Prose Feature: “A Place of Could-Have-Been”: An Interview with Brittany Cavallaro by Emilia Phillips

May 29, 2015

Brittany CavallaroBrittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, she is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Emilia Phillips, Prose Editor: I first encountered your work when I was a graduate student editor at Blackbird, and I most admired the threat in your poems and how the threat was brocaded with allusion, myth. It was like a harsh stone façade covered in bursts of otherworldly lichen. What gets me about “White-Armed Persephone Walks Into His Van” is the last line: “The hidden knives agree.” Before we get to that ending, we know that the girl at the gas station has decided “to yes the next man / who asks. Her knees // above her kneesocks guarantee.” It seems that personification of inanimate objects, a part of that person or something closely linked to them—so, a kind of synecdoche or metonymy with human feelings or gestures—speak to the underlying, hidden, or most-base of a character’s intentions. For me, this gives us an unsettling fragmentation, a kind of psycological severing of mind from body. Do you consciously seek out images—the external—to reveal something about the character—the internal? If so, how do you go about locating what that is, and what concerns, if any, do you have in allowing inanimate objects this kind of power over the narrative?

Brittany Cavallaro: Your question made me think of that evangelical Christian exhortation to ‘be in this world, but not of it.’ I’ve always failed completely at extricating myself from the world’s demands. I really thoroughly enjoy reading fashion magazines, on a more or less primal level. Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I own so many books simply because I covet them as physical objects. In my apartment, I’m a compulsive arranger of vignettes of things that suggest small narratives—those three candles, that porcelain vase, and that accordion on the credenza say to a visitor that this kind of girl lives here. None of this is particularly new or revelatory, I don’t think—to some extent, a lot of people do these things, feel this way—but I’ve always been really caught up in the power of self-presentation. Not just to the world, but to the self. When I was a teenager, I went to boarding school on a scholarship, and I remember thinking to myself, okay, I should wear argyle knee socks. That’s what one does in such a place. So I did. Of course, that sort of costuming can suggest wildly different things to different audiences. Some men look at a seventeen-year-old girl in knee socks and think diametrically different things about that decision than the girl wearing them. I hadn’t thought about this so specifically before your question, but I’ve always seen one’s relationship with the world as a series of cause and effect spiraling further and further away from your original decision. I will speak in this way because I am pretending to be the sort of girl who speaks this way. You interpret the sign of it as your own expectations and prejudices lead you to, and treat me accordingly. I, altered by that, volley back. It’s destructive. And yet there’s still so much pleasure in the initial serve.

I don’t mean to conflate the experiences of my characters with my own experiences (and I do think about the girls and women who populate Girl-King as characters much more so than autobiographical representations of myself), but I do think that, especially, as a teenage girl, when you’re in the business of creating a self, sometimes the small, visible decisions you made that morning—what you adorn yourself with, what you carry— broadcast so much larger and louder than anything you say or do. And in that way, they create a self you might not have ever intended.

EP: So then I have to wonder whether or not the act of taking on a persona of a poem in some way changes the poet. It’s certainly true for some actors; many claim that working in particularly vicious or unsettling roles “disturb” them. Popular outcry links disturbing roles and actors’ mental health, especially after a premature death. As poets, should we view ourselves as a kind of actor? Are these voices we take on like possessions? Or masks? Is it ultimately a question of empathy? As artists, can empathy be unhealthy?

BC: It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea of empathy being unhealthy, though I do think it can be at times. Choosing to offer empathy to one person and not another, certainly, can be vile, if not exactly unhealthy—here I’m thinking of those who rallied behind the Isla Vista shooter and not his victims, seeing them as girls who refused to ‘give’ Elliot Rodger what he ‘deserved.’ How do we write about horrific situations? What are our responsibilities to those whose voices we assume? There’s a long section in Girl-King, in dramatic monologue about the Burke and Hare murders in the early nineteenth century. At first I thought, I’ll speak for the victims. They were largely prostitutes, women on the fringes of society, women Burke and Hare thought wouldn’t be missed. Their bodies were sold to Dr. Knox at the Anatomy School to be dissected by the medical students there. And then, after learning that Audubon famously paid a visit to Knox in Edinburgh, I spoke for the bystanders, culpable in their silence, and then I found myself obsessively writing Burke poems from the point of view of his own dissected body. So a project whose aims were originally reclamation moved towards one that was more interested in sensation, although I did take care to speak for the people on both sides of the equation. I am, in some ways, more interested in what I consider to be the much more banal subject of killers and why they kill. Banal because the world’s explored this to death, and I don’t know if my voice is a necessary one to add to the conversation. If there’s unhealthiness in taking on the voice of murderers, it’s something akin to treating those topics as junk food, something to engage with on your sofa, flipping through network television. And I do it; in some ways, it’s my bread and butter. I write mystery novels (that I’m serious about, but that don’t necessarily take murder seriously), read trashy horror, watch unhealthy amounts of Law and Order. But I try to take a different approach with my poems.

If I ever do have that feeling—the idea that I’m skirting something dangerous with the voices I inhabit—it’s when I’ve taken something from my own autobiography and warped it to fit the poem. Certain poems I’ve written come from a place of could-have-been-me, if things had shaken out a bit differently, and there’s a wistfulness in that, and a danger, too.

EP: Could it be argued that the poems we inhabit for so long, either as the writers or readers, do become a part of our autobiographical life?

BC: As much as the books we’ve read and the places we’ve visited, I’m sure that the poems we’ve written become a part of our autobiographical life. Especially for those of us who live relatively sedentary, quiet lives whose color comes largely from the art we intake and make. Certainly any kind of seismic change in my physical or emotional landscape is going to show up in my poems, but those are few and far between. I tend to mark time by what I’ve read and what I’m reading and what sort of writing project I’ve undertaken. The voices I inhabit for those projects need to feel important to me at the time I’m writing them, or I wouldn’t be able to dig in the way these things demand. And when I step away from the writing, the characters don’t always disappear. Right now, I’m working on a series of young adult novels, and it feels at times like I have the narrator for those books sitting just over my shoulder. I know what he’d say in response to pretty much anything I’d ask him, and so he feels real, if maybe slightly more separate from me than some of my less definitively defined personal poems. It all comes down to narrative voice, in the end, and how separate that voice is from my own internal monologue.

EP: How do you balance different genres? Do the young adult novels influence your poems?

BC: I wish I was a little bit better at balancing them, to be honest. I tend to work fairly obsessively on a novel when I’m in the drafting process, and though I might have ideas for poems during that period, I’ll sketch them out in a notebook (if I’m feeling particularly responsible) and then forget about them. I’ll be reading poetry and criticism while I’m writing fiction, to be sure, but whatever generative impulse I have is directed toward the book. It doesn’t leave room for anything else. I wish it did. Once I’m revising the novel, I try to get back to writing poetry, but when I’ve been away from it, I have to write a number of terrible poems before I have anything I can work with. It takes me awhile to relearn poetic narrative. Oftentimes I find that I’ve used up all my narrative impulse getting my young adult characters from point A to point B, and that the first poems I write when I return to poetry are lists of incomprehensible, bizarre images, like I’ve pried open some pipe in the basement only to have black water rush out.

I’m relatively new to working in two genres at once, so I’m hoping that this all gets easier.

I don’t think my young adult fiction influences my poetry, or vice versa. That said, they’re definitely drawn from the same well. In both genres, I write about inheritance and coming of age and history. My young adult series is a Sherlock Holmes story; there’s a series of Holmes and Watson poems in my new manuscript. I don’t necessarily put on a different hat when I’m writing YA. Well. There’s a lot more humor in my fiction, but considering my poetry, that’s not a tall order.

EP: You sound much more organized than me, that’s for sure. If I was switching between a project as big as a novel and poems, I’d be all over the place.

You brought up the drafting of terrible poems. I’ve been doing a poem-a-day or rather a “blob-a-day,” as our group leader has deemed it. Usually I can sweep the terrible poems under a rug—or just not write them—but this forces me to get them out on the page and share them with other poets. Do you see value in the terrible poem? Care to snip the brass buttons of an ill-fitting coat and give us a few lines?

BC: I’ve done poem-a-day too, though I’ve been avoiding it lately—again, the fear is that I’ll somehow downshift into poetry if I let myself. I do find that forcibly unloading a whole lot of terrible lines and makeshift images at the beginning of the month opens up an opportunity for me to reimagine and reshape those lines and images later. I write a lot of poems about, really, not a lot of things; that is to say, I write the same poem over and over again until I get it right. Or at least closer to what I was intending. My fiancé was telling me the other day that, growing up, he thought all songs had to be about ‘a girl.’ I’m pretty much the same. All my poems are about the girl.

That said, I do really love the terrible poem and the process of writing it. There’s a certain element of fatalistic glee you hit when you’re ten lines in and you know it’s not going anywhere special. Sometimes it allows you to make moves you wouldn’t otherwise make if you knew the poem was a stronger one. I can be cavalier with work I don’t think is good. I do what my friend Jacques J. Rancourt has told me is an insane thing: I don’t save multiple drafts of poems. When I’m revising, I’ll tweak something and hit ‘save’ instantly, wash rinse repeat. When I’m finished, I do my best to forget what the draft looked like going in. I tend to obsess otherwise, and not in a productive way.

I did find a poem that I’ve written recently that is laughably malformed. It has a few lines I like, but in those, I realized I was borrowing so heavily from my favorite Lucie Brock-Broido poem that it’s more like bald thievery. Caveat emptor.

Each movement
is a choice. Sometimes in a locked room

I am not a woman anymore, am the blinds,
am armature, am the product

of blindness. Then you enter
disheveled, awful in your loveliness,

offering me a cup of tea. I am only myself
to you. I am myself only to you,

and that is the disaster, how well
I’m being seen.

EP: Are you an active imitator? Do you sit down and say, “I’m going to imitate this poem today by blah-blah-blah”? Why or why not? And, an addendum to that, do you see persona as a kind of imitation, in the same way that—oh, let me pick a recent example—Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” in the New Yorker is an imitation of Roger Reeves’s “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” and Frank O’Hara? Persona doesn’t have to be of a poem or literary figure; it can be an endeavor to find our way into the voices of many different people. But I’m wondering if there’s a connection to be made between the two forms.

BC: I’m most comfortable using imitation as a teaching tool. My worry is that, when I’m attempting it myself, I won’t be able to transform the imitated poem enough to make it my own. I need to add a further complication. In a chapbook I co-wrote with Rebecca Hazelton, No Girls No Telephones, we took a number of Berryman’s Dream Songs and wrote their opposites. Then wrote opposites of those opposites. The title itself is a phrase from one of Berryman’s poems but also plays on the idea of literary telephone, the half-remembered and bastardized ideas that wind their way into our work. That project had a particular goal for me when I began it—Berryman is my favorite poet, and yet I struggle to find depictions of unobjectified women in his work. This is an issue I make myself ignore, because there is nothing in the world like the syntax and wordplay of a Berryman line: “marriages lashed & languished, anguished, dearth of group / and what else had been; // the splendour & the lose grew all the same.” I wanted a little bit of that power for myself, and also I wanted to reimagine Berryman’s Henry as a Henrietta, and also I wondered what it would be like to translate Berryman into English and then into English again. And, at that point, I’d grown tired of ignoring his woman issue. So I started writing opposites of his work, phrase by phrase and word by word, and the voice is both mine and his, but that was always my intention anyway. I’d consider those poems a failure if they sounded more wholly like my poems. And maybe that’s where the lines between voice and imitation blur, at least for me.

EP: When I reread Girl-King the other day, I couldn’t get over that poem “Poem with First Two Lines from Paracelsus” in which the speaker says something like “At the party, / we behaved.” I think it might be my favorite poem in the book, in large part for what it doesn’t reveal. This line makes me think: How might they not have behaved? What were the usual state of affairs? Classic “Tell it slant,” it seems to me. Talk to me a little bit about how you reveal by not revealing.

BC: I’ve always been interested in things that are simultaneously real and not real. It might be a symptom of having been a bookish child—the world becomes a palimpsest. My thoughts are written so brightly that I can’t see the life beneath them. The story I’m reading is the real one, the only one, and yet it’s not real at all. There’s a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated: “Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.” The paucity of what the world can offer and the ache for what it can’t—all of this is to say that, as much as I love narrative (and I do), in my poems I’m oftentimes reluctant to tell a story as such because stories aren’t enough. The world isn’t enough. So what then? Exposition, backstory, description—these are all things I think are immensely important for a poem, and so I leave them out. Since it’s the very end of spring here in Wisconsin, I’ve been thinking of Mark Twain: “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” I always want ‘it.’ Sometimes I even know what ‘it’ is. But I’d rather not have it. In my writing, I sketch in all the colors around it in an attempt to highlight its absence.

Corey Van Landingham*: Louise Glück has said that she doesn’t like to call herself a poet, one of the reasons being that it creates an unwelcome expectation or pressure. Do you call yourself a poet, to yourself, or to others? Why or why not?

BC: This question becomes more complicated by the fact that I’m a fiction writer and children’s author as well as a poet. Sometimes those identities comfortably overlap, and sometimes it feels like one negates the other. Those are the days I usually watch a lot of Netflix. I’m very lucky right now to be in a position where I’m writing full-time, and it’s the first point in my life where I’ve really had to declare that I’m a writer, because I am. I’m not anything else right now, even if some days I wish I was, if just to take some of the pressure off. It’s deeply uncomfortable to call writing your profession, because it links your financial success to your creative ability. For some reason, I’ve never been comfortable with the typical follow-up questions to the declaration that I write ‘for a living.’ (And that’s my fault more than anyone else’s.) That said, I’m comfortable describing myself as such to other practitioners, because they know the score, but if the guy next to me on an airplane asks what I do, I usually tell him I’m a consultant, then ask about his Yankees cap.

EP: Now, Bri, provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

BC: What is your most recent obsession? Has it found its way into your work?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two books—Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016) from the University of Akron Press—and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). For more information, visit her website:

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