Tuesday, December 6, 2022

For Mrs. Vasko--

One of my party tricks (and I say that lightly and in jest) is that I can recite a list of all the prepositions faster than most people can say “Hi Stephanie. How have you been?” My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Vasko, taught it to me as a kid to help me with my writing, and at 33 years old, it’s still fresh as can be in my head (along with all the presidents and all the state capitols).

So much of my childhood is intertwined with her and her family: trips to Touchstone, softball games, the Leo Club, tons of community service projects, and countless art projects. Heck, I can still remember decorating my bowl for the Empty Bowl Dinner in elementary school. Why? Because everything we did was met with a bigger purpose. I never felt like I was just learning or just helping out. With Mrs. Vasko, everything was always bigger, brighter, and more meaningful. She taught from a place of kindness, and empathy, and honestly, it was a beautiful thing to witness.

She was my first mentor, and she was the first person who made me want to be a teacher; I even considered Clarion University for a while because that’s where she went and I wanted to be a similar force of good in the eyes of those around me. Someone who made a difference, someone who was the change they wanted to see in the world. I remember when she started Mrs. Claus and truly, there wasn’t a better person to encompass that name and everything the group stood for. Mrs. Vasko made miracles happen every day for so many people and it breaks my heart to think that when she needed one herself, it wasn’t granted to her.

I was talking to my dad this morning and he said it perfectly: “she took [something] that was already amazing, and then put the cherry on top.” And she did—with everything. She was magic, someone who always went the extra mile and who greeted the day and all those around her with love. If you were sick, she brought food. If you needed her, she’d travel. As I grew up, I watched her instill similar lessons of compassion in my brother, and our families got closer because her daughter and my brother were in the same class, so I got to see my teacher (and her family) become a dear family friend.

Mrs. Vasko celebrated my wedding. She came to my baby shower. She sent me cookie recipes and checked in on my daughter, and even got Evie her first Christmas ornament. We danced together at my brother’s wedding and drank tons of wine together at events over the years. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her laugh, still see her smile, and when I was going back through my messages this morning, the last thing I said to her was: “Love you. Thank you for always being so wonderful and supportive in my life. It means so much and I just think the world of you.”

I’m so happy those were my last words to her because that’s what I wanted to tell her, what I still want to tell her. My life is better for knowing her, for being taught by her, for being loved by her. I will miss her terribly, and it’s not fair—it’s never fair—but she was a bright and shining example of someone who lived and who lived fully, and I will try to remember that when the sadness surfaces, when the pain of her not being here hits.

I hope there are tons of books and wine and comfort and laughter where you are, Mrs. Vasko. I hope you can rest and know that you were and are loved and that we’ll take care of your family the way that you’ve always taken care of us.

I miss you and I love you.

And thank you, thank you so much for everything.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

November '22 Madhouse Recap: Comics, The Music of Lily Dale, and Saying Goodbye to an Old Friend

Hello Friends and Fiends—

November seemed to fly by, didn’t it? Most of the month I was lost in audits and registration woes for my day job, but there was also a fair amount of midterm grading, advising chats with my mentees, and a ton of reading (both for pleasure and for market research/work). I’m already looking ahead to next semester as I’ll have 3 mentees with WCSU and then I’ll be teaching an undergraduate course at PPU: Theoretical Approaches, Women Write Horror. I’m really excited about all of this and we’re going to read a ton of great books. I haven’t finalized my syllabi quite yet, but I can say that I’ll definitely be teaching Bunny by Mona Award, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez, Sisters by Daisy Johnson, and Monster She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger and Melanie Anderson. I’m going back and forth between a few more books/short story collections, so we’ll see what happens in the next couple of weeks for the undergraduate class, but as always, I’ll be sure to post the readings lists in my January update for anyone who is interested in following along with us!

I feel like I haven’t been creatively producing a whole lot lately, but I’ve been doing a ton of research and reading for my psychology classes and working on a bunch of nonfiction stuff, and I’m feeling very okay with that. I definitely feel drawn to some new horizons lately and while internally I’m a panicked mess about it, I’m trying to honor and embrace change rather than run away from it (which I normally do). But don’t fear! I have a new poetry collection coming out in 2023, and I’ll have some short stories making their way into the world as well, so my dark and creepy isn’t leaving anytime soon. With that said, I have been playing with a new monster poem recently that I’m enjoying; I’m trying to accomplish a lot with it though so it’s taking some time, I bought Jill Tracy’s album The Secret Music of Lily Dale, and I’ve been vibing with that and enjoying it immensely; one of my friends also introduced me to the artist Blind Sage, and I’ve been listening to their 2022 Ice Wind album a bunch, too. Both of these soothe me and inspire me in different ways, and because I tend to obsess over songs instantly, these albums have pretty much been on repeat all last month.

Thanksgiving was bittersweet this year. We had a wonderful time at my cousin’s the weekend before and then celebrated again the day of at my mother-in-law’s with my family as well, but my sweet, angel dog Edgar Allan passed away a few days before and I’ve just been heartbroken ever since. Most of you know or have certainly seen pictures of my darling boy, and while I’m devastated that he’s gone, we spent 13 beautiful years together and he died a king’s death: warm, with a full belly, and surrounded by love. Edgar was instrumental in my life; he was my comfort, my solace, my critique partner, and such a sense of happiness and joy when I felt empty and alone. I feel blessed to have gotten to be his mom, and I’m confident I’ll feel his slobbery kisses again in another life because our bond was too strong for us not to continue on somewhere on the other side of the veil.

In happier news, Evie is a riot. She’s standing and crawling everywhere and she chugs her bottle one-handed now like an absolute party girl (I know, I know–I’m paying for my past sins). She’s wild and hysterical and makes faces at us all the time now, and she’s absolutely enchanted by Santa (we’ve been watching the Tim Allen Santa Clause movies and series), but she also devoured Wednesday with me and literally never took her eyes off the screen. She eats everything including avocado for breakfast and sweet potatoes for lunch, and on Thanksgiving, we learned this girl loves some pumpkin pie! She also started drinking from a sippy cup, which just feels unreal to me, and she super enjoys bubble baths (especially when they’re lavender-scented). She’s growing up so fast and while I love it and am so excited, it’s always a little sad, too. Ah, pesky emotions!
On the writing/teaching front:
  • I participated in Winter Haunts, a day of workshops and panels sponsored by Writing Magazine and hosted by the wonderful Alex Davis. I taught a speculative poetry workshop in the morning and then sat on a panel later in the afternoon about Baba Yaga, which was personally quite inspiring and empowering. I hope everyone had an enjoyable time, learned a lot, and is off creating magical, frightening, fantastical things as we speak.
  • Austin and I had a brilliant and fantastically funny chat about poetry, axe murder poems, mental health, Writing Poetry in the Dark, and this idea of "bad poetry,” You can check out the episode courtesy of the Ledger Podcast here.
    • Austin, I know I owe you a poem edit! I promise I haven’t forgotten!
  • Into the Forest, Tales of the Baba Yaga, edited by Lindy Ryan went live last month. I remain so honored to have a poem and a short story in this anthology. Baba Yaga is beyond special to me, so this feels like the best kind of magic. You can pick up your copy here.
  • My open letter/ poetic musing to Anne Sexton was published on her birthday via LitReactor. This is one of my favorite pieces I think I’ve written and you can read it here.
  • The Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview 6 went live with an interview with FJ Bergmann, Lucy A Snyder, and Bryan Thao Worra. Each contributor talked about identity in some way in their essay, and you can read it here.
  • The last Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview 7 went live with an interview with Donna Lynch, and Jim and Janice Leach. Each contributor talked about writing from within, whether that be from the POV of marriage, the wound, or mental health, and I can’t recommend this one enough. You can read it here.
  • I welcomed Grace R. Reynolds to The Madhouse last month, and we talked about domestic horror and chatted about her poetry collection, Lady of the House. You can read it here.
  • H V Patterson from Dreadfulesque interviewed me about Writing Poetry in the Dark. You can read it here.
  • I'm also incredibly happy to announce that Ellen Datlow long listed a number of my pieces for Best Horror of the Year 14.

This month, I read:
  • A Mirror Mended by Alix E. Harrow
  • Wain: LGBT reimaginings of Scottish Folktales by Rachel Plummer
  • Lady of the House by Grace R. Reynolds
  • Woman, Eating by Claire Kodha
  • The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez (reread)
  • Sisters by Daisy Johson
  • I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
  • Briar, Issue 1 via Boom! Studios
  • Lovesick, Issue 1 via Image Comics
  • Two Graves, Issue 1 via Image Comics
  • Ten Thousand Feathers, Issue 1-3 via Image Comics
  • Specs, Issue 1 via Boom! Studios
  • Bolero, Issue 1 via Image Comics
  • Twig, Issue 1 via Image Comics
  • I Hate Fairyland, Issue 1 via Image Comics
  • Rogue State, Issue 1 via Black Mask Studios
  • The Closet, Volume 1 via Image Comics
  • The Nice House on the Lake, Vol 1 by James Tynion
  • Stray Dogs, Vol 1 by Tony Fleecs (review on Goodreads)
  • I read some stories from Rosario Ferre’s short story collection The Youngest Doll. These were first-time reads for me and were recommended by a friend because they know I love dark magical realism. I read “The Dreamer’s Portrait,” “The Youngest Doll” (which was delicious) as well as “The House that Vanished.”
  • I’ve also been reading Erica LaRocca’s novella They Were Here Before Us. So far, I read the first three stories: “All That Remains is Yours to Keep,” “Delicacies from a First Communion,” and "A God Made of Straw."
On the media front:
  • New Watches: Halloween Ends (2022), The Curse of Bridge Hollow (2022), Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), Mandrake (2022), Grizzly Man (2005), The Menu (2022), Ouija (2014).
  • Cabinet of Curiosities: I’m really enjoying this series, mostly because I’m such a creature fan and I feel like we’re getting a lot of cool stuff here. I’m only five episodes in but here are my thoughts so far:
    • “Lot 36”- I love stories about antique shows, storage units, estate sales, etc., so once this started, I knew it was going to be for me.
    • “Graveyard Rats”- Willard pretty much ruined my life (I’ll never be able to get that cat scene out of my head) so I didn’t think I would really like this one, but it was decent and that final scene was gross-out perfection!
    • “The Autopsy”- I’m such a sucker for medical horror, and when you throw in a good splash of body horror and the supernatural? Yes, please! This was one of my favorites
    • “The Outside”- So I have a sensory thing with lotion, so this was really hard for me to watch (despite me actually loving the plot). I gagged a lot but this was such a great piece of body horror and I liked all the social issues it tackled, too. With that said, I never want to see someone get in a tub of lotion again. UGH!
    • “Pickman’s Model”- This is my favorite Lovecraft short story, and I absolutely loved how they paid homage to the original while still creating something new. This will be one I revisit, and might even show in my classes. All the applause!
  • Wednesday: This show made me so happy and there were so many Easter eggs in there for Addams Family fans. This will definitely be a repeat show for me, and I kind of want to go back and watch the original tv series again now, too.
  • The Santa Clauses: The Santa Claus is one of my favorite Christmas movies, and I watch it every year (all of them, honestly) so when I saw this come out, we immediately dove right in. Again, all the nostalgia and Easter eggs for fans of the original, and I love how they’re tackling loopholes in the original, too. I can’t wait to keep watching!
    • I don’t usually write about holiday/romance things on here but I had to watch Lindsay Lohan’s return in Falling for Christmas. I’m not the audience for this so I won’t really comment on it, but I did love the nod to “Jingle Bell Rock” from her Mean Girl days...
  • Blockbuster: I didn’t especially like this, but it was an okay show to kind of just watch with Dennis when we needed to take a break. I don’t know that I’ll necessarily jump if there’s a season 2 though. I will say that while streaming is great, I do miss going to the video store and mining the horror section for classics, sequels, and weird titles that I’d never heard of.
  • Big Mouth, Season 6: As usual, I flew through this season because I just adore this show. I appreciated how they tackled gender and sexuality this season and I remain so jealous that this type of show and discourse wasn’t available when I was growing up, but I’m so happy these conversations are happening now.


Also as a reminder, if you enjoy 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.



Friday, November 18, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: Lady of the House with Grace R. Reynolds

Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today in The Madhouse, I'm welcoming Grace R. Reynolds. Grace R. Reynolds is a native of the great state of New Jersey, where she was first introduced to the eerie and strange thanks to local urban legends of a devil creeping through the Pine Barrens. Since then, her curiosity about things that go bump in the night bloomed into creative expression as a dark poet, horror, and thriller fiction writer.

When Grace is not writing she can be found dreaming up macabre scenarios inspired by the mundane realities of life. Her debut collection of horror poetry “Lady of The House” was released in December 2021 by Curious Corvid Publishing.

I recently read Grace's collection Lady of The House, and you folks know I love me some domestic horror, so this was a fun, dark world to explore. Below is our conversation, which discusses feminism, women's labor relations, the balance between violence and the erotic, and much much more! 

As always, if you enjoy 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.

Holding the butter knife a little too hard,

Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: Hi Grace! 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?

GR: Hi Stephanie! It's great to be here. We're all a little mad, aren't we? For readers who don't know me, I am a New Jersey transplant living in Texas who loves to read and write dark poetry and fiction. I am the author of the horror poetry collection Lady of The House.

I've written poetry for as long as I can remember. Still, I never seriously considered it an art form that I loved until I was in high school when I found a copy of Sylvia Plath's post-mortem collection Ariel in the school's library. I devoured it. It wasn't the untouchable Shakespeare; it wasn't an epic verse written in Old English or Homer's The Odyssey. It was accessible to modern readers. Raw, dirty, sad, and vulnerable. I didn't know poetry was allowed to be self-loathing or that it was allowed to show the darkest parts of a person's psyche. Sylvia made me feel seen and permitted me to write all the horrible and beautiful lines that floated in my head onto post-it notes and notebook paper. I've loved poetry ever since.

SMW: What was your writing process like for the Lady of the House?

GR: Chaotic. Painful. Cathartic. Repetitive. Fun. Reflective.

Writing this collection was an exercise in writing perspectives. Channeling difficult emotions that did not sit well with me into a fictional woman I could relate to at the time was triumphant and challenging. I created a character built entirely out of raw emotion, which forced me to think of the oppressive circumstances for her in a prison of domesticity where my everyday fears became her reality. Did she daydream of accidentally slicing off her fingertips on the cutting board or getting her hand stuck in a garbage disposal? Did she have intrusive thoughts, too? I then broke the collection up into three sections to help me organize the Lady’s dissent. I think doing that helped me focus on the build-up and pace of the events that take place in the book.

SMW: This collection tackles domestic horror in a hauntingly violent yet empowering way. If you’re comfortable answering it, what drew you to the idea of the “haunted house” and the trapped female figure?

GR: My love for horror started with haunted houses, both physically and metaphorically. I grew up in a haunted home, and my body, too, is haunted by its ghosts. In the gothic, haunted houses often reflect a character or family’s inner turmoil, so the setting felt appropriate for the collection.

As for the forlorn woman trapped in her suburban hellscape, Lady is the manifestation of my affinity for all things vintage and my background as a student of labor studies and employee relations at Rutgers University. I’ve always found studying women’s history in the workforce to be one that pulls back the curtain on realities for women that transcend generations.

When I started writing the collection in December 2020, I had moved across the country twice in one year for my partner’s job. The first move happened in January, before the pandemic. After a horrific and emotional personal experience, I decided to leave the conventional workplace so my child and I could reside with my spouse, as he moved ahead of us at the time. The second move happened later that summer. Imagine moving a couple of thousand miles with a fifteen-month-old trying to isolate as best you can from the world around you. Even after we settled in, I looked for work, but every job announcement I applied to was canceled left and right. Subsequently, we learned our child had developmental delays that required them to attend weekly appointments. I told myself that this was how I could redefine my role in society, but I still struggled.

I was raised to become a productive member of society by joining the working class, and I knew that stay-at-home parents were not similarly valued. Moreover, in 2020 I became a statistic. I was one of the nearly 1.8 million women that left the workforce due to personal situations stemming from the pandemic, and that number has only grown. That’s why I wrote this book. I wrote it for the readers, mainly women, who felt like me and struggled with their new identity.

SMW: Reading this reminded me of movies like The Stepford Wives, Death Becomes Her, or Kept Woman. How do you think your collection comments on feminism in a culture where female rights are constantly under threat?

GR: I think the collection shows that the fight for a female’s autonomy in its multiple facets is one that endures. How far have our rights come in the past seventy years? Where can we improve? The collection is a reminder that despite all the progress made, we still live in a society that prefers women to serve in traditionally defined gender roles in and out of the home.

SMW: Something that I particularly loved from a structure standpoint is that you included recipes throughout the book, especially since food prep and cooking is often attached to domestic duties. Where did that idea come from and what do you think it adds to the overall collection?

GR: The collection was built around the poem “Ambrosia.” It was the first I wrote, setting the tone for the collection. I wanted the poetry throughout to be very tongue-in-cheek “because presentation is everything,” and what better way to do that than to experiment with epistolary writing?

The recipes also reflect the deterioration of the Lady’s psyche. When we think of the recipes in the context of the entire collection, on their surface, they represent something physically mundane, but what happens to a dish when just one of the ingredients or directions is altered? Maybe there is little to no difference in the outcome, or perhaps the dish is irrevocably changed.

SMW: To kind of build off of the question above—and play a little bit—if you had to describe this book as a meal or a drink to readers, what would you pick and why?

GR: My first instinct is to suggest a dirty martini – charming, silent, and dangerous. Tell me you’ve never felt an air of mystery around someone holding one of those. I could also describe this book as a delightful slice of cherry pie, of which you aren’t entirely sure whether the red food coloring is from the sticky syrup or something more sinister.

SMW: Something that I’m always interested in chatting about is the balance of the violent and the erotic. There is a focus on pleasure here amongst all the death, and I’m curious about how you approach that in your work. Throughout the collection, the phrase Lady of the House is repeated. Can you talk a little bit about why that emphasis was important to you and what you hoped it to do for your readers?

GR: “Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin.” Both are powerful sensations, and I tend to view death through a romantic lens as both a pleasurable and painful release from despair. The Lady’s desire for freedom from the confines of her role at home, marriage, and mind is depicted through violent visions of self-harm, a behavior to which I am unfortunately not a stranger.

I think back to Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’:


Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

And the following excerpt from her semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”:

“I am. I am. I am.”

The repetition of “the Lady of The House” reinforces her attempts to redefine her place with a title of importance while also acting as a mantra that she is still alive and breathing.

SMW: What poets are you currently reading?

GR: I’m currently reading the biographical poetry collection Threadbare by Adanna Moriarty, and the horror poetry collection Embrace The Madness by Timothy P. Flynn.

I also had the recent pleasure of reading Christina Sng and Cynthia Pelayo’s latest collections, The Gravity of Existence and Crime Scene, respectively.

SMW: Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

GR: I am always looking for new collections to read, in and out of the horror genre. I need to catch up with Courtney Peppernell’s Pillow Thoughts series. The first installment, published in 2017, got me through a challenging time and is of great importance to me.

Aside from that, I am looking forward to reading The Place of Broken Things by Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti, The Gorelets Omnibus by Michael A. Arnzen, The HWA Poetry Showcase Volume IX edited by Angela Yuriko Smith, and Elegies of Rotting Stars by Tiffany Morris.

SMW: What’s next for your readers?

GR: My next poetry collection, The Lies We Weave, is forthcoming from Curious Corvid Publishing in April 2023. It explores the darker side of adolescence, adulthood, and motherhood with a flair for the macabre. It is my hope, as it was with Lady of The House, that this collection connects with its readers, that they feel seen, and that they are reminded they are not alone.

If readers don’t want to wait until then, they can check out my poetry and short fiction in current and forthcoming publications listed on my website www.spillinggrace.com.

Short Summary of the book:

Lady of The House shares the fictional tale of Lady, a 1940s riveter turned housewife trapped by a loveless marriage and societal framework that makes it difficult for her to abandon her current circumstances. She feels purposeless, hopeless, and she is angry. Resentful. And she festers…


“A dark tale which chills and shudders the spine…Grace R. Reynolds’ Lady of The House augments the capacity of the human mind to observe or neglect its own deterioration and the ability of the mind to comprehend its own destruction.” - David Grinnell, author of the gothic psychological horror novel Ashes and poetry collection Moonglade

“When does domestic bliss turn deadly? Grace R. Reynolds’ Lady of The House is a dark poetry collection that answers this question as it spins its web like a favorite crime podcast” - Stephanie Kemler, author of the paranormal thriller novel Bloodborn and The Bloodmad Series

“This poetry collection is a fascinating, sinister exploration into the thinking of the time through the lens of one woman’s stifled freedom, one woman’s crumbling restraint, and ultimately, one woman’s destruction of the cage that keeps her from becoming the woman she knows she is.” – Vivian Rainn, author of the gothic romance novel Solita and The Solita Series

Promotional Links:

Friday, November 11, 2022

Writing Poetry in the Dark, Roundtable 7: Writing From Within

 Hello Friends and Fiends--

Today is our last roundtable in celebration of Writing Poetry in the Dark. As always, I want to continue to educate and spread some more wisdom via the courtesy of our brilliant contributors, all of who have left their mark on the genre in the most groundbreaking of ways.

Today's Writing Poetry in the Dark roundtable celebrates Donna Lynch and Jim and Janice Leach. I chose to group these poets together because all of them wrote essays for the book about digging deep inside themselves and sharing their vulnerability with readers. Donna wrote about exploring the wound and Jim and Janice wrote about writing collaboratively and how that experience shaped them individually as poets. 

I hope you'll enjoy our conversations today and maybe consider picking up a book or two on your way out.


Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: What is something you had to learn the hard way with writing poetry, i.e. a teachable moment in your career?

DL: This is my answer to this question and question 3: You cannot create art for other people or accolades or recognition. I mean, you *can*, but I don’t recommend it. It takes the joy out of it. You have to do it because you want to. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s the truth. You will get bad reviews, you will get passed over, and you will get ignored. If this is your passion, then you do it until if/ when you don’t want to anymore. But remember that there’s no actual metric for “success”. It looks different to everyone and may look like 100 different things to you over a lifetime.

JJL: The phrase "Kill your darlings" has always irritated me. Isn't the phrase itself a "darling"-- an extra, unnecessary cuteness? The idea however is central to writing and to poetry especially. If a goal of poetry is to distill language to its essence, a poet cannot afford to rely on images or words that distract from the whole, that don't communicate, that are a private allusion, or that please only the poet. Your work doesn't have to be for everyone-- but it must work for someone besides the author. Sharing poetry with other people and getting feedback can be hard, but it's the only way to grow as a writer.

SMW: What poetry collection would you recommend to someone interested in studying poetry? This can be speculative poetry, literary poetry, classic, contemporary, etc.

DL: A good place to dive in for contemporary collections can be found in the Raw Dog Screaming Press catalog. Maybe I’m biased, but also no…it’s really good stuff.

And file under “This definitely wouldn’t fly today” —and nor should it—but Bukowski was the first poet I read that used looser formats and had a very different voice from the classical stuff I knew. He just told stories in plain language that looked and felt like poems, and he exposed the ugly parts of himself and of life and that was an enormous influence.

JJL: In university, I first encountered Carolyn Forché's work in The Country Between Us. Her writing shows that poetry, while beautiful in language, images, and form, can do even more-- evoke emotions like horror, panic, and fear, and capture history. Read her work and be prepared to be stretched and changed, especially her poem "The Colonel."

SMW: One piece of advice for all our poets-to-be.

DL: Never reply to bad reviews. Don’t point them out to people online, either, unless they are so absurdly, hilariously over-the-top that it will provide entertainment for all.

JJL: Read a lot, observe the world, and write every day.

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.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable 6: Identity

Hello Friends and Fiends--

Get ready for some more Writing Poetry in the Dark goodness! Today I wanted to continue to educate and spread some more wisdom via the courtesy of our brilliant contributors, all of who have left their mark on the genre in the most groundbreaking of ways.

Today's Writing Poetry in the Dark roundtable celebrates FJ Bergmann, Lucy A. Snyder, and Bryan Thao Worra. Each of these poets, to some degree, wrote about identity and like each of these artists, their takes are unique and powerful.

I hope you'll enjoy our conversations and maybe consider picking up a book or two on your way out.


Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: What is something you had to learn the hard way with writing poetry, i.e. a teachable moment in your career?

FJB: Periodically revisit older work and make sure you save it in a format your present (and future) software can open.

LS: I think the hardest lesson is that you have absolutely no control over how a reader interprets a poem you have written.

You don’t have any control over whether the reader can tell a sonnet from a villanelle or if they even care that those forms exist. You don’t have any control over whether they can read at a college level or only a 3rd grade level. You don’t have any control over whether they’re expecting something that conforms to modern literary poetic conventions, or if they’re expecting something with end rhymes, or if they’re purely looking for a transformative sweep of emotion.

You don’t have any control over whether a reader will hit that line about the awful thing from your childhood and see it as boring and twee ... or if it will trigger a day-ruining traumatic flashback for them, and they swear off your writing forever.

The reader brings their own education, biases, and baggage to your poetry, and you have no control over how those things affect their reading experience. And if you think about that too hard, it can make you crazy. (It can also make workshopping your poetry a pretty frustrating experience if your group isn’t composed of people who fundamentally understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing.)

To make matters worse? People who read and write poetry are generally passionate about it. They have powerfully differing opinions that may or may not be rooted in consensual reality.

A literary writer once quipped a variant of Sayre’s Law: “The arguments in poetry are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

So, what did I do with this difficult realization?

I focus first and foremost with satisfying myself with my poetry. Have I communicated what I intended to? Did I execute the craft aspects of the poem to my own satisfaction? Have I overall accomplished what I intended do, or am I just impatient to send the poem off and I really need to work on it more?

If I can honestly answer those questions to my own satisfaction, the next person I listen to is the editor.

Beyond that? The readers experience what they experience. I hope it’s a good experience. But I know that even if I do everything “right”, someone will hate it anyhow. But that’s just how things go.

And honestly ... getting anyone to read your poetry at all when they could be doing a hundred other things? That’s a win.

BTW: Poetry is often working with ambiguous and nebulous subjects, and true things are an important anchor you work within your verse But there comes a point where you have to lift the anchor, and a point where you have to set it down again. One of the hardest lessons I had to work with was encountering different situations where the truth I wanted to work with was undermined by new details coming to light, different versions of history I was addressing becoming more accepted, or one incident where a hypothetical lizard was actually discovered before I could get the poem published. So you have to find the courage to be prepared for your poems to be wrong if not immediately, perhaps years later. That's challenging. But more practically, there was also a time during the age of Myspace and early online magazines that I'd had this marvelous idea that I wanted several poems to appear exclusively in only that venue that had accepted them, and I hadn't printed out a hard copy thanks to an idealistic aesthetic at the time. Unfortunately, that now means thanks to various critical website glitches, laptops catching fire or journals just going offline, even with archive.org, many of my poems from certain years are completely lost. Even if you don't think much of a poem at the time, do yourself a favor and just keep a copy somewhere safe.

SMW: What poetry collection would you recommend to someone interested in studying poetry? This can be speculative poetry, literary poetry, classic, contemporary, etc.

FJB: Oh, this is tough. So many collections I love! But I think it would be nice to recommend something obscure and weird, so … Denmark, Kangaroo, Orange by Kevin Griffith (Pearl Editions, 2007). And specifically [for] horror, In the Yaddith Time by Ann K. Schwader (Mythos Books, 2007). And the chapbook 25 Trumbulls Road by Christopher Locke (Black Lawrence Press, 2020).… I CANNOT STOP MYSELF.

LS: I’ve talked about this collection before, but Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart is absolutely brilliant. I think that aspiring horror poets in particular can learn much from it. This book absolutely should have won the Stoker award, but it wasn’t on anyone’s radar at the HWA.

The book focuses on the ominous shadows of small-town life in America’s heartlands in the mid-20th Century. The title poem speculates about what Amelia Earhart’s disappearance might have meant to her crew, husband, and to everyday people who simply saw her as a celebrity. Her Conners Prize-winning long poem “Circus Fire, 1944” explores the horror and tragedy of the July 6, 1944 fire that killed 168 people, mostly children, under the big tent at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut. Other poems explore the economic, environmental, and social damage done to towns through mining and industrial exploitation. Calvocoressi’s poetry is dark, vivid, and starkly beautiful.

BTW: I've encouraged emerging poets to give Talking Dirty To The Gods by Yusef Komunyakaa a read. It includes selections ranging from the fantastic to the mundane, with most poems giving you ways to thoroughly reimagine the different topics he takes on. More impressively, the pieces are all presented as four quatrains each. Even if you struggle with form and meter, there's a lot of meat to learn from no matter what your skill level. "Ode To The Maggot" from that collection would be where I encourage many to start. Each year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association produces an anthology of nominees for the year's best poems for the Rhysling Awards, and the variety of styles and topics examined give you a good opportunity to find pieces that speak to you. The Alchemy of Stars I & II showcase the winners from the last 40+ years and this may be helpful to get a sense of what's been capturing the attention of readers across the globe.

SMW: One piece of advice for all our poets-to-be.

FJB: It’s OK to imitate. If you give the same poem to a bunch of poets and ask them to write an imitation of it, you will get that many completely different resultant poems—and these are likely not only to be good but to expand the repertoire of those poets. Just remember to include “after ___” when you submit it for publication.

LS: Read lots of poetry to figure out what you think is good poetry. Read classic and modern poets. Read literary and genre poetry. Poets.org is a great resource for free-to-read poetry of all eras.

[And] learn about meter, scansion, etc., and how to write in standard poetic forms. It’s fine if you want to break the rules in your poetry, but to do that well, it helps to know what those rules are in the first place. Again, poets.org is a good resource, but I also recommend two books by poet Mary Oliver: A Poetry Handbook and Rules For The Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. There are many excellent good poetry books out there (such as Writing Poetry in the Dark!) but those are a great place to start.

BTW: Poetry will always be in flux between traditions and innovation, moments of solitude and community, the exciting and sadly, sometimes the grossly boring. Sometimes you'll be on the bleeding edge, other times, less so. I'd encourage you to find ways to keep centered (but rarely self-centered). Cultivate an internal compass to get you through the darkest shadows and uncertain brambles, appreciating what you're reaching for, but prepared to enjoy unique opportunities that might not come around again.

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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

October '11 Madhouse Recap: Haunted Cemeteries, Ghostbusters, and a Book Release!

 October‘22 Madhouse Recap

Hello Friends and Fiends—

October is always a fun-filled, crazy spooky month for me, and this year proved no different. We kicked the month off by traveling to go visit my brother and sister-in-law. It was Evie’s first road trip and she did such a great job. To no one’s surprise, she slept almost the entire five hours there; I can’t imagine where she got that from (*looks away*). While we were there, we watched lots of spooky movies and even went to Build-A-Bear, where Evie created a Werewolf friend named Walt. She licked his heart before it got sewn into his tummy, and then we also put a soundbox in there that plays the Oogie Boogie song when she hugs him. I think we all fell in love a bit more that day.

Because we’re all big fans of fall in general, we tried to take lots of long walks over the past couple of weeks to breathe that crisp, cool air and take in the colors of the leaves. On one of our adventures, Dennis stopped me on a bridge and gave me this beautiful BloodMilk snake ring for our 6-year anniversary and it felt like all the Halloween magic was just swirling around me. I also house-sat for my parents and watched the bulldogs one weekend, and we slept outside on a blanket together and cuddled close. Honestly, I live for these moments. I mean, some people like to tan in the summer; I like to lay out in the fall covered in blankets and sweatshirts and dogs. To each their own.

About halfway through the month, it was midterms for me. Luckily my psychology assignments consisted of a Freudian analysis of Coraline (which I think I’ve been waiting all my life to write), and then an analysis of the psy-complex in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I geeked out and had a blast, and I remain so happy that I chose to go back to school and do this for me. With that said, the teacher side of me also had midterms to grade in my one graduate course and finals to grade in another. I’ve been having a lot of fun with my students this semester, and I’m enjoying the discourse we’ve been having, especially about poetry, women and violence, and the mother trope in horror. I ended up rereading Bunny by Mona Award with my one mentee and my god, that book just gets better on the reread. I think I’m actually going to teach it again next semester with my undergraduate students because I’ll be teaching a Women Write Horror class at PPU as part of their Theoretical Approaches core. This class will offer an inclusive, diverse, and extensive history of female writers in speculative fiction. Students will study a chronological history of horror classics and then compare them against contemporary literature written in the last five years by some of the genre's most celebrated voices. From the gothic to the cosmic, to an unraveling of the final girl, there is something for everyone, and scares for all! 

Dennis and I also managed to steal away for a vacation and we went to a bucket list place for both of us: Savannah, Georgia. I’ve wanted to go to Savannah for years now, especially around Halloween, and it was the perfect getaway for us: quiet, spooky, relaxing, and romantic. I swear, I never tire of looking at those gorgeous Spanish moss trees, and taking a walk through the cemeteries every day was a big perk for me, too. Beyond that, lots of great food, drinks, plenty of walking (yay for exercise!), and some cool side trips as well. I plan on writing up two follow-up posts about the trip here soon, so hopefully, they’ll be up in November for everyone to see! In the meantime, I will say that Bonaventure Cemetery was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my entire life and yes, I did have a haunted experience on my travels (but the spirits really waited until the last minute to show up!). 

We ended our vacation week with vending at the Pittsburgh Comic Show. I also like attending these because I get to talk to fellow horror comic fans and then I also get to see Dennis in his element and learn more about the business. Out of the two of us, I’m the reader whereas Dennis is the collector and business blood, but I think we make a good team because we’re both picking up where the other lacks. Needless to say, if you’re a comic fan and haven’t checked out our shop yet, you can follow Dennis on Instagram @WanderingComics as well as on FB (Dennis Gallagher), eBay, and Whatnot. And if for some reason that doesn’t work, or you can’t find his sales, you can reach out directly to me and I can get you the hookup or have a pull list started for you.

And yes, the best for last! HALLOWEEN! We had so much fun this year and I really tried to go all out with it being Evie’s first. Dennis and I dressed as Ghostbusters and then Evie went as the Stay Puft Marshmallow lady. It was the cutest costume ever and we handed out candy to everyone while my dad dressed up and scared children, and my mom and I drank lots of sangria. Plus, we had a big homemade Polish feast, and then I backed a ton of cookies and appetizers. There was dancing, laughing, and lots of music…and okay, a little screaming, but what else would you expect? BOO!

On the writing/teaching front:

  • Probably the biggest news this October for me was the release of my speculative poetry craft book, Writing Poetry in the Dark. This whole book feels like such a dream and I’m so honored to share it with all of you in the hopes that it will help you create beautiful, wonderful, terrifying things. We also celebrated the release with the Writing Poetry in the Dark Conference, where a handful of contributors taught a variety of workshops and gave lectures on the topics they wrote about in the book. Truly, I can’t thank you all for helping make this release everything that it was. It means the world to me.
  • I hosted a Halloween Open Mic Night at Point Park University this month and invited the HWA Pittsburgh Chapter members to help kick off the evening with some haunting tales. Big shout out to the Literary Department and the All Things Horror Club for helping me pull this off. We had a great evening of spooky stories, great company, and lots of Halloween treats, and the best part of the evening was when students asked if we could do this more often. Um, yes, please!
  • My poem “Honey Jar” is in the first issue of Toil & Trouble Magazine. You can download the first issue here.
  • My poem “As the Crow Flies” was reprinted in Skyway Journal. You can read it here.
  • It was announced that Under Her Skin (Black Spot Books) won FIRST PLACE in the Bookfest Book Awards in Poetry Collections/Anthologies. I remain so honored to be involved in this anthology and a massive congrats go to Lindy Ryan and Toni Miller for all their hard work here. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again–any time these ladies do a project, you want to submit to it. They are some of the most professional, kind, and wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of working with in this industry.
  • My sonnet "The Witch Stained Red" --inspired by Macbeth and Shakespeare's treatment of witches--will be included in the Shakespeare Unleashed anthology. Have you preordered yet?
  • The HWA Poetry Showcase, Volume IX is officially live! You can pick up your copy here. You folks know that this showcase has a special place in my heart, and I’m honored to be a featured poet in this volume. Thank you, Angela Yuriko Smith, for all your work and dedication to the genre. This is a smashing success! Oh! And did I mention that the showcase got some action for Book Fest in Times Square? How amazing is that?
  • I’m so excited to be participating in Winter Haunts this year, thanks to the ever-kind Alex Davis. This is an online day of workshops, panels & talks on ghost stories, gothic and supernatural fiction, and I’ll be running a workshop on How to Write the Speculative Poem and then appearing on a Baba Yaga panel to talk about all things feral and witchy.
  • I chatted with Steve Stred in his interview series here. I talked about my writing routine (spoiler alert: I don’t have one), creative burnout, and Shirley Jackson. Because obviously.
  • I took part in a Pro-Choice Roundtable where a group of horror writers chatted about our experiences in a post-Roe v Wade world. Check it out here and be sure to read the first two installments as well. Thank you, Gwendolyn Kiste!
  • The second Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview went live where I interviewed Linda Addison, Christina Sng, and Timons Esaias. You can check it out here.
  • The third Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview went live where I interviewed Marge Simon, Sara Tantlinger, and Claire C. Holland about monstrous women. You can check it out here.
  • The fourth Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview went live where I interviewed Michael A. Arnzen, Jeannine Hall Gailey, and Cynthia Pelayo about writing across genres. You can check it out here.
  • The fifth Writing Poetry in the Dark Roundtable Interview went live where I interviewed Jessica McHugh and Albert Wendlanding about Building Worlds. You can check it out here.
  • I chatted with Angela Yuriko Smith about Writing Poetry in the Dark over on the HWA Poetry Blog. You can check it out here.
  • In honor of the release of Writing Poetry in the Dark, I wrote an article for LitReactor titled: “When Fiction Sells, Why Write Speculative Poetry?” You can read it here.

This month, I read:

  • What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfsher

  • Crime Scene by Cynthia Pelayo

  • Nightmare Before Christmas, Mirror Moon by Mallory Reaves

  • Bunny by Mona Awad (reread–and even better the second time around!)

  • Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

  • Chilling Adventures of Salem, a one-shot from Archie Comics

  • Chilling Adventures in Sorcery, a one-shot from Archie Comics

  • Robyn Hood Baby Yaga, Issue #1 (I knew I’d regret it, but I had to. Baba, they did you dirty).

  • I’ve also been reading Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings edited by Gaby Triana. Some of my favorite stories that I’ve read so far are “Postcards From Evelyn” by Scott Cole, “When They Fall” by Steve Rasnic Tem, and “How to Unmake a Ghost” by Sara Tantlinger. I’m really enjoying this collection and it’s such a great seasonal read. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, you can do so here.

On the media front:

  • New Watches: Hocus Pocus 2 (2022), Do Revenge (2022), My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2022), Inheritance (2020), Hellraiser (2022), Mad to Be Normal (2017), Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022), One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975–technically a rewatch, but it’s been a while) and Barbarian (2022).

  • I really wanted to finish Shudder’s 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time, but alas, I only made it to Episode 5. I’m still having a blast with this though and it’s fun to revisit all these moments (and find some new movies to check out).

  • American Horror Story: I watched the first two episodes. I wish someone would tell Ryan Murphy to leave AHS behind and focus on new projects. Then again, I’m the idiot who keeps watching so what do I know?

  • The Midnight Club: I absolutely loved this, and it makes me sad that I never read a single Christopher Pike book as a kid. Needless to say, I’ll be fixing that with Evie when the time comes, but yeah, this series was everything I love about horror. It was scary (Sweetheart, I’m so hungry!), and it commented on life and trauma in a way that made me think about my own mortality, morals, and ethics, and yet at the same time, it was also hopeful. Throw in a haunted house, medical horror, and a predominately female cult? Christ, could this have been better marketed to me? 10/10 would recommend it.

  • The Patient: Talk about a grim ending! There were parts I liked about the finale, and parts I didn’t like. I think, as much as I like to pretend I don’t, that I really like and appreciate a happy ending and this was just…heartbreaking. I do think it’s an interesting case study for anyone interested in psychopathology though–lots to discuss. I brought it up several times in my one class this semester.

  • The Watcher: I was a little skeptical when I first started this, but around episode 4 I had to admit that I was suckered in. I enjoyed the series overall, even if it was a mighty embellishment from the original story, but honestly, I’m 100% okay with that. I will say that the final scene with the stairway was perfect and I absolutely loved it. Also, can we all just applaud the absolute majesty of Jennifer Coolidge? What a queen!

  • Dahmer: Episode 6 “Silenced” broke my fucking heart. Jesus Christ. I have to be honest and say that I was kind of upset when I saw that there was another adaptation coming out about him (and yes, I know I’m part of the problem because I keep watching them) but I have to say that I was really surprised with how this turned out (no shade to Ryan Murphy). This series did a great job at showcasing systemic racism in action, issues with police cruelty and neglect, the lack of mental health resources available to a number of people, and most importantly, showcasing, naming, and exploring the lives of the families and those who lost their lives to this monstrous man. I had a really hard time watching this and I took it slowly but I’m impressed with what it did, even though I still think that this had to be retraumatizing for the victim’s families and that level of empathy is something we all need to take a step back and explore/meditate on further. 

  • She Hulk: Overall, I loved the series, but–and I know people will come for me for this–I really didn’t like the final episode. Like at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still be watching if there’s a second season but I just creatively didn't like the choices they made in structure and deliverance. 




For Mrs. Vasko--

One of my party tricks (and I say that lightly and in jest) is that I can recite a list of all the prepositions faster than most people can ...