RiverCraft, one of the university’s student-run literary magazines, annually showcases poetry, short stories and novellas written by Susquehanna’s writing majors.
By the time she was in eighth grade, I was convinced that my sister was dating an online predator.
She would stay in front of that black, 1998 Dell with her hands click-tapping for hours after dinner, giggling like someone had left a feather inside her. If anyone walked behind her she would push her nose to the screen and arch her back until she was sure they weren’t looking. She sat with her body hugging her knees, two feet on the seat of the chair in stripped or polka-dot socks with the rubber dots on the bottom, chewing into where her calves bulged. After Y2K when the computers didn’t shoot off any nuclear missiles into our backyard or come alive and strangle us with sparking electric cords, Clarissa put all her trust in that glowing screen that took eight minutes to boot up. For her, chatting to strangers online was like getting in the shower after a lightning storm. It didn’t matter if she was dirty or not, after the rain stopped and the flashes went away she would always run to the bathroom and turn the nozzle on full blast, running it over her hands, sometimes getting in the whole way. It was how she made sure that everything would be ok—if she could turn on the water without frizzy, white strings shooting out and shocking her then the thunder was really over.
She started saying things like “BRB” and “TTFN” that didn’t make any sense to me or to my parents who guessed at her obscure abbreviations after she left the room.
“Maybe it’s Been Real, Bye?”
“Terrific, Thanks For Nothing?”
But they didn’t worry too much about Clarissa’s new hobby or her alien language. My grandmother lived three hours away in Altoona, was in the early stages of dementia, and would call the house obsessively asking my mother where her golden tipped brooch or paten leather pumps were that she had either lost or sold decades before. My mother was constantly on the cordless phone, sitting at the dining room table with both elbows on the vinyl, placemat of the multi-colored fifty states, her other hand massaging her forehead while she sucked on a Werther’s from the candy dish. We didn’t know about that rash you can get from having a phone squeezed against your face for too long until cell phones became more popular, but I think she had that because the left side of her face and ear was always kind of an orangey-red. She was also in her second year of menopause and would get these hot flashes where she’d open all the windows of the house and by the time she would reach the hall window on the second floor the air had hit her from all sides she’d be cool and have to go about shutting them again.
My father had made it his goal to read the local paper front to back every night since I was six and he missed the article of my kindergarten class taking a trip to the Happy Faces Pumpkin Patch. One boy, Lonny Puterball, had gotten really sick after he licked his pumpkin while we were in the hayride and his parents sued the farm. They were accused of using unregulated pesticides and it made the front page with a picture. So after that my father would come home and refuse to talk to anyone until he had read the whole thing and dropped it in the wooden peach box we kept in the garage for the recycling.
I didn’t have too much time to worry for my sister, because I was already thinking about the seventh grade and the mandatory shower policy we would have for Phys. Ed the next year. Clarissa had told me that the teacher stood by the door and wouldn’t let you leave if your hair wasn’t wet. She’d even check that you smelled like soap so you couldn’t just run your brush under the sink and comb it to look that way either. You had to get completely under, and clean, because to high school teachers dried sweat wasn’t accepted and was policed closely. She said that most girls just wore bathing suits under their clothes the whole day, but that would make your gym shorts ride up to your armpits. She also said I’d have to wear flip-flops everywhere because of the foot fungus that was known to breed on the tile floors.
I know everyone says their family is crazy, but we all went to the shrink back then too. We had to. It was like going to church or visiting grandma. We went together on Thursdays and would wait for each other in the little room that was shared with an oral surgeon and had huge pictures of teeth: bear, alligator, whale, and woman with eyeglasses who looked like Sally Fields. My father said it was helping the family, because we could use that time to relax and get things off our chests, and also because the shrink was our uncle Carl, my father’s stepbrother. His practice was pretty new and he needed at least twenty clients to be considered a part of the greater Lake Lehman Business Association and get a banner on one of the lampposts on Main Street. He had a doctor-patient privilege like other real shrinks do, but would start out by saying things like, “so how’r ya doing Pip?” and then I knew I wasn’t going to give him anything that was really about me.
Uncle Carl had called me “pipsqueak,” Pip for short, since I was four and he pointed out how shrill my voice was during kid’s choir at church. But that fall I was taller than my sixth grade teacher Ms. Delaine, and the boys called me “Brick” because their football coach had once personally asked my father if I was interested in joining Pop Warner at a Rotary meeting. Josh Rove made sure to ask me several times a week if I had shaved my mustache, to which I would respond: why, did someone take yours?
I was not ready for the public showers.
“If you don’t feel ready for something,” my mother told me, “then you just have to think, ‘maybe they’re not ready for me.”
That’s the problem, I thought.
There were several circumstances I had observed that fall that made me think my sister was the right kind of girl to be easily exploited by an older man from the Internet:
1. She always told people her full name, Clarissa Amber Hollis followed by her email,
2. She dyed a streak of her hair purple with a bingo dobber and told me she was telling
people in online chat rooms that her nickname was Violet and she was sixteen.
3. I also looked at her account once while she went to the bathroom and she had told a bonesandbits6 that she had just got back from San Diego where she met a sailor at the
base there, and he had wanted to marry her but she refused.
4. She had never had a boyfriend but wanted one, badly.
I had tried to tell Dr. Hollis/Uncle Carl about the time Clarissa had caught me peeking over her shoulder while she was on the computer and vice gripped my face with her hand and held me down against the floor, her butt still mashed on the computer chair seat as she screamed at me, “None of your business! You brat. It’s none of your business!” It had really scared me when she did that; like I couldn’t breathe or that the floors were sucking me down with pin-sized vacuum holes that were eating my hair as she forced me down into the wood under the tan carpet. I hadn’t even seen what she was saying or who to.
He sat in the leather armchair like he did at family parties, in a feminine way with his leg teetering off the edge of his pointed knee, and his hands clasped at his heart like he was listening to something romantic. It was clear that his office had been built for nothing but medical, the white walls flashed from under the framed M.C. Escher drawings and The Far Side comic strips he had hung all over like the inside of a T.G.I Friday’s. There were teal cabinets meant for medical supplies that he had pried the doors off of and used as bookcases, and a sink that he sometimes used to fill up plastic pitchers of water that he’d set on his desk.
“Did you think Clarissa was trying to hurt you Mabel? Did you feel pain?”
Clarissa was right outside in the chair under the Sally Fields mouth, reading a Cosmogirl magazine and itching to get home and back on the computer again. It was like when we fought and my mother would give us each five minutes to tell her what happened, separately on her and Dad’s bed with the door closed. Then we would both go in together and have to say we were sorry, with eye contact.
“No, it just, kind of scared me I guess.”
“She wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
“No, she wasn’t trying to hurt me.” I tried like I always did to see if Uncle Carl knew anything about Clarissa, what kind of things she told him during her half hour before mine. He had scrunchy eyes, like he was looking at something bright, or was just old. Sometimes I would feel like he was winking at me, like we both knew something was a little wrong with Clarissa, but then he just wouldn’t get it and I’d have to wonder if Clarissa had been talking about me, if it was them who were in on something together. But I didn’t have problems like she did. I wasn’t the one with purple in her hair.
In town on the way to the optometrist is an empty tire shop with the kind of sign that has the black block letters that can be moved around and lights up at night. The proprietor was in the middle of a courtcase where he was accused of kidnapping and filming teenage girls in the basement with the help of his wife. It was a big deal in the paper and my father told us all about it. He was eventually convicted for twenty years and tried to sell the building and the business while in jail with directions that the sign should read, “Going out of business/ thanks for all the support.”
That’s the kind of thing I imagined Clarissa saying to me if I told our parents or Uncle Carl what she really did all that time on the computer—thanks for all the support, but in that sarcastic kind of way, the way that really means, you didn’t really care what would happen to me.
Josh’s birthday was going to be a big deal because it was at his dead grandma’s farm and there were going to be hayrides. Lots of kids had hayride parties in the fall, because almost everyone either had a full sized tractor and wagon or were related to someone who did. Usually the girls and guys dispersed themselves among each other, but there was a blanket section in the back, furthest away from the dad who drove the tractor. We were only twelve or so, but I can’t be sure what went on under those blankets or whose hands were where, just that I never sat in the back. I was one of the girls who sat up front and answered politely when the dad asked whether or not we were having any fun.
The farm was somewhere out of the way, closer to Unityville than Wilkes-Barre and it was supposed to take a half an hour to get there. My father drove me there with a greeting card in my lap which I had bowed like I was trying to pretend it was a real present. As we passed a stop sign with two red balloons bumbling against each other and strangling themselves in the wind I knew it; we were going to be too early. The van pulled into the gravel driveway and cats exploded from the bushes on the side of the wraparound porch, running in a disconnected train toward the barn to protect their kittens.
“We’re twenty minutes early.” I said, doing my best to look sweet like I was worth driving around in the middle of nowhere for fifteen more minutes so I wouldn’t seem awkward. There were supposed to be over forty kids at this party, how was I the only one?
“Well I’m sure they’re here somewhere just look around, this is supposed to be a big party right?”
“Two tractors, I guess you can call that big.”
“Well have a great time, I’ll be back at nine-thirty?” He asked it as a question so I’d answer yes, but I just got out of the car with my fake gift and shut the door so it hung like he may or may not come back. The van made a dust wall that rose up and when it faded away he was turning at the stop sign and I could still make out the two red specks, furiously trying to break off of their strings.
“First one here.”
I turned around and Josh Rove was standing on the peeling white porch with one of those cone hats on his head. Even though he picked on me more than some of the other boys I had a crush on him for a long time. One of those crushes where you imagine them seeing you only in the most convenient situations, like right after you’ve got your hair done, or when you’ve come out of a pool and your wet hair is dark and sleek and compliments your eyes. But the wind was blowing my hair into my mouth and up my nose holes, so I stuck out my arm with the card and said, “Sorry I’m early.”
I hadn’t even said happy birthday. I wondered if Clarissa liked the Internet so much because she could delete what she wrote before she pushed send. I wondered if I should get a username. Then some ugly letters flashed in my head, “Pipthebrick91.”
He gave me a party hat but no one else came for five minutes. Then he said he wanted to show me something.
The breeze was strong as I followed him behind the house. The paper hat slid to the back of my head and the string cut into the soft bit under my chin. I just couldn’t believe he was talking to me and taking me somewhere, and I was scared of saying something rude or stupid so I just kept smiling and brushing my hair away from any of the holes in my face.
“This is the pig shed,” he said, stopping in front of the thin wooden board that was chipping the same white the porch had been and was attached by two orange hinges. There were weeds and dandelion ghosts waving around the side of it like no one had thought to use a weed whacker, and one stone step up to the opening that was cracked across the corner.
“You raise pigs here?” I listened for snorting or squealing, expecting the hot mulch like smell that I knew from the pig barn at the county fair.
“No, we didn’t raise them,” he said. He was shorter than me and the string of the party hat puffed out his face a little so that he looked like a small kid, like he was excited to see something. I didn’t hear the other car pulling up in front of the house. I was intent on doing this right, whatever he said. “Why don’t you look inside?” he said and pushed the door inward, stepping back like a little gentleman mouthing the words, ladies first.
I stepped in holding my hands together across my chest. I didn’t know what he was going to do, kiss me? If he did I would be kissed even before Clarissa. If Josh did, I would sit by him during the hayride the whole night and he would say he only ever said that stupid thing about the mustache because he was nervous around me. And as I stepped inside I waited for him to turn on the light but there was none. The door smacked closed and all I could see was a line of white outlining it. Josh said, “I’ll be back,” but he never was.
It was a slaughtering shed. I figured that out only after I realized Josh had clicked the lock on the outside of the wooden door, when I started dry crying like a panic attack, when I heard voices out the front side of the house and none of them came any closer.
The first thing I did was rip the birthday cone off from around my neck. My hair was everywhere and stuck to my hot cheeks like it was trying to hug my face but I wiped it back hard and lassoed it around my ears. It was dark but the cracks of light from the door shone off of them, dangly, black metal things. Hooks. To the left was the edge of a wooden block table, I couldn’t see how long it went, or if there was anything on top of it. I pictured more metal things, sharp and cold. It was like being shut in a drawer with the silverware. I didn’t want to yell because people were really arriving now, I could hear cars honking and voices shouting happy birthday through the whistle of wind that squeezed out from the lines in the walls. He would show me to them, once it had been long enough, if I didn’t scream he would show them and I couldn’t just pretend it was a joke. I was too scared for that.
The door was thin, just a piece of painted ply board and I already knew the hinges were rusted. I stepped back and kicked it as hard as I could with the full base of my foot. The wood warped and splintered a little at the right side. I kicked again and then began running my shoulder and hip into the lower right half. Come on you big fat brick—over and over until my hair was loose again and my head and shoulder punctured the outside. A quarter of the board had broken off from the bottom and I squeezed myself out, the splintered wood gripping me. Around the corner of the house I could see some kids standing in small circles, hands stuffed in their jacket pockets or trying to hold on to the cone hats blowing off of their heads.
That night I sat in Josh’s dead grandma’s house lying on the floral living room sofa with my eyes open until 9:30. I told his mother that I had a migraine. When my father came back I got in the car and didn’t tell him that I had called the house three times. The first two I heard the busy signal while my mother was talking with my grandmother. The last time an automated voice picked up saying that someone was online, and asked if I would like to leave the message that would alert the user immediately. It would have popped up on Clarissa’s screen like an online ad. She wouldn’t have recognized the number.
I didn’t tell my father any of these things. I waited until the car pulled away from the stop sign at the end of the road and I knew no one at the party could see our car before I closed my eyes and let my head fall onto my seatbelt. The weight of my empty head hung as the strap dug into my neck like a balloon pulling me up by the throat.
It got harder for me to go to Uncle Carl every Thursday and pretend that I had nothing more distressing to talk about than my interest in Egyptian Mummification or my science project on diagramming an animal cell. It was his office, but some weeks it felt like each member of my family entered and exited like we had each tried to entertain him and failed. Like I was supposed to make him comfortable when it was the other way around.
He sat with his scrunched eyes slitting into me like he was going to pull something out. I wanted to give him something interesting, but that I willing to let go. “I’m really nervous about using the community showers next year.” I spit it out and it was like stepping on a cat’s tail. His teetering leg crashed to the floor and his hands popped up from their resting place on his chest for a moment and then were sucked back like magnets.
“Now really? But why would you be so worried about that? Your sister’s told you about it hasn’t she?”
The truth was that Clarissa had told me about the showers and that was why I was so nervous. My body was longer than hers, not as many soft places folded out when I bent. But my back and hips were wide and boxy, and how was I supposed to know if everything else about me looked the same as the other girls underneath our clothes? Even if I had seen Clarissa naked during that time I wouldn’t have been able to trust that I was supposed to look like her. After all, she had never come close to having a boyfriend; maybe there was something different about the both of us.
“Yeah she’s told me some, but it doesn’t change that I just don’t want to do it.”
“What is it you don’t want to do?” He leaned forward toward me like he didn’t want me to slip away and I wondered for the hundredth time if it was possible he had some kind of deal with my parents, that he would tell them what Clarissa and I said in these sessions.
“I just don’t, I don’t want—”
What was it that I didn’t want? To have the other girls look at me? Or was it that I was more afraid to see them, to be forced to accurately compare myself to them and realize that I was somehow different, wrong?
“I guess I just don’t want to have to take my clothes off.”
He settled back in his chair and his eyes loosened a little. “Well that’s completely normal Mabel. It’s just something that you’ll get used to, you’ll be fine.”
I hoped I would. Even though I didn’t tell Uncle Carl the real reason that had occurred to me right before, I let myself let that relax me a little and thought, I’ll be fine.
Clarissa had begun this thing where she would sit in front of the computer clicking and typing even after I went into my bedroom and our parents went in theirs. We would each tell her goodnight but she’d just grunt or kind of blink at you and then continue typing. I thought her eyes were going to burn out of her head. The later it got the closer her face would rest toward the screen until it was like she was looking into it deep for some small, person that she had dropped inside of in there.
Sometimes I would lie in bed listening to her fingers and wait to fall asleep until I heard her door close in the hall next to mine. I was never good at keeping happy thoughts in my head while falling asleep. When I was younger I’d imagine faces looking in my window next to my bed, and I’d keep the shades pulled up because it was worse if they were down and I couldn’t check to make sure no one really was. But ever since the tire man had went to jail I imagined him with his movie camera, and sometimes his wife who was like a white wisp in the corner of my room just watching like the female nurses do when that doctor Solter would come in to do our physicals at school. And the first thing I would see was the lens, right up in my face, black and shiny like a pupil made of metal and glass. And it wouldn’t scare me at first, but then I’d think, who is Clarissa talking to right now. I knew they had computers in prison.
One night I hadn’t heard Clarissa’s fingers stop. The tire man was in my room and he was whispering things like “Now turn, that’s right. And lift up your head—” But then I saw my sister in the doorway. She saw my eyes were open and had taken a few steps in. My mouth was open. I don’t know I might have been saying those things out loud myself.
“Mae, you know you’re really freaky.”
“I wasn’t doing anything.” I kind of shouted it. I hadn’t had time to wonder why she would have come in my room. She had caught me off guard, and I felt guilty like she would know I was only awake for her.
She was wearing her purple wire glasses and had her dark hair up in a cotton scrunchy and big, billowing pajama pants that were short enough to show a strap of white skin before reaching the top of her socks. I imagined her in the shower and it made me sick. I imagined me in her body and it made it worse. I thought she had come to accuse me of spying, so I hid my head under the covers like I just wanted to sleep, “What do you want?”
“Well if you don’t want me in here, then I’ll just leave.” She started back towards the door but I shot up and my hair fell all over.
“No wait. Rissa, what did you want to say?” I could tell she was smiling just from looking at the back of her head.
“Oh you want me here now huh?” She turned back around.
“Yes, just, why did you come in here?” She hopped up onto the end of my bed and sat Indian style so that her pajama pants stretched and pulled at her crotch and the underside of her thighs. My mother had told me that Clarissa already had stretch marks on the insides of her legs and that she had bought her medicine for them. I knew girls got them from having babies, but Clarissa was never pregnant. I’m sure they were under there and I imagined them to be pink and crooked like cracks in stone or jagged scars. I felt bad for her and checked a couple times a week to make sure I wasn’t ripping apart too.
She took a breath and leaned in so her neck hung over her lap, and looked at her hands, about to say something. I thought this was the one moment she was going to tell me what I already knew, she was going to tell me—
“You’re dating a guy online aren’t you?” I couldn’t help it. I just cracked like gunfire. “Who is it Rissa? You can’t date older guys. I know you’ve lied on there. How old did you say you are? This is wrong. He’ll hurt you. He doesn’t know where the house is?” It was suffocating letting it all come out, like throwing up and not knowing if it will ever stop. The questions, the things I wondered, what I wanted scream in Uncle Carl’s face, I was bouncing on my knees because I couldn’t wait to say more. I don’t even know if I wanted her to say anything back, just shake her head that I had been right all that time.
“What are you talking about?” And then it all stopped, like I had been grabbed by the neck and pulled back. The bed was still moving even after I stopped and we both sat and swayed, looking at each other. She wasn’t looking at me like she was embarrassed, or guilty, or grateful. She just looked scared. She looked like she had just been locked in the slaughtering house. I froze up and she said it again, “What is it— Mae, what are you talking about?” I felt the water in my head ready to froth out. I felt like keeping my mouth closed and my teeth locked tight so that I would drown on it.
“Did you think—what did you think Mae?” She pushed herself off the bed and stood beside it looking at me. Her eyes furrowed and dropped back into her face until they looked small and sparkly and black. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing.” Her voice was lower, disappointed. “You think I’d ever really be that stupid, that desperate? You’re such a brat. I never talk to the same people twice.” I started shaking as my breathing was chopped and unsteady.
“You know mom and dad were right. You do need therapy. I was just trying to be nice.” She shuffled out and her pants were bunched up around her butt. Her hair frizzled out of her bun and floated like frayed cobwebs poking around her shoulders. I fell asleep to a headache that hurt the whole night.
I didn’t know that some of the kids at Josh’s party had seen me running from the opening I made in the door of the pig shed and into the back of the farmhouse. I had thought they just forgot I never showed up, that no one said anything because after Josh saw I was gone he didn’t tell them. Clarissa had heard about it in a local online chat room while she was pretending to be at thirteen year old girl from Indiana, and a possible transfer. She hadn’t even turned off the computer; just walked to my room where she heard me talking to myself.
The day after, I skipped the bus after school, walked to the Junior High end of the High school and entered through the pool doors. The push door to the locker room was unlocked. Its blue and white tile was speckled with water footprints and everything smelled like the burn of chlorine. It wasn’t something suggested to me by my Uncle Carl or even my mother or sister. I just wanted to go there. It was a Thursday, and I began thinking about it during the last two hours of that day, what I might say during my half hour session. I was going to miss it by skipping the bus. My parents weren’t going to know where I was. Eventually I’d have to call them to come pick me up and the line wouldn’t be busy, because they would be waiting for a call.
But at that moment I didn’t care about what they would think of me or what Uncle Carl would read into our family missing an appointment. There were wooden benches that rose up from the ground on black legs and jeans, sweatshirts, socks and underwear were thrown and hanging over them. There were backpack straps sticking out of open lockers and poster projects shoved up above them to take home later. Eight shower heads stuck out from metal pipes in a rectangular pattern in the middle of the room, separated from the changing area by a low white tiled wall. Soap—pink, white, and yellow lay bungled in the middle of the floor around the master drain like a clump of gooey hair. The sports teams were all at practice. There was only dripping and the buzz of the yellow ceiling lights.
I opened an empty locker and took off my shoes, my socks, folded and laid my checkered button down and my large girl jeans on top. I took off my bra and underwear, took out my pony tail and closed the locker door. I turned on the nozzle and stood, completely naked under the water, letting it mat down my hair, letting it cover every part of me until I was shining and glossy. The water ran off of me and hit into the soap blob in the middle of the floor, pushing against it to get underground. The door was unlocked and someone could come in if they wanted to. I walked around and turned on the seven other showers, feeling the heat of the steam rise and fill the whole room until I couldn’t have been able to tell if it was still empty or not.
An Interview with Abby Hess
Who are some authors whose work has influenced your fiction?
George Saunders, Ray Bradbury, and Flannery O'Connor, but it is constantly changing.
What audience do you have in mind when you write stories?
It changes. If I am focusing more on language I write for myself. I read it out loud until it feels natural for me to read with a compelling voice. If I am focusing on what is about to happen to a character, I may think if readers in general will like or hate that. I like to think when I do this I am thinking of the everyday reader, but I get the feeling it is more a student in a workshop classes.
Do you feel the narrator of Usernames, Mabel, might be, in some way, an extension of yourself? If this is the case, how do you go about creating distance in your fiction?
Most characters I write--if they are normal people and not something specific, like a murderer or a priest--have aspects of myself. In this case, Mabel is much like me. Usually I like to write with male narrators because it creates distance right away. I change her however, by making the people around her very different. Her family is unlike my own. Although I may have almost been in similar situations, I change them, take them further and make them more intense for this character to have larger problems than I ever did.
The slaughterhouse in Usernames is shockingly realistic. How much research goes into your writing process?
If I am writing about a place I have never been I will research a lot. I like to write by making natural connections to many things, so if I don't know about a place I need to learn about more than just what I plan on writing. You never know when I might be able to connect an extra fact or detail in. However, in the case of the slaughterhouse, I had been there. I had a friend like the boy in the story and I did come to a party early, but he didn't show me the slaughterhouse then. I think we just stood on the porch.
Do you feel as if you, as a writer, are the product of any particular movement, or canon?
I don't feel like I can be a product, because it continues to change. As I learn about different styles in classes I want to incorporate them.
You also submitted a few pieces a flash fiction; how do you first know the form a story will take? Is it early on in your writing process?
I don't really know until I stop if it will be a short short versus a longer story. I start with an image or a statement, something I think is weird but true. Then I just keep adding on details. If I find myself wondering about what would happen next, and then, and then, it will probably be a longer story. Then plot comes in. In a short short I get hung up on details and the connections I can make run out because the character doesn't move around or change as much.
When do you know a piece is ready to be published? Do you ever have reservations?
Yes! I'm never quite sure if it is the best it can be, but I will submit a piece if I have read it, out loud and to myself, several times without wanting to change something. I edit each sentence as I write and then edit by looking at how the sentences connect, if they need something in between them. It's really the sound of reading it out loud at the end that gives me more confidence in it.
What is the best piece of advice about writing you’ve received while at Susquehanna?
I had a professor for introduction to fiction (Silas) who said that we only write failures. If we are getting better we write something that is a little less of a failure. This really helps to allow yourself to say something is finished and shove it out in the world. It won't ever be perfect, but I can feel proud if I like it a little better than what I wrote before.
What plans do you see yourself pursuing after graduation?
I am going to apply to graduate school for either fiction or non-fiction.
* These poems are images of how these words (the titles) feel when spoken.
A smoker blows gravel
rings around a baby’s face,
a grit nimbus to frame her
in what they didn’t know then,
Like hers, their ears are still wet
because things are different now.
In little clouds she floats
and the ash is knocked off
too fast for certain
to see where the glitters flew.
Embers lie at her tiny feet.
We slide down the cobblestones—
at least I think I can call them that—
They’re more like a handful of marbles
Pressed by the palmful into grout.
We sit with bare feet that carve the red ants mountains
in the sandy grass stripe between the aggies,
clambroths, tigers and the water
Laying on our bellies, faces to the river, we scratch
our initials into the sewer swabbed cement
the real bank washed away by new layers of grit.
Our letters don’t far, just chalky scores.
At least ten feet away in the brown water,
I can see my shadow, waving.
I could dip my feet in if you held me by my hair
But this all ends with a kiss anyway.
To choke on a seasoned shrimp,
lodged behind your tongue.
You’re swallowing your tongue more than the shrimp.
The pink hinges in your mouth,
stretches too far and it feels like toothbrush bristles
sewn into their sides.
But then you sever the tongue
and they fly out together, the shrimp in your teeth
to hold your overbite apart,
a deep breath.
Father says her name.
Father calls her name,
until he sees her two doors down
She has them in stacks of twos and threes
On the sidewalk by her folded legs.
First a thin red one,
then a green one with pictures,
They have frilly titles, unreadable
by flourishes and illuminated text.
So she takes in the pictures:
Mozart’s childhood in puse and china blue,
Marie Antoinette shaded by a heliotrope.
Father twists her arm behind her back
her face into the car exhausted street until she gets up
(barely clearing the wheeled cart
of 1€ fiction ) but she drops the book,
the green one, on a wet spot of pavement.
Spine cracks and the pictures soak through.
An Interview with Bree Schaeffer
What are some of the major influences of your writing?
I’m in love with the sounds of Louis Gluck’s work and the minute scenes Dorothea Grossman depicts in her poetry. This particular series is somewhat influenced by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Stein was on the cusp of something completely new with that collection. “A Red Stamp” doesn’t even include anything red or stamp-like. The poem begins, “If lilies are lily white…” For me, it’s like the poems are a tool to understand Stein’s particular view of an object.
Do you feel as though you are a part of any particular cannon or movement in literature?
My poems are heavily drawn from the natural world, so I would say I fit easily with the pastoral crowd. However, I desperately wish to work with a newer idea of poetry. To reference Stein again, it is said that she looked at words as single units. It’s as if the poem to her was a puzzle of sound, pairing words together one by one. Marcelo Paganini ominously hinted that one day will be “crossing altogether the threshold of linguistic pertinence, that last limit of conventionality that allows one to recognize in a sound or in a graphic trace the presence of the minimal unit of language, the letter.” I want to be on that edge, toying with the most primal piece of language.
What do you think is the intention of poetry? Does poetry have a purpose?
Whoa, loaded question. I think its core is in communication and expression, as is true with every art. But personally, it seems geared toward individual perspective and attention to the aesthetic qualities of language. It’s a middle ground between song and language, with sound play creating a melody by the pattern of vowels and consonants the poet constructs.
Do you think poetry should lean towards emotional or intellectual?
I think that is the decision of the poet. You cannot have one without the other. All emotion and its wet and soggy, all intellect and it’s too dry to digest. There is a balance, but that is determined by the poet’s style and interest.
As a double major in creative writing and music, how does music affect your poetry?
As a vocalist, part of my responsibility in learning my music is to understand and interpret the text of the piece. Without having a solid interpretation, or at the least a warranted assumption of the text I cannot perform the piece to the best of my ability. My experience with studying vowel sounds and their formulation by the lips, teeth, tongue, and soft palette also added to my interest in language and sound play.
What inspired this idea of the diction of words for this series?
Diction classes are required for a degree is vocal performance, so I was required to learn how to pronounce words in French, German, and Italian. We did not study the meaning of the words or how to construct sentences, but rather how to correctly place these words in the mouth and where to put emphasis in the word and a phrase in its entirety. I thought it was kind of funny that my class was learning how to speak a language without actually understanding what the words mean. I starting thinking, “what would I think these words mean if I didn’t know what they meant” and “how could I explain to someone who hadn’t taken Diction classes how to pronounce the words?”
Do you often write poems in series? Is there anything fundamentally different or more difficult about writing in series than in writing a single poem?
I don’t write poems in series, though in the past few years my poems have been rotating around my home. To be consciously writing a series is difficult, simply because you have to be reminded that these poems belong together and therefore, they should have cohesion without being repetitive.
When do you know a piece is ready to be published?
I ask myself that question every time I send something out or let it sit in my notebook. Well, the question I ask is more like “when do I know something is finished” which I don’t know. To be published is different. It usually feels ready when the topic it was based on has dried up due to sufficient kneading of the poem or its research. It seems set in stone and I get paranoid that working at it again will only ruin the last edit’s small adjustments.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten about writing while at SU?
This past semester, Dr. Kelsey brought my attention to my lineation, which is something I struggle with. I was looking at each line individually, trying to strength each one without looking at how it affected the whole. She advised me to stray from ending each line by phrase in order to keep a flow to match the tone of the poem. Linking subject and lineation have really affected my work and made me even more aware of the nuance of poetry.
What do you see yourself pursuing after graduation?
I’m still caught between music and poetry, to be honest. Each does something so different for me and invokes such a different feeling of satisfaction. Poetry has a sense of filling and music, release. I know I want to attend grad school, but I’m still on the fence.