sweeter Water. This brings me to my next question. What happens to a poet as she matures from the young poet as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, an MFA student at George Mason University, to a doctoral candidate at the University of South Dakota with a first book just out in the world? Have your themes and interests evolved? Is your sense of the poetic landscape more sophisticated? Do you see versions of your developing self as a poet in your writing, and if so, in what ways?
SDH: I am going to start my answer to this lovely question with a nod to a poet very special to me—Rainer Maria Rilke. In his first letter to the young Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke advises him, for better and for worse: “Nobody can advise you and help you. Nobody. There is only one way—Go into yourself.” I think this initial rebuff by Rilke, while externally taciturn, does hold some interior truth. I have had, and have, mentors who have helped me develop my relationship to my writing as it stands, and without them my relationship to my art would be vastly different. Though I have had excellent mentorship, much of the work I have accomplished relies on following through on suggestions, and trusting my relationship with my work. We all know that art is dependent on synthesizing one’s emotional and cultural tapestry, and the work, as the young and older poet recognizes, can only be completed, and recognized, in the process. I am going to stop speaking in generalities.
I began my relationship with poetry in an unhinged way, because my life soon after the time of discovery was pretty unhinged. I traversed my way through influences the way that I traversed my way through dysfunctional relationships inside and outside of my family, discovering holes just to find the answers in another hole. This time, of course, was not all dark. I deepened my breadth of knowledge of contemporary poetry in a way that informed my relationship with the writing practice, what was invaluable to me. Like many people pursuing an MFA, I had the chance to work closely with mentors whom I admired and had a chance to explore my writing through vast experimentation, including poets Eric Pankey, Susan Tichy, and Sally Keith. I would say, like many people exiting an MFA program, that it was in the later MFA and hard post-MFA years that I feel like I began to write the poems which had transcendent social and personal meaning for me. I always have had an interest in the human body and the way the body traverses the physical and emotional space around it. My beginning poetry was especially metaphysical. I found, over the years, as I began to write about my parents, that I could apply philosophical questions to concrete situations, and could create the foundational sinew that I was lacking, and craving, in my earlier poetry.
Thus, my first book is a document of my poetic progress and arrival—rawer than the work I am writing now, containing a certain verve that current, more jaded self embodies in different incarnations. I am being wry here, but only partially. I think as we grow, our interests meld into altered spheres, and we manifest them disparately. I am currently interested less in my own body than in the woman’s body as cultural perjure and victim. I am interested in tracing familial dynamics that lead women toward instability and victimhood rather than just my own experience with this, though both explorations inform each other. I am still very interested in nature and place (both of these themes dominate my first book and chapbook) and I think this continues to manifest in my current writing. I think my work shows my different incarnations of development that I hope will continue to grow.
LMW: I love how you say your first book is “poetic process and arrival” and that your early writing was “the chance to explore” through “vast experimentation”. That resonates so well with my own work, the ways that each new project feels like a process that eventually arrives and that the poetic self is evolving as we writers write.
SDH: I love that writing and the self are able to negotiate that duality! So, I’ve got to ask: as an author with a stunning publication record—including three full-length collections, one collaborative book, two letter press books, eight chapbooks, and editorship of one of the most important anthologies of the twenty-first century—can you describe one of your early literary discoveries?
LMW: Okay! Let me tell you a different story, not an analysis of Bluebeard, but a slow discovery of another classic retelling, this one with a much longer history.
In AP English in high school, we were assigned The Iliad by Mrs. McCullum, this feisty, buoyant teacher who began each class with the statement, “Today will be a fabulous day!” and who gave me as a graduation gift a copy of the selected poems of Emily Dickenson. The previous year while in P.E., my track coach had a hard backed copy of The Firebrand by Marion Zimmerman Bradley in a metal tray on his desk where he often sat as we walked the class hour around the basketball court. Milling with the other students as he joked and sent his booming voice into the commodious space, I picked up the orangey book, puzzled over the title, the author, and the press logo. He said, “Take it. It’s yours.” Her novel was a retelling of Homer’s story of the Trojan Horse from the perspective of Cassandra, the cursed daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, who had the power of foresight but was cursed to never be believed whenever she portended what would come. Over the summer I read The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, books I picked up from a used bookstore for seventy-five cents a piece, part of my summer reading list aimed at reading a given number of books until those sultry, Midwest days came to their inevitable end. Earlier still, my fifth grade teacher showed movies most Friday afternoons and a few of those were cinematic recastings of ancient texts.
One way Mrs. McCullum taught students to understand the Illiad was by having us fill out a summary worksheet where we added to the blanks the details of the story. If we’d read the book and filled out the worksheet, then we as a class could have a discussion moving from the same starting place—if this is the story, than what does it mean? In that humid corner classroom with windows lining two of the walls, in those wooden and cast iron desks made sticky by the sweat of our arms, backs, and thighs, and among all those bent heads furiously trying to fill out the blanks over a reading assignment not all had managed to complete, after an allotment of time to work on our own, we were paired. The gal ahead of me—a good friend I’d known throughout high school and who spent her summers clowning with her brothers, praying with her youth group, and reading books other than those I had read—turned in her desk, her sheet of answers mostly empty and her pencil shaft chewed, looked at my sheet and growled in half-frustration and half-jubilant hope, “You did the reading, then?”
My friend clearly had not done this reading. I had done this reading, the rereading, the rereadings, and had discovered in those readings that writers retell stories, recast stories, remake them to reoffer a new way to see what we had thought we’d seen before, but now looking at it, we see it anew. As an eighteen-year-old with a stomach gurgling for lunch and hot enough that my legs stuck to the wooden seat and my flesh made a sucking sound whenever I recrossed them as I sought a little coolness, a bit of air between skin and desk, I likely wouldn’t have been able to articulate that discovery. I likely would’ve laughed, bemused, looking at my friend’s frizzy and curling hair, her face flushed and damp, her mouth gaped and brow pinched as she snatched my worksheet and compared it to her own. As I watched her smugly eye the teacher tucked absentmindedly behind her desk at the front of the room and began to fill in her sheet with my answers, I would’ve laughed again as she listed all the reasons why she didn’t do the reading, how the book was the dumbest book ever, and when exactly was this interminable last year going to end.
My discovery: writers retell stories of the past.
But wait, there’s more to it than that.
Fast-forward beyond high school to college and grad school, where after reading those early Homeric texts, I read and/or taught Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, Judy Grahn’s The Queen of Wands, and others. What I loved about such texts, like Marian Zimmerman Bradley’s Firebrand that I’d read as a teen, was that shifting of perspective, that altering of the story ever so slightly by offering it up from another pair of eyes. How does the Trojan War appear from the vantage of Helen, what about from beside Penelope’s loom, or walking with Aeneas’ young, voiceless wife Lavinia as her child plays with acorns in the courtyard? To write such stories gives us a chance to imagine and inhabit that same world, but now one more fully drawn and conceived, with more voices, individuals, and perspectives. For me as a writer and poet, writing Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience was a logical step because though I had read bluebeard as a young person and a young scholar, I was curious to know just what his wives did think about those keys and how did they approach that locked room they were told never to enter. And I was disobedient enough to want to hear their story, to let those voices speak about such a fatal, matrimonial world.
SDH: Perhaps in the re-telling, we as writers are grasping for individual meaning in eternal truths, forging through the ones were are given a priori, before the moment of conception, the ones then passed on to us through genetic and cultural memory. Perhaps if the act of writing is the act of revision, or re-vision, and like writers who inspired us, we are drawn to things knowable and unexplainable that we nonetheless furiously murmur over and over, then incarnation, re-imagining, re-experiencing, are the methods to discovering real artistic wholeness.
LMW: I think you’re right. I love that idea of wholeness.
You’ve offered us an insight into the powerful teachers who encouraged you as an undergraduate and the books and authors who have nurtured you as a developing writer. Can you offer us a complete and whole picture by talking about a few of your very early experiences composing stories and poems and the delights such acts offered to a young girl who would become a poet?
SDH: Sure! Like many children born to a single mother, I grew up in daycare. My mother, for as long as I can remember, worked two jobs, trying to survive independently in the 1980’s, when opportunities for women, and the woebegone notion of equal pay, were, to use an aphorism, imperfect at best. Thus, like many artists, I was given the chance early on to embody, internalize, and attempt to find salve for, economic and existential deprivation. As it happened, like many children raised without siblings, I was forced to engage in singular play that would double as functional lessons in how to navigate the world. Therefore, I told stories, though the material text was often changeable: I sang them, I danced them, I wrote them when I had developed acuity with penmanship, though I never had the intervention of others to silence or correct my assumptions. I was the center of my own universe, soothsayer of Stevens’s “the the” with blonde hair and corduroys stained with red clay.
When I became school-age, my grandparents paid for me to go to Montessori School, a model of education that encouraged artistic expression, personal discovery, and learning at one’s own pace. I spent most of my elementary and middle school years in small classrooms engaged in one-on-one relationships with my teachers, who would push me to continue finding answers in ways that were both Socratic and Rogerian. Our school was minimalistic to the point of being acetic (we sat on the floor) and avoided technology in most forms (there was an old Mac in our Middle School classroom that no one touched except for the occasional game of Oregon Trail during recess). With a school and a home-life that offered little beyond the pleasure of the mind, I turned to books and stories as early as I could read. Then, I started writing my own.
I suppose I was always empty and wanted to fill my bottomless teacup, eager to gain mastery over an environment that I would never have mastery over, because I was poor, I was a girl, I was raised in rural Georgia, and in my familial structure, men made the world and women fussed over petty trifles. Many in my position would become statistics before they finished high school, whether they became pregnant, dropped out, or turned to lives of coarse survival, and I accepted it as I accepted the next rainstorm or news reel. Because I knew no one would read them, I was free to write reams of stories about my cats, exhaustive journal entries every evening before bed, poems before I knew they were poems. They felt like my conversation with the evening as it pulsed through my windows, my conversation with my dead father, my conversation with a mother who either worked or fell asleep on the sofa. Ultimately, they became my conversations with silence, comfortable and dreamy, when nothing in my life was comfortable or dreamy.
I have no idea where the stacks and stacks of filled notebooks are now, the daily rants and visions, much less the heap I’d request at the beginning of each summer (there must be eight years’ worth of binges), because as my grandmother zoned out to soap operas and my grandfather drank in his study, I was left to entertain myself, writing from morning to evening, writing until my hand, stained with pencil, hurt from bearing down, and writing past the pain. For all I know, they got lost in my mother’s last move, but the loss doesn’t matter. At that point, I wrote without a critic, valuing the process, not the product, and in my writing, I finally felt Italo Calvino’s version of lightness, which was everything. I was finally free.
LMW: Though our stories are different, I think you and I shared that surplus of creation as young writers. I always find it surprising that we writers often write so much while children and teens and then, when adults, some find it surprising that we’ve turned ourselves into writers. I often want to say, Of course we’re writers. We’ve been doing it all along.
Thank you so much, for this conversation, Sara! I’ve absolutely enjoyed it.
SDH: Thank you as well, and likewise!
In Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), a campy, contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth, Laura Madeline Wiseman charts the love of three sisters who each marry the same man upon the demise of the sister who preceded her. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but Wiseman focuses on the love each of his unfortunate wives felt, the first blush of romance and young marriage, the complicated turns of mature desire and the past we bring into our present affections.
In A Sweeter Water (2013), Sara Henning’s debut collection, lyric surface collides with both dreamscape and haunted reality in a metanarrative of longing. Within a re-invented diction of elegy, loss is its own gripping and hazardous splendor: dahlia as talisman for new awakening, plush anchor to reclamation, water as cleansing taboo. Reminders that beauty is only an abbreviation for what is most brutal and tender.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska and has received an Academy of American Poets Award and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Margie, and Feminist Studies.
Sara Henning is the author of the full-length collection of poetry A Sweeter Water (2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.