There are many things you don’t know about lesbian poets. The poetry establishment—major literary journals, male poets, poetry professors—cannot hear, see, recognize or value lesbian poetry. Lesbian poetry is largely ignored. Headmistress Press is determined to make a change in this status quo. In this special Ms. series, the brilliant, lively, lesbian poets of Headmistress Press are bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference. Previously, Jessica K. Hylton and Jen Rouse, Joy Ladin and Risa Denenberg, Gail Thomas and Lesléa Newman, Marissa Higgins and Samantha Pious, Robin Reagler and Diane Furtney, Laura Foley and Maureen Bocka, Freesia McKee and Farrell Greenwald Brenner, Carolyn Boll and Ruth Lehrer, Wendy DeGroat and Amy Lauren and Ann Tweedy and G.L. Morrison conversed.
This week, Hilary Brown interviews Sarah Caulfield about her book Spine and Caulfield interviews Brown about her book When She Woke She Was an Open Field.
Caulfield: Both our books seem to intertwine religion, sickness and sexuality. I’m Catholic, and I saw definite similarities of experience in your work. In Catholicism, we really do have this culture of miracles, miracle cures, of embodiment and suffering and martyrdom.
Brown: Religion is strange. My girlfriend grew up Catholic, but I don’t know much about it. I grew up in an environment that was about 98 percent Mormon.
Caulfield: I grew up in an area of the UK that has a higher level of Catholicism, but I was very unusual in that I was practicing as opposed to nominal. After a while, I deliberately cut myself off from religion as an act of self-preservation—knowing that I didn’t then, but that one day I could end up internalizing the homophobia in Catholic doctrine—and so Spine is actually written during a period where I’d explicitly renounced the church. Part of me using religious imagery continuously throughout my work was a very conscious act of reclamation on my part as a queer-identifying woman.
Brown: Is there something that led you to poetry?
Caulfield: I was drawn to poetry as an outlet and a way of trying to express these seemingly unspeakable feelings I was carrying around with me. I remember going to a poetry reading and basically, spouting all this hurt and rage that I was putting a mask over most of the time out of the fear of driving people away, and people came up and thanked me afterwards. And it was a kind of lightbulb moment. How about you?
Brown: When I left the Mormon church, it was because I realized I wouldn’t survive as a member. The beliefs—the misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and so on—were making me hate myself. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know if people understand how faith transitions are so completely difficult.
Caulfield: Exactly! It’s very traumatic. It’s quite difficult to explain the sense of grief it causes to people who have not been raised religious—I think it’s comparable, for me, to explaining the sense of grief around my illness to abled audiences. That sense that you are adjusting to a completely different world and way of perceiving the world.
Brown: I came to poetry in a funny way. I found a book, like a compilation of “best American poetry” or something like that, on my mom’s shelf when I was a kid, and I decided it looked easy and started to write. I took a long break from it in my twenties and early thirties, I think because people kept telling me I was oversensitive or overdramatic, and I didn’t want to also be the girl who wrote poetry and was sensitive and dramatic.
Caulfield: I’ve been at poetry gigs and hesitated out of the sense of feeling overdramatic—this definitely seems to be something I haven’t seen many male writers of poetry being accused of. I could be wrong but I sense there’s something very gendered—and internalized—about the idea. I’m just immediately thinking of that old idea of feminine hysteria.
Brown: Just compare the stuff people say about Sylvia Plath to the stuff they say about Robert Lowell. It’s very frustrating. They expect to see our pain. They expect us to put on a show of it, but then they’ll also say we’re inferior writers because of it.
Caulfield: I read this article on the female body in pain, and it galvanized me—in terms of bolstering my confidence to write about my experience as a woman and the experience of pain and how those had intersected for me. Up until then my narrative of survival was to try and behave and ‘pass’ as an abled person, and suppress the physical symptoms as best I could. I wrote a lot on cultural trauma in fairytales, monstrosity and trauma in young adult fiction, and then specifically on the idea of the monstrous identity and agency for disabled characters. Because what I noticed is there’s a culture of fear around bodies in the UK. The disabled body represents to people the fear of the simple fact that bodies are fallible, and no one is exempt from that. And so I think my coming to terms with my newly disabled identity, for me, was about acknowledging that fear and then refusing to be beholden to it when I saw it in other people. On the idea of sensitivity though, and to go back to that, do you think how you perceive the world due to your experiences informs your writing, and how so?
Brown: I think so, definitely. And I think a lot of that has to do with my brain—I mean you can’t cut into someone’s brain then expect them to be like everyone else. So I am really sensitive, yes, annoyingly so, and I also have auditory processing issues which actually leads to fun poetry sounds. I also have aphasia, so I forget words a lot, which is sometimes a big problem when I’m in the midst of writing, but I go back and fill things in.
Caulfield: And that’s super interesting because I have auditory processing issues due to fibromyalgia, and also light and sound sensitivity, so the world is often experienced for me in extremes. It’s either all light and colour, or I’m deliberately resting in dark and quiet. I often think that this heightened sensitivity for me, and the fact I have to spend more time resting and less time out in the world, makes my enjoyment of the world more sharp, in a sense? I’m aware constantly that time is limited, so I try to turn that into a driving impulse. I have to take as much as I can from whatever I am experiencing at any given moment.
Brown: I feel exactly that! It’s one of the reasons I decided to just go for poetry, even if it wasn’t practical, even if I’d be seen as the dramatic poetry girl. The year I wrote When She Woke She Was an Open Field, I had a lot of friends and family members die. And it wasn’t expected. It was just this blow after blow. And I didn’t have the religious expectation of resurrection anymore. So I was thinking about death and grieving and the uselessness of burying my corpse in a box where not even the worms can get at it! I want to be useful! I want to go on and to have my cells turned into some other life! So it came out of that feeling, that longing for continuation.