Megan Gannon on form and experiment

How did your chapbook, The Witches’ Index: Spells, Incantations, and Poems, begin? 

The project grew out of a convergence of my personal life and academic and creative work.  I’d been reading The Madwoman in the Attic and the idea of feminine afflictions really resonated with me.  Also, I was struggling with the pain of infertility, and it felt like I needed some super-human power to exorcise my grief.  On some level, these poems really were spells—desperate attempts to hold onto my sanity, to have a receptacle for these over-powering feelings.

The spells were also a pretty natural evolution from my previous work.  I’d written some poems in my full-length manuscript, White Nightgown, that had a witchy quality and I realized I really liked working in that mode.  In general, my poetry tends to make a sociological argument, but I’ve always valued poets who have an ear for sound and rhythm and who aren’t afraid of letting the language take primacy, or even supersede, logical meaning.  I’m frustrated by contemporary readers’ preoccupation with “sense” in poetry.  This isn’t how we first came to love language!  As children, did we go around reciting “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,” and then say, “But wait a second—what does ‘diddle diddle’ mean?”  Do we read e. e. cummings and demand to know what a “pretty how town” is?  I think we just let ourselves be swept up by the music and the magical way that poems make dream-like, illogical, yet intuitive sense.  For this reason I return again and again to poets like Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Eamon Grennan, Karen Volkman, and Patricia Smith—they have amazing ears and let the language take the reins of the poems at times.

How long did you spend writing it? Did you have the opportunity to workshop it in a classroom setting? How many versions did it go through before you reached the final? How did your peers and teachers shape the revision process?

I wrote the first poem, “Casting Spell,” in Hilda Raz‘s first workshop my first Fall 2007 semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—literally in the workshop.  We walked in the room, introduced ourselves, and Hilda said, “Write a poem—go!”  It was terrifying, and in subsequent classes it didn’t work for me.  (The idea of having to produce a poem on the spot in a room full of other poets is pretty much my worst nightmare.  The only thing that could make it worse is if the workshop took place on a turbulent airplane at 30,000 feet.)  Many of the other early poems came under similar time constraints, though.  That first semester I was taking three classes and teaching two and I’d have a two-hour window on a Monday night when I HAD to write a poem for workshop, so I’d just pound it out.  “Spell Against Aphasia,” “Genesis Spell,” “Cycle Spell,” “Spell to Survive the Stairwell,” “Housekeeping Spell” and “Spell to Reconcile Warring Wills” all came out of that intense, fruitful semester, and they were all workshopped, though most of them didn’t change much from their first drafts.

The following Spring 2008 I took Grace Bauer‘s workshop in which she required us to produce a chapbook manuscript by the end of the semester.  She also had us work in forms, using the wonderful book An Exaltation of Forms as our guide.  I’ve always felt like there needs to be a connection between the form and content of a poem—”no verse is free”—and with spells you can have a lot of fun with this synthesis (though there’s the danger of teetering into hokiness.) “Sibyl Spell,” Dickinson Spell,” “Spell to Survive the Adoption,” “Spell for the Birth Parents,” “Amnesia Spell” and “Aftermath Spell” came out of Grace’s class (though some had different titles.)  Again, all were workshopped, though the changes were still mostly little nips and tucks.  Perrin Carrell did make the brilliant suggestion to order the poems like a novel—to have the infertility poems somewhat buried in the book so that a reader going sequentially through the book would be led through thinking, “What is this woman’s problem?” and then finally arrive at their “ah-ha.”  That was a pretty watershed idea for which I’ll always be grateful to him.

Many of the forms for individual poems were no-brainers.  “Dickinson Spell” had to be written in ballad meter, make use of dashes, and have a ghostly, abstract quality; “Sibyl Spell” (which could also be called “Spell Against Claustrophobia,” and thus is the companion poem to the Agoraphobia poem, “Wide Spaces Spell”) needed to be written in pretty strict sibyls.  My brilliant poet husband, Miles Waggener, suggested sibyls as the perfect form for a claustrophobia spell—those initial stressed syllables of trochees and dactyls sound like someone beating on a door trying to get out—and then I thought, “that’s perfect—sibyls were young women hopped up on incense fumes, starved, and trapped in caves,” so the poem is both about sibyls and in sibyls.  (I did break the form in one tiny spot in the final stanza—I wanted to give a glimmer of hope that this poor girl would somehow find a way of scraping herself free!)

In other cases I had a form I wanted to work in and then I tried to think of a subject matter suited for the form.  I’ve written many failed villanelles over the years; finally I figured out that the repeated lines needed to be abstract and oracular enough that they could resonate or modulate meaning with each repetition.  Since Rumi is the king of one- or two-line zingers, I took some of his lines and changed the wording a little for my refrains, then figured out the rest of the poem around these lines.  In “Amnesia Spell” I wanted the cascading rhyme scheme of the terza rima to create the sense that the poem’s protagonist is using the repeated cycle of her daily routine to lull herself into complacency.

Some of the forms are more intuitive and tenuous.  It seemed logical that “Spell to Survive the Adoption” would have the cadence of a lullaby—a way of calling out to the absent child while trying to soothe the adoptive mother speaker into sleep.  I think my favorite poem, in terms of how the form and content connect, is “Spell for the Birth Parents.”  I wanted the sense that some woman’s longing in a distant country was compelling this young Chinese woman to conceive a child she couldn’t possibly hope to keep, so the poem was originally written in blank verse.  To me, it is the ghostliest, faintest poetic form—the reader has the nagging sense that a form is at work, but there’s no rhyme or repetition to confirm this sense.  The funny thing is, in revisions I dropped or added a syllable for the good of the poem, so now the formal feeling of the poem is even more diluted.  Maybe the siren-tug of the adoptive mother’s longing wouldn’t have been enough in the end.  (It wasn’t for us; we switched to a domestic adoption, and thank goodness!  I can’t imagine life without our home-grown son.)

Finally, a number of these poems came out of Carole Levin’s history class, “Saints, Witches and Madwomen.”  Dr. Levin is a writer, so she was supportive of me completing spells as my final project for the class.  “Consuming Spell,” “Wasting Spell,” “Spell Against Aphonia,” “Wide Spaces Spell,” “Stigmata Spell,” “Sappho Spell,” “Brontë Spell”  and “Sight Spell” were all written for this class.  Many of these were simply companion poems that I needed to write to round out the larger manuscript. (The anorexia “Wasting Spell” needed a bulimia “Consuming Spell,” the fear of not making sense in “Spell Against Aphasia” needed to be balanced by the fear of not being to speak at all in “Spell Against Aphonia,” and “Sibyl Spell” needed an agoraphobia spell to balance its claustrophobia.)  Others came out of our historical readings.  I was struck by how many prophetic women suffered from stigmata but also gained their authority through stigmata, and the fact that these women often characterized their stigmata as an erotic encounter with God or Christ was pretty trippy.   I wasn’t really happy with the finished poem, though; it seemed a little flat or didactic.  Then I wrote “Sappho Spell,” and loved how the brackets created a breathlessness in that poem, and I thought, “What if I took out some of the flat or expected words in ‘Stigmata Spell’ and replaced them with holes—five holes—the number of stigmatics?”  When I explain it this way the form sounds pretty gimmicky, but hopefully it’s also a good example of how an intellectual constraint that you place on a poem allows you to correct its creative short-comings.

The poem that I resisted writing was “Sight Spell.”  I abhor shape poems on principle, I find their hokiness quotient to be unforgivably high, but I knew I needed to write a poem about the real and imagined blindness which so many women artists and visionaries suffered from, and I simply couldn’t deny that a poem about vision needed to be visual.  So I sat down and made myself some anti-hokiness rules: 1) A shape poem is okay if the shape isn’t too outlandish.  Swan’s reflection—no.  Vague circular shape—yes.    2) A shape poem is okay if all of the line breaks are successful line breaks and not just arbitrarily plunked in to make the shape.  3) A shape poem is okay if it is reifying its content.  This is a poem about wanting to keep an open eye, so the poem is an eye open to its widest aperture.

I also wrote a number of failed spells in each of these classes that I pitched along the way.  That’s the interesting thing about spells—they’re either working, and the elements are all there, or they’re not, and there’s no way to infuse them with magic.

The remaining poems were written in summer months to fill in holes in the manuscript.  I worried at first that using the jump rope rhymes for “Spelling the Apprentice Witches” was too twee, but I liked the idea that jump rope rhymes are a hidden, recognizable language almost exclusive to women, and I hope the dark content saves the cadence from cutesiness.  The poem that I absolutely resisted writing for so long was “Spell Against the Unthinkable.”  I didn’t want to acknowledge this phenomenon, and yet I was absolutely haunted by this phenomenon.  I think, too, I was a little afraid that if the poem made it out into the world before our adoption was finalized then the powers-that-be would think better of letting me adopt a child!  However, once I became a mother I understood and had to acknowledge some powerful, pretty scary feelings.  No, I could never ever ever imagine harming my child, but I must admit that I can only fly when I have my son with me.  Isn’t that horrible?  If the plane is going to go down in a fiery ball of shredded steel, shouldn’t I want my son to live, with or without me?  I think as he gets older I start to feel that yes, I want him to live at all costs, but when he was really little I felt (irrationally) that he couldn’t survive without me, even though my husband is a wonderful, extremely capable co-parent.  In any case, I realized that I could understand how the extreme vigilance of first motherhood could eventually drive some women crazy.  Ultimately, you can’t keep your child safe from all the dangers of the world, and I think for a mother who has lost her grip, infanticide is a kind of extreme sheltering. As for the form, my husband wrote a sestina about St. John of the Cross (brilliant poem which he doesn’t like and thus has never published—sorry, world) and that’s when I first realized the sestina really calls for a speaker who is so obsessive in her thinking—returning again and again to the same six words—that she drives herself absolutely bonkers.  Thus, I always knew this poem would be a sestina; when I was finally able to write it I felt like I’d said pretty much all I needed to say with the spells.

How much time did you spend to find a home for it?

I sent out an earlier, much rougher version to one chapbook contest, and then I decided I needed to keep working on it.  I think I planned to keep writing and turn it into a full-length collection, but in the fall of 2011 I had an email from Katherine Riegel.  Katie is a fantastic poet and teacher in Florida, and we first connected a few years ago when she emailed to ask permission to use my poem “List of First Lines” in her course packet.  Obviously, I knew right then and there that she was a class act, but then she sent me some imitation poems that her students had done of “List,” and what can I say, my itty bitty poet’s ego ballooned.   Katie mentioned that she and her husband, Ira Sukrungruang, ran an online journal called Sweet, and she asked if I’d send poems.  Well, gee, twist my arm, lady-for-whom-I-would-do-anything-at-this-point anyway.  Sweet published the poems, and that was that until about a year or so later, when she sent me this email: “We’ve decided to start a chapbook series, and since this is our first one we’re going to solicit for it, so do you have a chapbook manuscript?”  I didn’t, quite, but a cobbled something together tout suite and sent it to her.  She liked it; she said, “sure, let’s do it;” quite possibly, it’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me.  I’d been sending out White Nightgown for eight years and having some close calls, but essentially beating my head against a locked door.  I’d begun sending out my first novel, Cumberland, and lo and behold, same experience.  It simply didn’t compute that something could fall into my lap out of the clear blue sky.  I literally didn’t believe it was going to happen until I was holding the book in my hands—I kept expecting something to go wrong.

What about the publication of the individual poems prior to the acceptance from Sweet Publications? Many of these poems first appeared in print. Do you seek to publish your poems in print, online or a mix? Is there a balance you prefer of published and unpublished poems in a collection?

Honestly, because Katie asked me for the manuscript before I even thought I had a manuscript, I hadn’t yet sent out the individuals poems very aggressively.  I’d sent a few and landed them in journals, but once I knew Katie was going to run the book I knew the clock was ticking and sent them to people who had more or less asked for work.   I think in general I have a bias towards print journals, just because I like to hold the physical object in my hands, but I do think the online poems get read more.  Ideally, I’d like to publish every poem in a journal first so that the poems get as much exposure as possible.  I guess I’ve had the best of both worlds: because the book as a whole has been rejected for so long, most of the individual poems in White Nightgown have had time to be published in journals, while with The Witch’s Index I didn’t have the chance to land those poems elsewhere.  Obviously, I’m not complaining.  I think individually the spells might be a little perplexing to literary journals anyway.  If an editor is only able to see three or four spells he probably can’t see the pairings and might worry that I’m some goddess worshipper rubbing crystals and cat semen on my naked belly under the full moon.

Tell me about that cover design and layout. I love the stitching on the binding, the onionskin press page, and the stamp design on the cover. How involved were you with the selection of cover and the interior layout and design?

Katie told me the books were going to be handmade, and I thought, “Cool.”  Who doesn’t love a handmade book?  Sometimes presses put out so many chapbooks that the production quality seems a little lacking, so I was really honored that Katie and Ira were only running my chapbook and Amy Monticello’s beautiful nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters.   I’m really, really interested in design; I’ve jinxed all my other books by making covers for them.  I had the manuscript set in the font we used (Perpetua), and I picked the title font (Blackadder ITC), found the epigraph, and worked out the ordering.   One thing I did NOT have was a title.  I am notoriously HORRIBLE at titles.  My title was something like “The Witch’s List of Afflictions”—something hugely unwieldy and clunky for a delicate little chapbook.  Katie brainstormed synonyms for “list” with me, and she suggested “The Witch’s Index.”  I loved the multiple meanings of “index” and the assonance and quick clip of the title, so once again, Katie Riegel saved the day.  She and I also sent back and forth four or five versions of the book with line edits on the individual poems and she and Jim Miller then let me do not one, not two, but three final edits of the galleys. (I’m anal.)

As for design, early on Katie sent me a picture of a cool witchy-artifact-looking book, and then I whipped up a mock cover on this cheesy scrapbooking program I have and sent it to the Sweet design gal, Gloria Muñoz.  Then Gloria sent me back a better version, and we went with that cover until about a week before the book was to go into production (at which point I flipped out and decided maybe the cover should be completely different.)   Luckily, Katie and Jim Miller, another designer, have the patience of saints.  Jim sent me some other cover suggestions, but all it really took was one calm, collected email from Katie about how the original cover was really beautiful and I realized I was being a freak.   Jim came up with the onionskin page and how it would hide the dedication.  He also came up with the titles font, made all of the poems look gorgeous on the page, and made the stamp for the cover.  I don’t know who had the inspired idea of the binding (maybe Claire Stephens and Gloria Muñoz, the saints who actually constructed the books).   It was a complete surprise when I pulled the book out of the box, but I love it.  The book would look too sterile if the binding had been pulled taut.

What was the time between acceptance of your chapbook and publication date? How much editing of the poems and manuscript did you do during this time? When did you know, really know, The Witch’s Index was done and ready for the world?

Katie said yes in August or September, I got galleys in January, and the book was made and available for purchase at AWP in Chicago at the end of February.  That sounds like a pretty quick turn-around when I write it like that, but I think there were a few frantic emails to Katie in doldrum months when I hadn’t heard anything about the book for a while and was just positive the whole thing wasn’t going to happen.  Since Katie, Jim, Gloria, Claire, and I were all working under the funeral shroud of an academic semester, it makes sense that most of the work happened during breaks, but that didn’t keep me from freaking out at the time.

I’m not sure I had a single shining moment when I thought the book was done— it was more like the book slowly cemented into place.  The manuscript I sent to Katie was pretty much all the blood I could squeeze from the feminine-affliction stone, so I didn’t feel like there were outstanding poems yet to be written. Katie and I then scrutinized the individual poems (which I’d already done once in the drafting process) so that I felt pretty confident about the individual parts.  Then I agonized the order so that the companion poems were next to each other in the book, the Ars Poetica poems were towards the front, the infertility poems were in the middle, and the larger-violence-of-the-contemporary-world poems were towards the back.  I also like the way the erotic poems transition into the infertility poems, and how the sister-witch poems are sprinkled throughout.  (There are probably more of those to be written—a Woolf Spell, a Nin Spell…) Somewhat at the eleventh hour I switched the order of “Siren Spell” and “Echo Spell” and am really in love with that switch—the way the words in the drifting, untethered right-hand column of “Wide Spaces Spell” seem to align and anchor in the right hand column of “Echo Spell.”  It was worth splitting the companion poems of “Sibyl Spell” and “Wide Spaces Spell” from facing pages to have that little aesthetic yumminess happen.

It seems there might be a lingering sense among some poets, writers, and editors: poets must win prizes. Were you concerned at any point with chapbook contests? What made you decide to go with Sweet? What advice would you offer other poets considering contests and open reading periods for their chapbooks?

I am not one to look a gift book in the mouth; Katie offered me a chapbook and I jumped at the chance.  I guess prizes help you promote a book and your own career, but the most important thing is to get a book that you feel proud of out into the world as soon as possible.   Well, okay, within reason.  If you aspire to the life of an academic, self-publishing is pretty much professional suicide, and sure, if you win the Yale Younger you basically have a career handed to you on a silver platter, but outside of these two extremes, I’m not sure anyone really cares where your book came from; the book is the thing.  People have been really responsive to The Witch’s Index.  I think the poems are pretty good, but what people respond to first and most powerfully is the gorgeous handmade object that Sweet produced.   In the dying age of the paper book, more publishers should think about going to fewer copies of lovingly hand-made books.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m writing a new novel, tentatively entitled Claim, which is set in Jerome, Arizona in 1898.  I wrote 100 pages in roughly the same mode as my first novel, and then realized it was completely wrong—the form, the voice, the point of view.  My dad just gave me the coolest graduation present ever—a week in Jerome in a house built in 1898, and my research in the historical society and the parks helped change some of my ideas about the style and what would happen in the book.  (I’m also reading Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault, which is putting me in the necessary stylistic mindset.)  I worry sometimes that the poem-writing part of my brain has atrophied to nothing because I’ve been working on fiction for the last few years, but this next book will need to have a more lyrical prose line, so maybe it will help resuscitate the poem-writing part of my brain.  I hope so.  I think maybe I’m stunted by the realization that I’m finished writing spells, and the next poems are going to require a major shift in subject matter and aesthetic.  I’m trying to be patient, read good books, let the words and ideas percolate while I work on the fiction, but I’m anxious for those poems. When I’m not writing poetry I feel like the days are just running through me like water through a sieve.  Writing poems is the only thing that makes me feel like I’m paying attention, like I’m earning my little allotment of  life.

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