Sheryl St. Germain has published six poetry books, three essay collections, and co-edited two anthologies. Her latest collection of essays, Fifty Miles, will appear in January 2020 with Etruscan Press. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder of the Words Without Walls Program. See http://sheryl-stgermain.com/ for more info.
Deborah Woodard is the author of Plato’s Bad Horse (Bear Star, 2006) Borrowed Tales (Stockport Flats, 2012) and No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911 (Ravenna Press, 2018). She has published several chapbooks, including Hunter Mnemonics (hemel press, 2008), which was illustrated by artist Heide Hinrichs. She has translated the poetry of Amelia Rosselli from Italian in The Dragonfly, A Selection of Poems: 1953-1981 (Chelsea Editions, 2009), Hospital Series (New Directions, 2015) and Obtuse Diary (Entre Rios Books, 2018). Deborah teaches at Hugo House in Seattle.
Writers Sheryl St. Germain and Deborah Woodard discuss their new and forthcoming books. St. Germain’s Fifty Miles, a collection of lyric essays about addiction and healing focusing on the death of her son from a heroin overdose, will be published in January 2020 by Etruscan Press. Woodard’s new chapbook, No Finis: Triangle Testimonies, 1911, was recently published by Ravenna Press, and was inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Sheryl St. Germain: What drew you to want to write about this fire and the subsequent trial? And why now?
Deborah Woodard: I’d been working on various sequences having to do with U.S. labor history, as my mother had been a labor organizer in her younger days. I’d heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and so I started reading up on it. The topic became connected in my mind with Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side and with my mother’s family, which was Jewish and which, given that my mother died when I was young and for other family reasons, I knew virtually nothing about. I eventually figured out that my mother’s family immigrated to New York in an earlier wave of migration, but the connection with a larger Jewish community had been established. Add to this that I translate from Italian, and the second largest group of Triangle workers was Italian.
In the spring of 2011, I was in Manhattan for a conference and was able to visit the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire centennial exhibit at New York University off Washington Square Park. The exhibit was held on the ground floor of NYU’s Brown Building, the site of the 1911 fire. So I was actually there, in that space, which felt a little eerie. When I discovered the online, public domain transcript of the trial of the factory owners, I decided to use that material as the basic for a sequence of poems.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire continues to be a rallying cry against entrapment and substandard working conditions both here and abroad. When I was working on No Finis, I attended a meeting of young Pacific Rim activists here in Seattle who had put together a chapbook of the poetry of Xu Lizhi, one of the Foxconn suicides in the so-called “Foxconn City” in Shenzhen, China: “A screw fell to the ground / In this dark night of overtime / Plunging vertically, lightly clinking / It won’t attract anyone’s attention / Just like last time / On a night like this / When someone plunged to the ground.” I was struck to see that this posthumous chapbook, Ghost in the Machine: The Poetry and Brief Life of Foxconn Worker Xu Lizhi referenced the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in its introduction.
In your forthcoming book of hybrid essays, 50 Miles, you share very personal family history in order to talk about your drinking and subsequent sobriety and the substance abuse struggles of your son Gray, who died tragically at age thirty from an apparent heroin overdose.
Forgive me for starting near the end of the book, but I found “Parking Lot Nights,” the chapter on gaming, so compelling. It is a remarkable topic, and a neglected one for those of my Boomer generation. You do an outstanding job explaining what gaming entails, too. I now realize that there are significant dimensions to my own younger relatives, and their strategies of dealing with loss and trauma, that I’ve been effectively blind to, most likely labeling them as “mere” escapism. The chapter also demonstrates how you shared a vocabulary and a passionate pastime with your son. You found common ground and a realm where Gray knew more than you did, though you appear to have quickly excelled. Could you say a little bit about how you entered this world and why you’ve stayed with it? Could you draw a correlation with crocheting, another one of your pursuits?
SSG: I believe video games, the good ones, can function the same way literature does for some of us. The genre is still in its adolescence, and has a good way to go to catch up with great literary works, but the time will come when more people recognize the affecting power of the most thoughtful of these games. As a single mother of a son, I came to the games as a way of connecting with my son, who loved them. It was a way of bonding with my son in a world that sometimes felt safer than the world we were actually living in. He was able to teach me things, and we both found ways to both engage and escape in the role-playing World of Warcraft game, which is the one I write about in the book. Gray introduced me to this game, and the last time I saw him before his death, we played the game together. His name still appears on my friend list when I open the game, saying that he’s “offline.” I was playing the game when his father called to tell me Gray had died, and when I returned to the game months after his death, I felt connected, in a powerful way, to Gray, remembering how our “toons” had travelled together in the world of Azeroth, battling monsters and helping each other.
Although I never suffered the degree of substance use disorder my son did, I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and will soon be celebrating 10 years of sobriety. Playing video games as part of a healthy life that included writing, gardening, and crocheting, was one way for me to have fun without drinking. I recently taught a graduate level course on Video Games and Literature that involved playing World of Warcraft, and I have an essay about that in a special gaming issue of Creative Nonfiction.
There’s an essay about crocheting in the book, which was a great source of healing for me while Gray struggled with addiction and afterwards when I struggled with grief. The comfort of the repetitive motion of the hook looping the yarn, the knowledge I was making something useful to keep someone warm, the beauty of the yarn, all provided deep solace.
I had to do a significant amount of research about video games to write that part of the essay, and I’m always interested in literary works such as yours that include research. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the process of composing poetry that takes historical documents as inspiration. It seems as if, in some poems, you took language verbatim from the manuscript of the trial where in other places you compressed and added some fictional threads. How did you make those decisions within individual poems?
I was also interested that you often have a final line in the poems that functions almost like the last line in a haiku: it’s not immediately obvious how that line relates to the rest of the poem, and it feels like an invitation for the reader to go back and reread the poem. Were these lines part of the original manuscript?
DW: I’m fascinated to hear of your Video Games and Literature class, Sheryl. And it’s interesting to reflect on the relative infancy of the genre and how it might continue to mature.
The poems—or playlets, as I think of them—of No Finis, were created through the compression and collage of the very lengthy cross examination that is available online as a public domain document. Now and then I added in some fragments of my own that seemed to fit. I thought of the final lines as a kind of emotional summation. They function as soliloquy moments, an instant in which the witnesses were free from intrusive questioning and could react as they saw fit. I wrote many, but not all, of these sendoff lines.
Sheryl, speaking of form, you chose a hybrid approach to 50 Miles, alternating between traditional essays, short meditative prose pieces, and poetry. I’m wondering if you can say a bit about why you gravitated to this hybrid form. Does it make sense to make a correlation to crocheting, which you’ve done quite a bit of, and/or quilting?
SSG: Some pieces, such as “Hiking in Wyoming After a Death” and “Fifty Miles,” were more lyric at heart and thus seemed to work better as poems or meditative essays. Others, like “Do No Harm,” were driven more by narrative and thus have a more traditional personal essay structure. I didn’t want to be locked into one style or voice because I think telling a story like this is complicated and needs room to breathe. Certainly, the metaphor of quilting, which I do a lot of, makes sense in terms of the structure of the book. Each essay is like a block in a crazy quilt of our life with different colors and tones and shapes. Sewing them together into a book was not unlike sewing together the blocks of a quilt. I find putting together an essay collection a lot easier than a collection of poetry. There sometimes seems to be endless ways to organize a poetry collection.
Could you talk a little about how you organized your collection, why you decided to start and end with particular poems, and what you hope a reader takes from the art of the collection?
DW: The majority of the 146 factory workers who lost their lives in the fire were female, so I organized the book into four sections and began with the women and ended with them. I took out pieces that seemed repetitive, but I was a little surprised that, in the end, I included so many expert witnesses but only three male workers. As I’ve never worked with dialogue to this extent before, I’m the one who is learning from readers, performers, and those who attend the events. I’d love to stage a performance at, or near, NYU’s Brown Building, the site of the fire.
Could you say something about the role travel plays in your life and writing, and how virtual travel “counts”?
SSG: The MFA program I directed for 14 years had a travelling field seminar as a central part of the curriculum, and I took graduate students to many different countries over the years. The essay “Into the Jungle” comes from one of those trips—to Peru—with students. I’ve also spent lots of time in Europe, as I have relatives and deep connections in France, my husband is Dutch, and my step-daughter lives in England. I believe that travel can waken and inspire you. When you are out of your comfort zone you attend to things more deeply. Our senses become more sensitive to sounds, images, smells, and tastes. I am much inspired by the natural world, which is why I took students so often to jungles and remote areas away from civilization. Travel widens our mind to other cultures, both human and non-human, exposes us to new stories and new ways to tell stories, but also helps us to think more deeply about who we are and where we come from. Virtual travel, such as what you find in some kinds of video games, especially MMORPG (online role-playing video game in which a very large number of people participate) allows these kinds of exploration too, because you’re travelling to strange (virtual) worlds and meeting new people in the game. And both kinds of travel inspire writing for me. There are essays about travel in real life in the book, as well as travel inside the gaming world.
DW: These sound like profoundly enriching experiences for your students. Focusing on virtual travel for a moment, do you regard the healer figure (toon?) as your alter ego?
SSG: Yes, the healer toon is a kind of alter ego for me. I love playing the role of keeping players alive in the game, and my healer toon, a night-elf, is a druid who can transform into various animals, and even a tree, so she echoes my interest in the natural world. She also has several professions that I have in real life. She’s not a writer, though! It feels good to have a safe, mostly hidden role that I can slip into from time to time.
I was wondering if you identified with any of the characters who people your poetry book, or came to feel close to them as you wrote in their voices. I found them all sympathetic, except for the defense attorney, Max Steuer, of course, and loved how you were able to suggest so much about their characters through dialogue.
DW: I feel close to all the characters, and, as I mentioned, have gained so much from hearing the dialogue read by others in pop-up performances. Max Steuer is the key role, the all-important antagonist. He’s not sympathetic, but he’s the engine that moves the boxing scenes of cross-examination forward. It’s strange, but, perhaps because he’s so pivotal, I’ve become fond of him, too. At the end, when Steuer says to a witness, “I am not half as cool as you think, Miss Alterman,” has the collective protagonist finally put a dent in this man’s armor, or is he just being obnoxious? I think that this moment could be interpreted either way.
Could you give us a preview of what you’re working on currently?
SSG: I have been working on making art quilts that riff off of poems in some way, and I hope to put together a book of poetry with each poem accompanied by a photograph of the quilt that inspired it. I just finished a series of four quilts that use the structure of poetic forms (so far I’ve done the sonnet, haiku, sestina, and villanelle) as a structure for the quilts. Working on quilts like these have given me new insights into the forms themselves and their strengths and weaknesses. I’m also planning to use a blog I’m keeping about poetry and quilting to write an essay or series of essays about the connections between quilting and poetry, and what it means to me to begin to take myself seriously as a fiber artist after so many years as a writer.
How about you? What are you working on now?
DW: Your quilt projects sound phenomenal. And this is such a fresh approach to utilizing formal poetry. As for me, I’ve just started translating Amelia Rosselli’s longest collection, Documento (Document) with my co-translator, Roberta Antognini. In terms of my own poetry, I’m hoping to return to my political book in the near future and write poems about movies by blacklisted directors and actors—for instance, the film Force of Evil, which stars John Garfield (blacklisted) and was directed by Abraham Polonsky (also blacklisted).