Hello friends and fiends--
How are we hanging in there during this heat? I know my goth self can't be out in the sun, so I've mostly been camped out in my office with the AC on full blast thinking cool, wintery thoughts and drinking water like I'm a beached siren. Heat exhaustion aside though, something else that I've been doing lately is happily drowning in dark, beautiful poetry. In fact, last month, I exclusively read poetry and I'm here today to share with you one of my favorite reads of the year so far: The Smallest of Bones by Holly Lyn Walrath.
This gorgeous collection is currently available for preorder via Clash Books, and I was lucky enough to read an earlier copy of the book. Here's what I had to say about it: “A striking meditation on the body and its ghosts, this collection is a blossoming of bones and the trauma we hold inside, a gorgeous homage to the fever dreams and nightmares we collect, break, and survive with each and every day.”
To chat more about her collection, I have Holly here with me in The Madhouse today. I hope you'll enjoy the following interview and consider picking up a copy of her collection and adding her words to your TBR pile.
Stephanie M. Wytovich
SMW: Tell us about your book. What gave you the idea to create this collection and when did the idea of bones start to speak to you?
HLW: My poetry has always been a place where I work out issues in my head. Essentially, I’ve often felt trapped in my own body and trapped by society’s expectations for that body. Even when you eschew gender, society still places you in a label based on how you look, and that perception goes bone-deep. While I identify as a woman, my awareness of what that means has changed over the years. Most of the poems in the book are short, concentrated meditations on relationships, the body, and self-image. Something about the conciseness of the poems made it easier for me to talk about difficult topics.
SMW: Can you give us an insight into your writing process and how you structured this collection?
HLW: In 2018 a series of science articles got attention in the news around the topics of neurosexism and biological determination—fancy words that explain the belief that women and men are inherently different, down to even differences in their brains and as deep as their bones. I started reading old anatomy books and studying the so-called biological differences in the bones of men and women, which lead to the “spine” of The Smallest of Bones—poems titled after different bones in the body and how those bones differ between the sexes, according to science and pseudoscience. It’s not to say that those biological differences don’t exist, but to ask whether how we interpret them needs re-examining.
SMW: One of my favorite things about horror (especially horror poetry) is that is allows us to champion and explore our shadow selves. One image that really stood out to me in the book contained the following lines: “I sink myself in the river at dawn/ your words are the stones/ in my pockets.” Can you talk a little bit about how you explore the darker parts of yourself or human nature in your poetry? And do you find this approach to writing to be cathartic?
HLW: I’m glad you noted this line because it references the death of Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide by weighing her pockets with stones and wading out into the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. I’ve always been drawn to women writers who committed suicide, like Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Anne Sexton. These women were seen as great forebearers for the feminist writing movement, but they also showcase how deeply troubled confessional modes of writing can be. I think for women writers, it’s difficult to find peace in writing. We’re always wresting our creative selves away from some other responsibility. The shadow self becomes the writer self. Writing about the dark things can be cathartic, but it can also be a great weight to bear.
SMW: There are a lot of nods to body horror within the collection. Can you speak to what draws you to that subgenre, and talk a little bit about how you worked to evoke that type of imagery within your poetry?
HLW: Body horror has always been one of my favorite subgenres of horror. One of my favorite horror movies as a kid was The Fly (1986). I remember watching it and being unable to look away. For me, the genre is inextricably tied to feminism. Women’s bodies go through terrifying transformations. There’s blood and tearing, and assault, and violence. When the movie Teeth (2008) came out, I was stoked to see a movie about the weird toxicity our society projects onto normal sexuality. As a Baptist church kid, I grew up being taught that sex and reproduction are taboo. It ain’t polite, but it makes good horror.
SMW: I noticed that there was religious imagery throughout prayers, burnings, sacrifice references to various iconography and afterlives (ghosts, demons, etc). Was this something that you intentionally planned to incorporate throughout, or was this more organic to other themes in the book that dealt with topics like trauma, sickness, etc.?
HLW: I think my work is always drawing on some kind of religious imagery just because I grew up Baptist, going to church and Sunday School. I was baptized twice—that’s how Baptist I was. It’s not intentional, but it always seems to make its way in. The church has a lot of weird baggage and was a source of trauma for me growing up. I remember our church used to do stigmata reenactments for youth group—putting ink on our hands and foreheads, having us wear fake crowns of thorns—to make us “feel” what Christ went through at his crucifixion. I must have been about 12 or 13. That kind of shit stays with you. Ghosts and demons are a natural progression from discussions of the body—either in non-corporeal or in possessed form—as a focus point for emotions like grief or lust. In some ways, the spooks feel safer to me than the real world. At least I know what to expect from them.
SMW: How did you come to writing and who are some of your influences?
HLW: I started writing poems in high school at the height of my teen angst stage. Poetry was always a release and a safe place for me to work out my emotions. It wasn’t until I could become a freelancer that I actually had time to write more. I was always interested in writers who received acclaim after their deaths—like Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville (still not as well known for his poems). I have too many influences to name them all, but I love the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, Fernando Pessoa, Walt Whitman, Amelia Grey, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ken Liu.
SMW: What books are sitting in your TBR pile?
HLW: Exhalation by Ted Chiang, I'm Waiting for You by Bo-Young Kim, Dearly by Margaret Atwood, The Hidden Girl by Ken Liu
SMW: What is next in store for your readers?
HLW: I’m currently working on a book of queer poems set in the 90s and drawing on pop culture like The Craft, Buffy, My So-Called Life, Dirty Dancing, and Chasing Amy. I’m sure it will be just as weird, queer, and dear as people are used to reading from me. I’m also hoping to start up a new Instapoetry series on serial killers.
SMW: What’s one poetry stereotype or cliché that actually fits you perfectly?
HLW: “Poets like flowers and the moon” – Okay, but flowers and the moon are beautiful, people. More moon-flower poems, please. I’ll stop writing about peonies when I’m dead.
SMW: What advice do you have for writers working in poetry?
HLW: I think the best writing advice is to just do what you love. Love what you write, write what you love. The biggest advocate for your work is you. It’s hard when you’re writing something that’s personal, and I get that, but no one else is going to as passionate about your work as you are. If you’re doing the thing because you love it, then nothing can hold you back.
Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Liminality, and Analog. She is the author of Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018), winner of the Elgin Award for best speculative chapbook, Numinose Lapidi, a chapbook in Italian (Kipple Press, 2020), and The Smallest of Bones (CLASH Books, September 2021). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. You can find her canoeing the bayou in Houston, Texas, on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath, or at www.hlwalrath.com.
“Between stars and shards of bone, Holly Lyn Walrath invites the reader to build a skeleton with her words, to get lost between the dark spaces of curved ribs. The Smallest of Bones offers so much within each poem -- here, we wander beneath the moon and speak with ghosts; we transform under the night sky and haunt our own minds as the words encourage us to strip back the skin and expose rawness and vulnerability. A beautiful collection!”--Sara Tantlinger, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Devil’s Dreamland
"A striking meditation on the body and its ghosts, this collection is a blossoming of bones and the trauma we hold inside, a gorgeous homage to the fever dreams and nightmares we collect, break, and survive with each and every day."--Stephanie M. Wytovich, author of The Apocalyptic Mannequin
In “the smallest of bones”, blood, bones, skin, and flesh are placed on the sacrificial altar as an offering to the gods, beautifully laid out to represent life’s journey: love, identity, volition, pain, destruction, and finally, enlightenment.
Raw, visceral, and powerful, each word in Walrath’s poems is selected with the care of a surgeon for the perfect incision. It is a journey we all walk and this is its handbook. —Christina Sng, Bram Stoker award winning author of A Collection of Nightmares