“Dinah (I only knew her as the Leopard Lady at first) started to talk to me/through me, and I scrambled to set down 13 pages of poems and fragments in that initial burst.”
Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse (Press 53, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in snow country, the Allegheny Plateau of western New York State, and spent those cold months hunkered down with books and more books. My parents made sure I had red shoes, Little Golden Books, and a library card. I used to love the Christmas treasure boxes of paper, books by local authors, notebooks, and other items from a female relative’s printing house. So, when my sixth-grade class put together a holiday anthology and my poem was chosen as the title poem, I was hooked. I wrote in high school and in college, then went into journalism at West Virginia University and with two jobs as well, had precious little time for “creative writing.” I did not start again until I was a couple of years into my first newspaper job. My first novel was shelved (and lost, I hope) but my second gained me an agent and a publishing contract. Neena Gathering is back in print, and audible, thanks to a resurrection a couple of years ago by Permuted Press. On the poetry side, I had a couple of chapbooks published before finally putting out my first collection, Wake Wake Wake.
How do you decorate your writing space?
I don’t know that decorate is the word. I have a photo board covered with poems, photos, cards, reminders, and other material. An illustrated tourism map of the Great Glen of Scotland is tacked to the wall to my left, a visual reminder to keep working on my current project, a response to my mother’s death through the prism of a month spent solo hiking and wandering in the Scottish Highlands and islands. The desktop is awash in papers, including a stern book in which I’ve recorded my submissions since 1987. To my right, a “Terrible Towel” and a painting by friend Al Sirois adorn the walls. Two paper bubble-lights from Ikea provide illumination enough. My back is to the porch and the lure of watching things outside.
What are some of your favorite books? Or what are some books that have influenced you?
It’s pretty eclectic. Growing up, I read the books that I could find in the “den,” including Tennyson and Poe, Emerson and Mark Twain, and “boy books” like Treasure Island. I loved a volume of Jack London that I bought at a school book fair. I read a lot of science and nature (Rachel Carson) and biography because the town library did not let young people descend to the fiction department in the basement. I found science fiction as a young teen—Bradbury, Le Guin, Heinlein, Herbert, McCaffrey. Totally passed over children’s classics and romances. Bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover from a blushing uncle at a family yard sale. Tolkien grabbed me for awhile. Camus, Hermann Hesse. Dostoevsky. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. Lots of poetry and stories along the way. Too many books to name!
What might these books suggest about your writing?
That I read widely and enjoyed what was good regardless of the label. This has caused me no end of grief as a writer in today’s market, where we are urged to be “branded” in one form and genre.
What songs soundtrack your making of your book?
I cannot listen to music while I write, any music. Music that has some connection to the book might make up a playlist, however: “Magic” by Bruce Springsteen. “Tomorrow Is My Turn” by Rhiannon Giddens. “Carnival of Rust” by Poets of the Fall. “Fortune Teller” by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss. “En vain pour éviter” from Carmen. “Locked Within the Crystal Ball” by Blackmore’s Night. “Sandy” by Springsteen. “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. “Raining in Baltimore” by Counting Crows. “Wayfaring Stranger.” “Predictions” by Suzanne Vega. “A Love Supreme: Part 4, Psalm” by John Coltrane. “Moonshadow,” Cat Stevens. “When the Deal Goes Down,” Bob Dylan.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
This book has its genesis many years ago, when I began to hear a voice. Dinah (I only knew her as the Leopard Lady at first) started to talk to me/through me, and I scrambled to set down 13 pages of poems and fragments in that initial burst. From there, it was a process of letting the voice guide me in discovery, while I also read and did research into carnival life. Her voice was later joined by that of The Professor, who lectures on the freaks in the sideshow, and who has his own fraught background as a divinity student who’s lost his faith. Their friendship was unexpected, but vital to the second half of the book.
What’s your book about?
Leopard Lady tells the story of Dinah, an orphan child of Appalachia who runs away to a carnival, and the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey she embraces. Born in the depths of the Depression, the biracial child is “given” to the childless Gastons to raise. She eventually finds her way out of exploitation into a life on the road as a carnival hootchie-kootchie dancer and fortune-teller. Self-educated with the King James Bible and a volume of Shakespeare, her voice blends Elizabethan phrasings with Appalachian and carnival speech. When Dinah is afflicted with vitiligo, she adds a turn as a “freak” called the Leopard Lady as the show travels back roads from the Carolinas to Pennsylvania. A dropout from divinity school joins the show, and they begin a debate over the nature of God and man–each seeking an understanding of their place in the universe–that becomes a close friendship.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The opening poem, “The Leopard Lady Speaks,” came in that initial blast of poems and fragments. It has been revised, of course, but is essentially the same as when it arrived.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The title came from the poem mentioned above, and from the subject matter. Initially, the book was called “The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse,” but the use of my sideshow banner painting for the cover pushed us to revisit that. “The” was dropped, and the idea of a novel in verse seemed a bit off-putting, so Kevin Watson suggested “A Life in Verse.” This was inserted in the “bullet” area of the banner, which originally carried the traditional sideshow slogan, Alive!
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I think I’m most drawn to “What I Could See,” in which Dinah recalls her brief love affair with Shelby. I set this meeting in a town I knew well, Eden, NC — but in its earlier incarnation as three separate mill towns of Leaksville, Draper, and Spray. I worked there as a newspaper bureau chief when I first came to North Carolina. The Fieldcrest mill was still working then, but it’s long been closed. The big brick factories have been converted into loft apartment complexes boasting their original heart pine floors. The rivers no longer run with blue and red dyes, but are the centerpiece of a growing tourism economy for Rockingham County. Still, I always felt drawn to the history of the textile industry, and wanted to memorialize it in some way. In the course of the book, the carnival pulls up in a number of real places like Beaufort, SC, and Oil City, PA, and many others that are not named.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Marching Jay-bird.” The book has several poems that address the natural world, especially birds, and this is one of them. The title comes from an old fiddle tune, but the inspiration was seeing a heavy crop of acorns one fall, the nuts piled along the streets. Still, it seems to be an outlier.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The closing poem, which brings the main character to Coney Island Museum at its opening. A heavy rain while I was studying there and Professor Marie Roberts’ story about the ghosts on the rides came together with Dinah’s memories of the show. It ends with a line from “The Tempest” to create a kind of benediction. “We are none of us more/ than a handful of spit and dust./We live and then we are melted into air.”
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
For my poetry, I am fortunate to have a small poetry group that has met each month for something like 20 years. They’ve read every poem that has gone into Leopard Lady, sometimes more than once. I have another faithful reader who gives (sometimes brutally) honest feedback, and occasionally I foist poems on others. I use this feedback to go back into the poem, generally pruning away excess, clarifying syntax, and cutting away extra lines at the beginning and end.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
Working with Press 53 has been a joy. I was surprised and delighted that they wanted to use my “folk art” painting of the Leopard Lady as the cover art. I’ve been involved every step of the way, from cover design to typeface to choosing the little bits of artwork that separate sections of long poems. (What are those things called, anyway?) I spent a whole morning with the editors tweaking the final layout, feeling quite blessed to be included in the process.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a hybrid prose/poetry book or prosimetric work, a form that draws on Basho’s haibun travel journal The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as well as a long tradition of combined prose/poetry forms in many cultures, from the Mahabharata to Dante’s La Vita Nuova to William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All. I’m framing a meditation on my mother’s life and death in the context of a month spent solo hiking and wandering in Scotland’s Highlands and islands. I spent much of my life struggling against my mother’s traditional roles as a wife and mother, trying to to set a different course, rejecting the accommodations she made before slowly coming to understand and honor those choices.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
It’s difficult, especially during this time when I am touring for two books. I need to keep up on contacts and correspondence using Facebook and Twitter. Reluctantly, I even went on Instagram, and am trying to learn how to “do” that. Posting information about readings, responding to other writers—it’s part of the work, but I admit that I am not creating much new writing as a result.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Have a plan. Realize that writing will not pay the bills unless you are spectacularly lucky, so you should find something you want to do that also leaves space for your writing. Many choose to teach—it’s a pretty direct path—but there’s nothing that says you can’t be a carpenter, insurance sales agent, physician, journalist, farmer, therapist etc. etc.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
How do you feel about “branding”? Some writers work widely across form and genre, yet we are regularly told to create a brand and stick with it.
Valerie Nieman’s latest poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, features work that has appeared in The Missouri Review, Chautauqua, and other journals. Her fourth novel, To the Bones, a genre-bending satire of the coal industry in Appalachia, will be published in 2019 by WVU Press. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She has held state and NEA fellowships. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches at North Carolina A&T State University.