Conversations with Contributors: Nancy Reddy / by Peter LaBerge

BY BRANDON NORTH

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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey.

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Brandon North: Let's start with the title of your chapbook, Acadiana. Being from Ohio, I had actually never heard of the coastal, French Louisiana region called Acadiana, so at first glance the word looked vaguely like Arcadia, a place often idealized in art as an idyllic land lost to the forces of civilization and colonization. (The actual Arcadia was near water, too, being in the Peloponnese region of Greece). Considering that your chapbook starts with a poem called "Dirge," can you discuss whether Acadiana was inspired by the mythological version of Arcadia, as it relates to a lost place, a place that, once it’s gone, might be idealized?

Nancy Reddy: The title of the chapbook came pretty late, actually. (I find, in general, that I either have a title right away, or I really have to search for it!) When it won the Black River competition, the chapbook was titled Barataria, which is a small town in south Louisiana. I wasn’t quite satisfied with that—the sound is a bit clunky, and I worried the name was too obscure—and I was lucky that Kit Frick, my amazing editor, let me change it. I spent a long time searching for a new title and was really taken by the idea of a long, kind of mystical-sounding title that would set a tone for the chapbook. (I sent a bunch of those ideas in an email to my poet-girlfriends—I’ll spare you the specific examples—but let’s say that they were Not Good, and I was lucky those dear friends gently pointed me in a different direction.) In the end, I settled on Acadiana for some of the reasons you mention—it calls up Arcadia for people who aren’t familiar with south Louisiana, and for people who are (or people familiar with Google) it establishes the landscape of the chapbook. So, though the chapbook wasn’t explicitly inspired by the ideas about Arcadia that you mention, there are certainly resonances, and I’m so happy those came through.

BN: Acadiana is a very polyvocal book: there are sibyls as well as saints speaking, and there are also narrator-like personae that discuss characters like the Thibodeaux girls and sometimes speak with the "we" pronoun, as if in possession of knowledge about an entire community. Can you discuss how these varied points of view and personae relate to a place ravaged by natural disasters, as Acadiana has been? Are the perspectives meant to be blurred together in intimate ways? I'm thinking of how hurricanes and floods erode, shift, and replace boundaries, and whether those phenomena inform your poems.

NR: The many voices of Acadiana are tied to my interest in exploring different ways of knowing. The sibyls (women whom the ancient Greeks believed acted as oracles) speak with this absolute certainty that I’m rarely able to muster in my own everyday life. In “Dirge,” which opens the chapbook, they foretell the hurricane and the inevitability of disaster, and in “Town Anatomy II” (a bit farther down in the Connotation Press link above) they’re arbiters of the fates of the desperate men and pregnant girls who come to them for guidance—and they’re entirely confident in their judgments. (It probably helps that they’re literally inspired—breathed into—by the gods, at least in Greek mythology, though in my version, by the end, they refuse that forcible wisdom and speak for themselves.) So the sibyls represent a kind of divine wisdom, but one that’s troubling and violent.

The saints, on the other hand, are aligned to a more conventional Catholic and Christian worldview, though these saints are just as troubling, if not more so, than the sibyls. Saint James was the first saint I wrote, and while he says he left the girl unharmed, I’m not entirely sure about that.

Your question is making me realize that these ways of knowing—prophesy, prayer, received wisdom—also have a spatial component. The men leave town and turn to the sibyls only when they’re desperate, when the strategies of civilization have stopped working. So the knowledge of the sibyls belongs to the swamps, this liminal space between (so-called) civilization and a pre-modern way of life, between this life and the next.

BN: Polyvocality also seems related to how many poems reference "the god." With Catholic saints and Greco-Roman mythological figures sharing the same space (especially since Christian myths are historically entangled with Greco-Roman ones), could you discuss how this reference functions in Acadiana? It sounds ominously universal, yet feels like each speaker could be referencing a different, specific god.

NR: I was raised Catholic (that’s probably obvious) and one of the things I find fascinating about the history of Catholicism is how gleefully (as you note in your question) the early church absorbed the gods and the symbols and the traditions of the people they converted. (The Romans did this too, of course, so there was a solid precedent.) The monks who made illuminated copies of The Aeneid, for example, changed Vergil’s name to Virgil to make it look more like Virgin, to be more acceptable to the church. So they’re responsible for our having access to that remarkable, foundational story, but that access came at the cost of its alteration.

In terms of the god(s) of Acadiana: yes. I think all these gods—the pagan gods, the mortals touched by them, the saints—all move through this same space, all hobbled and imperfect. This is a world in which everyone’s praying and pleading, and occasionally they receive an answer, but it’s rarely a comforting one, and there are no answers that explain or even really alleviate suffering. (In that way it’s much like our world.)

BN: I'm very intrigued by how Acadiana's poems situate femininity and womanhood within the consciousnesses of its speakers. There seems to be a sustained consideration of how prophecy relates to labor. If, historically, women have not been encouraged to be designers of Western civilization, and yet there are many female seers and prophets in Western mythology, is there a sense in your poems that womanhood and femininity is therefore historically linked to the actual details of building societies, which in turn could provide visionary understandings of how tenuous and easily destroyed those societies can be? This is definitely a complicated dynamic, and thinking about it makes me return to the final poem in your chapbook, "After, the Sibyls Fall Out of Words,” which ends: "Saved and spared are different / and you will know that now." These lines seem to suggest that male-dominated cultures have tried to "save" so much (like women themselves, of course) that they miss the importance of what could be spared—left undisturbed—for the future, like entire ecosystems that are destroyed by the very attempts to "save" something else (climate change as fueled by societal attempts to sustain harmful human ways of life and the hierarchies that promote them).

NR: I love your observation about the connection between prophesy and labor. In the myths, prophesy is, especially when worked by the oracles, a form of bodily labor. (For other forms of prophesy, the labor is different—following the flight of birds in augury, or offering a sacrifice and watching the smoke of burnt flesh as its ascends to the gods. But there’s still a bodily component, rather than the primarily cerebral work of prayer and confession and absolution in the Catholic tradition.) There’s a complicated relationship between prophesy and agency in the myths: the sibyls are oracles, meaning that their speech is divinely inspired; it’s not their own. They’re momentarily possessed, and their speech has to be interpreted by (male) priests.

Speech is powerful, right? Its policing shows us this. There’s a reason women still can’t read the Gospel or give a homily in the Catholic church, though they’re now allowed to give communion. (After a man’s worked the miracle of transubstantiation, of course.) I’ll say that again: a woman cannot read the words of the Gospel from the altar, though deacons—men—now can. I sometimes miss the Church—it was an important force in my childhood and its rituals have given me enormous comfort over the years—and then I remember how hard it’s worked to ensure that women are barred from meaningful participation in its most important rituals.

In the end, as you point out, the sibyls refuse to be possessed—they “won’t have / the man’s hands on us now.” They’re able to work their own liberation, but only after enormous devastation.  

BN: That trade off—devastation as the condition for the sibyls’ liberation—has an apocalyptic feeling to it, and it definitely suggests Acadiana’s complex emotionality, which had me oscillating between senses of doom and senses of freedom. Could you address whether you see Acadiana as belonging to the genre of apocalypse literature? I often think poetry is well-suited to the sorts of imagining required for the genre, though maybe there isn’t a widespread sense that this is the case, despite there being some great books of apocalyptic poetry, like Inger Christensen’s Alphabet or Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render  / An Apocalypse, which came out more recently.

NR: I hadn’t thought of Acadiana in those terms—but I’m certainly interested in the transformation wrought by disaster, which is a common theme in the apocalyptic. And that’s something that many poets are engaging with, I think—Leah Umansky, Maggie Smith, Meghan Privitello, and Dena Rash Guzman had that great panel on Apocalypse Poetry by Women at AWP 2017 in DC, and I think also of the Afrofuturist strain in Eve Ewing’s stunning Electric Arches.

There’s an ecological component here, too, of course. The escalating intensity of hurricane season - which underpins both the landscape of the chapbook and the reality of life in the gulf south - is just one dramatic consequence of climate change and ongoing environmental disaster.

BN: Switching gears, could you discuss your process for writing the poems in Acadiana? The forms and rhythms are varied, so I’m wondering how you went about writing them. Did you have a lot of this work in mind, and then decided on many of the forms? Did some or most poems happen organically and eventually you started seeing them as interrelated?

NR: I wrote the bulk of these poems in a few weeks, in the summer between the first and second years of my MFA. During most of my years in graduate school, I worked at Teach for America’s Summer Institute, training new teachers in Houston, then Atlanta, then Tulsa, and it was intense, exhausting, and energizing work. (It also paid, for 6 weeks’ summer work plus prep time in the spring, nearly the same amount as my graduate student stipend. I add those details because I think it’s helpful for writers to be a bit more transparent about the practical considerations—income, healthcare, childcare, domestic/second shift work, the support (or not) of a partner, and so on—that support or impede the creation of art.)

So I’d spent the beginning of that summer working 80+ hour weeks in Atlanta, and when I wasn’t working, I was trying to get my head around the beginnings of this project. I’d written a few swampy poems (several of which didn’t make it into the chapbook; you have to be willing to shed the things that help you enter the project but don’t serve it in the end) and, to keep me moving in that direction, I bought a field guide to south Louisiana when I visited New Orleans for a few days before going to Atlanta to work. That field guide taught me the names of specific plants, the history of the Mississippi’s shifting delta—things that allowed me to write my way into the swamp.

Then, when I returned to Madison, I knew I had just a few weeks before the semester started again. I got a little carrel in the library, and I’d take the bus to campus early every morning and drink coffee from my thermos and visit the saints and sibyls and everyone else who lived in and around the swamp. I haven’t experienced that in quite the same way again, but I felt like each poem was pointing me toward the new poem. Early on, I wrote “Dirge” in the voice of the sibyls, then I wrote others, like, oh, what would they say about these men who show up in the swamp looking for help? What would they say to these pitiful pregnant teenagers? The same thing with the two Thibodeaux Girl poems—I’d written the first one, then I wondered what that speaker would have to say when she saw her neighborhood transformed by the hurricane. And I followed her into the next poem.

BN: To end on a related question, could you discuss how you decided that these poems should be in a chapbook as opposed to a full length collection? I’ve often thought that the chapbook length is good for intense, sequenced, “project”-like, etc., types of collections, but Acadiana feels more open than these kinds of chapbooks, and in a meaningful way. The many present voices—in such a compressed setting as a chapbook—seems to suggest both that there once were many more voices, now lost to natural disaster or simply time, and also that there could be more voices, whether in the form of ghosts or spirits or previously silenced perspectives that could now be shared. This openness feels welcoming to readers, too, as if the condensed form of your work asks readers to add their own voices to the landscape your poems inhabit.

NR: For a long time, I thought of these poems as just kind of an oddball project I’d written and abandoned. (I’d originally written them for inclusion in my MFA thesis, but it became clear that they didn’t fit.) I’d send a couple out every once in a while, and then, in the summer of 2016, a group of them were finalists for the Coniston Prize at Radar Poetry. I was so honored by that—Dara-Lyn and Rachel publish consistently excellent work, and in a visually beautiful journal—and I was like, hey, these poems are actually pretty well-published. So I put them together and submitted them to two chapbook contests, and I was beyond thrilled when they won the Black River competition at Black Lawrence Press. And, in an amazing bit of serendipity, I was able to work with Lise Latreille, whose artwork Dara-Lyn and Rachel had paired with my poems at Radar, to create the cover for the chapbook.  

I’m glad you perceive that kind of openness. For me, the shared landscape and time period (before and after a hurricane) holds these poems together. And so, in one way, I was mapping that landscape—going into town, then back out, talking to the sibyls, then watching Saint Charlene offer up one final prayer, watching Saint Catherine as she sat beneath her carport and waited for the hurricane to come in—but any map is necessarily incomplete. That’s part of why I named the poem “Town Anatomy II”—the suggestion that there’s a I and a III and perhaps even a IV that have been lost to time or water.

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Brandon North writes from Ohio, where he attended the Northeast Ohio MFA program (NEOMFA). He is the recipient of a scholarship to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute and has been poetry editor for Whiskey Island. Recent writing is forthcoming or appears in Ghost Proposal, Crixeo, The Bombay Gin, and Quarterly West.