Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Emily Corwin reads “Damsel, Stage Directions” by Stacy Gnall.
Emily, a fantastic poem you’ve read for us today. What can you tell us about Gnall and her work?
Emily: Gnall’s book, Heart First into the Forest was recommended to me by a friend who had read her work and immediately thought of me. In poems, I am always interested in female bodies, fairy tales, girlhood, woods, Midwestern landscape—all of which Gnall is investigating, so the book was really inspiring for me. She is from Ohio, which was another connection, since I spent my years in undergrad and grad school there, and she completed her MFA at Alabama. I believe her first book draws heavily from her MFA thesis collection. It is really a magical set of poems. I also discovered, recently entering the role of Poetry Editor at the Indiana Review, that we had published some of the poems in that collection back in 2009. It was so exciting to see the poems in a different context, to see them before they became part of the book.
Chris: I find the “stage directions” portion of the title intriguing. There is the implication that this is an act, but throughout the poem it seems the escape we are witnessing is real. What do you make of the title and how it influences the poem?
Emily: I would say, the poem is playing with the idea of a damsel in distress as a role to be played, but interestingly, a role that follows certain directions. She must wake in a place she doesn’t recognize, she must fall just once in the chase. Gnall is playing with a familiar narrative, that of the girl alone in the forest, the girl running from a mysterious, implicitly male threat. There are expectations for what that looks like—we know with this scene of the chase, we have seen it before. But we don’t know, in this poem, how it will end, and that creates tension, an investment on our part. Notice how, by the end, the repetition of “must” has fallen away. The girl manages to escape the threat as well as the expectations embedded in her narrative.
You’re right to say it feels less like an act and more real. I would read the “stage” here as being less of a theater stage and more cinematic. The poem has an immediacy and a motion to it, like a film sequence, the camera tracking our heroine through the woods and out into the road. The stakes are so high—we want her to survive, and we are given access to every moment of the chase. So that, by the end of the poem, when there is the implication of a happy ending, that she made it—this is very satisfying. Though we do not know with certainty if the threat is still behind her, there is still a sense of relief and triumph—that at least, she has made it out the woods. This poem stays with me—I return to it again and again, and each time, I still get caught up in the suspense. What happened to her before the poem began? Who is the “him” and how far behind is he? Will she make it out this time? It really is like watching a favorite scary movie.
Chris: I love the open endedness of this poem that you mention. It gives the poem this sandbox feel—allowing the reader to change the story every time the poem is read. Are uncertain endings something you use or experiment with in your own poetry? Or are you more of a definitive ending type of person?
Emily: I like uncertain endings for sure—my writing tends be extremely lyrical, ambiguous, suspending the reader in emotion. The poems I like reading too tend to end in an undefined space. I think that’s what makes a poem beautiful—its mystery, its multiplicities, the poem as a site for many readings. I don’t want to know everything about it all at once, I want there to be something open and indefinite, a thing I can return to over my lifetime and understand it differently each time. That kind of poem has longevity and power for me.
Chris: In addition to the suspense and urgency in this poem, what other features of “Damsel, Stage Directions” make this poem essential to you as a writer? Are there other poems by Gnall that you would recommend to us?
Emily: What makes this poem essential for me is its attention to pacing, its whimsy and magic, its lush imagery that opens up into larger themes of gender, myth, and story-telling. I love all of Gnall’s work, but especially, “Bella in the Wych Elm,” “Trespass,” and “What the Child Was Given Next”—all of which are in Heart First into the Forest. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Winter Tangerine, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome was recently published through Brain Mill Press. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.
Chris Petruccelli recently spilled boiling hot mashed potatoes on his foot. Yikes. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and Still: The Journal. Check out his chapbook Action at a Distance from Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris continues to drink whisky with older women.
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