What’s the strangest place you’ve ever written a poem?
In a Porta-Potty at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, drunk off my ass on the first beer I’d ever imbibed. The poem didn’t make it past the cutting room floor for my first book, but that feeling of MUST WRITE A POEM NOW before I’d even really started identifying as a poet (I still thought of myself as a fiction writer, ha!) was exhilarating. Though the beer probably contributed to that.
Do you usually write by hand or on the computer?
For the longest time, I could only write on the computer, but now I scribble in a notebook first. I have notebooks everywhere, in every bag and purse and in my car. I recently had to pull over on the side of the road to write down a poem. I’ve tried recording audio of poem ideas while I’m driving, but sometimes I just need to write.
You just published your second poetry collection, Call Me by My Other Name, and this is the second book you have published through Sibling Rivalry Press. What made you decide to submit your work to SRP?
I’m always excited when I hear about people taking things into their own hands and saying, no, I’m not finding work out there that resonates with me, so I’m going to publish it myself! I watched my friend and pressmate Stephen Mills as he went through the process of publishing his first book, He Do the Gay Men in Other Voices through SRP, and I heard him rave about working with publisher Bryan Borland. I got to meet Bryan at an AWP conference, and I liked him right away and, I think, sent him my manuscript that night. I knew I wanted to work with a publisher who would do a great job editing my work, and be clear about when something needed to change, but would also trust me when I explained my vision for the work; a publisher who would trust its authors and support them. SRP has been all that and more. I really do feel like it’s a family, and my pressmates are my siblings. I try to read as many SRP books as I can and we are all so supportive of one another. Plus, they are a dream to work with, always fiercely supportive of their authors and their authors’ visions.
Your first book, Mysterious Acts by My People, won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. Has winning that award changed your experience as a poet at all?
It sounds like false humility, but I really still can’t believe I won. It has been a dream of mine since I was a baby poet in college to receive that kind of recognition from my peers and I felt for a long time that I was writing in a vacuum, with no one reading or listening. I think that winning the Lambda has brought me more readers, and certainly it is easier to book events now, and I get more solicitations for my work, but it’s also a lot of pressure. Now I know people are looking and paying attention, and that can feel scary. I’m glad I already had my second book under contract when I won, because now that I’m trying to write my third book and produce totally new work for the first time in a long time, I feel so nervous to live up to the reputation of my first book. But also incredibly grateful that my peers liked what I was doing with Mysterious Acts. The attention the award brought allowed me to reach audiences I might not have reached alone, and getting to meet readers and hear their questions and feedback about how my work has mattered to them is incredibly gratifying and motivating.
Call Me by My Other Name is, in part, based on real people from the 19th century. How did you come to write about them?
In 2006, I was teaching high school in Vermont, and suffering writer’s block. Mark Wunderlich, my former professor, loaned me the book Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, a collection of actual newspaper clippings and photographs from the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Mark told me to use the photos as inspiration to get me out of my funk, but what caught my eye instead of the photos was a newspaper clipping about a masculine person who was arrested for stealing. At the jailhouse, it was discovered, as the clipping put it, “that the prisoner was a woman, though she had worn masculine attire nearly all her life.” The prisoner also had a wife. I was instantly fascinated by the queer, gender-bending of these people and wrote the poem “Helpmate,” which imagines what Frank and Gertrude’s lives must have been like. Then I just couldn’t put the story down, and I kept writing poem after poem. I did a great deal of research and spent the next decade writing their story, intermingling it with my own. I’ve always loved history, and the 19th century is the period I focused on in literature in grad school, so it was a natural match.
You seem hesitant to name Frank’s gender. How do you see this character?
My understanding of Frank has changed a lot over the course of writing the book. When I first discovered the newspaper article, the headline said something about lesbians, and I was identifying as butch then, and wearing a lot of clothes from the men’s section of the store, so a person dressing as a man and in love with a woman felt very similar to my own identity. Interestingly enough, I now identify as Femme, and I can see more of Gertrude’s side of things, though she was initially very difficult for me to write. The important thing to remember with this topic, though, is that any labels we place on people from history are anachronistic. We have no way of knowing how Frank would have characterized their identity, we only have the barest of details: that Frank is a person in the late 19th century who was designated female at birth and given the name Anna Morris, and who wore masculine attire nearly all their life, went by the name Frank Blunt, and married a woman. Did they dress in traditionally masculine clothes because they identify as a man? Did they do it because it was the only way at the time to be openly married to a woman? Did they do it because it was the only way to make enough money to live independently? We’ll never know, and there were DFAB folks of the era who chose to dress in pants for a lot of different reasons. The important thing for me in the story, and what kept me fascinated with the characters was that there was clearly something Other, something queer, about them. Frank/Anna and Gertrude did not fit in, and they were punished for that and for their love. As a rural queer kid, I identify with that, with not fitting in the box you’re given, with not wanting to align with the expectations placed on someone with a body like yours. I intentionally do not offer a definitive answer about Frank’s gender identification because I want every reader to decide for themselves who these people are. I also don’t think gender is as simple as one answer. There’s often a fluidity present, and in this story,, clearly there is genderqueerness present. The inbetweenity and uncertainty is so real. It is hard to ever know for certain and forever who we are and so I wanted my characters to reflect that. Similarly, Gertrude is a tough femme. She is not some meek and mild prairie lady, but a touch bitch who knows what she wants. She demands a lot of Frank, but she puts up with a lot, too.
What do you do when you’re not writing poetry?
I like to watch TV a lot. I pretty much always have a TV show I’m watching a bit of here and there. I’m really enjoying the show Togetherness right now. I love camping, though I haven’t done that since I moved away from Utah, because humidity is awful. I love to spend time with my family, and sometimes I work as a birth doula. I also spend a lot of time decorating my Filofax, writing letters to pals faraway and sleeping.
Both of your books have such gorgeous covers. Tell me about them.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of visual artists as pals, and was especially surrounded by talented visual artists during my undergrad at Bennington College, so I knew I’d be fussy about my book covers. As I revised Mysterious Acts by My People, I noticed that there were a lot of elk in my poems, a hazard of delving so deeply into the Utah landscape. Anyway, I knew I wanted an elk on the cover, so I searched the internet for original, contemporary artwork featuring an elk, and when I saw Elk Song by Zeke Tucker, the piece that graces the cover, I knew it was perfect. Fortunately, Zeke agreed! For Call Me by My Other Name, I immediately commissioned my fellow Iowan, Sharon Gochenour to create something. I have a print she made of my dog on my wall, and I’ve long admired her watercolors, and wanted to work with an artist familiar with the Midwestern landscape. I told Sharon I wanted an Andrew Wyeth feel, specifically Christina’s World, which I’ve had above my desk the entire time I wrote the book. She did a great job of capturing the beauty and haunting isolation of the landscape and the book.
Who are your favorite writers?
This answer could change daily, but some enduring favorites:
Audre Lorde, Carole Maso, Lucie Brock-Broido, Virginia Woolf, Larry Eigner, and Toni Morrison.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes, I’m hugely inspired by music. My dad is a musician–he plays guitar–and my mom has an amazing voice, and music was always all around me as a kid. I also played piano throughout my youth, as well as the French Horn. I constantly have playlists for my writing projects, as well as a playlist called “Music to Type To” which is all music w/o lyrics in languages I speak so that I’m not distracted. It’s a lot of Zoe Keating and Sigur Ros and random piano concertos. On the playlist for Call Me by My Other Name is a lot of Florence and the Machine, covers of Make You Feel My Love (which is the title of the first poem in the book), and Chris Pureka.
What are you working on now?
I’m a little over a third of the way through what I hope will be my third book, a manuscript called Bloom & Scruple, which is about a lot of things, but primarily focused on disability and everyday life, what it’s like to be in pain all the time, and this fragile nature of girlhood that always seems prone to attack–not that girls aren’t incredibly strong and capable, but that something awful draws a certain kind of predator to that girlhood energy, so I’m working through some poems about the nature of blooming as a young girl and the way that so challenges some people’s scruples. Also, I’m exploring quotidian forms of writing, especially those ascribed to women–letters, and lists, and also diaries. Basically, I want my book to be a cross between Hole’s Live Through This and Kathy Acker’s Blood & Guts in High School and Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries. Sounds upbeat, right?
You’re currently on tour for your second book. What has that experience been like?
It has really been amazing. I always feel a bit awkward standing and sweating and reading these intimate poems to strangers, but everyone has been so kind and generous, and I’ve found I actually love answering questions about my work, and talking about my writing process. Spending ten years writing my first two books (concurrently), and then finally lifting my head from my desk and looking around is inhaling fresh, clean air. Oh, right! There are readers on the other side of this! I firmly believe that books belong to their readers, so I love hearing other people’s interpretations of my work. It might not have been what I set out to say, but it means something to that reader, and it has moved them and caught in their ear, so I’m happy. I’m also lucky to have the excuse to visit old friends around the country, and eat at their favorite restaurants and meet their children, and that is by far the most fun of the book tour. Basically I just want to be everyone’s rad aunt.