Stone Telling Roundtable: Transformation
by Julia Rios
One of the strong themes in this issue of Stone Telling is transformation. The poets this time around show us everything from sweeping, political changes to much smaller (but no less important) personal transformations. Valentina Cano, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeannelle Ferreira, and C.W. Johnson joined me to discuss change, and how we deal with it both in poetry and out.
Julia Rios: Transformation can sometimes be painful and other times wonderful. C.W. you write about women, about water and minerals and falling, and in particular about changes wrought by external forces. "Sistern" takes women from fluid and active to immovable stone, and the power they have changes significantly because of the way others perceive them. What sparked this piece, and does the power dynamic and transformative theme echo your own experiences?
C.W. Johnson: Most of my writing, both poetry and fiction, starts off with an image or an emotional feeling. In the case of "Sistern" I was inspired by a visit to the famed Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, where they used the rubble of previous centuries for the masonry, in particular a couple of stone "Medusa" heads. One of them was on its side, half-submerged in water. And the image of a real woman, holding up the pillars but barely able to keep her head above water, came to me. After that the poem, as the cliche goes, wrote itself.
I've personally lived a lucky and privileged life. But you might note the narrator of the poem is not the one transformed, but instead relates, with grief and frustration, watching loved ones being crushed and ground down by life, and being unable to breathe life back into them. And now that I think about it, that does come out of my personal experience, distilled down into a metaphor, an image, a poem.
JR: C.W., you've chosen to use your initials instead of your first name, which is a gender-obscuring choice that women sometimes make (C.L. Moore, C.J. Cherryh, M.K. Hobson...). Were you thinking about that when you decided to do the same, and have you noticed any differences in the way people treat you and your writing if they think you are a woman?
CWJ: I have to admit: when I first started using my initials, I arrogantly thought of myself in the tradition of fantasy writers I admired, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
But I did notice some curious responses. My first published story had a female protagonist, and when it appeared in Writers of the Future (around 1989) under my initials, an acquaintance a man asked me, "Aren't you worried about being mistaken for a woman?"
Well, no. I found many of the women writers in SF to be some of the most interesting and most thought-provoking in the field: Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree), Sheri Tepper, Suzi McKee Charnas, Connie Willis, Karen Fowler, etc etc etc. If I am mistaken for their company, well I'm not really worthy of that honor, but it's not something I would be otherwise worried about.
On a few other occasions men and it's been men; women either see through the initials or simply don't care--have also focussed on my (misidentified) gender, making a point of it in tandem with suggesting I am a shrill feminist. I realize my experience is not news to half the population, but it has helped me to be slightly less dense and slightly more sensitized (though I still have far to go, I'm sure). And it has hardened my resolve to stick to my initials.
JR: Following the trail of water and transformation, Jeannelle, your poem travels from the cenotes of Yucatán to Finland and Greece, but in each place there is water, because C. brings it with him. At the end of the poem, the letter-writer says, "summer had been one thing, but winter was another, that I could not stay through all those weeks of night." In response, C. begins to rain. Is this a reflection on the ways in which we are both ever-changing and also bound to our personalities? We cannot outrun ourselves, but we may know ourselves better for changing context. How did you decide to take a Bacab out of context in this particular way?
Jeannelle Ferreira: "Bacab Skerry" was taken from a dream I had sorry to be the opposite of profound but I did want to reflect that no matter how far you get away from what you know, sometimes there are still things you can't leave behind, because you need them to exist; and sometimes these things limit the connections we can make in this world, no matter how much we want to make them. As for Chaac's watery destinations, I did pick Finland because it as far as I could push from the humid, sunny Yucatán and still have someone follow him -- no matter how attractive his corporeal avatar -- on a summer holiday.
JR: I don't think there's any reason to be sorry for taking ideas from dreams. They're full of our deepest emotions and thoughts, so they seem like perfect breeding grounds for stories and poems. Would you be willing to tell us about the dream that inspired "Bacab Skerry"?
JF: The dream that inspired "Bacab Skerry" was one of my more fantastically detailed ones, but all that was happening in it was my receipt of these photo-stuffed travel letters from a friend (Sonya Taaffe, actually). She's not at all, and yet exactly, the sort of person who would fling round the world with a fellow who popped up from the bottom of a cenote. She was also the one who suggested I write it all down.
JR: Valentina, "Tricks of the Mind" explores perception and the pain that can come with forcing a change. The narrator worries that making a personal transformation will erase "the tumbleweeds I've been sewing". How can we balance the inevitability of change with the desire to hold onto the things we have grown attached to? Is it sometimes necessary to let go of our tumbleweeds, and can we escape emptiness and painful invisibility if we do?
Valentina Cano: I don't think we can balance the change with the need we have to remain the same. At least I've never experienced it that way. It's always been a tug of war, a fight to not crumble under the weight of newness. Change comes all at once and it robs you of part of who you were, a part that will never return, that can never (and should never) return. Letting go of "tumbleweeds" can be a good thing, of course, releasing the strings you've wrapped around yourself, opening yourself up like a package and letting the wrappers that held you fall where they may. Other times, those strings actually hold you together, so to release them causes everything to collapse around you. You lose yourself searching for the pieces that have fallen away instead of embracing the fear and allowing yourself to grow into something different. A forced reincarnation.
Change will come. If we fight or not is up to each individual.
JR: Amal, your poem about Syria (a place to which you have a personal connection) also speaks of rain and transformation, but the rain you show us is made of bullets. The need for change is immediate and violent, ending with the following words:
"I will put a sliver in your eye
slide it stinging into place.
It is glass. See through it.
The sliver will come from the narrator's voice, which is made of glass. How does oppression hurt our voices, and how can glass voices show us ways to transform into something better? Is the pain of seeing, hearing, or feeling awful things sometimes important to our growth?
Amal El-Mohtar: This poem was tremendously difficult for me to write, and is, actually, more difficult to talk about; it is, after all, a poem about the inability to articulate, and, relatedly, the inability to communicate. It's about as coherent a response to the events currently taking place in Syria as I can manage, as well as to the disparity between what I hear from people on the ground and what I see in the media. Glass seemed right because it can be clear or opaque, magnifying or obscuring, smooth or cutting, and it is a transformed thing itself -- sand transformed to something remarkably not sand.
How does oppression hurt our voices? I think oppression turns our voices to glass in the first place, and forces us to decide what to do with them. Shall they be brittle and hard-edged and slicing? Shall they be clear and smooth but say no more than a window does? Shall they be colourful and distorting? I don't even really know. There are so many oppressions, such a bewildering variety of harm.
Whether the pain of seeing, hearing, or feeling awful things is important to our growth seems besides the point. It seems like the most classical expression of privilege, to cast that pain as something we can choose to engage with in order to grow from, rather than something we must necessarily deal with or risk being silenced or destroyed.
JR: Good point about the privilege of choice in whether or not to engage in this sort of thing, Amal. I think I was pondering the importance of privileged people choosing to engage with painful things, but it's very important also to remember that there are plenty of people who don't have that choice.
JF: For me, reading poems others have written is more transformative than writing them. I am very easily transported by poetry, including the poetry of authors I feel slightly stained and reprehensible for admiring, like Frost and Pound and Eliot. Pound was the best editor of poetry who ever lived, at least as regards Eliot, but as a person, he was a schmuck. How much more transformative do you get than this: Pound and Eliot together losers, xenophobes, anti-Semites, reprobates gave us The Waste Land.
VC: For me writing poetry, or writing in general is definitely a transformation. I suffer from seasonal depression, the spring and summer type, so writing is a way of harnessing that excess sunlight that sometimes threatens to swallow me whole and tame it into something I can manage. It's a bit like putting a lamp-shade on a shrill light, it makes everything less stark.
JR: Thanks, everyone. You've all transformed me in various ways with your poems and insights.