Saturday, August 8, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Lisa Wiley Discusses My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School

My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School

Author: Lisa Wiley

PublisherThe Writer’s Den

Publication date: March 2015

In The Junk Drawer by Lisa Wiley
— after Charles Simic

A little red spool
full of thread
for a ladybug costume
forgotten long ago.

I unwind the plastic cylinder
to feel those autumn days
coil around my finger.

“In The Junk Drawer” © Lisa Wiley, My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School, (The Writer’s Den, 2015)

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Lisa Wiley teaches creative writing, poetry, literature and composition at Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY. She is also the author of Chamber Music a chapbook of 21 villanelles (Finishing Line Press, 2013.) Her work has appeared in The Healing Muse, Medical Journal of Australia, Mom Egg, Rockhurst Review, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine among others.

*   *   *   *   *

[This interview was conducted via email in July 2015.]

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about My Daughter Wears Her Evil Eye to School.

LW: The nucleus of the chapbook is motherhood and generational love. While my daughter is mentioned in the title, I include many nods to my mother such as in “Why My Mother Won’t Attend My Poetry Reading,” and to my maternal grandmother in “Making Split Pea Soup.” Although we are not Greek, my mother brought back an evil eye charm for my daughter from a trip to Tarpon Springs. The chapbook is dedicated to my grandmothers who both did not go gentle and taught us all many life lessons. My paternal grandmother is not directly mentioned, but my love of putting pen to paper came from her.

NCL: The bulk of poems in chapbook are themed around parenting and domesticity, childhood and raising children in contemporary American society. What are some of the other themes, metaphors, and other elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

LW: Yes, the bulk are about parenting and domesticity, childhood and raising children. I am also inspired by travel. Every time I step out of my immediate world, I look with new eyes. Trips to San Francisco and New York City last summer inspired a travel motif in some of the final poems including “My Own Private Alcatraz,” “Dim Sung at the Yank Sing,” and “Feng Shui.” I hope “New York, In My Ballet Flats,” captures a dreamy quality associated with many poets, dancers, artists and mothers: those desires we have for our own future and then for our children.

Food is another theme prevalent in the chapbook because so many of our memories are grounded in the kitchen or in the field such as “Strawberry Picking” which was inspired by Seamus Heaney’s childhood memories in his poem “Blackberry Picking.” Set in the kitchen, “Farmer’s Sink” is a romantic speculation of the future based on the ordinary object of the sink. “Store-Bought Cookie” is a reflection on being a working mother and not always having enough time to bake homemade cookies, and all the guilt that goes along with it. I teach English at a community college and was thinking about one of those days when I used up all my patience in the classroom.

NCL: . In a 2012 conversation-interview in The Believer, in which Rachel Zucker, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Matthew Rohrer discuss domesticity as a taboo subject in contemporary poetry, Matthew Rohrer writes:
Well, I’ll start, because maybe it was my griping that made this conversation happen. I was thinking about some of my recent poems that are very “domestic,” and I was feeling uncomfortable about it a bit, thinking it would be something people would object to, or that I should have edited that stuff out before it even got to the page. Then I started thinking about how we live—especially those of us who teach in MFA culture—in this poetic culture that says there are no rules. But then I thought, The one thing you can’t do is be domestic. You can write about anything you want, but the domestic is attacked by everyone from every side. Experimental people consider it too pedestrian, and I guess that’s the epitome of the bad workshop poem: “I’m looking out into my backyard and there’s a bird and it makes me feel transcendent.” Even more narrative, lyrical people think it’s the most debased form of talking about yourself. That made me more willing to do it, actually, because if everybody hates it, there must be something interesting about it. 
Did you have any hesitation about domesticity or parenting as a subject? What are your thoughts on what Rohrer’s comments above?

LW: We are all domestic creatures who perform domestic tasks. Even movie stars raise children and cook from time to time. Everyone has a junk drawer. I think poetry should be accessible and grounded in everyday life. Clearly, I don’t consider domestic poems “pedestrian” or shy away from them. I don’t possess an MFA, but I respect those who do. A reader might not savor pea soup, but maybe my poem jars a reader to remember preparing a special family recipe such meatballs or pierogis. Maybe reading mine will inspire someone to write a process poem about the experience or at least pause and reflect on Nona’s sauce and smile. If it makes the reader turn inward and retrieve a memory he/she hadn’t located in a while, my poem is successful.

NCL: What is your favorite poem in the book or one that is important to you?

LW: One of my favorites is “Strawberry Island, Late Summer” because of its form and local color. I intended it to be a modern, unrhymed sonnet with fourteen lines and a slight turn or twist in the final couplet. The humorous twist brings my mother into the mystery of the island. I broke the poem into all couplets so the reader could absorb the vivid island imagery and metaphors for this magical place.

It’s significant to me because of that romantic quality of late summer, when you savor one last adventure before school begins and for its local color. In Buffalo, we are proud of our waterways and links to presidential history, which is why I included Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. One served as our mayor, the other was inaugurated here.


We cannonball into the calm Niagara,
pirates making our way to her shore,

collecting colored pebbles, shiny sea glass
to preserve summer in mason jars.

All of us ten years-old again.
Three acres of mystery,

it’s a squeal at the end of a long boat ride,
a Malibu shot before last call.

Bald eagles reclaim her treetops;
remnants of fires dot the wooded beach,

Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt
sank lines in these waters —

my mother docked once on a date
and won’t say a word about it.

NCL: When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

LW: I’ve always enjoyed what Billy Collins said of the reader when interviewed for The Paris Review. He said:
She’s this girl in high school who broke my heart, and I’m hoping that she’ll read my poems one day and feel bad about what she did. No, the reader for me is someone who doesn’t care about me or has no vested interest. I start the poem assuming that I have to engage his or her interest. There is no pre-existing reason for you to be interested in me and certainly not in my family, so there must be a lure at the beginning of a poem.
I agree wholeheartedly. There’s no reason for a stranger to be interested in me or my family, so I have to hook him or her with the title or opening lines. Then, the trick is for the reader to stick with me a little while over the journey of 20 lines or so. My reader doesn’t need to be fluent in MFA terms or versed in form. The reader is a hitchhiker of sorts who is willing to enjoy a little jaunt or cruise around the lake knowing I won’t kidnap him for long and will drop him off safely at his destination.

NCL: Are some of these poems about your own child?  If so, who is your favorite author who has written about his or her children and/or your favorite book or poem?

LW: Yes, several of these poems were inspired by my own daughter Madeline. These include the villanelle “Feather Extension,” “Taking My 8-Year-Old Daughter to Hear Seamus Heaney” “Easy-Bake Oven” and the title poem. Yes, she did wear that feather ornament in her hair, and yes, I took her to see that beloved Irish poet before he passed away. Yes, my husband caved in, and “we are the Easy-Bake house on the block.” And yes, she was tormented a bit by the boy who sat next to her in third grade and felt the need for protection by wearing her evil eye charm.

I have always loved E.B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake.” Of course it’s about a lake, but it’s really about the passage of time. White doesn’t identify his son by name because it’s truly more the dance of the roles of father and son and moving up another rung of the generational ladder he’s interested in depicting. I wanted to celebrate my own childhood in moments like “Making Split Pea Soup” and “Autobiography” which includes my love for reading, yet come to terms with that generational ladder in “Watching the Wizard of Oz with My Children.” My children’s experience of watching that film is so different from mine because technology has changed the world. White wrote about what changed and what remained the same on his lake. In addition, I have always adored his book Charlotte’s Web because it’s about unlikely best friends and the inevitable passage of time.

NCL: What difficulties or challenges did you encounter in writing some of the poems? in publishing the collection?

LW: I pared down a longer, full-length manuscript to create this chapbook. The challenge was deciding what to cut and what to keep. Likewise, in writing individual poems the challenge is always what to cut and what to keep. For example, I wrote a longer original version of “Taking My 8-Year-Old Daughter to Hear Seamus Heaney.” I condensed it to its essential core during Billy Collins’s workshop at the Southampton Writers’ Conference in 2013. I had to part with sentimental lines that weren’t pertinent to a reader’s perception of the central images.

Along those lines, I wonder what to reveal and what to leave unsaid as evidenced in “Let the Pterodactyls Out” and “Learning to Say No.” It reminds me of how we edit what comes out of our mouths in everyday conversation. Some people have stronger filters than others.

I was fortunate two publishers accepted the manuscript. Finishing Line Press published my first chapbook Chamber Music (2013) and its editors also accepted this manuscript. I had already given my word to Gary Earl Ross, a local Buffalo publisher who created The Writer’s Den. I wanted to try a more personal approach this time. I made final edits with Gary while seated on a rocking chair in his living room beside his white cat. He offered suggestions for cover shots and added the evil eye graphic to the Converse sneakers. His interest in the project was an invaluable asset, and he even read a poem with me at a chapbook launch.

NCL: What has been the reader response to your chapbook? Have you encountered anything you were not expecting?

LW:“Brave” and “bittersweet” are some of the words readers have used to describe the book. “Bittersweet” was mentioned because it is about the passage of time, and “brave” surprised me. Billy Collins declined to write a blurb, but he did say the title is “a winner.” Some readers responded by showing me their own evil eyes “matis” that they wear on necklaces and bracelets.

NCL: What else would you like readers to know about you or your chapbook?

LW: I’m always trying to say more with less. The final poem is only eight lines, yet I hope to convey a poignant moment on a hike in Letchworth about a family that stays together. I think it’s clear from the chapbook that the first hat I put on every day is the title of mother. Everything else is secondary to that. My love for that role is the heart of the book.

NCL: What are you working on now?

LW: I continue to write along with my creative writing students. I write while they write. I may pursue one more chapbook before attempting my first full-length collection. My sons ask me, “Can you write one about us?” Running is a big passion of my son Max, and it may emerge as the next project’s core. My husband has a new love for boating and that too could create a focal point. Either way, my family grounds my work and inspires it.

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