Jeopardy / An interview with poet Chella Courington

Jeopardy

by Chella Courington

My father built biceps working for US Steel
smelting iron in heat that humbled men.

Now I could break his arm
over my knee, brittle as kindling.

My father used to let me walk up his body
balancing my hands on his fingertips

till I flew from his shoulders. They began to sag
after my mother passed. Rising at night, no moon out,

she collapsed in the dark and never woke
as once my father fell when a clot in his head

tossed him down. He speaks of my mother
rubbing his back with eucalyptus oil and saves hair

from her brush, strands he wraps in Kleenex.
At night with his whiskey, facing Jeopardy, my father

drifts off to Kargasok.
In the Russian mountains women live to be 105.

So do their men, eating dried cod with mushroom tea,
making love last forever.

Originally appeared in Avatar Review, Spring 2010

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Chella Courington is a writer and teacher. With a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and an MFA in Poetry, she is the author of six poetry and three flash fiction chapbooks. Her poetry appears in numerous anthologies and journals. Originally from the Appalachian South, Courington lives in California.

Chella says of her style, “I’m not much of a formalist. I’d describe most of my poetry as free verse with a tendency toward couplets. Why couplets? I write a lot about relationships, often the interaction of two people, and couplets seem to fit the content.”

Bekah and Chella’s work appeared together in July in Chantarelle’s Notebook. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us about your poem,”Jeopardy.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~I write often about the past–friends, lovers, family. I grew up in Appalachian Alabama in the 60s and had a love/hate relationship with both my parents. They reflected many of the social and political views of the rural South then (and unfortunately now). On the other hand, my dad, who grew up poor in a mining town during the Depression, encouraged me in unconventional behavior. He wanted me to be educated and self-sufficient–intellectually and financially. My dad lived to be ninety-three so I had time to know him as one adult to another and time to talk about and mend the rips between us. Looking back I’m more forgiving.

“Jeopardy” is an homage to his loving nature that survived his early years of abuse by a mean stepfather and found safety in the home of his high school coach. Some of the poem’s details like saving my mother’s hair and being felled by a clot are imagined. Other details like working for US Steel and letting me fly from his shoulders are lived. The first draft came easily as Dad still mourned the loss of my mother. But it took about a year for the poem to reach its current form. Thinking about “Jeopardy,” I’m reminded of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”: “At every step you missed/ My right ear scraped a buckle” (11-12).

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Largely an interior writer, I love the process of writing and really don’t think too much about audience until late revision. I write in the bed, surrounded by my furry boys and books. After putting on earphones, I enter another world. In the morning after waking, I write though late night to about 2 a.m. is my optimum time. I’ve always loved the night and the feeling of isolating myself.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~I feel as if poetry and short flash fiction (less than 500 words) reflects the way my imagination works. I think and feel in terms of words, phrases, and images. I gravitate toward stream-of-consciousness and like to create out of that unedited writing.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Write from the gut. Go to that dark place you want to avoid. Explore those issues that make you sick to your stomach. That’s where the poem is. I give myself this advice every day.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?

A~I’m a white, privileged, bisexual woman from rural Alabama. As a child I was sexually abused by the Baptist minister’s foster son and have been sexually harassed for much of my professional life. My poetry is largely female-centered about issues that girls and women struggle with. The personal is political. Recently, I’ve worked with Greek myth, looking at those women whose stories weren’t told because women weren’t telling the stories. For instance, I imagine different poetic truths out of the mouths of Medusa, Medea, Leda, Eurydice et al. Much of the #MeToo Movement echoes the silenced history of these Greek archetypes.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

 A~Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” when I was sixteen. My eleventh-grade English teacher handed the class section one and asked us to respond. Like many teenagers, I was a disconsolate kid, always feeling alone and seeking something more. I felt like a lost soul and poetry became my refuge. A couple of years later I read Plath’s “Daddy” and felt confirmed. As Audre Lorde says, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~If Not, Winter Fragments of Sappho translated by Anne Carson; The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald; Tropicalia by Emma Trelles; and Averno by Louise Gluck

Q~Is there any online resource you would like to recommend?

A~No Fee Calls for Poems Hosted by Trish Hopkinson

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~Check out “In My Story,” “Eurydice,” and “The Pond Heron.” Also, “Passage,” “Taking It Home,” and “Snake Skin” in Still. More poetry (& flash fiction) can be found by googling my name. You can also connect with me on my website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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