On the Interstitial (or not) Nature of My Poems
by C.S.E. Cooney
The question I had to ask myself beginning this blog was, “How is abook of unabashedly fantastical poetry at all interstitial?”
In a way, How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes is the exact opposite of interstitial – at least, the way I understand the word “interstitial,” though I wouldn’t be surprised if my understanding was a bit dim. This little book can actually claim a genre, for better or worse, as it dances on the graves of Shakespeare and Ogden Nash, pickax in hand, wearing little rainbow wings and curly horns, with its forked tongue tucked firmly in its cheek.
But I got to thinking about the origins for some of the poems, the whole reason I wrote them, the purpose they were to serve – before they served in chorus as a collection. That’s where we get interstitial, I think. That’s where we can start saying, “Sure, it’s a goofy rhyme, but it’s also X and B and Q and a cup of PG Tips too.”
This is the Age of Communication. What this means for me, personally, is that most of my best friends and dearest family are miles and states and countries and oceans away, and they are also at my fingertips. Email, Facebook, LiveJournal and other blog sites keep my interest and affection firmly tethered to people I might’ve otherwise let drift off into the ether of forgetfulness, wishing them happy while waving firmly farewell.
But these days your friend might announce, from a different time zone but with her text full of stress and tears, “I’m having a Terrible Day, because…” A.) Job Trouble B.) Boy Trouble C.) Thesis Trouble D.) Car Trouble, and it hurts your heart to read of it. That tough but tender organ is squeezed in the vice grip of human sympathy! “The world’s more full of weeping,” et cetera, but what can you do?
You could write a little L emoticon in their comments section. Or you could write a poem. Lavish them, loudly and in public, with rhymes and ballads. Let them see themselves as you see them, with swords at their sides and moons in their hair and lips like strawberries and hearts like supernovae.
In this way, I guess, the poems of this collection aren’t only poems. Sometimes they slip sideways and behave as kisses and shoulder rubs and all the dinners you can’t make when your friend has a cold or your mom has a migraine. The title poem of the collection was one of these, as well as “Sing Hey Caity-Hey.”
Then there are the times your friends are making things like jam. And trading their jam for the jam of their friends. Except you, the author, have no jam. Because not only do you not garden, you wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to make jam if you did, and even if you did, you’d probably wouldn’t out of sheer laziness. Nevertheless, you want jam. You’re desperate for it. And your jam-making friends grin evilly and say, “What do you have to barter?”
You tell them, “I will rhyme for jam.” In which case, the poem isn’t a poem anymore, no matter how it may look to a stranger coming fresh to it. No, that jumble of metaphor and meter itself becomes a metaphor. That poem is blackberries and peaches and apricot, sealed up in glass jars and sent to you in the USPS. Delicious. And they say you can’t eat your words. Or if you do, they say it tastes like crow. Not so.
But the most interstitial of all the poems (if I’m using interstitial correctly, which I doubt) is The Sea King’s Second Bride. Let me tell you about it. The roots of it go way back to my fourteen-year-old self who had a big, not to say GINORMOUS crush on a fictional construct, who happened to be the King of the Sea. We probably all have an equivalent. A Hades, a Beast, a Neptune. Something from the dark and the deep. Well, mine stayed with me. I used to have delicious serial dreams about him. Gone now, sadly. But I’ve been a bit in love with Sea Kings ever since then.
So, in my late twenties, along comes singer-songwriter S.J. Tucker with her song “Neptune.” Now, her Sea King and my Sea King aren’t the same Sea Kings, but they are like enough that I sang that song obsessively while washing dishes and going for walks on windy days. It’s just that kind of song.
Possibly because I was pretty vocal about my love of Tucker’s “Neptune” and also about my hot Sea King dreams (vocal as I mourn the loss of them anyway), poet Nicole Kornher-Stace brought my attention to a painting by John Bauer, entitled “Agneta and the Sea King,” sometimes called “Coronation of the Sea Queen.” This was from a story by the same title, in a collection of Swedish Folktales, edited by Polly Lawson. (http://www.amazon.com/Swedish-Folk-Tales-Polly-Lawson/dp/0863154573). Straightway, I pined for this painting. I drooled. I panted. I coveted. I did all those things reasonable people don’t do. And it paid off.
You know why? ‘Cause my girls – Nicole Kornher-Stace, Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick (the latter two being the editrices of Goblin Fruit magazine) – put their wallets together and bought me the print for my birthday. After that, I couldn’t just tell myself that the hardcover of Swedish Folk Tales was too expensive for my blood. I blew my wad on that book. Amazon.com sent it to me so fast I could hear the breeze of its passing.
When I sat down to finally read – at last, read!!! – “Agneta and the Sea King,” I was staggered to see not only the painting I so adored (which now belonged to me), but also three more illustrations just for that story. My love knew no bounds. Except it did. As I was reading, I was conscious of a great, dreadful rage of red leaping to my cheeks. My heart pounded. My mouth curled into something less like a grin than a grimace of… WTF?
Another stolen bride story! With a pitiful, lonely, beautiful but also clueless and cruel and totally tyrannical Sea King, and his pure, passive milksop of a lily maid just sort of bending to his every will until she can escape him and flee headlong into Religion.
Okay, it worked for Agneta. But it would not work for me!
It was very late at night. All I had at hand were a ballpoint pen and a magnetic memo pad. But I needed to have this conversation with the story, and the only way to talk to a story is either to do some high end Lit Crit, which alas is not my bag, or write my own dang story.
I threw everything I had into it. I even threw in a reference from Tucker’s “Neptune.” I wrote what I couldn’t have imagined writing at the age of fourteen, when I’d've given my teeth, eyes and arms to be Agneta. I was declaring myself, at last, to the Sea King of my dreams, about whom I could no longer dream. I was also standing up for hundreds of years of stolen brides tales and pale katabasis maids and overbearing underworld lords. And speaking for myself, as a woman of the 21st century, with all the longing and expectations and pressures upon us.
That poem, weirdo tangle of conversation and collision that it is, was the best thing I’d ever written. It won the Rhysling in 2011. But I was and am acutely aware that it never would’ve made it even to the scribbling stage without Tucker’s music, Bauer’s art, Nicole’s Googling, pretty much every WisCon I’ve ever attended, and three poets pooling their resources to give me a birthday present. I had to stand in the interstices of all kinds of art forms and pathways of communication to find my way into the writing of it.
To crown it all, Rebecca Huston, my artist friend, who illustrated my poem collection, paid homage to Bauer’s style in her illustration of “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” My cup spilleth over. We come full circle. I hope one day to lay a wreath of white lilies on John Bauer’s grave. But I don’t know if he even has one. I read somewhere that he died at sea.
C.S.E. Cooney is a fiction writer, poet, blogger, and web mistress. She attended college in Chicago for college, where she received her degree in Fiction Writing with a minor in Theater.
Her fiction and poetry can be found in Apex, Subterranean, Strange Horizons, Clockwork Phoenix 3, The Book of Dead Things, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium. She has novellas forthcoming withBlack Gate Magazine, where she is currently Blog Mistress. She keeps her own blog athttp://csecooney.livejournal.com/.