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Erin Noehre reviews Dorothy Chan's Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold

Dorothy Chan’s new book, Revenge of the Asian Woman, comes out on March 27th. To celebrate the former HFR Poetry Editor’s second full-length collection, Associate Poetry Editor Erin Noehre reviews Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Chan’s debut book of poetry. You can order Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold from Spork Press and can preorder Revenge of the Asian Woman from Diode Editions.


In her striking debut collection Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold, Dorothy Chan showcases an ability to seamlessly negotiate the cloying conventions of femininity and a sardonic questioning of those same ideals with agility and depth. The titular “Centerfold” looms over the reader as Chan explores the rich material of food, heritage, displacement, familial roles, and hunger. The reader becomes absorbed by the always hungry, always whip-smart voice behind the poems, as it tends to its wide grouping of subjects and the histories that lives within them. It’s in this voice that Chan asks us to consistently bother the status-quo while simultaneously reckoning with how we were indoctrinated with it in the first place. 

In the first section, the poem “Ode to Sexpots and My Mother’s Red Stockings” captures Chan’s ability to fly across subjects like femininity, hunger, desire, and familial histories. The poem orbits a pair of red stockings given to her by her mother, which blend together generations of female hunger, doubling it with Chan’s own. The poem opens,

 All my mother ever wanted as a little girl was a pair 

of red stockings, her childish version of elegance,

the way scarlet would pop against her clothes,

and I think about this when she sends me a package

 

of fishnets, because I like things a little sexpot,

a little oh honey, it’s not what I did, but what

 

I can do to you tonight, and how my mother wanted red 

so bad it gave her a fever.

Chan’s language poses female desire as a driving source of power. It’s a power that grows and builds throughout the collection until there is no question that the femme figure in these poems is here to consume, and you would do best to submit. Chan challenges her audience, (a world dominated by hetero-patriarchal ideals) to experience the undaunted pleasure of a femme body reclaiming both sexuality and hunger, leaving the reader covered in an awe-struck chill. Chan crafts a world that pays homage to the beauty of this aggressive femme, whatever she may be stomping through. 

The second section leads us into a skillfully crafted quadruple crown of sonnets. Chan’s sonnets are impressive and playful as she opens up the raw subjects of identity, place, and family. By using this condensed form, she creates decisive vignettes often depicting moments of displacement within generations of her family. The quick-witted voice observes how many ways life has failed to provide an exact home for everyone closest to her. Instead we follow as the people depicted in her poems find small pockets of home within food, Chinatown locations, TV shows, and more. The section ends with “XXVII. On Father’s Day” and its heavy final line: “This is my Chinatown, technicolor and gone.”

This loss of home is entangled with Chan’s appreciation of its beauty and rarity. Then, just as the reader is softened by this moment of memory and ache, the final section emerges with the poem “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold with the Killer Legs” to topple you over:

Attack of the Centerfold in technicolor

and again in 3D, my long legs challenging you 

boulevard by boulevard, smashing everything,

then eating a doughnut shop, 

guzzling it all down with carrot juice,

then tequila muddled with blackberries,

because this is LA, and women will have it all

In one swoop Chan has swallowed every piece of history and echo of pain, and set loose her Centerfold. The spotlight clicks on and the reader can see the grandiosity and inescapability of this grotesque, glamorous femme. Now, we can proclaim as deeply as Chan has: it is she who rules all. The technicolor of the past has turned watery and elusive but within a few lines Chan has brought it back to life in the form of an all-too-familiar body standing over us. 50-foot and roiling, unconquered and insatiable, hungrier than ever, our Centerfold is ready to do her worst. 


Erin Noehre is a Midwestern-born poet currently living and writing in Tempe, Arizona where she is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University and an Associate Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is the recipient of an Interdisciplinary Enrichment Fellowship from the Graduate College at Arizona State University as well as the Dr. Russell Brock Memorial Scholarship for Non-Technical Writing. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming from The Poetry Spot in AZCentral, Northern Lights (2016 award for best poetry), and Sonora Review.

Haydens Ferry
Maritza Estrada interviews Carolina Ebeid

Carolina Ebeid is the author of You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, selected by Poets & Writers as one of the ten best debut collections of 2016. She has won awards and fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry, CantoMundo, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. She was awarded an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry for 2015. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and is a PhD candidate in the University of Denver's creative writing program, where she serves as Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly.

In September, she visited Phoenix to participate in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Piper Writer’s Studio and was interviewed by HFR Associate Editor Maritza Estrada and photographed by Piper Center Education Programs Manager Felicia Zamora.


Maritza Estrada: First, I just want to start off and say congrats on your book, You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior,for existing out in public for two years. That’s such a cool accomplishment. And congrats on your latest poem, “Annotations for a Memorial,” published in PoetryMagazine. When books have been published and have existed out in public for a few years, I think it’s important to pause and reflect because with publishing and the poetry world, etc., it feels like everything is going forward so fast.  

When I was reading your poems, I often paused because it felt like there were a lot of layers involved with them. In some ways, I’d become a surgeon dissecting these poems, which was good because some books feel like they just pass over our heads, but with your language it almost felt like a gentle command. For example, in the poem, “Waiting Room,” I noticed there is an interesting exploration of the crisis the speaker’s father experiences in the waiting room. The themes of inherited languages, diseases, and what the uncertain future holds for the body really struck me, especially with the section where it says:  

You may hold an idea of the body

as a junky steel contraption that can

be fixed. A figment of propellers here & at the center

an heirloom engine, oiled & intricate. 

Even that, the word play or the word choice, and the gentle command, made me pause. There was an urgency in that and a pace involved. What was your process composing the order of the book, as it was done quite intricately and precisely?

Carolina Ebeid: Some of the poems in that book are very, very old. I composed maybe two versions of the poems in my early twenties. It was strange putting [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] together, as opposed to this book that I’m writing right now in which the poems will have been written in a five-year span. I can see better, in this book, what might need to go first. I can see an arc better. With [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior] I had a harder time seeing an arc, but I just trusted that poetry itself and the right reader will make connections where I don’t necessarily see them. The right reader will see these repeating images, which I knew were there. In some ways also, the “Punctum”poems—those prose poems which come out of an essay that I had to write for my MFA thesis—those, I pulled apart and I put them throughout the book so that I could see a kind of structure, some kind of line interrupted but running through. 

Estrada: This makes me think of place because when you wrote these poems, you were “in it” in your early twenties. Years after when you reflect on your experience it’s so much easier to see “Oh ok, maybe it wasn’t as clear then, but I knew.” One of my professors recently, in class, said, with place, sometimes when you write about home it’s so much easier to do it when you are not in your home anymore. 

Ebeid: And I would say that most of the poems were written during the MFA. So, there was certainly the momentum to make thesis deadlines. You are just expected to produce. I thrived in that environment.  

Estrada: You got your MFA at the Michener Center for Writers. How was your experience with the MFA program?

Ebeid: I loved it. That’s not to say that the program itself is going to be a great fit for everyone. When I went, Dean Young was the only permanent poetry faculty there. He was great for my imagination. He really taught me how to read and evaluate work that is in progress. He gave me a confidence in the critical apparatus that I didn’t have before the MFA. As students we relied on visiting faculty. I got to work with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, who was wonderful. She came twice, and she was important to my experience.

Estrada: I’d love to go back to the overarching theme of [You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior]. For me, as a reader, it was evident from the first read and then again on the second read. I saw myself underlining words and noticing, “Ok, these words are repeating, this is the canon of the book,” like the horses, the larynx, and the boy. There are so many words that you repeat. 

And in the section breaks in the “Veronicas of a Matador,” it is cool to see them as glimpses into, in one section, for instance, medical terminology, in another, a window opening to the son or family, and so my next question is: There appears to be a distance in the second section of the book compared to the first section—the language becomes sort of a ghost-like dance. Particularly, in the poem, “Veronicas of a Matador,” in the section what are years?, you refer to a boy as theboy, almost as if the speaker cannot find the right words to connect with the boy. I think there are two previous poems that talk about the word, “echolalia”, which sounds more like a concert lute but means the compulsive repetition of meaningless phrases. I kept going back to those same poems that spoke to each other. My question is: Why theboy, not aboy? 

Ebeid: That’s a great question. And I guess I have the same question. Why theboy and not aboy? I suppose that I made a conscious decision not to say “my son,” and there are various reasons. One might be a kind of social pressure to demure writing about motherhood (a pressure that I was not very conscious of, I must say). But I also chose that wording because of my own aesthetic preference for “the boy” as opposed to “my son.” “My son” becomes too local and singular. I need some kind of cognitive distance to write about family. At the same time, theboy does locate it in a time or space more precisely than aboy. I couldn’t name the boy Patrick though that ishis name, and I couldn’t say “my son,” because I didn’t want it to be as confessional as that. But I’m not sure that I answered your question, because you said so many interesting things about ghostly distance. 

Estrada: Throughout the book it’s sort of like you take one step forward, one step back using the language and the many voices and subjects that are being explored. As a reader I’m like, “Ok, I’ll go with it. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’ll go with it.” With each section break it’s like, “Ok, I’ll open this window and then this one,” and I don’t know what to expect. 

Ebeid: I like the idea that stanza, at its root, is Italian for “room.” It is such a good metaphor for part of a poem to be like a room. I think a window serves as a good metaphor, like a room does—in each stanza you’re encountering a new room, and this room has a different feeling from thatroom, right? When you’re in one stanza, it could feel bigger, another might feel slightly colder, the shades are down so it’s darker. And I think that happens in a poem, that there can be that kind of contrast from room to room, and that’s what the reader does, walks through the poem.  

Estrada: Yeah—everythingislike a poem. What’s also interesting is how you described the setting of this interview, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing: we’re here but there is no one here…. There are these empty seats…. We have this ghost-like audience. 

Ebeid: It is, right!? They are facing us. Yeah, maybe there are people in here. 

Estrada: In “Punctum/The Transom” you say: “There is a quality about the rectangular shape of a stanza that is suggestive of a window pane, a sheet of glass through which we can see into another place.” Now, I’m in an altogether other room, this one filled with daylight. I like how it’s bringing us full circle to that stanza again, with the windows, and rooms. 

Ebeid: The rectangular shape is so important to so much of our lives. And so much of art, I would say. So much representational art has a frame. Paintings and photographs are rectangular. And then books of course—they’re the most important rectangle in my psyche. Books have really always been rectangular. It is lovely to encounter something that isn’t, that’s a circle or an oval. So it has to be something that we contend with—the television, our phones. We are constantly looking through and at the things happening at the center of these corners.

Estrada: It’s interesting to wonder what might be on the other side. We are always looking at something like a screen, but what’s behind that screen? Maybe this poem is in between that, kind of pushing and going back and forth.

Ebeid: I would say so. And I think that that’s, first of all, really wise. I always think that the poem—as well as the reader receiving it—is smarter than the poet who has written it. That’s the magic of poetry, that it communicates in ways that I as the writer never could anticipate fully.  

The punctum, the actual piercing of something, the kind of tear or wound it makes on the skin, let’s say, is not symmetrical in that way. It’s not a circle, or a rectangle, or something with angles. But with the wound, there is an interior and exterior, there is a going in and out. 

Estrada: With regard to the MFA experience, I want to go back there a little bit, just because it sounds like it’s a frequent question: Is it worth it or not worth it? Should I apply or not apply? 

Ebeid: Yes, apply! An ideal MFA program will be an environment that surround you with books and vibrant ideas, and you will work alongside people who are themselves writing and reading in a concentrated time. There is a palpable energy to entering a space where people are creating; it’s like feeling the bass from large speakers moving through your body. The best MFA environments teach you to fail, and try, and try, and write again. To keep writing and reading. 

Estrada: Are you currently a Ph.D. candidate in University of Denver, the creative writing program? What’s happening now in the Ph.D. program?

Ebeid: I’ve finished all my classes. I passed my comprehensive exams. And now, I’m going to be defending my dissertation sometime this Spring. My manuscript isn’t finished, but I will finish it very soon. And I have to finish the essay that I’m writing. We do write a creative dissertation, a creative piece depending on your genre, and then accompany the creative portion with a critical essay that can serve as a foreword or afterword—something to contextualize the work. I’m writing about the poetics of whispering. There is a film called El espíritu de la colmena. It’s from Spain, made in the 70s, and there is a lot of whispering in it. I’m looking at Chilean poets—Cecilia Vicuña—making a little constellation of whispering.

Estrada: Raúl Zurita?

Ebeid: I love Raúl Zurita. He actually came to DU and I was charged with picking him up from the airport. I don’t drive, but my husband does so we picked him up. It was magical. 

Estrada: I recently watched a video of him online reading poems, and I was just like, it’s so soothing… each word that escapes his mouth. 

Ebeid: And he is so important to Chilean literature. Really, to literature from all over Central and South America. He sells out—stadiums of people come out to see him. It’s remarkable.

Estrada: What you’re doing with the whispering is awesome. That is such a cool dissertation. 

Ebeid: I finally understand a way to talk about my work and talk about the work I love. There are so many discourses about silence in poetry. There is white space as being silent, and that has never appealed to me. Now I have this idea of whispering, which is so different from silence even though they share similarities.

Estrada: Me too. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that. I hear that you are currently working on a project titled Hide. Is that what your manuscript is? 

Ebeid: Mhmm.

Estrada: Ok, cool. And you said it’s nearly done?  

Ebeid: It’s so hard to say. There seem to be many stages of doneness. So many curtains to walk through. Do you want me to talk about that? 

Estrada: Yeah, with Hide, when I first read that I was like, I know that I need to google the many definitions of hide, because we’ve been talking about canon and lexicons, etc. I’m sure you’ve done this too. There are many definitions of the verb. 1a: to put out of sight: secrete; 1b: to conceal for shelter or protection: shield. 2: to keep secret. 3: to screen from or as if from view: obscure. 4: to turn (the eyes or face) away in shame or anger. The noun: 1. the skin of an animal whether raw or prepared for use—used especially of large heavy skins, and then 2. the life or physical well-being of a person (Merriam-Webster). So, I was just wondering if you could unpack what hide might mean. 

Ebeid: It’s great, isn’t it? Clearly, we are cut from the same cloth, you and I. I live in the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. Do you have access to that? You must have access to that. And I just need to take a second to talk about how wonderful the OED is online. There is the book version of it which is hard to get into, but online, it’s wonderful because not only do you get all the variations of a word like that, but you get the first time that words appear in writing, in English. I like to see the lineages of words, as they trace them, the histories imprinted in each word. Does it come from the Old English? Germanic? Does it come from French? Is it Spanish? Latin? 

For me, the two primary definitions of hide are what I find attractive and what helps me write. To hide, to conceal, and all that that means, to keep secret. There is the playful hide; hide and seek. But there are also the very violent and dangerous connotations to hide, that which must be kept safe. One might need to hide from a shooter! One may need to conceal part of their identity because of some inherent threat. There is also the hide of an animal, which also seems fraught with danger and violence. 

I’m also really attracted to the idea of early manuscript writing happening on vellum. Vellum is made from the skins of animals and treated so that one can have a very thin and almost translucent surface upon which to write. Usually, the most prized vellum was taken from calves really early, just in utero. Somebody would literally reach in and pull out, in utero, this unborn calf. And that was really good, because it didn’t have a lot of hair, and it was kind of translucent in and of itself.

Vellum often had the quality of the palimpsest. Do you know what the palimpsest is? This is something that you are going to hear in the next few years in your MFA, because writers/scholars  use it as a metaphor very often. So, imagine a piece of vellum, very prized, expensive, unlike paper which is ubiquitous. Such surfaces often had to be reused, so the writing would have to be scraped away. But that scratching away doesn’t really get rid of everything. The new writing would still show through some of the previous writing like a ghost of it. That’s the idea of the palimpsest, which is really provocative when you think of how we are writing against ancestors, or how, in our writing, we can see what came before. I see a kind of whispering there.

Estrada: Thank you so much, Carolina. 


Maritza N. Estrada is an MFA candidate in poetry at Arizona State University, an associate editor at Hayden's Ferry Review, and holds a BFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is the recipient of the 2019 Virginia G. Piper Creative Research Fellowship, winner of the Mabelle A. Lyon Poetry Award, and alumna in Winter Tangerine's workshop at Poets House. Her work can be found in Río Grande ReviewThe Flat Waters Stirs: An Anthology of Emerging Nebraska Poets, Misbehaving Nebraskans Anthology, and 13th Floor Magazine. Estrada was born in Washington, raised in Nebraska, and is marking residencia in Arizona. 

Haydens Ferry
Tucker Leighty-Phillips interviews Ursula Vernon

Ursula Vernon is an illustrator, author, and graphic novelist who writes for children, and for adults under the pen name T. Kingfisher. Her work includes irreverent retellings of fairy tales, fantastic migrations between the human and animal worlds, and other healthy doses of imagination. She has won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, the Hugo Awards for Best Novelette and Best Graphic Story, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, among others.

In October, she visited Phoenix to participate in the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series and was interviewed by HFR Associate Editor Tucker Leighty-Phillips to celebrate our upcoming Magic issue.


Tucker: A lot of the stories in your collection Jackalope Wives, had a narrative voice that sounded more like oral story telling than written. It felt like someone was passing down something or like a small-town gossip type of story. I was wondering what is the role of the oral tradition of storytelling in your work? 

Ursula Vernon: I was an anthropology major in college and I’ve always cited this as a very formative influence. I learned a lot about how people talk in a class called ethnographic interviewing, where we would talk to informants, record everything and then we would sit down and transcribe it. It was brutal! That is not easy work and people who take dictation are skilled at it! I had never done anything like it before. So it was just hours and hours of stopping the recording, going back, writing and trying to edit. This taught me how people actually talk versus what our brain absorbs them having said, which are wildly different. So, I got much better, I think, at writing things that sounded more conversational just because I was steeped in it. This is an exercise I’d recommend for anyone who wants to learn how to write dialogue or the more conversational narrative. But it’s also just brutal work! The way people talk is nothing but um’s and uh’s and false starts on sentences and our brains filter out so much of that so smoothly and you don’t even notice it! 

 

Tucker: Yeah, I’ve been there before! It makes you examine the conversation completely differently. So, are you saying that technique has ridden over not just into your dialogue, but into your narrative voice as well? 

Ursula Vernon: Yes, I think my narrative voice became more conversational. And part of it is just how I tend to write. But, I don’t really know if there’s a way to change one’s authorial voice after a point. It’s probably like driving. You can learn to be a different driver, you can try to change how you’re driving, you can try to pay more attention to things, but to a certain extent, the voice isn’t representative of the skill. That’s just how you think. 

Tucker: What initially drew you to fairytales?

Ursula Vernon: That’s a good question! I read a lot of them when I was a kid. I had these big fairytale collection things. They had the big book sets, but I only had like two or three books out of any given one. In my head, the fairytales were presented alongside the mythology, or the one about the rise of civilization. The fairytales were all sort of merging with Ancient Greece, dinosaurs, Egyptian mythology and more fairytales. 

 

Tucker: Is that what drew you to anthropology? The connection between the two?  

Ursula Vernon: Let’s just say I watched a lot of Indiana Jones as a kid, to a certain extent! I was fascinated the mythology and stuff like that. Various family members of mine said over the years: “why did you go into anthropology? You don’t even like people!” And I’m like, I like them once they’re dead. Archeology is fascinating and you don’t have to work with that many other people! And then, unfortunately, I went and took archeology classes and discovered that 9/10 of it was working with other people and doing paperwork and I was like, maybe this isn’t the field for me. 

            Yeah, I think that’s why I got into it in the first place. Lots of folklore and stuff like that in the background and lot’s of Indiana Jones movies. 

Tucker: Since many of your stories feel like modern imaginings of fairy or folk tales, which have a long tradition of being used to teach lessons or moral codes to the readers, do you feel that your work carries a similar set of values embedded within it? Do you hope to use your stories to teach lessons?

Ursula Vernon: Yes and no. To a certain extent the author’s morality and politics come out. All writing is to a certain extent is political. The things you choose to value in a story are inherently political. If people say they don’t notice the politics in the story, it’s usually because they agree with them. The things you choose to emphasize and the people you choose to portray as the hero rather than the villain are all very intensely tied into one’s moral system. That said, particularly when writing for kids, if there’s a “this is the moral of the story” stamp on it, kids are very sophisticated readers in many ways and they’ll look at that with their beady little eyes and then look at you and be like “uh-huh”. I read much improving literature as a child and I was skeptical of it even then! While I’m sure it does teach various lessons and I hope it does convey certain things like “nature is really cool!” or “sea cucumbers are awesome!” (which was the entire moral of one of my books! That sea cucumber can throw their guts up and that’s cool!) I’m generally not trying to put a hard moral stamp on anything. And a lot of the messages that do come across by what I’m retelling I choose to change, like in the snow queen version I did, if there’s a moral to the story it was the dude chosen by Hans Christian Anderson was an absolute douche bag and you could do better. I guess that’s a moral. 

 

Tucker: Yeah, that’s great! And I love what you said about the political nature of it and just from the role of reimagining the story from a different point of view often times can vindicate a character who has been vilified. 

Ursula Vernon: I’m working on one right now that’s based on the goose girl and the servant girl that’s the uber villain and I’m like, no, I think she’s going to be super helpful and she’s doing a good thing! So, let’s see how we can make this work!

Tucker:  I was wondering if you’ve had particular trouble reimagining a fairytale from a different viewpoint. Has there been one specifically that has given you trouble? 

Ursula Vernon: I have not found a way to retell Beauty and the Beast from a different viewpoint because there are only two characters. Everyone else is basically window dressing. You either tell it from her perspective, or you tell it from his perspective. When you have a story where one of the characters knows what’s going on and the other doesn’t, it usually works better as a story if you’re in the head of the one who doesn’t know what’s going on, because then the reader learns along with them what the big secret is. If you’re riding around in the Beast’s head, all you’re getting is probably self-loathing and info dumps. So, that’s one I’ve found very challenging to find a different viewpoint on and I have not necessarily succeeded yet. 

 

Tucker: Has there been one that you’ve completed and published that was particularly more challenging than the others? 

Ursula Vernon: I had one, it’s been published as The Seventh Bride. It’s a Blue-Beard story. The big problem with the Blue-Beard story is you show up and all the other wives are usually dead. So, this again gets down to two people: Blue-Beard, who’s murdering everyone, and the latest victim. I got around that basically by having all the other wives still be alive. He’s just marrying them serially and keeping them locked up in this house so I could actually have some character interaction, dialogue and invent the various reasons why he’s got some magical polygamy going on. That one was much easier to write with an ensemble cast, than with just two characters because I could explain more, have long sequences of dialogue and other characters to bounce things back and forth.

Tucker: I’d love to return to the natural world and sea cucumbers! While reading your stories it’s very evident that you have a strong interest in the natural world. Your stories do a wonderful job of blending the natural and fantastical. I was wondering how your interest in nature and the natural world influences the fantastical element of your stories? 

Ursula Vernon: Part of it is just setting.  Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief were set in the desert of the southwest because I loved the place and I wanted to set the story there. Because I had that setting, that led to other elements. Since I knew this was happening in the southwest, I brought in the trains, because I knew there were trains there. Had I set it in Hawaii or something, we might have a very different story because I couldn’t necessarily bring in trains, which proved to be a major factor. There are other stories like Pocosin, which is set in the southeast, an area that has lots of carnivorous plants. Nature is less involved but the god, who shows up to die, comes as a possum, which are nasty animals for the most part. I’m actually kind of fond of them, but most people are not fans of possums. They’re sort of vermin and I wanted to bring out that this is a sort of tragic character who is both sad and kind of disgusting. Nature plays into that! There are things that are sad and disgusting in nature. Lots and lots of them honestly. And there are also things that are glorious and inspiring! 

 

Tucker: I noticed while reading that there are a lot of weird blendings!  I said there’s a blending of two natural things becoming something fantastical. There are a lot of shapeshifters or things that are seemingly one creature and then becomes something else; the possum being one of them. 

Ursula Vernon: There’s another book in the works, someday I’ll finish it, I’m about halfway through, where there’s a priest who’s a werejavelina and I’m like, no one who has lived outside of the southwest will have any damn idea what I’m talking about! So this one may be a hard sell! The editor is gonna be like, what’s a javelina? 

 

Tucker: I know that you’ve lived in Phoenix for some time, correct? 

Ursula Vernon: Mesa, but close enough. The Phoenix metro has grown and absorbed everything. 

 

Tucker: Yeah, I mean there’s so much space and it just keeps claiming it all. When did you live there, if you don’t mind me asking? 

Ursula Vernon: Not at all! That was basically a good chunk of the 80’s. I went to grade school at Booker T. Washington Elementary and then up to junior high school. I moved back to Oregon and then as an adult came and moved to Tempe for a year because my dad lived in Queen Creek and I was visiting him relatively often.

 

Tucker: I thought that so much of this collection, Jackalope Wives, feels so distinctly southwestern because of the desert imagery, the coyotes, the javelinas. I was wondering if there was a connection between your time living here and the use of the desert landscape in a lot of your stories.

Ursula Vernon: Oh, definitely! I was right at the age where you sort of imprint on a landscape. I will always think that the art style and architecture style of Phoenix is normal and that everything else is sort of weird comparatively. If you show me stucco and the red hacienda tile roofs I’m like, yeah, that’s what normal looks like!  

 

Tucker: Do you feel a difference in writing a story that exists in one landscape versus another? 

Ursula Vernon: Definitely! There are things that lend themselves to one landscape rather than another. I can write witches set in the southeast with no problem! It’s all shapeshifters in the southwest. I don’t know why one seems to live somewhere and the other seems to live in the other place. There are certain things that a landscape gives rise to in your imagination. That’s probably why I write stories about one particular witch that is set almost always the southeast. Even though Grandma Harken could be considered a witch, she’s much more on the shapeshifter side of things. 

 

Tucker: I felt the collection is loosely bookended between the two stories of Grandma Harken. I don’t think she’s first and last, but she’s doing work there. It gives the collection a really nice flavor with the presence of her return. It had me thinking about the world you’ve created in these stories and the other stories that may inhabit the same world. Are there other stories with Grandma Harken and what triggered the urge to bring her back?

Ursula Vernon: That’s one character I could definitely write another story about, but I don’t have any in the works. I have at least one editor going: “If you write a story about the train priests, I will take it!”  And I’m like: “I don’t have it yet”. Then they’re all “I will shake you until this story comes out!” 

            I would like to do something more with that world, because there’s definitely some interesting things that even I don’t quite know where they are going, but I would love to get in there and dig and see where they are going. I want to know more about the train gods too. I don’t even like trains that much, but they seem interesting! I had to read so much about trains, most of which didn’t even show up in the story at all. 

 

Tucker: There’s something so interesting about the nature of fantastical stories and as long as you’re confident, you can create whatever you want. But research still plays a role because you’re playing with tradition. How much leeway do you give yourself in sticking to the tradition of a lot of these stories and researching archetypes and characters or flipping it on its head and saying “No. I want to try something new with this”?

Ursula Vernon: It sort of goes on a story by story basis. With the Blue-beard story, The Seventh Bride, I had never read one where all the wives were still alive. With that one I was like “Alright, I’m in uncharted territory here”. A lot of the other ones, I will read many different versions. For Beauty and the Beast I read the original French version, which is deeply surreal and very, very long. And mostly about fairy court politics! There were elements in that version that often feel overlooked in retellings, so I wanted to use them. There were other parts that were easy to remove. But there were also some aspects, like the house creating anything she wants and whole libraries and what not. And it’s like, how would a house know how to write a book? There’s actually some pretty creepy books in there where the house has tried to write books and they’re just one word printed over and over again, because that’s what it thinks books are. 

            I usually read a lot of versions of any given fairytale to see if one has some elements where I’m like “Oh! I totally want to use that!” And others are like “Okay, we can just dispense with this whole bit.” In the Beauty and the Beast story I got rid of the dad completely, the one who usually gets trapped by the Beast in a snow storm and ends up selling his daughter. But I’m like, forget all that, she can get herself into all of the trouble. He only serves as an inciting incident, we’ll get rid of him. But some elements in fairytales you’re like nope, this has to stay. The rose is a motif in Beauty and Beast that I decided to keep. 

            A lot of research in writing genre and fantasy is going and doing a lot of grim work on “when were water closets invented?” “How far can the horse conceivably ride?” “Okay, now I have to go look this up and see if this is remotely accurate.”

            When I did the Blue-beard one, she’s a miller’s daughter and I swear, half the research I did for that book was just me reading up on how mills worked. And I’m like, this is fascinating, but there will be one paragraph about the function of mills. 

            The problem is, if you’re a writer it’s probably because you’re easily fascinated by things. There’s so much research that I’ve found where I’m like, I’ve just got to find a way to put this in a story! I’ve been working on one recently where the heroine is a perfumer and I’m like, okay, now I’ll read about the history of perfumes! Next thing I know, I have like twenty books on the spice trade and I’m like, why are we not setting every story during the medieval spice trade? This is amazing! Why does everyone want gold? They should be going to find clove oil! Cloves were worth more than their weight in gold!

 

Tucker: It’s always bonkers how our internal logic is always so goofy and nonsensical in a story, gets stalled by the mundane logic of things like “how does a mill work?”

Ursula Vernon: Yeah and there are so many things that we would’ve taken for granted during the quasi-medieval settings that a lot of these things are written in. In that reality, that horse you just jump on and off of would be like 40% of your waking hours taking care of that horse. Things like that amaze me! 

            I want to do a whole tangent for a day just looking up medieval toothpaste recipes. One of them was salt and sage rubbed together and you rub it on your teeth and it whitened them and freshened your breath and probably also abraded your teeth away after a point. I was like, oh, this is fascinating! They did do some kind of basic dental hygiene! Who knew! You know, you have this image of unwashed peasant masses with no teeth and it’s like, no! They were doing all kinds of things! People weren’t stupid just because they lived 500 years ago.

 

Tucker: I think I always just imagined people eating porridge and going back to bed. 

Ursula Vernon: Yeah! 

  

Tucker: That’s like 600 years of history in my mind.

Ursula Vernon: Porridge, stew, sleep. When I did the one set in Finland I realized that I had no idea what the food was like. I was fortunate enough that I had a friend who was a Finnish folklorist and was like “let me go through and explain to you what they would be eating. Here, it should be salt fish, everyone should be eating salt fish all the damn time. Alright, and the bread? Yes, it’s made and it has a hole in the middle so you can string it from a rope and hang it from the rafters for storage.” And I’m like, that’s amazing! Alright, that’s going in! The whole anthropology of food is an entire other topic that people get into and they’re like: “Why does everyone eat gruel, stew and porridge?” And it’s like, no! 3/4 of the world was eating rice at this point people! 


Tucker Leighty-Phillips is an Associate Editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review and first-year MFA candidate in Fiction at Arizona State University. His work has been featured in or forthcoming at Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Whiskeypaper, West Branch Wired, and elsewhere. He can be found on social media at @TheNurtureBoy.

Haydens Ferry
A Review of Dustin Pearson's Millennial Roost
9781912477098.jpg

Millennial Roost by Dustin Pearson
Eyewear Publishing
March 1, 2018
978-1912477098

In Millennial Roost, Dustin Pearson excavates childhood sexual abuse through the urgent voice of his male speaker, who maps out his source of hurt and secrecy and shows us the wide-reaching effects of holding trauma close.

The poems in this incredible debut collection are unwavering in their honesty. The series of epistles especially stands out: it is through these epistles that the speaker directly addresses his childhood abuser, whom he calls Mr. Hen. The choice of putting a name to his abuser, the source of trauma, is an important one. It enables the speaker to remember, reimagine, disclose, and question, even if Mr. Hen cannot answer. The speaker refuses to let his experiences remain “locked up and archived” and instead bares his memories for us on the page, forcing us to look closely when we might look away.

As we learn more about Mr. Hen and the abuse that the speaker has endured, we also learn facts about chickens: their anatomy and lack of autonomy, the violence done to their bodies, different ways to prepare and consume them. We learn: “scientists suggest that hairs / on the human body are merely / modified scales or feathers.” We learn that the speaker has a reoccurring dream in which he grows wings and begins to resemble Mr. Hen: “the stray shreds / of my self are everywhere, and when the debris clears, / I look exactly like you.” The line between human and chicken is increasingly blurred. The speaker feels reduced to his trauma and finds it difficult to separate himself from his abuser and the abuse, the thing that happened to him and intimately belongs to him.

In his nonlinear recollections, the speaker attempts to understand his shame as well as to reclaim it in hopes of changing the past. As he tells us in one poem, “I would start from the begin- / ning, tell them about you and do my best to give them an / ending. For whatever reason, I thought that would make / it better…” Through the act of retelling, the speaker searches for a new ending that he creates and controls because, after all, people are “made by what they remember.”

But a new ending also means a new beginning. Or, perhaps, new possibilities. The speaker asks, “what happened to me? / what could I have been? / and where did I go from here?” These questions hinge on more questions, including: How to be intimate after bodily trauma? What forms of intimacy are no longer viable without some form of reconciliation? In considering these questions, Pearson gives his speaker the space to be truly vulnerable and thus establishes a sense of intimacy between speaker and reader that makes this an incredible first book – one that is hard to put down.

For the speaker, the biggest potential and therefore the greatest risk does not just lie in disclosing past abuse but in allowing himself to feel intimacy, especially now that he views his body as an object capable of physiological reactions but not of romance. Not of love. We see the speaker in physically and emotionally vulnerable and therefore threatening encounters several times in the collection. In one memory, another man asks if he can kiss the speaker, insisting “I didn’t say have sex...” but the speaker asks, “how is what he proposes any different?” Both kissing and sex are equally, alarmingly intimate.

Other close encounters come in the sharing of secrets. In a poem titled “Camaraderie,” we learn that the speaker has always hated divulging secrets because it is a cheap source of bonding. And yet much later, in a bar, the speaker and two others tell of the men “that had us, left us, that / never leave us.” When it seems that there are no words left, the three summon more, rub them “on each other’s faces, / absorbing them, / healing or beginning to.” It is in speaking that healing might begin. It is in sharing that we might open up the possibility of feeling close.

In one poem near the close of the collection, the speaker dreams he is in love. He dreams that he has sex with his lover. “I like to imagine myself that close,” he says, “And I didn’t feel scared / or guilty about it. Those are the possibilities.” At one point, he also claims that he was “lucky.” Lucky because it was not worse? Because we suffer our trauma and then consider ourselves lucky for having endured? “I survive you,” the speaker tells his abuser and us.

Millennial Roost is a fantastic debut collection. The poems are heartbreaking and generous in what they are willing to reveal.

Intimacy. Trust. Those are the possibilities, the risks. I survive you.

 

Dustin Pearson is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in BlackbirdVinyl PoetryBennington Review, and elsewhere. Millennial Roost is his first book.

Susan Nguyen hails from Virginia but currently lives and writes in the desert. She is the poetry editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. She is the recipient of several fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Aleida Rodriguez Memorial Award in Creative Writing Her work can be found in PANK, diode, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was recently named one of "three women poets to watch in 2018" by PBS NewsHour.Visit her at www.girlpoet.co

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