Rattle & Pen is thrilled to support the newest publication by one of our own contributors–Lauren Gordon’s collection of poetry Keen (publication information below). Here, we offer you a brief interview with Lauren about the collection, her writing process, and where she’s headed next.
Keen, by Lauren Gordon, Horse Less Press, December 2014
This is such an interesting concept for a collection of poetry. Can you talk about how you composed this collection? Did you have Nancy Drew in mind from the start, or did the connection to the character emerge slowly as you wrote individual poems?
Thank you. When I left my MFA program in 2010, I was a little burned out on writing formal, pastoral poems, which was my bag at the time. I had the idea to write a series of poems about Nancy Drew and the mystery of family that would maybe loosely speak to my own relationship with my family. It never happened. I wasn’t connecting with what I was attempting to write so I abandoned the project.
The first section of the chapbook happened years later in a blur – I reread one of the Nancy Drew books (The Crooked Banister, which came out in 1971 and was #48 in the series) and was just kind of floored by this one illustration of Nancy being held by a robot. The look on Nancy’s face is supposed to be terror, but instead she looks surprised, and the robot looks sad. It’s as if she’s being hugged against her will. I projected myself into the picture unconsciously and that is when the writing started. I wrote it very quickly and then spent a long time editing. The second section came a bit slower (the section where Nancy’s mother speaks through her last will and testimony).
I think I needed to get remarried and become a mother in order to write those poems. That is what lent insight to postpartum depression, love affairs, loss – madness. Nancy was always pretty well-fleshed in my mind’s eye, because I had years of feeling like I knew her intimately. It was the mother’s voice that took a little longer to inhabit.
You must have been a Nancy Drew fan as a young reader. What did you love about the books then? Which is your favorite? What about the books or the characters has stuck with you as an adult?
As a young reader, I loved the formulaic predictability of Nancy’s world: sweater set, cold sandwiches in wax paper, a hand-wringing and aproned Hannah Gruen, titian-locks, swarthy criminals. To me, Nancy was the ultimate “good girl” and as an overweight, over-achieving child of multiple divorces, Nancy was a safe and familiar icon to cling to. The books I related to the most were the ones were her cousins, George and Bess appeared along with Ned and Dave (oh to have a steady!). Poor Bess. She was always the self-effacing “comely but chubby” friend, forever pinching her own cheeks. I loved it when Nancy was called in by the police chief for help, or when she helped her father with a case – those particular books where the teen-aged girl is smarter than the adults – well, understandably those thrilled me the most.
It’s different to read the books now as an adult. I still have affection for the characters, but it’s impossible to not read them now without grimacing at the overt racism and sexism. As historical artifacts, they’re immensely interesting and simultaneously gross. I can’t separate them from the space and place they come from, so they have lost a little bit of the sparkle.
You’ve titled your collection Keen, after Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew titles, but, of course, there was no actual Carolyn Keene. The name was a pseudonym, and a host of ghostwriters actually penned the novels over the years of their production. Given that, I’m wondering about identity and its role as a theme in your collection.
I like the riff on the word “keen”, how it points to acuity or sharpness, or how it’s almost like “keening”, which is a lament, much like the second half of the chapbook. I spent a long time thinking on identity, individually and collectively. The poems are meant to address what is absent in the (earlier) Nancy Drew books, specifically diversity, equality, mothers, sexuality, mental illness, and grief. I think the absence comes from a historical collective denial glossed over with a quaint Americana sheen. It’s bizarre to think about some older, white-haired, married gentleman ghostwriting stories as a woman writing about a teenage girl. Nancy becomes a female symbol of patriarchy through this lens and you see it happening in the books if you’re a close reader. She goes through personality changes – from a witty and direct teen gumshoe to demure sweater-set paragon. I found myself questioning my own identity and privilege when reading these books as an adult. And the gothic anxiety of sexuality and femininity, oh my gosh. I laugh thinking about all of the circumstances where Nancy and Ned are trapped, alone, in some small, tight space.
Writing Nancy’s mother was a blast, though. There was a lot of freedom in developing her persona, even though it goes to some dark places. Carson Drew speaks at one point in the last will and testimony, as a sort of cuckolded and smoldering voice and I think it needed that interjection. Nancy is propelled throughout the poems by the will of others. It was important to strip her of some autonomy in order to further the conversation on identity and use things like trapdoors and robots as metaphors.
Also central to your collection is an exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters. Nancy’s mother, of course, died, and from the beginning of the series Nancy was being raised by her single father (and her housemaid). What led you to pick out that absence in the series, and how did it inform your poems?
I was raised by a single mother who I am now estranged from, so the dynamics of our relationship and my upbringing were pretty tantamount to how I tried to approach these poems. I mentioned earlier that I had wanted to write something on “the mystery of family” years ago, but I was in the middle of great suffering and sometimes it is hard to create from that space. It took some distancing. It took me being a mother to a girl to reconcile and write that voice, too.
In a much less personal way, it was always remarkable how well turned out Nancy always was, as if she didn’t need a mother. There was no lamenting or grieving – there was never mention of Mrs. Drew. The housekeeper fulfilled the dutiful role of cook and maid with some loose affection here and there, but Nancy’s independence and unflagging positive attitude become the anti-reality. Here is this motherless girl who is always looking for something, always motivated by the mystery of what is missing.
Readers love to know about the process a writer carries out in composing work. Do you have an identifiable and repetitive process when you sit down to write a poem, or is your writing process less structured than that?
I have been having a four-month long dry spell, but I suppose no one wants to hear that or it looks unprofessional. The Nancy poems came to me quickly, in a matter of weeks. I wrote another chapbook manuscript in two days on my laptop (that has never happened before), but most of the time I spend editing and laboring and work-shopping and rewriting and submitting and re-submitting. And then I take poetry breaks. And then I do NaPoWriMo. And then I hibernate. One of my goals this year is to aim for structure. Right now I’m reading for five minutes and writing for five minutes, in a journal, not on the computer. It has been much harder to carve out time now that my daughter is a full-blown thinking, feeling, talking, running person. But there is something to be said for handwriting notes; it’s a slower process that makes my brain actually stop and think about what it wants to express.
Finally, what’s your blue roadster and what comes next in the “series”?
It’s a nine-year-old blue Chevy Cobalt with 49,000 miles on it. Have you ever strapped a flailing human into the backseat of a two-door coupe? Somewhere there is another version of me in a 1959 Chevy Bel Air, white-walled tires, strawberry locks whipping in the wind.
Next in the series – I will be doing a reading in Grand Rapids, Michigan on January 18th for Poetry & Pints that is part of a reading series run by the Horse Less Press editors, and then another reading at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee on January 31 as part of their poetry marathon. Coming out this year is another chapbook with another great press – Yellow Flag Press – that is an ars poetica called “Generalizations about Spines”.
(Interview by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum)