“It is never, never, never too late to change the life you’re living into the dream you’ve always wanted it to be.”
An Animal I Can’t Name (Two of Cups Press, 2016)
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
The first word that comes to mind—probably because of my dear mentor, Larissa Szporluk—is urgency, that sense that something needs to be said and perhaps I’m the only one who can say it the way it needs to be said to resonate with the person who needs to hear it. I like to think of art as a sort of invisible telephone wire connecting a mind that’s learned something with a mind seeking an answer, mainly because that’s what art’s been for me.
It’s also important to me to give voice to what has remained unstated or understated (whether by choice or by force) in the realm of women’s experience, probably because finding a woman brave enough to say what I was feeling but had never said myself was one of my earliest and most profound experiences with poetry; I’m referencing Louise Gluck’s “Mock Orange” here, in case anyone’s curious.
What’s your chapbook about?
An Animal I Can’t Name is a feminist narrative in poems that details a young woman’s survival of sexual and psychological abuse, examining modern-day family life, religion, labels, and the implications of each along the way. This chapbook contains most of the poems that currently make up the majority of the first section of a larger manuscript I’m working on, which is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Medusa. Medusa embodies “blaming the victim.” In some versions of the myth about her, she is raped by Poseidon; in others, she seduces him; in both, she alone is punished for what took place on Athena’s altar.
My persona work draws from the many versions of that myth as well as personal experience and the experiences of some of those close to me. Because the original myth of Medusa begins around her young adulthood or adulthood, I saw a unique opportunity to build out a childhood for her that not only sets the reader up to understand the different retellings of the original myth in a new way but also creates a contemporary framework that’s reflective of what we now know to be just one of many tragic truths about sexual assault—namely, being sexually assaulted puts victims at a higher risk for being victimized again in the future.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I started out in fiction, technically, if we’re talking about my creative writing from a higher ed perspective, and I also write and edit professionally; I think both inform my sense of organization with respect to my poetic storytelling. Even if a collection is lyrical, I want to be able to decipher as a reader why the poet arranged the poems the way they appear. I have a need for logic as a reader, so I try to create it as a writer as well.
The poems in An Animal I Can’t Name are arranged chronologically, for the most part, with the intros to each section delivered by the captain (who can be thought of as a warped version of one’s inner, grown-up narrator) and a bit of prefacing in the second and third poems to orient the reader in the type of story this is: a lengthy reflection the speaker is having on her past.
As far as the title goes, I knew I wasn’t going to take it from the titles of any of the poems in the chapbook; my poem titles tend to be too short or self-contained for that. So I wrote down several themes I could play around with and perused the text of each poem too see if anything there seemed promising. I narrowed my initial list of about 20 mostly embarrassing potentials down to two final favorites: “A Kind of Flailing” and “An Animal I Can’t Name.” Both inherently contain questions—essentially, what kind of flailing or what kind of animal? The latter just seemed to lean more in the direction I wanted the reader to focus on, especially because the futility of naming is a theme that’s revisited throughout the collection. And there are many interpretations of what—or whom—the animal might be, which I also like about it, especially paired with the more deliberately straightforward and accessible nature of the poems in the collection.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates?
The world of An Animal I Can’t Name is dark, insular. In grad school, I became fascinated with Szporluk’s description of some of Jason Shinder’s work as “seeming as though it were written in a vacuum,” as if he had little concern for what is so often emphasized in the literary world: a focus on craft, the formal elements, blah, blah, blah. Instead, she suggested, he seemed to know what he needed to express was important and created a world unto itself in which the way he spoke was the only way that would’ve made sense and was therefore the best way.
Granted, we’ll never know if that’s what Shinder intended; sadly, he passed back in 2008. But he inspired me nevertheless. I wanted to create this world in a vacuum. I wanted it to feel isolating, inescapable, suffocating. A colleague recently likened it to water slowly rising around you until you don’t realize it, but you’re drowning. This is exactly what I was going for because this is exactly what the experiences the speaker shares in the chapbook feel like.
What themes and images “bridge” your work?
The ocean is one. That’s big in the Medusa myth, so I carry that throughout this chapbook. Stone, of course, since Medusa was known to turn those who looked at her to stone. Fish and birds as well, because those were some of the animals that early descriptions of Medusa’s body takes traits from; it’s not all snakes. The snakes are already there in this work, though, in subtle ways—the hissing, for one, which isn’t just coming from the water. The snakes are already starting to nest in her head—literally and figuratively—in the span of this chapbook. I also wanted to include contemporary Christian imagery because I think, outside of superhero stories, that’s the closest we come to mythology in our modern world. Stars also play a small role, again hearkening back to the days of earlier mythology and those old heroes we’ve named so many of our constellations after.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
The work of Louise Gluck, Marie Howe, and Carly Sachs all helped me because these were the first writers I knew who gave voice to the subject of sexual experience as women in ways that weren’t conventional or comfortable. As I mentioned earlier, “Mock Orange” was the poem that got me interested in writing poetry. Gluck’s speaker said she hated sex. That was revolutionary, in my mind. Marie Howe shared the experience of incest, which was just tremendously courageous. Carly Sachs not only wrote about her own sexual assault but took it a step further by gathering many voices of women who’d survived such experiences in the anthology The Why and How. Had these women not been brave enough to speak the experience, I don’t think I could’ve found the guts to write what I wrote. And once again, I looked to Shinder’s work for guidance on creating that feeling of a world in a vacuum.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
“The Ranch in California” and “the spring before leaving Father” are the oldest pieces in the collection. Both were written prior to my obsession with the Medusa retelling but ended up fitting well into the framework later on.
Two memories stand out about the writing and revising of “the spring before leaving Father” in particular. The first is a hilarious parody of that poem that a colleague wrote (as a class assignment, not maliciously intended). I still have that parody, and to this day, it still makes me laugh.
The second is the A-ha! moment Martha Collins gave me on this piece in a single workshop, which she’d attended as a guest. I knew there was a problem with the poem, that it wasn’t finished quite yet. I even knew where the problem was—the third section. But I just couldn’t seem to get it right. Collins pointed out that the father either interacted with or was inside the speaker’s head in every section but the third one, at the time. It was such a simple thread—one I should’ve been able to pick up on—and yet because that “head” aspect of the poem was actually entirely subconscious at the time, I couldn’t see it until she pointed it out. So thanks, Martha!
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The first poem in the book, the first “(Your Captain Speaking),” has the most meaningful back story because it started as a very different poem while I was still in grad school. Szporluk asked my colleagues and me to write our “best poems ever.” (No pressure, right?) So we all came back with a bunch of poems—none of which came anywhere close to being our best, of course, but all of which gave us some sense of what we’d subconsciously defined internally that our best would look like, sound like, and feel like. Many revisions later, this poem was the first of my poems to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize. By those standards, I guess it could be considered my best, though it’s not even close to being my favorite. Isn’t that the way of the world, though?
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I hate to be that gal, but I don’t think any collection—especially shorter collections like chapbooks—should have mis-fits. They stand out like sore thumbs and distract readers from the point. I’m not sure why anyone would include them, unless they just want to list the fact that the poem was previously published in some big journal or something. I believe I removed any mis-fits from my earlier drafts of this collection before I sent it out.
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?
“Mumfish” was the last poem I wrote for this collection. I knew I needed something to compare or contrast with “Ravenfather” in the second section since I had a poem about the mother and a poem about the father in the first section; I also wanted to echo the setup of the first “(Your Captain Speaking).” So once I had the “Mumfish” draft knocked out, I knew the chapbook had all the pieces it needed to tell this particular story. Then it was just polishing them all as best I could to make the submission deadlines.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I knew if I had the opportunity to have a say in the cover art for this chapbook, I wanted to have original artwork created, and created by a woman—preferably someone who knew me well. The editor of Two of Cups Press, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, was extremely flexible and generous; she let me take charge of securing the art and contributed a portion of the funding for it.
I contacted my friend Lisa Sills, who has her own design agency, Anura37. We had a conversation in which I rambled on about some of the key images and themes of the chapbook. Then I sent her the manuscript. Not even a week later, she had the initial design prepared, and it was better than if she’d read my mind because my mind never could’ve come up with as rich and complex a design as hers did. I wrote a blog about the whole process, actually; you can read it here.
The cover is just perfect for the chapbook, and I get compliments on the artwork constantly. Lisa’s vision and work is truly exceptional.
Whom do you most hope will read your chapbook?
My deepest hope is that this work reaches survivors of all genders and reminds them that not only are they not alone, but they may someday be able to transform the tragic into some form of healing, activism, or both.
We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?
I’m willing to give anything and everything a try, whether I pick it up off the shelf at a library or bookstore, a friend recommends it to me, or a colleague wrote it. But if that punch in the gut isn’t there for me after a page or two, I close the covers and move on. I don’t have much patience for work that doesn’t resonate with me because none of us has unlimited time.
This isn’t a testament to any lack of talent out there, mind you. I just know what I’m looking for when I come to literature—comes back to that punch in the gut—and that’s not everyone’s goal or aesthetic. For me, it is, and so I continue to write to give voice to what’s been unspoken, underspoken, or misspoken to raise awareness and help others remember they’re not alone.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
Anything by Louise Gluck makes me feel this way; I can’t get enough of her work. I also finished Megan Hudgins’ chapbook, Crixa, recently, and was sad when I realized I’d come to the last page; Hudgins’ work is unusual but accessible. Brandon Jennings’ novel Battle Rattle left me feeling this way as well; there are so many loose ends when the story concludes—which is part of the theme of the work—but he did a phenomenal job of making me care about his characters and want to have some sense that things end well for them somehow.
The common theme with these writers’ work—and the thing that keeps me interested in it—is that it punches me in the gut. I don’t read to be entertained. I read to be reminded that I’m not alone in my assessment that this world we’re in is incredibly difficult for even the most well equipped among us to navigate, that I’m not alone in this struggle.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Jason Shinder, Marie Howe, Louise Gluck, Larissa Szporluk, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Joy Manesiotis, and Billy Shakespeare.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
The best advice I can give any writer (not just students) is this: As quickly as possible, learn how to improve as a writer in a variety of ways—not just through workshops. Workshops won’t always be there, instructors may be disengaged, and peers may be selfish. Those disappointments (which every writer goes through at some point) will matter less to you if you’ve learned how to improve from reading other writers analytically, thinking critically about others’ work, and applying the same eye you’d use to help others improve their work to improve your own.
One thing I’ve consistently heard from students and other writers (and have felt myself from time to time) is, “I don’t get enough feedback from others, so why should I bother giving others feedback and investing my time and energy into their work when they so clearly don’t have any interest in mine?” Here’s why: Because you become a better writer from doing that. My guess is that, whether it’s one suggestion from you or 20, Joe Schmoe wasn’t going to take any of them to heart anyway, so what did you learn from taking note of where you think he went wrong in his work? And how will you use that to improve your own work and find/hone your voice?
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish someone would’ve told me that the point a writer “arrives” is actually before the manuscript is accepted. You may not know it or acknowledge that to be the case prior to publication because of the brainwashing you get as a writer indicating that publication is the end-all, be-all. It’s really not. So when you do get that publication, you realize that the point in time at which you “arrived” was some indeterminable moment when you were working, or brooding, or brainstorming, and simply got some great work done.
Getting published is great—don’t get me wrong—but when you get that publication and you don’t feel any different, this is why. Hard to share this sentiment with people who may still be waiting for that first publication to feel like they’ve “arrived,” but it’s what I believe to be the truth nevertheless.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
August 2009-August 2010. That was my most difficult time personally and professionally, but it was also what inspired me to completely transform my life, and the fruits of those efforts began appearing in August 2010, which was just mindblowing to me.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
An Animal I Can Name. Nah, just kidding. 😉
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
The question would be, what do I hope people will remember about me and my work? And besides the fact that I will forever be telling people, “Use your voice!” the answer is, I’d like the world to remember that, unless you’re trying to be an Olympic athlete or something along those lines, it is never, never, never too late to change the life you’re living into the dream you’ve always wanted it to be—even partially.
Although most of my work is dark and doesn’t reflect this sentiment on the surface, the reason I create and share anything at all is because, after 30 years of (a mostly self-induced) struggle, I did choose to live my life in a way that would allow me to be happy, and I hope that in reading my work, others realize that not only are they not alone in any human experience (no matter how tragic) and never were, but they can overcome anything, too (well, except death, but that’s another story).
Besides, this world doesn’t give us aspirations to mock us; it only wants each and every one of us to believe that we have the right—the duty, even—to embrace them. The moment a person believes that, life begins to transform into the dream.
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults on professional and creative bases. She received her B.A. from University of Arizona and her M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University (where she served on the staff of Mid-American Review). Her poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, was the first-place winner of the 2015 Two of Cups Press’ competition. Her creative work has also been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other magazines.
Came late—spring of eighth grade—before lunch
and after a classmate had trouble
brewing in her stomach already. They put
the job in the hands of an English teacher, Miss Fithie—
pretty, stupid, lean, in the habit of wearing
tight jeans and propping her bottom
on the edge of her wood desk, easily seen
by boys who would flock to the front for prime
viewing. Slides of parts flowers and cartoon
characters had masked for us flashed
as she matched image to word like some game—
but never said what it meant if you’d already seen
more than what appeared
on the screen, never confessed
that naming things commands
nothing. I sat silent like the dumb
majority, wondering what those
kids might be thinking—
interrupted by a hiss of memory
unzipping, something horrible swelling
in me when I thought of these other bodies,
another’s I was forced to know with my own, and early.
(First published in Four Chambers)