Poet Spotlight: Michelle Scalise on the horrors of grief

Since 1994, Michelle Scalise‘s work has appeared in such anthologies as Unspeakable Horror, Darker Side, Mortis OperendiI, Dark Arts, The Big Book of Erotic Ghost Stories, Best Women’s Erotica, and such magazines as Cemetery Dance, Crimewave, Space And Time, and Dark Discoveries. She was nominated for the 2010 Spectrum Award, which honors outstanding works of fantasy and horror that include positive gay characters. Her poetry has been nominated for the Elgin Award and the Rhysling Award. Her fiction has received honorable mention in Years Best Fantasy and Horror. Her latest poetry has been chosen by the Horror Writers Association for their anthology Horror Poetry Showcase: Volume I and II.

Her fiction collection, Collective Suicide, was published by Crossroad Press in 2012. In 2014, Eldritch Press published a collection of her poetry, The Manufacturer of Sorrow in paperback and ebook. It became a bestseller in the women writers category on Amazon. In May of 2019, her latest collection of poetry, Dragonfly and Other Songs of Mourning, was published by Lycan Valley Press. Michelle was raised in Kent, Ohio and is married to bestselling author Tom Piccirilli.

Your collection, Dragonfly and Other Songs of Mourning, delves into the brutal emotional intimacy of loss, pain, and abuse. Can you tell us about the book and the story it’s trying to tell? 

Dragonfly is about the horrors and monsters that find you as an adult and the ones that still haunt you from your childhood. Cancer and child abuse are more frightening than anything made-up. As I was writing about the death of my husband I stumbled upon articles related to WW1 widows in Great Britain and how these women were treated. As the death toll rose and there seemed to be no end in sight, the public began to question the war. The government needed to reassure people that the war was going to be won soon. So they issued pamphlets to the widows who were collecting a small stipend. They were told how long they should wear widow’s weeds and show blatant displays of grief. They were told how to mourn. It was bad for moral for a woman to still be broken-up after three months. A person could lose the small funds they were receiving if they didn’t follow the guidelines.Volunteer ladies would visit homes and report back. I don’t even remember most of what happened in my life the first year after my husband died. I lived in my bed. Never bothered to get dressed, let alone clean the house. I realized I wouldn’t have lived up to the rules they requested these widows adhere to. It has been four years and I still don’t live up to them.

What was your writing process for creating your chapbook. How did you decide on the title and arrangement of the poems? What was the revision process like? 

About six months after my husband, award winning novelist Tom Piccirilli, died of brain cancer, I began scribbling just a few lines for poems when they would come to me. The number one reason I tried to keep writing is because Tom would have wanted me to. It wasn’t because I felt an overwhelming need to write or ever be published again. I was destroyed.  But then after two years I sat down at Tom’s computer and started writing these poems. Some of them left me sobbing but I couldn’t stop. I told our horror story. Dragonfly is the first poem I wrote for the book because they reminded me of Tom. The cover art for his novel A Choir of Ill Children hung over his side of the bed (it still does) and I would stare at it for hours. It is a beautiful piece of a little boy with dragonflies covering his lips and each of his closed eyes. The outstanding artist Caniglia created this cover (and did the cover for my book as well) and it appears so magical. As if dreams could come true.

When I finished the first draft of that poem, I sent it to my close friend, poet and writer Linda Addison. I needed someone I trusted to tell me if I could still write. I’ve been selling my poems and stories for 25 years so that may sound odd but I didn’t know if I was thinking clearly enough to be creating poetry as opposed to ranting. She assured me I was okay.

The first poem in the book makes it clear where I am heading. And the last poem in the book pulls me away from a place I never wanted to leave.

Do you find that the writing of poetry can be a way to process the kind of intense emotions you have gone through?

Poetry is the way I have been expressing myself since I was a teenager. I’ve always loved horror fiction and films so as an adult I found that combining my real life experiences with horror imagery was a way I could deal with my sorrows from a distance. Horror in my work is like a distorted lens I can use.

One of the ways your poems seem to work through the horrors of adulthood and loss is through traditional horror imagery of blood and monstrousness? What is the value of horror as a genre in addressing emotional experience? 

I turn subject matter like cancer, chemo and child abuse into the horrors that they truly are but allow the readers to feel their own pain. The value is that readers can can see their own monsters in the words. They can step into my shoes or draw on their own pain. We all have monsters hiding under the bed. We all have moments, that if we were deranged, we’d kill the ones who caused pain or watched us, with dead eyes, groveling in the dirt of our horrors.

How did you get started as a writer and what keeps you writing? 

I started writing poetry when I was 14. They were angst riddled poems about a boy in high school. I was inspired by Poe to use my pain. After all these years, I need to write. I can’t imagine how I would stop even if editors and publishers were no longer interested in my work.

Tell us a bit about your process as a writer. Do you have any rituals for writing? Any particular materials you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

I am constantly writing. I have a notebook next to my bed. My desk always has piles of little pieces of paper, napkins, bills, receipts from stores all filled with lines I’ve come up with or a word that came to me when I was driving. These little notes are earworms and if I don’t save them, I worry I’ll forget them. I must have the first line of a poem before I sit down at the computer with all my bits and pieces gathered around me as if I were building a nest. The first draft to the finished work is something I always do on a computer.

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

I believe community is very important for writers. It’s a lonely profession. Before I was published, I belonged to a local writer’s group and it really helped me. Now I am an active member of the Horror Writer’s Association and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. I have friends in the industry that I can turn to when I need someone to take a look at what I’m working on. Tom and I would talk about books and writing for hours. It was our life. I must say that I really miss the numerous live chats for horror writers that used to exist. They were a great way to talk to a group of people going through the same ups and downs.

Name a poet (or two) you would like more readers know about. 

I know and enjoy the work of many genre poets and I don’t want to insult anyone by leaving them off of my list so I will give you just one name. Charlee Jacob. She was a bright star and her style was original and beautiful. We recently loss her but her words and spirit live forever. If a reader is looking for someone to check out, I highly recommend her poetry.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

More poetry. I have learned, through the writing of Dragonfly, that I will always write

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