“The most terrifying thing is to resist at all”: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Writing Resistance


October is Violence Against Women x month. This October we bring together six poets from and the editor of the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) to discuss resistance and fear in poetry, teaching resistance in the classroom, and the inspiration to write. Women Write Resistance views poetry as a transformative art. By deploying techniques to challenge narratives about violence against women and making alternatives to that violence visible, poetry of resistance distinguishes itself by a persuasive rhetoric that asks readers to act. Shevaun Brannigan, Mary Stone, Sara Henning, Jill Khoury, Meg Day, Larissa Schamilo, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets will be featured at the Indiana Writers’ Consortium 2014 Annual Conference in October.


How do you write resistance?  Were you ever scared to resist in your poetry?

Shevaun Brannigan: I have been retroactively scared to resist in my poetry. If there is a poem I have to write, I write it. But there is an in-between space from writing to publication. I have a poem about one of my parents that is about abuse, and its publication is forthcoming—I regret sending it out, because it will hurt someone who I love deeply. Sometimes I feel I am exploiting my own past for subject matter at the expense of others—I think this comes from the distinction of writing about resolved trauma because it will be entertaining, versus writing from an open wound out of need. I seem to have given myself a pardon for the latter, but not the former.

Another issue is other people’s stories. My poem “Don’t,” in Women Write Resistance is not my story, it is based on the story of a woman who told me this in a recovery group setting, and has since passed away. I know I needed to write the poem, because her story haunted me and if I did not engage in some sort of compartmentalization about it, I would not have been able to get her story out of my head. But did I need to publish it? It is a story that needs to be told, but is not mine to tell. I have a great amount of discomfort surrounding this poem, but can tell from reviews and videos that it speaks to people just as her original story spoke to me. I think it is right that I feel uncomfortable, though—from some angles, I see myself as a white woman who appropriated a black woman’s story for her own creative gain.

Mary Stone: The most terrifying thing is to resist at all, as well as through poetry. There is nothing more scary than writing the opposite of what you are “supposed” to say or believe or to put down stories no one wants to hear or to be controversial. Just writing “sexy” poems is a form of resistance. Not writing for others is a form of resistance. It’s scary because I don’t ever want to be told that my voice doesn’t matter or to feel like that story gets lost in the shuffle of other, more “interesting” stories. I decided a long time ago, though, that making others feel uncomfortable is not my problem – that’s their problem, and in fact, it’s part of poetry’s job to make people question what they think they know about the world. Let the poem cause discomfort, let it hurt, let it anger. It’s really only through challenge that we learn about ourselves, anyway.

Sara Henning: Every good little girl is scared to resist until she realizes what is holding her in place isn’t her lover, or her father, or her disapproving mother, her cruel brother, her drunk boyfriend in the back of the car, even the rapist holding a knife to her throat. Rather, it is her fear of possibility, and the change that possibility might demand of her. To scream, even if it means death. To say no, even if it means being disowned. To run, even if it means the door she runs out of will be locked forever after her. To put on her clothes, if it means knowing she will never see the lover left in her wake again. Every time we say no, I want something better, a little piece of who we once were dies. If these little girls remain held down, it is because they believe society when it says sit, lie there, don’t speak.

So yes, I was scared to resist in my poetry, until I realized that not resisting wasn’t an option anymore. I started to write from that little girl’s position, the one that grew up, got some sense, and didn’t look back. Now, I write resistance because I refuse to believe that as a society, we are not capable of better.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: I believe the critical introduction of Women Write Resistance is resistance. It offers a tool to view poetry as action and encourages readers to act. In my own creative work, I am interested in stories of women who resist gender violence. My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience is a contemporary retelling of the Bluebeard myth in the voices of Bluebeard’s living and dead wives. Bluebeard is usually framed as a story of blood and gore, but I focus on the love each of his 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, and the trauma and scars violence in the home slashes into the our lives. The middle section of the book works as a chorus in the voices of all Bluebeard’s previous wives and the ways they nightmarishly witness what they cannot stop. Though the bluebeard myth may appear to be about obedience and the sanctions imposed when one fails to follow them, I believe another more interesting interpretation of the bluebeard myth is to read it as a celebration of the disobedience of wives, for each new Mrs. Bluebeard does unlock the door. Yes, most wives are murdered. In some variations the final Mrs. Bluebeard is saved by her brothers. In the robberbride groom version, her own fortitude and wit allows her to save herself. In others, she is aided by a woman who works in service to bluebeard. My reading suggests that when women are disobedient to patriarchy they triumph. The last wife resists by outsmarting keys, locked doors, and death by hooks. She lives.

Jill Khoury: Many of the poems that I write are inherently resistant because they force the audience to engage with subject matter that pushes back against preconceived notions. A lot of my speakers are blind women, or women with mental illness. Even in intellectual circles, there are these tropes of blindness as ignorance (“the blind leading the blind,” “blind faith”) and of the mentally ill female as a helpless, childlike figure. I resist these tropes by writing experiences from an authentic perspective. My characters are women who live their lives in spite of these tropes. They negotiate their world with these tropes as obstacles. When my audience experiences these poems, they encounter characters who overwrite the tropes. I was and still am somewhat apprehensive when a “resistant” poem enters the larger world. The action of resisting is by definition going to be uncomfortable for both the writer and the audience.

Larissa Schamilo: I don’t really resist, truth be told – I have always stated my truth in poetry without being reactive in any way, and have always been quite bold about it. I view sexist and oppressive men as being reactive to me.

Meg Day: There have absolutely been moments when I have felt really afraid of what I’d written—and perhaps even more terrified when I realized those poems would be published and available for anyone to read or misinterpret—but for the most part I think it had everything to do with speaking my own truth in ways that validated my humanity, instead of in ways that upheld all of the misleading stereotypes about American poetics. I don’t think the power structures currently or historically in place want to hear about how women and gender non-conforming people experience violence, and I don’t think they want to hear that people of color are murdered by police states and the prison industrial complex and economic inequality and post-racial mindsets, and really, I don’t think anybody in power wants poetry to be about anything but having the leisure to think about leisurely, solitary things. I don’t have anything against nature poems or the pastoral elegy or sonnets to a beloved (I write them, too!), and I’m actually really excited about the possibility of merging these inherited forms with more contemporary and global concerns. I’m just saying that there’s a reason poets are imprisoned and murdered and censored and disappeared in other countries but not, for the most part, in this one. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel the fear I should when writing poems, but I do think that asking yourself what’s at stake is a pretty good starting place.


Speak about your pedagogical experiences when teaching texts that explore gender violence and resistance. In your answer, discuss texts that foster such explorations of poetry as action and writing as resistance. (If you’re not a teacher, speak about your experiences as a student in such situations.)

MD: About a year ago, I taught Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” in an intermediate poetry workshop at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I like to teach this poem on the page first, without much of an introduction, and to watch the responses grow in complexity as I show, first, Smith’s performance of the poem on Def Poetry Jam (which both confirms and reveals the body of the poet to be perceived as an African-American woman), and then the tribute performance of this same poem by Taylor Mali, a white man, at the ’98 National Poetry Slam in Austin, TX. While we did, obviously, talk about the implications of race and the power of positionality, it was the first time anyone wanted to talk more about gender than anything else. How is this poem easier or harder to listen to because it’s Smith (and not an African-American man) who performs it? Easier or harder for whom? What is our understanding of hegemonic masculinity as it relates to race and violence? Which poems are possible for which people? And, perhaps most invigorating, a long conversation about what poems are off-limits (and whether a poem can be off-limits!) for us, a mostly white and masculine class, to write?

LMW: One text I’ve taught is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, a collection that retells fairy tales, is one introductory poetry students seem to be able to approach because the content is familiar. Students can begin together on the level of story as they approach questions on delivery, crafty, allusions, and form. From there, students can move into interpretation such as asking why Sexton might portray Sleeping Beauty’s father in a given light to consider, “Is this poem about incest?” Likewise, in my introduction to literature class, students read tellings and retellings, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acers. One tool I bring into the classroom to help students grapple with the issues of gender violence and its representation in literature is the Power and Control Wheel. It illustrates the ways in which an abuser maintains control before resorting to physical and sexual abuse. I ask students to find examples (e.g. emotional abuse, using children, making her think she’s crazy) in a text such as One Thousand Acers. It’s always a powerful class room activity and discussion because students are often shocked as they compile the examples abusers use to maintain power. In several instances after I’ve used such a teaching tool, students have written papers that further explore gender violence in literature, in their own experiences, and in culture, using the tools we’ve studied and others. Such student work is action because admitting gender violence exists is an act of resistance in a culture that cloaks such experiences in shame, victim blames, and/or sensationalizes violent acts in the media. Student written work becomes resistance because they too witness and break silences.

JK: When I taught first-year comp an adjunct, my classroom consisted of mostly upper-middle-class white students who seemed to have a pretty sheltered perspective. Although there are a few who came to me and said, “this text changed my thinking,” most of the students were reluctant to admit to having their opinions changed or even broadened by the texts. Being continually disappointed by my students’ reactions caused me to gradually teach fewer resistant texts. I feel like the first-year writing classroom is an environment in need of social change. However, some people are fueled by constant opposition. I am not one of them. When I was at this job, most of what I got was opposition. I literally did not have time to get my fulfillment in other places. It was rare to make it out for a reading. Taking a workshop did not fit into my schedule. So I burned out.

As a student, though, I remember one transformative event. It occurred on a college campus, but not in the classroom. I had just come out as a sexual assault survivor, and this support group I was involved in was doing readings in a public setting, the most public setting, on campus, all day, of poems written about resisting gender violence and / or processing the violence of sexual assault. I chose to read “Diving into the Wreck.” I felt such energy flow through me. Afterward I just broke down and cried. Something had shifted in me. I think it was the first time I realized the power of creative writing as action, as resistance.

LS: As a writer about sexual violence, rape, prostitution, incest, I have found that readers resist the level of pain that I depict, call it battering, excessive, and transgressive. Yet it only begins to describe the level of horrors perpetrated  against women in the world. We have a holocaust on our hands in that regard.

SH: In my fantasies, for once I get a tenure track assistant professorship, my very first graduate class will be a class exploring Contemporary Women’s Poetry of Trauma. I will teach texts that explore race, sexual identity, and class; texts that explore the traumatized body, including rape, sexual abuse and notions of the violated body; texts that explore the dysfunctional family unit, substance abuse and its effects on relationships and the female psyche; texts that explore body dysmorphia, and the cycle of embodied hatred; texts that explore shame, guilt and emotion in the literary of trauma, as well as contemporary elegy. I hope to see Simone de Beauvoir, Cathy Carruth, and Julia Kristeva, among others, providing foundation for explorations of Muriel Rukeyser, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forchẻ, Lyn Hejinian, Ai, Anne Carson, Judy Jordan, Wang Ping, Thylias Moss, Claudia Rankine, June Jordan, Lynda Hull, Kimiko Hahn, Patricia Smith, and Mary Jo Bang.               

SB: I have not been a student for so long that it is difficult to speak about texts I read, when in that role, that explored gender violence and resistance. I am not sure I was exposed to an entire book that discussed such a subject until I was included in the Women Write Resistance anthology. I would love to blame this on a patriarchal curriculum, which somewhat was the case in my undergrad, but at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where I did my master’s degree, the reading list was largely self-directed with some guidance from the teachers. I confess I did not seek out such texts. I did just finish The Round House, by Louise Erdrich, and while not a poetry collection, it is a book I would easily call poetic and addresses the rape of a Native American woman from the perspective of her son. I’m following that read with Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which shockingly I had never read. It is important to me to read women of color now, as I believe in the power of literature to help a reader embody someone else’s life. I have spent much of my time reading about the white male experience because that is expected and exalted, and I want to read something that is a little more eye-opening to the rest of the world’s population.

How are you trying to get better as a writer?

LMW: I try to get better as a writer by reading voraciously and by writing daily. I am currently reading some lovely poetry collections released from Dancing Girl Press, Sundress Publications, and Lavender Ink. I read all genres. Over the summer, while traveling I read Rainbow Rowell’s delightfully sweet Eleanor and Park. Other books I’ve recently enjoyed are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Reading inspires me to write. Teaching also inspires me to write. When I teach, I write with my students. My chapbook Spindrift (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and my book American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014) were both largely generated by the in-class writing prompts I gave my students. In my creative writing classes, my students write 1-2 seven minute poems daily. We also write during 2-3 field trips to local museums. I write with them because I believe that as a teacher and a poet, it is important to write and share such low-stakes writing in the writing community a classroom generates. I want students to know that I value the intellectual and creative rigor such activities demand, that I am not above prompts and such prompts are never busywork, that such in-class work, though rough at first, has the potential to be polished, revised, and sometimes, ultimately published.

JK: Read writers that are new to me. Interact with as many writers as possible. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending out. Be open to differing opinions while still maintaining my own voice.

SB: I recently completed a MOOC (Massive Open Enrollment Online Course) through The University of Iowa, and learned a great deal. I’m also taking a local West Philly workshop from poet Leonard Gontarek, and that has been invaluable. In addition to reading more, I also believe I have a lot to learn from teaching. Inspired in part by the Women Write Resistance anthology, I have reached out to a local domestic violence center to lead a workshop there. I will be using the anthology as a fundamental text for the class, and am hoping if it turns into a regular engagement that I will be able to get a grant to purchase a copy of the book for every member who enrolls. I’m also leading poetry workshops influenced by reading Irish American literature for The Free Library of Philadelphia.

LS: I am studying with the brilliant Annie Finch, a hero to me as a writer, mentor, and liberated woman.

SH: I am reading a lot and listening to the news. Besides that, I am trying to stay unplugged.

MS: Reading for fun. Focusing on projects that allow me to speak from many perspectives. Allowing myself not to write every once in a while. Painting. Working out. Being spontaneous. My writing seemed in need of an energy makeover, so I’m trying to write about subject matter that is new to me. Something new in my process – not sharing any work until I let it sit for quite a long time. I used to be excited to share work immediately and get feedback, but something different happens to the writing when you really let it simmer and only revise based on your own new eyes every few weeks.

MD: Lately I’m really invested in being in conversation with other poets and writers. I’m reading a lot and maybe writing a little less, which I’m working on feeling good about. I’m traveling a lot, too: I’m touring with my first full-length collection this year and next on #thelast13tour, which I’m hoping will take me to what Paste Magazine listed earlier this year as the last thirteen feminist bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. It’s a roadtrip I’ve wanted to take for a while, given that independent bookstores and feminist community spaces were among the first to support me as a young person and a young poet. I feel really fortunate that Last Psalm at Sea Level (Barrow Street, September 2014) will make it possible for me to meet the owners and patrons and communities who have kept these shops alive for, in some cases, nearly 80 years. While booking these readings, though, I’ve already come to understand (thanks to some #binder writers of color) the shortsightedness of the original list, which doesn’t seem to embrace a very inclusive or intersectional definition of feminism and has left out several central feminist bookstores that have perhaps played a larger role in feminist and queer communities of color than the original list was designed to include. I’m doing a lot of listening and trying to do a lot of self-educating, and I think that perhaps, as a white kid, the daily work of trying to stand in ongoing allyship to marginalized communities that are not my own is one way we all become better writers.

Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as The Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House at The University of Maryland. She has had poems appear in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Lumina, Rhino, Court Green, and Free State Review. She has been an Arts & Letters Poetry Prize finalist, received an honorable mention in So to Speak’s 2012 Poetry Contest, as well as a Pushcart nomination by Rattle.

Meg Day, selected for Best New Poets of 2013, is a 2013 recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and the author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize (forthcoming 2014), When All You Have Is a Hammer (winner of the 2012 Gertrude Press Chapbook Contest) and We Can’t Read This (winner of the 2013 Gazing Grain Chapbook Contest). A 2012 AWP Intro Journals Award Winner, she has also received awards and fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Hedgebrook, Squaw Valley Writers, the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities, and the International Queer Arts Festival. Meg is currently a PhD candidate, Steffensen-Cannon Fellow, & Point Foundation Scholar in Poetry & Disability Poetics at the University of Utah. www.megday.com

Mary Stone is the author of One Last Cigarette and Mythology of Touch, and two chapbooks, Blink Finch and Aching Buttons. Her poetry and prose has appeared in many fine journals, including Mid-American Review, Gargoyle, South Dakota Review, Arts & Letters.

Sara Henning is the author of A Sweeter Water (Lavender Ink, 2013)as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (Finishing Line Press, 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.

Jill Khoury earned her Masters of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. She teaches writing and literature in high school, university, and enrichment environments. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Bone Bouquet, RHINO, Inter|rupture, and Stone Highway Review. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press. You can find her at jillkhoury.com.

Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her books of poetry are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew).

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). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies. www.lauramadelinewiseman.com

First-ever Holler Salon planned for August 17 at Firefly Farms!

Introducing a creative extension to our award-winning reading series!

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The Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to present poet Laura Madeline Wiseman and local artist Chris Johnson in “Art, Myth, and Martians,” the first installment of Holler Salon, an extension of the award winning SAFTA reading series. The event will be held at Firefly Farms in Knoxville at 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 17th.  Holler Salon is an occasional salon series featuring local and national writers and artists. Hosted at Firefly Farms in Knoxville, each salon will provide an intimate setting conducive to discussing and developing the ideas and inspirations of creative individuals from a variety of disciplines.

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 is imaginative and provocative and has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Margie, and Feminist Studies.

For Holler Salon, Wiseman will discuss her playful sci-fi book, American Galactic, as well as selections from Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience, her unique, romantic take on the classic Bluebeard myth.

Chris Johnson is a local, self-taught visual artist with Gallery 133. His work is edgy and engaging and hangs in both public galleries and private collections. For Holler Salon, Johnson will feature his paintings “A Study on Berserk”—an homage to his favorite graffiti artist, Berserk—and “The Madness Vase”—based on the Andrea Gibson chapbook The Nutritionist.


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RSVP for this event on the Facebook page!

Filling Our “Bottomless Teacup”: A Conversation between Lavender Ink Poets Sara Henning and Laura Madeline Wiseman


Laura Madeline Wiseman LFF 2013Laura 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 sara-henningBrian 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.

Not once.

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.