Sprung Is Not About Spring: an interview with Laura Madeline Wiseman
Laura Madeline Wiseman
San Francisco Bay Press
Interview by Jeffrey Hecker
JH: Writing a strong collection of poems out of a concept is challenging because each poem is placed under a kind of permanent constraint. Sprung seems to overcome this by playing with the symbol of the “imaginary cock” in settings, some mundane, others adventurous, as well as different circumstances (I almost wrote circumcised). Was there a single poem in this collection that you wrote sparking the idea of a series, or did you set out to write the book based on that theme?
LMW: I wrote two failed poems and then I wrote the poem “Real Gardens, Real Toads” in the fall of 2007. It wasn’t until the gardening poem that the character my imaginary cock became fully realized, had a distinct voice and personality with preoccupations, obsessions, and foibles. Though I’d written fiction with characters that I followed around as the piece progressed, the character my imaginary cock was my first real character in poetry. It was an odd experience because I didn’t feel in control of the writing process. I didn’t feel driven to find inspiration. Inspiration came, unbidden, a wellspring. For example, I drove along a two-lane highway in the rural Midwest and spotted the odd structure “Sale Barn.” I didn’t know what that was (I asked my seatmate), but I knew, there was my imaginary cock poem there and I had to write it. I did, “Icons.” Or while writing with my students on a fieldtrip to the local art museum, I suddenly began writing my imaginary cock poem “Another Princess X” in response to a marble sculpture by Constantin Brancusi. I had to write this series. The character made me. I wrote sixty-plus poems with that character, with the voice of that character driving me through ideas, scenes, and instances.
JH: Where did the impetus come to research historical epigraphs? Was that research time-consuming? Did you learn anything from that historical perspective that allowed the poems to take a shape?
LMW: A few months after I started the series, I was given the greatest Valentine’s Day gift: a shorter two volume set of the OED. One of the first words I looked up was cock. I delighted to find there, and on the OED online, a wonderfully long discussion of that word with multiple definitions, quotations, dates of usage, history, and phrases. For example, in my OED I found expected words and phrases like poppycock, cock-a-doodle-doo, and cock an eyebrow, but I also discover the delightful treasures of cock of the plains, cockshy, and cockmaster. Using the OED, I researched the word cock and some of those historical quotations ended up as epigraphs for poems.
Other epigraphs were ones that I found accidentally. Many on the imagination and the imaginary came from the work I did while preparing for the comprehensive exams. For example the lengthy quotation to “Dreams of Cock” quotes David Perkins and is from his two volume set, A History of Modern Poetry: Volume I: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode and Volume II: Modernism and After. I thrilled when I found such quotations, tucking them away for future use. For me, research always feeds and inspires my creative writing. I find the time I spend learning something new and following my curiosity is always time well spent, though I don’t always know how my discovery will inspire my future creative work.
Other epigraphs I discovered while doing coursework. For example, the epigraph to the poem “My Imaginary Cock Dresses for Halloween” is from “Footnotes to Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. My poem came first, a mediation on Halloween and disguise with references to the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz and the symbolic and cultural meanings of Dorothy and the rainbow. Some time after I’d written the poem, I took an American poetry class where we read texts like Leaves of Grass, Drum Taps, Native Guard, and Howl. One of the things that brought attention to Howl was its use of words like cock. While reading Howl I read the line “Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas,” and knew it had to be my poem’s epigraph.
Other less research based epigraphs came from pop culture, so we have Louis from the film Interview with a Vampire as the epigraph for the poem “Vampire Cock (or Dracula)” and an airport baggage inspector in Fight Club saying “Never ever say the dildo accidently turned itself on” as one of the epigraph for the poem “Cock Fight.” I don’t own very many movies, but Interview with a Vampire and Fight Club are in my personal collection and I can’t help but to grin knowing they became fodder for Sprung.
JH: Music/Sound is a centralized focus to begin the collection, and many of the poems use sound/rhyme in fun ways (I’m thinking mainly of Rooster Tail U.S.). One would suppose that you’ve some background in music theory/composition. Is this the case?
LMW: Several of the poems early in the book do take place in musical settings. I played clarinet from the fourth grade through my freshmen year of college, playing in the wind ensembles, marching on the marching band field, participating in state solo competitions, filling the gymnasium with noise during pep band games, and competing around the Midwest in band festivals. So, yes, in that sense I do have training in music. After I stopped playing in college, I pretty much put away my clarinet, but when I moved back to the Midwest and while I was writing this series, I fetched my clarinets from my father’s house and opened up the brown naugahyde case with blue crushed velvet interior, smeared on the crock grease, sucked on a reed, and tried to see if I could still read music, a decade later after the last time I’d played. Embouchure aside, I was amazed at the muscle memory of my fingers. I’m not sure how they knew what to do, but all I needed to do was look at a note and my fingers automatically assumed the fingerings. Possibly playing the clarinet again worked on my subconscious or the muscle memory of my fingers and sparked some of the poems for Sprung.
I’ve always liked music, sound, and melodic noise. It is a thrilling experience to be inside of that noise on the field or on the stage. Even now when I hear the nearby college band or the drum core practicing, I feel myself brighten at that rhythmic noise. Alas, though I loved playing in the band and practicing with the band, I never enjoyed practicing the clarinet on my own. My heart wasn’t in it. Compare that to writing: I adore practicing writing. I revel in playing with rhythm, pace, lyric, and sound in poetry and prose. Certainly the years I spent playing clarinet tuned my ear to sound.
You mentioned the poem “Rooster Tail U.S.” and its sound/rhyme. The sound cock is part of many words, some words I didn’t even know until I had my OED like cockatrice. A cock is, of course, also a rooster. A rooster tail is the spray that follows a speeding boat, vehicle, or person. Those pieces and the idea of travel some how came together into what became “Rooster Tail U.S.” When I was giving a reading in the No Name Reading Series one year, I did read that poem and found it to be a tongue twister, forcing me to slow down and enunciate each sound carefully. Musically speaking, cock is a staccato word—brief, quick, rhythmic—forcing the mouth, tongue, and breath to shorten the duration of the sound. Put several cock sounding words into a poem and you have a poem in staccato.
JH: Reading this book reminded me a little of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton’s early work and a lot has been made of the feminist aspect of the collection which no doubt is present. However, as a man reading the collection I was struck by how the “imaginary cock” symbolizes a kind of inner lambastic consciousness, a little devil on the shoulder (Rule the Roost), or in some cases a kind of antagonist to civility and order. It becomes both a mindset and a private part to be dealt with. Could you talk about this?
LMW: I adore the work of Maureen Seaton and Denise Duhamel. When I teach the poetry workshop writing poetry: women’s poetry I teach Duhamel’s Kinky, a collection of poems about Barbie—rife with humor and political/social commentary, and utterly smart. Maureen Seaton’s work is stunning. I’m delighted to include two of her poems from Furious Cooking in the anthology I’m editing, but more on that anthology later. What a complement! Thank you, Jeff.
To address your question, my imaginary cock is a character and so from a writing standpoint, I could only write the character that my imaginary cock was—antagonistic, lambistic, devilish, and sometimes, hysterical. Though I talk about this a little bit in an interview I did here, my constraint for the series that I partially imposed on myself and partially felt imposed upon me by the character was to avoid gendering the persona or the character of the poems (e.g., avoiding all uses of she/he, him/her, and too, the gendered markings of clothing, behavior, etc.). When I did gender a character, I purposely sought to challenge that gendered narrative in the next poem in some way. It is a challenge to write against pronouns. Certainly I could have used the gender neutral pronouns ze/hir, but that didn’t feel right. Maybe in part the reason my imaginary cock is, as you say, Jeff, “a kind of antagonist to civility and order” is because subverting gender is antagonistic to civility and order. In my mind, the series is a challenge to gender roles, sexual scripts, and easy ways of talking about the body and desire. Maybe too, that’s what makes the book (and very much the act of writing the book) funny. I think there are those of us who delight in the naughtiness of challenging the status quo, acts the bring attention to the social norms and customs, or when small groups of people challenge something by poking at it, by pointing to the humor.
JH: Many of the poems are classic forms. I’ve always been interested that classic forms often allow humor to emerge (the repetition, the expected rhythm). Poets from our generation seem less interested in form as a rudimentary stance than as a way of allowing something unexpected to emerge, kind of like turning to form as a way of writing free verse now. Could you comment about this in terms of your work?
LMW: I’m interested in the ways poems are put together, the tricks, the literary devices, the forms. I was reading the smart book Waking Stone: Inventions on the life of Harriet Hosmer by Carole Simmons Oles and I was struck particularly by the construction of “Rumor” (scroll down to read it). It was a collage of quotations in the form of a pantoum. The quotes were from people in Harriet Hosmer’s life, a female sculptor in the nineteenth century. What I loved about the poem was the way Oles broke from the strict rules of the form to allow the repeating lines to change slightly as the poem unfolded, much like rumors change, morph, expand, and can become more salacious and titillating the farther and farther they get away from the source. In doing research, I had run across many instances of the word cock used by historical and literary luminaries. Likewise, in doing work for the comprehensive exams, ideas of the imaginary and the imaginative realm popped up in my research. I sticky-noted, dog-eared, margin commented, and bibbed each time I found these words and ended up with a long list of quotations with the word imaginary and with the word cock. Some became epigraphs (e.g. the opening to Sprung is Chaucer’s “My tale is of a cock…”), but there were many that I kept thinking had to be a poem on their own. Then I read Oles’ “Rumor” and took a poetic cue from her. Exploring the various meanings of imaginary and cock, these musing became the proem in Sprung, “Testimonials,” with quotations from Marianne Moore, Adrienne Rich, Rafael Campo, Wallace Stevens, and others.
To answer your question about classic form directly, when I write in form I use form in service to the poem or because the poem wants to be in form. My mentor, Hilda Raz, once said you have to trust the logic of the poem. I always think of that when I’m struggling with a poem, trying to write it one way, but the poem keeps moving in another direction. I stop my struggling and just trust what the poem is trying to do.
JH: There is something of a sympathetic, kind, sometimes pathetic nature to “the imaginary cock”. I spoke earlier of the empowering aspect of the symbol, but in many poems you go in the opposite direction, like the part literally weighs you down. It’s too attached. The duality of soft and hard is a core aspect of the collection. It reminded me at times of when Sexton referred to the cock as a helpless folded bird. Did you make choices about the nature of the symbol based on the settings of the poems?
LMW: My imaginary cock was instrumental in the tone, symbol, setting, and nature of the poems. I mentioned earlier the poem “Vampire Cock (or Dracula).” I remember precisely the moment inspiration struck for this poem. I was teaching the poetry workshop poetry writing: writing poetry on Monday nights. The visiting writers to the department for the semester were James Cihlar, William Reichard, and Greg Hewitt. My students had a “students’ choice” book for the class, for which they selected one of the visiting writer’s books and in small groups, wrote a joint paper and presented that book to class. One of the groups asked us to write a seven minute poem about Halloween, a prompt they derived from their book. I immediately thought, oh, I need a vampire my imaginary cock poem. Maybe it was that night or the next day, or perhaps over the weekend, but I sat down and wrote the first draft of “Vampire Cock (or Dracula).” When I was a teenage, I ate up the Anne Rice vampire and witch novels. I adored fantasy, sci-fi, and post-apocalyptic fiction. I still read those genres and I love the candy like quality of some of the vampire novels written today. Oh yes, I’ve read Stephenie Meyers and Deborah Harkness. Bring on Buffy any day. Vampires are funny, a vampire cock, even funnier. The poem is a sestina with the end words of teeth, coffin, vampire, night, stakes, and garlic—all classic vampire terminology. The sestina was the constraint, but I reveled in looking up the end words and learning the various forms, as well as new words like coffin stool, coffin nail, and vampiredom. Part of the fun alludes to what you were saying earlier about contemporary poets turning to form for the humor it can bring. Certainly, this is a poem where my imaginary cock is a bit like, as Sexton says “a helpless folded bird.”
JH: “Dreams of Cock” is my favorite poem in the collection. Could you talk a little about how that poem was constructed?
LMW: There’s a wonderful poem by Joy Harjo entitled “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” and in an interview collected in The Spiral of Memory: Interviews, she discussed the inspiration for the poem. Both of Harjo’s books were on my comprehensive exams reading list and while reading them, I thought yes, a thirteenth floor poem would be an interesting prompt to do with my poetry students. That’s what I did. I started my poetry class like this: write a poem in seven minutes about what’s on the thirteenth floor of your house. “Dreams of Cock” is my thirteenth floor poem. It’s a prose poem. I wrote it in one setting, before we did the writing in my class, I think. To me, what’s interesting about the thirteen floor or a room in a house that you didn’t know existed, is it’s this hidden dreamland, this dark space, this cluttered loft of the bric-a-brac in ones life that doesn’t make sense, lacks order, just spills and piles over itself without reason. Or at least, that’s what I found on the thirteenth floor with my imaginary cock.
JH: You’ve spent time in Australia, correct? How was that experience?
LMW: As the poem “Dreams of Cock” and others signal, I have been to Australia and it was lovely! Certainly Australia and my brief summer there, does find its way into my writings from time to time, as it has in Sprung. It’s funny that you bring Australia up, because I feel like a lot of this interview has been about inspiration and how we find inspiration for the poems we write—pop culture, research, travel. “Dreams of Cock” found some inspiration in memories I had of Australia like I did have my first bowl of pumpkin soup in Sydney and likewise “Rooster Tail U.S.” finds memories of the cockatiels that I saw in the Royal Botanical Garden, Sydney. For Sprung, humor seemed to be the driving theme that inspired the poem, that inspired my imaginary cock to nudge me to write a new poem. For example, I rented the movie Teeth, a wonderful comedy horror movie about vagina dentanta, that I’d read about on the Women Make Movies Listserv. I don’t have to tell you that a theme in thriller and horror movies is coupling sexuality and violence. Begin to show a woman take off her clothes, kiss her boyfriend, lean over, and suddenly here comes the killer. Such films are notorious for coupling sexuality and violence, particularly violence against women. Teeth is different. Dawn, the main character, doesn’t realize she has a vagina dentanta until she’s almost raped by her boyfriend in this classic rape scene that’s suddenly turned on its head. This happen again and again in Teeth, and for me, it was hysterical. It was just so refreshing and surprising to see a challenge to that sex/violence narrative produced in a humorous way. I wrote my poem “After Teeth” after I returned the film Teeth. The poem explores my imaginary cock’s reaction to Teeth and the idea of vagina dentanta.
JH: What are you working on next?
LMW: I’m working on finalizing what I need for my chapbook First Wife forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2013 and finalizing the anthology that I’ve been putting together Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence forthcoming from Blue Light Press, also in 2013. The former is a series of poems from the perspective of Lilith, Adam’s first wife in biblical texts. I’m very excited for its release. The latter is a project that I’ve been working on formally since 2007, but with research and writing ties that stretch to work I did in the late 1990s. I’m looking forward to having this anthology out in the world. It’s an important project for me. It’s an important book.
JH: Do you have more, less, or the same understanding of the imaginary cock after having written Sprung?
LWM: I have no idea what, who, or where my imaginary cock is. I don’t know how or why my imaginary cock came to be. My imaginary cock arrived, hung around for awhile, and just as suddenly, my imaginary cock left. I haven’t heard a word since.
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of seven collections of poetry, including the full-length book SPRUNG (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012) and the recent chapbooks SHE WHO LOVES HER FATHER (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and UNCLOSE THE DOOR (Gold Quoin Press, 2012).
Jeffrey Hecker was born in 1977 in Norfolk, VA. A graduate of Old Dominion University, he’s the author of Rumble Seat, published by San Francisco Bay Press & the chapbook Hornbook, published by Horse Less Press. Recent work has appeared or forthcoming in La Reata Review, Mascara Literary Review, Atticus Review, La Fovea, The Waterhouse Review, Zocalo Public Square, The Burning Bush 2, & Turtleneck Press. He resides in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia.