Ursula / an interview with poet Andrea Blythe

Ursula
Our Lady of Unrepentant Self Possession

by Andrea Blythe

You are power—
holding a draught to cure in one hand, poison
in the other. You have a talent
for practical magic, for drawing out
the latent capabilities of plants,
giving weight to whispered words.
You melt through the water, body
round and sleek, tentacles
stretching to claim
all the sea you can hold.

You never asked
to become a patron
for unfortunate souls,
those merfolk so full
of  desperation, covetous
for more love, more beauty,
more strength, more and more and more.
They beg for your gifts, then blame
you for the price they have to pay.
What can you do if they fail
to read the contract? Should you worry
for a princess so dumb
she can’t figure out
how to use ink
when she has no tongue?

In another story
a mermaid loves a prince
who has no interest in mute girls,
so she falls apart
into sea foam.

In another ending
you say fuck it
and take your seaweed slick curves
off to another tidepool.
You hang with jelly girls and laugh
with the manatee mamas.
You flirt with the walrus men, fingers stroking
the hardness of the tusk. Your tentacles
are full of caresses and you
have oceans of love to give.

First appeared in Yellow Chair Review 2016.

Andrea-Blythe-headshot-768x768

Andrea Blythe bides her time waiting for the apocalypse by writing speculative poetry and fiction. She is the author of Your Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch (2018) and coauthor of Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press, 2018),  a collaborative chapbook written with Laura Madeline Wiseman. She is a cohost for the New Books in Poetry podcast and serves as an associate editor for Zoetic Press.

Andrea says of her style, “It’s not static. I tend toward free verse, but have worked with prose poems, erasures, and formal poetry (although that one’s rarely successful for me). I shift the style of a poem to suit the tone or voice I’m working with. The shape and voice need to reflect the content or the poem won’t feel right to me. I enjoy the variation, but it can make it hard to assemble them into any kind of cohesive collection at times.”

Andrea and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour and both had poems appear in the same issue of Yellow Chair Review, including the above poem. We wanted to know more about Andrea and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “Ursula.” Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~A few years ago I participated in a 30-day poetry challenge hosted by ELJ Publications (now closed), and I used the opportunity to explore the idea of the sacred or spiritual through the framework of pop culture. I focused each poem on a female character from media I loved and addressed them as though speaking praise or prayer as though they were saints. Some of these poems honored these characters as figures of power, some as figures trapped by their iconic status, some as representations of my own personal struggles.

“Ursula” is one of the poems that came out of this challenge. I wanted to consider this woman and witch of the sea, who is considered the villain of the tale, from another angle — giving her space to be more than how she was drawn, a person enough to have desires beyond mere power.

Altogether, these poems make up a chapbook, called Pantheon, which I’m currently reworking in the hopes of sending it out and finding it a home.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? What are they and why do they resonate with you?

A~I like the idea of liminal spaces, the place in between, when someone or something is not quite one thing or another — and that’s something that comes out in my work quite a bit. For example, I wrote a poem a while back about Annie Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), which focuses on the act of falling, existing in that place after jumping off and touching down. There’s something about the in between, the moment right before when anything can happen that fascinates me.

Another theme that I see coming through more often lately is an expression of underlying loneliness, expressions of longing for companionship and touch. That’s coming directly out of some deep down kernel within me. I enjoy and cultivate solitude sometimes, since it can be comforting, but I have to remember not to wrap myself so tightly within it as to feel disconnected from the world and the people around me.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~I’m a fan of the shitty first draft as proposed by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. I’ll ponder an idea for a while and then dump it onto the page, letting it be rough and haphazard and wrong. In the first draft stage, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I won’t fully know the scope of the poem or story until I have words to play with and move around. The drafting process can happen by pen and ink or by computer, but for the revision process I almost always move to hard copy — something I can mark up, cross out, ramble out gibberish in the columns, or cut into strips. The tactile aspect of working with a physical page helps me to work through what’s not working and trace a path to figuring out what will work.

 Q~Your two most recent works are a collaborative book and a collection of erasure poems. How does working with another poet or source material change your writing?

A~Working collaboratively with Laura Madeline Wiseman on our collection Every Girl Becomes the Wolf (Finishing Line Press) and other projects has strengthened my writing. During our collaboration sessions, I find there’s a tug and pull, in which I am simultaneously offering up space in a piece in order to allow Madeline’s voice into the poem while also claiming room for my own voice. Our poems are written together and then jointly edited, so that our voices become layered over each other to the point that in some completed poems, I can’t tell where her words begin and mine end. Throughout it all, I’m continually surprised by Madeline’s skill in choosing words and editing for clarity. It’s an intimate education in another person’s method of writing, which has provided me with new tools to approach my own writing.

In the act of creating erasure poetry presents an interesting restriction. Rather than the infinite possibilities of the blank page, I’m confronted with an existing text (in the case of my collection A Molten Heart / A Seed to Hatch, I was working with the product descriptions in Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyers). The puzzle of striking out words to find the poem left behind stretches me into new directions — Can I siphon out a new meaning from these words? Are there enough of them to complete a particular thought? Do I need to modify the direction of the poem because the available words are steering me another way? It’s resulted in some surprising, surreal turns that I might not have taken in a standard free verse poem. It’s a kind of freedom nested within the restrictions, which can in turn empower me to explore more playfully when I approach an empty page.

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

A~Advice I have to remind myself of over and over again — make space for yourself and your work. That includes time and energy for both the writing itself and the things that reinvigorate your writing, like reading, attending poetry events, walking, stretching, meditating, or anything that helps keep words alive for you. It’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day routine of work and chores and TV binge watching and on and on — to the extent that time passes, and the work you love has been forgotten. Often my moods are influenced by how much or how little I’m connecting with my own writing. It doesn’t have to be daily, but regularly creating that space to write, to read, to interact with words is so essential.

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I’m currently reading several poetry books at the moment. If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar is blowing my mind with its beauty and inventiveness regarding both lyric and form. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is so moving in how it approaches its exploration of race. And, I’m also enjoying Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar, a beautiful chapbook that explores female agency through horror tropes. 

Q~Are you involved in your local poetry scene? What’s it like?

A~The poetry scene in the Bay Area, California is amazing. There seems to be readings, slams, open mics, or other events going on just about every week, whether in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Jose, or other towns. It’s fantastic to have this community so close at hand, and I value all the amazing creators around me, who inspire me with their words and generosity. They make me want to work harder and improve my craft.

I’ve gone through periods when I was participating or witnessing in many of these events on a minimum of a monthly basis, but lately I’ve been hermiting, tucked away in the quiet of my own home. I miss this community and camaraderie, and part of me wants to feel guilty about not being more active than I have in the past. But, I’m giving myself space to just be quiet in this way, providing support as much as I can from a distance, with the understanding that there’s no wrong way to poet, and sometimes you just need space for a while. I’ll jump back in when I’m ready.

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

A~A couple of my Pantheon poems have been published online, which can be read here: “Carrie White: Our Lady of Blood” and “Sarah Connor: Our Lady of Self Determination.” I’ve also been working on a series of found poems assembled from words in Stephen King’s The Plant, a number of which can be found at Quail Bell, including: “Morning, Wrapped in Maple and Pine,” “A Fallen Heaven,” “A Wake,” “I Have Tried to Explain,” “A Last Missive,” and “Student of More.”   Some examples of the collaborative poetry I write with Laura Madeline Wiseman can be found here. I can also be reached on Twitter and Instagram, through my email newsletter, or via my website.

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