“I think that sense of double identity – learning how to be a different version of myself in different places – informed my development as a writer, since I was always looking for clues and responding accordingly.”
Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in Pennsylvania, mostly in Pittsburgh, though I also spent a lot of time in the fairly rural part of central Pennsylvania where my dad and stepmom live. I think that sense of double identity – learning how to be a different version of myself in different places – informed my development as a writer, since I was always looking for clues and responding accordingly. I was also raised Catholic, and that faith in ritual – the idea that the right words, the right gesture can literally work magic – certainly shaped how I engage with language.
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
First the sky
broken by birds
flying at the wrong season.
Then the heat goes and the breath goes out
and we are left alone and voiceless
between the blue untextured sky
and the terrible smooth water.
And then the howling like the seam ripped out
and all the under waters and the roaring gods.
After, the live oaks and honey locusts storm-shorn.
The shorebirds’ great nests splintered
and all the fishing houses split-legged and sodden.
After, the dead lifted in their rotten boxes
and left to bob in storm water. The shoreline
carried out to sea.
What is this raw and wind-worn place
we have survived into. The wrong gods
roar into our lungs now.
A weeping sound like that. Like those birds
calling across the suddenly open water.
Why did you choose this poem?
The first poem, “Dirge,” serves as an introduction to the landscape of the chapbook – south Louisiana in the moments just before a hurricane – and to the voice of the sibyls, who act as a kind of Greek chorus across the collection. The sibyls reappear several other times, narrating the action and commenting on the kind of harsh morality at work in this landscape that’s always inclining toward disaster.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
In some ways this chapbook is its own world, distinct from my other work. These poems, for example, are all set in south Louisiana, which is not the landscape of my first book or the current manuscript in progress, and though they draw at times on my experience living through hurricanes, I’m not the speaker of any of them.
It’s funny how your obsessions follow you, though. Disaster, religion, mythmaking, ritual, the elevation and suppression of women’s voices: these are all things that were at the heart of my first book, Double Jinx, and that continue to be important to me as I work on my second full-length collection.
The central question of this collection, I think, is how we make sense of disaster – how we use religion and ritual and all kinds of other coping mechanisms to make sense of what’s essentially senseless.
What’s your chapbook about?
The chapbook takes place in south Louisiana just before and after a hurricane. It follows a handful of different characters – sisters on the verge of adolescence, saints of uncertain and unsavory character, sibyls, a siren, and so on – as they navigate this storm-ravaged landscape.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I’m not sure which poem was first, because I wrote the majority in a few kind of fevered weeks of writing. I know that the voices of the sibyls appeared very clearly to me – they really felt like they were speaking to and through me in a very oracular way.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Holy Week, Acadiana” starts with a story my dear friend Kelli Charles told me about her town, where (as the poem explains) several men working on an off-shore oil rig were lost at sea. And that story – the women’s certainty that the right prayers could return the missing men – brought me to a question I’ve often had about prayer: is a god who’s swayed by human demands actually just?
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
Over the summer, after the chapbook had been accepted, I wrote two new poems, “Following a Long Illness, Saint Bernardine Confesses” and “Saint Catherine Takes the Auspices.” I also added “Saint Charlene Offers Up Her Suffering,” a poem I’d previously published elsewhere (with the title “Devotional”) but hadn’t included in the original chapbook manuscript. (Many thanks to my editor, Kit, for allowing me to tinker right up until the last minute!) I was thinking about the balance of the different characters across the manuscript. Up until then, the only saint had been “Saint James at the Ascension Parish Drive-In” and I figured there had to be more oddball saints wandering around this landscape.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing – and I’m scared to say that, in case I jinx myself, but I think it’s really true – a second full-length collection. It’s about motherhood – pregnancy, postpartum depression and anxiety, and all the ordinary joys and wonder and tedium of life with small children. I’m trying to examine how motherhood has shifted my way of being in the world – eroded my sense of myself as a discrete, boundaried individual and made me porous and susceptible. Also it’s got lots of primates and poems about planets.
Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.