Sandy Longhorn on Storytelling Through Poetry in “The Alchemy of My Mortal Form” [INTERVIEW]

Sandy Longhorn has received the Porter Fund Literary Prize for Arkansas authors and the Collins Prize from the Birmingham Poetry Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House Press, 2015), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, and Blood Almanac. Her poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, North American Review, Oxford American, and elsewhere. Longhorn studied poetry at the College of St. Benedict (St. Joseph, MN) and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She now teaches in the Arkansas Writers MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, AR. Below are excerpts from her interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: From the very first section of “The Alchemy of My Mortal Form”, titled “General Orders” and the introduction of three key characters – a Whitecoat, a Nurse, and a Mystic – it’s clear that this will not be a typical collection of poetry, but a narrative. Strangeness is established from the very first page. What was the earliest inspiration for this book?

Sandy Longhorn: “The very earliest inspiration was the first poem, “Fevers of Minor Fire”. This book is very different from my previous books. I wrote the poems in chronological order, from “Fevers of a Minor Fire ” through the end of the speaker’s story. The glossary at the end and the general orders at the beginning were separate, but the narrative I wrote in chronological order. The speaker’s journey is inspired by one of my cats, who at the time who was diagnosed with a fever of unknown origin. The book is also largely a reaction to my father’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s in his 60s, and the amount of work my mother had to do to get him care. Those are the two medical threads that are going through this book. They come from the fact that I could get better medical care for my cat more quickly, easily, and cheaply than my mother could get for my father.”

James: While this book is a narrative, intended to be read in order, the poems have appeared individually in journals. How did you have to adapt the poems to be effective as standalone pieces, without the context set by the book, and then also work in the context of the narrative?

Sandy: “I don’t remember that being a major concern and I think there were a couple of things working in my favor. While there is a mystical element to the poems, they are largely narrative with a clear speaker who is a character moving through space and time in the poems. So they can stand alone to some extent. The other thing is about a third of the book is epistolary. Those letter poems have an easier chance of standing alone because the reader can engage with them as they are without having to know the rest of the story around them.” 

James: I’ve read your book several times preparing for this interview, and the first time I read it straight through in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. The unsettling eeriness was so compelling. In “This Vigil I Keep for Comfort” you write:

In the background, the machines
whir & bleat while the whitecoats
squander their smooth voices,

ordering higher doses, another
sting of the needle's tongue.
I bow down to gold-leafed grief.

How did you think about pacing the narrative, both crafting the poetry and creating the momentum of a cohesive tale?

Sandy: “My fiction friends were always saying that the character just took them over and they had to keep writing to find out what was going to happen next. I was always very jealous of this. My previous two books were both mixtape books where the poems were written at different times and then put together into lyric arcs. I was always very jealous of my friends, who were writing prose nonfiction, where there was a clear narrative arc. After I wrote that first poem, “Fevers of a Minor Fire”, I wrote this book in 11 months which is very fast for a slow writer. My previous two books took four years for the first one, and six years for the second one, so this was a phenomenon for me.

“I wrote that first poem over the summer because I am an academic and when I’m teaching, I do not have a highly productive generative writing time. I do a lot of my generative writing in the summer or over the winter break. It was June or July when I wrote this first poem, and the next day when I came back for my writing time, the speaker came back. The speaker had more to tell me about that mystery that was launched in that first poem. I was also reading Emily Dickinson’s “The Master Letters” at the time, because Lucie Brock-Broido’s collection “The Master Letters” is one of my touchstone books. It is a book I have returned to every two years and read front to back, and discover new moments in poetry that I had missed before. With “The Master Letters”, we don’t know who Dickinson was writing to other than that they’re addressed ‘Dear Master’. For my speaker, she also has this sort of mentor that she’s addressing in these letters, but there was no reason it had to be a man. That’s how it became ‘Dear Madam’, which was in direct conversation with both Dickinson and Brock-Broido’s work in that area.”

James: The narrator, through letters and what could be a journal of diary entries, has a distinct voice, perhaps Victorian. Margaret Atwood once said in an interview that you need to know what is in the nightstand table drawer even if it is never opened. How did you develop a reference backstory for the narrator, and their voice?

Sandy: “The setting and the backstory of the characters’ lived experience developed in the writing of the first or five poems, and then it coalesced. Another influence is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. At the time, I was teaching ‘five-five’, so, five sections each semester at a community college in North Little Rock, Arkansas. My load was mostly composition, but I would also get to teach world literature and I always assigned “The Yellow Wallpaper”. At this point, I had been teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper” every semester for five or six years. The narrator of that story is so multi-dimensional and layered and is often taught as an unreliable narrator, but I disagree. I think that is a red herring that we have perpetuated in academia. She would certainly serve as a sense that lack of agency was going on. 

“I also figured out that the narrator was institutionalized in the books. The idea of an institution is very unusual. In my first two books, I was considered a place-based poet. I was a poet writing about the Midwest, even while living in Arkansas, and those poems are steeped in landscape. And as I was writing these poems, it dawned on me that there is no landscape in these poems, other than illusions that the speaker might make to something exterior to the walls in which she lives. It really drew my attention to how important those details were going to be. It was important to make the setting of the institution its own landscape.”

James: After reading your book I thought of Tyler Mills’ “City Scattered”. I spoke with Tyler last year for the podcast and was struck by how that book, also a narrative, would be compelling to be performed live in a theatrical setting. In writing the poems for your book, how did theater and performance influence your writing?

Sandy: “Clearly, the idea of dramatic monologue comes through because we have the speaker who’s isolated and alone. Whether it’s through letters or through what seemed like diary entries, this is giving voice to the ‘I’. You could sort of see this as a one-woman show or something like that. I hadn’t thought about that direct correlation coming into play. In my first two books, I write in this very plain Midwestern language where I embrace image and I embrace landscape, but there’s very little over-the-top language. 

“My first instinct when writing, all the way back when I was a baby poet, was to use flourish on the page — the textual equivalent of jazz hands. My teachers were always striking through those purple prose places. Then I started reading people like Lucie Brock-Broido and Lisa Russ Spaar. They were able to create these lush poems that were full of language that was just bursting with ripeness and not have it be purple prose. When I created this speaker who was speaking to me from a fever, and who would be fevered through most of the book, it was like a green light to explore that new voice. That is very much the theatrical persona—putting on the mask of someone very different from myself. I loved every minute of when I could use fever as the impulse to flourish on the page.”

James; One of the reasons I was unable to put down your book was the mystery and strangeness, phrases such as “The woman I called mother by mistake takes pity, // sends me gifts addressed by an anonymous hand.” and “This bed my penitentiary, though // my chains pointless, cotton-woven.” and “She requests a bit of fingernail, a drop // of newly concocted blood-sap dried on cloth”. Yet you never jumped the shark poetically, the strangeness never crossed over into the absurd. How did you balance a compelling narrative with the macabre?

Sandy: “I think in some ways this harkens back to your previous question about world building and then knowing what you have to leave out. I went through, striking out places where I had gone overboard and drew it back to the ‘woman I called mother by mistake’, instead of the three stanza explanation which originally occurred in the first poem where I mentioned her. It was overly done and it was hyperbole to the point of distraction. You find the mystery when you pull that back and let the statement of who that character is be what it is. 

“The speaker is called ‘mother by mistake’. This is the woman who raised her and this woman is separate from the mentor. It sets up this dichotomy of why is the speaker alone and why is there no support while she is going through this medical mystery that is life-threatening? How are those two figures working in her life at this time? I wrote more poems because I had those questions I was trying to answer. Since I was operating in this alternate voice, I was able to leave the mystery in there. My instinct, being a very plain spoken Midwesterner, is to explain yourself. You make yourself clear. Instead, here was my chance to let the language exist in the questions instead of in the answers.”

James: There are several forms you’ve employed: poems in the form of letters, poems that snake the page, and poems with stanzas in lines of two, three, four, and five. Throughout the book there is a sense of symmetry in stanza length that is almost always consistent throughout a given poem. This visual symmetry added something to your book, a sense of precision from the narrator that matches their language. How did you think about form as a tool for driving the narrative?

Sandy: “I love to explore form on the page. Even when I do break the traditional left-aligned margin and I’m exploring white space and using indentation and a lot of stanza breaks, If you look at what I’ve done carefully, you’ll see there’s even a mirroring in that. I think that’s just personal taste. I do not tend to write single stanza poems in part because of my own desire to have space to breathe and pause in poems. I need the white space in order to process what’s happening in the poem. 

“Whenever I start drafting a poem, I start by longhand in a notebook until I get a critical mass of lines that are holding together and I know they are going to transfer to the digital page. When I do that transfer, I start to establish the form of the poem, knowing then what the content of the poem is going to be. The poems that are couplets and tercets in the book and then the poems that explore the white space marry the content of the speaker’s mind as she’s fevered and as she’s struggling to process this reality she feels confused by. She is sort of breathless, so there’s a lot of breaths in the page and that’s maybe more what I was thinking of rather than a consistency across the book.”

James: What are some unexpected responses to this book that you’ve gotten? 

Sandy: “The responses that startled me the most are when someone comes up to me and announces what disease the speaker has. Then, they want to quibble with some description of treatment that I allude to in the book. There is nothing stated about what the disease is in the book. There are only slight references to needles or machines. Nothing is spelled out as being an XYZ treatment. Truthfully, I don’t know what disease the speaker has. That wasn’t one of the questions I had when I was writing the narrative, because one of the points is how the medical industrial complex disembodies a patient and makes them a problem to be solved. My focus wasn’t solving that problem, rather my focus was how does a person navigate this experience and remain whole mentally as well as physically by the end, if they even do. My hope was you would be reading to discover if she comes out healthy on the other side.

“The other thing that startles me is when someone comes up and announces what time period the book takes place in because I don’t know the answer to that question either. There are definitely Victorian references and latter half of the 20th Century technologies that are referenced. That’s all part of the mystery. That’s part of the question of what does having this ‘Fever of Unknown Origin’ and being treated in a particular way by the medical establishment do to a person’s narrative and what does that do to the way the person sees the world.”

James: What advice do you have for poets thinking of starting a narrative constructed with poetry, versus a book constructed from a collection of poetry.
Sandy: “Start with a character with a strong voice — a strong voice in language instead of just a shocking event that has happened to this character. Ask what kind of words would this particular speaker be using in this situation and let that voice drive you forward. I found myself with this book more than anything else I’ve worked on, re-reading the poems while I was drafting the new poems. That is pretty atypical of how I work when I’m not in a narrative. I was always reading to figure out what other questions I had. I did not know how this book would end. I didn’t even know how many poems there would be. I just kept showing up and she kept having things to say to me or I kept having questions. This was paralleling things that were happening with my father’s health, and what my mother was experiencing as his caregiver, and that was leading me to more concrete questions about the speaker’s existence. Having questions about your narrative is a good thing.”

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