Interview with Erica Wright
Erica Wright is the author of the poetry collections Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned, as well as the crime novels Red Chameleon and The Granite Moth. Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, Gulf Coast, New Orleans Review, Spinning Jenny, and elsewhere. She is the poetry editor and a senior editor at Guernica Magazine as well as an editorial board member for Alice James Books.
All The Bayou Stories End with Drowned is part cautionary tale, part acclamation. In this charged and unrelenting collection, Erica Wright explores the nuances of human existence—how we push past, and push out, the grit and chaos of our lives in order to perform the most extraordinary of functions, the most basic of human desires: survival. How do we look at our role and responsibilities as the dominant species on the planet? Which world—manmade or natural—is intruding upon the other? How do people even manage to survive in light of the challenges facing us from both worlds? Wright’s questions lodge like a splinter under the skin, refusing to be ignored and ultimately leaving a sting that reminds us of the fragility of our own nature.
MICHELLE ROSQUILLO: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Erica. I think we should begin at the beginning: What inspired Bayou Stories?
ERICA WRIGHT: I actually wrote the title poem first, and I had a gut feeling I was starting a new project. It was inspired by a really bleak story in the Houston Chronicle about two children who died in a flood, and the article focused considerably on these two children. And then at the end of the article, there was a brief paragraph about other victims of the flood, presumably all of whom were adult. I thought about how I understand the journalist’s motivation to write about the most emotionally charged angle, but all those other people had stories too. So that caught my attention and inspired the first poem.
The collection turned into an exploration of all the ways we try to survive as humans. We’re really quite fragile, when you start to think about it. You hear statistics: only 1% of the population is affected by this particular disease, this number of people are killed in driving accidents every year. But when you start to combine them you realize how remarkable it is that we get up and we pursue our dreams even knowing that life could be cut short, when it’s already pretty limited to start with. That was my driving force for the collection: survival, and the lengths we go to try to live our lives.
MR: Reading through the collection, I kept seeing references to wilderness, the wild, animals—and these images were put up against other images of manmade things: cities and highways, billboards. “Abandoned Doll Factory” actually creeped me out so much I had to put the book down. Things that people create versus things that people are surrounded by. I just kept noticing that in the poems that put these images together, humans are right between the two worlds. What does that say about your ideas of where humans exist or belong, or what our role is, being surrounded by two very different environments?
EW: I grew up in a very tiny town in Tennessee, a town of 500 people, and everyone sort of lived on the cusp of wilderness. Our neighbors had farmland, vast expansions of fields, and you could look in two directions and not see anything but wilderness. To me as a child, that was natural. I didn’t understand that not everyone lives in such close proximity with cottonmouth snakes and coyotes, the kinds of creatures that are both majestic and potentially deadly. When I first started writing poetry, that was all I wrote about. So I think I’ve really tried to articulate in these poems what I’m interested in, which is this question of What is humanity’s role? What happens when we start encroaching? What are our responsibilities? Perhaps we come to those responsibilities through appreciation.
What’s remarkable about nature is the beauty and danger simultaneously. So many of our wild creatures and environmental events are both beautiful and dangerous. You see storms rolling in—some people love them, they can sit and watch a storm come in, and others are frightened of them, of what nature can do. I suppose it’s an issue of awe: something being awful and awesome at the same time. It’s something I can’t get away from.
MR: “Art in the Age of Popularity” has a line about keeping the wilderness “at bay until further notice.” I think that perfectly encompasses this idea that we try to keep things out that are so beautiful and awful, but we also have to learn to appreciate them for what they are. What a cool way to encapsulate that emotion.
EW: Thank you! Yes, I think there’s definitely beauty in the modern world as well, but there’s just something so powerful about nature. Think about how quickly a building is taken over in a rural setting if it’s abandoned—the kudzu will just take over the walls. I’d love to write about the Florida Everglades, how quickly invasive species have taken over just within the last ten years. To me it’s just astonishing—we think about humans being so powerful, but put a couple of pythons in the Everglades and suddenly there’s an enormous population, and that becomes a threat to humans.
MR: That makes me think of a poem I read back in July, on the Poem-a-Day website. It’s called “What if the Invader is Beautiful” by Louise Mathias, about a tree in the Mojave Desert that kills everything around it with these beautiful flowers. This is what you’re getting at, that nature is beautiful to behold but it can take over very quickly—it’s essentially just waiting to be given that chance.
EW: I love that idea, that it’s just waiting to come back in.
MR: Another thing that comes up a lot in this collection is the image of bodies. Some of the poems look at bodies, living or dead, as a whole. You have dolls, which is a whole other type of body imagery. But what most interested me were the poems that take the bodies apart, reduce them to parts. Actually several poems use the words “parts” or pieces” and I loved the idea that you’re exploring the idea of small parts being vital to the success of the whole. If your collection is, in the end, about how we survive and how fragile we are, it’s inevitable that you’d explore this idea too, that our bodies are miraculous and they shouldn’t even exist, but they do.
EW: I like that description—when you start thinking about the individual pieces, about how many pieces of the body have to work together, it does seem miraculous that we’re even here. You have the gall bladder—I don’t even know what it looks like, but someone in my family had to go to the hospital for it. When you think of the individual parts instead of the whole, it makes you grateful. I can get up, nothing hurts, I’m here. It’s easier for me to focus on individual parts of the body instead of thinking about humans as a whole.
Actually, that doll poem was inspired by a photograph—I wish I could remember the name of it—of a doll factory in Germany. All that was left when the factory shut down was the doll heads. It’s a terrifying image—the bleakness of it, the destruction. What was the story of these people who suddenly lost their jobs—because I can’t imagine, if it wasn’t sudden, they’d have left the factory in that condition. The heads of the dolls made me think of lives interrupted, of what would have caused the shutdown of the factory. Was it war? Was it economics? To me, there were a lot of questions in that one photograph.
MR: Aside from the doll imagery, I was equally fascinated-slash-disturbed by another poem, “After the Human Pincushion: Mabel”. The poem opens with this image of the speaker cutting the fingers off her lover and using them to play the piano. That opened me to the question that once the body is done, what use is it? Or that whole overarching idea of taking something whole and using it for parts, and only in this way can you continue to be useful. I kept playing around with ideas of pieces, and whether the pieces or the whole—or reducing the whole to pieces—is of more value.
I suppose I just want to draw attention to the fact that you don’t just focus on the living body, and how the parts of a living body are essential, but after that living body has stopped being useful in any way, the idea of taking what was alive, what was this person, and reducing it down to pieces that are still useful—I found that really compelling, in a macabre way.
EW: Well, I am an organ donor, and I encourage everyone to become an organ donor. However, I must admit I’m a little superstitious. I think it’s because I was raised in a small-town church and there’s a lot of talk about bodies being resurrected—when we go to heaven we’ll have our physical bodies. I believe my heart, my eyes, would be much more useful here—but there’s a little sliver of me that thinks, But what if I need that? What if I need my liver after I die? [laugh] It’s ridiculous, but I do wonder if it’s possible that we might need those parts after we die, for something we haven’t discovered yet.
MR: I think it comes from the idea of desecration—taking apart something you see as sacred. I wasn’t raised with religion—which is odd because my mother was Catholic growing up. But I wasn’t raised in a church, to believe in any particular religion or deity, and so to me, signing up to be an organ donor was that idea that someone could use my heart or my lungs after I pass. But when I got my first license and my mother found out that I agreed to be a donor, she threw a fit. And that was my first glimpse of the idea that the body could be viewed as sacred, instead of I’m a person, and after that I’m not a person anymore. So the idea of what we grant that value to is what I keep seeing in your work—whether to grant value to the whole, keeping the whole together, or whether to be the person who sees value in what can be immediately used. Instead of counting on having a whole body in heaven, giving someone a whole body on earth—which is the more sacred act? It was a neat perspective to get from that poem.
EW: I like this question. I’ll have to think more on it. [laugh] I’ll be running to write, after this conversation!
MR: Now I want to take a little segue here, speaking of sacred things and religion, to the poem “Migration of a Minor God”. I came to this poem while I was thinking about the tone of the collection: somber, gritty, grim. Between all the questions about survival, environment, what is sacred and what isn’t, I kept thinking of American Gods. Have you read or watched that?
EW: Oh, I haven’t!
MR: I recommend both the Neil Gaiman novel and the Starz television series. The premise is old gods versus new gods, and what we as Americans value in terms of culture and identity. Throwing that against the traditional or established sense of religion, worship, culture. Neil Gaiman does a fantastic job of exploring what gives people meaning, against what people find truly valuable. By the time I got to your “Migration of a Minor God”, I was already thinking of all these things, so that kick-started the whole comparison for me.
In the last stanza, the speaker mentions that “the point” is coming back each year “a little more spent, a little more dead”. I found that fascinating to consider from the perspective of a god, something that is nominally eternal. Like, what the point of existence even is if you have no end goal in sight, if you have to just keep coming back—what do you surround yourself with, in that case? And in this speaker’s case, it’s an urban landscape, but painted in dull shades of This is the same thing every year and how that just grinds you down more and more. How did you come to this poem?
EW: I’m interested in powerful, but not all-powerful. For me, I do believe in some sort of universal power, but I don’t think it’s possible for that power to be almighty. I don’t think I can reconcile the sorrow in the world, the injustice, with the idea of an all-powerful being. To me those things don’t match. If there is some sort of higher power, if he or she is battling every year trying to fix the planet, save humanity—how exhausting. Every year people killing children, every year wars fought for money and greed. What is it like to have responsibility for that?
It’s not just about religion either—it’s about people. So many good people in the world fight every day to make their city, their community, their planet a better place. It does grind you down. There’s something remarkable about passing that landmark every year—January first, or your birthday—and resetting, saying Okay, here we go again. I’m so impressed with people who can keep marching on, even when the odds are so against all of us.
I wrote this poem a while ago, but I watched Jessica Jones recently, and I was so fascinated by the idea of a hero who is stronger than regular humans but not ultra-strong. The idea of having a slight superpower is more interesting, to me, than being Superman. So what do you do with a power like that, how do you make use of it? Do you hoard it selfishly, or use it to help your neighbors?
MR: That’s a question I like to consider too, the slightly-better-than-human, and what would you do? I haven’t seen Jessica Jones, but we’ll trade—I’ll watch that and you watch American Gods and we’ll compare notes later.
EW: [laugh] Deal.
MR: So to switch gears again, let’s go back to the title poem. You told me you wrote it first, but I was surprised to find it starting the final section, near the end of the collection. There’s so much happening, so much said and not said. A lot of the imagery that crops up throughout the collection is in here—the wilderness being a threat but also something idealized, bodies, the in-between place where people tend to live, the where-is-safe-where-is-not-safe. The poem does a lot with such short stanzas—I think if you can pack such power into couplets, you really are somewhat more than human. [laugh]
The one line that caught my attention was “Everything else ends with decision.” I was trying to trace “everything else” back to what was before everything else, and I realized it was the title: the bayou stories end with drowning, everything else ends with decision. And coming to this juxtaposition—those are the two ways to end, drowned or decision—had me questioning what the poem is saying about the two ways to live, or the multiple ways to live, of being alive and existing, if the ways of ending just comes down to drowned or decision. I know you’ve already touched on this poem, and how it’s exploring ways of survival, but what else can you add given the course of our conversation?
EW: I’m thinking about people being “lost” versus “dead”, and how there are these two different states, and how there’s something especially . . . satisfying? About being to specifically say what happened to a loved one, versus the doubt of not knowing. Obviously, this poem is about the news article I mentioned—the two children’s bodies that were found, and the list of names of other people who had drowned. I don’t remember if they found those other bodies or not, but I’m imagining in the poem they’re searching for survivors, and the different type of grief that is required when someone is lost, versus when you know what happened to them.
My uncle, whom I never met, was on the USS Scorpion, a submarine that was lost during the Cold War. My grandmother really suffered from that her entire life, not knowing what happened to her son—they never actually discovered what happened to the men onboard. To me it’s a different type of grief, of sorrow, because it’s laced with hope, but I don’t necessarily know that that is any sort of comfort. It just prolongs the mourning period.
So that’s what I was playing with, struggling to find the right word to describe the comfort of death. To me that was sufficient: the idea of something being decided versus something open the rest of your life. I think that’s a big question. Poetry’s about asking questions, and that is an enormous one for people to wrestle with. Some people have to wrestle it their entire lives.
MR: You know, that’s interesting that you talked about being lost versus being dead—I have sticky notes placed throughout your entire collection with motifs and themes I kept noticing, and actually I do have “lost” and “dead” scattered in among the other notes. Most of them say “bodies”, just so you know.
EW: [laugh] Oh, no.
MR: But I like the idea that they show up through the book, the ideas of being lost and being dead. It makes me want to go back and reread everything again. I do think that’s a very good question—not just a big question, but a good one—how do people grieve differently when these are the two options you have. I think it points back to how survival works in humans. Even though we’re consumed with grief, we continue to move on and produce more humans, and occupy all different types of life in all different parts of the world.
Someone asked me the other day, “Well, why do you think we’re here?”—about humans being on the planet. And I think I said something flippant like, “We’re here because we refuse not to be here.” I do believe very strongly that we’re a stubborn species, and even in light of these things—death and grief—we keep going, because we don’t want to not keep going.
EW: I like that idea, that we’re a stubborn species. We are.
MR: And we’re invasive in our own way too. Another friend of mine wrote a poem about the highway system being an invasive species. I loved that idea, something manmade that crawls like a vine across the world.
EW: I’m moving right now from Houston to DC, and we’re living in a U-Haul—my fiancé, my cat, and I. [laugh] And I have very similar feelings—we can be cutting through gorgeous farmland on either side, and then this highway right in the middle of it. I’m happy that we’re able to travel this way, but it feels wrong that we cut up beautiful land to do so.
MR: Well, to conclude the interview, I want to ask you about your favorite part of poetry. I’ve been through your collection several times and I’ve found that I’m just in love with the way you use line. To me, of all craft elements of poetry, that’s my most important, my most favorite—line as a unit of sense. I found no place in the collection where you waste a line break or a stanza break. You pay such good attention to where the images fit together. It reminded me of Natasha Trethewey, and she’s my favorite poet who’s ever written a line. [laugh] The way you use each individual line as an image—is that because you’re like me, and you’re uber-anal-retentive about where the line breaks are? What is your favorite part of working on a poem? What gives you the most joy in poetry?
EW: My favorite poems, the ones I go back to again and again, aren’t necessarily perfect poems, but they’re ones that have a line or two lines that are absolutely brilliant. I do think that’s why I keep going back to poetry, because of the line. Because it’s unique, it’s not something we have in other genres. We build these poems in pieces—to go back to an earlier theme we were talking about—I do think every line should be important, no line should be wasted.
I think what I really want, in an ideal world where I can write the poems I really want to write, is: you could pull up any line and get something from it, whether it’s music or meaning, and you could get some sort of reaction. It’s what I aim for in my writing. It’s what I love about other people’s work. I can be obsessed with an imperfect poem if it has a line that just floors me. That was also my way into poetry. People who are intimidated by poetry, who don’t know where to start—that’s where you start. You don’t have to understand an entire poem, you could find a line that speaks to you. That’s how you build your appreciation of this unusual art form—I think it’s okay to call it an unusual art form—that some of us are obsessed with.
MR: I agree with that. Actually there’s one line in Bayou Stories that floored me, like you said. It’s in “State Bear”—“take me with you when you slide into the bark and growl.” I thought that was . . . I don’t even know how to describe it. It speaks so closely to this idea I have of reclaiming the wild parts of yourself, or not pushing those parts way. Isolated from every other aspect of the collection, the idea of “sliding back into” that wilderness, like it’s part of you, it’s not ever something you pushed away. That hit me really hard. So I understand what you mean, when you say it could just be a single line—if that one line speaks to you, that’s your way into a poem, or a collection of poetry. I think you’ve achieved that. You’re on your way to that ideal world.
EW: Thank you very much. That’s what we all aim for, right? We’re trying to write that one poem, and we hope we have time for it in our lifetime.
MR: I did watch an interview of you talking about your fiction work. You distinguish really well the difference between writing fiction and writing poetry. Before I got my MFA in poetry, I was convinced I was a fiction writer. And not a great one. Everyone told me, “Your fiction is really pretty, but the plot doesn’t make sense and the characters aren’t fleshed out. But it’s really pretty.” Eventually it clicked that I was writing poetry, not fiction. In the interview you talk about how writing poetry is writing yourself, or writing for yourself. Fiction is such a radically different way to think about writing—you can set a goal to write ten thousand words, and do it. You can’t do that with poetry because it’s so internal—it’s like pulling out pieces of yourself. So I commiserate with that, and congratulate you on being a successful writer of both genres.
EW: [laugh] I do love the workforce aspect of writing fiction—you can sit down and set a goal, and get up when you reach that goal. I can’t do that at all with poetry. There’s days of wandering around trying to figure out a word or a line, wondering if I’m even accessing the poem at the right moment. Am I starting too early, too late? There’s just so much—you know this, having just finished an MFA—even after all that, there’s parts of poetry that I think are wholly mysterious. You have to just trust that you can finish a poem. There’s part of it that’s just really blind faith. In fiction you don’t need quite as much blind faith; you can say I’m going to finish this draft by January 2019 and that’s a real goal! With poetry I would laugh at that idea.
MR: It is hard to decide when you’re done writing a poem, if you’re ever done. I don’t ever get a sense of accomplishment: This is finished. When I come to the end of a poem I have to go back and think about which words to take back or put back in. There is that never-ending, wholly mysterious aspect of poetry. It keeps me coming back.
EW: Yes. It’s both the joy and the grief of writing poetry.