An assistant professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University, Emma holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a BLA from Sarah Lawrence College.
She is the author of the poetry collection, Maleficae, from GenPop Books, as well as three chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady, (part of Edge by Edge, the third in Toadlily Press’ Quartet Series); The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press); and The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press). Her manuscripts have been semi-finalists for the Crab Orchard Review Poetry Series’ First Book Prize, the Perugia Press Book Prize, the Brittingham and Felix Pollak Prizes in Poetry, and the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, as well as a finalist for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s First Book Prize. And on top of all of this she keeps regular court on her blog. A Century of Nerve.
I interviewed Emma about her most recent book of poetry, Malefica…a collection I Adored. Thank you, Emma, for the interview and for this beautiful body of work.
CL: This collection of poetry touched me on so many levels with themes of betrayal, women’s rights, religion, magic and superstition. What made you interested in writing about these topics? Why Witches?
EB: I think that my work has always, in one way or another, revolved around women’s rights, particularly in terms of social constructs for female behavior. In graduate school, I became fascinated with etiquette books – I’ve since built up quite a collection – and with other “rules” for a woman’s behavior. I was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic school for many years, so I’ve always been steeped in religious ideas about behavior and in the structures of ritual. I have to admit that the idea for Maleficae came to me from a most unexpected source: in 2006, I had reconstructive surgery on my jaw and stayed with my parents during my recovery. I am, admittedly, a pretty terrible patient (largely because I have no patience), and drove my mother crazy. She came home with a bunch of books one day to keep me busy, and one of those books was Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. When I came across the brief passage about the European witch trials and the Malleus Maleficarum, something clicked inside of me. I read the Malleus Maleficarum soon afterwards, along with everything I could find about the European witch trials. I was shocked about how little I knew about the trials, and how they seemed to be buried in so many history books — especially since the trials and subsequent executions were such horrific examples of gendercide. I’m not sure that I made a conscious decision to write these poems: once I came across the stories, there wasn’t really a choice to be made. I had to write them.
CL: Every poem follows the story of a particular woman, correct? Her life from trusted sage to persecuted witch. How emotionally difficult was this for you to write?
EB: Yes, that’s correct! The poems follow a narrative arc from the woman’s birth and education in pagan practices – which were mostly medical, and, interestingly enough, often focused on women’s medical care – to her participation in a ritual that made her the village savior to her persecution, execution, and death. The poems from the witch’s point of view were often emotionally difficult, but I have to say that the poems from the persecutor’s point of view were far more difficult for me to write. In fact, the original draft included none of these poems. There were poems from the point of view of the villagers, but none from the point of view of the priest, who I use as the voice of the persecutor. I sent the draft to Louie Skipper, a very dear friend and a phenomenal poet who also happens to be an Episcopalian priest. Louie suggested that I include some poems written from the voice of the persecutor, and I realized that he was absolutely right. The book was, largely, about dissecting these terrifying beliefs that can lead to even more terrifying actions, and in order to do that, I had to write in the persecutor’s language. I finished the first drafts of these poems very fast – I had to write quickly, as it was the only way I could get through it.
CL: What type of research did you do for this collection? What still stays with you from that research?
EB: When I began writing this book, I was an instructor at Auburn University, which meant that I was incredibly lucky: I had access to an incredible library and also to incredible librarians. I started reading and researching on my own, but soon recognized my limitations and sought advice from Auburn’s subject librarians in religion, women’s studies, and history. I owe them a great deal of gratitude: without them, the book may not have been finished, and certainly not the way that it was. The librarians were passionate and pulled books I wouldn’t have found myself, from texts about the history of torture (the series of poems from the witch’s testimony are indebted to these books) to actual transcripts of the trials themselves. The transcripts haunt me. Sometimes, I regret that I wasn’t more faithful to them, that I wasn’t able to get more of the victims’ actual words out to the world.
CL: I was breathless reading through each poem…and filled with so many emotions: anger, longing, passion, sadness. I could relate to how this woman felt needed in the beginning and then betrayed towards the end. Why did you choose to write each poem the way you did…they almost felt like spells themselves and the quickening of a heartbeat from joy to anger to fear.
EB: This is such a kind question – thank you so much for your lovely words about the work! I actually did pattern the book after spells – or, rather, the kind of language we use in prayer, ritual, and magic. I was perhaps most influenced by Stephen Wilson’s The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe. Wilson examines examples of magical language and prayers to find the structures that make language carry this kind of meaning for us. Repetition is one of these structures, and I definitely had this in mind while writing. Since magic and prayer are, at their cores, expressions of hope for transformation, I focused on ways to make the language itself transform, which is why I decided to use spaces in the middle of the lines – in that way, I was able to create layered meanings in the line.
CL: Had you always been interested in this subject and how do you see these themes still at play today in the modern world?
EB: I think that these themes are absolutely still at play today, and in very similar ways. Witch trials are still held, and people are still persecuted and executed for witchcraft – and I mean that in the most literal sense. Just last year, a mob burned a woman alive for witchcraft in Papua New Guinea, and that is only one terrifying example in a terrifying list of trials I’ve heard of in the past few years. While researching the book, I was struck with how closely the events leading up to the European witch trials paralleled events I saw in our own country and culture, particularly in terms of refusing women health care and contraceptives.
CL: What are you currently working on…what can we expect next from you?
EB: I’m working mostly on a memoir about my personal experience with women’s medicine – and your excellent questions have made me realize that there are a lot of similar themes. An excerpt from the memoir just appeared on The Rumpus, and can be found here. (sorry for the shameless plug!). I also have a book-length poetry/prose hybrid piece forthcoming from Noctuary Press in the 2014-2015 academic year.
For more information about Emma, check out her Blog, A Century of Nerve, and stay updated on her work!
You can purchase Emma’s Poetry here: