A Conversation with Heidi Czerwiec

with Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: Your first full-length book of poems, Conjoining, was recently published by Sable Books. Congratulations. I was immediately drawn to its subject matter: a motley assortment of humans, usually children and their mothers, who are deemed by their societies as monstrous. The subjects include conjoined twins, a genetic “Lakshmi” born in India with four arms and four legs, people genetically altered by the radiation fallout in Chernobyl, as well as a host of hoaxed and curated human spectacles. But, what ultimately keeps me reading this book is the formal restlessness of your poems. Can you talk about your choice to sing of these lives — and deaths — via sonnet, villanelle “fucked up beyond all recognition,” interspersed and incomplete abecedarian, triptych, couplet, tercet, doggerel, fugue, persona poem, epistle, etc., etc?

Heidi Czerwiec: Thank you so much for your kind words, and for your attention to these poems and their forms! I’m a poet who swings both ways, writing in both received forms and free verse, and everything in between. I came to poetry when as a music major I took a Structure of Verse class, and the music of meter and rhyme just made sense to me. But when I write in free verse, it’s often in the Modernist vers libristic tradition, which is still quite conscious of form even as it’s subverting it. For this book, which is about the monstrous and what might be called “de-formity,” it was important to me to reflect these unique embodied forms via poetic forms. So I chose forms that conjoin and double back on themselves (villanelles, terza rima, contrapuntals), reveal deeper patterns (fugue, abecedarian, echo verse), show the tension between “monstrous” and “fixed” bodies (enjambed free-verse couplets unstably paired), or poems “mutated” by external material (quotes, erasures) inserted. I have trouble writing a poem until I hit on the form (whether traditional, free, or invented) that will pair best with the content — the two are inseparable.

JB: Looking at the notes at the end of Conjoining, this book seems not just a book of poems but also a work of scholarship. Aside from the many academic texts you read, you visited multiple museums and libraries. Can you talk about the time, energy, and sheer labor that went into the composition of Conjoining?

HC: Coming from an academic background, I feel obligated not only to give due diligence to the research on my subjects, but also document it exhaustively. I tend to get obsessed with a topic and fall into research, not only for the major facts but also for the odd, minor detail or marginalia that leaps out. To write this book, I read several critical and historical texts on monster theory and monstrous bodies, which helped frame the topic in my mind and give me ways to approach it that weren’t the lurid spectacle of the freakshow, which I wanted to avoid. I also read as many first-person accounts from the perspectives of those born with these so-called deformities, to understand how they viewed themselves in order to represent them in their full humanity. I wanted to go to Europe to visit two of the renowned medical history collections — one at the medical school at the University of Leuven and one created by Peter the Great in Russia — but couldn’t get enough grant funding, so instead I went to the Mütter Museum and library of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, and to the Center for Medical History at the Harvard Medical Library. Their staffs were fantastic at steering me toward useful materials, and in fact introduced me to A-ké, the 19th-century Chinese youth with a parasitic twin who became central figures in my collection.

Though I had conceived this project earlier, in the middle of my research, my husband and I connected with a birthmother in our adoption process. As we became involved with her pregnancy, my perspective on this poetic project shifted to thinking about motherhood and monstrous births. “Maternal imagination,” the idea that what a mother sees or experiences during a pregnancy is responsible for deformities, was espoused as late as the 19th century, and in many ways persists today. As a result, several of the poems focus on mothers — both mothers of “monsters,” and monstrous mothers.

Finally, I agonized over how I represented these subjects. While I did exhaustive research to try and be as accurate as possible, I realize that the lens through which much of this source material was recorded is white, male, and able-bodied, and that I myself am white and able-bodied. I hope I did them justice, but I still don’t know if I got it right.

JB: This idea of “getting it right” is something my students and I talk about — and debate — in my persona poetry seminar/workshop each spring. Of course, no poet can ever truly capture or embody the psyche of another human, and so the persona poem is a kind of illusion, no matter the degree of mimesis in the channeled voice. Can we turn to some of the persona poems in Conjoining? I’m thinking, for example, of poems like the ekphrastic “Doggerel” and the mermaid persona “Double-Exposure: Mermaid/Sirenomelia.” Why did those particular figures seem best rendered as persona, versus the observed second- and third-person treatment you give other figures?

HC: When rendering research as a poem, I try to do more than just show the reader some weird factoid I uncovered. I attempt to imaginatively expand it somehow, and inhabiting it via persona is often an effective way of using empathy to demonstrate the human aspect of that factoid. With “Doggerel,” the posing of the young girl with hypertrichosis struck me as so fascinating. Historically, those with mutations often are pictured naked, which both reduces them to specimen and denies humanity or dignity. This engraving pictured the girl as dressed in an elaborate court costume that seemed like an attempt to mock her dignity from the opposite side, to make her absurd. Using first-person let me address this without going too didactic — letting her be aware of the absurdity, her response and reframing of it, and her own pride in her appearance. With the mermaid/sirenomelia poem, I was playing with the duality of the fantasy-versus-reality of a particular birth defect, but the “I” speaker fuses both halves, much as her lower body is fused. The title poem, “Conjoining,” is a little trickier, with a first-person-plural “we” sometimes representing a particular set of conjoined twins describing their surgical separation, and sometimes speaking for all conjoined twins throughout history. It seemed important to have conjoined twins speak for themselves in this poem, and often using their own words, since they are too often denied agency.

JB: I like how you describe the title poem in terms of its double-voicing. There are other poems in which you signal a kind of split/joined polyphony, whether through italics or formatting or both. One of these is the interspersed, often contrapuntal abecedarian which provides a kind of backbone for the collection. And I do visualize a kind of backbone: the discs that emerge then recede down a spine. Can you talk about the choice to feature this sequence so strongly, yet have it appear and reappear in surprising ways?

HC: The A Is For A-ké narrative sequence originally was just a few poems inspired by the statue and medical account of A-ké I was shown at Harvard. But the story kept growing and became a whole sequence published as a chapbook by Dancing Girl Press. I put it in an earlier version of the manuscript, but it took up half the book, so it either front- or back-loaded the collection. I’m part of this fantastic Women’s Poetry Collective in South Dakota (even though I’ve left the Dakotas, they let me stay on!), and we meet each year to workshop manuscripts-in-progress. It seems so obvious a solution in hindsight, but when they workshopped this book, Christine Stewart-Nuñez suggested I divide the A-ké sequence into smaller narrative arcs and space them throughout the book. That way, it breaks up the narrative so it isn’t so monolithic, and provides a different experience from the chapbook. That reordering made the whole project click. And when my publisher suggested changing the former title to Conjoining, she pointed out how in addition to the subject matter, the manuscript itself seems to conjoin and separate from itself as it twines around that sequence. So the form it takes in the book resulted from the careful attention of a few trusted readers.

JB: I love that — how the chapbook became almost an awkward kind of appendage in the larger anatomy of your work. It’s like: what is this thing on/in/of my body, and what do I do with it, and, um, where should I put it? Or: where should it put me? Forgive me if I’m being corny, but it does seem to be a larger metaphor for what Conjoining is getting at: the self as not only multiple parts, but multiple selves — and not just in some hippie-dippy way, but physiologically, maternally, genetically. Genetic mutation itself seems a kind of birth of a new way of being human. Can we talk about your brilliant sequence “A Child of God, Much Like Yourself: A Mutagenic Fantasia,” which Waxwing was lucky to publish in 2015? I’m particularly interested in your subtitle, as well as the poem’s concerns with insecticides, nuclear radiation, and eugenics.

HC: Huge thanks to you and Erin for selecting it for Waxwing, too. The piece itself felt like such a mutant to me — incorporating nonfiction accounts, poetic language and wordplay, language stolen from Cormac McCarthy, and magical-realist elements, like nothing else I’d written at that point — I wondered what the hell it was and whether anyone would publish it. The subtitle is a cue to this hybridity: a piece about human-made mutations that uses a hybrid/mutant form that incorporates fantastic elements. But fantastic in the way fairytales are, which is the truest form of story I know. The Cormac McCarthy language came in because I’d been playing with making erasures of Child of God after talking with Mary Jo Bang about her process of writing “There She Was” as an erasure of Mrs. Dalloway. It was fun, but I didn’t do anything with them, until I moved between the two notebooks and realized Child of God provided a similar context: a sociopathic “monster,” but one the book suggests is created by society.

In a project about monstrous births, I wanted to include manmade mutations, both negative — as with the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the use of chemicals like thalidomide (a morning sickness drug from the late Fifties that caused phocomelia, foreshortened limbs), Agent Orange, or the related herbicide Round-Up — or “positive,” like eugenics, a program that sought to improve the human gene pool, but which resulted in the sterilization of those considered undesirable. I’m horrified by the way humanity has been so careless with its technologies, and then has absolved itself of responsibility, allowing blame to continue to fall on the mothers and abandoning the children affected by these mutagens. I think the ideas in this sequence were also on my mind because during our adoption process, people assumed we adopted because we were defective, unable to reproduce, and people also lamented that we wouldn’t be passing on our genes, which struck me as eugenics-lite.

JB: From this conversation, it sounds like you are a writer who is willing to wait, to show patience toward the work and allow it to fully and finally reveal itself to you. Can we end here with projects that are just beginning, and perhaps anything that is finally coming together after having put it aside? What can fans of Heidi Czerwiec look forward to?

HC: Ooof. I appreciate you asking, but now I feel totally exposed. I’ve mostly been writing nonfiction since finishing Conjoining, and have a book of lyric essays coming out next year. I’ve written a manuscript of linked essays about our family’s open adoption experience and my relationship with our son’s birthmother — it’s not done, but I’m stuck on what to do with it, so I’ve put it aside. I have a plan for making it come together, though, when I come together this fall with four other women writers who write about adoption — I have complete confidence that talking with them will get me unstuck. Another project I have that’s just beginning in earnest, though it’s been brewing in my head for years, is a necropastoral fairytale set in the Northwoods of Minnesota — it’s loosely based on the Red Forest outside Chernobyl, and on the selkie myth but with a bear substituted for the seal-wife. I think it’s poetry? It’s some weird hybrid of poetry and fiction with some nonfiction elements thrown in. I feel about it how I felt writing “A Child of God … ”: this is really cool, I have no idea what I’m doing, and god, I hope somebody will want to read this.

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