Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell by Stephanie Parent

Hello friends and fiends--

Today in The Madhouse, I'm sitting down with Stephanie Parent, author of the recently debuted poetry collection, Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a SpellIn Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell, Stephanie Parent’s feminist, fairy-tale-inspired poetry combines the horror and the happily-ever-after of traditional fairy tales with a modern perspective. Both personal and universal, these poems are inspired by familiar and forgotten tales.

Both the collection and Parent's responses were so enjoyable to read, and I found myself adding a few books to my TBR list, too. I hope you all will enjoy this conversation as much as I did. Please be sure to pick up a book or two on your way out!



SMW: Hi Stephanie! Welcome to The Madhouse. Since this is your first time joining us here, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to poetry in the first place?

SP: Thank you so much for having me! I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and was a big reader throughout childhood—I was the stereotypical girl with her nose in a book, who found friends in the pages I could relate to more than the people in my real life. While I read in all genres, I wasn’t particularly drawn to poetry until I started enjoying novels in verse as a teenager. Then, while in grad school for writing, I had a wonderful teacher, the poet Amy Gerstler. I wouldn’t have read or written nearly as much poetry as I have if it wasn’t for Amy’s classes, and I wouldn’t continue to read and write as much poetry as I do if it wasn’t for the vibrant poetry community on Twitter.  

SMW: What was the writing process like during Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell? I know in the foreword you mentioned you didn’t initially plan to publish or share these with anyone other than yourself, so I’m curious if your approach differed from any of your other projects, or if you found your routine consistent with this one?

SP: Writing this poetry collection was definitely a unique process for me. I began writing these poems in the first months of the pandemic, so I had a lot of emotional energy and very few in-person social interactions to channel it into. At the same time, I was working on a nonfiction project that I was convinced would be my “big break” into the publishing world (it wasn’t), so I was very conscious of trying to write for an audience and live up to publishers’ expectations. These poems came out as an antidote to that—my subconscious pouring onto the page, without worrying too much about whether people would see the work as “literary” or “accomplished,” or even like it, or whether it was in line with current trends. I wrote a poem whenever I felt like writing but didn’t want to work on the nonfiction project, and eventually, I had enough poems and ideas that I wanted to finish it as a book. I’m not sure I’ll ever again take on such a big project that starts out “just for me,” but I think it’s interesting that this collection found a publisher while the nonfiction book didn’t. Maybe fate was arranging some things for me behind the scenes!

SMW: In your poem “Into the Forest,” you write: “Fairy Tales tell us/ We all have a forest within us.” As someone who is obsessed with witches and folklore herself, I’m wondering why you think the woods became this liminal space for occult happenings throughout history. And according to classic literature—and honestly, maybe contemporary literature, too—do you think the woods hold different symbolism and dangers for men and women?

SP: What a great question! To answer this in full would probably be an essay, so I’ll keep it somewhat simple. To start with, if we go back far enough in time, in the places where fairy tales were first told, where wise women performed rituals and witches were sought out and burned, there was much more wilderness than there is today. With the lack of electricity and roads and the prevalence of wildlife, the forests were darker and deeper and more dangerous. Getting lost and encountering dangers in the woods was a very real possibility, and many stories probably evolved as cultural warnings to beware [of] these dangers. At the same time, forests could be a place to intentionally get lost or hide oneself, and thus became the best location for those who wanted to engage in occult or spiritual activities outside of cultural norms. In addition, because the woods were such a big part of people’s lives, they made an apt metaphor for our subconscious, the deepest, most hidden parts of ourselves.

As for the second part of the question, yes, woods generally have a different symbolic meaning for men and women. In fairy tales, male heroes often set off into the woods to make their own futures, plowing through the trees to come out the other side; whereas female heroines get lost and/or trapped in the forest, or are forced to hide in the woods to escape an even greater threat. In broad terms, the male journey was often conceived as active while the female was more passive—although if you dig deeper, female characters can actively fight their ways out of the woods, and/or claim a connection and power from the wilderness.

For both male and female characters, the journey into the trees is often a metaphorical step into adolescence and discovering sexuality. This seems to be emphasized more for women, in stories like Little Red Riding Hood—this makes sense when we think that female sexuality was traditionally considered dangerous when it was not controlled, just like the woods are dangerous and beyond our control.

SMW: I’m a big Disney fan, and I’ve appreciated the direction they’ve been moving in with regard to portraying strong female characters lately. As such, admittedly, I might have cheered a bit while reading your take on Little Red Riding Hood with your poem “Red Hood in the Woods.” I love that you took that tale and made a statement about women and violence and how women aren’t “asking for it” with what they’re wearing. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to putting a feminist spin on fairy tales—something, let’s face it, we so desperately need!

SP: Many years ago I read Marina Warner’s scholarly study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in fairy tales—it’s fascinating and very readable. I was very influenced by Warner’s idea that fairy tales evolved as a way for women to take back agency through storytelling. Even the most reductive, patriarchally centered versions of fairy tales retain elements of powerful femininity: the fairy godmother in Cinderella, for instance. So my personal view is that there are many different ways for fairy tales to be feminist, just as there are many different ways for women to be strong. A modern version of Little Red Riding Hood might emphasize a woman who takes ownership of and expresses her sexuality despite the threat of violence. On the other hand, traditional versions of Cinderella depict an apparently quiet, meek young woman who allows a prince to save her. Look closer, though, and think about how few options were available to orphaned women before the modern era, and we see a heroine who defies her oppressive step-family, takes every opportunity she can to get out of a terrible situation and receives help from the strong, magical female figure of the fairy godmother.

With the variety of poems in my collection, I wanted to explore the many different ways fairy tales depict strong—but also three-dimensional, sometimes scared, weak, jealous, flawed—human women.

SMW: To build on the above, let’s chat about your poem “Poissonnier,” which I absolutely loved, and who could blame with me lines like: “Our human legs are things of violence” and “What is love,/If not a split, an opening/An offering of yourself to be/Ruptured.” I feel like we could have an entire interview about these two lines alone, but for time’s sake, let’s talk about the female body and this symbol of the “split” self. There’s so much there, whether we’re talking about the ways that women change themselves and shapeshift to fit in or protect themselves, or the subtle (okay, maybe not-so-subtle) vaginal symbolism of the open wound. How do you like to work with the female body when it comes to horror, and do you feel like subverting the treatment of the female form is important in contemporary horror? Why or why not?

SP: What a great question! As you might be able to tell from “Poissonnier” and other poems in this collection, I have a strong interest in sadomasochism—it’s something I became obsessed with at a young age, in a bit of a symbiotic relationship with fairy tales. Fairy tales are full of characters—especially women—who actively hurt themselves or accept ill treatment from others, and their suffering leads to some kind of reward in the end. In The Seven Ravens, the heroine cuts off her finger to save her brothers; in The Maiden Without Hands, the heroine allows her father to cut off her hands and ends up marrying a king who gifts her with silver hands. These acts of violence were exaggerated versions of women’s reality throughout history, in a time when many died from childbirth, where poor women might literally work themselves to death just to survive, and where there was no legal recourse against domestic violence or rape. Fairy tales could provide a sort of comfort for women who could not escape their bodies and their physical pain, but who could, through storytelling, imagine a transcendence and redemption resulting from their suffering.

As a child who dealt with emotional pain for various reasons, I really clung to this idea of pain and suffering leading to some kind of reward in the end. I was also attracted to the idea of physical pain as almost a release—the emotional made into something tangible, which then allows this pain to be exorcised. That led to my interest in BDSM, and I ended up working in a commercial dungeon for six years. My first horror novel THE BRIARS, which is coming out next year from Cemetery Gates, is set in a commercial dungeon like the one I worked at. The body horror in that book comes from women struggling with their desires to receive or inflict pain, and the inevitable scars (physical and psychological) and lack of control that can result. It asks how women can take back that control, without going too far in the opposite direction and causing more destruction.

In a larger sense, and to get back to your question, I definitely think it’s important for female authors, artists, and filmmakers of horror to subvert the treatment of the female form. While fairy tales (which can be considered horror) and gothic novels are often told from the female gaze, so much of modern horror is from a male gaze that objectifies women, fetishizing their pain without allowing the viewer or reader to experience it empathetically and three-dimensionally. It is time for that to change.

SMW: In your poem “Gretel,” the little girl is faced with a difficult decision and ultimately chooses her blood family over the potential family she could have had with the witch. Again, I feel like we could talk about the witch for ages, but I’m curious why you think the archetype of the witch is so attractive to women, especially, and why you think that sometimes even if they want to walk the path with her, they turn away from her in fear?

SP: The witch is the original outsider, the counter-cultural icon, the woman who, whether she originally chose to live outside of society or was cast out, has come to own her powerful identity. And it is a power that is entirely divorced from the qualities women are traditionally valued for, like beauty, youth, kindness, etc. That combination of power and freedom that the witch embodies calls to every woman on some level—even those of us who want to be accepted by society, to go to the ball and wear the pretty dress and kiss the prince, at some point we realize that role is both exhausting and precarious. From the earliest age, we are taught to control our appearance and behavior to be attractive to men—to shave and pluck hairs, to watch our weight, to be kind and gracious, to be sexually available but not promiscuous, to embody all these contradictions and perform all these behaviors that require constant maintenance. Yet still, we’re told we could be prettier, thinner, nicer. The witch doesn’t have to worry about any of that. She doesn’t even want that. In many stories, she can transform herself into a beautiful enchantress if need be, but she doesn’t choose to stay in that form.

The witch is also uniquely powerful not in spite of the fact she’s a woman, but because of it. While fairy-tale witches have imaginary abilities, they’re connected to real-life cunning women who knew how to use the natural and spiritual worlds to cast spells and treat ailments. Since these women held beliefs that challenged organized religion, and many offered birth control or performed abortions, they were branded as “witches” and ostracized or worse.

Even today, when witch trials are ancient history, I think women may instinctively turn away from the witch’s identity out of fear of being othered or rejected. Western culture has spent centuries branding the witch—the powerful woman who does not follow social norms and does not care about pleasing men—as something evil and disgusting. This kind of deep-rooted imagery is easy to internalize and hard to overcome.

SMW: Your Baba Yaga-inspired poem “The House on Chicken Legs” had a line that stopped me cold and made me smile: “The house finds you.” And it always does, doesn’t it? So much of fairy tales focus on the domestic confines that women are placed in and desperate to break out of. In some ways, it’s the house that traps them, but in others, it’s the forced obligation, the assumption that this is where they are supposed to remain, that their allegiance is to the house, the family. Baba Yaga, herself, exists as a way to subvert that mindset. Can you talk a bit about how Baba—and her house, ironically—kind of became this feminist symbol for freedom?

SP: I touched on this in my previous answer about the appeal of the witch, but Baba Yaga is a particularly memorable witch figure. Baba appears across many stories in Slavic folklore and is accompanied by many symbols that transform traditionally limiting parts of femininity into something powerful, freeing, and yes, even grotesque. The first example, as you mentioned is her house that walks on chicken legs—taking that symbol of domesticity, the home, and turning it into a way to roam free. Baba Yaga also has the power to fly on a giant mortar and pestle—tools used in traditional female tasks, but in Baba’s case, she uses the mortar and pestle to grind the bones of people she eats. Even Baba’s own body is monstrous: her teeth are strong enough to break bones and tear meat, and her limbs can expand to fill her entire house. She exists as a defiance of everything small and quiet, good-natured and motherly, and traditionally attractive that women are supposed to be.

In my poem, I wrote not from the point of view of Baba Yaga but as Vasilisa, the heroine of one of the most well-known Baba Yaga stories. In this story Baba is ostensibly the villain: Baba captures Vasilisa, who is a Cinderella-type figure mistreated by her stepmother, and threatens to kill the girl if she does not perform impossible tasks such as separating poppy seeds from soil. With the help of a magical doll gifted by her dead mother, Vasilisa completes all of Baba’s tests, and Baba gives Vasilisa a light inside a skull that kills her stepfamily when they look upon it. Vasilisa then uses her talents as a seamstress to make it to the big city and marry the Tsar. So, even though Baba is the evil witch in the story, she is also almost a fairy godmother: she tests Vasilisa, forces her to discover her inner strength, and helps her escape a terrible situation and find a better life.

SMW: Out of all the folklore you worked with in this collection, which was your favorite to explore and why?

SP: My favorite was the Grimms’ story Jorinda and Joringel, which I discovered while listening to an online lecture by the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic early during the pandemic (Google them, listen to their lectures, take their classes—they’re fantastic!). I can’t remember whether I read this story as a child, but it’s eerie and chilling, full of evocative symbolism. The simple version: a young girl and boy in love, Jorinda and Joringel, venture into a forest where they find a castle inhabited by a witch who transforms girls into songbirds and keeps them in cages. The witch turns Jorinda into a nightingale and freezes Joringel where he stands, but later releases him. Joringel begs the witch to free Jorinda, but the witch refuses, so Joringel leaves and lives in a distant village for many years. Finally, he dreams of a flower that will break the witch’s enchantment, goes on a journey to find this flower, and manages to do so and return to the castle to free all the girl-birds and reunite with his love.

When I heard this story as an adult, I immediately wondered if I had read it as a young child and absorbed the imagery into my brain without remembering the story itself. From the age of preschool, I remember having a recurrent fantasy where I was kept in a giant birdcage in sort of a harem-greenhouse, where there were many other caged girls. I later realized this was the beginning of my BDSM inclinations: it was my brain’s way of trying to make sense of and romanticize the fact that I felt trapped in my life as if my body and thoughts did not belong to me. Just as fairy tales take horrible feelings and realities and turn them into magical stories, our own subconscious fantasies do the same thing.

In terms of the Jorinda and Joringel poems in the collection, I originally only had three or four, but my editor thought it would be great to do seven to go with the fact that is 700 to 7000 cages in the witch’s castle, depending on the version. This allowed me to explore the different characters’ perspectives in greater depth. For me personally, the most evocative aspect of this story is the idea that maybe a part of Jorinda wanted to become a bird; maybe that was why she wandered so close to the witch’s castle. Maybe a part of her wished to become a beautiful, precious treasure, even if that meant giving up her freedom. Maybe the cage was a kind of escape. I could go on, but the symbolism is so deep here and speaks so much to subconscious emotions that I think everyone will have their own interpretation.

SMW: What poets are you currently reading? Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

SP: I’m currently reading Grace R. Reynolds’ Lady of the House and Christina Sng’s A Collection of Nightmares. There is such a wealth of speculative and horror poetry out there that I wasn’t aware of till recently—I feel I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg! I’m excited for Cynthia Pelayo’s upcoming Crime Scene since I loved her previous true crime poetry collection, Into the Forest and All the Way Through, and I’m also very intrigued by Stephanie Kaylor’s Ask a Sex Worker coming from CLASH Books in 2024.

SMW: What’s next for your readers?

SP: My debut gothic horror novel, The Briars, is forthcoming from Cemetery Gates Media in May 2023. I poured my entire self and my emotions into this novel, and I really hope people will pick it up. I drew directly from my experience working for six years at a commercial dungeon, and the book includes other types of sex work as well. It makes some powerful statements about misogyny and the many different versions of female strength. It’s also fun—I mean, what better setting for a gothic ghost story than a BDSM dungeon?—and is an insider’s view into that dungeon world, with all the dirty secrets exposed. I can confidently say this book will be like nothing most people have ever read, so I hope it finds its audience.

Like The Briars, my next few books focus on sex work. In both my failed nonfiction project and my journey to finding a publisher for The Briars, I discovered the appalling amount of misconceptions about sex work(ers), the widespread belief that sex workers’ stories are not worth telling, and the downright disdain for people who have engaged in this profession. I’m working on both a short story collection and poetry collection centered around sex work and BDSM, so hopefully, I will finish and publish them at some point!

Author Bio:

Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California as well as a former submissive and switch at a commercial dungeon. Her debut horror novel set in a BDSM dungeon, The Briars, is forthcoming in May 2023 from Cemetery Gates Media. Her debut poetry collection, Every Poem a Potion, Every Song a Spell, was released in August 2022 by Querencia Press. Stephanie’s poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award and Best of the Net.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @SC_Parent and Instagram at @SCParent for updates on her writing.

If you enjoyed this interview and appreciate the work we do here in The Madhouse, you can show your support for the blog by "buying a coffee" (or two!) for our madwoman in residence: me! As always, I thank you for your time and support and I look forward to serving you another dose of all things unsettling and horrifying soon.

Monday, August 1, 2022

July '22 Madhouse Recap: Therapy, Poetry, and a 5-Year Plan

 July ‘22 Madhouse Recap

Hello Friends and Fiends—

Another month has come and gone and with it, summer is almost over. Dennis and I have been working really hard on well…everything. I feel like we’re all starting to get into a routine together, which is great, but things will change once the semester starts and we’ll have to adjust and reframe things yet again. Flexibility is not something I tend to be great with, and the more I learn about my OCD, the more I understand how important structure and communication are to my life. Therapy has been really wonderful and I feel grateful to be paired with a therapist who really gets me and is patient and supportive; she’s been helping me to unravel a lot of trauma, and while the growing pains have been excruciating at times, they’re a necessary battle for me and they’re helping me to grow into a better version of myself, not to mention a more patient and empathic mother and partner. So yeah, between managing all of that and some other postpartum stuff, it’s become more important than ever for me to 1) assess how and with whom I’m spending/giving my time and 2) plan out time that’s just for me. 

Honestly, summer is just a weird time for me in general. I know a lot of people get seasonal depression in the winter, but I get it in the summer. I hate the eternal sun, the heat, the humidity. It makes me miserable and angry, and I’m just desperately looking forward to fall and winter and darkness so I can feel alive and happy again. 

I will say, though, that I had a very productive month and have been taking a lot of risks with some projects here and there. It’s been fun to push myself, and I’ve started asking myself questions about plans for the next 5-10 years of my life. Dennis and I have a lot of goals we want to accomplish together for our family, but when I sit and think about the direction of my career and my writing, I feel like I’ve gotten too comfortable–which sure, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think I want to try some new things, maybe tackle some of the more challenging projects I’ve put on the back burner or told myself I couldn’t do until I had more experience. I don’t know. I feel like for so long I made so many decisions based on the fact that I wanted to have a child, and now that Evie’s here, I just want to tackle the world with her and make crazy, wild, beautiful things happen, and the way she looks at me makes me feel like I can do anything and everything. 

I just love her so much.

On the writing/teaching front:

  • The cover reveal and preorder of Writing Poetry in the Dark went live and will be available everywhere on October 18th. Writing Poetry in the Dark brings together some of the most successful contemporary genre poets to discuss topics related to creating dark and fantastical poetry. While there are countless books available for the aspiring poet, there is a lack of resources specifically for and on speculative poetry, and with the market thriving, publishers who previously did not put out poetry are now adding it to their catalogs, requesting it for their anthologies, and seeking it for their magazines. Given these factors, it seemed like the perfect time to put together a guide for dark poets that addresses some of the unique challenges they face, such as creating monsters out of white space, writing the hybrid poem, or subverting folklore in the retelling of a classic tale. Included in Writing Poetry in the Dark are recommendations on how to bring fear to the page,    write from the wound, let violence loose, channel the weird, and tackle the dark side of daily life. There are also practical suggestions for exploring different poetic forms and topics ranging from building worlds, writing from different points of view, and exploring gender and sexuality on the page. This book will bring something different to every speculative writer who is interested in exploring poetry with a genre twist, and it is our hope that this book will help poetry itself continue to evolve, grow, and redefine itself in the market for many years to come.
  • My poem “To Hear the Call” was accepted to be in the HWA Poetry Showcase, Volume 9. Even more exciting, it was selected as one of the top three poems in the anthology.  If you haven’t read the showcase before, there are eight volumes (so far) and I highly recommend picking them up.
  • My poem “What the Floorboards Know to Be True” will be a featured poem in Black Spot Books newest anthology Under Her Eye. Submissions are currently open for this one, so please consider sending in some work: “This collection is open to all poets who identify as women (cis and trans) and non-binary femmes. The theme of the second collection is domestic horror. This is a broad spectrum and poets are welcome to interpret the prompt in their own vision, so long as poems support the theme of domestic horror -- the fear that we might not be safe in our own homes. [They] have partnered with The Pixel Project, a global, volunteer-run non-profit for this showcase, and will be donating a portion of proceeds to support ending violence against women.”
  • My interview with Erin Slaughter, author of the poetry collection The Sorrow Festival is live on my blog and available to read. If you haven’t read Erin’s work, I can’t recommend it enough. 

This month, I read:

  • Brute: Poems by Emily Skaja

  • A Tug of Blue by Eleanor Hooker

  • Sacred Summer by Cassandra Rose Clarke

  • notsleepyyet by Alexander P. Garza

  • [deadname] by Halsey Hyer

  • Lore Olympus: Volume Two by Rachel Smythe

  • The Elementals by Michael McDowell

  • Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch (this was a re-read and I still think it’s a great–albeit unconventional–craft book for writers and all artists to read).

  • Girls From the County by Donna Lynch (reread)

  • Nightmare Country, Issue #3 by James Tynion IV

On the media front:

  • Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), The Long Night (2022), Umma (2002)

  • What We Do in the Shadows: I’m loving the latest season so far, and baby Colin Robinson is killing me. I could watch this show forever, I swear. Oh, and please take me to that night market!

  • I finished Stranger Things (2022) Season 4. What a fucking rush. I don’t think it’s possible for me to love this show more than I do. 

  • Ms. Marvel (2022): Dennis and I finished this together last month and I absolutely loved it (even if I did have some narrative questions). The culture was rich, the storyline was so empowering, and I loved how they portrayed family in this one. I wish I would have had stuff like this around when I was growing up, but I’m happy Evie will have it at least. She watched the entire thing with us, too!

  • Umbrella Academy (2022) Season 3: Klaus remains my favorite character of this series, and honestly at this point, I’m kind of just watching it for him. I enjoyed this season, and I actually really liked the cliffhanger ending, but I’m nervous for the next season. I’m really picky about my science fiction intake, and I think this could continue on as a story I really enjoy or it might go down a path that is a little too weird and out there for me. We’ll see. Either way, this particular season was a lot of fun and I continue to love how angry Five is. It makes my Aries self feel seen.

  • Twilight Zone (2019-2020) 

    • “Blue Scorpion” – This was a lot of fun. I like cursed-object horror and I thought this had some interesting things to say. Honestly, when I read through the episode descriptions, this one interested me the least but it probably ended up being one of the ones I liked more.

    • “Blurry Man” - I’m such a sucker for stories about writers (could I be more cliche? No. Do I care? Also no). But the twist for this episode made me so incredibly happy that I practically screeched like a bat.

    • “Meet in the Middle”- Definitely one of my favorites. I loved how this was romantic, thrilling, trippy, and HORRIFYING.

    • “Downtime”--This is the type of content I think of when I think of The Twilight Zone, but I also thought this had some Black Mirror vibes to it too (which makes sense when you think about it because Black Mirror is definitely influenced by Twilight Zone). Anyways, that blank stare from everyone as they stared at the big ball in the sky? Chilling. I watched this one in black and white, so the nostalgia was beautiful here.

    • “The Who of You”- These types of body-switch episodes always freak me out, but I love this kind of horror, so this worked well for me. Plus the twist at the end? So devious and dark and honestly just heartbreaking. 

    • “Ovation”--I liked this one and I thought the twist was good at the end, but it all felt a little too predictable for me. I wish there would have been some discussion about the coin itself–I think that could have added a different spin to a devil’s-deal story. 

    • “Among the Untrodden”--Psychic girls? A boarding school? This one had Stephanie written all over it. 

    • “8”--All I’m going to say about this is that I could watch SF shows and movies about giant squids all day long. 

    • “A Human Face”--I’m torn between loving this one and being bored with it and wanting more. I loved the premise, but it became so straightforward, yet at the same time, that blunt nature is where the horror is so I’m kind of in the middle on this one. Honestly, I kind of just wanted to see more of the creature in his purple slimy creature body, though.

    • “A Small Town” – This is the type of weird, SF that I love so I was all about this one. Plus, how they incorporated grief and community and then juxtaposed that against the greed and power of politicians was fantastic. 

    • “Try, Try”--Ah, this was probably one of my favorites out of both seasons. I love repetition stuff like this, and the way the “nice guy” trope was handled here was just perfect. Absolutely loved it!

    • “You Might Also Like”--This one was not for me. Like I said, with science fiction, I tend to either love it or hate it and I actually fell asleep the first time I watched this (hey, I have a 6-month-old, give me a break!) but then went back in for the rewatch, I still wasn’t taken with it. 

  • I flew through Boo, Bitch. It was like a paranormal version of Mean Girls and I had a lot of fun with it.

  • I watched the first two episodes of Season 2 of American Horror Stories. Honestly, I’ve kind of given up on all things AHS, but with that said, I still give it a chance here and there; the only one I completely quit on was Death Valley. Anyways, I liked the first episode, and I appreciated that it gave us some more insight into Coven, which was a cool crossover. The second one had some Black Mirror vibes to it, and I liked it, too. We’ll see how things continue though...

  • I randomly decided to watch How to Build a Sex Room and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Lots of good discussions about marriage and relationships (and obviously sex), and then the design part of it was gorgeous! Oh, how I wish I were rich…


The start of this month is going to include a tattoo appointment, school supply shopping, and finalizing some details for the Writing Poetry in the Dark release this October, not to mention I’m teaching my Witch Lit workshop on August 16 (you can still sign up here!), so please send me good vibes, remember to hydrate, read one poem a day, and know that your art is valid and wonderful and the world needs your words now more than ever.



Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: The Sorrow Festival by Erin Slaughter

Good Morning Friends and Fiends--

Today in The Madhouse I'm thrilled to be hosting Erin Slaughter, author of the poetry collection The Sorrow Festival, which not to sound dramatic, is probably one of my new favorite books and definitely one I plan on incorporating into my classes soon. There is so much meat to this book, and while I tend to read poetry that focuses on grief and trauma quite frequently, this one hit like others haven't, and we're going to talk a little bit about why that is in the interview below.

Before we get to our chat though, I want to take a moment to say that I definitely plan on picking up more of Erin's work, too, and I hope that you'll consider adding her work to your TBR lists and shopping carts soon, as well. You can find her whole catalog here and her short fiction collection, A Manual for How to Love Us is available for preorder now. She's definitely a voice to listen to and learn from and I'm looking forward to a long, beautiful writing career from her.

Cheers to beautiful words, 

Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: Hi Erin! Welcome to The Madhouse. Since this is your first time joining us here, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to poetry in the first place?

ES: Hi! I’m a multi-genre writer of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid work, but poetry has always held a special place in my reading heart and in my writing practice. At the root of everything for me is an obsession with language, especially strange, guttural, fragmented language that attempts to translate some human impulse or experience that lies beyond traditional explanation; poetry to me is the ultimate distillation of language’s power, a space to break and remake words to communicate something we have not been given words for.

SMW: What was the writing process like during The Sorrow Festival? Did it differ from any of your other projects, or did you find your routine consistent with this one?

ES: I’m not a very structured writer, so unless I’m on a deadline I rarely keep a consistent routine. For me, the work tends to fall together in long stretches of procrastination followed by bursts of hyper-productivity. With poetry, I often jot down lines as they come to me, then at some point every week or two I sit down and Frankenstein the lines together, filling in the connective tissue to create a cohesive poem. I find myself writing more frequently when traveling to a new place or spending time with other people. When I wrote The Sorrow Festival, these factors lined up in just the right way: I had just moved to Florida to start a PhD program, and the landscape here is profoundly different than anywhere I’ve ever lived, so I immediately became obsessed with the trees and Spanish moss and bright flowers blooming up everywhere. In Florida, I also fell into a large group of writer friends who were compelling human beings to spend time around, plus we were constantly talking about poetics and inhabiting that space of inspiration and generation together. So, I ended up writing the full manuscript in my first 7 or 8 months in Florida, because the world around me and inside me was constantly sparking with things to write about.

SMW: Writing about pain feels intrinsic to poets, and I think that we capture it in a way that fiction or even nonfiction doesn’t. To me, it’s always felt heavier, more potent, like we can describe something that you shouldn’t be able to describe. When I read your book, I was beautifully swept away by all the ways you placed that feeling of sadness and sorrow on the page. For instance, let’s look at this line from “How We Reckon:” “this/is how we fed: on the ambulance/of sorrow strobing beneath the skin.” Can you talk a little bit about how you tapped into sorrow while writing? Did it even overtake you, and if so, how did you protect yourself mentally while writing?

ES: First, thank you for your kind words about my book! More than anything, I think writers hope the emotion behind their work will be felt by readers just as poignantly as they felt it in the writing process, and it’s always meaningful to hear that a reader connected with it in that way.

To answer your question, I really did not protect myself mentally while writing this book, or while living the things I was writing through and about. The rawness of the sorrow and ecstasy that drives the book shows up there for that very reason. I’m sure there are talented writers who can manufacture emotional weight while keeping a healthy distance from the more traumatic subjects, but that’s not how poetry works for me—if there’s a noticeable distance between the raw feeling I’m trying to infuse into the poem and my internal state as I write it, the language comes out flat. I can fake my way into that space, and I can conjure up words that sound pretty when you string them together, but there’s a palpable hollowness in what’s produced. The Sorrow Festival is in many ways a record of me experiencing and processing the most visceral depths of my emotional range in real-time, bleeding out onto the page and then crafting it and shaping it up later. I’m not advocating that anyone has to dive headfirst into their trauma in order to write well, I’ve just personally never had a strategy for protecting myself when writing.

SMW: There are some notes on motherhood, creation, and birth within the book that spoke to me, especially as a new mother. Again, in the poem “How We Reckon,” you write: “& I promise to write more odes/to my uterus/it used to bring me dead things/like the neighborhood cat/laid a splayed cardinal at the foot/of my bed.” And then later on in “Hurricane Fragments”, you write: “men are not taught/in the same way to cultivate/the lingered gardens of their sorrow.” As a writer—and more specifically as a poet—what is your relationship to the word mother, and do you think there is a specific type of pain that mothers (or women) themselves have to carry? Does this differ from how men carry pain?

ES: It’s so interesting that you picked up on that theme—I didn’t set out to write about motherhood, but it kept presenting itself over and over in my examinations of grief. Looking back, I can identify a few reasons for that: in many of these poems, especially the earliest ones, I was writing about my own mother. I thought it was about examining her relationship history as a lens through which I could understand my own, but it inevitably became about how daughters internalize a performance of womanhood through their mothers, and how that extends to other types of love and caretaking—particularly a clinging, memory-hoarding, self-sacrificial strain of love that I related to immensely at the time.

My sister also comes up a lot in this collection, and in the poem you mentioned, “How We Reckon,” I was processing the news of her pregnancy in light of the complicated relationship we have as sisters, as well as my own complicated feelings about literal and metaphorical life-making. I have PCOS, and I’ve been told it could be difficult for me to become pregnant, so in the background, there’s this potential infertility that could be seen as a failure of my body, but at the same time, I’m very ambivalent about the idea of having children, and there’s a societal and familial pressure attached to becoming a mother that can also make me feel like a failure for choosing not to be one. This poem is also reckoning with a relationship that was in no way stable or conductive to any kind of permanence, especially not the kind that leads to family-making. So tied to fertility in the poem is this feeling of loss and failure coming from all angles: feeling guilt that I am not a mother and have not prioritized becoming one, feeling loss over my strained relationship with my sister as she prepares to have a child, and feeling a grief about not being able to have that experience—of pregnancy, of the whole ‘happily ever after’ women are taught to seek—even if I wanted it, while grieving the lack of possibility in this stunted romantic/sexual relationship.

Outside of the poems themselves, I’ve also spent a lot of time mentally reckoning with the political griefs attached to motherhood—it feels like I barely have a choice in deciding whether I want to be a mother, because motherhood in this country is not just about birthing and raising children: it also means signing up to be judged as if your body and life are public property, in many cases being forced to abandon your work to be the default caregiver, with very little emotional or financial support, pressure to give up your independence, autonomy, and personal identity outside of the family, and (in a heterosexual partnership) potentially putting yourself in a position of dependence on a male partner who innately wields more power. Not to mention the (now more expansive) barriers to safe abortion access that erase a person’s right to choose whether or not to give birth in the first place.

That’s a very long explanation of where I’m coming from around the topic of pregnancy and motherhood, which is definitely not to discount anyone else’s experiences of, or desires for, parenthood—these are just some of the ways in which motherhood feels complex and grief-ridden to me personally. But to answer your actual question: I do think women’s pain is exacerbated by social norms of silence that belittle them by calling them “hysterical” or “overly-sensitive” or whatever if they dare to openly express hurt and anger. I also think the way women are socially conditioned to be hyperaware of their bodies as sites to be acted upon creates an internalized pain that men don’t have to contend with (which is not to say men and people of other genders aren’t burdened by pain in equally harmful ways; patriarchy is a cult of repression, and that’s ultimately bad for everyone).

SMW: The collection is broken up into five sections: (1) Digging Teeth Out of the Garden, (2) River, (3) Land of the Rootfisted, (4) Gulf Epistolary, and (5) Sun Come Antlered. Can you talk about how you chose those title markers and what they mean/t to you thematically?

ES: My first poetry collection, I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun, was sectioned by seasons, beginning with summer and ending with spring, and there’s something about the seasonal arc that lives in this book too: beginning with burning, diving into the depths of cold bleakness, and then clawing toward hope and renewal alongside the external world. This collection takes a slightly different journey, although the natural world is often reflected in the narrative shifts between sections.

The first section is titled after a line in the final poem of that section, “Holding the Loose Bones Close,” which uses the image of burying a child’s baby teeth in the garden as a metaphor for gracefully accepting the passage of time. But in the poem, I compare myself to my mother, saying I would end up digging the teeth up and hoarding them, the way we both hoard memories and cling to idealized notions. This first section was trying to set up the themes of gender-based violence and inheritances. “River” and “Gulf Epistolary,” the second and fourth sections, are different in that they’re both self-contained pieces, interruptions between the sections of arranged poems. They both swirl around the story of my father’s murder, but take different angles, using different styles and forms. Though all these poems are very much rooted in the natural landscape of Florida, “Land of the Rootfisted” holds the poems that are more explicitly so, intimately tying the emotional core to the destruction of hurricanes, lush blooms, feral rodents, and festering loam. “Sun Come Antlered,” the final section, is the “spring” section, to go back to the arc of seasons. It’s moving toward empowerment, connection, renewal, and allowing in a fresh tenderness, but as the title suggests, it’s not an uncomplicated awakening to sunlight and happiness; it’s still thorny and carrying that old grief but starting to navigate how to repurpose it.

In your poem “The Cool Girl Façade Begets Its Own Layer of Animal Grief” you write: “If I’m going to pretend there’s ever been a time when wandering/the grounds of a public graveyard isn’t where I felt safest/.” Now, I don’t know if it’s the poet in me, or the forever-goth, but I connected with this as someone who likes to walk in cemeteries, has a slight obsession with Victorian mourning jewelry, and who just generally appreciates the stillness and quiet I feel around graveyards. Can you talk about your relationship with this “animal grief” you reference in the title? Do you find yourself finding solace in places that typically beget grief, i.e., walking in cemeteries, watching horror films, etc. (I certainly do!).

ES: When it comes to horror movies, I’m a huge baby—one good jump-scare and I’ll be scared of the dark for weeks—but I do LOVE a good cemetery. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always hung out in graveyards, partly for the beauty and meditative solitude, and partly out of some writerly sensibility to imagine the people buried there, wondering who they were and what their lives were like, these full and vibrant people reduced down to a few faded lines on a gravestone. And of course, there’s a selfish impulse there too: I want to believe when I’m dead and I’m just another of those faceless gravestones, someone will try to remember me.

When we seek out ghost stories and horror films, I think some part of it is coming from a place of anxiety—exposing ourselves to the most grotesque, extreme outcomes of death to desensitize ourselves to it or get more comfortable with it, in order to prepare for the inevitable deaths of ourselves and our loved ones. And just as my book views sorrow as the necessary underbelly of joy, and vice versa, there is no horror without the preexistence of empathy. We might on a surface level recognize harm as unfortunate, but our love for and identification with the victim of the harm is what generates horror. Grief is in so many ways an uncontrollable heightening of love, a love expanding to terrifying proportions in an attempt to fill the vacuum where the loved subject used to be. 

SMW: There is phrase in your poem “I Hope My Salt Lamp Is a Weeping Deity” that made me smile: “Everyone has agreed/ the audience is tired of hearing about the body.” Now this made me smile because I feel like the body is something that has been under the microscope for, well forever, honestly (and especially now, *deep sigh*), and it’s so highly scrutinized that yes, I think we could say there is this collective cry for an end surrounding its constant criticization, but in the same breath, that focus on the body is the only thing advocating for it: for its equality, its freedom, its choice. This line is so perfect because it conveys all of that while working with the themes of identity, personal landscape, intimacy, and beauty that you’ve presented in your poems. So with that said, how do you think The Sorrow Festival tackles the theme of the body and why do you feel it’s important to continue highlighting it in your work?

ES: This is one of those lines that felt like a bit of a bitter joke when I wrote it, because poets I’ve workshopped with will sometimes make light of how often the word “body” or bodily imagery appears in my poetry, and in contemporary poetry in general—it’s one of those digs that rings true and that I often make light of about myself and my own work. At the same time, scrutiny not just about the body as a subject but about the impulse to write about the body seems to come from, in my experience, a position of privilege: those whose bodies are considered “the norm,” whose bodies are not legislated as government property, whose bodies are not objectified and measured as a matter of public discourse, whose bodies have been historically valued in medical and scientific study—those people may find it frivolous or cliché to write about the body because they do not have to spend a lot of time thinking about their bodies. I’m coming to this from my own experience as a white, queer, plus-size cis woman, but this idea obviously extends far beyond my own experience (and beyond simply an experience of gender) to apply to trans bodies, disabled bodies, the bodies of people of color, and anyone whose bodies have been abused, negated, or define them socially.

From a more craft-focused angle, for me the body is where language originates—although I don’t always feel in tune with my body, and have at times been quite dissociated from my body, my experience of existing and moving through the world is first felt internally and physically, so that’s where my writing begins, too.

SMW: In your poem “At the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River” you end the poem with: “ballerinas stumbling in the rust-/stained mud/&with blood/comes a sadness:/How free I remain.” First off—absolutely beautiful. I love how you’ve taken this book and conjured this immense, sweeping healing with it even while/when talking about topics that focus on death, grief, loss, etc. That’s not easy to do. Can you talk a bit about how poetry can be used as a vehicle for healing, how it can help us process individual or collective trauma?

ES: Thank you! It’s beautiful to hear you enjoyed that poem. I teach college creative writing classes, and when I teach poetry, either as a workshop or as a literature course, I often begin the semester with an excerpt from Gregory Orr’s book Poetry as Survival, which is, among other things, about how claiming an “I” through the lyric tradition can allow us to reshape the narrative of our trauma in order to survive it. Orr writes: “One of story’s primary purposes is to lay claim to experience, to assert the significance of one’s life.” Poetry can be a way to claim an unspoken truth and present your story on your own terms, which is especially powerful for those who have spent their lives being told in implicit and explicit ways that who they are and what has happened to them is unimportant.

The drive to process trauma or self-actualize has created some of our most impactful and lasting art, but the idea of personal healing as integral to the writing process is often criticized; there’s this fallacy that if you don’t claim some erudite distance between the poet and the speaker of the poem, it’s just “writing about your feelings” and can’t be considered as an intentionally crafted literary artifact. In Poetry as Survival, Orr also advocates for “honor[ing] the poet’s authentic survival project first and his or her intended effect on an audience second,” which is completely oppositional to the philosophy of most poetry workshops, at least in academic settings. I think writing as a method to examine trauma or find healing through telling one’s story, putting aside any concern for craft technique or publication, is a legitimate and valuable use of writing; I also think writers can craft a piece of writing with skill, technique, and the intent to publish, in which the mission of the piece is personal growth and cathartic expression, and that is equally valuable and legitimate.

SMW: In the fourth section of the collection, you’re writing these gorgeous letters, baring honesty and crossing out lines, which adds a certain rawness to the page. These pieces can be read as letters or as prose poems and I’m curious about what your connection is to the prose poem and how you know when a piece would be better suited for that format over another.

ES: As I mentioned, I often focus on generating material first and play around with form and shape afterward, but the series of poems you mentioned came out initially as prose blocks. Part of that is because they’re epistolary, which is a prose-based tradition, so I wanted them to retain some of that prosaic quality. Prose poems have a particular pacing and momentum that make the reader take the information in at a certain speed with a certain tone of voice, giving them a clear path to follow from the outset. That allows the writer freedom to experiment in ways that readers might be more receptive to because the form is straightforward and familiar. The same is true of other poems with line breaks and stanza groupings: those forms set the tone, momentum, and lay out the information in a certain order, creating pauses and surprises, or challenging the reader’s expectations.

SMW: What poets are you currently reading? Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

ES: I tend to read books that are in the same vein as what I’m working on or preparing to work on, and right now for me that’s a lot of fiction, so I haven’t been as plugged into poetry lately. But this summer I’m teaching an Intro to Poetry literature class, and it has been a great excuse to go back and revisit the poets I most adore and want to share with my students. I am always floored anew by Morgan Parker’s work each time I revisit it. Franny Choi has a new collection coming out later this year that I’m looking forward to, because I loved her last book, Soft Science. When I was studying for my doctoral exams, I bought the collected works of Alice Notley, and every once in a while I’ll dip into that for a quick shot of poetry, and end up getting sucked in longer than I expected. This last one feels obvious because it’s been so widely praised already, but Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell is the last book of poetry I can remember being deeply moved by—like, openly crying in a coffee shop, seeing the world differently for the rest of the day after I finished it. I think right now, as the world continues to reveal itself to be more precarious than we previously believed, a lot of us are reconsidering our relationships to spirituality, and that book taps into that space of spiritual seeking. It collages tragedy with wonder, unimaginable pain with unimaginable beauty, and I think that’s ultimately what life is: a collage of horrible and wonderful contradictions, and language is futile in the face of most of it, but language is the only real tool we have, so all we can do is employ it to record and reveal as best we’re able.

What’s next for your readers?

ES: In March 2023, my debut short story collection A Manual for How to Love Us is coming out from Harper Perennial, and I couldn’t be more ridiculously thrilled about it. My whole life for the past year has been spent reworking the book with my editor, and I really hope it finds readers who connect with it. The stories all focus on feral, sort of fucked-up women in the American South trying to cope in the aftermath of different kinds of grief, failing and loving and clawing toward hope and burning it all down. It has a bent toward strangeness and magical realism, and the visceral and bodily, so there’s some crossover with The Sorrow Festival in the themes and emotionally driven language.


Erin Slaughter is the author of two poetry collections: The Sorrow Festival (CLASH Books, 2022) and I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her debut book of short fiction, A Manual for How to Love Us, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in March 2023. She is editor and co-founder of The Hunger, and her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Originally from Texas, she lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she is a Ph.D. candidate and Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University.

Social media:

Twitter: @erinslaughter23
Instagram: @erin_slaughter23

Book description for The Sorrow Festival:

Rooted in the beauty and violence of Florida’s landscape, these poems are an exploration of love, sex, martyrdom, home, and what we bring with us when we choose poetry to record the intimacies of a life.

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