In this Q&A, poets Susana H. Case, winner of the bronze IPPY in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Drugstore Blue (Five Oaks Press, 2017) and Lynn McGee, whose latest collection is Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019), ask each other about their work, and touch on topics including the tender eroticism of scars, historic fights for gender expression, the death poem as love poem, absorbing the New York City subway into the acceptance of loss, femme identity both queer and straight, and more.
SC: Death and potential mortality hover over your work—in the poems about your sister in Tracks and in the poems in Sober Cooking about your lover’s transplant. Emily Dickinson wrote she could not stop for death, a death she personified in her poem as a gentleman caller. You have, in a way, stopped for death in your poems, yet death in these is no gentleman caller. Can you talk a little bit about the imagery you’ve used in your writing about death?
LM: My poems about death are love poems. I don’t think we stop interacting with people, once they’re gone, but off course, without their response, we skew the interaction, in a sense, to serve our grief. We commemorate details of the person we’ve lost and spin the significance of those details. I should stop saying “we,” and take responsibility here for myself and my process. In Tracks, many of the poems—my work is image-centric—were triggered by observations I made, on my daily New York City subway commute during a period of sadness and recovery. It can be a meditative time, that communal ride, and privacy, I’ve learned, is a state of mind. Likewise, the content of many of the poems in my first full-length collection, Sober Cooking, was triggered by details of domestic life that grounded me when I was out of my mind with sadness, having been banned from my lover’s hospital room by her family. Also during that time, my father died. Those experiences became portals through which the poems emerged.
SC: If I ask about death, of course I have to ask about sex. Erotic sex is very difficult to write about well and “Scar,” in Sober Cooking, for example, is an extremely erotic poem. I say that as a hetero woman about what I know of course to be a poem about a female partner. That doesn’t seem to make a difference in its erotic character. Should it?
LM: It feels affirming to me, when a heterosexual woman recognizes the eroticism in “Scar,” which is a love poem from one woman to another who has had a mastectomy: “dark track where your breast / once was …” The poem is about intimacy, which of course transcends sexual preference. The speaker in “Scar” is granting another person “all kind of access” to her body—it is a display of trust, and if the reader finds that delivery of trust, that negotiation of power to be erotic, then I think that reader will find “Scar” to be an erotic poem. That said, I write about attraction knowing full well that not all readers share with me, an appreciation for the same signifiers that trigger sexual interest—but they understand the poems through the lens of their own experience. In Tracks, coming from the lens of my own experience, I convey in several poems my attraction to women whose presentation puts them on the “blue” side of the gender-expression wheel. For example, in “Details Heading Downtown,” I write of one woman who has caught my interest on the train: “Straight people would call her / ‘handsome’— / salt-and-pepper sideburns, / button-down shirt … / … wingtip boots / elegant cuffs…” In Sober Cooking, there is actually a poem that serves as a kind of homage to the bedroom closets of my butch lovers, comparing myself in “Pinkish Hue” to the comically picky George Costanza character in the TV show Seinfeldwho insists any woman he dates has “a cheek with a pinkish hue”—my version being, “Does she have a closet of button-down / shirts?She has to have a closet / of button-down shirts.” While gently poking fun at my own quite-specific preference, I’m also acknowledging the universality of preference, and perhaps its arbitrary mysteriousness. I accepted a long time ago, the nature of my attraction to women, and that was a kind of coming out, in and of itself.
SC: Tracks is not a collection of poems “about” New York, but the New York City subway system is a unifying device in the manuscript. I know you to have a love-hate relationship with the city. In what ways does that find its way into your poetry, in particular the poems in Tracks?
LM: I’ve heard people describe New York City as a character in certain movies and I think it is a character in the work of many poets. It certainly looms so at times in Tracks, but serves more as catalyst than focus. Every poem for me starts in the body, and in the environment that holds the body, past and present. I moved to New York in 1986 for graduate school, and left only once, for a couple years when my sister died and my parents were charged with the care of her children. Those two years in Dallas were the most lonely of my life—and it’s not that Dallas doesn’t have its charms, it’s just that I felt like an outsider, despite the demographic sameness I shared with most people I ran into in the university and high school where I taught, and in my parents’ neighborhood. In New York, there is a splendid range of difference among those of us who live here, and yet I feel we are somehow in the same boat, faced with whatever is our version of the struggle to preserve civility, privacy, safety and compassion as we seek housing, jobs, friends—and physically push together to get where we are going, on the train. I hate it and love it, as you said.
LM: One of the things that draw me into Drugstore Blue is your nuanced reimagining of icons like Marilyn Monroe. You identify women who have been relegated, culturally, to a narrative that secures their visibility but erases their individuality—and then you create a glimpse of who that woman might really have been. There’s something liberating to read a poem like that. How does it feel, to write those poems?
SC: I’m focused on the ways in which women are objectified, but, of course, don’t want to write didactic poetry and don’t want all of my poems to focus on the negative consequences of gender inequality. I’m been a bit obsessed with Marilyn, it seems, as I’ve written three poems about her, one of which appears in Drugstore Blue. I was staying at a hotel in DC, which at that time, had that iconic statue of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itchstanding over a subway grate by J. Seward Johnson, her dress lifting up. It was gigantic and a tourist attraction, and I would pass it in the morning when I was disheveled and grumpy and hadn’t yet had coffee. People wanted to be photographed with the sculpture, which didn’t interest me all that much, as, though I try for some glam once I’m awake, I don’t think I can compete with Marilyn, but it got me thinking of her life and identifying with some features of it: how do we persist and how do we get ourselves taken seriously? And then what happens as we age, with all those unforeseen consequences as to visibility and invisibility? I’m keyed into the tragedy in the Marilyn poem, but that’s not always the case. I’ve written a poem about Hedy Lamarr, also in Drugstore Blue, which ends with her running through the woods, nude in her film, Ecstasy. That poem focuses on how bright she was, not on the kind of sadness that was present, of course, in Marilyn Monroe’s life. I’m not all that interested in celebrity, but I am interested in that power imbalance and so I came at the Marilyn poems through that interest. I’m interested in famous people very little, but I am interested in who is really behind an iconic image, the wizard behind the screen. Beauty is fascinating because it’s liberating, but it can also be horribly constricting. Of course, given the choice, who wouldn’t opt for it? But it comes with baggage. I’m more interested in the baggage than in the beauty in my poems. Confronting that baggage is freeing; it suggests a kind of “fuck you” to those who profit off of someone else’s physical advantage and who want to control it and/or who want to assert their own gender advantage. That experience of others trying to control your narrative is a universal part of experience, but more so for women, as well as other power minorities. I try to come at women’s experience from that direction. Plus, I’m interested in gender as performance. In the academic position I had before I came to the university with which I’m currently affiliated, some of my male colleagues at lunch one day jokingly declared that they were presenting me with an honorary penis, since apparently my behavior was not considered feminine enough. There were some issues, as I recall, concerning who was going to be the first author on a paper. There is pretty much nothing about me that doesn’t scream Feminine with a capital F, and I remained the first author of the paper. I guess that’s not performing gender to everyone’s specifications, but you can see why I’d be conscious of gender inequality. Well, any woman who is conscious, of necessity, has to be.
LM: In a poem about Juana La Larga of Guatemala, who was subjected to dehumanizing cruelty by doctors for the size of her clitoris, you bring the reader into a quietly defiant moment of acceptance for La Larga and others who have been punished for being different: “Tonight I light a candle to all surprises/of the body…” In my view, this quality of your work equates to powerful consensus building. Do you agree?
SC: I think we all write from a point of view, and sometimes from a point of view that isn’t our own necessarily—in a persona poem, for example—but I’m hesitant to try to generate support for my point of view. I feel more comfortable just laying it out. If someone feels the same way, fine. That person will identify with the work, relate to the work, etc. If not, I’m not trying to have a conversation geared toward conversion. I may put something out there because I think people may not know—the industrial chemicals that make roses a desirable commodity, but poison the women, and their children, who are involved in the harvest, in “Cayambe Valley Greenhouses,” for example, and in my personal life, people generally know not to buy me cut roses, because sadly I can’t look at them without thinking about birth defects, but otherwise not so much. I’m more into writing about my responses. I like the idea of the body’s surprises, of celebrating difference. Anything else is boring. Yes, Juana La Larga was an actual person, Juana Aguilar, possibly of ambiguous gender, or to phrase it better, somewhere in the middle of our artificial gender dichotomy—it was a long time ago, over two hundred years—but for that she ends up in court? It started out, actually, as a sodomy case, as she was having sex with both men and women. The court thought it important to categorize her definitively as male or female. Interestingly, the defense strategy was to argue that she couldn’t have committed sodomy as sodomy required she be male or female and she was neither, and it was a successful defense. It’s good to have a clever lawyer! For that, a newspaper at the time published stats on what a normal clitoris should look like and how big it should be. What are you supposed to do with that information? What are you supposed to do when you don’t fit? Who gets to decide these things and how do they get away with this? I respect Aguilar’s dignity in the circumstances. But I’m not trying to suggest via my poetry that anyone else feel that way. Well, if it were easy to change minds that way, then okay, sure, I guess I would.
LM: As an older queer woman who came up as a femme lesbian, I feel a kinship with your straight-woman’s nostalgia about “wanting the gaze”; about the allure of drugstore cosmetic displays and yearning to emulate women like fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. I realize this question is worthy of a book-length response, at the very least, but if you feel like tackling it—what are your thoughts on gender, sexuality and the emergence of style?
SC: I think I’ve alluded to some of that in responding to the first two questions, but yes, the gaze is important, has been important to me. I don’t see it as some kind of false consciousness. I think it’s both possible and desirable to gaze back. I have always liked men, maybe too much. And I have been fortunate to have met many good ones—though clearly from my poems, which are sometimes semi-autobiographical, not always. Self-expression is important to me. It represents a kind of freedom. I have no interest in negating that freedom to decorate myself however I wish, in the same way that I have an interest in decorating my environment. I don’t consider it frivolous at all, but rather an art form, a choice in how I live my life that I am fortunate to be able to make as an urban middle-class professional in an industrialized country, and I don’t want to be shamed for the makeup, the heels or anything else. I don’t live somewhere where I will likely get beaten or killed for such things, fortunately, and I also don’t consider it a form of tyranny. Life is short—we need as much pleasure in it as we can make for ourselves. And it doesn’t require having to buy expensive clothing. Last time I saw a Vivienne Westwood coat at Century 21 (a clothing discounter), it was tagged at $400, and if you want to throw money at your clothes, there’s one right now on her website for about $1800. I wasn’t interested in buying either—but remember, the speaker in “Bleached Blonde with Spiked Dog Collar,” the poem written for Vivienne Westwood, says at the end that really all she wants is to be able to stop traffic in a latex négligée. She doesn’t need the coat. And I think I need to add that, though it is more discouraged in this culture for men to self-decorate, I think it’s perfectly legitimate and interesting. It’s a form of creative play. We need more play in our lives, particularly as the quality of life goes downhill through external political forces that we can’t fully control. We’re not going to have another chance at it. Well, I think my ability to stop traffic dressed like that has come and gone anyway, but it’s the idea that’s important to me. An actual latex outfit would be way too uncomfortable. It’s a metaphor.
LM: Many of the poems in Drugstore Blue capture the pivotal moment when a romantic relationship goes wrong. That unraveling could be embodied in a man smashing a radio, or the point when being with a younger lover “begins to seem like shoplifting.” However they present, these moments seem to have something to do with the shifting of power. I can relate, though my lovers have been women. Am I onto something, in your work, or just seeing it through the lens of my own experience?
SC: Ha-ha. The universal experience of both women and men, however their partners are gendered. I write a lot about love going wrong. A good friend of mine, another poet who reads early drafts of my work, suggested to me that I write about that going wrong part with much more facility than when I try to write a love poem about something going right. Maybe it’s the imperfections which make that subject most interesting to me. Yes, the power shifts—sometimes. In “Summer of Love,” the poem which contains the man smashing a radio, that might be the very beginning of the shift to the speaker in the poem taking charge of her life, but it still takes a while. In “Hold Me Like You’ll Never Let Me Go,” the poem with the line about shoplifting, it’s not so much that the power has shifted as that the speaker is tired of her (okay, very inappropriate) fling and quotidian things like food take over desire in her mind. It’s just time to stop fooling around. But everything goes wrong in its own way. Maybe when love goes right, it follows a stylized ideal that is harder to write about in an interesting way. The going wrong parts are often quirkier. and since I use a lot of self-deprecating humor at times, what better theme for viewing my own foibles? I’m not embarrassed to put my imperfections out there—they provide great material for poems. It’s possible to mine both tragedy and comedy for subject matter, sometimes at the same time.
Susana H. Case is the author of six books of poetry, most recently, Erasure, Syria, (Recto y Verson Editions, 2018) and Drugstore Blue (Five Oaks Press, 2017, winner of an IPPY Award), as well as four chapbooks, two of which won prizes. One of her collections, The Scottish Café, from Slapering Hol Press, was re-released in a dual-language English-Polish version, Kawiarnia Szkocka by Opole University Press in Poland. Her poems appear widely in magazines and anthologies including recent publications in Calyx, The Cortland Review, Fourteen Hills, Portland Review, Potomac Review, Rattle, RHINO and others. Dr. Case is a Professor and Program Coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology in New York City.
Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collection Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997). Her poems are forthcoming in Upstreet, Lavender Review and The Tampa Review, and have appeared in the Potomac Review, The American Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Literary Mama, Painted Bride Quarterly, Ontario Review and others. Lynn earned an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University and has taught writing at George Washington University, Columbia University, Brooklyn College/CUNY and others. A 2015 Nominee for the Best of the Net award, Lynn received the Heart of the Center Award from the LGBT Community Center in New York City for starting their first adult literacy class. Today she is a communications manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.