Hello Friends and Fiends-
Today in the Madhouse, I'm excited to welcome back Jessica McHugh for a chat about her debut black-out poetry collection: A Complex Accident of Life. Inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, McHugh combines visual art and text to create 52 pieces of Gothic blackout poetry exploring the intense passion, enigmatic nature, and transformative pleasure of life viewed through the kaleidoscopic lens of a female horror artist.
If you haven't picked up a copy of the book yet, I truly cannot recommend it enough, and if you want to see my review on the collection, you can check it out here. As per usual, links for the book as well as blurbs to further entice you will be listed after the interview.
So with that said, grab your tea, your spare body parts, and get ready to dive into the McHughniverse because it's time to stitch together bodies and make some horror.
With scissors and scalpels,
Stephanie M. Wytovich
SMW: Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this collection, and in your opinion, what does it represent at its most literal and figurative heights?
JM: A Complex Accident of Life is a collection of blackout poetry inspired by and created from the prose of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. After realizing I 1) enjoyed making blackout poetry last year, 2) was fairly good at it, and 3) could actually turn a profit doing commissions, I spent hours upon hours creating pieces and posting them on social media. That’s where Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha started following my poetry work--we’d worked together previously on my kaiju novella, Home Birth. I was floored when he asked if I’d be interested in compiling a collection because I honestly hadn’t even considered it at that point. I was just having a great time making and selling them. Obviously, I enthusiastically agreed, and I ended up turning what was a handful of Frankenstein poems at the time into 53 unique pieces.
I talk about this in my author’s note, but I started doing blackout poetry as thank you gifts for people who donated to help our family out of a rough financial situation. Not only did those donations and the commission sales that followed save my family at a crucial time, creating blackout poetry and releasing this collection has gifted me with joys I never expected. To me, the fact that any of this happened is both figuratively and literally a complex accident of life.
At its heart, though, I think it tells the story of women, especially those inextricably entangled with art, and those who’ve been told “no” all their lives but [were] not permitted to say it themselves lest they be seen as disagreeable or, god forbid, unladylike. In a way, I guess it’s my ode to women that proudly say “fuck you” with their art.
did you decide on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
as the go-to for this project? Do you have an interest in or relationship to
the book itself? Can you remember the first time you read it and what your
JM: As many female writers in the horror genre could say, I have a strong connection to Frankenstein as a piece of art and as a tether to our gothic mama bear, Mary Shelley. But the truth is I read the novel fairly late in life. It was Kenneth Branagh’s film that finally led me to read the book that had been sitting on my shelf for ages. I enjoyed it, to say the least. It’s pretty hard not to, especially considering its origin story. But to be honest, a stage version I saw in 2019, directed by my friend (and a talented actress herself), Melissa LaMartina, held more inspiration for me while I was creating than the literal interpretation of the text. The play, a gender-swapped telling of the story featuring some amazing actors and spectacular puppetry, wouldn’t leave my brain as I created these pieces. I count myself lucky I got to draw from so much varied inspirado while I played around with Shelley’s prose.
SMW: I love creating black-out poetry. It’s so cathartic and it works my brain in a different way compared to when I’m just straight out writing it from scratch. Can you talk a little bit about what your process looks like when you’re making it?
JM: I try not to read the page before searching for a poem. I instead look for descriptive or standout words I think will create the most imagery in the shortest amount of time. I’m also looking to create metaphors that speak to the reader, so I’ll search out pages that start with things like “I am,” “We are,” “love is,” and hopefully find a rad string of words to complete the thought. But sometimes the entire poem reveals itself immediately. I find there’s a big difference between “finding” and “building” the poem, though I’m not sure I prefer one method over the other.
When it comes to figuring out the visual aspect, I stare at the page and the shape of the poem and try to figure out what color the mood is, or what flourishes it needs to highlight aspects of the piece or make it easier for the reader to absorb. My husband has colored some of my poetry (especially when I was suffering from a pinched nerve) and I’d give him a post-it note for each poem describing what it looked like to me, and I gotta imagine it’s hard interpreting what I’ve scribbled down for design notes. But sometimes the color/design doesn’t come to me right away, and I set aside the piece for later rather than force something that doesn’t feel natural.
SMW: Something that I absolutely loved about this collection was that it was very female-forward in its themes and metaphors, which is ironic because Frankenstein certainly doesn’t read that way. Was this approach something that you did intentionally? If so, can you speak more about why you wanted to focus on such monstrously beautiful ladies? And if not, when did you start to notice these patterns taking shape?
to my friend’s play, I heard everything in a female voice. Like, pretty much
all the characters. I heard Victor as a woman. I heard the Creature as a woman.
Every individual in the novel seemed a facet of the same femininity. And
because I don’t read a page ahead of time, I didn’t necessarily know who was
speaking at any given moment. I embraced the feeling like everything was coming
from the same speaker. I am the creator and creation, and I’m the only who can
liberate us both, each of us corrupt, each of us virtuous. So yes, it was
completely intentional from the get-go, but I had no idea how it would come off
once the poems were compiled. I was pleasantly surprised when I arranged them
by page order and discovered a fairly cohesive story hiding in the poems: about
Mary Shelley, about female artists and the passion to create, and about my
personal journey in writing horror.
like the original text, this collection tackles some philosophical issues about
humanity’s existence, the idea of right and wrong, and how we present ourselves
(hero vs. villain, man vs. monster). In your mind, how you define a monster,
and much like Victor’s infamous creature, is there a gray line as to what
constitutes a monster or can be defined as monstrous behavior?
JM: I think there are various monsters in all of us, created by ourselves and put upon us by others. Some of these monsters are freeing--they convince us doing the wrong thing is the right thing because it makes us feel good or creates something no else, even ourselves at our most virtuous, ever could. Certainly if your monstrosities hurt others, that’s not great, but there are good monsters that push us toward darkness and destruction and you have to hope there’s still enough light in you to pull you back from the edge when needed. The balance is important. Recognizing it is much easier said than done, unfortunately, and I think that’s when people lose themselves in destructive behaviors. I know I’ve fallen victim to my own monsters quite a bit, but I’ve also been lifted up by them.
facet of this collection that I enjoyed was the nod to female rage and
sexuality particularly in poems like “Restrained, but Firm,” “Foundations,” and
“Tears Collected.” Can you talk a bit about the advantages of portraying female
rage and sexuality in horror, and why 1) we need to normalize it and 2) we need
more of it?
JM: It’s wacky to me that we even question whether or not to include/highlight female rage and sexuality in art because I feel like those very natural concepts are kinda the impetus of all life. To deny them, [let alone] even fight to keep [them] hidden from society, is the acme of idiocy and ignorance. And not just in horror. Why would anyone ever want to portray a woman as anything less than a fully-realized individual, true and flawed and hungry as any man? That makes no sense to me. Women can be just as beastly as men, just as capable of rage and loathing and wanton destruction, just like men can be quiet and nurturing and full of the desperate longing we so often assigned to female characters. We definitely need more artists lifting up the rock of femininity and showing the world all the weird, nasty, deadly, beautiful things squirming beneath.
are some of your favorite writers when it comes to poetry? Are there certain
voices you feel are must-reads for readers or writers of horror poetry
JM: Can I say YOU? ;) Seriously though, you’ve been a big inspiration for me when it comes to horror poetry. Linda Addison as well. And I will likely never be able to shake my intense love of Walt Whitman, especially Leaves of Grass. I was just reading “Song of Joys” the other night when I was feeling low; it never fails to boost my mood. Though it’s technically not horror (but I’d argue there are definitely aspects of horror in Leaves of Grass because I believe there’s horror in all things), the honesty and lyrical nature of Whitman’s writing is eternally inspirational. I also take a lot of my poetic inspiration from flash fiction, and Michael A. Arnzen is one of the best when it comes to horror flash.
books are currently sitting in your TBR pile?
JM: An ARC of James Newman’s newest, Ride or Die, Cynthia Pelayo’s Into the Forest & All the Way Through, Hailey Piper’s Benny Rose, the Cannibal King, and Max Booth III’s Touch the Night. Unfortunately my reading progress has taken a huge hit during the pandemic. Spring and Summer were my biggest reading months because I taught creative writing in DC and had to drive/ride the train, so I’d consume a lot of fiction. I desperately need to remedy that situation because I have some truly fantastic writers in my TBR.
SMW: What’s next in store for your readers?
JM: In Summer 2021, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing will release a new version of my novel Rabbits in the Garden, followed by its long-awaited sequel, Hares in the Hedgerow. I also have a story in Strangehouse Books’ Not All Monsters anthology edited by Sara Tantlinger, and some forthcoming short stories I’m not quite allowed to mention yet. Nor can I mention the two books I’m writing during my return to NaNoWriMo this month, but rest assured, there is a lot of McHughniverse on the horizon.
Full of color and stunning imagery, Jessica McHugh takes Mary Shelley's classic and finds new depth and meaning within. A Complex Accident of Life is indeed a vessel of dauntless courage, inspiring and hopeful." —doungjai gam, author of glass slipper dreams, shattered
Renegade alchemist Jessica McHugh revives Mary Shelley even while vivisecting her mind and reassembling the anatomy of her ideas, remaking her as a hauntingly beautiful structure of undead words and lively art. Unlike others working in the medium of blackout poetry McHugh deploys a wide array of both visual strategies and approaches to composition, rendering A Complex Accident of Lifecompelling and compulsively re-readable. —John Edward Lawson, author of Bibliophobia
In A Complex Accident of Life, Jessica McHugh strikingly combines different modes of art to create a truly unique collection. This remix of a beloved work through blackout poetry shows a lot of care in every selected word and the arrangement within each piece. I enjoyed the visuals just as much as the poems themselves. True spirit, passion, and creativity live within every piece; the book is not only an exquisite tribute to Mary Shelley, but also cleverly showcases McHugh’s own beautiful poetic talent. Highly recommended! —Sara Tantlinger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland