Philomela (dancing girl press, 2014)
What’s your chapbook about?
Philomela is, at its core, about disconnection and forms of violence in relationships. Tongues are torn out. Children are eaten. Lovers and husbands die or leave.
Can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook?
The title Philomela is taken from the myth that inspired the poem “Song,” the very first poem in the chapbook. Philomela was a princess of Athens who was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus. Because she refused to be silent, he tore out her tongue and abandoned her in a cabin in the woods. In response, she wove a tapestry depicting what happened to her and sent it to her sister. The myth is about telling a story, particularly a truthful one about what has happened or is happening to us, and the rest of the chapbook frames this lens.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I had been trying to get Swallow, my first full-length collection, published for about a year when I decided to pull some of the poems into a chapbook. Swallow is a mix-tape of mythological adaptations, fairy tale re-writes, and more modern poems. The mythological poems were some of my strongest poems, so I started by pulling those out to see how well they could speak to one another. These poems were written as a series. I was re-reading a lot of ancient Greco-Roman myths and seeing how I might be inspired by them. I came away with a lot of richly dark poems that modernized the myths, told them from a different point of view, or completely changed the happenings.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Once I had all the poems, I ordered them first based on their images. I wanted each poem to highlight something in the poems before and after it, so I played a lot with not only order, but also tweaking images in specific poems to resonate off one another. I then looked at story. How could all of these poems work together to tell a narrative? It worked out that the poems already kind of did that. Many were about tough relationships, ones that might not survive, and then others were about sticking it out despite the circumstances. Others were about leaving: fleeing or letting go.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Kristy Bowen at dancing girl press designs all of the covers for the chapbooks, and she is a very talented editor and artist. Before we started getting together the final galleys, she sent me an e-mail asking me what I might like the cover to look like, general or specific, colors I like, things to avoid, any images I’m drawn to, etc. Since Philomela was the title, I sent her the story of the original myth and said that I thought a bird or birds, a girl turning into a bird, or just a girl would be perfectly acceptable to me. She came back with the feather image, and it was perfect to me: simple and haunting.
What are you working on now?
I’m still working on Swallow. It changes every time I send it out to another contest or press, and it’s been a labor of love and diligence. I’ve also started a series of persona poems about a couple who are unable to get pregnant for some years and then, once they are finally able to, start having recurring miscarriages. It’s been a very hard series to write, but we never know what voices will call to us to tell their stories.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
It is easier to have too many poems that you can cut or combine than it is to have too few. Remember that small things can look great in small places. What you put in a chapbook will fill it just as water fills any container it’s put in.
What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?
I, as A.E. Stallings told me most recently at a conference, am a domestic poet. I write a lot about relationships, about home life, and it is because those are issues I struggle against. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a woman who writes? What does it mean to be a lover? A mother? An almost mother? To have a home? Chapbooks can make themes or images seem claustrophobic. There’s little room to get out. It is good, then, to have something that sucks our breath out and drives us for air once we’re done gasping along the pages.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I remember speaking to a poet once whose MFA thesis was a mess of what he called “almost poems.” He felt like he had been trying to build up the courage to write what he truly wanted to write and that it took writing his thesis and years more of writing to get there. I feel like a lot of my own writing has been that too, little half-truths that I’ve laid out as stepping stones to get me to the real truth. I wish someone had told me in a way I could have heard, “Write the poems you were meant to write.” I’ll tell you here in black and white, for myself and for you: Write the poems you were meant to write.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
I carry around a notebook with me and write down interesting words or phrases, from commercials, songs, books, the mouths of my loved ones. I often find myself turning them over in my head, trying to find a story that fits them. Or, I might get struck by a story idea, and then I flip through my word collection to find an interesting way to write about it. For example, I wanted to write a poem about a woman who was having trouble conceiving. I flipped through the pages of my notebook and found “low-slung,” and that became a way to describe her belly: “a low-slung home.”
Tara Mae Mulroy is a graduate of the MFA program in poetry at the University of Memphis and a 2015 recipient of the Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her poems, stories, and essays are published or forthcoming in Third Coast, CutBank , Waccamaw, and others. She is currently sending out her first full-length collection, Swallow. She teaches Latin at a private K-12 school.
Mother, he is a gentleman.
He is a builder with bricks of moonlight.
He knows the secret places of the earth.
He washes the sleep from the eyes of the souls.
He lets me tell him I hate him.
In the mornings, I gather berries and apples.
I scrub his back with rind,
spider-spit, and eyelash.
He talks in his sleep pudding, fire, disc,
the things he misses.
He breathes, Your body is my orchard.
I am the undulating grass.
I am a field of wheat he parts with his fingers.
Poppies bloom in my veins.
When he kisses me, he tastes grenadine.
The night crawls nearer.