THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
The poems in this chapbook were all titled “The Witness” at one point and though I introduced more variety later on, it seemed natural to name the collection The Witness. It is still the title of eight poems in the chapbook and many more in the full-length collection. “The Witness” in these poems is a person who has observed the atrocities against children perpetrated by members of the clergy and is trying to come to terms with it.
Sammy Greenspan (the publisher at Kattywompus Press) and I were searching for the perfect image for this chapbook when I happened on William Cheselden. In 1733, William Chesleden published Osteographia, a grand folio edition depicting human and animal bones, featuring beautiful copperplate images, including playful skeletons, vignettes, and initials. Cheselden and his engravers, Gerard van der Gucht and Mr. Shinevoet, employed a camera obscura to execute many of the images and this one just seemed like the perfect image for The Witness, who has literally been shattered by what he has seen.
The three words to describe the chapbook: The Witness speaks.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook/book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
This chapbook was written in response to the testimony offered by members of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (snapnetwork.org) and drew on some of my own experiences with the Catholic Church as well. Many of the poems are told from the perspective of a person who witnessed sexual violence and/or was a victim of it. This “Witness” is a very particular character, not a spokesperson for all victims by any means, just one person who cannot get over it.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
This collection was driven by obsession. I don’t want to go into much detail, but I had some personal experiences with the church scandals, and then I read the 10,000 pages of testimony on the snapnetwork.org website and also on the Center for Constitutional Rights website. The poems spilled out. The whole time I was writing them, I wanted to stop writing them. The voice of the witness was born of outrage. Somewhere along the line I realized I had enough poems for a chapbook and sent them to Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus. She published my second chapbook, Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt, in 2013 as well.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
There are so many “Witness” poems I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader, so I tried to intersperse the poems written in that voice with other poems in order to break up the monotony. In this chapbook, I was very conscious of the subject matter and how it might affect the reader, so I ordered the poems with that in mind as well—shorter poems next to longer poems, Witness poems next to poems written from different perspectives, but I have to admit none are easy reading.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I am always looking for the turn in the poem; the place where something unexpected happens.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
This is the first poem I wrote about this subject. It isn’t actually a “Witness” poem, but I think you can tell it is fueled by rage. I had just found out about someone within my extended circle who committed suicide in the aftermath of abuse.
THE VICTIM’S TESTIMONY
I’m stuck in this file cabinet.
Who wants to finger me?
My words are onion paper thin.
Easily crumpled, easily tossed.
In French class I say,
S'il vous plaît ne faites pas ça.
Shower me with holy water
and I shriek like Asmodeus.
The first robe is always white,
but the outer one changes
like his performance. It was purple
that day to remind us of our sins.
As if I could forget.
As if God could. The light
above my box is always red,
which means stop, a word
I use more than any other.
*Asmodeus: one of the seven princes of Hell most often associated with lust.
** S'il vous plaît ne faites pas ça translates: Please do not do that.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
I would say, “There are 10,000 pages of testimony by people who were victimized by Catholic clergymen. 10,000 pages. It boggles the mind.”
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
I took a creative writing class with Laura Kasischke at the University of Michigan and she said that writers are the luckiest people in the world because everything that happens to us, good and bad, is material. We get to transform our lives into art and that gives life meaning. I feel that way about writing. It helps me make sense of the world, and even if I can’t make sense of it, it nudges me toward the light.
I am scared of writing about controversial topics.
I am scared that one day I will give in to that fear.
When I have been working on a poem or story for months and I just can’t get it right and then one day the solution occurs to me and it morphs from a problem I am trying to work out into a piece of writing I am proud of, that is a great day.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
I love reading newspapers (especially the science section of The New York Times) and I often come up with ideas for poems after reading articles.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a full length collection of poetry and a novel.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis
Our House Was on Fire by Laura Van Prooyen
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Laura Van Prooyen
Diane Shipley DeCillis
Purchase The Witness from Kattywompus Press.
Kelly Fordon’s work has appeared in The Florida Review, The Kenyon Review (KRO) and Rattle, among other places. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks and a novel-in-stories, Garden for the Blind, which was published by Wayne State University Press in 2015. She works for the Inside Out Literary Project in Detroit. www.kellyfordon.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.