THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the chapbook’s title, Creature Feature, and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your chapbook, what three words immediately come to mind?
I stole the title from the local UHF station that ran back-to-back monster movies on Saturday afternoons when I was a kid. They called it Creature Double Feature. The cover image is my editor, Ariana den Bleyker’s, genius. She sent me a few really striking images, but none of them felt exactly right. One was a black-and-white, highly stylized close-up of Frankenstein’s monster. My initial response was that if we were going to go with an image from a single movie, I would want it to be the Bride of Frankenstein. I said, “The hair is so evocative,” but what I really meant is that her one image is capable of bringing up multiple movies, multiple emotions, almost everything I feel about these films—that hair is instantly recognizable, and it sets up not just the conceit of the chapbook, but is also emblematic of many of its themes the issues it raises. Plus, I love having a female character on the cover. Women generally have very slim representation in these movies—the Bride barely appears in her own film!—and the women who are represented tend to be extremely flat characters. I couldn’t count on anyone to recognize the ingénues from Dracula or The Wolf Man. Gloria Stuart, who played the elderly Rose in Titanic, played the ingénue in The Invisible Man, but I wouldn’t have been able to count on anyone recognizing her, either. But the Bride? Everyone knows who that is, and it’s the hair that does it. I fell in love with the Bride cover right away.
If I had to choose three words? They’d be “We’re the monsters.” If I could add three more, they’d be “but that’s OK.”
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
The world of Creature Feature was, in many ways, created decades before I got to it. It’s a series of epistolary poems, letters written to the characters and actors (and one director) in the most well-known Universal monster movies from 1925 (The Phantom of the Opera) to 1954 (The Creature from the Black Lagoon). I’ve loved those movies since I was a kid, long before I realized how pervasive their imagery was or how they had created monster archetypes that remain with us—Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster and Lugosi’s Dracula are those characters in many ways, and there’s no escaping their influence. I started looking at the archetypes and realized, in the process, how much these films have to say about humanity. The monsters are us, every single one of them, and their monstrosity comes from how misunderstood they are. Their loathsome qualities are very human, and so are their weaknesses, their strengths, their longings. Frankenstein’s monster wants nothing so much as to know he is not alone. The Wolf Man wants to control his animal nature. Dracula is all about desire—thirst is thirst, right?
As for who lives in this world, I hope they all do, despite the fact that the actors involved in these films are all dead, some of them for longer than I’ve been alive. And then there’s me. Because the poems are all letters, there’s definitely an “I” in the poems, and that speaker is definitely me. I hope it’s also bigger than myself—I want the “me” to be a bigger, more universal “me” in my work general, and certainly here.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
Contradictions, opposites, lies that open into a bigger truth. These are all ways of saying the same thing, or maybe they’re aspects of the same thing. Human nature is a contradictory, complicated beast, and I love poems that hold a little piece of that inconsistency. For one thing, it’s where the interesting stuff happens, but it also serves as a great source of tension in a poem, tension that may or may not resolve. My favorite poets know how to make the ugly beautiful and vice-versa. They know how to examine the what-if by examining the yes and/or the no. I love unanswered questions, possibilities, the exploration of abandoned decisions, and a lot of the time those aspects, too, are full of the pull of opposites.
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 chapbook’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
I used to think it was your fault, sinking
blossom, for being kind, for being naïve,
poor child, dripping limp as lake weed
across your father's arms, your limbs
swaying in the watery air—this is where your
power lies, where you might have grown
from peasant girl to peasant wife, your
own children playing near the dappled edge
—but dead, your power forces men to
their knees, and then their feet; dead, you torch
every cold club. Dead, you can make an entire
village swarm and bellow against the night.
Maria is the name of the little girl Frankenstein’s monster throws into the pond. He comes across her throwing flowers into the water and watching them float, and he plays with her for a while. When he runs out of flowers, he decides beautiful things belong in the water and in she goes, but she can’t swim.
This is one of the last poems I finished—it took me a while to get her right. The scene is essential to the film, because it moves the monster out into the bigger world. Before this, he only affects the tiny world of the old mill where Frankenstein has set up his laboratory. And I think a lot about female power—how little of it women have traditionally and culturally, but also the ways in which it does appear. Maria’s death spurs outrage in people who were previously content to hang around letting the doctor do whatever he wanted in that old mill. Her death and the reaction to that death say far more about us than about the monster.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Being a poet, for me, means finding my way to truth, which I’m afraid makes me sound like a pretentious jerk, but there you have it. It means taking time to look at something very small, like a brief moment or an insect or an object or a gesture—anything at all really—and seeing what that thing has to say about who we are, the human condition. Some poems are collections of small things, and some poems focus on one. Some of my favorites take the briefest of moments—that pause between breaths—and set them spinning on a palm. I love that, the suspension of time in a poem.
What scares me most, apart from sounding like a pretentious jerk, is having a reader conflate me and the speaker of my poems. It scares me because it isn’t true at all and it scares me because it’s 100% true. There’s both more and less of me in my poems than I like to believe, and I am not always the best judge of what parts of me end up on the page. I don’t always see it. Sometimes a friend will say something that connects my own self to a poem and I’ll just swear a lot, because I hadn’t intended to reveal that bit, but of course they’re right when they see it. And sometimes I feel like I’ve pulled back my own skin, shown the ugliest thing I’ve got, and a reader will interpret it totally differently. Someone recently told me how much hope I had injected into a poem, and thanked me for its presence in the world, and all I could think was how completely hopeless I was when I wrote it and how deliberately empty I think that poem is. But I took the compliment, and I’m glad the poem helped someone through a difficult day.
I get a great deal of pleasure from allowing the poem to dictate its own needs—I’m not always thrilled about having to edit out a piece I like or needing to shift a fact to suit the purpose of the poem, but I do love allowing the poem to bring me to a bigger truth and move me (and, I hope, a reader) out of the strictly factual and into some sort of understanding of the world. I try very hard to let the poem boss me around instead of trying to tie it into something I want it to be. Sometimes that means writing in series, because it takes me a while to find the poem that wants to say the same thing I initially wanted to say. I’m OK with that.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
A couple of years ago, I read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and it continues to influence me. That same winter, I read David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. There’s something about phenomenology that makes me want to write—it might just be that so much of it is beyond my understanding, and grasping for understanding is one of the main motivators of me writing at all. I also read a lot of crime novels—private investigator novels and hard-boiled fiction—but I think of that as giving myself a little break. It’s nice to sink into a world I don’t have to think about. With movies, I say, “Sometimes I just want to watch things blow up.” I feel the same way about crime novels: sometimes I just want to read about someone trying to figure stuff out. I like Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell because they are super-dark, but I also like Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block...really, if someone spends time sitting in a car watching other people do stuff they shouldn’t be doing, I’m in. I’m also leery of the completely-happy ending, and crime fiction seldom ends with a tea party or a kiss in front of a sunset.
And I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m on Wikipedia a lot. Like, a LOT. I follow links around sometimes and end up on some page about a shipwreck or a mollusk or avalanches or something else, and I have no real idea how I got there. Sometimes all that information passes right on through, but sometimes it sits and stays a while and I end up writing a poem. And sometimes I need to look stuff up—I’ll see a salamander but not know what kind it is, or I’ll have a memory from childhood of a snake on an outside branch of a tree and wonder if garter snakes climb trees or if it was something else. Google and Wikipedia, between them, have solved an uncomfortable number of poetic problems for me.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I’m more than a little obsessed with Tomasz Różycki’s book Colonies, translated by Mira Rosenthal. It’s one long sonnet sequence, and it’s gorgeous and horrifying and understated and all sorts of wonderful, complicated things. It’s also colored by the political history of Poland in a way that feeds the power of the poems without being distracting or polemic or didactic. A poet could do worse than spending some time with that book. I also think poets who haven’t read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets might want to do so right now. Stop reading this interview and go read that book. You can thank me later.
Purchase Creature Feature from ELJ Publications.
Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her work appears in numerous Web and print journals, including Antiphon, The Bellingham Review, The Louisville Review, and Sou’wester. Her poems have been included in the Best Indie Lit New England anthology and nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and she is the recipient of a finalist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her first chapbook, Dear Turquoise, is available from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review and blogs at Five Things.