Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) is a retelling that explores aspects of Peter Pan by giving voice to Wendy, Tiger Lily, and Tinker Bell. Why retell women’s stories? What is your process when writing poems based on pre-existing texts such as Peter Pan?
My interest in these kinds of retellings began with reading them. Some of my favorite poems do this kind of work—poems by H.D., Anne Sexton, Carol Ann Duffy, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove. I am a narrative thinker; my approach to identity, spirituality, family is narrative. I love story, and I get attached to stories. I think the stories we’re told as children, in particular, take on a special weight, illuminate and shape the rest of our lives. And so when these stories have people in them who don’t speak much but would probably have a lot to say, and there is some opportunity to re-connect with them, to give them new shape to reflect new ways to think about who they, and we, are—well for me, a project like that is irresistible.
I tend to focus on women’s stories because I’m a feminist, and there’s a lot of work still to be done in thinking about how gender and race are constructed in these tales we carry around with us. Peter Pan and Wendy is a rich, compelling tale; it’s also extremely problematic. Little girls still watch Disney’s Peter Pan today and want to be Wendy Darling. Many grown women in our country are walking around with Tinker Bell’s tiny fairy body in their heads. My sons, who are Latino and were very young when I first read Peter Pan aloud to them, wanted to know why there was a football team in the story—and I had to explain what J.M. Barrie meant by “Redskins.” Tiger Lily doesn’t even speak in the original Peter Pan and Wendy. She doesn’t even speak! She does in Darling Hands. The story of Peter Pan isn’t going away, but I can’t see holding onto it without doing this kind of work.
About the process: I start by reading and re-reading the primary text, as well as annotated versions and some criticism for context. Practically, it can be easier to get started each day on a sequence that works from a pre-existing text. I can always begin by returning to the original story. With Darling Hands, I often started my writing time by re-reading some part of Peter Pan and Wendy, copying down a sentence, and using it as a point of departure. I kept many such sentences as epigraphs.
It’s got to be careful work, because the reader already has a stake in the voices at play. If she cares about this story before she picks up the poem, if she believes that she knows the speaker, then I have to give her both something she knows (a voice, a scene, a feeling) and something she doesn’t (some reward for her return to this tale).
The cover art for Darling Hands, Darling Tongue is lovely. Can you talk about it?
The cover art, by the incredibly talented Nashay Jones (www.nyelarebirth.com), is one of my favorite things about the chapbook, and every time I see it, I’m grateful again for the chance to work with Hyacinth Girl Press. Editor Margaret Bashaar suggested several possible artists to work on the cover–artists who had done work for Hyacinth Girl Press before–and when I looked at their work, I was struck by Nashay Jones’s ability to depict girls and women of color in her work, giving them real bodies and convincing presence but also a kind of luminous magic and personality and strength that I just loved. The last thing I wanted on the cover was a pale golden Tinker Bell flying easily with a too-delicate, too-ethereal fairy body. Just as I hoped that my take on the Peter Pan story would not be a Disney echo, I was confident that Nashay Jones’s vision would be her own, and it is, and it’s stunning.
In the November/December 2013 issue of Poets & Writers, Jennifer Ciotta argues that “if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: ‘It’s all about the money, honey.’ You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it” (69). As an author of two full-length books, an award-winning chapbook, and an additional chapbook, discuss your experiences with publishing and promoting your collections and reaching your readers.
Well, I have to say, I look at that comment, and I think, “What money?” Anyone who’s signed up for a lifetime of writing poetry is going to need to eat and keep warm somehow, and going to want to do her press proud, but she is unlikely to be “all about the money.” I have similar questions about wanting to be “successful.” I mean, again, what is the definition of success when a person wants to spend her life with poems?
I’ve never had trouble finding someone else who would be willing to define literary success for me, but I have often been sorry to have gone looking. There will always be people—in MFA programs, in the latest issue of Poets and Writers—who will be happy to set the terms. It makes sense to listen to these folks, because I want to be part of a literary community. It also makes sense to tune them out when I’ve heard enough.
I do think it’s important to promote my work, though, so that I can find the readers who will be most interested in it. I owe it to the wonderful presses who have generously taken a chance on me, and I owe it to my poems. I also think I have to balance that need against my horror at having to “sell” myself, and the realistic limits on my energy—what I, as an introverted person, can reasonably do, and what’s effective, and so worth doing. I want to spend more time writing than marketing—though I do love the opportunities that promoting a book has given me to visit classrooms and libraries, and meet people who love poems, and talk with people about poems, and share my work.
I feel lucky to be publishing during the era of social networking, because I am so much more comfortable making my first impressions about my writing through writing. I confess, I love the safety of being behind the screen. I feel much less pestery and invasive mentioning I have a new book in a feed someone can scroll on by, rather than walking up to them at…what, a cocktail party? Do people go to cocktail parties, or is that just on tv? I don’t go to cocktail parties. Even at a poetry reading, I’m the type to sit in the audience, have the amazing auditory experience, and duck out afterwards without mingling.
I also love reaching people in a personal way through postal mail. When Darling Hands, Darling Tongue was coming out, my kids and I made collage-and-paint postcards to celebrate—we stuck to fairy-related imagery, in honor of Tinker Bell—and we mailed them out to the first 25 people who said they wanted them. I have no idea if this was a “successful marketing campaign,” but it sure made a few days of summer vacation fly by. I’m pretty much up for any promotional activity that involves finger paints. I liked that each postcard was different, and we spent time deciding who would get which one. It felt personal. That’s my favorite kind of “promotion”—the personal kind, that brings news of a book, without a sense of obligation.
What is inspiring you these days?
I’m inspired by walking outside and reading field guides. I have a full-length book coming out this month, Book of Asters, that uses the science and lore of the aster family of flowers to talk about human families (and specifically my family). I’m also inspired by Grimm fairy tales—all those bad things that happen to girls in the woods, and how they marked us as children—and I’m excited about paintings, and bodies in paintings: reading Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall and Molly Brodak’s chapbook The Flood has got me thinking about how our historical and cultural moment teaches us to see and represent bodies. And right now my brain is crowded with the life of Charles Dickens, whose childhood, city and lexical adventures are finding their way into my work.
How are you trying to get better as a poet?
Mostly I try to get better by reading, and talking to others about reading, poetry. I also read a lot of novels and nonfiction (about those obsessions that feed writing: botany, history, theology, language—thank goodness for the library!). I read books on the other arts, and books on craft. I try to get better by writing, too, of course—which means scrawling on paper but also walking and waiting—and talking with others I trust about what I’m writing.
Your chapbook credo: A chapbook has the chance for concentration and intensity that a full-length book doesn’t always have, so a good chapbook is intimate in the hand and the mind. A great chapbook is bound with a ribbon!
Number of chapbooks you own: Over fifty.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Maybe forty? Forty-five? (Still a few in the to-read pile—I subscribe to Hyacinth Girl Press, and they just keep coming! Hooray!)
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I buy and read chapbooks and talk about them on Facebook and GoodReads. I also write reviews for publication. My most recent review is of Molly Brodak’s The Flood in The Rumpus.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: That money (such as it is) goes back into buying books, chapbooks, and the tea I drink while I read them.
Your chapbook wish: To write more and to read more chapbooks…preferably chaps bound with ribbons.
Residence: Columbia, Maryland
Job: I’m lucky to write from home, where I also take care of my children. I taught writing in the classroom for seven years, and then on-line for eight; I still love doing classroom visits and workshops in schools.
Chapbook education: The first chapbook I read was Bodies of Water by Sarah Lindsay (Unicorn Press). I got it in high school and carried it around in my bookbag. I quoted from it on Mrs. Windham’s chemistry test. Thus began my chapbook education.
Bio: I’m a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who lives in Maryland and also has a special love for Pittsburgh. I’ve received fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. My chapbooks are Garnet Lanterns, winner of the Anabiosis Press Prize (2005) and Darling Hands, Darling Tongue (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), and my full-length collections are both from Mayapple Press: No Eden (2011) and Book of Asters (2014). For more information, see sallyrosenkindred.com