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Wednesday
May232012

"Choose Your Swords Carefully": An Interview with Karrie Waarala

Karrie Waarala holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, PANK, Arsenic Lobster, Radius, and The Orange Room Review. Karrie recently debuted her one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow, which is based on her poems about the circus, to critical acclaim. She really wishes she could tame tigers and swallow swords.

Her poem, "The Sword Swallower's Mother Speaks," appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer, Melissa Goodrich, about defeaning silence, sharp things, and her "one-woman" poetry show.

Does a poem like “The Sword Swallower’s Mother Speaks” start in research, in speculation or spectacle, is there any way to write about side-show freaks without spectating? 

The majority of my circus poems begin in speculation, and this one was no exception—though in this case, it was the speculation of Patricia Smith, who was my MFA mentor at the time. I was just beginning my foray into these sideshow persona poems, and she wondered aloud what this sword swallower must have been like as a child. As soon as she put forth the question, I knew his mother needed to be the one to answer, rather than the swallower himself. Generally speaking, after the initial “what if...” or “I wonder...” comes the research, though; I read everything on the subject I can get my hands on, and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to interview a number of wonderful people in the world of circus, including the lead clown on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and the owner of Kelly Miller, which is a fantastic one-ring circus.

As for the question of spectacle and spectator, that is something I both explore and wrestle with in these poems. I know that I’m as much a spectator as any reader, since I don’t have first-hand circus experience. While I write these characters from a place of respect, I constantly worry about appropriating stories and lives that are not mine, and always hope I am doing them justice. I’ve chosen my two main characters for their archetypal resonance, but I also think it’s no accident that they are a “working act” and a “made freak,” since there is an inherent hesitance to be a spectator of “born freaks,” the human oddities that were once so prevalent in sideshows.

Fault and trust are introduced early in the poem, and there are these beautiful repeating images of silence/voicelessness—the son “with butter knife pressed/against his small voice,” “smolder of his father” buried behind the newspaper, not speaking, “My throat never let loose the words/that would teach him how to choke.”  How much does silence operate for you as a poet, in the creation and performance of your poetry?  Is silence loud?

I think silence can be deafening, which is one of the reasons people tend to fear it, especially performers. But silence is so underutilized, even though it’s exhausting as an audience member to be under a constant barrage of sound. So many people get behind a mic and are afraid to give an audience enough space between the words to get their fingers in there and pry them apart for meaning. The silent spaces are essential in the performance of my poetry, and I’m constantly working to get more comfortable with them myself.

That image you end on—of a house with no sharp things—is haunting, like institutions where anything that may be used as a weapon has been removed.  There’s displacement, false safety, sterilization—do you feel this every-sharp-thing-gone turn parallels the sword swallower turning from one kind of life to another, is there a relationship between sword swallowing and word swallowing, are both he and his mother performers?

If this character inherited his knack for swallowing (s)words and his performer’s sensibilities from his mother, the thing that sets him apart from her is the need for an appreciative audience. She is someone for whom life in the wings has been enough in a way it could never be for him. To me that final image is a starker shift in reality for the mother than for the sword swallower himself. For him it’s an escape, and an inevitable one, to finally be able to break away from the silent and stifling life of his youth and embrace all that sharp for which he was born. But for her, it’s so many losses rolled into one: in letting go of this son for whom she feels so responsible, she is losing the one family member who, despite his trying flaws and obsessions, has been the sole glint and shine in her life—and her buffer against all of the sometimes brutal masculinity roiling around in that house.

The relationship between swords and words weaves itself throughout a number of the other poems in the collection as well. The first poem I wrote from his point of view, “From the Sword Swallower’s Notebook,” begins with the line “Choose your swords carefully.” I’ve been attempting to live up to his advice ever since.

Tell us about LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow—what was it like adapting your poems for the stage, how different did they become, and what was opening night like?

There are many of the sideshow poems that aren’t in the show, as LONG GONE tells the story of my other main character, the tattooed lady (though my sword swallower does make a guest appearance). However, the poems that made it into the show actually remained almost entirely unchanged from their page counterparts, except for a couple that I braided together to become duets between Tess and important figures in her life. (“One-woman show” is a bit of a misnomer: while I’m the sole live performer, playing Tess, there are a handful of prerecorded segments of other people performing poems told from the point of view of other characters in her life.) The majority of the work that went into adapting the poems for the stage was not tinkering with the poems themselves, but rather building all of the connective structure between them in order to provide a clear narrative arc, writing monologues and creating the audiovisual component of the show. A significant piece of that structure turned out to be building a context for the audience to understand and appreciate some of the rich sideshow language that I have fallen in love with and that informs much of this work. What started as a fun experiment in breaking down the fourth wall to accomplish this—Tess delivers a series of lessons in “carny speak” to the audience—ended up evolving into a narrative framework for the entire show.

Opening night was the most dry-mouthed, terrifying 75 minutes of my life. I honestly thought I was crashing and burning the entire time and was shocked at the standing ovation I received. Thank goodness that halfway through the second night’s performance a little voice in the back of my head whispered, “Hey, Waarala, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re starting to have fun,” or else that premiere weekend would have been the show’s closing, too. Instead I’m starting to take it on the road this year, beginning with the Renegade Theatre Festival in Lansing, MI this August.

What have you been reading that’s excellent?

As it’s been the end of a semester, the majority of my reading lately has been student portfolios. I have been reading quite a bit of persona work, though, as I’ve been preparing to teach an online workshop on persona for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative. Coming back to Anne Sexton’s Transformations is always a welcome experience, and there’s some delightful work in the new collection A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. I’ve also been enjoying The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, a novel about a Coney Island tattoo artist. The book gets so much right about the powerful undercurrents of transformative story and intimacy found in tattooing as an art form.

Will your love-of-circus still spill over into new work, or have you a new project?

Now that I’ve completed my full-length manuscript of circus poems and am looking for a home for it, I’ve been turning my attention elsewhere. There are so many other things to write about, and I don’t want to be seen as a one-note writer—but also my circus characters deserve a rest after three years of work on Pierce & Brand’s World of Dangerous Wonders. Lately I’ve found myself writing a number of instructional poems—or more accurately, poems that seem to be masquerading as instructional—so I do appear to have stumbled into a new project, but I think this will be on a smaller scale, perhaps a chapbook. However, my love of circus spills over into just about every aspect of my life, so I won’t be surprised if it sneaks back into my work at some point. I can’t seem to stay away from the sawdust and spangles for very long.

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