Interview with Charlie Bondhus, Author of Divining Bones (Sundress Publications 2018)

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Valerie Lick: Divining Bones looks at Baba Yaga in an entirely new way — she’s magical yet earthy, ancient yet modern, invisible yet doing porn. There’s also the narrator’s connection with her, which threads through the book. What does Baba Yaga mean for the narrator and for the book as a whole? And how did you come to the idea of using her as a character?

Charlie Bondhus: I prefer not to specify what Baba Yaga means in this book because I think that’s something the reader should come to on their own. I can say that in folklore she’s either a helper or an antagonist. Depending on who you are and what story you’re in, she may give you the tools you need to succeed in your quest—generally after you’ve completed some impossible task for her—or she may eat you. The narrator of Divining Bones is on a personal quest. Does she help him, consume him, or both?

I discuss what Baba Yaga means to me and how I came to use her as a character in a short article that was published recently on Patheos. Quick version–I was inspired by beer, Alanis Morissette, and a desperate need for emotional healing.

VL: Children run, skip, and curse their way through Divining Bones. The speaker first experiments with the occult as a child, Baba Yaga longs for the taste of children, and the speaker wonders about having children. How did you choose to focus on children and aging?

CB: I didn’t go in thinking I’d write so much about children, but I found that if you write about Baba Yaga, you have to write about children. She is, after all, a bogeywoman, the wicked witch in the fairy tale. And children are always closely linked to fairy tales, both as characters and audience members.

As for aging, we tend to only think of children and the elderly as opposites. Yet as a Pagan I’ve come to believe that the soul continually cycles through birth, life, death, and rebirth. For me then, children and the elderly stand at a similar distance from the Underworld. Age is commonly associated with wisdom (fairly or not) and children are often characterized as being more open to the supernatural. I think it’s interesting to explore these seldom looked at similarities.

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VL: While writing Divining Bones, you clearly took inspiration from fairy tales, the occult, and classic concepts like the Panopticon. Why do you feel drawn to these sources? Are there any other works you were inspired by?

CB: Like a lot of queer kids, I loved fairy tales and mythology. I was also very curious about magick and witchcraft from a young age. Growing up in a Catholic home both stymied and exacerbated that interest. There’s lot of wizardry in Catholic ritual and lots of magick in the Catholic mindset, yet you’re also taught that anything which doesn’t come from the Christian God necessarily comes from the devil. I “dabbled,” as they say, when I was in high school, but I never got seriously invested in witchcraft or Paganism because I was too worried about eternal damnation.

And yet, I always kept a Pagan altar in my home through college and my 20s. I didn’t use it, but I always felt compelled to keep it. It wasn’t until my mid-30s, when I went through an emotional crisis, that I fully embraced Paganism. Writing this book was, of course, part of that process.

As for the Panopticon, you can thank grad school! Everybody in a humanities Ph.D. reads Foucault it seems.

VL: In this book, you confront identity at many different corners — queerness, gender, age, family — especially through the theme of transformation. How did you tackle identity as you wrote?

CB: Right now, people are asking a lot of questions about the nature of identity. Gender is particularly contested. Around the time I started Divining Bones, I was questioning my own gender identity. I understood myself as male, yet not. Genderqueer sort of fit. I liked to say “I occupy the Male metropolitan area.” I was witnessing my concept of my own gender transform and enjoying it immensely.

At the same time, I was experiencing other, less thrilling transformations. I was coming to terms with memories of abuse that I’d minimized for years and how they were affecting my health in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I was watching Donald Trump win the GOP nomination and claim power.

I dealt with all this by writing a book that’s about transformation. And queerness. And creating yourself. Right now it’s common to say we exist at the intersection of multiple identities—our age, our race, our gender, etc. To think about all the different ways we inhabit that intersection takes work. That’s where art can come in.

VL: This being your third published book, have you noticed any changes to your writing style or your writing process?

CB: I’m more okay with letting the poem take over when it needs to. I’ve also learned that my impulse is almost always to tell stories. Divining Bones, my last book All the Heat We Could Carry, and the two projects I’m working on now all have narrative arcs, some more implicit, some more explicit. Yet at the same time they’re very different projects.

When I’m feeling self-indulgent I compare myself to David Bowie, writing a bunch of concept albums that are radically different yet still recognizable as my work. It’s totally self-indulgent…but who doesn’t want to be David Bowie?

VL: What are you reading right now?

CB: There are a lot of great new poetry books recently out. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s Strut—which is from Agape!—for one. Robert Siek’s We Go Seasonal and Stephen Mills’s Not Everything Thrown Starts a Revolution, both from Sibling Rivalry Press. I’m also reading When the Clock Struck in 1916 by Darren Kelly and Derek Molyneux, which is a dramatized retelling of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. I identify very strongly with the Irish part of my heritage and want to connect more with it. And I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. She talks about Frankenstein—one of my favorite novels—and the Antarctic—a place I’d love to visit—so it’s a great read.

You can pre-order your copy of Charlie Bondhus’s Divining Bones today at the Sundress store!

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Charlie Bondhus’s second poetry book All the Heat We Could Carry won the 2014 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His work has appeared in Poetry, The Missouri Review, Columbia Journal, Hayden’s Ferry, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Copper Nickel. He has received fellowships from the Sundress Academy for the Arts, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat in Scotland . He’s Assistant Professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College and poetry editor at the Good Men Project. He lives in Asbury Park, NJ.

Valerie Lick, the artist currently known as Val, loves those tall, weedy plants that are kind of like daisies except the blooms are really small. She can be found looking mean and studying literature at the University of Tennessee, where she is a rising junior. She thinks that there should be more intersections between science fiction, Appalachian folklore, and fashion journalism.

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