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"Delicate Flesh of my Blood and my Bone": An Interview with Lisa Zerkle

Lisa Zerkle’s poems have appeared in the Southern Poetry Anthology, Broad River Review, Tar River Poetry, Nimrod, Sixfold, poemmemoirstory, Crucible, and Main Street Rag, among others.   She is the author of Heart of the LightShe lives in Charlotte, NC where she is an editor of Kakalak.

Her poem, "My Son in the Sea," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about family, understanding unchartered territory, and the foundation fairy tales give to fantasy.

This piece contains such an encapsulating story because of its roots in mythology and fantasy. I found this most in the line “Delicate flesh of my blood and my bone. / How many watery bodies does this world hold?”. Where did this poem come from? Have you been interested in writing poems involving mythology and fantasy since you began writing?

My knowledge of mythology goes back to my 9th grade English teacher (thank you, Mrs. Brooks) who led the class through Edith Hamilton; and from sharing D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths with my kids. I was also brought up on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. So while I didn’t set out to write in relation to myth and fantasy, they’re lodged deep in my psyche.

I wrote this poem soon after my middle son had gone to college. That summer had been a turbulent time for our family as he had come out to us as transgender. Although it was something he knew about himself for a longer time, it was new to his father and me and we had only a few months before he left home to learn about a world we knew little about. That world was one where our son felt very much at home, where he felt accepted, welcome, and valued. Our family also provided that acceptance and love, but there was this notion of his being a citizen of two places simultaneously.  One of those places—our family—I, of course, knew very well.  The other was more of a mystery.

The line you mention (delicate flesh) speaks to my concern for my son. The natural progression of the world is that kids grow up and leave, but this was my baby, grown into a unique and glorious individual. I knew there were people who might reject him outright because his physical form did not meet their criteria for “normal.” But the poem also addresses the vast complexity of the world, all those bodies—billions of people (bodies made largely of water) in the world (covered mostly in water); and many different ways and places to live. Even now, with all our powerful machines, there are unexplored, little understood regions of our planet. One image that came to mind for me was the sea creatures that marked the unknown places on ancient maps.

What exactly is the speaker? By the title and the third stanza, we can assume the speaker is the mother of this half-man-half-fish but we still can’t be completely sure. For you, how do you see the speaker, and through the way you see the speaker, how do you think the speaker sees her son? Is he just a son to her or does he feel like something more special and rare?

Yes, I see the speaker as the mother of a special and rare creature. I think she’s at home with the sirens —who are watchful and dangerous if crossed. In the myths, they use their songs to ensnare men who venture out into unknown seas. The speaker is part of the chorus negating the views of “the men” while also calling upon the most powerful god of another world to provide protection and safe passage for her child.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, in all its tragic, non-Disneyfied weirdness, was another touchstone. In that story, in order to visit the human world, to have legs rather than her tail, the Little Mermaid must give up her voice. Isn’t that always the way? To live in the world of men, she can be seen, but not heard.

Those who do not conform neatly to rigid gender binaries have been met with a spectrum of reaction from “you are a fantastic creature” to “you are a freak of nature.” We’ve been telling these stories for centuries in myth and fairy tale.  Some will refuse to see beauty if it appears in a form that is unusual to them.

The first stanza in the poem truly demanded and captured my attention. “Somehow he knows he can breathe / in both water and air”, this stanza made me want to go on and find out who exactly “he” is and how he can do what does; I was instantly hooked! Do you find that the first line is what hooks you into writing a poem or does this hook come in later after the idea for a piece has been planned out?

Thank you! This poem was an exception for me in that the first line remained as it was first written. It’s often the case that I have to write my way into a poem and, in revision, cut away lines that were necessary to get to the essence of what I was writing about, but don’t need to be in the final work. The originating image for this poem was the idea of mer-people in relation to the notion of my son moving freely between worlds and being comfortable in each.

What things are you currently reading right now that you think everyone should read?

Oh, dangerous question—how much room do you have? I’m a huge fan of short stories for many of the same reasons I love poetry.  The latest collection to grab my attention was Samantha Hunt’s “The Dark Dark” for its ferocity and magical realism. I’m in awe of playwrights and their ability to move a story forward with little more than dialogue.  Two recent standouts for me were Annie Baker’s “John” and Taylor Mac’s “Hir.” As far as novels go, dystopias compel me, especially in recent days. Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” trilogy is a must read and I loved Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars.” There’s so much inventive poetry happening right now it’s difficult to choose from the feast laid out before us. I’ll say lately I’ve especially enjoyed Nickole Brown’s “Fanny Says” (do yourself the favor of listening to the Audible version—well worth the effort) and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s “Rocket Fantastic.” Two books that have been lanterns to light my way through my latest project are Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” and “The Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf.

Do you have any projects that you are working on right now that you’re feeling really inspired and excited about?

I began writing what I thought was a linked series of prose poems, but they kept growing into what I thought was an essay. Now, it seems this project is leaning towards a memoir that balances observation of the natural world with my own life.  I’m doing my best to keep writing and trust the process while building new prose-writing skills along the way. Other examples of hybrid forms have been instructive, in particular Beth Ann Fennelly’s micro-memoir collection, “Heating and Cooling.”

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