Staging a Bloody Coup in Your Fairytale
A Conversation with Brittany Cavallaro on the Exploration of History Through Poetry and Feminine Power
Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, novelist and editor living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her first poetry collection, Girl-King, was published by the University of Akron Press in February, 2015. Individual poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Gettysburg Review, Tin House and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. No Girls No Telephones, a chapbook she co-wrote with Rebecca Hazelton, is now available from Black Lawrence Press. Her awards include scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry.
On January 29, 2015, poet, novelist and Interlochen Arts Academy alumna Brittany Cavallaro visited the Writing House to give a Q&A and reading for Interlochen creative writing students. During her visit, The Interlochen Review editors Nani Wachhaus, Brittany Burton and Emily Boyle sat down with her to discuss her book Girl-King, the influence of history, fairy tales, and Sherlock Holmes, as well as the literary publication she is currently editor of, Devil’s Lake.
Nani Wachhaus: What inspired the creation of Girl-King?
Brittany Cavallaro: It’s a project I’ve worked on for most of my mid-twenties though largely, the poems in this collection were poems that I was working on in my first two years of my MFA. I wrote them very quickly. I think at the time I didn’t really have a conception of these poems as a project; I was focused on the poem I was writing at the time. When I looked at them all together, the commonalities in theme and language stood out to me, and I began ordering them into a collection. Once I had the skeleton of the manuscript, I began to plan more deliberately. The two middle sections [of Girl-King] were much more specifically projects. One of them, “The Resurrectionists,” is a historical sequence in dramatic monologue that explores the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh in the 1920s. The other is a series of poems that I wrote as responses to some of John Berryman’s Dream Songs.
Brittany Burton: Most of your poems read like short stories but each has its own story to tell. Was that a conscious choice?
BC: No, but I love that idea. That’s great. I write fiction too, so that may have something to do with any feeling you get about these poems being ‘in scene.’ That said, I do think about my process writing a poem as having a closer analogue to playwriting than to fiction. I write a lot in dramatic monologue; I’m more comfortable taking on other people’s voices than approximating my own. I really love playing with older diction. Quite often, I’ll be reading someone’s correspondence—in addition to doing other research, I read J.J. Audubon’s letters in preparation for writing “The Resurrectionists”—and I’ll find myself trying to imitate their voice, their syntax, their preoccupations. As for the poems I write that aren’t explicitly in dramatic monologue, I find that I’m often interested in playing out a scene between two people, though it’s usually more abstract or imprecise. Even then, though I’m writing from a more distant perspective, dialogue creeps in to my work. It’s been kind of a challenge… sometimes I think I began writing fiction because I wanted to let my characters speak more freely than my poems would allow.
Emily Boyle: A lot of your poems are centered around girls and the issues that they face, like “Magician’s Girl” and “White-Armed Persephone Walks into His Van.” What drives you to this subject over and over again?
BC: I don’t know. Actually when I was at Interlochen, I ended up writing quite a bit about what I thought my life was like as a teenager. I was trying to interpret my experiences as I was living them. Sometimes that immediacy results in really amazing poems and sometimes you’re like, “You know, I have no idea what I think about this yet, I’m still living it. Maybe it’s best to just walk away.” In my early twenties I found that I started overlaying that physical landscape with the situations I encountered when I was more independently out in the world. I started to experience things differently, and I found myself kind of laying the thrust of those experiences over some of the ephemera and the trappings of being a teenager. It was almost like I was trying to interpret things that have happened to me now through things that I remembered from when I was a little younger, and that I’d never really written about or never really processed in a way I think I had. There are very few literal experiences in [Girl-King] that I’ve had happen to me, but I do think the emotional thrust of it is all autobiographical.
NW: You’d mentioned that you were interested in the Resurrectionists in your book—obviously, eleven poems—so what drew you to them specifically as a project?
BC: I was living in Scotland, and it was so strange for me. I’d grown up in a very modern Midwestern town. I didn’t really have a physical understanding of history in that same way until I moved to Edinburgh and every building had a plaque on it telling me that it was the site of something that happened in the 13th century. I would be lost and running late and would find myself running down a Scottish alleyway—a close—down into these levels of the city I didn’t even know existed. It all sort of culminated into one night where I went to a dance party at a club underground called The Caves. I was in the bathroom washing my hands and the girl next to me turned to me very cheerfully and said, “Don’t get burked!” and sort of hit me in the arm and went off. I had to go back out and ask my friends what just happened. She’d just an expression for “Don’t get picked up at night and dragged home and suffocated.” It was a reference to the William Burke and William Hare murders that had entered the common parlance.
I started looking at historical records on Burke and Hare, reading about it to fulfill my own curiosity, so I was shocked when, four years later and out of nowhere, I started writing all these poems about them. I think the thing that really set it off was reading J.J. Audubon’s letters and realizing that he had gone to visit Robert Knox, the physician who’s buying all of the bodies that Burke and Hare had killed.
BB: There is often a mother character present in your poems. Was that a conscious decision to include her throughout many poems?
BC: I was focused on creating a series of creation myths in the first and fourth sections of the manuscript, where I think I was playing a lot with the trappings of fairytale: forests, kings queens, hatchets, peas baked into cakes. The mother figure served as the figure of ultimate power in those places in the book, the same [as] when you have a boy trying to assert his own sense of power, and the first figure he looks to overthrow is his father. The idea of the father as king. In the world I was creating, I wanted to know what the female version of that would look like, and it’s still violent, but of course because we’re looking at girls we’re more shocked by it, I think. I wanted to really play on what was so shocking about the idea of... staging a bloody coup in your fairytale and getting rid of your mother so that you can be an ultimate power over your life and your landscape. My mother doesn’t like these poems. (laughter) I had to tell her a lot of times that they’re not about her like, “It’s all theoretical,” and she’s like, “Did I do something?” No, she didn’t—she’s wonderful.
BC: I was just talking about this at lunch with Dave [Griffith] and Mika [Perrine]. When I showed up to do my MFA at UW Madison, we didn’t have a graduate literary journal. My poetry cohort, when we arrived, were really determined to make one happen. Long bar nights over cheese curds after workshop, a lot of weeks coming up with terrible journal titles. I think “Wisco” was in the running at one point (laughter). We put it together under the name “Devil’s Lake”, the six of us and some wonderful people from the fiction side of the program and a few very generous Wisconsin Institute fellows, writers who had finished their MFA and not yet published a book and were there on their fellowship year. We saw it as a place to publish what we saw as necessary poetry. It’s a small, very carefully curated journal—well, we want to think it’s carefully curated. I think that sometimes with publishing online you can feel like you’re wading through seas and seas and seas of prose and poetry because there’s no cost to publishing more material online. We consciously kept Devil’s Lake to six to eight poets an issue, three or four prose writers an issue, and we organized the site so you can click through it like a bound journal. It’s meant to be just an hour or two’s reading, in all. I liked the idea of running a journal that felt small and curated. I’ve returned as the editor-in-chief this past year, and it’s been really fun setting up events and reading lots of poems. That’s what I was doing before you guys came in[to this room], reading through our submissions manager.
NW: I know that Devil’s Lake has been getting a bit of attention recently. Does that feel nice? As a class we waded through it a bit and seems that a lot of other people have too.
BC: We just put out a new issue! It’s always been a place where we love publishing young writers, writers for whom this is a first publication. We have a poet we’re publishing in this issue who’s just out of college, and when we read his poems, we thought “These are incredible!” We love putting those poets beside more established poets and creating that kind of conversation. I think that it’s an opportunity to see what kind of connections you make when you read through people who’ve been around longer and people who are just beginning their writing career, what subjects they have in common, how they differ in their approach.
BB: In your poem “Common Knowledge” you refer to Michigan a few times. How has your experience at Interlochen [Arts Academy] informed your writing or changed it in any way?
BC: Well, Interlochen’s responsible for any life I have now as a writer. Growing up I knew for sure that I wanted to be a writer, but it felt like a secret wish, one I needed to keep to myself because it was so ridiculous. Then, when I came here, my teachers and friends took that idea for granted. Of course I would be a writer, was the assumption. That helped so much.
I wrote so many poems when I was here, I read so much, I was exposed to so much. I made friends with people who are still artists and actors and writers who are doing amazing things. It felt in a way like the place where I first realized that I had a soul. I don’t know how to describe it. I always felt like I was about to burst open when I was here. So much was happening: reading everything, staying up late talking to other young artists, playing music in practice rooms, wandering around in the snow. I think that the teachers I had, especially, especially Jack Driscoll, were responsible for understanding what it is I wanted to do with my writing, then pushing me until I got past that and onto something new. It was a very important place to me.
EB: And do you prefer writing fiction or poetry?
BC: Neither. Both. I write novels in addition to poems, and when I’m sitting down to begin a novel, I know for however long it takes to get down a first draft, I won’t be writing poems. The process is too immersive. With poetry, I don’t know… Poetry for me has always felt like an almost involuntary act, like a reaction to what I’m seeing and experiencing. It’s my way of coming to an understanding, or expressing that I can’t come to one, that the world won’t resolve for me in that way. It’s such a different process for me than telling a story. If I try to write a poem while I’m writing a novel, it comes out as a string of unconnected images, like I’ve somehow used up all my narrative elsewhere, and this is what is left. They’re really different processes for me, almost like the difference between walking and swimming.
NW: In your novel you work with the descendants of Sherlock and Watson; so, what is it like working with characters who are the descendants of your childhood favorites?
BC: Really fun! Whenever I’m writing something, you usually begin by doing research to fill out the world you’re creating—where is this city in relation to this one, what’s the name of that tree, how many diners were there in Muskego, or, if you’re working from your life, what really happened the year I was twelve, let me look through my old journals. The really sad and amazing thing about this novel was that it was all in my head because I am just the biggest nerd, really the biggest old school Sherlockian. My apartment is this mess of tweed and magnifying glasses and pipes people have given me. I’ve read the stories and novels hundreds of times. I’ve seen all the adaptations. I could go on and on. My second collection of poems, my manuscript that I’m finishing right now, has Sherlock Holmes poems in it. It was just something that was always happening, a fixation that I was expressing constantly, so when I sat down to write this novel, I found that I could write it very quickly. I was done with a first draft in six weeks because I knew the story I wanted to tell, a very specific feminist reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories. So many adaptations, and they’d never let the girl be the genius? Come on, guys. I made an attempt to rectify that with A Study in Charlotte.
BB: What is it about the mystery stories and the mystery in telling the stories appeals to you? Were you daunted by following in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s footsteps?
BC: Oh gosh, I can’t even think about that (laughter). I think about this when I feel overwhelmed: the actor William Gillette, who famously played Sherlock Holmes, wanted to write a play in which Holmes was married. He wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and asked him for permission and Doyle says, “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him,” and so that’s the permission I’m taking. At least I’m not marrying him—or her, in this case.
Mystery stories… I need to do the plotting before I sit down and write a novel. That’s its own beast, and in a strange way, almost seems to have nothing to do with writing. It has everything to do with cause and effect, and writing for me exists in those places that defy causality or find their way from cause to effect in unexpected ways. I love mysteries, I always have, and I think that part of why I do love the genre is that the mystery itself doesn’t matter to me—my favorite parts are everything that happens as asides to the central plot. My favorite moment in a Sherlock Holmes story is when they’re sitting at Baker Street and Holmes fires his gun into the wall into the shape of the Queen’s initials. Or when they are tearing across London in a hansom cab, moments before the story really begins. Mystery fiction has its roots in Victoriana, and I love Victoriana. I love gaslight and cobblestones and railway law and even reading about their sewage system. It’s was really fun to spend that time with Holmes and Watson and that world.
EB: What were the dynamics between you and Rebecca Hazelton when co-writing No Girls No Telephones?
BC: She’s one of my best friends, and so that way really useful, I think, in our process. She’s this fabulous writer, and we happened to be living in apartments next door to each other in Madison. I’d wake up in the morning and show up on her and her husband’s doorstep, asking her to feed me lunch because she always had something incredible going on her stove. We’d read things and bring each other books and have writing dates together at the coffee shop down the street. She’s very successful, very talented, and I was flattered when she became interested in a project I was working on doing.
My favorite poet is John Berryman, and has been for a long time, but he has some issues depicting women in his poems. He either sexualizes them or makes them objects or shoves them under the rug, and I had a lot of trouble, as a feminist, knowing my favorite poem couldn’t write about my gender. So I decided to go through and rewrite his poems so that I liked them better. It seems insane to say it out loud. I never really intended to show anybody those poems; it was just a way of making myself feel better. I went through phrase by phrase and rewrote his poems, replacing his Henry with a female character. Becky was watching me write these, and she began picking them up when I finished and writing the opposites of my opposites, and then I began writing opposites to her original opposites, and we just ended up playing telephone. It was a lot of fun. The originals are of course better than anything we’ve done, but we had a lot of fun doing it.
NW: How many projects do you have going on at the same time because you’ve been saying “I have this project and that one”? Is it sort of like what Stephen King does with his red truck that he plays with in the morning to warm himself up before he goes to write?
BC: Well, I’m actually looking back over a long period of time when I’m talking about these different projects. I finished Girl-King back in 2012. It was picked up by Akron in August 2013 and came out in early 2015. There’s my young adult novel that I finished in 2013 but won’t come out until 2016. I have a finished second poetry manuscript and I’m beginning poems for a third but I haven’t started sending out the second yet…I’m all over the place. I guess the question is, do you have a novel in a drawer? (laughter) I do. It’s about angels and nobody will ever read it. Sometimes I just want to be working on something. Maybe that’s my red truck. Sometimes I begin something that feels like an exercise—a ‘project’—and it becomes something stranger and more fulfilling than I anticipated. And then I find myself juggling a million things at once!
EB: In the poem “Twins,” it was about the two women and they both had twins, so what drew you to that tale? Did you just stumble upon it?
BC: It’s one of a series of lais by Marie de France. I was—really it's the most boring answer to your question—taking a seminar on medieval women's writing at the University of Edinburgh when my computer broke and then stayed broken for most of my time there. No one could fix it. So I found myself reading all the time. I went to the used book store and I just cleared out everything I could find from the medieval era, because I loved what I’d been aside. So I was reading Julian of Norwich and Marie de France and I was really taken by the folk superstitions that were taken as fact in those stories. That one just seemed particularly cruel, the idea that if a woman had twins it meant that she had to have slept with more than one man. Women who bore twins were viewed as adulteresses. In that poem, I was imagining what it would be like for those twins when they got older.
NW: This question is about your love of other books. How do you balance reading the books with writing?
BC: I read everything, and pretty indiscriminately. When I was [at Interlochen] I spent a lot of time pretending I didn’t like fantasy novels the way I do—but see, I love fantasy novels. Really, the trashier the better. If there are dragons, I’m in. If there are elves with bows and arrows…I just love stories. I love a good story, I love a good narrative arc. I do love literary fiction too, and I read a lot of it, but sometimes I just want to disappear for a while into genre fiction. I began keeping a log of what I’m reading on my website to stay accountable for reading something other than just what I needed for research for my PhD. That work can be overwhelming, and I wanted to make sure I was reading for pleasure. The way you read a book when you’re writing about it academically is so different than when you’re reading it as a writer. So this was like, “Okay. I am going to read fifty books a year that aren’t books of French critical theory,” and then at some point, I realized it had become my way of snubbing my nose and saying, “Yeah, I’m reading a lot of young adult.” Oh well. As for your question—I do all my writing in a coffee shop that’s attached to my favorite bookstore in Milwaukee, and I reward myself after a good day of reading by going and buying more books. (laughter) That’s become a bit of an issue.
BB: This has to do with your biography and it’s kind of a silly question but… why do you have a picture of a llama on your phone?
BC: Oh, no. Well, I needed a phone case and went into a store and they were selling all kinds of incredibly expensive ones. There was only one on clearance, and it had a llama on it and I was like, “well, fine, this works.” I put it on my phone and then for the next four years all anybody did was ask me why I had a llama on my phone. They’d come up to me and be like, “Is that a llama… on your phone?”
“I’m on the phone, go away.”
It wasn’t a deliberate choice! I just really recently replaced my phone case and I’m incredibly sad about it.
NW: Will you reclaim your llama phone case?
BC: They need to make one that fits my new phone, and then I will.
EB: I have one last question. Was “White-Armed Persephone Walks Into His Van” loosely connected to the myth of Persephone?
BC: I thought that if the devil, if Hades, was going to be abducting girls, he’d probably use a white van to do it these days. I also liked the idea of arming her and seeing what happened.