Stephanie Cawley on Voice, Politics of Resilience, and Her Influences in A Wilderness
Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: A Wilderness begins with an essential self-awareness. You write, “I put a horse in the poem.” And, in the penultimate stanza of the opening poem, you continue with an introspective narrator: “Who was the “I” who wore a white dress and did/ as she was told?” I feel like your speaker grounds each poem in the tangible. How do you see the narrator’s progression throughout the book?
Stephanie Cawley: For a long time, I have been very interested in the idea of “voice” in writing. Not so much “my” voice, or the idea of discovering one’s “true” voice, but in using writing as a way to explore, lean into, perform, embody, channel, the voices available to me and my imagination. Earlier in my writing life I wrote a lot of overt persona poems, but I’ve become more interested in thinking of some writing projects as about creating or discovering the voice of a less literal kind of persona, and then exploring what that voice might have to say. In the prose poems that make up most of this book, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing with them at first except that I was interested in speaking out of this kind of wild, feral, almost hysterical, feminine voice. That first poem, “Bridle,” which is in a quieter kind of voice, hopefully works to lead you into the collection by setting up a speaker, an “I,” who is about to depart, about to begin a series of transformations.
SM: Khadijah Queen wrote, “A Wilderness writes in praise of resilience, in acute awareness of terror and disaster, and ranges from gravity to exuberance…” Can you talk to us about balance in your work? Is balance possible? You write: “Always that volta of despair: the but, and yet, however.” What role did you intend resilience to play in this work?
SC: I think I’m interested less in balance than in bothness, in troubling, in complicating. I was interested in this book in exploring race and gender: how my intersecting whiteness and womanhood situates me as both subject and object of great violences. I think in this work I was less interested in answers and more in questions, in kind of turning a thought or an idea or a feeling over, and then turning it over again.
That said, I’m also interested in and committed to a politics of resilience and futurity. We live in times that can feel apocalyptic, but I’m really influenced by adrienne maree brown and her sister Autumn Brown who, in their writing and on their podcast How to Survive the End of the World, remind that apocalypses have happened and are happening all the time. Worlds end all the time. The world as we know it ending, terrifying as it is to imagine, also brings with it the possibility of a better world.
SM: As I read this book, I was reminded of poets like Joy Harjo and Alice Notley. Who were you reading during the creation of these poems? Do you feel particularly influenced by anyone? In what writers and work do you find inspiration?
SC: I am honored to be thought of in such a lineage! I am always thinking of and influenced by Alice Notley; I think what I said about “voice” above reflects her influence on my writing and my thinking about writing. Another writer who really made these poems possible for me is Lo Kwa Mei-en. Her books Yearling and The Bees Make Money in the Lion are absolutely electric, disorienting, lyric interrogations of the forces of race, gender, and colonization. I also was reading Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons and Michelle Detorie’s After-Cave as well as her work on feral poetics. It’s hard to summarize either of those, but these lines from The Undercommons I think suggest some of what I was trying to think towards in this project: “We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic. We surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it. Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time it tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling. Every time it tries to take root, we’re gone (because we’re already here, moving).”
SM: Thematically, your work is historical, political, violent, and present, but I was especially drawn to the natural images and wild landscapes weaved throughout offering vital glimpses of relief and beauty. You often describe incredible moments of reimagining:
“This was the dream of being a woman: to stand at the edge of slaughter and call the blood on my hands perfume, or gauze.”
“I drowned so many women in the lake. Their bones kept washing up on shore and I assembled them into new animals.”
What message do you hope your reader walks away from this work with?
SC: To dodge answering the question about what message I hope readers will walk away with (which makes me sweat to think about directly), I’ll say two things:
1) It’s interesting to me that you point out these lines as moments of relief and beauty! A colleague recently referred to this work as “disturbing,” (though not in a bad way). So I said to my partner, “My poems aren’t disturbing are they?” and they said, “Uh, yes,” and pointed to that exact line about drowning women in the lake as evidence! I really feel I can’t know how an image or a sentence will land for different readers. But I do feel, for me, there is something about the clarity of image in moments like those, even if that image is surreal or imaginative, that does offer a kind of relief, or a moment to pause.
2) One of the things I was reading and thinking a lot about while I was creating this work is the way that “natural” spaces are in fact sites of historical and political violence, even if they might also be spaces that feel to many of us like places of refuge from those violences. In one poem, there’s the line, “To protect trees and plants, the government drove native peoples from their land and called the result a wilderness.” That’s a quite literal, historical fact. To quote Mark David Spence in his book Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, “Uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved.”
SM: What are you working on now? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
SC: I spent this winter finalizing edits on my first full-length book My Heart But Not My Heart, due out in March 2020 from Slope Editions. My Heart But Not My Heart is a hybrid, book-length sequence that’s about grief, depression, and art-making, written in the aftermath of my dad’s sudden death. Miraculously, I’m also revising poems for my second full-length book, Animal Mineral, due out in 2022 from YesYes Books. That book will carry forward a lot of the themes and some of the poems from A Wilderness. Those are the big things I’m working on, but I do my best generative writing when it feels like I’m not paying attention to it, so I’m also adding bits of text here and there into a doc that’s right now called “Ghouls of Love,” but I don’t know yet what that might become.
Stephanie Cawley is a poet from southern New Jersey. She is the author of My Heart But Not My Heart (Slope Editions 2020), winner of the Slope Book Prize chosen by Solmaz Sharif, and Animal Mineral (YesYes Books, 2022), as well as the chapbook A Wilderness (Gazing Grain, 2019). Her work has also appeared in the PEN Poetry Series, The Fanzine, West Branch, and TYPO, among other places. Learn more at stephaniecawley.com.