CREATRIX: I have recently read your last collection of poetry Belladonna Magic: Spells in the Form of Poetry and Photography. What was the inspiration for this book?
Christine Sload Stoddard: I really wanted to write a more universal collection that was lighter and airier than some of my other work. I wanted womanhood and femininity to be strong components. You will find that nature is central to the book, too. There are many mentions of plants and animals and natural landscapes. I wrote the book while doing a residency in rural Maryland; the environment definitely inspired me. It was the summer of 2017 and it seemed like women’s rights and climate change were constantly in the news. In that sense, Belladonna Magic is a product of its time, though it’s meant to be timeless.
CX: How is it different from your previous works? How many collections have you published so far?
CSS: This is my second full-length poetry and photography book. The first, Water for the Cactus Woman, was published by Spuyten Duyvil, last year. It’s bilingual English-Spanish and more explicitly hones in on race and ethnicity, specifically Latina and multiracial women’s stories and experiences. My next book, Desert Fox By the Sea, is a collection of fiction and poetry forthcoming from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle. It’s due out in May and stars female protagonists. Later this year, CLASH Books will release my collection of poetry and photography, Heaven Is A Photograph. Unlike Belladonna Magic, Water for the Cactus Woman, or Desert Fox By the Sea, that book follows a single narrative thread with one protagonist. The story is about a young woman and her ambivalence to pursue photography because of her father’s legendary status as a war photographer.
Totally unrelated to these books is my first-ever children’s book, The Book of Quails, now available for pre-order from Clare Songbirds Publishing. It’s a cute informational book about quails—yes, the birds! The very talented Sami Cronk illustrated it.
I am the author of non-fiction and chapbook titles, as well. For covers and links, go to my website: http://www.worldofchristinestoddard.com/books.html. You can find out more about my work as an author at my Authors Guild page: https://www.authorsguild.net/services/members/3830?fbclid=IwAR0DewReUpFFSheHdjDQU3UrW0C2M3lg-2twetmf40eUVJk1-XprK7xLWIE
I have also edited several zines and anthologies for Quail Bell Magazine, the publication I founded. Currently, we are fundraising for our third anthology, Her Plumage. This anthology of women’s writings will be released by Eudaimonia Press and benefit the charity, She Is Rising. This organization provides support to survivors of gender violence and human trafficking. All anthology proceeds will go to She Is Rising. Learn more about Her Plumage at the Facebook fundraiser page: https://www.facebook.com/donate/629465360837633/
CX: Do you see yourself as a witch or perhaps High Priestess, or Magician?
CSS: I do, but not with any kind of authority or privilege. Everyone has the potential to envision and manifest what they desire, at least to an extent. But realizing your hopes and aspirations requires focus and conjuring. We need to search within ourselves and set an intention to even begin. Some variation of that idea exists in many religions and spiritual practices around the world—and for good reason! In the Catholic Church, each Mass is celebrated with a specific intention. In yoga, instructors will often invite students to set an intention for their practice. I set intentions for myself as an author, artist, and human being. Then I work toward those intentions and re-evaluate them as necessary.
CX: Belladonna Magic has a strong feminist feel to it; does your work focus on gender issues in general?
CSS: Yes, I do focus on gender issues or at least I often explore them. It’s not the only topic on my mind, but it is a dominant one. I make gender-related inquiries and tell gender-related stories in independent projects as well as collaborative ones. I founded Quail Bell Magazine, which is a feminist, woman-run publication and community for real and unreal stories from around the world. At Quail Bell, we have a special love for the imaginary, the nostalgic, and otherworldly. Our goal-to spell is Art + Ideas = Magic. Our latest animated video, “Pussy Power,” definitely focuses on gender issues. Take a look here: http://www.quailbellmagazine.com/the-unreal-20/video-pussy-power
CX: As you were writing those poems, was it a conscious effort to create multiple voices retelling the stories of feminine experiences? How did you come up with and develop their stories, and to what extent are they based on real people’s lives?
CSS: Yes, I definitely wanted multiple voices in this book. I came up with the stories using a mix of personal experience, stories from people I knew, stories I’d read about in the news, and other sources. Then I worked to fictionalize them. I’d rather not specify to what extent they’re based on real people’s lives—my own or otherwise—because veracity is not the main point. Poetry is not journalism. When I write reported articles, I care about facts, details, and objectivity. When I write poetry, I care about language, emotion, and imagery. Journalism and poetry are different forms of storytelling in quest of “the truth.”
CX: Some of your poems, I noticed, when I was reading Belladonna Magic, refer to the pregnancy and birthing, what inspired you to delve into this topic?
CSS: I’m very interested in ideas about motherhood and mothering across cultures because of my more general interest in gender roles. But there’s also the fact that I’m married and hoping to become a mother in the future (even if my timeline differs from what may expect or prefer.) So motherhood has been on my mind in a more personal way, too. I feel very fortunate to have a husband who’s a true partner. He believes in my creative work as much as he does the fact that I deserve autonomy over my own body. I’m looking forward to motherhood, just on my own terms.
CX: You are of Salvadorian-Scottish heritage. How have these cultural influences affected your poetics?
CSS: My mother is from El Salvador. Her family is from San Salvador, the capital, and a small town near a beautiful volcanic lake in the countryside. My father is American, coming largely from an Anglo-Saxon background. All of the traceable European relatives and ancestors came from Scotland. Many of them spent part of their lives in Northern England and London, too. Obviously, my parents’ cultural backgrounds impacted how they raised me, but I also took the initiative and went further. Since I’m interested in history and anthropology, I’ve read a lot of non-fiction about Central America and the British Isles. I’ve had the chance to travel to El Salvador and Scotland, too. Thanks to scholarships, I did a graduate research trip and artist residency in El Salvador last summer. In college, I spent a summer studying in Glasgow with my sister.
While I’ve written stories and poems and done art projects that take place in Scotland and El Salvador, I think the influences have generally been subtler. Even when I write about other places, elements of the languages or the historical dynamics or political situations of El Salvador and Scotland may creep in. When you come from a bi-cultural background as I do, you’re often more inclined to see the common threads. Comparisons tend to be more nuanced. The human condition is universal.
CX: Every writer has their own particular rituals when they sit down to write. What is your personal process?
CSS: I really just write. I grew up with a very energetic family and was often on the move or in loud environments, so I can write just about anywhere (and have done so.) My experiences in journalism and advertising, which are fast-paced fields, have allowed me to strengthen this particular ability.
That being said, when I do have the privilege of going through preferred rituals, I choose the most comfortable place possible. If I’m in my apartment, I like my bed. If I’m visiting Virginia, where I’m originally from, I like a porch with a view. Give me the Blue Ridge Mountains or the Chesapeake Bay or the Potomac River or at least a little garden. When I’m in the city, I play music, but if I’m in a quieter place, I just listen to the birds sing. I generally drink a cup of coffee or tea when I write and then LOTS of water. Never underestimate the importance of staying hydrated! If there’s no deadline but my own, I pause to organize my thoughts, often making a simple list for my outline. Usually, though, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve wanted to write for a long time. So when I commit to sit down and get writing, I’m ready. The editing comes only after I’ve “vomited” my entire first draft into my notebook or on my laptop.
CX: What kind of training did you have as a poet, and how did you develop your voice over the years?
CSS: I don’t have an MFA in poetry, which seems to be the expectation for anyone with a poetry book. I am completing my MFA in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice, which has allowed me to experiment with electronic literature, video poems, text installations, and other forms. That’s not to mention photography and sculpture. It’s an Art Department degree, not an English Department degree. That being said, the program is reading and writing intensive. To my delight, it has given me the time and space to consider the relationships between words and images. I graduate from The City College of New York-CUNY in May and am very happy with the program I chose.
You don’t need an MFA in poetry to write poetry books. I think you need a huge appetite for reading and the dedication to keep putting pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to the keyboard.) Going to readings, talks, and writing groups might be helpful, too. Online, there are plenty of live streaming options for readings and lectures. You’ll also find an endless number of forums and groups to exchange feedback with other writers. It’s elitist for publishers, editors, and agents to require or even prefer an MFA. What should matter first and foremost is the work? An MFA of any kind is not accessible or necessary for everyone. I was only able to do my MFA because of scholarships and fellowships. I worked throughout my program and will graduate debt-free. I realize how rare this is.
I mainly developed my voice because of encouragement from my mother, certain school teachers, a few college professors, and some wonderful editors. My mother helped me cultivate a deep love for reading. She regularly took me to the library growing up and never denied me books. I won’t ever forget my favorite school teachers, either. In kindergarten, my teacher prodded me to submit to the school literary magazine. She helped me type up a poem and scanned a drawing I had made. Both made it into the magazine, with the drawing winning the cover contest. My first-grade teacher, Miss Hill, even gave us time for a daily writer’s workshop. Every day, we worked on writing and illustrating a story. A few times a year, she and some of the parents assisting with the workshop helped us choose our favorite stories to get spiral-bound into little books.
I could go on, but what I’m trying to say is that I had some very supportive mentors from the start. By the time I was in high school, I was regularly publishing poetry and winning competitions not just at the teen level but in adult categories, too. The summer before college, Teen Ink, a national magazine for middle and high school students, told me that I was among their most published poets. The magazine arranged for me to interview First Lady Laura Bush about her literacy initiatives in K-12 education. I went to the White House with another student writer selected. Regularly publishing work in Teen Ink was definitely something that helped build my confidence and pushed me to keep writing in college.
I’ve worked with many inspiring editors who’ve challenged me in all the right ways. Here, I will give a special shout-out to Heather Woods, the editor that SpuytenDuyvil assigned to me for Water for the Cactus Woman. Heather was so giving and sensitive during the editing process; I am indebted to her for all of her smart questions and comments on my manuscript. Water for the Cactus Woman went on to get featured in Ms. Magazine and The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog; it won a prize from The City College of New York, too. Heather guided me to make the book exactly what I hoped for it to be.
CX: What are you currently working on?
CSS: The whole Quail Bell Magazine team is eager to reach our fundraising goal for Her Plumage. Once we do that, we will finalize the manuscript with Eudaimonia Press. I already designed a cover for the book and am pretty excited about the stories we’ve selected. In terms of my individual work, I’m hoping to place more of my manuscripts and scripts. I always have a backlog! It’d be lovely to get a novel or non-fiction title placed soon, but we shall see. Otherwise, I have plenty of art shows and other creative events coming up. For instance, anyone reading this is invited to the book launch for Belladonna Magic at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop on June 12th. Definitely follow me on social media for news about other events and projects.
CX: How can poetry change the world?
CSS: Our world will always need stories, beauty, vulnerability, compassion, and nuance. Poetry can offer all of these things. In doing so, poetry helps us find meaning, tenderness, and power. So much good can come from relating to others; empathy is such an integral part of the writer-reader relationship. Poetry can change the world because empathy can change the world.
Christine Sloan Stoddard is an author, artist, and the founder of Quail Bell Magazine. In addition to her aforementioned books, you can find her work in Ms. Magazine, Bustle, The Feminist Wire, Marie Claire, The Huffington Post, Yes! Magazine, Digital America, Native Peoples Magazine, and beyond. Her work has also appeared in the New York Transit Museum, the Queens Museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Waveland Ground Zero Hurricane Museum, the Poe Museum, FiveMyles Gallery, The UnSpace Gallery, and elsewhere. Previously, she was the artist-in-residence at Annmarie Sculpture Garden-Smithsonian affiliate, the Brooklyn Public Library-Eastern Parkway Branch, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, and other organizations.