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"More Ragged Teeth": An Interview with Stevie Edwards

Stevie Edwards is a Michigander but currently resides in Ithaca, NY, where she is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Cornell University. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Good Grief (Write Bloody Publishing 2012), has recently received the Devil's Kitchen Reading Award and the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) Bronze Prize for Poetry. Her latest chapbook, Atomic Girl, is forthcoming from Tired Hearts Press. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Rattle, Indiana Review, PANK, Devil's Lake, Aim for the Head: an Anthology of Zombie Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine

Her poem, "The Empty Air Times Nine," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Darby K. Price about dislocation, con artists, and the source of her imagination.

This poem seems to have its roots in rootlessness—in the simultaneous connection to and rejection of place. Can you tell us about the origins of this poem?

This poem hinges on dislocation and nostalgia. I wrote “The Empty Air Times Nine” after I’d moved to Ithaca, NY to pursue my MFA in creative writing at Cornell. I found myself missing my hometown, which was a place I’d worked very hard to leave. When I arrived here, I found that Cornell was full of very bright people with whom I shared essentially no common life experiences. The loneliness of dislocation triggered the nostalgia in this piece—this nostalgia directs the poem’s turn toward Lansing, MI. I was trying to remember the bits of joy and comfort I associated with home. I actually started out wanting to write about how strange it was to live one town over from Lansing, NY (having grown up in Lansing, MI). Frequently hearing people mention “Lansing” somewhat rubbed salt in the wound of my dislocation. Also, Lansing, MI was settled by folks from Lansing, NY. It’s kind of an interesting story. There were two con-artist brothers from New York who sold plots of land around where Lansing, MI is now located to people in Lansing, NY. The brothers claimed the land was in a place called “Biddle City,” which already had a church and a public square. When the settlers traveled to “Biddle City,” they found nothing there but flooded swampland. Eventually, after realizing they’d been scammed, the settlers named the area “Lansing Township,” after their hometown. It was during the 1830s, so they couldn’t exactly pack up the moving truck and go back home. I learned that story as a teen, and often thought of Lansing, MI as a place that people settled both for and in—a place where people stayed only because  they had no means of getting out. I’d found a means of getting out through education, but I found myself deeply homesick.

In the first three stanzas, the speaker finds familiarity, if not exact parallel, in the New York landscape. After this, the poem turns, and we are immersed in memories of the speaker’s home state of Michigan—and we never return to New York. Can you shed a little light on your approach to the structure of this poem?

The structure to this poem fell into place fairly organically; I started out focusing on a feeling of dislocation and then I moved toward nostalgia for Michigan. I found myself trying to write myself anchored in home despite being away from it and also trying to celebrate even the more complicated parts of that location that are perhaps a bit harder to love. I showed this poem to a very educated poet who will remain unnamed who said that I should change “sunny-legged” in the fifth stanza because it should be more grimy and urban, but to me that completely went against the point—a lot of non-financially-wealthy kids play jump rope and hopscotch and have darn good joy with their friends.  

One of my favorite moments in this poem is when the speaker, comparing the sugar maples of New York to the silver maples of Michigan, says, “the leaves/ I was raised under the heat of/ had more ragged teeth.” What were you hoping to capture with the physicality of place—not just the human moments, but the ragged teeth of the leaves, the “dark mud and leaves” that insulate hand-built forts, the “weeds and trees… cleared/ for a manageable verdure”?

I wanted to show Michigan as somehow more feral, less tidy than Ithaca, NY—but never less joyful or beautiful. There’s section from “Birches” by Robert Frost that talks about a boy whose “only play was what he found himself.” When I think about where my imagination came from, I think it was building forts and making up lives and worries with my brother in the backyard. 

What writing projects are you currently working on?

My second collection of poetry, Humanly, is forthcoming from Small Doggies Press in March 2015. I’ve spent most of the year finishing up revisions on that collection, but I am also in the early stages of starting a novel about teenage Minor League Baseball groupie and a third collection of poetry that takes on the voices of American women who were diagnosed with hysteria and convicted of witchcraft.

What are you reading right now—and/or what have you recently finished reading?

Right now I am reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life by Dawn Lundy Martin, which I think are both very stunning and important collections. I also recently finished re-reading Lynda Hull’s Collected Works, which is one of my all-time favorites. I’m also in the process of re-reading Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and Vice by Ai to help prepare myself to work on persona poems for my next collection.

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