Erin Elizabeth Smith interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
The poems you have shared with us here are stunning. I love the stacking of journeys – the journeys on top of journeys encompassing journeys mirroring journeys. It’s perfect in tandem with Alice in Wonderland. Two months ago in the Poetry Column, we thought about myths and fairytales’ ability to write us – and the way that we each rewrite (or reinterpret) myths and fairytales based on who we are, how we think, our experiences, etc. That is, myths and fairytales help form who we become, and who we become helps inform how we understand myths and fairytales. To what extent, or in what ways, do you think that is true? Is that something you thought of when you wrote these poems?
These poems came out of me trying to write again after my separation from my husband. I was teaching Alice in a literature class and reading up on different reinventions of the novel/character, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how the re-makes clustered around times of great emotional strife in the American psyche (late 2000s, 1950s, etc.). In pondering why, I felt that it wasn’t necessarily as simple as the fact that Alice is a stranger in a strange land, but rather the way in which she moves through that land. Unlike Dorothy, she’s not really trying to get home or to accomplish anything really; she simply moves forward because that is what she is expected to do.
For me, I felt that this was a nice metaphor for my own life post-separation. I felt like I was sleepwalking through my days and that anything I accomplished was more or less by total accident. So in many ways, I felt like I understood Alice and her (lack of) journey in a deep and sometimes personal manner.
In other ways, I feel like the early poems gave me a way to talk about the end of my marriage without doing so directly. The writing could use Alice—both the character and Alice Liddell, the real girl she was based on—in order to scaffold the writing, to give me language that I might not have been able to come to on my own. To talk about things indirectly, which sometimes is more important than slamming head first into them.
“Sometimes momentum is strange. / You’ve walked into a house / that is not yours… ” you write in “Alice Talks to Bonne About Love.” You’re an experienced and innovative publisher, writer, and general go-getter. You are in no way a fraud. I’ve found that I sometimes feel like a fraud – like I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m still all in, and I just hope no one will notice I don’t really know what I’m doing. I know other successful people who feel the same way. Do you ever feel like that? If so, what keeps you from letting that feeling win out?
I feel like the answer is always supposed to be “sometimes.” But I’ll go ahead and sound dickish and say no, not really. I think, better, was that there were times when I was a fraud. When I started publishing Stirring and Sundress Publications back in 1999-2000, I was only 18 and living illicitly in my boyfriend’s dorm room at Brown. I had one year of college under my belt before dropping out for a time, and yet I thoroughly believed that the taste that I had in writing mattered. Or that my poems were one day going to make me wealthy and renowned. Ha!
I’m not sure exactly what makes one a fraud or not a fraud in the writing world. Is it readership? It is notoriety? I don’t even know. I don’t feel like anyone should feel like one though. Unless you’re stealing someone else’s poems and passing them off as your own. In which case, you’re a douche. And a dumb douche at that, since you’re not going to be getting any mad poet duckets.
You founded Stirring: A Literary Collection in 1999, a time when there were nearly no online literary journals. Stirring is now one of the longest continually publishing journals on the internet. What was it like to found one of the first online literary journals, and what has it been like running Stirring in this interesting, formative time? What has been most challenging? Most rewarding?
I think the thing that intrigues me is the way that online publishing has changed everything in the writing world. There are more journals, more writers, and more readers of poetry than ever before. There is so much choice, it can be overwhelming. When Stirring started out, if you wanted to read contemporary literature, you had to cross your fingers and hope that your local Barnes and Noble had a copy of Poetry or American Poetry Review tucked in some dusty corner of the periodicals section. Now, through the internet and social media, we are so connected with other writers that it’s hard not to read more work of the moment at any given moment.
I think the thing that’s been most challenging is keeping the journal fresh for the past 15 years. In online publishing, we’re always most interested in the next new thing. Unlike with print journals, your longevity almost has the opposite effect in terms of soliciting up-and-coming writers. And it’s hard not to feel a little geezer-ly at times when we’re not doing the whiz-bang flash coding or cool-kid blogging that so many other journals do… Also, kids, get off my lawn!
I’ve heard wonderful things about Firefly Farms. I’d love to come visit one of these days! I’m excited about the retreats and work that you’re involved in there. Would you please tell me (and others who are unfamiliar with it) about the work and activities going on there?
My significant other and I just closed on 29 acres just outside of Knoxville in what’s called a “holler” here in TN. Firefly Farms (yes, named after the Whedon show) will be the home to the Sundress Academy for the Arts, an artists’ colony that focuses on Appalachian art and writing. We’ll begin holding workshops at the farm at the end of the month, where we will not only be discussing creative writing, but also teaching students different skill sets—including archery, mushroom-hunting, and tree identification—in order to give writers a larger vocabulary of words and experience.
Eventually, we’ll be constructing tiny houses on site where visiting writers can stay for upwards of a month in order to work on their creative projects. In the meanwhile, we are open to campers and day visitors. We hope that by the end of the summer that we will also be a full functioning farm with chickens, goats, horses, and a field for crops. Think of it as your basic hippy commune with more whiskey and far less Kumbaya.
What’s your favorite part about journeys?
Tourist traps and road food.
Alice Talks To Bonne About Love
Sometimes momentum is strange.
You've walked into a house
that is not yours, and the baby howls
like a thing that needs cradling.
This is, maybe, how you could think of it –
a want that requires wailing. And you should
not hold on to what doesn't belong
While the cauldron might be filled
with soup, a woman holds
a pig like an infant, and all you want
to do is sneeze. The dark kitchen boils
with smoke. Then the woman says a word.
It is a violence. And you keep looking
at the tabby that grins and you don't understand
how anything can make a mouth like that.
The cook will stir the soup. The Duchess will throw
the baby at you, screaming This is your life
now. It's okay if you let it go.
The child will go pink again, and hoofed,
and you'll be left only with the opening lips
of some ghostly beast, who will want
to tell you where you should go.
Caterpillar and Smoke
You weren’t always bad, just another hirsute worm buffeting in your white silk gallery. Before I was told you were poisonous, I would pluck you from the March flash of green, let you chart my freckled constellations. I would seek you from among the bark and rustle of my dog’s chain, in the bent joints of saplings, your cryptic colors like the inching of number two pencils, with all their fuzzy promise of transformation.
Now, lazy, man-faced, you are rolled out on a Russula, pulling on the hookah’s hose, your words pink smoke on the forests of flipbook animation. No more a saw fly or canker worm than the blue larva the gardener pinched up in Tennyson’s colewart. The drowsy yellow-headed worm heaped in your too-small bed waiting for time to change you into something less ravenous.
Then I too drag deep from smoke they say will kill me – but then what doesn’t anymore? Cell phones, the swerving deer, one hit curb, a man too many. No different than your three-inch flip on my forearm when I was a girl, the questions we don’t answer, the way we turn from them into the darkness of our own sleeping not caring who we are or where we want to get.
She knew she had but to open [her eyes]
again and all would change to dull reality.
-Alice in Wonderland
What I want to be is the sister,
leaning her head on her hand, watching
the place setting of sun and thinking
of little Alice where her world is filled
with the sloshing mouse, the tea pot
crashing against its porcelain shores.
To be the woman with girl dreams,
where sleep can solve the cleaved book
the hand that reaches
for your unmarked thigh,
those farmhouse boys turned cats
gracious in their smoldering smiles.
Where it all can be simile,
sheepbells just a rattling cup on the bar.
To see the world again as an Oxford man,
where the cattle low like promises
in the field, and the whisper of girlhood
is but a mouth of wine, a field
or story you knew turned bitter
and dark on the tooth.
Behind the Fireplace
I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit just
behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit.
The gas fire whistles lowly in its plastic logs.
The chimney here draws nothing
but a gasp of used heat, the blue-black
shadows of remote-control flame.
Behind it, Alice, there is little more than that –
a house mortared fifty years ago
when our small Southern city bloomed up
with snowbirds and flower-printed undergrads.
Past that brick is the porch my grandmother had built
to cover the concrete turned inward on itself,
that first porch where my mother would turn
hotdogs on the grill, smoking Virginia Slims,
and I would waddle in my blue bathing suit,
young and fat and certain
the neighbors' dogs would not bite.
I have gone into the mirror, Alice.
In it, my mother blows on a cookie
fresh pulled from an oven. She runs the spigot
cold before pouring glasses
of clean spring water, and all the perennials
we planted are up again like little painted rooks
in the earth. Here my grandmother is still strong
enough to stack wood from the yard,
and she lets me light up newspaper
to smoke the flame.
But you, you have no father
that cracks the belt to your thighs,
or a mother whose stomach holds
49 pills. Your sisters aren't found
frothing on the front yard at fourteen
or posed, red-eyed for the flash
of police cameras. The world turned
for you is made of mist and forward
momentum. It is cracked eggs
and poems of boys with swords
who could never be you. Sometimes,
when I crawl through that mirror,
there is a world as clean as a 50s sitcom,
but others, I see myself running
like a rabbit with only a hole
to hide in.
The Men Who Loved Alice
It was not just you, Charlie.
The studded horseshoe pinned
to my Spanish tulle should say something
of luck, the way we hold it up
late into our Victorian bloom.
Leopold was not there
when we grasped those gardenias
and yellow daisies, cut and coddled
like perfect soldiers, in our tight
wrists. Nor were you,
though I’m sure you both
swirled some brown drink
in your mouths that night,
thinking of the bustle and fastens,
the Oxford church bells
in their hour of tongued reverie.
You could hear them everywhere –
from the pooling wet on your chessboards
to the queen’s flamingoed lawn,
each tree wet with red,
a color I can’t wear since you.
Later, in my photographs, I am tapered
up in satin collars, the dark,
close-cropped hair nothing
you would draw me in. I know this
joy in the shearing, in becoming
the thing you would not have me –
hard, deliciously obtuse
in the steely daguerreotype
no more a girl than a princess
turned over and over
in the hands of men.