Raquel Thorne: In Queen of the Platform you told the story of you great-great-grandmother, Matilda Fletcher Wiseman, a suffragist lecturer. Why do you think it’s important for us to retell stories?
Laura Madeline Wiseman: To write Queen of the Platform, I began a journey in which I researched a suffragist and lecturer, Matilda Fletcher Wiseman, who was also my great-great-grandmother, a woman about which very little was written. The family members who introduced me to her said only that, “She spoke at Chautauquas while her stepchildren sang and danced.” They knew little about Matilda, but one of them allowed me to borrow the scrapbook Matilda kept for the first five years of her career. In this scrapbook she pasted announcements of her talks, her essays that were published in the Iowa State Register (later renamed The Des Moines Register in 1903) and excerpts from her poems and lectures that were reprinted in newspapers. The more I researched her, the more I wanted to know, primarily because I had never known that a woman in my family spoke to support herself and her family in a time when women were not the primary breadwinners. In 1869 at the age of twenty-six she started speaking, beginning a forty-year career on the lecture-circuit, authoring several books, and inventing. She patented her design for a travel trunk that rolled, one that would enable women travelers like herself to move such a heavy object with ease. This research and writing gave me new insight into the lives of female ancestors, as well as women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women who Matilda joined on stage. I had to tell Matilda’s story, because I had to know Matilda’s story myself. The story told in Queen of the Platform is not the only possible story to tell about Matilda’s life, which I one of the reasons why I find retellings so proactive and necessary. Writers have the opportunity recreate the historical past, especially retellings that might be missing from the historical record. For example, I just started reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, a retelling about the life of Sarah Grimke. I read about Sarah Grimke in college in a women’s studies class on the history of women’s suffrage. I find reading a novel inspired by such a world exciting because it complicates and expands what I know.
Raquel Thorne: In Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience you recast Bluebeard. Why was it important for you to reframe Bluebeard from a bloody monster to the object of his wives’ love and desire? For me, it’s lines like “You’re dangerous, I say, to those you marry” that devictimize these women. They become active participants.
Laura Madeline Wiseman: My book Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience grew out of my work with Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence. By the time I started researching what would become WWR—a task that took seven years to complete—I already had intimate experience working with survivors and resistors of gender violence. As an undergraduate at Iowa State University, I first volunteered in a women’s crisis shelter and participated in events like Take Back the Night. I continued this volunteer work as I completed an MA in women’s studies and a PhD in English. Because I had a small part in the vital force that seeks to help women resist gender violence and because I was in a privileged place—a doctoral student with an assistantship and fellowships—I wanted to see what else I might be able to do. That what else was the anthology. But that wasn’t the only what else, as a writer and poet, the imagined voices of women who survive such situations kept coming to me. I wrote the chapbook First Wife that tells the story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Eden. I wrote a sequence of poems on mermaids in the book Drink that gives voice to all those women swimming below the waters in myth. I wrote Fatal Effects that charts the love of three sisters who each marry the same man upon the demise of the sister who preceded her because I wanted to know what they had to say. When I was doing research for the book and reading the numerous retellings of the bluebeard myth, both those by recent writers and those of the original lore, I felt most troubled by the stories that cast bluebeard’s wives as sisters. Writers often imagine themselves inside the heads of their characters. I found myself wondering as I wrote, if I was such a sister, wouldn’t I notice that my brother-in-law had killed my sibling? And if not, why would I be attracted to my late sister’s widower? What sorts of stories would be available me, if I was among such sisters, about the possibilities of love? What sorts of men and the behaviors of men would such sisters see as normal and normalized, but more importantly desirable? What sorts of social systems might be in place that convince women like them that they’d brought the violence on themselves by how they dressed or acted, where they came from and where they hoped to go? What sorts of victim-blaming stories might permeate such a world were sisters would marry the murderer of their own kin?
I didn’t have to look far for such a world. We live there. We live in a culture that often blames women for the violence they experience, that suggests women ask for rape by what they wear, that condemn women for staying with violent men rather than asking men why they rape or asking men why they use physical and sexual violence to control those they say they love. I wanted to see what that world would like under the plotlines of bluebeard.
After the book came out and after hosting a series of readings from Women Write Resistance last fall, I was doing research for a conference paper. I did a search in Google to research if, indeed, men still murder multiple women, if such representations beyond literature, if bluebeard still lingers, or at least a contemporary version of him. I found that he does.
The first hit on my google search was of a man, whom one week after the Women Write Resistance readings in the same town, murdered a woman in a hotel room, a murdering that lead police to the other six women he’d recently slain in town, their bodies dumped in abandoned buildings and weed-choked lots. He strangled them. He tied them up. He left their lifeless bodies in showers with the water running. He killed each of them, one after another, like bluebeard, leaving a trail of dead women in his wake. According to the piece in the newspaper, the police suspected that he murdered more than the seven women. They believe this man has been involved in the murder of countless others, stretching back decades, from Indiana all the way to Texas. Perhaps most chillingly, most like the versions of the bluebeard story where bluebeard doesn’t just kill his wives and leave them tied up and hanging from hooks or chopped up in a vat of blood, but the versions where he bakes and eats them, the murderous man in had an online name he uses to connect with such future women. His online name and persona? Big Boy Appetite.
Raquel Thorne: If you could include pieces from other journals to have in our issue, what might they be?
Laura Madeline Wiseman: Next month, I’m presenting at the Steel Pen conference with a group of writers who have new and published work on retellings. Panelists will discuss the craft of such writings and read from their work as they engage with the questions: What is the process for writing poems based on research and pre-existing texts? What kind of research is required to (re)tell a historical kinship between historical luminaries? How does a poet navigate fact and (in)accuracy when writing about the past? How does the influence of the world outside the poet hinder or enrich the truth as it is conveyed in poetry of (re)telling? What are the strategies of other contemporary writers who do similar work on the historical record? At what points can a writer depart from fact in the service of the story that wants to be (re)told?
I’m eagerly anticipating the panel. In thinking about this question, I asked them to share some of their recent retell work. Ivan Young has a poem called “Thirteen Stories of Finding Jesus” forthcoming in Passages North. It explores biblical stories of Jesus in a modern setting. Lindsay Lusby has a (re)telling of The Wizard of Oz in The Wolf Skin. She also has a poem that is a (re)telling of the traditional Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands” in The Feminist Wire. She also has poems (re)telling The Silence of the Lambs forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and Third Point Press. Cat Dixon has a work that retells the Medea story in the journal Midnight Circus. Her chapbook Our End has Brought the Spring released this year from Finishing Line Press retells the story of Eva Braun, Adolf Hitler’s longtime companion. One of poem from that chapbook appears in Linden Avenue Literary Journal.
Beyond poetry and prose, I’m especially drawn to work that retells or reconsiders stories visually. Editor, writers, and artist Sally Deskins teamed up with artist Lauren Rinaldi to curate the show Les Femmes Folles: TALES in West Virginia earlier this summer at the Monongalia Art Center. I’d hoped to be able to see the show in person, but unfortunately I could not. Luckily, I had the opportunity to follow the show and the coverage of the show online, including this piece in Quail Bell Magazine that discusses the artists featured as well as several pieces in Les Femmes Folles. Though the show didn’t focus the historical specifically, it did focus on retelling the female body, in challenging the stories told about what it means to be female in our culture by offering up visual stories that resist and trouble those otherwise available to us now. Art included Launa Bacon’s painting that revisits iconic imagery of the 1950s and many provocative reimaginings of the female body such as Courtney Kenny Porto’s tonal sketches, contemplative and evocative photographs by Christie Neptune and those by Cathleen Parra, Marisa Lewon’s bodies in canvas and thread, and paintings by Chuka Susan Chesney, Cheryl Angel, and Marlana Adele Vassar. Other work in the show included abstract art by Shelia Grasbarsky and Jacqueline Ferrante, Kim Darling’s mixed-media, and Michelle Furlong’s photography.
One artist, Tracy Brown, who explores and challenges the images offered to women in media and fashion, offered a particularly evocative painting on the theme of retelling. Her piece “Beware” features a woman striding forward in tall Maryjane heals and short ruffled dress, while carrying a handbag with the digital icon of an exclamation mark inside a yellow triangle. The green paint across the woman’s forehead and the juxtaposition of the woman’s attire against the backdrop of nature scene adds to the tension of the painting, as if she’s walking away from the stories told about women’s dress and presentation in the media, but a walk that means such stories compel her to look again, even as she resists that siren call.
Finally, the show included work by the curators—body prints by Deskins and sketches and paintings by Rinaldi. Deskins’ work “Teen Years” is particularly interesting, when considering how we retell not only the stories told about the bodies of young women, but also how we imagine our own young bodies. Her piece is a collage of images—journals with notes scrawled, paint splotches, watercolor marks, and photographs of the young artist, some strong and challenging, others that mimic the sensual poses often shown in the media.
Though I’m not sure all of this work could fit into one issue, it does suggest to me the compelling, rich body of retelling work that is being produced right now by artists, writers, and poets. I’m honored to be guest editing this issue and look forward to sharing the issue later this year.
We’re still accepting submissions for Historical (Re)Tell until 9/19/15.
Tell the truth but tell it slant, writes Emily Dickinson. For this issue, we’re looking for telling retelling of the historic, tales that offer what wasn’t said but should’ve been, what wasn’t written down but likely happened, whose voices speak that didn’t speak because there wasn’t a platform for them. We want poetry, prose, and nonfiction, music, art, collaborations, and hybrid. We want myths and legends retold from other voices, new perspectives, counter intuitive stances. Accurate, inaccurate, or close, we want work that explores how facts become transformed into the tales, histories, and family stories that inform how we tell our worlds.