Monday, May 16, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: The Saint of Witches by Avra Margariti

Hello and Good Afternoon, Friends and Fiends:

Today in The Madhouse, I'm thrilled to welcome and host Avra Margariti as we talk about their recent poetry collection, The Saint of Witches from Weasel Press. Margariti writes: "In this dark poetry collection, witches escape stakes, wells, and other prisons with the help of their arcane saint. Girls dream of queer ghosts and carnivorous angels. Ghouls visit their lovers beyond the grave, while medical experiments seek a forever home. Bodies are dismantled and remade, despised and celebrated. Anti-heroines bare their blood-dripping teeth. In The Saint of Witches, there’s no telling who will sink, or swim."

Now I first saw Margariti post about this a few months ago, and the title alone (hello? Witches!) immediately grabbed my interest, but when they told me it was a queer exploration of witchcraft, gender norms, and sexuality, well is it any surprise you folks are here with us today? I don't think I could have asked for a more me collection to grace my shelves, and I was thrilled to talk to Margariti more about their process, inspirations, and themes some more. 

For those of you who have taken my Witch Lit course, please definitely consider picking up a copy of this book, and if you haven't taken the course but love discourse about history, fairy tales, folklore, and gender, then absolutely consider this book for you. Margariti does a wonderfully haunting job exploring the intersection of the beautiful and the grotesque, and their themes focusing on the body, identity, death, and violence spoke directly to me on more than one occasion as they provided an interdisciplinary approach that sent me thinking about artwork, history, theology, thanatology and more. 

Yeah, that's my long-winded and somewhat-academic way of saying you need to read this book. 

It's magic, much like Margaritti themselves. 

Channeling that Dark Goddess Energy, 


SMW: Hi Avra! Welcome to The Madhouse. Can you tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to poetry and who inspires you?

AM: Hi, Stephanie! So happy to be here! I’m a queer dark fabulist author from Greece, and although I’ve been writing poetry since I was sixteen, it’s only these last couple of years that I started calling myself a poet! Besides writing in English as a second language, I’m also an autodidact when it comes to fiction and poetry.

I adore the medium of horror poetry as a way of conveying bite-sized stories full of atmosphere and sensory detail. Some of my early inspirations of dark poems include Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and Blake’s “A Poison Tree”. My current obsessions are Sara Tantlinger’s “Cradleland of Parasites” and Octavia Cade’s “Mary Shelley Makes a Monster”.

SMW: What about the witch speaks to you the most? How do/did you connect with her while writing this collection?

AM: Most of those accused of witchcraft throughout history have been gender non-conforming, in one way or another. They take Christian patriarchal ideals of propriety and spit in their face. I like the idea of Witch as a metaphor for Queerness, for Otherness. A feminist perspective is essential when examining the accounts of various witch hunts and exterminations. At the same time, while writing this collection, I enjoyed delving deeper into the mind of the witch for a more intersectional approach, especially in matters of gender expression and sexuality. I thought about witches’ desires, their motives; how they have been victimized and vilified; how they themselves have embraced the thrill of revenge, the necessity of survival at all costs, but also the need to shield and protect members of their coven from those who seek to punish them for their non-conformity.

SMW: I absolutely loved your poem “21st-Century Girl” and it reminded me a lot of M. Ricket’s flash fiction piece "True Crime."When we talk about witches, the subject of violence inevitably comes up, especially when we talk about women’s rights, the MeToo movement, etc. How does this poem speak to how women and other minority groups are portrayed in the media?

AM: Whenever I read the various headlines written every day around the world, I’m always enraged by journalistic patterns of pure sensationalism when discussing gender-based crimes. Events that are true and devastating become just another narrative or plot point; the women involved (as well as the individuals mistakenly called female and misgendered by the public) become a final girl to cheer on, or a beauty queen to mourn. The public eye quickly--and callously--morphs into the horror gaze, a concept that I further explored in different poems of the collection (“Blessed Is the Final Girl”, “The Brides of Dracula Ponder the Manson Murders”, and “A Flame, Snuffed”).

SMW: Your poem “River-Mud Rose” really spoke to me. I tend to write a lot about burials as a theme in my work as well, and I connected a lot with your lines: “I am adulterated sand, dying before I can/ become a freshwater pearl/ A votive supplication to the gods of chaos./ My standard-casket prison smells of sewage/ and turpentine trickling down my legs.” With witches, we often talk about resurrection, hauntings, and curses as metaphors for generational pain. Can you talk a little bit about how you explore that in your work?

AM: I came up with the premise for “River-Mud Rose” while being inside an MRI machine for a scan. I’m not claustrophobic, so I could focus on all the sounds and other sensations inside the machine and draw inspiration from them for my poem. If you concentrate enough on the rumble of an MRI, it sounds just like arcane chanting, and words start to emerge amid other auditory patterns. It was a very surreal, though not [an] entirely unpleasant experience.

As for generational pain, I tend to borrow details from anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination throughout history, which become reworked into my horror poetry as feelings of urgency, oppression, and asphyxiation. Those details are terrifying even before literary embellishment. The trauma endured by the past generations isn’t all that distant, and unfortunately, it’s far from over even in the 21st century.

SMW: One of my favorite pieces of art is Willem De Kooning's "Woman 1" and I think what I love about it most is that it’s a woman portrayed as a monstrous creature, which arguably should make me mad right (it does, but that’s a discussion for another time). A different part of my brain really loves this though because when I look at her, I see strength, beauty, intensity, and power. She’s one of my favorite women to look at, and despite de Kooning trying to make her grotesque or Frankenstein her body together, I think she’s one of the most marvelous, beautiful figures. Your poem “Sunflower, With Skull” evokes similar feelings (as well as reminds me of this painting by Frida Kahlo) in how it honors the beautiful grotesque. What draws you to that binary?

AM: I adore grotesque imagery! The truth is I have always related to the Monstrous, and to most unwanted, unpalatable, and disrespectable monsters in all art forms. Occasionally I enjoy thinking of myself as a creature--a cadavre exquis--as well. Over the years I’ve found myself moving away from traditional beauty standards, both consciously and subconsciously. (One of my poems dealing with the rejection of enforced beauty and desirability is “Maiden, Muse, Crone”).

I think part of the reason I love monsters so much stems from the way my identity, my attraction, has been called monstrous by society. Embracing the grotesque has become my personal and professional journey of reclamation. For me, the sublime and the grotesque are both parts of a vast spectrum of expression, but they are also infinite nesting dolls stacked one inside the other. I believe there is beauty woven through monstrosity’s core. Strength and power in shedding one’s skin or stitching it together with whatever misshapen material [are] available, to build a new ineffable whole.

SMW: Poems like “Milk and Black Spiders” and “Pity-Party Fairy” remind me of nursery rhymes or fairytales that I would read as I kid. Do you find yourself inspired by folklore and fairytales? If so, why, and what are some of your favorites?

AM: I have a soft spot for "The Girl Without Hands" collected by the Brothers Grimm, a story which is gruesome even by fairytale standards. It features a mutilated woman, devils, and angels.

As for folklore, I’ve always been obsessed with a Greek murder ballad called "The Bridge of Arta" (<<Το Γιοφύρι της Άρτας>>). In it, a woman is buried [in] the foundation of a stone bridge to keep it from collapsing. Her husband and his team of builders trick her, using her sacrifice as a way to complete the cursed construction. The ballad includes talking birds as messengers and prophets, leading the murdered wife to her doom.

SMW: Poems like “The Moths, The Rabbits” and the “My Anatomy” series play into the body horror subgenre. Why do you think horror, as a genre, puts so much emphasis on the body?

AM: The human body is without a doubt a marvel of nature and ecstatic engineering--it’s also an inherently horrifying prison of flesh and electricity. For a lot of us, the corpus can be a source of anguish, either because of our own perception of it, or other people’s. This is one of the reasons body horror and body bizarre speak to me and to so many other writers and readers on such a personal level. Chronic pain and gender apathy/dysphoria coalesce into an indistinguishable undercurrent of unease, which can sometimes result in an explosive, transcendental metamorphosis. I find that very cathartic.

SMW: There’s an exploration of rage and the enraged in your collection, particularly when we look at poems such as “Volcanic.” How do you think the enraged woman has been reinterpreted and subverted over the last several years, and why do you think it’s important to see this iteration of her?

AM: Tales of pure rage are hard to come by in the current literary landscape and difficult to stomach for some readers unless that rage is mellowed by feelings of grief or sadness. I find myself attracted to the enraged, the unfettered bursts of righteous fury. I feel seen by such depictions in fiction. I also really enjoy how lethal the anger of female figures is in ancient Greek myths and tragedies. Some might call such depictions problematic and stereotypical, and maybe they are, but I also think they reflect a truth from which we have tried to distance ourselves in modern works of fiction.

As marginalized people, we are often shamed for our rage even when it’s warranted, so I enjoy exploring such themes in the safe space provided by the horror genre.

SMW: What poets are you currently reading? Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

AM: I can’t wait to dive into “Under Her Skin”. As a fan of body horror, I know I will love the inaugural Women in Horror Poetry Showcase.

SMW: What’s next for your readers?

AM: I recently completed a collection of folk horror poetry after pledging to write a poem per day during 2021. I’m also working on a dark short story collection on the theme of vore--the desire to consume and to be consumed. A few of those stories are forthcoming from various horror anthologies and should be available to read very soon!

Author Bio:

Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov’s, Liminality, Arsenika, The Future Fire, Space and Time, Eye to the Telescope, and Glittership. “The Saint of Witches”, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on Twitter (@avramargariti).

1 comment:

February '23 Madhouse Recap: Lattes, Friends, and Betelgeuse (Betelgeuse Betelgeuse!)

  February ‘23 Madhouse Recap Hello friends and fiends– I feel like I blinked and February was over, and to be honest, this month really tes...