At Adroit, we’re big fans of Brittany Cavallaro – not only is she featured in our most recent issue, but she has also taught some of our lovely summer mentees at a Northwestern University summer program! For this installment of Conversations with Contributors, we talked to Brittany about her upcoming poetry and YA fiction book releases, teaching creative writing, and Sherlock Holmes.
Amanda Silberling, Blog Editor: Your Adroit poems are based on Sherlock Holmes stories. What inspired you to write poems about Sherlock Holmes?
Brittany Cavallaro, Poetry Contributor (Issue 10): These particular poems, “from The Adventure of the Hooded Woman,” are part of a longer series from my manuscript in progress. I’ve always been a Sherlock Holmes fan. The Arthur Conan Doyle stories been a particular obsession of mine for a long time, and I’ve always been interested by the figure of Dr. Watson. The conceit of the Conan Doyle stories is that he’s writing down the events as they happened, presenting the case for the reader. For the purposes of my Holmes and Watson poems, I wanted to explore what those stories changed, left out, elided from “actual” events. What is relevant in the stories you tell about your life? About the life you share with someone else? What do you choose to protect? What can wound by its reveal?
I’m also a YA writer, with a Sherlock Holmes series coming out—the first is called A Study in Charlotte, from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins in early 2016—that’s a feminist reimagining of the Holmes stories, following a teenage girl Holmes as she clears her name after her rapist is murdered. It’s a very different project than the poems. I feel a bit silly that I worked on all of these projects simultaneously—it makes me seem like a fanatic, which I’m not—but my interest in Holmes serves as a node for a lot of other things I love (railway history, detective fiction, class structures, Victorian England) and so I more or less couldn’t help myself.
Writing about a fictional character through poetry somewhat blurs the lines between genres – do you think that there is a divide between poetry and prose?
To a certain extent, I think all poetry is written through a fictional lens. There’s no way to translate the whole of our autobiography to the page, and even if we’re writing poems from what we believe to be our own point of view, the reader doesn’t have the framework to understand them as such, as parts of ourselves. The reader doesn’t know me, after all. I think employing a distancing mechanism allows the writer to more fully examine their subject matter, allow a little more truth to creep in underneath all the fact. The majority of my most autobiographical poems, for example, are written in the third person. There’s certainly a difference between writing through an invented persona and using one that’s so embedded in cultural consciousness, like Sherlock Holmes, but there’s also a long tradition of writing poems in dramatic monologue (I’m thinking specifically of Robert Browning here), using historical or cultural figures to work out certain ideas. In the poems Adroit published, I was interested in exploring that idea of veracity, of public history and personal history, how experience is mediated through language and how we present ourselves to our “audiences.”
What do you think distinguishes one genre from another?
That’s both a really easy and a really difficult question. Once, on a terrible date, I answered this question by saying that in poetry, you hit the Enter key a lot more.
So I’ll frame my answer by talking about my experience working in these genres, rather than reading them. When I’m in the middle of working on a novel, or a story, I have the feeling that I’m expanding the garden in my backyard. The plants are there each time I go outside, though some might have sprouted or died in the night. Maybe the soil’s dry. Maybe I left the hose running. So I spend an hour or so cleaning up whatever happened since I was there last, and then I go about the business of planting more. In reality, what this looks like is that I revise the pages I’ve written the day before and usually write five to ten more, fifteen if I’m really doing well. But I have that kind of fresh air-and-sunshine feeling at the end of those days, of hard work and surety. It’s less exciting than working on a poem. Sometimes, in the middle of the novel, you want a completely different garden than the one you have. But you’ve put in the work, so you put in some more.
Poetry, for me, has always been a lot more like sneezing than anything else. (Not to mix my metaphors.) Writing poetry is usually a reaction to my environment, whether it’s what I’m reading, or what I’ve seen, or what I remember. I write poems whether or not I really want to write them. They show up and demand to be written. For me, working a novel has always been more of a choice.
While you’re at it, tell us about your book of poetry, GIRL-KING, coming out from the University of Akron later this year.
It actually just came out! I received my copies this week, which was a startlingly surreal experience.
The poems in that book started as a project I was working on in my MFA about female agency, myth, and power. I’m interested in reclaiming female agency wherever I can—there’s a section in that book about the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh in the 19th century, written in dramatic monologue, where I try to give voice to the women they killed. Another section is made up of poems I wrote in response to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Formally and lyrically, Berryman’s my favorite poet, but a lot of the time, I find the representation of women in his poems baffling. So I went through and wrote the opposite of his poems, shifting hes into shes, cities into towns, et cetera. There are a lot of poems in the book about the Midwest I grew up in, but while the landscape if drawn from life, there’s no real autobiographical analogue in the book to the kind of girl I was growing up. You’ll find a lot of the experience of my twenties laid over the experience of my teens. As is probably inevitable.
How do you juggle both poetry and prose writing? Do you have a preference for either genre?
I think the answer to both questions is that I don’t. For the longest time, I considered myself a poet, someone who wrote poetry exclusively, and so I’m learning how to balance my writing life. I can’t say I have a system just yet. I tend to work pretty single-mindedly on a novel when I’m drafting it, not thinking much about poetry. When I’m going to write a poem, it spends a day or two bubbling up and then sort of announces itself. And then that’s what I devote that particular day to, and I push the novel aside. It’s all the same work to me—I’m just exploring different interests in different genres.
You’ve taught a few of our Summer Mentees in the past – what’s it like to work with teenage writers?
I think I’ve taught five or six of them at this point! I love recommending my students to you guys. I teach the advanced creative writing honors class at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development program in the summer. It’s easily the professional highlight of my year. The writers I work with are uniformly excellent: talented, excited, interested in reading anything they can get their hands on, willing to push out of their comfort zone. I have them for three intensive weeks, and they write their hearts out. They go on to do awesome things. I’m so proud of them.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in teaching creative writing?
When I was a teenage writer, I was desperate to be taken seriously. I can’t tell you another time in my life that I read or wrote as much as my high school years—and I read and write full-time right now. I got better by leaps and bounds, sometimes in a single week. I wrote in a more varied and adventurous way than I could possibly do now. All of this was because I had teachers who listened to me, who told me that I was good, but that, if I put the time in, I could be so much better.
As a teacher, I think it’s a really important thing to listen to your students, understand what their goals and aspirations are, and then challenge them to be and achieve even more. My advanced creative writing students come to my class with a high level of intention, talent, and motivation. So I take them seriously. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the basis of my pedagogy.
What do you think is your biggest challenge in being a writer yourself?
Oh, man. Honestly, the hardest thing about my process is probably my lack of a schedule. I’m more or less a house cat. I spend hours and hours puttering around my house, thinking idly about things, reading books and then putting them down, drinking cups of tea. Then I’ll burst into a flurry of motion. And then I start pacing around again. I have this feeling that I’d get a lot more done if I could just sit down at a set time every day, but it doesn’t show any signs of happening.
In terms of the biggest challenge for me of being a writer, it’s probably the ability to maintain that identity even when you’re not actively working. I believe in showing up every day to your writing when you’re working on a project, but I also pretty firmly believe in taking some time away if you’re in a fallow period. There’s no good in hitting your head consistently against a wall, but it can also be really hard to consciously not be doing your work. It can feel like you’re slipping away from your identity. I’ve been in that phase for the last month, and I can tell you that it’s completely unscrewed my head from where it usually is. I’m looking forward to getting back to it, if just to regain the usual foundation for my days.
Brittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, GIRL-KING, is forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2015. Individual poems have appeared in AGNI, Tin House, and Best New Poets, among others. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.