INTERVIEW: Cathleen Calbert

Interview with Cathleen Calbert on The Afflicted Girls (Little Red Tree Publishing, 2016) by Heather Lang

Heather Lang: Hello, Cathleen. Thank you for chatting with me about your beautiful and poignant book of poems. Congratulations on The Afflicted Girls winning the Vernice Quebodeaux “Pathways” Poetry Prize for Women!

It’s my understanding that each of the poems in The Afflicted Girls is a portrait of a woman or women, oftentimes historical figures. Would this be correct? Could you tell us a bit more about your poetic methodology?

Cathleen Calbert: Thank you, Heather. Also Helen! Yecalbertheadshots, you’re right. The poems in this collection are mostly dramatic monologues or my conversations with/about actual women: Dorothy Parker, Mata Hari, Dorothy Wordsworth, etc. And a few of the speakers are men; for example, Coleridge muses on his friend Charles Lamb and Charles’ (mad, as they used to say) sister Mary Lamb. Some others, as in “Teen Vamp,” are entirely fictional (though my vampire wannabe’s verses have the florid embellishments of some of my undergraduates’ poetry). As to my own poetic methodology, poems grow poems, right? I wrote a few persona poems, and a few more. Then I started to think of who might be fun to invite to this party.

HL: I know it’s not nice of me to ask you to play favorites, but try as I might, I can’t seem to get this question out of my mind. In your travels and research, did you find that any one woman, or two, captivated you in a way that felt more pressing than some of the others?

CC: Yes, like acknowledging which child is your favorite! I can say that I really liked writing my version of Anne Bonny, the eighteenth-century pirate, who dressed in men’s clothes and hooked up with another female pirate, similarly attired. Two trans sailors under the Black Flag? What are the chances of that? Yet perhaps such encounters happened more often on those long-ago high seas than one might think . . . I also enjoyed the challenge of writing as T.S. Eliot, that ol’ possum, as I’d swallowed (not fully digested, I’m afraid) a lot of his poetry in my youth. Finally, the poem “Florida” stays in my brain. Aileen Wuornos, the “female serial killer,” always interested me, and the poem spooled out oddly about that boot of a state.

HL: Were there any women about whom you wished to write, but you simply couldn’t? Perhaps you haven’t yet found the right words, or maybe you’re still contemplating your route in. (I’m thinking of some of my own abandoned projects as I ask you this question.)

CC: Yes, a number of poems didn’t make it into the book. Sometimes I felt that I was imposing on someone too much or couldn’t find the right aim/depth/focus. Fanny Imlay, half-sister of Mary Shelley, got shelved, which, unfortunately, is probably the fate the real Fanny imagined for a poem about herself. One about Phillis Wheatley also collapsed in my hands: hers is a fascinating story, but I didn’t seem to be doing it any kind of poetic justice. And Courtney Love proved too much of a moving target!

HL: The collection is a feminist text. I’m often most intrigued by the moments within which we see the effects of sexism on women’s interactions with other women. “Fairytale,” for example, begins:

Everyone knows
who the witch is.

We’ve seen her
dropping off her kids at daycare.

She’s the anesthesiologist
who hires a British au pair.

Surely, women are included within the “Everyone” who “knows / who the witch is.”

The Afflicted Girls showcases portraits of women; they do not alternate between poems on men. Did you intend for the book to highlight women in a celebratory fashion, giving them platforms, so to speak, or did you, as the poet, have an exploration of internalized misogyny in mind, as well?

CC: Great observations and questions! I certainly am interested in women’s minds and lives, and I definitely identify as a feminist. Yes, I’m also intrigued by how we can be divided, internally and from one other. “Fairy Tale” is modeled on Anne Sexton’s Transformations, which remixes tales collected by the Grimm brothers. Sexton’s versions often begin with a prologue that situates the following “fractured fairy tale” within the poet’s contemporary reality. So that’s what I was going for here. When I first drafted my poem, there was a news story about an infant who had died while in the care of an au pair, and much was made in the press of the bereaved mother having (the nerve to have) a demanding profession outside of motherhood. Sexton herself invoked, as she does in “Her Kind,” the figure of the poet/witch, who steps outside of gender expectations and is judged for doing so:

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night . . .

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

HL: You mention in The Afflicted Girls author’s note that these poems about Effie Gray, Frida Kahlo, Jayne Mansfield, and a number of other women are not to be read as works of nonfiction. But, you’ve also mentioned some “nerdy research” that has gone into the collection. I love it!

For a minute, I’d like to chat about a poem that readers won’t find within The Afflicted Girls. What are the connections, if there are any, between “Standard Candles,” as published by Helen, and your afflicted girls? In a way, “Standard Candles” seems more confessional than the poems in your collection. I can’t help but wonder if this poem might be an afflicted girl poem of sorts but one about your own experiences.

CC: You’re right. “Standard Candles” is a more directly personal poem (though it was inspired by my reading about astronomers’ use of such light particles) than many in the new book. While my first collection, Lessons in Space, is more autobiographical than my fourth, I go back and forth in modes. Bad Judgment includes both realistic and surreal narratives (I did marry a younger man but didn’t actually have a vampire baby). When Sleeping with a Famous Poet came out, a writer friend messaged me: “Who’s the famous poet?” Alas, I had no hot news to share. Of course, even the most biographical poems are necessarily fictions with poets compressing, eliding, shaping, poeticizing . . . And I love how the personal can be interwoven as well as translated into dramatic monologues such as Adrienne Rich’s beautiful poem “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff.”

HL: As you know, Helen: A Literary Magazine will be publishing this interview. The magazine’s title was inspired by the “First Lady of Las Vegas,” Helen J. Stewart. She was a pioneer who helped forge the valley in the 1880s. How might you go about writing a poem about Helen J. Stewart? Might you please write a stanza or two for her?

CC: I read up a bit on Helen J. Stewart, and she did indeed seem like a force of nature. Unfortunately, if I tried to squeeze out a couple of stanzas right now, they’d be doggerel. That was one of the nice aspects of composing The Afflicted Girls, by the way. I got to study subjects for months and call it writing. You know what you need to do, I’d say to myself. Read all of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, that’s what. Maybe some time in my future I’ll manage a poem about the First Lady of Las Vegas? I think I’d need to begin with the land itself since it’s such a distinctive location. Hmm. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a poem you should write!

Hah! Yes, Cathleen, perhaps it is. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your important book of poems. Thank you, also, for sharing your girls with us.

CC: Thanks, sister. You’re a true pal in poetry.

Cathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of four books of poetry: Lessons in Space, Bad Judgment, Sleeping with a Famous Poet, and The Afflicted Girls. Her awards include The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Sheila Motton Book Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College.

Interviewer Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her about her writing this year, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. In the autumn of 2016, her writing process was on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery, and she’s a member of Nevada State College’s Arts & Culture Council. Heather’s been invited to judge The Neon Museum + Helen : A Literary Magazine’s visual-prompt writing contest. Her own poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming in Diode, Helen, Hoot, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. Heather holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with Petite Hound Press and The Literary Review.

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