Let’s start with that cover – it is both lovely and bizarre. Where did it come from?
Isn’t it? It’s an illustration from an early 17th-century anatomy textbook on fetal formation by Adriaan van Spiegel and Giulio Casseri I came across in the process of researching historical medical texts. The governing idea of this manuscript was the concept of maternal imagination – that a mother’s thoughts and experiences, especially traumatic ones, affect fetal formation and can be responsible for monstrous births. This illustration seemed to embody both of those – specific anatomical detail of pregnancy combined with that imaginative presentation of the baby blooming from the mother’s abdomen. And I love how the book designer curled the mother’s hand around the C.
How has your imagination formed your son?
Our son is adopted, so while he didn’t share my body, I constantly wonder about how I’ve shaped him. He shares my love of perfume and swearing, and he loves to go mushroom hunting with me though he dislikes eating them. Mostly, I obsess over the ways I’m probably fucking him up.
What did you worry about fucking up with this book? What do you worry you got wrong?
I worried – and still worry – about whether I appropriated stories of deformity and/or of other cultures. I tried hard to do due diligence with my research into anatomical medical histories and into 19th-century Canton, but I realize the lens of those research sources, and my own writing, is largely from a white, colonizing, able-bodied perspective. I didn’t want my book to be the spectacle of the freakshow – I wanted the individuals in these poems to be fully represented, not metaphors. I still don’t know if I got it right. I keep waiting to be called out.
There are a lot of Notes at the end of this book. Like, a LOT. Why so much research? Why not just write about yourself?
All my books are that way. I don’t like to write about myself. I get obsessed with a particular topic (Fifties pinup Bettie Page, perfume, monstrous births) and go down a research rabbit hole, and eventually dig out and write about it. I also have a strong academic background, so I feel obligated not only to research thoroughly, but also document that research. I do look for the pertinent facts and details of my topics, but I also look for the weird marginalia or offhand comments.
Why don’t you like to write about yourself?
I just don’t. Early on, I got annoyed with the assumption that the poetic “I” = the poet, so I distanced myself from that by writing persona and/or documentary poems. I do write somewhat more about myself in my prose, but it makes me squirm. I love the spotlight; I hate the spotlight.
You sound like a Leo with Taurus rising.
Yes. Yes, I am.
You say you’ve been writing about perfume. If this book had a perfume or scent, what would it be?
Oh, wow. Interesting. Maybe something like Serge Lutens’ Cuir Mauresque or vintage Guerlain Vol de Nuit, which smell to me like leather-bound books – that reminds me of all the medical texts. But with a splash of formaldehyde?
Didn’t this book have an unusual path to publication? What happened?
The first would-be publisher of this book folded while it was still in production. This was a small press with a good reputation, but authors were hearing rumors of problems before we all got a mass email from the editor/owner. Other sympathetic presses and editors generously offered to look at orphaned manuscripts. After Conjoining got picked up by Sable Books, it felt like destiny – not only was its editor, Melissa Hassard, from North Carolina like me and a joy to work with, but at the same time she was reprinting Walking Out (1975), the first book of poems from Betty Adcock who was my first mentor, way back when I was a baby poet first starting to write seriously. I’m so grateful.
You’re known mostly for writing in form. Is all your work in form? Why?
I came to poetry from music, and the structures of verse felt very natural for me. I have a lot of training in traditional verse forms. While I do swing both ways (traditional v. free verse, poetry v. prose), structure is still very important in my writing as I try to find the perfect form to pair with the content so they engage and inform each other. In Conjoining, there are poems in traditional forms (villanelles, contrapuntals, etc.) that double back and blend together to mimic the conjoining of twins. But when I write free verse, it’s also very conscious of form, like poems in heavily enjambed couplets to create tension between pairing and separation. Especially when writing about so-called “deformity,” it felt important to write with attention to form, to how these bodies are forms in and of themselves. I find myself applying form even when I write in prose, imposing artificial constraints to heighten tension in the prose.
This book was completed in 2015, and since then, apart from the book, you haven’t written or published any poetry. Why not? Do you think you’ll write it again?
I’ve mostly been writing and publishing nonfiction – lyric essays and haibun that are heavily influenced by poetry, as well as longer essays. I continue to read a lot of poetry, but haven’t been writing it. I do have a narrative project in mind, a necropastoral folktale set in Northwoods Minnesota, and the sketches I’ve done for it have been in prose poetry, so maybe that will be my way back.