Poet Spotlight: Laura Madeline Wiseman — Mermaids, Myth, and Community

Hello, lovelies! I’m thrilled to introduce my first poet spotlight, Laura Madeline Wiseman. She is author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry and fiction with a speculative bent. Her work explores myth and folklore, history and pop culture. She has collaborated with artists on projects such as broadsides and calendars and has taught a variety of courses in poetry, creative writing, literature, and women’s and gender studies. Here, Laura shares about her latest collection of poetry and her love of community.

laura madeline wiseman, 2014

Your most recent book of poetry is Drink. Tell us a bit about this project.

Wiseman--DRINK-198x300Exploring the mercurial myths of mermaids, nautical lore of drift bottles, and unmapped beach parties at the Pacific, Drink (BlazeVOX, 2015) questions the changeable stories we tell of water, those connected to plane disappearances, downed ships, lost girls, and forgotten lives. Drink seeks to understand what terrorizes us, be they forgotten messages, murdered sisters, or women living in water.

Why were you drawn to writing about mermaids?

Mermaids appeared in my poems. When characters suddenly appear, I listen. Drink was also influenced by mermaid myths, planes lost at sea, the beach, art museums, my dad’s obsession with privies, the gendering of ships during WWII, tsunamis, oil spills, drift bottle lore, prompts from NaProWriMo.

What are your favorite kinds of myths to explore?

My favorite kinds of myths and topics are the ones that come to me unbidden, the ones that obsess me, that won’t let me go. I follow that obsession until the book is done. Some of my recent obsessions include: mermaids, suffragist ancestors, bras, Martians, Cleopatra, advertising images of women and girls, gender violence, imaginary body parts, Bluebeard, Lilith, trees, girlhood, the lady of death, hunger, monsters, ghosts.

Many of the poems in Drink are prose poems. How do you decide what poetic form will work best for a certain piece.

I’ve been writing more and more prose poetry since finishing Ph.D. school. I write every day. In my writing classes, I begin most classes with two or three seven minute poem prompts. We also go on writing field trips to local art museums and history museums. I always write with my students, following the prompts I assign. All writers need to write, to practice writing, to write badly, to write when they’re not feeling like writing, and to write in places and situations that are not ideal for inspiration—it’s also one reason I adore NaPoWriMo and others who generate prompts during National Poetry Month. In the cruelest month, we need a little prompting to write. I often find that some of the rough, seven minute poems that I’ve written with my students are the first drafts of what later becomes solid material. Virtually all of the mermaid poems in Drink I first drafted with my introductory and advanced poetry students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There’s something fast paced and urgent about prose poetry. It may be that because the poems were timed poems, ones that I drafted within those seven minutes with my students, and because there’s something magical and mysterious that happens when writers get together to write, prose poetry was the form the poems arrived. I trusted that process.

What is the favorite thing you’ve written or published so far? Why?

The most important book that I’ve been honored to edit is Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). It collects over one hundred American poets who resist gender violence by poems. It is a book that was seven years in the making. I was so glad to finally have it in the world and honored to see how much support it received once it arrived.

As the author of more than twenty books and chapbooks, what advice can you give other poets about putting together a collection?

Writing quenches my thirst. Without it, my life is arid. It is the spring rain that heralds the flowers, the summer rain that fattens the raspberries, the fall rain that glosses the leaves in the street. It is from this well, that I begin to stir my poems into the manuscripts that become books.

Last fall I attended the Omaha Lit Fest and at one point the director and founder, Timothy Schaffert said, “I always tell my students the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer, is the published writer finishes the book.”

What are you currently reading?

Currently, I am the guest editor for the Cahoodaloodaling, Issue #18 – Historical (Re)Tell. I’m lucky. There’s been some wonderful submissions. The issue is still open. I hope your blog followers will consider submitting.

I read Margo Taft Stever’s The Lunatic Ball and reviewed it for the journal Up the Staircase. I’m interviewing her for Cahoodaloodaling. The Lunatic Ball explores Margo’s great-great-grandfather’s letters from an insane asylum in the 1900s, a relative she didn’t know had been institutionalized because his story had been buried. Peter Taft had developed Typhoid and been prescribed Calomel, a mercury based curative. She discovered letters from him and the superintendent in doing research on another book and the chapbook developed as she explored the ways madness was once treated.

Name one poet no one knows but should.

One poet everyone should know about, but few do is Matilda Fletcher Wiseman, my great-great-great grandmother who was a suffragist, lecturer, and poet. She spoke on stage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There is no known photo of Matilda, but I imagine that she was the type of woman who’d grab your hand, hold your eye, and tell you things you’ve always wanted to know, but always lacked the courage to ask. She didn’t publish any sole collections of poetry, though she did publish several books. Her poems can be found in historical newspapers of her time. She often delivered poems during her lectures.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

My favorite thing is the literary community and the ways we support one another as we all do the one thing in our lives we love to do the most. To stay connected online, I follow some of my favorite poets and writers online. I also love to attend readings, conferences, and festivals to hear the new work being created. This month, I’m giving a talk on collaborating with artists to write books at the North American Review Bicentennial Creative Writing & Literature Conference. In August, I’m participating in the Small Prestivus in Downtown Griffith, Indiana. In September, I’m reading in the Art & Words collaborative show in Texas, a show that pairs artists, writers, and musicians to create new collaborative works. In October, I participating in 2015 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference in Indiana on two panels. There’s nothing better than attending a reading by a writer I admire and hearing them read from and talk about their work. I eat up these readings like really good dark chocolate.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

As I mentioned, I’m guest editing the Cahoodaloodaling, Issue #18 – Historical (Re)Tell. I run a chapbook interview feature on my blog where I interview poets about all things chapbook. More fantastic chapbook interviews are set to be released this year. Finally, my collaborative book, Leaves of Absence: An Illustrated Guide to Common Garden Affection with the artist Sally Deskins is forthcoming from Red Dashboard soon.