“to make a new whole of the fragments”: A Roundtable Discussion with Poets in Women Write Resistance

Women Write Resistance Panelists

October is Violence Against Women awareness 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 research, invention, and resistance poetry. 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. Leslie Adrienne Miller, Jennifer Perrine, Sara Henning, Sarah A. Chavez, and Laura Madeline Wiseman explore poetry of resistance in this roundtable discussion. These poets will be featured at the Omaha Lit Fest this fall. This year’s festival theme is warped: historical in/accuracy.

Q: What do you do if your research on a subject reveals conflicting truths?

Sara Henning: I get very excited! I explore the divergences to see if I can trace the causal relationship between difference and its source. Then, I’ll often use the discrimination as a volleying point for further examination, and see if I can find any additional conflicting truths! I imagine this process, like a fractal, can extend as far as one wants to take it, so I try to focus when I begin writing.

Sarah A. Chavez: The truth is always more complicated than we initially think and the key then is to decide what you as the writer want a particular piece of writing to accomplish. As much as possible, I try to allow my poetry to embrace and inhabit conflict and conflicting truths, but there have been times where something is so complicated, it just can’t be expressed adequately in one poem. In those situations I will make the choice to approach from a particular angle, usually whichever angle feels most organic at that time.

Laura Madeline Wiseman: 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 a story that has been told and retold, a story of truths that conflicts. Like many myths and lore, the facts of the story are not stable. Bluebeard is often framed as a story of blood and gore. In my retelling I focus on the love each of his wives felt, the first blush of romance, the complicated turns of mature desire, and the trauma gender violence slashes into the home. Though the bluebeard myth may appear to be about female 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. While researching the bluebeard myth and sequencing the manuscript, I studied contemporary bluebeard variations, scholarly papers, popular culture adaptations, and historical versions many of us may have read or have had read to us as children in the form of fairy tales. I delighted in each new interpretation, each offering of the same tale if on a new slant, for it suggested to me that bluebeard is a story we’re eager to see played out. We as readers want to see Mrs. Bluebeard triumph. Yes, in many versions most of the wives are murdered, but often one wife escapes. In some variations the final Mrs. Bluebeard is saved by her siblings. In others, she is aided by a woman who works in service to bluebeard. In a robberbride groom version, her own fortitude and wit allows her to save herself. 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 and that truth is a truth I’m invested in knowing.

Leslie Adrienne Miller: I can’t imagine any subject that doesn’t reveal conflicting truths if one goes deep enough, and if I can’t get to the level of conflicting truths with a subject, I know that I don’t yet know enough to write about it. In other words, finding the conflicting truths is necessary to making poetry. Poetry balances on the edge of these, and if it falls too far in either direction, it becomes dogmatic, preachy, in other words, not poetry anymore.

Jennifer Perrine: My research always reveals conflicting truths. So much of my poetic research involves unearthing personal and family history, and any particular moment in that history has multiple vantage points, all true from the perspectives of the individuals who witnessed and lived through it.

My mother often appears in my poems, perhaps because she disappeared from my life when I was a teenager and so has remained a mystery to me. When I asked my siblings who she was and why she made the choices she did, I heard six responses, each different from each other and from the response I would have offered. What could I have done with the tensions among those truths except write?

Whether in a poem or in a novel, writing allows me to explore and puzzle through all the available truths. If I write my way into a character’s mind and body, I can have a better sense of how they would react to a situation, what the truth of an experience will be for them, and why it might differ from the truths of all the other people who stand beside them in the aftermath.

I follow the numerous threads of perspective as they separate and converge, and this helps me understand how multiple, discordant truths are necessary to stay honest about the full complexity of any life.

Q: Some writers and poets choose to invent or alter facts due to the difficulty in telling traumatic memory or describing traumatic events. What is the cost of invention to the poem and to the poet?

SH: The power of perception is an interesting phenomenon, as is the power of memory, especially when they are measured as the interstices of trauma and recovery. Many psychologists and artists will argue that traumatic events cannot necessarily be “told,” because trauma amends memory. Sometimes, the attempt at truth is all that one can muster, and that is its own truth. But invention and alteration to save the poet, or the audience, the pain of re-telling? Ultimately, I think the cost to the poem, and the poet, lies in what the poet has at stake in the telling. Why engage the traumatic event, unless the invention or alteration becomes a promising method of engagement?

LMW: Scholars have researched how and where the body records trauma and the involvement of the nervous system in such recordings—the autonomic nervous system (flight, fight, and freeze response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (calm, rest, and relaxation response). The parasympathetic nervous system stores facts, concepts, and ideas in the hippocampus. These are language based memories and allow us to tell stories. The autonomic nervous system stores behaviors in the amygdala, suppressing the hippocampus and Broca’s area where speech is produced. These are procedural and nondeclarative memories. Given that traumatic memories are often stored in a place of the brain that isn’t language based, to tell those stories means a writer makes new memories, activates the PNS, and store facts, concepts, and ideas in the form of poem making.

JP: Trauma is a wound, an absence, a loss. For me, writing trauma often involves invention, not because that writing is emotionally difficult, but because it means describing a space that no longer exists. To find words for what does not exist, one can, as Monique Wittig writes, “Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
Sometimes remembering, putting together what has been dismembered through trauma, must also reveal the process of dismemberment itself. It may be useful to demonstrate how the world has taken us apart, so that readers might imagine how to re-member those violated spaces. There’s a potential in that process, though, to write violence without offering any “effort to remember,” any way to make a new whole of the fragments—hence my willingness to invent, to shed facts for the sake of truth.
Invention, then, becomes a more active process for a reader: to make sense of the fictional representation of trauma, they must first be able to recognize that it is a fiction. They must be willing to witness the distance between the unspeakable trauma and the insufficient words used to represent it, to gaze back and forth across that chasm, to stand in the weight of that dissonance.

So much depends, though, on whether a reader has that ability, that willingness, and whether the poem serves well enough as the craft that carries the reader into that process. The risk, then, is not the cost of invention, but the possibility of its failure.

SC: I’m not sure that I see a cost to inventing or altering the facts of traumatic events to serve the art of poetry. As I mentioned earlier in regards to “fact” vs. “truth,” facts do not equal emotional truth. As human beings who live in the world outside our writing spaces, there are a variety of reasons why someone might alter logistics, especially if it means keeping themselves or someone they love safe. And when it comes to poetry as art, the writer can’t just think about whether something happened at noon or at midnight, they must also think about the best way to communicate feelings through figurative language. I don’t view poetry as a confession of life events so much as a sharing or an attempt to build understanding and empathy with readers for what a poem might represent.

LAM: I’m not sure any of us consciously change facts to protect ourselves or others, though for sure we omit things we know to that purpose, but we also omit things we know because they don’t fit the emotional arc or dramatic design of the piece as it unfolds. Again, language itself is partly responsible for this. Each word one adds in a sentence is a cutting off of all other possibilities, and when the sentence is complete, it can never capture everything that occurred along the way of its making. The subject isolates one thing, the verb moves it in one direction from a particular point in time, and everything else insinuates and inscribes specific value. The tragedy of losing all those other possibilities is offset by the fact that it means we’ll never get to the end of needing to write more poems.

Sarah A. Chavez is a mestíza born and raised in the California Central Valley completing her PhD in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found in various publications such as Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, the journals North American Review, The Fourth River, and others. Her chapbook All Day, Talking is forthcoming from dancing girl press in summer 2014.

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.

Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of six collections of poetry including Y, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.

Jennifer Perrine is the author of The Body Is No Machine (New Issues), winner of the 2008 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry, and In the Human Zoo (University of Utah Press), recipient of the 2010 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. In 2014, she will serve as a member of the U.S. Arts and Culture Delegation to Cuba. Perrine teaches in the English department and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University.

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