“There’s a journey here, and a search, a dreaming back—as there is in so many fairy tales—into wildness.”
Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018)
They say “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and the aesthetics on your cover are visceral, much like the words inside them. How do you think the cover illustrates who you are as a writer?
Oh my goodness—I’m not sure I can claim the cover illustrates who I am as a writer (though it’s fascinating, so I wish I could!)…but I do like to think about the patient, dangerous conversation the cover is having with the poems. I love the word “visceral” to describe artist Alexandra Eldridge’s brilliant vision here, and Nicci Mechler’s sharp, intuitive cover design. Eldridge’s painting, “subtle bodywork,” has its own life and narrative, of course; but in its context as a cover, I love the work it’s doing as an entranceway, a dark door into the poems, and the journey they make through forest and the woman’s interior life—her mind and body (which touches elements you can see here—egg and crow—and those you can’t yet: wolf, fox, basket, oven, girl).
Like Says the Forest to the Girl, the topic of another chapbook of your poems, Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, was a look at a familiar story, Peter Pan, through the perspectives of the other characters. What is it about old fairy tales that inspires you to look at them through a fresh lens?
I love stories—they’re how I think, learn, and dream—and Grimm fairy tales are some of the earliest stories I encountered, so I think they helped introduce me to the power of narrative, and their elements are inscribed in me. That primal relationship—as well as the work they do with the domestic and mystic worlds, which are the worlds that most concern me in poems—with family, nature, power/vulnerability, and magic, the sacred—draws me to them. And the flatness of fairy-tale characters, combined with their compelling drama, just cries out for exploration through voice.
I also love that many readers are at least somewhat familiar with Grimm tales—so the reader often brings an investment in Little Red and Briar Rose, and their woods, into any poem I write about them. It raises the stakes for both of us in the poem; the reader’s expectations, and relation to the possibility of surprise, are heightened, and I feel like I’ve got to rise to meet them and deliver. It also gives the poem a quicker launch-time—I don’t have to explain as much, though I have more to live up to.
You open this chapbook with “Woman at the Crows’ Funeral” and close it with “I Tell What Kind of Girl.” What was the logic behind having these pieces both introduce your work and close it?
I sat with it a long time. I wanted “Woman at the Crow’s Funeral” to open the chapbook in part because I wanted, in the chapbook’s first moment, the story of that woman found by crows, and that movement—from home and bed into woods, and from woman alone to pines/crows/girl/ground. There’s a journey here, and a search, a dreaming back—as there is in so many fairy tales—into wildness. And I wanted it to be a journey of the body (skin, mask, wings, shoes) and of language (“Antonyms for ghost: Woman. Entity. Crow”). The final poem is also a girl’s journey, but what, from Grimm tales, it has let go of—the woods, the wolf—matters. I wanted it there in part for what, in fairy tales, it resists—what kinds of darkness, what singularity of story. It is tentative, and lit. It begins with a girl, and a meadow. And ends with telling.
What’s the oldest piece in the chapbook? Or is there a piece that inspired or catalyzed the rest of the book?
The Sleeping Beauty poems are the oldest. When I wrote them, I wasn’t planning a chapbook; they came on the heels of writing Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, which is almost all persona poems, so I was still in that mode of using voice as a point of departure. I think that the imperative mood in some of the poems—including “Sleeping Beauty Says Goodnight to Little Red,” but also “Said Rapunzel to the Wolf,” and the title poem—helped me think in terms of relationship, and of recasting relationships in way that would help reconsider and redefine survival, which became an important theme in the poems.
But if I’d kept going like that, in persona, I think the work would have shut itself down sooner. What may have set them on the path to a chapbook was the prose poem “Little Red.” Entering her woods as a way of approaching chronic illness—the path as a diagnosis journey—broke open my sense of what kind of canvas and range the stories might offer me to talk about adulthood and the body, and made me want to move past a more familiar heroine’s voice, to see how I might surprise myself.
This chapbook interconnects itself by having the pieces talk back to one another both in their titles and in the body of the poems. For example, the title Says the Forest to the Girl talks to “I Tell What Kind of Girl” and “Little Red: Morning” responds to “Sleeping Beauty says Goodnight to Little Red.” Do you think it is important that the pieces talk to one another as well as the reader? Why?
One of the things I love about the chapbook form is that its relative brevity means you can create a really concentrated, coherent emotional and narrative experience for a reader. (The tactile beauty of Porkbelly Press’s chaps—that toothy paper, the soft edges of the ribbon binding—adds to that experience, I think: those intimate, in-your hand feelings—which is one reason I was so thrilled to have this chapbook accepted and produced by the amazing Nicci Mechler.) It’s possible to read a chapbook fairly easily in one sitting, and the conversation between poems is what makes me, as a reader, want to do that, so I look towards that experience for anyone reading the poems. In sequencing this chap, I wanted some bookending poems (such as “Little Red” and “Little Red: Morning”) that would hopefully enhance each other when read together, and elements that would recur (such as the crows) much the way elements recur in Grimm tales, and in a walk through the woods.
You describe yourself as an introvert. How do you think that affects the way you tell stories about other people/characters?
Well, there’s likely a connection between introspection—a favorite pastime of introverts—and an interest in work on persona poems and on voice. I think many introverts spend a lot of alone time listening to and considering others’ voices retrospectively, and examining those voices in moments of (blissful! And/or obsessive!) concentration.
What does your writing process usually look like when you sit down to work on a new idea?
For the first part, I’m usually not sitting down. I often start a day’s writing by walking in the woods with my dog. Walking gets my words and sounds going. Then I move to paper, usually taking down messy notes and fragments to begin with. Once I have reached some critical mass in a draft, I type a version into the computer, and then usually I copy it back into my notebook, making changes as I go. Then I type a new draft of it on the computer, also making changes along the way. Copying—moving from paper to screen and back again—is a way for me to keep re-entering the poem and having to examine it slowly, word by word. I make many changes as I “copy”—adding and cutting lines and whole stanzas. The kinds of changes I make when I’m copying by hand are very different from the ones I make on the screen, which is why I do both.
Before I walk, I read and reread other people’s poems—a book or a journal (my piles are always growing). I read before writing most days—it’s not writing, but it’s as critical to my process as anything I do with my own words. Some days I just keep reading.
Is there any piece in this chapbook that you would label as the “misfit piece”? Why? What is the story behind that piece?
I might be the only person who would think of “Sweeping,” the third poem in the chapbook, as the misfit piece, but yes, that’s what I’d call it. While it was written more or less contemporaneously with the others, they just weren’t part of my conscious mental context as I drafted it. It was written out of such a local, mundane moment—a suburban kitchen: no wolves, no witches—really, I literally dropped the broom and sat down to write it. Much later, when I was assembling the poems for the chapbook, I flipped past it in my notebook, and it hit me that it could be written in Briar Rose’s own kitchen—I had never considered it one of my fairy-tale poems, but once I saw it as belonging, I could not un-see it.
What books or other writings that you read as a child inspired you to later pursue writing as a career?
When I was really young, my mother returned to writing poetry after a long break (during which she was raising children: I was the youngest). She read me her own poems, and poems by Emily Dickinson and Sara Teasdale, which inspired me to write my own (sad little) poems, well before I became enthralled with Sylvia Plath’s and Theodore Roethke’s work in a different, more sustaining way as a teenager. I still know a few Dickinson and Teasdale poems by heart, from childhood. As a child, I also wanted to write novels (and my first attempt, from fourth grade, has these crazy talking flowers, so I’m pretty sure it’s the first, wildest draft of my second book of poems, Book of Asters). Reading the Anne of Green Gables books and Little Women over and over probably shaped me more than I can imagine; their “unladylike” openness and sensitivity made room for my least acceptable traits, and the spirit, sense of justice, imagination, and creative ambition of both Anne Shirley and Josephine March made me want to both know and be them.
We read an older interview of yours on The Chapbook Interview from 2014, not long after you finished Darling Hands, Darling Tongue, and in it, you mentioned field guides and the science and lore of asters being part of what inspired you to write Book of Asters. What’s a subject you’ve been diving into lately? Or, if you don’t mind our asking, what’s next for you? Any projects in progress you’re particularly excited about right now?
I’m working on two things right now. One is my third full-length manuscript, tentatively titled If a Wolf, which engages storytelling and narrative thinking (including the structure and elements of fairy tales) to consider motherhood, daughterhood, the body, survival, and mystic experience/the sacred. There will likely be a few poems from this chapbook in the book—though my wolf-work took a different, more magical realist, turn after Says the Forest to the Girl, so it really isn’t as clear a continuation of these poems as one might imagine.
I’m also working on poems about Johannes Kepler, the astronomer, and his mother, Katharina Kepler, whom he defended against charges of witchcraft over a six-year period in the early 1600’s. So far I’ve done a lot more reading than writing about the Keplers, though two of the poems are out in the world now—in The Gettysburg Review and Bear Review. I admire both Keplers, and love everything about their story—I mean, it’s got outer space, courtroom drama, and witchcraft!—but most importantly, a strong mother and a strong son, the pain and tenderness of a complex, compelling family love.
Sally Rosen Kindred is the author of two poetry books from Mayapple Press, Book of Asters and No Eden, and three chapbooks, including Says the Forest to the Girl (Porkbelly Press, 2018). She has received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Missouri Review’s Poem-of-the-week web feature, and Kenyon Review Online. She is a poetry editor for the Baltimore Review.