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.
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