​​Cindy Veach’s most recent book is Her Kind from CavanKerry Press. She is also the author of Gloved Against Blood (CavanKerry Press), named a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and a “Must Read” by The Massachusetts Center for the Book, and the chapbook, Innocents (Nixes Mate). Her poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, and Salamander, among others. She is the recipient of the Philip Booth Poetry Prize and the Samuel Allen Washington Prize. Cindy is co-poetry editor of Mom Egg Review. www.cindyveach.com/

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Kelli Russell Agodon: Her Kind is a book I could not put down until I finished it. I am a very finicky reader, but your book just pulled me in for many reasons—how you moved from historical to personal to political seamlessly and with such an engaging precision. It’s an absolutely stunning collection.

I know your initial inspiration was to pay tribute to the twenty victims of the Salem Witch Trials by writing a poem for each victim, but while you were writing these poems there were other things that were happening around you—Trump had been elected and you had filed for divorce. I’d love to hear more about how this book came to be.

Cindy Veach: Yes, my initial inspiration was to pay tribute to the twenty victims of the Salem Witch Trials. In 2016, after living in the Salem area for twenty-five years, I stumbled on the Salem Witch Trials Memorial when I was cutting through a side street. Up to that point, I had succumbed to the witch kitsch narrative of modern-day Salem but for some reason on that day in that place I was changed—these were innocent human beings who were murdered. I decided to write a poem about each of the twenty victims and this became the chapbook Innocents published by Nixes Mate Publishers. 

At the same time that I was writing the victim poems, I was making the difficult decision to end a long marriage, which we had worked very hard to try to save. As the person who ultimately filed for divorce, I felt judged and I also felt guilty. The majority of the victims of the witch trials were women. Many were persecuted because they lived outside of Puritan norms. As I empowered myself to do what I needed to do I felt a sort of kinship with the witch trial victims and especially the female victims who are represented in Her Kind. A woman with agency, who dares puts herself first, dares to defy what is expected of her, is often a target. All this coincided with Donald Trump being elected. He was like a poison to me. His narcissism and his references to witch hunts and the witch trials in order to paint himself as a victim were triggering and so he also found his way into this book.

KRA: Isn’t that interesting (and by interesting, I think I mean oppressing) that even in modern-day America, women still feel guilty for making choices to benefit themselves as individuals, such as leaving a marriage? Your poem, “I Filed for Divorce & Sundry Other Acts of Witchcraft Therefore” speaks to that idea of feeling judged. That’s concerning to me, as a woman in 2021, that we can still feel a wrath or some unease or judgment for not following societal/heterosexual norms. 

Her Kind definitely connects the past to the present and explores how we still need to dismantle the patriarchy. One of your skills as a poet shows in how your book can seamlessly move from history to the present day, from the Salem Witch Trials to Taylor Swift. As a reader, I benefited from your ability to focus on this ongoing theme of “witch,” and how women are still persecuted today (sometimes by the media, sometimes by men, and sometimes by other women, as well as even maybe ourselves).

So a few questions: Tell me how you went about research in both the Salem Witch Trials—as a poet myself, one of the challenges I find in writing research-based poems is not finding the music or the poem in the research text, which many times is as far away from a poem as can be. But also I’d love to hear how you wove what I’ll call “modern-day witches” (women who file for divorce, Taylor Swift, nasty women/Hillary Clinton, etc.) into the mix? And what comparisons do you see about women from the era of the witch trials to today?

CV: It is both interesting and oppressing that even today a woman can feel guilty about choices she makes for herself. This is what captivated and connected me to the Salem Witch Trials. Even today, women are executed for making individual choices. The poem, “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Declared a Saint before Huge Crowd at the Vatican” tells the story of an ‘honor killing’ that made headlines in 2016 when twenty-eight year old Samia Shahid was found dead after returning to Pakistan to visit her father who she had been told was seriously ill. Her own father and ex-husband (her first cousin) are accused of luring her back to Pakistan to punish her for divorcing and remarrying. Although her ex-husband confessed to drugging and strangling his former wife, as of 2020, the case against him remains untried.

 

 

The research for Her Kind was extensive and sometimes tedious. I began by reading books on the Salem Witch Trials. In particular, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, was very informative. But the lion’s share of my source material came from The University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. This is an online resource containing the transcribed court documents (depositions, testimonies, etc.) from the trials. It is an amazing site. Reading the verbatim words of the accusers and the accused is chilling. To find my way from source material to poem I spent many hours reading about each victim via the testimonies and other materials until something, a phrase or recounting, spoke to me. Finding that portal was unpredictable—it could take hours, days, or weeks. Many of the victim poems are in poetic form (sonnet, pantoum, ghazal) as I found this was the best way to manage the material.

 When I completed the twenty victim poems I was satisfied that I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, yet I didn’t feel done. It’s as if my eyes had been opened and I began to see parallels with my own life and with our world today. That’s when I started writing the other poems in the collection, but there was a twist, too. Along with poems about divorce and contemporary women being persecuted for making their own choices I wanted to celebrate women as witches and hold up women conjuring their own magic. Taylor Swift’s “I Did Something Bad” is a perfect example of this sentiment. Tweets related to a Swift performance became the poem, “Taylor Swift Makes Forbes Most Powerful Women List.” Similarly, “Woman Climbs Statue of Liberty in Protest” recounts Therese Patricia Okoumou’s defiant act of protest against the zero-tolerance immigration policy. 

It’s disheartening that comparisons to the witch trials could still exist today, but I believe they do. Look at what just happened in Texas. Women in Texas are being denied the right to make decisions about their very own bodies. If they choose to ignore the new laws they will be prosecuted. And the terrible thing is that the “accuser” can be a private citizen. This is eerily similar to the witch trials where the “accusers” were often neighbors and even relatives. I don’t think history is ever history. It can shapeshift into today.

KRA: Thank you for that, Cindy. I love the idea of women conjuring up their own magic—and others being fearful or supportive of their powers depending on their viewpoint. Your book does reclaim the word “witch” and offers such a compelling exploration of women not having to be afraid to hide their magic, as that power is a threat to institutions that hold us down. 

I was so taken by what I learned through your poems about the history of the witch trials. One of my favorite poems (which still, unfortunately, feels timely today) was “​​Reasons You Might Have Been Accused of Being a Witch in 1692,” so it made me curious, with all your research, time, and dedication that goes into writing poems and putting together a manuscript—what were the most surprising things you learned (about yourself or historically) while writing Her Kind?

CV: Great question! So much of what I learned about the trials through my research was a surprise to me. Admittedly, despite having lived in the Salem area for almost thirty years I didn’t know a lot about the history. In Salem, the history of the Salem Witch trials has been co-opted by tourism. It’s a place you take your out-of-town guests. There’s a bronze statue of Elizabeth Montgomery in the town square! Probably my biggest realization was that there were never any witches in Salem. People refer to the executed and imprisoned people as witches, but this is not true. They were just innocent people going about their business, trying to live their lives. 

Another surprise, there’s lots of attention on the executed individuals, but over a hundred of the accused were imprisoned for months in terrible conditions and as many as a dozen died including two nursing infants of jailed women. And then there was the day I discovered that my divorce attorney’s office building stood on the site of the prison that once housed the accused. Add to that the fact that the last five victims of the witch trials, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott, were not exonerated until 2001 and on Halloween no less! As you know, during the period of time where I was doing the research and writing the poems for this manuscript, I was working through a decision regarding my marriage. In retrospect, and to my surprise, I can now see that the arc of the manuscript parallels my own journey to achieve agency and reclaim my magic.

KRA: There were a lot of connections and parallels between the historical and the personal, Cindy! I just read an interview in The Guardian by novelist Paul Auster who said, “In order to unleash good work, there has to be something in you that feels out of balance. It doesn’t have to be financial distress—it could be emotional or amorous. Whatever the source is, the thing that has shaken life up for you, it’s distress that generates art.” Dealing with divorce and living in America during the Trump Administration must have also created distress for you. Did writing these poems help as a way to understand your own thoughts or “write your way through it”? Or maybe another way to ask this is—how do your emotions play into your writing process and your poems? Do you have emotional periods where it’s easier to write—like how some poets will say they write their best poems when they are sad or melancholy? I’d be interested in anything you have to share on your writing process and the creation of this book.

CV: I would say that the writing grounds me. I count on it to center myself. I devote my mornings to poetry, whether that is focusing on new work, revisions, submissions, or reading. I like a schedule and perhaps that is a byproduct of my corporate career. The creation of this book began with the victim poems. I find it interesting that at a time when I was most distressed I chose to write about a subject that was research-focused and not personal. In hindsight, I realize that I needed distance from my situation. Later on, of course, I felt ready to write about the events that were creating distress for me. So while distress and melancholy may trigger writing, I typically don’t write about the cause of that distress in real time. That comes later when I have gained some perspective. Still, even when I think I’ve gained enough perspective to write about something, the writing itself often takes me to some place I hadn’t expected. I used to push back and try to force the poem to go where I wanted it to go, but I’ve realized that empowering the poem is what yields the real magic.

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Kelli Russell Agodon

Kelli Russell Agodon’s newest book is Dialogues with Rising Tides from Copper Canyon Press. She is the cofounder of Two Sylvias Press where she works as an editor and book cover designer. Her other books include Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, Hourglass Museum, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice (coauthored with Martha Silano), and Fire on Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry. She lives in a sleepy seaside town in Washington State on traditional lands of the Chimacum, Coast Salish, S'Klallam, and Suquamish people where she is an avid paddleboarder and hiker. She teaches at Pacific Lutheran University’s low-res MFA program, the Rainier Writing Workshop. Kelli is currently part of a project between local land trusts and artists to help raise awareness for the preservation of land, ecosystems, and biodiversity called Writing the Land. www.agodon.com / www.twosylviaspress.com

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