Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brittany Cavallaro on "The Girl in Question"


I wrote “The Girl in Question” in early summer, a time of year that’s historically been creatively fallow for me. June 2011 was especially so; I was busily packing to leave town, and I can’t even really tell you what poetry I was reading at the time. The job I was running off to was at an academic camp for high schoolers, one I’d attended myself as a teenager. I’d be living and working with creative writing students. At that age, in my writing, I’d been particularly interested in magic and how it was performed—spells in Latin, or faux-Latin;  animal familiars; circles and quarter-candles, one for each cardinal direction; talismans made from newts’ eyes and crow feathers. In the books I read, there was obvious metaphor in the magicians’ attempts to control their surroundings and relationships through spell-casting, especially when the magicians were young girls—my favorite to read and write about at that time. My reading interests are broader now, but as I packed, I felt as if I was about to inhabit an old, familiar version of myself. Before I left, I reread some of my favorite books from my teenage years. This poem came from that reading.

 “The Girl in Question” was intended to be the final poem in a longer series that weaves through a manuscript I am working on. The poems constitute a myth whose central figure is a girl at once bandit and monarch, delicate and truculent, victim and aggressor. Through the indirect lens of her character, I wanted to explore some of the binaries of adolescence, particularly female adolescence. In this poem, I gave my character a doppelganger, a not atypical move in fantasy, particularly when the protagonist is a teenager. At that age, you try on personalities the way Marie Antoinette tried on ball gowns; you can feel that you’re many people simultaneously and that none of them have anything in common, not even a name. That there’s no point when the gaps between your “yous” will be stitched back together. The theme of mending, buttoning, and fastening appears throughout “The Girl in Question,” and its impetus is very much in the idea of pulling together into a single self.

Of course, none of this is remotely new territory. The poem owes as much of a debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it does to Lucie Brock-Broido’s A Hunger and Alison Stine’s Ohio Violence, and it owes more than that to my students from last summer. As it turned out (Harry Potter notwithstanding), they were considerably more grounded in the trappings of this world than I was at that age, though they were still awash in the same stew of becoming and all its attendant mysteries—magical or non-magical. 

11 comments:

  1. Hi Bri, I was glad to come across your poem--it's so alive with sound and stark imagery--and then, to stumble upon the accompanying blog post, in particular because your comments helped crack open the poem for me. I like how you establish this fantasy-like world--old manors, moats, and crumbling drawbridges--but then pull us into darker and darker territory as the poem progresses. I like that this character keeps her doppelganger in the preferred cupboard of the serial killer--the icebox. Based on some of the work of yours that I've come across, you have a knack for balancing the insecurities of your female narrators with a need for control and violence. Is a very satisfying mixture, especially because it's so disconcerting for the reader. Great poem, and wonderful explanation. I think I'll share this with my poetry students so that they can get a glimpse into the inspirations of a working poet. And thanks BPJ--these poet forums provide a nice supplement to the work itself.

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    1. Casey -- Thanks for your kind words! I am really interested in the intersections of femininity and violence; I feel like the two, particularly in adolescence, go hand in hand. The easiest thing to do, of course, is to shove that off on the media: the fascination with missing female children and teenagers and what terrible things could be happening to them; the sexualization of girls and then the censure of that sexualization; the idea of rape culture and that, if anything happens to you as a woman, in the world, in the dark, it is your fault and you have done something wrong. And of course, whatever wars you're fighting within yourself, how you're asked to be so many things, none of which have any overlap. I understand the need for control, in those situations. Though I think my characters might take things to extremes...

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  2. Bri, I'm interested in what you wrote about the duality of character: how the girl serves as both "bandit" and "monarch," victim and aggressor. I'm wondering if you can speak to your writing process when dealing with this delicate tug-and-pull of creating a character who encompasses all these things. Did you set out to write one and revise the other aspect? Or is the relationship between these biplicities what original drove the creation of this poem?

    Thanks for this wonderful poem!

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    1. Jacques, thanks for your question! I feel like these characteristics that you've listed are binaries, in a lot of ways, but that they're also very linked. I think you're correct when you talk about the relationship between the girl's disparate characteristics driving the creation of this poem. Again, I think it goes back to adolescence. We want so badly to master our environment and ourselves, to have some control over the relationships that change around us at alarming speed (to our parents, to our friends and potential lovers) and it's such an impossible task. The girl in this poem is returning to her castle but she can't cross. And yet, it's her castle. She is herself and she isn't. Everything belongs to her and still nothing does. Most of the imagery in the poem came from this tension.

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  3. You didn't address this in your post, but reading this poem, I'm interested in how you create the music here. There's certainly some alliteration (through/thickets, half-built halls, lots of Ss later on) as well as word play and sonic tension through line breaks (the pair of lines that break on tease and frock). And then there's also the anaphora in the closing three phrases, with the repetition of "how to." So maybe I've started to answer my own question, but I'm interested in how you think about music, and also how that plays out in the writing process - how aware you are of that as you're drafting, or to what extent you tweak those elements are you're revising.

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    1. Thanks for the question! When composing (and revising, though I find this aspect harder, then), I spend a lot of time thinking about the length of the line, about lineation and enjambment, and about what transformations I want to see occur in the white space between lines. So you'll see linebreaks like the one you pointed out -- 'the tease/of the moat beneath'. I feel like there's something to being a girl that's situated in liminality, in fuzzy delineations, in borderlands, in shifting meanings, and I wanted to hint at that through the form of the poem. The anaphora in the poem is employed, I think, in a pretty traditional way: I'm using it in an attempt to bring the poem home. Its use here is pretty calculated -- in a poem like "The Girl in Question", which has some fractured narrative elements and moves around quite a bit in its final lines, I want the reader to have a constant among all those shifting elements.

      Working with form and sound in revision is quite hard for me. At least working *consciously* with those elements is; oftentimes, when I go back in, I'm often working with the logic or the narrative of the poem in an attempt to move it from personal dream to public dream. That is, from something that's too private to be conveyed, that is a closed system, to something that's more open. If I'm rewriting in that way, I'm aware of the sonic and rhythmic elements of the lines I'm adding or removing, but generally the poem stays in its original form on the page.

      Thanks again for your question! It was a lot of fun to answer.

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  5. How wonderful to consider the poem in light of what you were reading at the time and the general mindset it found you in (preparing for a summer away, working with teenagers, packing things up, etc.). I'm fascinated by the stitching together of 'yous' in general, and I wonder if you find this unique to adolescence. Was it originally your intention to convey this idea through the poem, or did it come out as the girl discovered herself? Thanks for letting us into your poem and showing us around a bit.

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    1. Hi Angela -- thanks for you reply! That stitching together of selves came about as I wrote the poem and even moreso in revision. I don't necessarily think that the feeling of one self being split into contradictory personalities is unique to adolescence; I definitely feel some of that in going about my life as a teacher, as a daughter, as a poet. We can't present the same parts of ourselves in all those arenas and still be successful. Which is terrifying, in a way, that need for compartmentalization.

      The girl has secret names for herself that aren't the ones that the world calls her, and when the boy in the poem uses them, he's both acknowledging the fractures in her self and taking away some of her power by speaking their names, by claiming them. You can walk through the woods unafraid if you know you're Silent Dog, that you have a strong, animal core, but the moment it's said out loud, the mystery disappears and it all becomes silly. And yet. Isn't that what we need to sustain ourselves, that sense of ourselves as something that no one else is privy to?

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  6. What I like about this essay is that it really serves to highlight how we find myth in unexpected places. Spellcasting, transformations--we find these in fantasy novels, and we find them in fairy tales and in Ovid. These kinds of myths, modern and ancient, are perfect for describing the "stew" of adolescence, as you so aptly put it.

    I also like how you point out the ideas of mending, buttoning, and fastening, a particularly domestic set of images that contrast sharply with the more flashy magical ones. I wonder if you could elaborate on this -- are we seeing hints of the conflict between the magical, escapist adolescent and the smoothed over, buttoned down adult? (The way I've described both there is far too hyperbolic/slanted, as anyone who has spent substantial time with a teenager might tell you).

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    1. Rebecca -- I've hesitated in responding to this post because it's taken me some time to think about this! The imagery that you reference, the mending and fastening, isn't imagery I thought of so much as domestic as feminine (though it can definitely be categorized as both). I think there is some desire on the part of the girl here to present a complete self, one that, through its wholeness, is impervious to the demands of adolescence, to the things that 'beg' of her. As I wrote above, in reply to Angela, I think that the world demands many different faces from us, in different situations, and yet there's still the desire to be 'yourself', as if it were one thing. Of course, there are the days in which your icebox twin takes over. Those are hard days, though maybe also the best.

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