EVERYTHING 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?
For my three words, I’d say – swamps, saints, and hurricanes. The book is set in south Louisiana, just before and after a hurricane, and it follows the figures – saints, a siren, a collection of sibyls, a handful of neglectful gods – who move through that magical liminal space that’s both water and land.
The book is named for Acadiana, a region of south Louisiana. And the cover is a photograph by Lise Latreille, whose work I adore. I first came across her photography when the editors at Radar paired my poems with her photographs, and I loved how they evoked the landscape of the book.
What were you trying to achieve with your chapbook/book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create? Who lives in it?
As a writer, transformation is one of my central obsessions – and natural disasters often mark such a clean before and after. I lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and in the years afterward, when I lived in Houston, we had two more hurricanes. So this book was a way of thinking through – in an indirect way – that experience of transformation through natural disaster. This book imagines the swamps and bayous that surround south Louisiana as a liminal space – between this world and the next, between the mortal and quotidian and the supernatural. It’s a landscape on the precipice of disaster – “the storm that’s said will break us,” as Saint Catherine describes it in one of the poems – and the book watches as the townspeople try to safeguard against harm and as the saints and sibyls do what they can to help.
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?
As I revised the collection, the poem took on what feels to me like a kind of chronological structure – anticipation of the hurricane and reckoning with the destruction afterwards. I also paid attention to distributing the different voices in the book, so that, for example, I put the kind of pseudo-Christian ritual of “The First Miracle,” in which a father leads his children to the marsh’s edge after he performs an early morning service, against the pagan divining in “Signs Resembling Sacraments.”
What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (Or what’s your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book, or somewhere else in the process?
One of my favorite poems in the book is “Saint James at the Ascension Parish Drive-In,” in which a kind of modern-day Saint James skulks around a drive-in, obsessing about the immoral behavior of the women in town, before he comes across a girl who’s sleeping while her older sisters flirt. He’s watching her with this kind of unsettling intensity, and though he claims in the last line that “when I left her she was still unharmed,” there’s also, I think, this feeling that something bad has happened or is about to happen to the girl – perhaps just the vulnerability that’s an inevitable part of encroaching adolescence. The poem was one of the earlier ones written for the collection, and it opened up several doors for me, in terms of the writing. Though I was certainly familiar with the idea of writing through persona, Saint James felt urgent to me – like I was actually channeling a voice, rather than using a figure to say something about my own life, which is probably what I’d done with persona before. And after I wrote that poem I figured there had to be other saints wandering around, and I wrote “Saint Catherine Takes the Auspices” and “Saint Charlene Offers Up Her Suffering,” about the fascinating folk saint Charlene.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
For me, writing is a way of being present and attending to the world. When I’m writing regularly, I move through the world differently – I’m more engaged and attuned to the people and places around me.
I’ve heard poets say they’re writing the same story over and over in their poems. Is that true for you? If not, what obsessions or concerns reoccur in your work?
You know, I really thought, with the second full-length I’m working on now – which is largely about pregnancy and early motherhood – that because my subject was so different than my first full-length and this chapbook, that it would be a definitively different set of poems. But even though I’m writing about new things, I’ve found that many of my obsessions have just come right back – and some feel more pressing now, like questions of how we use faith and ritual to comfort ourselves in the face of the unknown, the question of the afterlife. Now that I have kids, the world seems both more magical and more perilous, and so that new lens has altered how I approach those old obsessions.
Do poets have a responsibility as artists to respond to what’s happening in the world, and put that message out there? Does your work address social issues?
I think poets have the same responsibility everyone has to pay attention to what’s happening in the world, and to intervene in whatever way we can – but I also think it’s important to remember that poetry is not political action. Writing a poem about gun violence, for example, doesn’t substitute for voting or calling your congresspeople.
I like this question, though, because it helps me to think about something I’m struggling with in the second full-length I’m finishing now, which is largely about pregnancy and early motherhood, including a range of postpartum struggles. And I’ve worried sometimes that maybe the book is too small, because it takes on these subjects that are thought of as domestic, as women’s work. (These recent poems in Tinderbox are a good example of part of the scope of the book – one’s more personal, and the other looks back into the world, at the story of the girls stolen by Boko Haram, from the eyes of a woman who’s been forced to think differently about vulnerability and harm because she’s caring for infants and small children.) But I also think that’s true nonsense – this persistent, insidious idea that women’s lives don’t really count, that if a woman writes about something that’s happened to her, it’s “merely” personal, it’s just private or confessional. I resist that. I think women writing their lives – and particularly writing against conventional and inscribed narratives – remains essential feminist work.
Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey. Visit her online at www.nancyreddy.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.