Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Jessica Cuello Discusses My Father’s Bargain

My Father's Bargain

Author: Jessica Cuello

PublisherFinishing Line Press

Publication date: 2015

Worn-Out Dancing Shoes by Jessica Cuello

My sister’s hair
as she walked in front,

had light metallic strands
she couldn’t see. I knew
her colors intimately,
and our silent footsteps.

At Christmas we gather,
our children run out back.
When I mention the stairway
and the boats we rode across,
middle sister leaves the room
and eldest laughs,
I remember how we played—
we knocked on the bedpost,
pretended it opened
like a door.

The shoes were proof;
I’m the only one

with memories. Each night,
last in line, I learned
by heart their shoulder blades,
part butterfly against blue
crepe and yellow silk.

It seemed to happen at once—
my sisters forgot,
were distracted if I spoke
of the boats in darkness

outside the lit dancehall.
We spun with our weight
flung back, holding tight
with sweaty hands.

(Originally published in Rose Red Review.)

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Jessica Cuello is the author of the chapbooks My Father’s Bargain (Finishing Line Press 2015), By Fire (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013), and Curie (Kattywompus Press 2011). She was the winner of The 2013 New Letters Poetry Prize and the recipient of the 2014 Decker Award from Hollins University for outstanding secondary teaching. Jessica was selected as a Juried Fellow by the Saltonstall Foundation and will be a Writer-in Residence in summer 2015. Her first full-length poetry book, Pricking, is forthcoming from Tiger Bark Press in 2016.

Author blog:

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

Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook My Father's Bargain.

JC: The poems are inspired by fairy tales, in particular the vulnerable experiences of women and children.

How did you arrive at the title?

JC: It’s a line from the poem “Rumplestiltskin.” Bargain is connected to the idea of the body as capital—that her body (in the poem) is not her own; it is to be traded by her father. In many of the fairy tales, fathers are either malignant or clueless. In fact, men are often unaware of the plot itself like the bridegroom in “The Goosegirl” or the father in “The Dancing Princesses.”

Manipulation and trickery, which we view as negative qualities, are often the only means for women in the tales to escape abuse. We need these traits less than women in the past, but I do think we’ve inherited these kinds of survival skills by necessity. The title points to the character’s awareness of how she is both part of a deal and also excluded from the deal at the same time.

Diane Green wrote in a 2007 Rhizomes essay “Exploring Border Country: the Use of Myth and Fairy Tale in Gillian Clarke’s Poem Sequence, ‘The King of Britain’s Daughter’”:  “[M]yth ... is such a familiar tool in the work of female poets writing in the latter part of the twentieth-century, particularly in its feminist revisionary role, as advocated by Adrienne Rich, and especially where nationality is an issue.” And in Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990, Ian Brinton writes “[A]n interest in myth and fairytale is a recognisable attempt to remove the poet s self from a lyric expression into an embodied narrative. Traditional fairytales have a residual power of rethinking the roles of women and the ways they are represented within society.” (49)

Could you speak a bit about your use of myth and fairytale in your poems and your response to one or both of the quotes?

JC: Fairy tales are powerful for women. The domestic realm possesses its own terror. Domestic violence means that the very place where we expect safety and rest is the place where we are most vulnerable. Childbirth hurts. One of my friends said that her experience of childbirth was like volunteering for a car accident. Sexual violence, marriage, the powerlessness of being a child in a family you can’t leave—these are unspoken kinds of pain and fear, even the tedious work that women do every day that is unpaid and unacknowledged, like feeding, clothing, and cleaning others. The other part of it is the responsibility for the bodies of others, particularly children. Many women who have grown up being careless with their own bodies suddenly find themselves responsible for the bodies and safety of others. That particular responsibility is primal. We see it on the faces of the refugees trying to enter Europe, holding their children in their arms. There is a negation of the father and mother’s self in that kind of crisis. Rumplestiltskin has this chilling theme. How can she save her child? How can she keep her child?

Certainly myth is a way to absent the personal self from the poem while retaining all the emotional connection to the poems. I did not choose to do so consciously. I never said, I don’t want myself in these poems, but unconsciously it began when I first read fairy tales at age 5. We negate ourselves and latch onto these stories; it is a way to cope with pain. I think an underrated quality of literature is its ability to comfort and soothe us, to literally help us survive. I think there is a self that exists in a story when we read—whether a self that identifies as the protagonist or a self that accompanies the protagonist. I watch my children do this. My 9 year old daughter writes journal entries in the voices of characters from her books.

While My Father’s Bargain is your third chapbook, from what I understand, the poems in it are the first poems you wrote that you intended to publish. How long did it take to write these series of poems and what, if any, was the impetus to start writing them? What’s the oldest piece in this chap? How did that timing come to be, e.g., that it isn’t the first chapbook that you published? When you started writing these specific poems, did you intend to create a chapbook or collection?

JC: I had always wanted to be a writer, but for years I spent far more time reading than writing. When my daughter was born, I felt a sense of urgency. I learned what time truly was for the first time. I wrote these poems then—intending them to be part of a full-length. I kept cramming them into books where they didn’t belong. I published two unrelated chapbooks and had a full-length accepted (forthcoming in 2016) before these poems found a home. A smart editor told me to take these poems out of my book and put them in a chapbook. Though my style has evolved since I wrote these poems, I still value them and wanted to see them in the world. The oldest poem is probably “Rumplestiltskin.” It was one of my first acceptances—published in Copper Nickel when Jake Adam York was editor.

What is one of your favorite poems in the book, or one that is important to you? Why is it a favorite (or important)? How did it come to be?

JC: The first poem in the book is important to me—I think because it is the only poem that addresses the idea of hunger and the importance of hunger and food in familial relationships. If a mother cannot feed her child, does she abdicate her identity as mother? I am still writing poems about this idea, nine years later.


Where to put our bodies?
We knew how to sit

and pretend we didn’t want
to eat. Our hunger grew

into our skin. We fit
inside a hollow tree. Branches

were the ceiling
and we played in a second house

where I served up
a feast of dandelion and rock.

At night I pressed a stone
against my chest

like a Mother’s hand.
Not our Mother (though she was)

who whispered the fact of our mouths.
Not our Father (though he was)

who led us in the dark.
I looked back at the symmetry—

a door amid doors. A yard intimate
with metal: the outgrown slide,

rust that flowered
like lichen moss.

As we fled, I curved my neck
to peer into the other houses:

shoes lined on a porch,
meals at the times

of meals: dawn, dusk,
and middle day.

Who were you reading when you wrote these poems? e.g., other fairy-tale poems or Grimm’s fairy tales or other books of myth? Which a fairy-tale related poem written by another poet is your favorite?

JC: I was reading Jack Zipes’ translation of Grimm (not the new one just out—I don’t have that yet) and I was reading a lot of Lucie Brock-Broido. Her poems are not fairy-tale related, but the energy in them captures the kind of darkness and visceral fear I wanted for my own poems. I love all her books, but I must have read Trouble in Mind twenty times during that time period. Her poems capture the witchy darkness of childhood and I was more interested in that tone than fairy tale poems. Many contemporary poems are ironic when they write about fairy tales and I wasn’t interested in that. I mean for the terror to be real; I am in earnest!

In addition to the theme of fairy tales, what are some of the other themes, metaphors, and elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

JC: Childhood, siblings, loss. They are free-verse poems and I was thinking about line when I wrote them, particularly syntax and the breaking of it. The ideas about line were important because so many of the poems are about being mute or about animals and objects speaking.

Have you given a public reading of the chapbook? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

JC: Yes. I have given one public reading from this chapbook and the poems made me very sad. They were almost impossible to read. I’ve done lots of readings and that has never happened before. The poems are old but apparently the material is still raw. I like to be in control when I read so I may read less of these particular poems at my next reading.

What are you working on now?

JC: I’m working on a series of poems based on the absent feminine in Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a myth too—an American one—so clearly I am stuck in writing from the mythic.

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