Where did you get the idea for the title poem of your new book, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life?
I had just watched the 1944 version of Jane Eyre, the classic with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, while going through a painful and protracted divorce, when I blurted it out: “Charlotte Brontë, you ruined my life!” I am blessed with a poet-consort, Stuart Bartow, who said, “That sounds like a good idea for a poem.” So I wrote it. I didn’t like it much, but he did, and others did, so it grew on me gradually, till I realized it would make a good title for the collection.
The cover is, ah, unusual: how did it come about?
Once I’d settled on the title, I came up with the idea of using a black-and-white movie still from either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, with a screaming font like an old movie poster, and went online to see what images I could find. That shot of mad Orson/Rochester, with Joan Fontaine/Jane Eyre in the ill-fated wedding dress, seemed to convey an immediate sense of the book, I hope including its humor. I love the fact that the shot is from the point of view of Bertha Rochester, a.k.a The Madwoman in the Attic, or
Antoinette Mason, in Jean Rhys’s fabulous Wide Sargasso Sea. Charlotte Brontë, and in particular Jane Eyre, has had such a strong effect on so many of us. The book designer, Susan Pearce, did a great job: it wasn’t easy.
Do you think a good title and cover help?
Yes. It was a poetry best-seller for SPD the first two months after its release by The Word Works, and has sold more copies than my prior two books, but who knows why; I mean, it’s poetry. Maybe people mistake it for pulp fiction, because of the cover.
The Brontë Blog reviewed your book and called the poem, “Why Don’t They Just Drop Dead” an “intellectual tantrum.” Did that hurt your feelings?
Nah, I was kinda flattered. They also said the poem “Only Emily” contains “some of the more beautiful lines ever written about Emily Brontë,” which stunned me. Emily Brontë is one of my great heroines. I do rant from time to time, but that one was intentional. The genesis of that poem, and also of “The Miller’s Daughter,” is an assignment I like to give my students: to write an insult poem. I find it can release terrific energy and free people from constraints. I use Catullus (translated by Charles Martin) as a model. I love the fact that there are people who lived 2,000 years ago about whom we know nothing, except their names and the insults hurled at them by Catullus, such as that so-and-so stole his napkins at a dinner party. Apparently, napkins were very expensive in ancient Rome. And I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if I could immortalize my wasbands in that way? (Note to men: never date or marry a poet, unless you plan on being really, really good to her.)
Did you coin the term “wasband”?
No. I wish I had, but actually I heard a Californian friend, Valorie Bader, use it, and instantly knew I had to become its East coast popularizer.
Are there any other terms you’d like to popularize?
“Bootless.” In the Shakespearean sense of “useless.” I love that word. Also, “What boots it?” for “What good is it?” (I also think Bootless would be a good name for a cat.)
The book seems quite cathartic. At what point does the catharsis end and the poem begin?
Many of my poems begin in emotional catharsis. I freewrite in my journal to try to get in touch with “the secret monsters of the id.” Once I do, I try to grab one by the tail and go along for the ride: at that point I let go of my initial impulse—whatever emotions and ideas triggered the flow of words—and let the poem take over. From then on I do whatever needs to be done to make the poem the best thing of its kind I can. Poetic license, in other words: I lie, exaggerate, borrow, allude, compress and combine my own experiences with those of those of others—and by “experiences” I include dreams, books, movies, artwork, stories, fantasties, and so on. Oppen says, “It’s when the person writing is frightened by the poem that the
poem may have begun. The poem is more than the person, you see. Otherwise, why? Why write it?” Which addresses both some readers’ fixation on the autobiographical in writing, and also speaks to the “fallacy of first intentions,” which can be one of the hardest things to talk students out of: the notion that if you change one word from your initial impulse, you are somehow being untrue to yourself or the experience.
Clearly a major theme in the book is women’s attraction to bad boys, what used to be called “the Byronic hero.” The book seems to suggest that there’s some sort of impulse that drives women to love such men: is it genetic, cultural, or what?
It’s the old nature v.s. nurture question. Very complicated. It’s always both, I think. I don’t want to sound essentialist (I am a feminist, and well aware of the broad spectrum of human difference), but I also believe that we are at bottom animals, and that we can detect certain aspects of natural selection underlying some of the more bizarre aspects of culture. After all, we are the animals who create that culture. So, among heterosexuals at least, natural selection seems to favor those males who spread their seed most widely, and those females who can successfully raise their young. That creates an inherent conflict in male-female relations, which probably underlies the old double-standard in sexual relations, as well as perhaps the many forms of mutilation and imprisonment of the female, from foot-binding and genital mutilation to anorexia and chadors/burkas.
The Freudian answer is that we straight women are trying to marry Daddy: we think we can fix him and make him love us the way we always wanted to be loved. And because Daddy was generally pretty absent, we became adept at fantasizing about him, and, later, about men we are attracted to. Then there’s the whole cultural layer: from 19th-century novels with Byronic heros (I could have called the book Blame It On Byron, and I’d still like to write a poem by that name) to Disney with its absolutely atrocious heterosexist and sexist stereotyping, which (thanks to VCRs and DVDs) young women now grow up absolutely saturated in.
For young women reading your book: is there any hope that they’ll get it? And do you care?
Of course I care. I’d like to hope that reading my book might increase self-awareness, but I’m realistic: when one is in love, even Bottom with an ass’s head on looks good, and nothing anyone else says or writes can talk her out of it. In Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the ancient and wise Mrs. Armfeldt (played by Naima Wifstrand) says: “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That’s what makes one so tremendously weary.” So perhaps the best I can hope for is that my book might provide some consolation (and amusement) to others who have gone through similar experiences, and, considering that half the marriages in the US end in divorce, there are many millions of us. I think women in particular tend to feel that a divorce (or the infidelity of their spouse) is their fault, that they have failed: I know I did. A friend said to me about my wasbands, “You’re in trouble once you have to start giving them numbers.” I’m trying to turn that around: think of Liz Taylor and all those rich and powerful men with their serial trophy brides—the more the merrier.
What’s up with all the mutilation poems in the second section, “Ghost Bride”?
See the answer to #8, above. I remember reading Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and what a powerful effect it had on me as a little girl: trying to imagine what it would feel like to have every step hurt like stepping on a sharp knife. (It’s far ghastlier than the Disney movie, and has a bizarre Christian ending, which made no sense to me, since I’m Jewish.) Unfortunately, I found out when I grew up. Also, I see my young women students taking their freedom for granted; I think it’s important to remember both the historical wrongs done to women and the ongoing oppression of women in many parts of the world. I think the psychological oppression in our culture is more subtle, but I’d like to raise awareness of that as well.
Did you have any fear of alienating oversensitive male readers?
No. Because there aren’t any. (That I know of.)
Clearly you continue to love men, despite your bad experiences with some of them. Do you think you are finally cured of your attraction to bad boys?
No. I’m like an alcoholic or an anorexic: one is never cured, but she can learn to manage her condition. I’m lucky enough to have found a bad boy who was aging out—sort of like the way Annette Bening landed Warren Beatty—so even though he’s kind and generous, he still retains some of his old dangerous allure. Like Mr. Rochester. But NOT sadistic, like Heathcliff. So I guess I’ve improved a bit.