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Creating Strange Nests Out of Blackout Poetry: An Interview with Jessica McHugh

Hello friends and fiends,

Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down with my pal Jessica McHugh and talking about her recent blackout poetry release, Strange Nests, which was formed/inspired by the novel The Secret Garden. If you haven't checked out her Bram Stoker award-nominated collection A Complex Accident of Life, you'll want to be sure to do that and check out this Madhouse Interview as well. 

Lost in the garden, 
Stephanie M. Wytovich

SMW: What about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Barnett called to you for this project?

JM: It was a couple of weeks after my brother died. Except for meeting up with family to help clean out his room, I’d been holed up at home since he passed away from an overdose on January 11th. By the 25th, I was desperate to be around people again. So I went to my favorite bar, White Rabbit Gastropub, for some comfort. I was chatting with my bartender-turned-friendo Kahla Moon about potential books for my next collection--I wasn’t looking to start anything new for a while; we were just listing out female-authored classics for fun. But when we added The Secret Garden to the list, something about it stuck out to me. I honestly don’t know why, but I texted my husband right away to ask if he could swing by the local used bookstore and pick up a copy on his way home. He did, and it’s a really cool copy, but its pages were a little too slick for a lot of blackout poetry techniques. The next day, Kahla gave me her childhood copy, which turned out to be just as large as the one my husband got, but the pages were more conducive to art. I did use the first copy for a few pieces, but I used Kahla’s for most of the poems in the collection. So it felt precious...and charged with energy if that makes sense. Also, though the covers of each book depict Mary at the garden entrance, one version has her going in, and the other has her coming out. That, to me, felt representative of the journey I was about to take. When the first line of the first poem I found was, “There’s lots of Alive in dead things,” I knew I had to use The Secret Garden for my next collection, and I had to do it immediately.

SMW: What was your relationship to The Secret Garden prior to this project and how did it change by the time you were finished with it?

JM: It wasn’t a favorite when I was younger. I read it in elementary school and owned a copy--though I’m not sure I ever read it more than once--and I saw the 90s movie in the theater--which I also don’t think I saw more than once. I don’t believe I appreciated or could even grasp the book’s dark and complex themes at that time. But when I started searching for poems, the deep sorrow and loss within the book really spoke to my own; it even seemed to touch on the complicated nature of our relationship and other familial issues, as well as his relationship to the addiction that eventually took his life. As I moved through the stages of grief, I felt the characters moving with me, giving me a new, deeper appreciation for them and the story in general.

SMW: You’ve talked about how this book became a catharsis, a vehicle for your grief. Can you talk a little more about that and about how poetry is helping you heal?

JM: I find when I do multiple pieces from the same book, it gets distilled down to its core themes and recurring images. Because of my previous ignorance of these themes in The Secret Garden, I had no idea I was walking into a living breathing representation of the grief process. But after a few poems, I realized I was in for something that was going to become deeply personal. There are so many characters who shut down and become cold when confronted by death, which is totally understandable. I felt much of the same initially after my brother died, but--and this is a sensitive subject for many, I know--due to the nature of his death and decades-long addiction, I also felt relief. For me, my family, and mostly, for him.

But it also allowed me to confront certain reactions to his death. Things I wish I hadn’t learned about that day or heard a grief-stricken family member admit. There are details and descriptions I wish didn’t live in my memory, and I tried as best I could to transfer them somewhere else, onto the page. And maybe add a little glitter. Though I’m still healing--probably always will be--this book was a huge part of getting me through the roughest patches.

SMW: The title Strange Nests is so evocative to me. It channels these complicated feelings of identity, growth, and what we consider or think to be as safe spaces or our homes. What does this title represent to you and how does that fit in with themes present within the book?

JM: Thank you! I have to thank cover artist Lynne Hansen for that. The working title of this collection was actually “The Birds Other Animals Shouldn’t Charm,” but Lynne admitted she kept forgetting the title, and honestly I kept tripping over the words every time I said it aloud. So when she mentioned maybe finding a new title, I came up with a few more options, one of which was Strange Nests. I really loved what it evoked in the sense of blackout poems themselves being nested strangely inside existing prose, as well as the complicated nature of my familial relationships. The lies we tell, the things we gloss over, the times we hold our tongues because we think it’s the polite thing to do: these choices become the scraps from which we build our nests and pretend to be comfortable inside.

SMW: In your poem “Daylight” you write: “I was a ghost. / Or a dream. / Alone. / Or with a raven.” When I read this, I was immediately taken by your interpretation of the line here. How everything was final, yet not, concrete, yet continuing and shapeshifting into the next line. As a poet, how do you know when you cut your line, and does your process for black-out poetry influence this at all?

JM: Unlike the poems in A Complex Accident of Life, I moved these pieces all around to create a narrative in which the people affected by the loss of “he” and “she” at the beginning of the collection have been devoured, possessed, and transformed by death (aka the raven). Most of the time when I’m coloring a poem I don’t quite know how I’m going to write it out until it’s finished. Sometimes the line cuts are based on a gut feeling, but these were deliberate because the subject really had been all of those things. Eric was all of those things. I was all of those things. Each stage was real and life-changing in its own way. And you never really move on from them. You don’t leave anger behind when you move on to depression; it just becomes less evident when depression’s draped over top. But all the emotions are still there, waiting for the right light to shine upon and resurrect them all over again.

SMW: Throughout the collection, there are allusions to the garden: “wild blooms,” “growing ivy,” “damp earth.” How does horror survive in the garden, or maybe better yet, how is horror shaped/conquered by the garden? 

JM: I’d be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat obsessed with gardening metaphors, especially in horror. I mean, I have a novel called “Rabbits in the Garden” due out from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing too, and the sequel Hares in the Hedgerow features St. Agnes, patron saint of girls and gardening. I think I gravitate to these themes because I enjoy taking that dirtiness of gardening and mixing it with the perceived “dirtiness” of horror and the “dirtiness” of womanhood in a way that creates an evocative image of power and transformation. And when you consider the myriad varieties of flowers and plant life that requires different environments and nutrients to thrive, especially as it relates to people and their fears, you open yourself up to a vast world of gory gardening metaphors. I don’t know why, but it’s super fun for me.

SMW: The raven is a reoccurring character throughout the poems. How did you connect with this bird while writing? What did it come to mean for/to you?

JM: I knew the raven would be recurring as soon as I saw “Mr. Craven” on nearly every page, but I didn’t expect it to become one of the most important characters in this story. The raven, for me, represents Death but also part of the healing process, because the subjects (both the deceased and those mourning them) eventually transform into the raven. Death isn’t something we leave behind. You can’t run from it. You can’t reason with it. You have no choice but to let it ride roughshod over your heart and learn to live with--maybe even love--the tracks it leaves in you, deep enough for the debris of grief to gather into nests, in which Death forever roosts.

SMW: I think my favorite poem (and it’s hard to pick, trust me!) would have to be “Flower-Bed.” It’s seductive, magic, and fierce in what it wants and what it will take, and it reminds me of your collection A Complex Accident of Life in that it’s feminist, unapologetic, and tinged with rage, which you know is totally my thing! What are some of your favorite pieces in the collection and what about them sticks out to you?

JM: It’s tough to admit this, but I think my favorite poems are the ones that would probably hurt me and my family the most. “An Abiding Chap” and “Drowsy,” notably. I put them at the beginning because they feel the rawest...and real. As an addict, my brother really “lived on a dare,” as shown in a palette of healing and fresh bruises in “Drowsy,” and his illness was absolutely “answered with a secret nod.” But I’m also a fan of “Exclamation” and “Hungry,” because I feel like the visual and poetic aspects are really strong.

SMW: This collection is broken up into three parts: body, root, and knife. Why did you choose those words as markers for the sections?

JM: These represented the stages of grief for me. Body is the immediate, even physical, reaction. The loss itself, the hollowing out feeling you get when you realize you’ll never hear someone’s voice again or see their smile, and how that loss possesses you, even starts to consume you. Root is what grief plants in you, the blooming and growing of the ghost that sits heavy in your throat and begins to change so many parts of you--past and future. Because the ghost of the deceased isn’t the only thing that haunts; you also take on grief as its own living breathing thing and slowly, the line between blurs, then vanishes. Knife is accepting that you’ll never be the same again, and the release that comes with that truth. It’s embracing the pain of loss as another aspect of having loved, even if it’s ugly or sharp or makes you feel like you’ve been turned inside out and you’re not sure how long you’ve been walking around with your guts on the outside. It’s recognizing that no matter what you do to heal, you never reach the end of grief; only a changing of seasons.

SMW: Something that I’ve always admired about you and your writing is your ability to not only write across genres but to beautifully blend them as well. Can you talk a little bit about your process with creating these gorgeous multi-genre manuscripts—whether that’s in relation to your poetry or your prose?

JM: I wish I could articulate how I go about it, but truly, even when I’m writing the wackiest plots and characters imaginable, I just try to write the lives within that story authentically, and for me, an authentic life is a goulash of pretty much every genre. All around us every day, there is romance and horror and mystery and tragedy and comedy, but a lot of people miss all that because...well, they’re not looking. I’m always looking. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing in bars and restaurants; between customers and staff, regulars and strangers, there’s so much going on at any given time. So many emotions, so much energy, so many choices about what to share with others and what to keep hidden. Whether they know it or not, humans slip in and out of multiple genres every day, and I count myself lucky I get to watch and draw inspiration from them.


Jessica McHugh is a novelist, poet, and internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She's had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, "The Green Kangaroos," her YA series, "The Darla Decker Diaries," and her Bram Stoker Award-Nominated blackout poetry collection, "A Complex Accident of Life." For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit

Strange Nests Summary:

Beyond ancient gates, among thorny overgrowth and carnivorous blooms, a raven called Death waits tirelessly for its chance to roost within us. Using scraps of love, remorse, anger, and pain, it weaves. With erasure, memory, and discovery, it binds. And from the garden of wounds that grows within our broken hearts, it builds Strange Nests.

In the follow-up to her Bram Stoker and Elgin Award-nominated collection, A Complex Accident of Life, Jessica McHugh uses poetry, design, and illustration to unearth the horrific, consumptive, and transformative nature of grief from the pages of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic, The Secret Garden.


"In Strange Nests, Jessica McHugh paints for us painful and exquisite meditations on death and dying. Her gorgeous poems remind us that what the dead leave behind are us, who miss them tremendously." – Cynthia Pelayo, Bram Stoker Award-nominated poet and author of Into the Forest and All the Way Through

"Jessica McHugh's Strange Nests is a beautiful, somber reflection on life, death, grief, and the bonds between siblings. A wondrous read that will lull you into a lovely breathless silence."--doungjai gam, author of glass slipper dreams, shattered 

“Strange Nests is a brilliant collection of poems that speak in a subtle voice of deep darkness. Jessica McHugh conjures real magic here.” - Jonathan Maberry, NYTimes bestselling author of Relentless and Ink

“Jessica McHugh finds the deep truths hidden in plain pages. This collection will plant rose bushes in your heart. You’ll feel every bloom and bleed with every thorn.” - Sarah Read, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Bone Weaver's Orchard 

“McHugh’s newest offering of blackout poetry is more than words circled on printed pages, each set of two pages shows the original page covered in beautiful, colorful drawings, the poetry outlined, and the second page with the reborn poems. The combination is two pages that visually excites our eyes and new poetry that touches our soul.”

— Linda D. Addison, award-winning author, HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, and SFPA Grand Master


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