Claudia Cortese talks about embodied poetry
and writing Wasp Queen
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
In some way or another, I have written from, towards, and into the body since I started writing poems at 19. Jamie, the first girl I kissed and one of the coolest people I had ever met, was a green-haired, hilarious girl who would cram as many teenbodies as she could into her pickup truck and then take the over-stuffed truck to the dusty lot of a shutdown gas station, driving in circles till the truck tipped to one side and our terrified shrieks punctuated the dust cloud I thought we’d surely die in. Jamie was broken—both physically and emotionally; a metal rod had been put into her spine to help straighten her back that scoliosis and years of living on the street doing heroin had made crooked. Her story isn’t mine, so I don’t want to say more, but she committed suicide when I was 19 and she was 23, and much about her trauma, her brokenness, had mirrored my own. When she died I felt like Sexton did about Plath’s suicide—Jamie had taken the death that was to be mine.
Paradoxically, I also could not wrap my mind around how she had actually gone through with it: entered a graveyard with a gun and ended it all. I was confused, envious, triggered all to fucking hell, and full of grief. I felt her death deep in my body and within days of her suicide, I started writing poetry—maudlin, teengirl poems that were certainly not very good, but I wrote them about and from my body: its trauma and grief. Kathleen Hill, one of my mentors from Sarah Lawrence and a brilliant writer and professor, said that nothing exists outside the personal, which means that nothing exists outside the body.
Lucy is an unforgettable persona. In her imagination what grows and blooms sits right beside what rots and curdles, and “[t]o love is to suffer / and to suffer is to give yourself to this world.” When did Lucy first reveal herself to you? How has she evolved since then?
She revealed herself to me during the summer of 2011. I wrote a poem in about ten minutes, or perhaps even less, and it came out pretty much finished (which I know I am not supposed to say—one is supposed to “suffer” for one’s art, to labor over it, which I often do, of course—some of my poems and essays go through over 20 revisions, but Lucy arrived whole and in need of few changes). I was sitting in my parents' living room during a visit home and a girl came to me who counted how long the streetlight stayed green—reaching thirty seconds meant her mom would die in a plane crash—then dreamt men bound her wrists in her sleep.I felt a holy-shit-what-the-fuck-was-that rush of wonder and adrenaline as soon as I finished the poem. I showed it to a few friends and they confirmed what I’d suspected—that I’d written a damn good poem that was like no other I’d written before. My bestie, Grey Vild (who’s a brilliant human and poet), pushed me to write a whole book of Lucy poems and stories and I did because Grey is rarely wrong when it comes to my work. I hope everyone has at least one friend who sees their work so clearly and with such loving honesty.
LUCY WANTS RED HAIR,
Lucy’s story is populated by so many things! I picture Barbies, cans of Aqua-Net, Marlboro, Cheetos, and Krazy-Glue strewn across suburban Ohio like a Lucy breadcrumb trail. How does suburban sprawl and the fact of capitalism play a part in the various harms that have been visited on Lucy? How do they contribute to the harm she does others?
That’s an excellent question! Lucy’s life is overstuffed with the paraphernalia of late capitalism. In fact, the reader spends more time with Lucy’s Polly Pockets, Barbies, Cheetos, Marlboro cigarettes, etc., than they do with Lucy’s parents. Her dad is a ghost, like so many dads are ghosts—physically and/or spiritually absent—while her mom, though a bit more present than her dad, only speaks to Lucy in two poems. Lucy’s parents leave holes in her life—their absence like small puncture wounds throughout the poems—and those holes are filled with the stuff Lucy shoplifts from the mall or that her parents have bought for her.
Another hole in the poems is the unnamed trauma that Lucy has experienced. I allude to the fact that an event or series of events have traumatized Lucy but I never detail or name what happened. In place of the naming, and in place of her parents, are Lucy’s toys and favorite television shows and vodka and cigarettes and Reddi-wip and Oreos—the stuff she consumes to numb the pain and fill the emptiness. These objects serve as surrogate parents. No one pays attention to Lucy, keeps her safe, tries to heal her hurt, and so she visits onto others the hurt that has been done to her—Lucy hits her best friend in the head and tears out her dog’s fur with her teeth and eats caterpillars.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Ohhhh!!! Yes—I can certainly do that! There’s so much brilliant work being written right now.
1) Meghan Privitello’s Notes on the End of the World and A New Language for Falling out of Love (poetry)
2) Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (memoir)
3) Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (novel)
4) Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (essays)
5) Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (novel)
6) Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This (poetry)
7) Elizabeth Hall’s I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris (nonfiction/lyric essay)
8) Aaron Apps’ Dear Herculine (hybrid nonfiction/poetry—hard to classify the genre, which is one of the things I love about this book!)
9) Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (poetry)
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Be honest. Be gross and grotesque and vulgar. Write about the horrors, pains, pleasures that you have experienced in your body. Read poems and stories about and from the body written by writers who have different identities from yourself—LGBTQUIA writers, femme writers, male writers, writers of color, differently abled writers, writers who are not American and not writing in the 21st century—and see how they are writing from and about the body in ways that differ from your own writing. Ask yourself: what can I contribute to the conversation that hasn’t been said before or, at least, hasn’t been said in quite this way? Do I have experiences that other writers are not writing about or have simply not had? Also ask yourself: what style and form captures my visceral experiences? Do I want to omit punctuation or use it? Do I want to write persona poems or confessional poems? Do I want to write lyric-narratives or associative poems?
I don’t know if there’s any work that is wholly original. I certainly could never have written Lucy without having read John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, CA Conrad’s The Book of Frank, and Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick’s Francine in the Garden. The best poems and stories Frankenstein different parts of different texts together—stitching a leg from Berryman with a head from Hardwick with a torso from Conrad—adding one’s own hair and feet and legs, making a monster that is all your own and doing something new while also made of the work you have read and loved.
Claudia Cortese is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her debut full-length book, Wasp Queen, was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. Her work has appeared in Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast Online, and The Offing, among others, and she writes reviews for Muzzle Magazine. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and lives in New Jersey. She also lives at claudia-cortese.com.